Watch: White House Press Briefing with Sarah Sanders – 8/15/18 [video + transcript]
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including the revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance.
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. I’d like to begin by reading a statement from the President:
As the head of the executive branch and Commander-in-Chief, I have a unique constitutional responsibility to protect the nation’s classified information, including by controlling access to it. Today, in fulfilling that responsibility, I have decided to revoke the security clearance of John Brennan, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Historically, former heads of intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been allowed to retain access to classified information after their government service so that they can consult with their successors regarding matters about which they may have special insights and as a professional courtesy.
Neither of these justifications supports Mr. Brennan’s continued access to classified information. First, at this point in my administration, any benefits that senior officials might glean from consultations with Mr. Brennan are now outweighed by the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior. Second, that conduct and behavior has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him.
Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility. In 2014, for example, he denied to Congress that CIA officials, under his supervision, had improperly accessed the computer files of congressional staffers. He told the Council of Foreign Relations that the CIA would never do such a thing. The CIA’s Inspector General, however, contradicted Mr. Brennan directly, concluding unequivocally that agency officials had indeed improperly accessed congressional staffers’ files. More recently, Mr. Brennan told Congress that the intelligence community did not make use of the so-called Steele dossier in an assessment regarding the 2016 election, an assertion contradicted by at least two other senior officials in the intelligence community and all of the facts.
Additionally, Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the Internet and television — about this administration. Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct, characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary, is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets, and facilities [facilitates] the very aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.
More broadly, the issue of Mr. Brennan’s security clearance raises larger questions about the practice of former officials maintaining access to our nation’s most sensitive secrets long after their time in government has ended.
Such access is particularly inappropriate when former officials have transitioned into highly partisan positions and seek to use real or perceived access to sensitive information to validate their political attacks. Any access granted to our nation’s secrets should be in furtherance of national, not personal, interests. For this reason, I’ve also begun to review the more general question of the access to classified information by government officials.
As part of this review, I am evaluating action with respect to the following individuals: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr.
Security clearances for those who still have them may be revoked, and those who have already lost their security clearance may not be able to have it reinstated.
It is for the foregoing reasons that I have exercised my constitutional authority to deny Mr. Brennan access to classified information, and I will direct appropriate staff of the National Security Council to make the necessary arrangements with the appropriate agencies to implement this determination.
With that, I’ll take your questions. Jonathan.
Q Sarah, first, I’ve got a question I wanted to ask you. But first, just to follow up on that, it seems like everybody that you mentioned has been a political critic of the President. Is he going after his political opponents with this?
MS. SANDERS: No. If there were others that weren’t, that we deemed necessary, we would certainly take a look and review those as well.
Q Okay. I want to ask you about something the President’s attorney said. Rudy Giuliani said, of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he needs to “write the damn report so we can see it and rebut it.” And he said if it’s not written within the next two or three weeks, quote, “we will just unload on him like a ton of bricks.” Is the President okay with his attorney threatening the Special Counsel in this way?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly we’ve made clear we’d like to see this wrap up. For questions specific about comments by Mr. Giuliani, I’d refer you back to him.
Q Was that authorized by the President — we’ll come after him with a ton of bricks?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, for questions specific about the investigation, particularly comments from Rudy Giuliani, I’d refer you back to him to address those.
Q Hey, Sarah. Following up Jon’s question, how is this announcement by the President — how can Americans not interpret that as a “getting back against his critics”? And isn’t it also an attempt to curtail their freedom of speech by penalizing them for being critical on television?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. The President has a constitutional responsibility to protect classified information, and who has access to it. And that’s what he’s doing is fulfilling that responsibility in this action.
Q Is this the kind — I’m sorry.
MS. SANDERS: This is actually specific to Mr. Brennan, and the others are currently under review.
Q Is this the kind of precedent he wants to set for future Presidents when his administration is out of office? And why are there no Republicans on that list?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, if we deemed it necessarily, we would certainly look into that and be happy to review those.
Q I wanted to ask about Turkey, but just to buttonhole on what Jeff said. I guess the reason people would say that this argument strains credibility is there is obvious examples, even from this administration; your former national security advisor admitted to lying to the FBI. Why is this only a list of Democrats who have been critical of the administration? And why should Americans have confidence that you are taking this seriously if there’s not a single Republican on that list?
MS. SANDERS: Again, certainly, we would look at those if we deemed it necessary. And we’ll keep you posted if that list gets updated.
Q So, on Turkey — Turkey announced today that they’re going to slap tariffs on about a billion dollars of American goods. So I’m wondering if you have a response to that and if there’s any discussion internally about retaliation towards that continuing to escalate this?
MS. SANDERS: The tariffs from Turkey are certainly regrettable and a step in the wrong direction. The tariffs that the United States placed on Turkey were out of national security interests. Theirs are out of retaliation. I’m not going to get ahead of anything on what we may or may not do in an effort to respond, but certainly we don’t support Turkey’s decision to retaliate against us protecting our national security interests.
Q An appeals court in Turkey today denied Pastor Brunson’s appeal to try to be released. Does the administration view that as a new setback, or as sort of maintaining the status quo?
MS. SANDERS: We feel that Turkey, and specifically President Erdoğan, have treated Pastor Brunson — who we know to be a very good person and a strong Christian who’s done nothing wrong — very unfairly, very badly. And it’s something that we won’t forget in the administration.
Let’s move on. Jake, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Sarah. So the administration has put out a robust defense of Pastor Brunson, but at the same time, there are tens of thousands of Christians in North Korea who have been imprisoned almost exclusively because of their religion. Open Doors USA considered North Korea to be the number-one country when it comes to persecution of the Christians. Is this something that the administration has also been looking into?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, we would like to see any individual persecuted for their Christian beliefs, or imprisoned, released. Again, we’ve been working with North Korea on a number of fronts. That’s something we’d certainly like to see them change their behavior on.
Q Has it been brought up, though?
MS. SANDERS: I know it’s been discussed, and again, it’s certainly something we’d like to see their behavior changed.
Q And my second — that was a follow-up.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Jake, I got to keep —
Q That was just a follow-up. My question —
MS. SANDERS: Go ahead. Yep.
Q Although territory held by ISIS has been reduced by over 90 percent, a recent U.N. report suggests that as many as 30,000 ISIS members still exist in Iraq and Syria. So, first of all, what’s the administration’s take on this specific U.N. report? And secondly, what would the administration consider an overall victory against ISIS?
MS. SANDERS: We’d like to see every single member of ISIS defeated across the globe. I think that would be the ultimate victory.
Jon, go ahead.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Closing arguments are taking place across the river, in Alexandria, for the tax fraud trial of Paul Manafort. And in mid-June, the President said that he felt badly for Mr. Manafort and that he believes he’s being treated unfairly. Is the President still friends with Mr. Manafort? When was the last time he spoke with Mr. Manafort?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of any recent conversations that they’ve had.
Q And why does he believe he’s being treated unfairly?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President has made that clear in his previous comments. I don’t have anything to add beyond that at this point.
Blake, go ahead.
Q Sarah, thank you. You just said, a couple minutes ago, that the increased tariff levels with Turkey were out of the national security interest. But when the President announced it on Twitter last week, or earlier this month, he said, quote — at the time, he said, “Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time.” The suggestion there being that this has to do with the pastor that is being held in Turkey. Simply put, if Pastor Brunson is allowed to leave Turkey, do those tariff levels go away? Is that kind of the deal that could be in place? Is that a deal that could be on the table?
MS. SANDERS: No. The tariffs that are in place on steel would not be removed with the release of Pastor Brunson. The tariffs are specific to national security. The sanctions, however, that have been placed on Turkey are specific to Pastor Brunson and others that we feel are being held unfairly. And we would consider that at that point.
Q In the interest of national security, what’s changed over the last month or so with Turkey that you’re justifying national security concerns?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President has been clear about the steel and aluminum industries — steel particularly in this case — that those are industries that must be protected. And we must have the ability to reach certain levels of manufacturing of those products here in the United States for the purposes of national security.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I was going to ask about Turkey, but based on your opening statement, I have to point out that the attorneys for former Director Comey and former Deputy Director McCabe say that their passes were automatically demagnetized the day that they were separated from their offices. Two others, Mr. Clapper and General Hayden, have said they do not use the pass at all.
And also, it’s my understanding, from a historical standpoint, this would be the first time the President himself removed the passes from anybody; that that has normally been done by agency heads or immediate superiors to people.
Have you considered all these things in the process you say you’re doing to (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the other individuals — those that are being reviewed — that determination will be made at a later date. Those that have already been revoked, it would be for the purpose of reviewing whether or not they should be reinstated or not.
Q Sarah, just so I understand the standard that the President is applying, you outlined two areas of either contradictory or erroneous testimony from Brennan. Is that the only standard by which this administration is asserting he should have his security clearance revoked?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I laid out the reasons in the opening statement —
Q Right. But you cited those two instances.
MS. SANDERS: — specific to Director Brennan. The others are currently under review. I don’t any have any specifics on those at this point.
Q So my question is, is that the standard? If you give erroneous testimony, you say something and you have to correct at a certain date in the future — if you work for this administration, for example — does that mean you could lose your security clearance?
MS. SANDERS: My understanding is this is being looked at on a case-by-case basis, which is why each individual is being reviewed, and determination made at that point.
Q Does this administration have any reason to believe, or evidence to suggest, Brennan has misused classified information or monetized his access to it, as was alleged earlier by this administration?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’ve laid out the reasons for the decision that was made on this specific instance, and we’ll continue to review the other actions.
Q Can we assume by the absence of you not saying those things, you didn’t find any evidence of that?
MS. SANDERS: No, I wouldn’t make any assumptions. I’m telling you what the decision was based off on in this case.
Q Thank you very much. I wanted to follow up on a question yesterday about Afghanistan. Today, there was another suicide attack in Kabul, which killed 37 people in a school. A military base in the North has been overrun by the Taliban. They have also seized parts of an eastern provincial capital. Why do you think President Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan is working?
MS. SANDERS: As always, we’re going to continue to review and look at the best ways to move forward. I’ll leave it to the Department of Defense to get into specifics about tactical situations on the ground.
What I can tell you is that we’re committed to finding a political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan. We’re exploring all avenues for dialogue in close coordination with the Afghan government, and we’re going to continue to do that.
If we have announcements or changes in the policy, we’ll certainly let you know.
Q I just wanted to follow up on a Turkey question, if I may. Have you guys assessed whether the liquidity situation in Turkey’s financial sector is a risk, in light of the fall of the lira? It’s fallen like a quarter in the last three or four days.
MS. SANDERS: Certainly we’re monitoring the situation with respect to the Turkish economy and the decline of the lira. But Turkey’s economic problems, those are a part of a long-term trend — something of its own making, and not the result of any actions the United States has taken.
Q Thank you, Sarah. One of the individuals that you listed on that list of clearances that is under review is Bruce Ohr. He’s a current employee of the Department of Justice. So instead of putting him under the review, does the President believe he should be fired?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any personnel announcements on that front; I can only speak to this specific case.
Q But why put his security clearance under review, which would render him unable to do his job, and not just fire him?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I don’t have any personnel announcements on that front. I can just tell you we’re looking into that specific matter.
Q Thank you, Sarah. If people who criticize the President publicly on TV or are public in their criticisms, are they at greater risk of losing their security clearances than people who stay silent?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, this is looked at on a case-by-case basis, and we’ll do an individual review and make that determination.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A question about the return of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and then a follow-up very quickly. Now that they are back, can you sort of lay out the White House strategy for moving forward with this agenda? We’ve talked about wall funding. Obviously, a lot of people are very curious about the Kavanaugh nomination moving forward, DACA and other issues. Is there a strategy in place to begin to work with lawmakers now that they’re back?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly. We have continued ongoing conversations on a number of fronts with lawmakers, even while they were not here in Washington. We are happy that the hearing dates have been set for Justice Kavanaugh, and we look forward to seeing him get confirmed.
Q My very quick follow-up was: First of all, you didn’t mention anything about a possible shutdown. Is that still something that the President is continuing?
And my follow was going to be on the farm bill. There are a great number of people and a great number of states that are curious about this work requirement that the USDA is trying to implement. In some places, they already have it; they say you have to work. In other areas, you don’t have that requirement. Is that something the White House still supports?
MS. SANDERS: Something we still support.
In terms of a shutdown, I don’t have any announcements on that front. We certainly still want to see a lot of things happen. We’d love for Congress to actually do its job, particularly when it comes to immigration. We have a completely broken system, and we’d like to see them work with us to fix it.
Q Farm Bill?
Q Thank you, Sarah —
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any updates for you on that front right now.
Q Omarosa Manigault Newman was the highest-ranking African American staffer in the West Wing. No black —
MS. SANDERS: She actually didn’t work in the West Wing, but go ahead.
Q Well, no staffer had been appointed at that level since her absence. Can you tell us exactly how many African American staffers there are in this building? And is it a priority for the administration to reflect the diversity of the country?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, as I addressed yesterday, we value diversity not just at the White House, but throughout the entire administration. And we’re going continue trying to diversify the staff. We have a large number of diverse staffers from various backgrounds, both race, religion, gender —
Q But how many black staffers are there in this building, Sarah?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I’m not going to go through and do a count, the same way I’m not going to do a sit-down and count on the staffers that are in your news organizations.
Q Thirteen percent of the country is African American.
MS. SANDERS: And we would love to diversify our staff and continue to do so. We do think it’s important. We’re going to continue to work to make that happen.
Q Sarah, thank you very much. About the election last night — we are seeing the Democrats embracing more diversity, choosing Muslims, also candidates — transgender candidates, rejecting the President’s agenda. So my question is, what do you think will be the impact of his agenda, and also these recent controversies about race and minorities on the election in November?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think people are looking at the policies that the individuals are implementing and how those are going to affect those communities, and whether or not it’s actually going to help individuals, people across this country. That’s what we’re looking at. That’s what we’re focused on. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.
I’m going to take one last question. Eamon.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I’d like to ask a couple questions about the President’s recent comments, if I could. One is on Harley Davidson. The President commented earlier in the week, “Many @harleydavidson owners plan to boycott the company if manufacturing moves overseas. Great!” Is the President of the United States endorsing a boycott of an iconic American company here?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has made his feelings on that very clear. The President’s focus is on making sure that we get good trade deals and that we keep business and industry here in the United States.
Q Does he want to see a boycott of Harley, though?
MS. SANDERS: I think he’d rather see them put all their companies back here in the United States and build all of their great machines here in this country.
Thanks so much, guys. Have a great day.