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Senate Confirms Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary; White House Press Briefing. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 7, 2017 - 13:30   ET



[13:33:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

Take a look at this. These are live pictures coming in from the White House. At any moment, White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, will take questions from reporters about the travel ban, among many other issues. We'll have live coverage of that as soon as it begins. Stand by.

We're also following a major development on Capitol Hill. The Senate has just confirmed Betsy DeVos as the new education secretary. The vice president, Mike Pence, casting an historic tie-breaking vote. The first time in American history, a vice president, who also serves as president of the Senate, has cast a tie-breaking vote to get a cabinet nominee confirmed.

I want to bring in Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, a member of the Judiciary Committee, strongly opposed of Betsy DeVos' nomination.

Senator, thank you for joining us.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D), VERMONT: Well, thank you. Happy to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You said on the Senate floor, Senator, she wasn't qualified to fulfill the primary goal of the Department of Education, which you describe as giving all students access to quality public school education. Now that she has been confirmed, will you be able to work with her?

LEAHY: I wonder who can work with her. She seems to have a bias against public schools. In my home state of Vermont, we have 90,000 public school students. Not everybody can afford to send their kids to private schools. Not everybody can go with the elite. Not everybody's a billionaire like she is.

Obviously, this country is better if we have a strong public school system for everybody, no matter where they live in the country. Rural areas, everybody else can get a good, free, public school education. She knows neither in the understanding of that nor a commitment to that. Let's hope she changes. Let's hope she starts actually studying some of the things she's supposed to handle.

[13:35:12] BLITZER: She says, Senator, she said it during her confirmation hearing, she supports public school education, but she wants parents to have choices. Maybe send the kids to a charter school in the neighborhood that might be better, or get a voucher, send the kids to a Catholic school that might be better. What's wrong with that?

LEAHY: There's nothing wrong with Catholic schools or any other kind of schools if you're paying for it, but don't use my taxpayers' dollars for it. Most of our public schools already have a difficult time getting along. Spend their money on our public school system. Make our public school system better.

Now, if you have wealthy people, like the new secretary, fine, let them send their kids to private school. That's what Mr. Trump did. That's what she can do. Most Americans can't. Most Americans have to work hard for their paycheck. They are already supporting the public schools with their taxes. Let's have the public schools be good public schools. If you have a few wealthy elites that want to send their kids somewhere else, let them do that.

BLITZER: Now that Senator Sessions has cast his vote in favor of her confirmation, it looks like he's going to be confirmed as the next attorney general of the United States. That vote will be coming up fairly soon. I want you to listen to what President Trump said about all of this earlier today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One person came up to me, a Senator, a Democratic Senator, came up to me the other day and said, Jeff Sessions is a fantastic man, he's fabulous, he's a friend of mine, he's a great, great man and a great talent, and we're lucky to have him. I said, oh, great, I guess you're voting for him. "No, I won't be doing that."


And he said, "Politics doesn't allow me to do that." I thought it was a disgrace.

BLITZER: I want your reaction. I have no idea who that Democratic Senator might have been.

LEAHY: No. And I don't know that if such a person exists. Mr. Trump makes up some things all the time. Although, there are some things that he sticks to. He said during his campaign he would have executive orders to ban Muslims from coming into this country. He's gone through with that. He said in an interview, he'd try to protect Christians but he'd keep out Muslims. That violates our Constitution, of course, but in a hasty executive order, he's done that. Now we're tying up the courts trying to sort out something that could have been done correctly. Instead, he did something that doesn't protect our country at all, but does send a signal to the rest of the world the United States does not stand for the principles of tolerance. BLITZER: Realistically, a final question, Senator, before I let you

go, any of the president's cabinet nominees going to be rejected?

LEAHY: Probably not. We saw this with DeVos. We know that a lot of people did not want her, but they thought they had to stick with their leadership. The leadership allowed two of them to vote against her knowing it would not make a difference. They'll probably go through -- which is strange, because you have somebody with secretary of labor who doesn't believe in raising the minimum wage. Some who haven't even finished their ethics reports, though, they will. And another one who somehow forgot that he had $100 million stashed in the Cayman Islands. Others who hired undocumented immigrants, illegally, paid them off the books in the past. Anybody does something like that, they'd automatically be out of the running. And it seems that this White House has one standard for themselves and a different standard for the rest of the country.

BLITZER: Senator Leahy, thanks very much for joining us.

LEAHY: Thank you.

[13:39:08] BLITZER: Once again, we're only moments away from the start of the White House press briefing with Sean Spicer. We'll go there live. That's next.


BLITZER: The White House press secretary Sean Spicer has just started his press briefing. He's got an opening statement about giving federal aid to Mississippi. Let's listen in.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- thanking them for their service and hearing the ideas that were on their minds.

The president announced his intent to make historic financial investment in the armed forces of the United States, showing the entire world that America has the back of all those who stand in defense of freedom. As he has said many times before, the armed forces are at the very center of our fight against radical Islamic terrorism, and we must protect those who protect us.

The president kicked off today with a listening session of county sheriffs from around the country. The president welcomed leaders from the National Sheriffs Association to the White House and pledged to work closely with all members of law enforcement to keep the American people safe. He assured the sheriffs that the Trump administration will make every effort to stop drugs and crime from flowing into the country, put an end to the opioid epidemic, secure the borders, keep terrorists out and strengthen the bonds between state, local and federal law enforcement agencies.

The sheriffs thanked the president for what they described as this quote, "unprecedented level of support for law enforcement," and offered their full backing of his border security and immigration policies. They expressed how encouraged they've been by the pro-law enforcement atmosphere that has swept the country in the wake of the president's victory. They also presented a letter on behalf of the National Sheriffs Association thanking the president for his, quote, "recent show of support for law enforcement, specifically on immigration and border security issues," end quote, and commending the president's two executive orders for taking, quote, "significant steps to enhancing public safety."

The group engaged in a wide ranging discussion about the issues facing law enforcement, which the sheriffs said was an opportunity they hadn't been given under the previous administration.

[13:45:00] The sheriffs closed the meeting by thanking the president for defending the rule of law and the president took them in the Oval Office to honor them and show his appreciation for their outstanding work they do to keep our communities safe.

A list of the attendees is available for those who are interested.

After that meeting, the president held another listening session on how to best fix the V.A. It's a top priority for the president and this administration to ensure that veterans get the care they need, when and where they need it.

Tragically many of our veterans are being failed by a system that does not work. This administration will reform and modernize the V.A. under the leadership of Dr. Shulkin, creating a culture of accountability that puts our veterans first. The president welcomed the group to the Roosevelt room, and expressed his intention to take whatever steps are necessary to improve health care access for the -- and quality for our heroic veterans.

Ms. Tiffany Smiley (ph), the wife of a veteran who was blinded by an IED, detailed her family's difficulty and experience with the V.A.'s healthcare system and offered suggestions on how it can be improved. The president, V.A. secretary-designate Dr. Shulkin, and a group of healthcare experts and veteran advocates, including Ike and Laura Pulmenter (ph) engaged in a wide range discussion on reforming the V.A. so that the needs of veterans come first.

The experts discussed private-sector solutions and innovations that could be used to improve the V.A. The president praised the secretary- designate for his commitment to veterans and thanked the group for their willingness to serve and do what was best for our veterans. They plan to meet on a regular basis to discuss their collective efforts to improve the V.A. and healthcare system. Also this afternoon, vice president had big day on Capitol Hill, where he cast the historic deciding vote for secretary of education Betsy DeVos.

The president believes strongly that our nation's success depends on education of our students. And Betsy DeVos has devoted nearly three decades of her time and talent to promoting educational opportunity. As secretary, she will ensure every student has access to good school, whether it is public, private, parochial, charter or any other kind. The fact we had to get to the point where the vice president had to be pulled into overcome the democrats historic and partisan logjam with the president's qualified nominee is another glaring reminder of the unprecedented obstruction that the Senate democrats have engaged in throughout this process.

The American people sent strong message when they elected President Trump in November. They're fed up with business as usual in Washington. Democrats in the Senate should expect that voters will remember how they stood in the way of the president enacting an agenda that put him into office. Last week, I noted the president had a fair amount of cabinet level appointees awaiting a full vote by the Senate. We are looking forward to seeing more of the presidents pick to lead agencies and departments confirmed in the upcoming week, despite these childish tactics of Democrats in the Senate, who would rather keep the failed status quo, than allowing to put the president's people in place.

Also on the hill today, Judge Gorsuch continues a full week of meetings with Republican and Democratic senators. Yesterday, he met with Senators Tester and Feinstein, today he will meet with Senators Sasse, Schumer, Crapo, and Thune. The president is looking forward to a full hearing for the judge, followed by an up or down vote on this incredibly qualified nominee.

At this moment, the president is meeting with Congressman Jason Chaffetz to discuss how to work together to enact his reform agenda. Later this afternoon, the president will meet with Secretary of State Tillerson. The president was obviously pleased to welcome and confirm -- swear in Secretary Tillerson in the oval office last week, and he is pleased the secretary is now able to bring his unique skill set and deep insights to the important work of the state department.

Following his discussion with Secretary Tillerson, the president will have calls with the

Prime Minister Rajoy of Spain and President Erdogan of Turkey. We'll have readouts of both of those calls when they are completed. This evening, the president will host young officers from the United States Army Special Forces qualification course in the oval office.

As the president said yesterday, members of our military and their families are our nation's heroes. It is one of his top priorities to make sure the men and women of our armed forces have the tools, equipment and resources they need to execute their missions successfully. The president is looking forward to conveying his gratitude and support to these young brave captains.

Later this evening around 6:00, the 9th Circuit Court will hold oral arguments per its order from yesterday. I want to quickly run down what we can expect to happen tonight. A career attorney from the Department of Justice will present an argument in defense of the president's order, and to be clear, all that's at issue tonight is the hearing - is an interim decision on whether the president's order is enforced or not, until the case is heard on the actual merits of the order.

It is a simple status quo versus anti-status quo decision. This is just like the case in Boston which started as temporary restraining order. There, once we were able to explain our position, the court lifted and held that the president's executive order could take effect. As I've said before, a U.S. Code 8112, gives the president constitutional authority for this executive order. It says quote, "whenever the president finds the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interest of the United States, he may by (ph) proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, to suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants.

[13:50:17] Or impose on the entry of aliens, any restrictions which he may deem appropriate." We look forward to a final decision on the merits of this soon.

Looking ahead, I know a few have been asking about more details on Prime Minister Abe's visit later this week. As previously announced, he will visit the White House for meetings on the 10th of February. The president has also invited him down to Mar-a-Lago and the two leaders will travel there for the weekend. This is a testament to the importance the United States places on the bilateral relationship and the strength of our alliance and the deep economic ties between the United States and Japan.

Needless to say, the president is looking very much forward to welcoming the New England Patriots to the White House to celebrate their fifth world championship. It was obviously a spectacular game.

Lastly, we have our eyes on Kabul today, following the tragic suicide bombing that killed at least 19 Afghan civilians and wounded 14. Just this morning, General Flynn spoke with the Afghan national security adviser to reaffirm our continued support for Afghanistan and for our strategic partnership. We condemn this cowardly attack in the strong as possible terms, and we commend the Afghan security forces for their rapid response.

We also reaffirmed our support for the Afghan government as they work to defend their people and against enemies of peace. And with that, I'll take your questions.

David Jackson (ph).

QUESTION: The list of 78 terrorist attacks you that released, it looked like it had been prepared well in advance. I mean, was that already on hand when President Trump made his comments? Or did you do it afterward and decide to release it? SPICER: Well, I think, the answer was we've been getting questions as to what the president's remarks were. We want to be very clear, that there are a lot of examples between 2014 and 2016 that have occurred. And many of them haven't got the attention they have deserved. It's becoming too often that we're seeing these attacks not get the spectacular attention they deserve. And I think it undermines the understanding of the threat that we face around the country.

The reason the president is acting in so many of the ways he has, with executive order and otherwise. The discussions that he had down at CENTCOM and SOCOM yesterday are because he cares about making sure that we don't have attacks in this country. That we're protected, that we're ahead of the curve. And I think what we need to do is to remind people that the Earth is a very dangerous place these days. That ISIS is trying to do us harm. And that the president's commitment is to keep the country safe.

And I think part of this is to make sure the American people are reminded how prevalent some of these attacks are and how much time and attention they have or have not gotten, but more importantly, to make sure that they understand the unwavering commitment that the president has and the actions they will take to keep the country safe.

QUESTION: Was the list put together after his comments?

SPICER: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: After his comments?


Trey (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks Sean.

On the call with Turkish President Erdogan later today, does President Trump intend to discuss plans for Syrian safe zones? And does the president expect Turkey to help create those zones?

SPICER: I think we'll have a read out for you on that. I don't want to get ahead on the two leader's calls.

Alexis (ph), RealClearPolitics.

QUESTION: Thanks Sean. I have two questions for you.


QUESTION: You were mentioning that voters are gonna remember how senators voted on the president's Cabinet nominees. Two Republicans voted against Betsy DeVos, Senators Collins and Murkowski. Did the president reach out to either of them? And will he not forget what Republicans did in that particular nominee situation?

SPICER: I think -- look, the president's been very clear, it's not Republicans that have stood in the way of this nomination, of all of these qualified individuals. It's been Democrats that have stalled over and over again, not attending hearings, trying to use every delay tactic possible. It's those people that have a problem. And I think that's the -- the message that the party has missed on the Democratic side.

I don't think that -- I wouldn't paint it with a broad brush because I think it's Senate Democrats frankly, that haven't gotten the message.


SPICER: Our team has been in contact with all -- with the entire Senate team, to make sure that they understand and they've had visits as requested, but we have been in constant contact with the Senate, members of the Senate, their staffs. Our legislative affairs team has had an extremely robust schedule of meetings with their teams to make these nominees available to them.

But I think the broader issue -- again, and -- and with all due respect, I think it's interesting that we're focusing on the votes of two Republicans. When you look at the spectrum of antics that have gone on in the Democrats. I mean the tactics they have done over, and over, and over again to delay, not show up to hearings, you know, filibuster to the extent that they can, run the clock out, it's not Republicans that have a problem here Alexis (ph), it is the Democrats that continue to do this.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) president's remarks about the Affordable Care Act and his interview on Sunday? Because he indicated in his response in the interview, that he thought that the repeal and replace was going to take longer perhaps into 2018.

[13:55:09] Can you clarify whether he is frustrated about this, what he is doing about the timing? Because of course, voters who sent him here were anticipating that this might move faster than he was conveying in the interview?

SPICER: Well, I think luckily (ph), and you saw Speaker Ryan's comments earlier today, I think we can have this done legislatively sooner rather than later. But I think the implementation of a lot of the pieces make take a little bit longer.

It's a big, big bill that the Democrats passed. As you recall, they told us we could read it after they -- after they passed it. We are now going through this to make sure that we do this in a very responsible way, to make sure that healthcare, which is so vital to so many Americans and their families, is preserved while we put a new system in place that both lowers costs and increases accessibility.

But the president I think is very encouraged by the commitment and work that's going on on the Hill to make sure that we get this thing replaced as quick as possible.

Brad Lucas (ph)? Brad.

QUESTION: (inaudible) follow-up related to that. Speaker Ryan has actually said -- I'm quote -- with Obamacare, you can't, quote, "tinker about with the margins and repair it. You can't. It's a collapsing law." Do you agree with that, that you can't build on what's already there, you have to get rid of the entire law?

SPICER: I think what we're focused on is the end solution. And I think we've been very clear over and over again that the president's going to repeal and replace it and that what Americans will get at the end of this is a healthcare solution that, as I've said before over and over again, is going to give them a lower cost health solution with more options. That's what they were promised in the first place, that's what (ph) we can give.

And I think the president being able to approach this in the business- like manner that he's done so successfully in the past is going to ensure that he negotiates prices, that we look at those business-like practices, force competition amongst states and other things that will help lower cost once and for all and provide that competition.

QUESTION: On Iran sanctions, does the president have any concerns about the fact that (inaudible) in terms of implementing those sanctions?

SPICER: No (inaudible) they went off without a hitch.

Brett -- I mean, John Decker.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sean. As you know, the president spoke over the weekend on Twitter and criticized the federal judge appointed by George W. Bush who imposed the nationwide restraining order and called him a so-called judge. Is the president, as it relates to the argument -- I know you're confident with (ph) the arguments that will be presented this evening. Is he prepared to accept an adverse ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals?

SPICER: There's no question the president respects the judicial branch and its ruling, but I think that there's now a -- I just read off the U.S. code on that. I don't think there's any other way that you can interpret that, that the president has the discretion to do what's necessary to keep this country safe.

And I think that's -- that's his concern frankly right now, is that when the law is such as it is, that anyone can interpret that any other way, I think he feels confident just like in the ruling in Boston that we're gonna prevail on this on the merits of the case because it has done so in a very lawful way.


QUESTION: Will the administration's (inaudible) on the (inaudible) building a settlement may not be helpful.

SPICER: As I mentioned last week, I don't want to get too far ahead of this, but Prime Minister Netanyahu will be here on the 15th. I think that'll be obviously a topic of discussion. Right now, I don't want to get ahead of that.

Charlie (inaudible)?

QUESTION: Just a quick question. Any response to the calls for impeachment by Representative Maxine Waters?


Hunter Walker -- I mean, I would say -- look, I think -- it is -- the president is doing everything he can to move this country forward, and I think whether it's the Democrats in the Senate who are trying to stall these nominees or these little political stunts on the House side, the bottom line is I think by and large you see the support that the president's receiving for his policies throughout the country.

And it's because I think people recognize, a, that business as usual is over and that the president's commitment to both keeping this country safe and growing the economy and creating jobs is something that is welcomed by all Americans regardless of party. I think when you see stuff like that, I think it really just shows that they really missed the message that voters sent this past November.

Hunter Walker.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sean. CNN reportedly declined to interview Kellyanne Conway on Sunday because of questions of her credibility. Is the White House willing to offer alternative representatives to networks that refuse to work with specific spokespeople?

SPICER: Frankly, I think that -- my understanding is they retracted that, they walked that back or denied it, however you want to put it, I don't care. But I think Kellyanne is a very trusted aide of the president. I think to -- for any characterization otherwise is -- is insulting.

[14:00:04] I don't think -- if they choose not to work with someone, that's up to them.

But I think we're going to continue to put out key leaders in this administration, including Kellyanne, that can articulate the president's policies and agenda.