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President Comments on Growing Trump-Russia Firestorm; White House Press Briefing. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 12, 2017 - 16:00   ET



QUESTION: On the meeting with the (INAUDIBLE) advisory board, someone tweeted out a picture of the meeting the other day.

And there was a -- the picture showed people, faith leaders, laying their hands on the president as they were praying.

And I think there was an inference or an implication from that photo coverage that they were praying for him because of a political crisis.

Could you explain a little bit more about how the meeting came about and what it meant to the president to have them there?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The idea that somebody would only pray when they're in crisis, I think, makes you miss the entire point of what prayer is about.

You should do that every day, and that's -- I think you can do that in the best of times and the worst of times. So, I think it would be ridiculous to suggest the only time you might do that is in a time of crisis.

QUESTION: How did the meeting come about and what did it mean?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's his faith advisory board. And they meet from time to time to speak about issues important to that community -- John.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah.

Chris Wray was asked today in his confirmation hearing whether he believes Russia is a friend other or a foe. And he said in his answer that he believes that Russia is a country that should be viewed, in his words, warily.

I asked you this question on Monday, and I did not get an answer from you. I believe the same question was asked of you yesterday. You said you would get back to us.

And I think it's a pretty basic question as to whether or not the president views Russia as a friend, partner, an ally, or an adversary. Do you have an answer yet on that question?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't, but, John, I do assure you I will certainly work to make sure I get that answer to you.

QUESTION: And another question as it relates to the Russian sanctions deal.

You had Marc Short out here the other day talking about the need for a waiver on that bill. That's what the administration would like to see. If there is no waiver attached to the bill and it comes before the president's desk, would the president veto this legislation?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Right now, we haven't made a determination, because we don't think that this is an all-or-nothing process, nor should it be.

In the current form, the legislation poses a number of risks to U.S. government's ability to conduct foreign policy. Until they get further in the process, we're not going to weigh in any further.


QUESTION: Sarah (OFF-MIKE) he also said that he would not pledge loyalty to President Trump.

Is that something that the president expects?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think the president expects anybody that works anywhere in government to pledge loyalty to the country. And I think that would be the only pledge of loyalty that anyone would be asked.

QUESTION: And one follow-up on the general Russia question.

Can you (OFF-MIKE) frustrated by these words, frustrated by Donald Jr. How is he feeling?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: You know, the president wants to be focused on his agenda, and he'd much rather be talking about health care, tax reform, infrastructure, national security. I think that's his focus.

And when he's talking about those things, that's a good day for all Americans.


QUESTION: Sarah, I want to ask you if the drip, drip, drip is undermining the credibility of this administration.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think it's actually undermining the credibility of the media, because they drip, drip, drip a lot of things that don't seem to have much ado about nothing.

QUESTION: That's not the media saying that. This is Trey Gowdy, the Republican from South Carolina, saying this drip, drip, drip is undermining the credibility of this administration.

So, what do you say to Congressman Gowdy?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think I just answered that. QUESTION: So, let me ask you, if I can (OFF-MIKE). You said being

asked about the witch-hunts a little bit earlier. You said the president feels comfortable saying, as he has made clear, that it is a witch-hunt because, in your words, he knows any action or inaction that has taken.

But given the fact that Jay Sekulow and you have conceded that the president -- or the outside counsel has conceded that the president was not aware of Donald Trump Jr., his own son's meeting with someone who was representing -- who was there under the guise of representing information from the Russian government, how can you say with certitude that the president does know any action that has taken place?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think Jay Sekulow discussed this at length and covered that nothing inappropriate has taken place.

QUESTION: But there's -- would you conceded the president does not know? There may be actions that took place that the president does not know about?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Once again, I think the president has been very clear about his opinion on the matter.


QUESTION: So, Sarah, just two things.

One, on the issue of transparency, we now have three straight weekdays where there hasn't been a single public event on the president's schedule. That's unusual for any president, especially this one, who, through the first months of his presidency was constantly bringing the full (OFF-MIKE). We saw him doing a number of events a day.

What -- why the sudden secrecy and hiding from the public that we're seeing now? Why has the president not been visible to the public for the better part of a week?


HUCKABEE SANDERS: There is nothing secret about having meetings, which I read off to you earlier, with members of his staff and members of the administration.

The president had an incredibly robust schedule overseas in both Poland and Germany. And he's preparing to leave this afternoon, where he will be spending quite a bit of time with a lot of those of you who are traveling, and will be taking questions from you guys tomorrow.


QUESTION: And on the Don Jr. e-mails, you have heard from a number of Democrats who have raised serious questions about the fact that Jared Kushner was also part of that meeting. He was part of that e-mail chain, knew what that meeting was about, knew what was promised.

What do you say to Democrats who say that Jared Kushner's security clearance should be revoked?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Once again, we don't discuss security clearances, but I think Democrats are trying to play political games, and I think it's ridiculous.

QUESTION: Is there any concern over the top adviser of the president...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Did nothing wrong? No.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

You just said he would much rather be talking about tax reform and health care and infrastructure. What has stopped him this week from talking about any of those?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Like I said, he's been talking about those internally.

QUESTION: To the American people.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, does he that through a number of ways.

We have been up here. Every day that I have been up this week, I have included a pretty heavy portion of the opening statement, has to do with health care and a number of other issues that are part of the president's agenda.

We have put out multiple statements on several issues, and members of his Cabinet have been very active in public capacity this week. And just because it's not the president directly standing behind a podium making a speech doesn't mean he's not communicating to the American people or pushing his agenda forward.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) how he was feeling, and you said he was frustrated because he would much rather be talking about these things. Now you're saying he has been talking about these things.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: No, he asked me specifically about that issue and whether or not he was frustrated by that issue.

John Gizzi.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah. Two questions.

First, thank you very much.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Just two, not three today?

QUESTION: Not three.

First, thank you very much for getting back to me on the blue slip question. My other question, you may recall, was, would the administration itself take into account the recommendations of the American Bar Association on judicial appointments or not? And...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I didn't get a chance to check on that part of the question, so I will have to circle back.

QUESTION: My other question is, the president today had an interview with Reverend Robertson. And I wondered if this would lead to the opening of further interviews with some of us one-on-one with the president or very possibly a news conference in the near future?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: He's holding a press conference tomorrow while he's in Paris. And I will certainly put in the request for an interview with you, John.


QUESTION: Two health care questions.

It looks like we may get some new version of the Senate bill tomorrow perhaps and some maybe action next week. As this heads towards some -- what may be some kind of conclusion, if it happens, how much credit does the White House think it should take and that President Trump should get or receive for how that bill is shaped in the end?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Right now, I think the White House is not focused on who gets the credit, but making sure that American people get the care. That's our focus, and that hasn't changed.

QUESTION: Is the White House actually actively participating, then, and is the president participating in helping to shape some of the stuff that...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Once again, we have said this all along, that the White House and members of the administration have provided technical assistance throughout the process, and we're going to continue to do that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) The president (OFF-MIKE) for loving to put his name on the top of his buildings and everything else that he can get his name on. President Obama didn't Obamacare Obamacare.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm sure he wishes he hadn't now.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Does President Trump hope that whatever emerges from this process will ultimately be known as Trumpcare?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Once again, I have said it many times before. We're not focused on the label, but focused on making sure we have a health care system in place that actually works, doesn't bankrupt the system and help protect Americans across the board.


QUESTION: Thank you.

When the president has his conversations with President Macron, is it your expectation that he will ask him or at least engage him on this concept of climate change and the Paris accord or maybe what might come out of our lack of participation in that accord?

And I guess my follow-up would be about Janet Yellen. We have asked you before if the president has confidence in her. If she were not in that position, would Gary Cohn be someone the president would like to see in the position?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: On the first question, we never get ahead of the president's conversations. We will certainly provide a readout.


And you guys will also have a chance to ask the president himself and hear a joint statement from both presidents after the meeting.

In terms of Janet Yellen and Gary Cohn, I think Gary has been pretty clear that he loves his job and he's happy doing what he's doing. And I don't have anything further to add on that.

QUESTION: Did the president watch, by the way, Mr. Wray today, by chance? I know he said this week, I don't even have time to watch TV. Do you think he had the chance to pick up some of that?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't know if he saw much of it, if any. I know that he was doing quite a few meetings earlier this morning, so, as far as I'm aware, I don't know if he saw any of it.

QUESTION: I just want to give you a chance to respond. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California today entered an official bill, an article of impeachment. Any response?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that is utterly and completely ridiculous and a political game at its worst.

Thanks so much, guys.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You were just listening to the audio-only off-camera White House press briefing.

With a Republican source telling CNN that the White House is paralyzed right now over Donald Trump Jr.'s e-mail mess, today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused the Democrats of collusion with Ukraine and of playing political games by raising questions about his son-in-law Jared Kushner's security clearance.

Huckabee Sanders was also pressed about the president's blank public schedule over the past three days.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray was listening to the briefing as she awaits the president in Paris, France.

And, Sara, it seems the White House is struggling to find a way to effectively respond to this latest development in the Russia probe. SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They are

struggling through this, Jake.

And we saw from both the president today in an interview and Sarah Huckabee Sanders at that podium an attempt to try to turn this back around on Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

But we also saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodging the question of why we are yet again facing another previously undisclosed meeting between a Trump campaign official and a Russian, this time President Trump's own son.


MURRAY (voice-over): Another bombshell throwing the Trump administration off-track, leaving White House officials muddling through the aftermath of a new Russia revelation.

President Trump laying low for the fourth straight day, as administration officials he say spent much of his time huddling with aides and watching television, his mood anywhere from frustrated to furious, but President Trump is insisting all is well, tweeting: "The White House is functioning perfectly. Focused on health care, tax cuts reform and many other things. I have very little time for watching TV."

This as aides and advisers grapple with the fallout from a meeting last June between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., senior adviser Jared Kushner, and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

In a series of e-mails, the person helping to arrange the meeting telling Donald Jr. it would include dirt on Hillary Clinton -- quote -- sensitive information that is part of Russia and its government's support for Trump."

Now a top Republican close to the West Wing says the White House is paralyzed, a blow to an administration hoping to tackle big-ticket legislative items, from health care to tax reform.

Still, Trump is leaping to his son's defense on Twitter saying: "My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest witch-hunt in political history. Sad."

A source close to the White House says Trump was dismayed by his eldest son's meeting with a Russian lawyer, but doesn't believe his son ran afoul of the law, even as Don Jr. defends his actions.

DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: I wanted to hear them out and play it out and see what happens.

MURRAY: He system in hindsight perhaps he should have behaved differently.

TRUMP: Listen, I think, like I said, in retrospect, I probably would have done things differently. Again, this is before the Russia mania. This is before they were building it up in the press. For me, this was opposition research.

MURRAY: Other sources close to the White House were stunned by the latest revelation, even those who long predicted Trump's reliance on his family members, political neophytes, was sure to backfire.

As for Trump's attorney, he insists the president had no prior knowledge of his son's meeting with the Russian lawyer.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: Let's focus on what the president was aware of. Nothing. He was not aware of the meeting, did not attend the meeting, and was only informed about the e-mails very recently by his counsel.

MURRAY: With the Russia cloud still hovering over the White House, tonight, Trump is taking off for Paris, hoping a two-day visit to the City of Light might allow the latest torrent of bad news to subside.


MURRAY: Now, President Trump will not be in Paris for long, but he will have a packed schedule.

Tomorrow, he is slated to meet with the French president. They are expected to make statements and take questions from the press, the first time President Trump may have to answer questions from the broader press corps about his son's meeting -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, live in Paris, thank you so much.

And we will bring that to you live tomorrow on CNN.

Some in the president's own party have serious questions and concerns after Donald Trump Jr.'s e-mail release. We will get reaction from one key Republican next.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: We're back with our policy lead. Moments from now, President Trump will depart for Paris, France, as the fallout from his son's meeting with a Russian lawyer continues to engulf the White House. The president will talk with his French counterpart about Syria, counterterrorism, climate change and other issues.

Joining me now to talk about this and much more, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining me.


TAPPER: I want you to take a listen to what Donald Trump Jr. said last night on FOX News about his meeting with this woman who was sold to him as providing intelligence, incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: Someone sent me an email. I can't help what someone sends me, you know? I read it, I responded according, and if there's something interesting there. I think it's pretty common.


TAPPER: I think it's pretty common, he said. You've been involved in campaigns before. Is this pretty common, someone telling you a foreign government has incriminating information about your opponent?

KINZINGER: No. Opposition research is one thing. And, you know, look, it's how politics works.

[16:20:00] Do you have anything that would be of interest in your opponent? We all know this. If you look at any presidential election, they spend millions on opposition research. That's fine, that's how the system works.

And -- but I think when a foreign government if, in an e-mail, it says the Russian government has information, that is when you hit the hard stop on it. I don't know exactly where espionage laws apply in this situation. What I do know in the very least is if I got an e-mail that said, hey, Congressman Kinzinger, we've got some information on your opponent courtesy of your friends in the Russian government, courtesy of Vladimir Putin or anything, I would immediately save that email, I would walk it to the FBI and I would say, we have a problem. Do you want me to meet with them so you can do a counter espionage on them? Or do you want us to hit the cold stop?

But that's extremely essential. No foreign government, even if it was the government of Canada, frankly, should be involving itself to this level or any level in the democratic process.

TAPPER: How concerned are you about this e-mail and the response of not just Donald Trump Jr. but Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort?

KINZINGER: It's concerning and when you have these three players at a meeting, really, it's almost immaterial if something comes out of that meeting or not. Whether this lady brought information or she was simply testing the waters, we know that the FSB, the new KGB, works through cutouts and intermediaries to gauge interest. This is not something that I don't think we're going to be able to litigate.

And although we can have these debates on TV, it's not going to be litigated here. It will be investigated, I trust, and I really hope, by independent counsel Mueller and both the Senate and the House committees that are studying this. This is part of the broader piece of the puzzle that they need to put together.

Again, it's not just -- the politics is immaterial here. What matters to me is the faith in the institution of government because in the long term, we can't have that faith break down because that's what leads to societies that are in danger.

TAPPER: And I know also this is a big distraction for people like you and Republicans and Democrats on the Hill who want to legislate. Let's turn to some of those issues now. President Trump just gave an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Take a listen to what he had to say about Vladimir Putin, an issue that you care quite a bit about.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm a big military person. As an example, if Hillary had won, our military would be decimated. Our energy would be much more expensive. That's what Putin doesn't like about me. That's why I say, why would he want me?


TAPPER: Your reaction, sir?

KINZINGER: Well, I think -- there actually may be some fact to that. I don't think Vladimir Putin necessarily wanted Hillary Clinton to win. I do think President Trump has been good on energy. I think we've added to the military and that, if exercise, not military options but just the threat of military option exercised properly can actually have a great effect against Russia in Syria, and Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.

I don't like to keep relitigating elections, though. I think it's important, you know, we -- frankly, the Democrats did this under Bush, we're doing this now, you know, and it goes on and on. I think it's time to move forward, to have a forward-looking agenda and these distractions don't help us. We do our work out here, which is fine, you know, we can do all this. It's -- but it takes out the messaging part which is so important for us passing our agenda.

TAPPER: The Senate, as you know, passed a new Russians sanctions bill last month, 98-2. It's in the House now. It's unclear what the status is. The White House is lobbying against it. They say the way it's written would hamper the power of the presidency and his ability to make diplomatic maneuvers.

Do you agree with the White House position, or do you think the House should pass the Senate bill?

KINZINGER: No, I think we need to pass it. There may be a couple tweaks that need to be made, so there is a big deal kind of being made about somebody can bring it up in a privilege resolution. This is really getting in the weeds, but a privilege resolution says anybody at any time can bring up basically this issue and disapprove. I think there is a middle ground we can work there.

And also, there is a provision which basically says if any Russia energy interest even has like 1 percent of minority partnership in an energy company, our energy companies would be prohibited from being involved in that project, which would I think counteract Russian energy in the market. I think there's ways to get this done and actually, I'm extremely, extremely driven to get this Russian sanctions bill done and do it soon and very soon, and I think we're going to get to the bottom of this. I don't think this is going to be an issue hopefully in a couple of weeks.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, thanks so much. It's always good to see you, sir.

KINZINGER: You bet. Anytime, take care.

TAPPER: So, how do other Republican lawmakers feel about Donald Trump Jr.'s email? Stick around, we have much more on that.


[16:28:26] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with the politics lead now. Today, Christopher Wray, President Trump's nominee for FBI director, faced questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And beyond the bipartisan support that Wray seemed to generate, there was also a very clear subtext of concern among the senators about the behavior of President Trump, specifically about what many senators seem to see as President Trump's attempt to delegitimize law enforcement investigations and indeed the very notion of an independent body of federal law enforcement officers.

Now, we saw this with the question about whether President Trump ever asked Mr. Wray to pledge his loyalty to him as fired FBI Director James Comey claims the president asked of him, though President Trump denies it.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: You told me yesterday there's been no question by anybody in the White House asking you for protective loyalty?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR NOMINEE: That's correct, Senator. My loyalty is to the Constitution, to the rule of law and to the mission of the FBI. And no one asked me for any kind of loyalty oath at any point during this process, and I sure as heck didn't offer one.


TAPPER: There was also a question about Mr. Wray's view of special counsel, Robert Mueller, whose impeccable reputation has not stopped President Trump and his allies from attempting to smear him, and called the Mueller investigation as recently as this morning a witch hunt.


WRAY: I did not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt.


TAPPER: The concern expressed, we should point out, was not just from Democratic senators. Perhaps the most pointed line of inquiry, in fact, came from conservative Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a frequent critic of President Trump, who raised a hypothesis based on Comey's testimony that President Trump asked him to drop the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.