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White House To Appoint Task Force Amid Classified Material Concerns. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 09, 2024 - 14:00   ET



IAN SAMS, SPOKESPERMAN FOR THE WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL OFFICE: And so what we're going to do is the president's going to appoint a task force to review how transitions look at classified material to ensure that there are better processes in place so that when, you know, staffs around the building are rushedly packing up boxes to try to get out during a transition as quickly as possible, at the same time and up until the very moment that, you know, they're still governing and doing matters of state, you know, they're going to try to make recommendations that that can be fixed. And he's going to appoint a senior government leader to do that. We'll have more on that soon.


UNKNOWN: It's 2017 that he had classified material downstairs. He boasted about it.

UNKNOWN: In your advocacy here and in the president's counsel writing back to Mr. Herr, you're saying that there were gratuitous comments, that there are false pieces of information. How is the American public supposed to process this when we also live in a world where former President Trump asserts that there was a politicized process that resulted in his prosecution related to classified documents and other things. So for the public, if Democrats and this administration say, trust the Department of Justice, trust the institutions, but you're also arguing here gratuitous political cheap shots and false assertions, how are they to process that?

SAMS: Well, I talked about this actually a minute ago. And I think, you know, when you have the former attorney general, when you have the former acting FBI director, when you have the former general counsel of the FBI, you know, these are experienced people at the Justice Department who spent decades working at the Justice Department. And they're saying it's gratuitous. They're saying that this is inappropriate, that this is inconsistent with DOJ policy and practice. That's them saying it. We agree. You know, you heard the president speak forcefully about this last night. You heard the vice president speak forcefully about this today. We certainly agree that it's gratuitous. But I explained this a little bit in the opening. We're in a very pressurized political environment.

And when you're the first special counsel in history not to indict anybody, there is pressure to criticize and to make, you know, statements that maybe otherwise you wouldn't make. And, you know, I think that it leaves you wondering why some of these critiques are in there. But I think it's also important to just fundamentally distinguish between the prior case that you mentioned. I want to be careful in terms of commenting on that. But the special counsel report goes into great detail about the differences and distinctions there. And I think it's important to understand that the criticism that you're hearing of the gratuitous comments in the report, which are wrong, frankly, you know, this is being shared by people who have deep experience at the Justice Department.

UNKNOWN: On the many issues related to memory, they certainly seem to prompt an angry response from the president and from his advocates. Is there anything being done to address that issue in an ongoing way? Obviously, counsel wrote asking for some of those things to be removed. It is potential that Robert Herr could be called before Congress to testify in public. Are there any steps that the administration would take addressing that specific issue? Is it in relation to overall medical physicians report of the president or other things to demonstrate what is the issue with memory? And is it a factor that deals with his capacity to serve?

SAMS: Well, I have a lot of issues with the contents of that question. And Karine's answered a lot about the president's transparency in his medical records and his physical and things of that nature. And I'll leave that to Karine (ph) to handle. But I'll say, I just read you this. Page 248, or sorry, excuse me. Later in the report, he says, quote, we expect the evidence of Mr. Biden's state of mind to be compelling, pointing to him providing, quote, clear and, quote, forceful testimony. I can't explain why the report veers all over the place on this issue. I can just say, and as you've heard from the vice president, you heard from members of Congress yesterday talking about their recent interactions with the president.

One, Congressman Goldman from New York, the president's last day in office, the day before this interview, when Congressman Goldman was on the ground in Israel and the long and intensive and detailed conversation they had about what was going on the ground. We just reject that this is true. And I think that it does raise questions about the gratuitousness and it makes you wonder why that's in there.

UNKNOWN: Thank you, Karine. And thank you, Ian. So you are discrediting some of the findings in this report. You are discrediting some of the observations of President Biden. So why should the American public accept the conclusion that charges weren't warranted?

SAMS: I'm not sure I understand exactly what you're asking.

UNKNOWN: I'm saying you're claiming that much of the report isn't accurate. So why are you so confident that the conclusion is correct?

SAMS: The conclusion has been obvious from the very beginning. It was a long, intensive, sort of meandering investigation that came to the conclusion that in February of last year, everybody knew that this wasn't intentional, that this was an accident, that they were found. And as soon as they were found, the president said, give them back, get them back as soon as we can and fully cooperate with everything. So, he reached the inevitable conclusion because it's the truth. [14:05:09]

The conduct of the investigation throughout and the gratuitous comments in the report are troubling and they're inappropriate. But I think that the finding was the obvious one because it's the truth.

UNKNOWN: President Biden blamed his staff largely for the mishandling of documents and where they ultimately ended up. Does the president believe he did everything right when it comes to handling classified material?

SAMS: Well, just look at the, again, look at the report. I know it's long, but the report talks about how the evidence is that these were most likely things that were packed up by staff during movements and transitions and things of that nature. So that's reflected by the report. It's not some accusation by the president. It's just true. I mean, you guys know, you guys work with White House staff all the time. We support the principal. That's our job. And principal relies on their staff. To help them with things. And the president said this last night, you know, he talked about how, you know, looking back, if he had been more, he was more engaged in that process of the packing and the moving things to make sure that things were being done the right way. And I think the most important thing to remember is once it was realized that something wrong had happened, he did everything right to get it back and to fix the problem.

UNKNOWN: What about all the stuff that he talked about that was in his home, in filing cabinets that were either locked or able to be locked in his house? What stuff was he talking about? Talking about classified materials?

SAMS: Well, we talked about, -- I mean, the report goes on at length about this. I'd encourage you to read it. It talks about-

UNKNOWN: No, I'm talking about what he said last night. He said the stuff in my house was all in filing cabinets that were either locked or able to be locked. Didn't he put them in his home?

SAMS: I'm not really following the question. I think that what's clear is that, and I told this to Justin a minute ago, you know, he has personal diaries that he had. Of course, he has his personal diaries. The documents that were taken were jumbled up in boxes and found inadvertently in places. And that's what happened.

UNKNOWN: Thank you. How concerned is the president and the team here that the, quote, gratuitous comments are going to damage him, damage public perception of him?

SAMS: I think the public is smart. And I think that they can see what's going on. I think that they see a president who fully cooperated. I think they see a president who did the right thing and made sure everything got back. And I think that they see that this was a long investigation that ended with it without a case to be made. And I think that they see and understand, you know, when people are gratuitous and make comments that they shouldn't make and that are beyond the remit of a prosecutor to do. I think that they understand that. And I think that they'll understand that the president did the right thing here.

UNKNOWN: If the 7th and 8th were obviously, or 8th and 9th were obviously like very busy days where the president was overstretched, taking calls in the middle of the night, all of this, why continue with the interview with her? Why not do it on another day? Why give him the opportunity to have these lines in the report about lapses, about timelines?

SAMS: He should have thrown up roadblocks. Is that what you're saying?

UNKNOWN: I mean, no, he committed to it. And as, and like, hey, the world is on fire. Could we do it another day?

SAMS: I'll tell you what's interesting about this. And this is oddly not in the report, is at the beginning of his interview, the special counsel told the president, I understand that, you know, you're dealing with a lot of things right now. And I'm going to be asking you questions about stuff from a long time ago. I want you to try to recall to the best of your abilities, you know, things of that nature. That's often-what prosecutors would tell witnesses. So, you know, he understood that, but the president was going to commit to being cooperative. He talked about this last night. He wanted to make sure he had everything he needed and he didn't want to throw up roadblocks.

UNKNOWN: Just a first question. Has the president read the entire report? And when was he, given the report? Did he review it when his lawyers did the privilege review? And do you have any just context on when he himself found the findings of it?

SAMS: We received the report yesterday from the Justice Department and formally like present, you know, sending it over. Obviously, the president's lawyers were doing the privilege review that we disclosed to everybody was happening and disclosed when we had concluded it. And so, I think, you know, they were, you know, they had briefed him on, on the, on the material as the client, you know, as is typical in a, in a legal case. And then we received the full report yesterday. You know, the president's been pretty busy. I'm not sure he's read 400 pages. I'm not sure how many, you know, folks in this room have read all 400 pages of it, but he certainly is familiar with the contents of the report.

UNKNOWN: Just one quick follow-up. The president was animated last night, rejecting the idea that he did not remember when his son died. Can you provide a little bit more context about, was he directly asked in the interview by the special counsel for the dates? Was it part of a broader conversation? I just think some additional context to understand what is in that report might be helpful.

SAMS: Yeah, I think, I mean, the president was pretty clear last night. And I think that the American people have heard from him for years about the pain and the suffering that they went through when Beau passed away and the gravity of that.


And I think to suggest that he couldn't remember when his son died is really out of bounds. You know, the conversations in the interview back and forth, you know, he's being asked about, you know, file folders from a basement and how did they get there and what is that and what were you doing around that time and things of that nature. I don't want to -- just be very careful. I don't want to get into specific, you know, things while it's still in a classification process. But, you know, it is safe to say that, of course, the president knows when his son died.

UNKNOWN: So, do you have any sense of why the special counsel would write explicitly in the report that the president did not -- was unable to recall when his son died?

SAMS: You'd have to ask the special counsel why he chose to include that.

UNKNOWN: Thanks, Karine. Thanks, Ian. So you said that you told the special counsel that the criticisms of President Biden were inaccurate, gratuitous and wrong. So how did the special counsel respond when you told them that?

SAMS: I put out his report.

UNKNOWN: So, they ignored it.

SAMS: I'm unaware of any changes that were made in response to our very strong, forceful and rooted in evidence arguments that we provided.

UNKNOWN: And you had just mentioned how these interviews happened shortly after the October 7th attacks. The president mentioned it last night. And mentioning that, does that mean that possible memory lapses happened because he was so distracted by what was happening overseas or do you dispute that he had any memory issues during those hours of interviews?

SAMS: I dispute that the characterizations about his memory that were in the report are accurate because they're not. And I think the president spoke very clearly about how his mind was on other things. I mean, he was dealing with a huge international crisis of great global consequence. And, you know, he was trying his best to answer questions in this interview because he wanted to be fully cooperative.

UNKNOWN: So, there were no memory lapses?

SAMS: I think there's something important that people should remember about the way that sort of interviews like this happen. God forbid, you know, one of you guys ever have to get interviewed by a prosecutor. And, you know, I hope you don't. You know, witnesses are told, as I mentioned by special counsel, to do the best they can to recall or remember things. And they're not supposed to speculate. You know, they want facts. They want facts and evidence. And so, you know, I think probably in almost every. Prosecutorial interview, you can imagine that people have said that they don't recall things because that's what they're instructed to do. So I think that's just important context to keep in mind. UNKNOWN: And just lastly, in September, the president was asked about Trump's classified documents being found in Mar-a-Lago. And he said, well, how could that possibly happen? How could anyone be that irresponsible? But there were classified documents found in the president's garage in a damaged cardboard box. So, would that be considered irresponsible?

SAMS: Look, I think the president made clear that he gave everything back as soon as he found out that he had it. And so, you know, I think that it's fundamentally incorrect to try to analogize the situation or to. And frankly, the report says that, too. And the idea that that he did anything except to be totally cooperative and to take great strides to ensure that the classified documents were returned speaks for itself.

UNKNOWN: Thank you, Ian. The vice president referred today to the report as being politically motivated. Is that the position of the White House that this report was politically motivated?

SAMS: Well, I saw the. Vice president's remarks. I thought they were very powerful. And I talked about this a little bit at the top of our conversation here today. You know, there's an environment that we are in that generates a ton of pressure because you have congressional Republicans, other Republicans attacking prosecutors that they don't like. And it creates, you know, a need if you're going to determine that charges weren't filed. People are human and they're thinking through, you know, what do we need to do? And, you know, it leaves one to wonder exactly why he included a lot of the criticisms that were in there.

UNKNOWN: Also, with regard to the staff, President Biden has had some staff members who've worked for him for decades. He referenced their mistake last night as he had a visit with any of these staff members to the staff members who are responsible for taking those documents to his house. Do they still work for the president? Have there been any consequences?

SAMS: Well, I think I talked about this also before. I mean, this is an issue that is. You know, we've had some really big demonstrations of both parties for 50 years where accidentally things get shuffled up and taken and removed and the archives has, you know, literally, they put a frequently asked questions page on their website about what you do if you find them accidentally. That's how often it happens. And, you know, he gave them all back as soon as he found out about it. We understand that mistakes happen sometimes. I'm not going to get into sort of individual witness or parsing like that from the report.

UNKNOWN: It didn't happen for President Obama, President President, President Bush, senior or President Bush, Jr. I don't know if three people makes it a common. That's actually not true.

Officials from all administrations from the past half century or so have had this accidentally happen. But you're parsing two things. You asked me about the fact that and the report states this clearly, that this was likely the result of inadvertent packing by staff. And you asked exactly about the staff issue, and so I'm responding about the staff issue.


UNKNOWN: And you can't say whether the staff still works for President Biden?

SAMS: Well, I'm saying that the question you're asking about the frequency and normalcy, unfortunately, of mistakes like these being made, they happen. And what matters is how you respond to it. And when you find out that there was a mistake that was made, you give everything back. And that's exactly what was done.

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Ian. What does it say about Mayor Carlin's judgment that he appointed someone who ultimately put out a report that was so egregious, so inappropriate, and flouted Department regulations and norms.

SAMS: I think the president actually answered this question last night. I'm not sure which of you asked him it, but he talked about, you know, his views on the appointment of a special prosecutor. And I really don't have anything beyond what he said.

LEE: Two things I was hoping you could quickly clarify. The report says that in 2017, the president told his ghostwriter that he just found all the classified stuff downstairs. Why did he not report that at the time?

SAMS: Well, and this is included in the report as well, if you read through it. The president was talking about a handwritten letter that he had. Sent to President Obama that he faxed to him about the Afghanistan policy in 2009. And, you know, he says, and this is in the report that he's and he said last night, you know, I should have said sensitive. I should have said, you know, really careful, you know, more careful language about that because he was talking about something that was a personal, like a letter he sent to the president.

LEE: So, in his mind, it was sensitive. But what he said was classified.

SAMS: This is in the report. They talk a lot about how, you know, the president actually took great care when talking with his book writer to note things like, hey, you need to be really careful with some of this stuff. I'm not entirely sure about it. And so I think that, I think that that's important to realize that the report itself actually talks about what care he took with this sort of information as they explore all the theories and go through all the evidence that sort of refutes most of those theories. Almost all of actually all of those theories. When you think about the judgment that there will be no case in this in this matter. So, you know, that's addressed in the report.

LEE: And the second thing the president also said last night, all the stuff that was in my home was in filing cabinets that were either locked or able to be locked. But the report says that some of the classified documents were in cabinet drawers, while others about Afghanistan, for example, were in unsealed and badly damaged box sitting in his garage. So, did the president misspeak last night? SAMS: Look, I think the president was responding to a number of inaccurate allegations in this in this report. We've talked a lot about -- Justin asked about the diaries. I mean, this is a personal diaries. Of course, he has them in his house. So, you know, I don't have anything kind of to add on what he said last night.

UNKNOWN: I want to follow up on the vice president's comments on that you've been saying to do this. She said politically motivated. Is it this administration stamps that this report was issued in part or there was a motive in this issue of goal, a goal with this report to inflict political harm on the president?

SAMS: I think that you have to look at what I mean, we talked about this at the beginning of our conversation today. You have a situation where former DOJ officials are talking about the political repercussions of these actions and that it's incumbent upon the prosecutor to take great care to follow departmental policy to not criticize unindicted conduct and behavior or characteristics, which we've seen in this case -


UNKNOWN: Former DOJ officials, but this White House right now is at the stance by this White House that this report was issued in part with a motive and a goal to inflict political harm on the president.

SAMS: I heard the question the first time, and I'm just -- I have nothing to object to and what the vice president said. I thought she was powerful and forceful.

UNKNOWN: But also, just to follow up. I'm sorry, this administration, as you said, you said that Republicans have often attacked prosecutors, independent systems, and you said that's created an environment where if I've interpreted this right, there is an incentive by the special counsel to include some of this language. But often I've heard from Democrats in this White House say that those attacks against independent systems can also so distrust with the public and those independent institutions by saying that this is politically motivated, not just gratuitous, but politically motivated, does this not also so distrust with the public?

SAMS: I reject that. I reject that question. You see this, and it's in the report, the letter that the president's lawyer and the White House counsel's office sent to the special counsel to talk about the Department of Justice norms and policies that they see as being violated by some of the comments and remarks made in the report, and so, you know, I think that that's a false equivalence kind of question, because what we have argued and what we continue to say and believe is that you're not supposed to make these sorts of things according to Justice Department policy.


The president, when he ran, and you guys all know this because you heard this, talked about how important it was to restore the rule of law. And he understands that. And he talked about this last night, to MJ's point, about the appointment of the special counsel and sort of how he felt about that. This is a president who is committed to restoring those norms. And I think when we object to some of the gratuitousness and the comments that you're asking about, and you hear me talk about the former attorney general and other people who've made those comments, they are criticizing that this does not follow those norms.


UNKNOWN: With respect to the portion of the video and the transcript where he was asked about his time as vice president and about Beau Biden's death, why not release those parts of the video? Those aren't classified.

SAMS: It's a transcript we're talking about, and I already addressed this with Justin.

UNKNOWN: So what you're saying is this wasn't a video. There's not tapes that you can release of that.

SAMS: I was just responding. I think that the question is about the transcript.

UNKNOWN: And as far as former attorney general Holder is concerned, you referenced him and the normal DOJ review process. He brought that up in his tweet as well, or his ex-posting. What part of the normal DOJ review process is the White House saying was violated or bypassed in some way?

SAMS: Well, there's actually, it's an interesting question. It's a little in the weeds, pardon me. But the special counsel regulations, that exist at the Justice Department, govern the process that is supposed to happen here. And the Justice Department has its own sort of manual of procedures. And as you've heard from those experts, you're not supposed to sort of criticize unindicted conduct when you're making these determinations.

PHIL: Thank you. A follow up and then a separate question. You said a moment ago that the president was responding to inaccurate information when he claimed last night that all the stuff in my home was behind locked filing cabinets. Is he entirely clear now, at this point, where all the documents were discovered? And does he now know that his statement about locked filing cabinets is false?

SAMS: The report lays out in 400 pages of detail, all of the evidence and all of the review that they conducted in looking into this matter. The president made sure that all of the classified documents that were found were returned promptly to the government, which is what you're supposed to do, which is why this is the inevitable conclusion that there is no case here.

PHIL: That's not what I asked, though. Does he know that his statement yesterday that all the documents were behind locked cabinets was inaccurate? Is he clear in his mind? I know that last night was perhaps, you know, stressful, confusing environment. But does he - SAMS: I understand what you're trying to ask, Phil. And I think that I've answered the question.

PHIL: I have a separate follow up question. And my follow-up question after that lack of response was there was an eye popping moment in the report specifically about the president's ghostwriter. And that was that after he learned that the special counsel had began an investigation, he deleted some of his recordings. Now, those recordings were able to be recovered. What I'm curious about is, can you say definitively whether or not the president or anyone else at the White House was in contact with his ghostwriter?

SAMS: This is in the report. I mean, read the report. In the report, it says that they sought this, they looked into this and that they didn't. So that's in the report.

JOHN: Thank you, Karine. And thank you so much. Two questions. Just for clarity, you're from the White House Counsel's Office.

SAMS: Correct?

JOHN: But you're not a lawyer.

SAMS: That's correct. I'm a spokesperson.

JOHN: Okay. Any chance that we'll get the White House counsel to come out here and answer questions?

SAMS: Should be offended by that. I mean, I was -- I mean, come on.

JOHN: You did say something that was factually incorrect. There has been a previous special counsel -


UNKNOWN: John, finish your question, please.

SAMS: I was asked to come today by your colleagues in the press corps, and we happily obliged.

JOHN: As you know, former President Trump. He was charged with a slew of criminal charges related to classified documents in his possession, including counsel's wilful retention of national defense information. In this report, it's made clear by the special counsel that President Biden wilfully retained and disclosed classified material. He kept it in unsecured locations after his vice presidency, which presented, according to the White House, serious risks to national security. So my question to you, Ian, is, can you explain to every voter out there, every American, why it is that President Biden essentially is let off the hook and former President Trump is now facing the slew of criminal charges, which seem to most people, very similar.

SAMS: Great windup, John. I mean, I mean, really a good one. I talked about this already. Page one. Wilful retention, page 215. There is, in fact, a shortage of evidence on these points. The report itself goes through in great detail the facts and evidence that led to the obvious conclusion that there was no case here.


The report itself answers the question you're asking about the distinction between two cases, as you guys have heard us from the White House say for a long time. We're very careful about commenting on certain cases like that. Just I would encourage you, perhaps all of you, read the report.

JOHN: I've read the report, and that's the reason why I asked that question. And the reason why so many people seem confused is because you hear wilful retention of national defense information related to Trump, wilful retention of classified material related to President Biden. And yet one individual is facing a criminal trial being brought by the Department of Justice in Fort Pierce, Florida, and the other one is not facing any charges whatsoever.

SAMS: Sure. And I think I've talked to many of you guys in the room over the last 24 hours about this. The allegation that there was wilful retention of documents is refuted by the evidence in the report. And the conclusion was made directly that the evidence does not support that claim. He explored the theory. It's in there on page two, everybody focused on it, exploring the theory of wilful retention, but that the evidence as a whole was insufficient because that's not what the facts show. The Press Thank you so much. Mr. Thanks, Karine. Really appreciate it, guys.

UNKNOWN: There was a previous special counsel probe that did not result in indictments, by the way. The Ham-Jurden case.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Okay. Thank you. I would say refer to the White House special counsel. And now, not special counsel, but legal counsel. They're here. They came. Okay. Go ahead, Omar (ph).

OMAR: Two questions, just following up on comments that the President made last night.


OMAR: President Biden called the military operations in Gaza over the top. And this comes after the White House has pretty consistently defended Israel's conduct. What's changed, and what exactly did the President mean by over the top?

JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah. So, first of all, I would say nothing has changed. His position hasn't changed. I don't think his messaging hasn't has changed. We don't think his messaging has changed. He doesn't believe his messaging has changed. This isn't something the first time he's done so what you heard from him yesterday. Look, the President made it very clear in his comment that he was obviously talking about Israel's conduct in Gaza. And he's been clear. He's been clear that the United States wants to see Hamas, terrorist organization defeated. He's been very clear on that. That is a shared goal that we have, obviously, with Israel. But at the same time, at the same time, while we have said that, we

have been also very clear, the President has been very clear that they must do so by ensuring that their operations are targeted and conducted in a way that we are protecting innocent civilians. And that is something that we have been incredibly consistent about here in this administration. We want to make sure that we are also protecting innocent civilians. So that is what the President was speaking to yesterday. He was asked obviously a direct question and he answered that.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to step away from the White House press briefing right now to review what we just heard from a spokesperson for the White House council, Ian Sams. He laid out the White House's defense in this scathing report from the special counsel detailing President Biden's handling of classified documents. Ian Sam's concluding remarks stated that there was no case there, this case is closed. There were disputes, particularly regarding details in the report that the White House deemed gratuitous and inappropriate, and not in line with guidelines, norms, you can say.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: In their opinion, yes.

SANCHEZ: From the perspective of the Department of Justice. He also tried to make clear several points of contention between the White House and the special counsel's report over what the President actually did over in regard with classified material in conversations with his ghostwriter. We have CNN's Evan Perez with us to go over that. Evan, they specifically argued that President Biden, in his conversations with the ghostwriter, didn't cross the line in detailing what was in his personal diaries and his personal journals that contained some classified information. The actual report sort of details that boundaries were crossed there.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, boundaries were crossed. And by the way, the President, in his comments, blamed some of the problems on staff, right? He said that, you know, obviously some of the staff was responsible for moving boxes and so on, and that is, that may be true. But the most egregious part of this report is the conversations, that the President, well then former Vice President had with his ghostwriter in 2017.