No cameras, no live audio and no Sean Spicer: The latest White House press briefing, annotated – Washington Post

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White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

For the second time in four days, the White House barred television cameras from a media briefing Thursday and prohibited live audio broadcasts. Press secretary Sean Spicer also skipped the session, deploying his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to answer questions instead.

Off-camera briefings are becoming a regular occurrence in the Trump White House, especially on big news days. (Senate Republicans released their health-care plan Thursday, and the president finally said that he did not record conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey.)

In keeping with a promise we made Monday, The Fix has annotated a transcript of Thursday’s briefing, since it could not be seen on TV. We’ll continue the practice when White House spokesmen go off camera. To view an annotation, click on the yellow, highlighted text.

SANDERS: Good afternoon.

This morning, the Senate released the discussion draft of its health-care bill. The president is pleased to see the process moving forward swiftly in Congress, and he looks forward to see a finalized bill on his desk so that we can finally repeal and replace Obamacare before it completely collapses.

Just yesterday, another insurer announced that it’s pulling out of Obamacare exchanges. Anthem is leaving the exchanges in Indiana, the state in which the company was actually born and is currently headquartered, and also in Wisconsin.

Finally, I want to welcome Alex Pfeiffer to his first White House briefing. Alex is young, so he may need some help from a few of his colleagues to help him with this process.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll take your questions.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

I’m just curious about the president’s revelation by way of Twitter that he has no knowledge of any tapes, didn’t have any tapes, didn’t have any possession of any tapes.

What can you tell the American people about why he decided to, sort of, make the inference at least at some point that maybe there would be tapes?

SANDERS: Well, look, I think the president’s statement via Twitter today is extremely clear. I don’t have anything to add beyond the statement itself.


QUESTION: Can I follow up really quickly …


QUESTION: … on the wall?

I was at the rally last night. The president seemed to get great reaction to the idea that the wall was moving forward. And he mentioned the possibility of solar as a means to not only pay for the wall itself, but also to enhance the wall.

Can you sort of help me unpack that idea? Is this something that he’s been kicking around for quite some time? He said it was the first time he’s made it publicly known.

SANDERS: I think it’s something he’s considering. Certainly nothing final, but just an idea that he is considering and reviewing. Nothing more to add at this point.


QUESTION: I have a health-care question, but I just want to follow up on Kevin’s questions on the tapes situation.

I get that the tweet is speaking for itself, but I’m curious why it took so long — 41 days — for this to be laid to rest, and whether the president is recording any Oval Office conversations.

SANDERS: You guys asked for an answer. He gave you one. He said he would have it to you by the end of this week, which he did. And beyond the timing of that, I can’t really speak anything further.

QUESTION: And on the Oval Office recordings?

SANDERS: I’m not aware of anything. I think his statement here is pretty clear.

QUESTION: But I’m asking more generally, just not specifically …


SANDERS: Again, not that I’m aware of, Hallie.

QUESTION: So no Oval Office recordings that you’re aware of.

SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Then on health care, I just want to know a couple of things on that.

Is the president confident that he will have something to sign in the next few weeks?

SANDERS: I don’t think we’re are as focused on the timeline as we are on the final product.

We’re looking for the best bill possible. And we’re going to continue being part of technical assistance and providing that with both House and Senate members as we work to get the best bill we can.

QUESTION: And just on that final product, the president — the Senate bill by — announced so far cuts Medicaid, it doesn’t look like it will cut deductibles for folks. Does that have enough heart? Does the president think that is a bill that is not mean?

SANDERS: I haven’t had that conversation.

But I do know that he made a statement earlier that said this was a negotiation. And so he’s going to continue that process with both House and Senate members and his administration until we get the best bill that we can. And that’ll be the one that he signs.

QUESTION: He’s open to changes?


QUESTION: Sarah, what was the president doing with this?

I mean, he let it go on for 41 days, as Hallie referred to. He — he — that — that tweet, 41 days ago seemed to be, you know, very kind of ominous message to Comey — “You better hope there are no tapes.” And he was asked repeatedly during the intervening weeks whether the tapes existed. You were asked many times. Sean was asked.

What — why — why the game? Why — what was he — what was he doing?

SANDERS: I don’t think there was a game.

Again, he’s answered the question. He gave a timeline and a frame that … which he would, and he did that. He said by the end of this week and he’s done that.

QUESTION: But do you have a sense for what — what was behind the original suggestion from him 41 days ago that there may be tapes?

SANDERS: Look, I think it was pretty clear in that original statement that he hoped, for his sake — and that was, I think, the very intention. And he’s laid out his position on whether he personally was involved in that in his tweet today.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

Back to the original tweet, did the president intend to threaten James Comey with that tweet?

SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. I don’t think so.

QUESTION: And — and so why — again, why was he compelled for the deadline time to be this week to clear it up?

SANDERS: I mean, that was — has been laid out I believe also by Congress that — that wanted an answer by the end of this week.


QUESTION: Sarah, if I can, the tweet ultimately we know, according to James Comey, led him to share the memos publicly, which led to the hiring of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, which ultimately led to the reports that the president himself is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice. Does the president regret the tweet?

SANDERS: I don’t think so.

QUESTION: (inaudible) does he — he said — you can’t say whether there’s any Oval Office recordings, but he did say that, “I did not make and do not have any such recording.”

Did he ever have recordings of conversations with James Comey?

SANDERS: Again, not that I’m aware of. I …

QUESTION: Then let me ask you about health care, if I can quickly.

On health care, the president said when he first became a candidate, after coming down the escalator, he tweeted: “The Republicans who want to cut Social Security and Medicaid are wrong. A robust economy will make America great again.”

So if cutting Medicaid was wrong when he was a candidate, why is it right in the new Republican Senate bill?

SANDERS: I don’t believe that the president has specifically weighed in that it’s right to cut Medicaid.

I know one of the big parts of discussion is giving states flexibility. And again, the president hasn’t weighed in specifically on any specific measure in this bill. And as he said earlier today, this is a negotiation between the House and the Senate and we’re going to play a part in that.

QUESTION: To be clear, does the president still believe there should be no …


SANDERS: I’m sorry, guys.

QUESTION: Does the president still believe …

SANDERS: One at a time.

QUESTION: Does the president still believe, as he did as a candidate, that there should be no cuts to Medicaid?

SANDERS: I haven’t had a specific conversation to see if there is an update to that. But I do think that he wants to protect that as much as possible.


QUESTION: (inaudible) White House be doing with the Senate as this health-care bill moves forward? You mentioned technical assistance. What does that entail?

SANDERS: I think — I know members of OMB, Treasury and certainly members of the HHS and senior staff have been involved in the process. They’re going to continue to do that.

This has been one of those things where, from the very beginning, we wanted all the stakeholders involved, and we’re going to continue to do that until we get the best piece of legislation.

QUESTION: Will the president be involved or is he going to wait for the conference committee (inaudible)?

SANDERS: I — I know he’s been involved by having members of his administration — I think it would be hard to deny the fact that they’re an extension of the administration, when you have Cabinet secretaries and senior-level staffers that are in meetings and conversations regarding the legislation.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

Twelve days ago, the president announced a press conference in two weeks on his entire ISIS strategy. Can we expect a press conference in the coming days?

SANDERS: I’ll have to get back to you on a specific date for when that might be.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

I wanted to ask you about the reaction from the left that we’ve seen this week.

SANDERS: I’m sure it’s friendly.

QUESTION: Well, our microphones caught a woman who was dragged off from McConnell’s office this morning. She was screaming, “My child is going to die and my family is going to die and they don’t give a damn about it.”

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said this week that Democrats are going to “lie down on the train tracks” to stop this bill from passing.

What do you make of all that? What’s your reaction to it?

SANDERS: I certainly think that not just Republicans, but I think any American would certainly not support something that allows a child to die.

And the goal is, again, to look for the best health care possible that actually provides care; not just gives insurance but actually provides care. That’s been a goal for the administration on the front end and we’re looking for ways to do that.

Right now, we know Obamacare is not sustainable. It is literally collapsing under itself. Providers are pulling out every single day out of states. We are down to multiple counties that don’t have providers.

And we are working day in, day out to make sure we have the best piece of legislation possible.

If Democrats really cared, they would try to be involved in the process. They said from day one that they didn’t want to be in the conversation if it had anything to do with repealing and replacing Obamacare. I think that it’s sad, that they’ve chosen to play partisan politics instead of trying to have a seat at the table.


QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

The intelligence community has concluded that the DNC hack was part of a Russian plot to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. I’m wondering after the president’s tweet this morning, why does he continue to dispute that finding and call that hack a hoax?

And then a follow-up, if I may.

SANDERS: I believe that the president said even back in January — and I’ll read the statement from then — that he “thinks it’s a disgrace — thinks it’s an absolute disgrace. As far as hacking, I think it was Russia but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

I think he’s made it clear and been consistent that while everyone agrees the result of the election wasn’t influenced, he thinks that it probably was Russia.

And I think that, regardless, President Trump has made it clear that we have to protect the integrity of the electoral system. That’s one of the reasons he’s a strong advocate for voter ID laws and why he’s also put in place a voter election commission — integrity commission chaired by the vice president, which I think shows the level of importance he’s placed on that, to make sure that the integrity of all of our elections, particularly moving forward, are as sound and correct as possible.

QUESTION: So then — thank you — just a broader follow-up on that.

So, like I said, this morning, he called the hack a hoax. He hasn’t accepted the popular vote tallies. You guys have been touting jobs numbers that he used to call fake. You won’t tell us where he stands on climate science.

So I’m wondering why did the president choose to accept certain facts, but dispute and reject others?

SANDERS: I’m not aware that he accepts certain facts. I think we accept all the facts.


QUESTION: … popular vote totals, climate science. You still haven’t told us where he stands on …


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