Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, 7/31/2016, #3
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
4:02 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon, everyone. Before we get started, I’d like to bring up National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to discuss the administration’s response to the Maduro regime's recent anti-democratic actions in Venezuela.
They will each make opening remarks and then take your questions on the topic at hand. And then as always -- your favorite time of day -- I’ll come back up and take your questions. Thank you.
GENERAL MCMASTER: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. I thought it might be best just to read the President’s statement:
Since President Trump’s inauguration, the Trump administration has called on Venezuela’s Maduro regime to respect Venezuela’s constitution, respect the role and authorities of the constitutionally-established National Assembly, hold free and fair elections, address the humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan people, release political prisoners, and stop oppressing its great people.
The regime has refused to heed this call, and his recent actions culminating in yesterday’s outrageous seizure of absolute power through the sham election of the National Constituent Assembly represent a very serious blow to democracy in our hemisphere.
Maduro is not just a bad leader, he is now a dictator. The United States stands with the people of Venezuela in the face of this oppression. We will work with our partners to hold accountable all those responsible for the escalating violence and ongoing human rights violations.
The President promised strong and swift actions if the regime went forward with imposing the National Constituent Assembly on the Venezuelan people, and he will keep that promise.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Thank you, General. Today, the United States is broadening its effort to address the ongoing assault on Venezuela’s democratic institutions by the Maduro regime.
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, has sanctioned the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro Moros. As a result of today’s sanctions, all assets of Maduro subject to U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from dealing with him.
As President Trump said earlier this month, the strong and courageous actions by the Venezuelan people to stand for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law have been continually ignored by Nicolás Maduro, who dreams of becoming a dictator. Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people. The National Constituent Assembly aspires, illegitimately, to usurp the constitutional role of democratically-elected National Assembly, rewrite the constitution, and impose an authoritarian regime on the people. As such, it represents a rupture in Venezuela’s constitutional and democratic order.
By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and the support for the people of Venezuela, who strive to return their country to a full and prosperous democracy. As the country’s head of state, Maduro is directly responsible for Venezuela’s descent and for the destruction of democracy. Adding Maduro to OFAC’s list of specially-designated nationals reflects our commitment to not stand by idly as Venezuela continues to crumble under the regime’s abuses.
We hope that these sanctions will make all Maduro regime officials reconsider how their actions have affected their country. These actions highlight the high cost and personal recriminations enablers of this regime could face if they continue their reckless and undemocratic activities. Anyone who participates in this illegitimate ANC could be exposed to future U.S. sanctions for their role in undermining democratic process and institutions in Venezuela.
Now we’ll take a few questions.
Q Yes, thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. If these sanctions don’t work, what would the next step be? And I guess, General McMaster, a question to you. Have we ruled out, or is anything on the table, other than economic sanctions?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, let me just say, I said this generally: We very much believe that sanctions do work, and we will continue to monitor the situation and consider additional sanctions.
Q And to General McMaster?
GENERAL MCMASTER: The President has prioritized, really, his concern for the Venezuelan people. And so he’s only considering those options which would benefit directly the Venezuelan people.
Q Thank you very much. How many times has OFAC sanctioned a head of state before? And does Maduro have any assets in the U.S.?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I can’t comment on his assets, and this will be the fourth head of state.
Q I have two questions. One on the sanctions and another one about the election yesterday. And about the election, I want to know if you see the election as an attempt by Nicolás Maduro to consolidate power and dismiss election next year. And also, some say -- especially the opposition and also the Washington Post editorial board say that the Venezuelan regime is on the direction of a coup -- is moving to the direction of a coup. Does the American government fear there is a coup underway in Venezuela?
And then a question on Sessions, I ask it after.
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, what we're seeing in Venezuela is not a coup. What we're seeing is the brutal oppression of the Venezuelan people. And so it's clear if you contrast the turnout from the opposition referendum to the very low numbers of the turnout during this farce associated with the constituent assembly, I think you see what the true desires of the Venezuelan people are.
Q Okay. Can I --
Q Thank you, sir. Actually, this is goes to either or both of you. How is this different from what happened in Turkey when President Erdogan also seized -- expanded powers in a referendum that some considered to have questionable results? You know, President Trump congratulated President Erdogan on that, and he later came to the U.S. and his people beat protestors in front of his embassy. What's the difference?
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, I mean, one difference is, is you see the end of the constitution of Venezuela. And this is happening obviously at an accelerated pace in recent months, in the Maduro regime. But this is a process that has taken, really, two regimes to really restrict Venezuelan democracy. And by designating Maduro himself, he joins a very exclusive club -- including Mr. Mugabe, Bashar al-Assad, and Kim Jong-un in terms of the brutal repression of his people and, in this case, the abrogation of the constitution with the constitution -- with the constituent assembly.
Q Is the administration contemplating any action at the U.N. Security Council in terms of multilateral sanctions against the Maduro regime?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I think as we've said before, this President is not going to advertise what he's going to do in the future. So all options are on the table and we will consider everything.
Q Have you spoken to other allies of the U.S. in terms of punishing the Maduro regime? General, can you please answer that?
GENERAL MCMASTER: I'm sorry, what was the question?
Q Have you spoken to any other American allies about the issue of punishing the Maduro regime?
GENERAL MCMASTER: You've seen the President's statement; he said that we're going to continue to work with our partners in the region. And there have been many leaders who have taken a very important role in this connection with trying to engage Maduro to get him to moderate his behavior, to get him to protect the rights of his people. As you know, the Organization of American States has tried very hard in this area as well. And so the President is committed to working with partners in the region on behalf of the Venezuelan people.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: And we've had several countries last week join us in our previous sanctions.
Yes, right here.
Q What conversations, Secretary Mnuchin, have you had or has the administration had or the President had with President Maduro or anybody at the senior level of Venezuela? Do you expect those conversations to happen over the next 24 or 48 hours?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I think we're not going to comment on that.
Q You had said before -- pardon me, the President had promised strong and swift economic sanctions. This is not really economic, this is more individual. Will the President carry out strong and swift economic sanctions?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, we had a series of sanctions last week. This is an additional sanction today. We don't comment on future sanctions, but we will continue to monitor the situation and determine what's appropriate.
Q There was some talk of maybe making some changes in terms of our export of light crude oil to Venezuela or curbing Venezuelan oil imports. Is that still on the table, or is that something that would be seen as hurting the Venezuelan people?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Let me just say, as we continue to monitor this situation, we will continue to review all of our options. Our objective is not to do anything that hurts the people of Venezuela. But let me just say, we will continue to monitor all of our specific options.
Q And would sanctions against oil hurt the Venezuelan people?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I'm not going to comment on that. What I will say is, we will monitor all of our options.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Sixteen years ago, Secretary Powell signed an agreement in South America in which the U.S. completely ruled out support of coups that would have an indirect change of government throughout Latin America, and supported direct succession. This occurred in Haiti when President Aristide was overthrown. Are you still abiding by the agreement Secretary Powell signed, and ruling out and U.S. support of a coup or of an uprising against the Maduro regime that brings in new leadership?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I'm just going to comment on -- we are focused on the democratic process, and that's what we're focused on right now.
One more question. Right here, one more question.
Q Yes, are there going to be sanctions on the Minister of Defense or people linked to the military?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, as I've said, we've announced sanctions, we will continue to monitor the situation, and consider everything in the future. Thank you, everybody. Appreciate it.
MS. SANDERS: You guys wasted all your questions on the same one over and over. Just kidding. Tough crowd today.
I know it's a little late than we're used to doing the briefing, so I'll just have a few updates before I get to your questions.
I wanted to make sure you were all aware that last week the First Lady announced that she will lead the United States delegation in support of the more than 90 American athletes competing at the Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada this September. As the President often says, there is no better representative for the United States than the First Lady, and he's very proud to have her leading the team that will support these American athletes. The First Lady is very much looking forward to her first solo international trip, and her office is available to answer any questions you may have.
As you know, the Vice President is overseas on a three-country visit to Eastern Europe. He spent the last few days in Estonia, attending meetings and speaking to the multinational troops participating in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Mission, where he recognized Estonia as one of only five NATO member states that meets its defense spending obligations.
Earlier today, the Vice President and Second Lady arrived in Georgia, where they attended a dinner hosted by the Prime Minister. And as the Vice President continues to strengthen our relationships with our friends and allies in Europe during his travels, here at home the Departments of Commerce and Energy welcomes news of a partnership between American energy and the government of Ukraine.
Ukraine's state-owned power generation company will purchase American thermos coal ahead of the upcoming winter season. This partnership will provide Ukraine with a secure, reliable, and competitive alternative energy source, helping to stabilize an energy supply which has historically been at the mercy of the country's volatile neighbors.
This announcement will also boost our own economy, supporting jobs in the coal and transportation industries. As the Trump administration continues to move our country down the path of energy dominance, we hope to see more mutually beneficial partnerships like these in the future.
And lastly, I know we all saw the ceremony that just ended in the East Room, and Specialist Five McCloughan was in -- at the stakes afterwards, but I think his heroic story bears repeating again. For 48 harrowing hours of close combat fighting in Vietnam, he voluntarily risked his life multiple times to protect his comrades. Even after shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade slashed open the back of his body from head to foot, he continued to answer the pleas of his fellow soldiers, even carrying one to safety on his own badly injured back.
As one of his comrades recalled, the medic could count on him. The President was honored to award him with the Medal of Honor today, officially adding his name to the list of American heroes who will stand forever in our history for their bravery and unbreakable spirit.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
Q Sarah --
Q What happened, Sarah? What happened? (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: This is kind of fun. How long will you yell? Just kidding.
Jen, go ahead.
Q Can you say, is Anthony Scaramucci still in the administration? Does he have another role now, besides Communications Director? And can you talk a little bit about the circumstances of his departure this morning?
MS. SANDERS: Sure. He does not have a role at this time in the Trump administration. And we put out a statement earlier, announcing that. And I don’t have much else to add.
Q He's not at the Ex-Im Bank?
MS. SANDERS: Not at this time.
Q Can you say -- did General Kelly ask him to leave? Or did the President ask him to leave? Did he volunteer his resignation? Or how did that come about?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not going to get into the process tick-tock. Look, as we've said several times before, what matters most to us is not who's employed in the White House, but who's employed in the rest of the country. And we're focused on the President's agenda of growing the economy, creating jobs. And that's what we're going to do, and that's what we're going to be focused on.
Q Sarah, was it a chain of command issue? Because Scaramucci said that he had a direct line of communication with the President. Now, there's been some speculation that General Kelly may try to tighten up the number of inputs that the President has. So was it something about the chain of command? Or did it have anything to do with that interview that Scaramucci had last week?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President certainly felt that Anthony's comments were inappropriate for a person in that position. And he didn’t want to burden General Kelly also with that line of succession. As I think we've made clear a few times over the course of the last couple of days to several of you individually, but General Kelly has the full authority to operate within the White House, and all staff will report to him.
Q When you say he didn’t want to burden him with that line of succession, you mean the chain of command?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, correct.
Q And if we could just clarify one point about this chain of command. Apparently, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have said they look forward to following General Kelly's lead. When it comes to the people who have access to the President, will that conduit be narrowed down now? Will everything flow through Kelly, or will some things still flow around the Chief of Staff's office?
MS. SANDERS: As I just said, the President has given full authority to General Kelly, and he'll make those determinations.
Q Sarah, this statement that was released by the White House says Mr. Scaramucci felt that it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team, but you just said the President felt that his comments were inappropriate.
MS. SANDERS: I don’t see those as being mutually exclusive. I think Anthony wants General Kelly to be able to operate fully with a clean slate, build his own team, while at the same time, the President felt his comments were inappropriate. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Q And a follow-up to that. With the new hierarchy with General Kelly, tell us what it looks like in this administration.
MS. SANDERS: As we've laid out, General Kelly I think will bring new structure to the White House and discipline and strength. And we're all really excited to work with him. And in terms of -- I'm not going to draw out an org chart up here, but we'll keep you guys posted as --
Q So Steve Bannon, Kellyanne, everyone reports under him instead of going straight to the President with issues? Does every special assistant go to General Kelly first?
MS. SANDERS: I think I've been clear that General Kelly has the full authority to carry out business as he sees fit.
Q Thanks, Sarah. A real quick one first. I have two for you. A real quick one; it regards Sean Spicer. Will he be in the administration in any way now that Anthony Scaramucci has announced that he will not be a part of the Trump administration?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not aware of any changes that have been made on that front.
Q And then, my second one is this: Ten days ago, Anthony Scaramucci was introduced as the new White House Communications Director. Ten days later, he's out of a job. The President announced on Twitter that there's no chaos at the White House. How would you describe what has happened over the course of the past 10 days? Obviously, you will agree with your boss, the President, that there's no chaos. But how do you explain that not to be the case?
MS. SANDERS: I think it's pretty simple. I've said it before: If you want to see chaos, come to my house with three preschoolers. This doesn’t hold a candle to that.
Q Does the President --
MS. SANDERS: Just to be clear, that's not an open invitation to come to my house. (Laughter.) But if you guys want to schedule babysitting time, I'll be happy to work that out.
Q Does the President regret hiring Anthony Scaramucci?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not going to get into anything beyond what I've already said on that front.
Q You said you don’t want to get into the process, but you already did. The statement says that Scaramucci "felt," so you're basically laying this on him. You're saying that it was his decision. Was it his decision?
MS. SANDERS: I think I've been pretty clear that the President felt it was inappropriate. Both Anthony and General Kelly also, I think, came to a mutual agreement. And we're moving forward to focus on the jobs outside of this building, not within it.
Q Two questions. One on this, and then a different topic. Just to clarify, because I want to make sure I understand the word "he" here, who this refers to. You said a minute ago, "he" didn’t want to burden General Kelly also with that line of succession. The "he" there --
MS. SANDERS: The President.
Q That's the President. So you were saying that it's the President who is deciding that --
MS. SANDERS: Look, we all serve at the pleasure of the President, but I think that this was a mutually-agreed conversation that took place between several people.
Q And then the other topic --
MS. SANDERS: Oh, sorry, the other topic.
Q Just on Russia and Russia sanctions. Do you know whether the President has, or intends to soon, sign the Russia sanctions bill? And why hasn’t the President taken the opportunities he's had today -- several public opportunities -- to say something in response to Vladimir Putin's retaliation with the 755 diplomats?
MS. SANDERS: So we put out a statement over the weekend stating the President's intent to sign, and we'll let you know when that takes place.
Q Will that happen today?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we'll let you know when that's going to happen.
And in terms of your second question? The follow-up was -- I'm sorry.
Q Why hasn’t he taken the opportunity to say something forceful to President Putin? I mean, I've talked to folks today who said it's kind of striking the silence from the President, with no sort of response out of his own mouth. He has a couple of opportunities today to say something about it, and he didn’t.
MS. SANDERS: Right now we're reviewing our options. And when we have something to say on it, we'll let you know.
Q Not to beat a dead horse, but to go back to April's question --
MS. SANDERS: Why not? That's our favorite thing to do.
Q -- you said earlier, all staff will report to the new Chief of Staff. Does that include Jared Kushner? Does that include Steve Bannon? Everyone reports to Kelly?
MS. SANDERS: That includes everybody at the White House.
Q Okay. And then I want to also ask on just a question about tax reform. Will the administration absolutely support the version of tax overhaul that comes out of the Ways and Means Committee?
MS. SANDERS: We're working hand in glove with -- we put out a joint statement with the Big Six. We'll continue working with them and announce details as they come forward.
Q Thank you, Sarah. When Sean Spicer resigned, it was for a clean slate. Now that Anthony Scaramucci resigned, that's also for a clean slate. Has the slate been totally cleaned at this point? (Laughter.) Can we expect any more staff shakeups? Everybody else in senior staff positions is planning to remain for this time?
MS. SANDERS: Yes, they are.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two very brief questions. Is there any chance you will just leave the job of communications director alone, having had two people who held it leave rather abruptly, in both cases?
MS. SANDERS: We'll let you know when we have any personnel announcements to make on that front.
Q The other thing I wanted to ask was, when the President made his speech to police officers on Friday, almost within minutes, statements came from police chiefs across the country criticizing his remarks that seemed to endorse the use of force by police in certain arrests. Was the President joking when he said this, or did he check his remarks out with the International Association of Police Chiefs or maybe the Attorney General?
MS. SANDERS: I believe he was making a joke at the time.
Q So to be clear -- because the statement says that Anthony Scaramucci is no longer with the administration -- was Scaramucci fired by the President, or was he asked to resign?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get into anything beyond what I've already said on that.
Q Quick follow-up from the President's perspective. You said this was a back-and-forth conversation. Can you take us through a little bit of what the President is looking for in his communications shop -- why he might make this decision to make a clean slate?
MS. SANDERS: I think that he wants to work with General Kelly and the communications team that is intact right now, and determine what the best course forward is at this point.
Q Are reports that Attorney General Sessions is being considered for Homeland Security chief accurate? How soon will that search be complete? How essential is it for the White House to fill that in a quick manner?
MS. SANDERS: There are no conversations about any Cabinet members moving in any capacity, and the President has 100 percent confidence in all members of his Cabinet.
Q Two questions for you. One, on the Scaramucci issue -- you said the President found his remarks inappropriate. Obviously, the President is not a stranger to salty language. Can you specify what exactly he found inappropriate or disturbing about that?
MS. SANDERS: I said he found it inappropriate for a person in that position.
Q To do what?
MS. SANDERS: I believe the comments that he made, he found those comments inappropriate. I'm not sure what's unclear.
Q Okay. Is it is a betrayal, sort of, of the rest of the staff? I'm just trying to find out, because you talk about the messaging being important for the President here, and obviously the head of the communications department is crucial to that effort. So just trying to figure out what exactly went wrong between this morning, when Scaramucci was here, and this afternoon.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I don't think that it's complicated to understand that the President felt the comments were inappropriate. I can't really explain it any further than that. I'm not sure what's hard.
Q On North Korea, obviously, events over the weekend have unfolded. There has been some discussion from outside analysts who are increasingly speculating about the possibility of a first strike. Is that an option on the table for this White House?
MS. SANDERS: As we've said many times before, the President is not going to broadcast any decisions, but all options are on the table.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The President, the week before last, signed an executive order on infrastructure. Does that mean that the President has no -- not an intention, but is not going to prioritize working with Congress on the infrastructure bill? Is there any discussion at this point of moving forward on any sort of legislative plans for infrastructure, especially digital, since he mentioned in Iowa --
MS. SANDERS: Absolutely. The President has been very outspoken on the need for a massive overhaul to the country's infrastructure system, and that's certainly still a priority both legislative and in any capacity that he has the ability to carry that out.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Just kind of big picture here: We've seen the Chief of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Staff, handful of communications directors, a press secretary, the national security advisor all leave in the first six months of this administration. Can you tell us a little bit about why there's been all this turbulence? I know you don't like to get into the process, but just -- all of those things together, what's going on?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we're continuing to focus on the President's agenda. We're going to have staff changes. We let you guys know when they happen. But like I said earlier, what matters to us are not the jobs that are within this building, but the ones outside of there. That's why the President has been so focused on growing jobs. We've created over a million new jobs since he took office; the lowest unemployment in the last 16 years. Consumer confidence is at an all-time high. We're focused on creating a strong economy and growing jobs outside of this building, not focused on the ones within. We're going to continue to do that.
Q If I may, a quick follow-up on healthcare.
MS. SANDERS: Sure.
Q Mick Mulvaney said the White House doesn't want any votes in the Senate until they're voting on healthcare. With John McCain out, Pence out of the country, they don't appear likely to vote on healthcare. And you guys are also pushing for the confirmation of some nominees. Is it the White House position that they will accept the Senate voting on non-healthcare things over the next few weeks and months?
MS. SANDERS: We're continuing to push forward, hopefully, with the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. We've never been shy about that, and we're going to continue to do that.
Q The President's legislative affairs director was talking today at the Newseum about the President's tax reform ambitions. And I wanted to ask if you could elaborate on the President's hope to travel in August to begin talk about tax cuts and tax reforms, and his interest in maybe getting some Democratic senators interested in supporting legislation. Do you have any details that you could supply about where he might go and the message he wants to impart?
MS. SANDERS: Not at this time, but certainly we'll make sure we keep you guys posted on the President's travel and schedule throughout August. I know he does hope to have a large amount of support for tax reform. It's something that is vital to our economy, and something certainly the administration is very focused on and has been. And we'll continue working both with the House and Senate as well as members of the administration.
We're cutting a little close on time. Thanks so much, guys.
4:30 P.M. ED