February 8, 2018
Today Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah spoke to reporters about the Rob Porter scandal and took questions.
I thought it was very odd that Sarah Sanders wasn’t there on such an important day. Raj Shah had never done a briefing before (he did very well at it though). The White House said it was a pre-planned absence, but I think it’s strange.
Adding to the general sense of things being off, the briefing kept scooting later and later into the day. It was first planned for 1:00, then delayed until 2:30. Then, after the reporters had been sitting around for several minutes waiting, a voice came over the loud speaker (also odd-seeming), announcing that the briefing would now be at 3:15. Loud groans erupted.
John Roberts, Fox News TV ready, jumped up and talked to the cameraman while also talking on the phone to the studio. He decided to go out on the North Lawn to do his next on-camera segment before the briefing was scheduled to start. Then the 3:15 time period passed, 3:21, 3:24, 3:27…
At 3:37, Peter Alexander stood up on his little step-stool to do an on-camera with NBC. He could be heard saying, “They gave us the two-minute warning five minutes ago, so they are definitely struggling with something.” Then at the end of his piece he signed off to say, “…the White House Press Briefing, which is expected to start two hours and twenty minutes ago.” The room, which had gone quiet out of courtesy, erupted in laughter.
Then Jim Acosta with CNN went on air and the waiting reporters became even more the story. “The mood in the room —” he said, and then, gesturing around, “— what’s the mood?” and he was greeted with a mix of groans and whoops.
When Raj finally showed up, it was a relief to have him instead of Sarah, for the change. But you do wonder how someone decent-seeming, who you’ve barely had a chance to begin to despise, could debase himself by working for this White House. Raj broke with Trumpian tradition by saying repeatedly that everyone involved on the White House staff could have done some things differently and handled the Rob Porter situation better. Other than that, he was all over the place. It was a smudgy and squidgy spin job, delivered fairly calmly.
Oh, also, Raj Shah used the phrase “The President’s generals” today.
Here are the questions reporters asked Raj Shah.
- (John Roberts, Fox News) Can you tell us, Raj, when the White House first became aware of these allegations?
- You said fully aware. Was he partially aware? (He’s talking about Kelly)
- But did he know any of this back in November?
- (Peter Alexander, NBC News) Let me ask you if I can: The statement changed from John Kelly yesterday morning to the statement yesterday evening. He said, “based on new allegations.” But what changed yesterday, absent a photograph, in terms of new allegations?
- So you’re saying the initial reports where two former wives accused him of violence, both physical and verbal abuse, was not sufficient for him to say that I think he’s a man of honor?
- So to be clear, what was so shocking that had changed? He said it was “shocking.” What was he referring to?
- You said then — just to answer — just to answer one more thing. You talked about the fact there weren’t any concerns, you said, that could compromise national security or interfere with operations here at the White House. But we’ve spoken to one of Porter’s ex-wives who told us that she warned the FBI that he could be susceptible to blackmail because of the allegations against him. Is that —
- The President’s reaction —
- How would the President —
- (Cecilia Vega, ABC News) Thanks, Raj. I just want to clarify what you’re saying here.
- Are you saying that the Chief of Staff of this White House had no idea that Rob Porter’s two ex-wives had domestic violence allegations against him, when they made those claims to the FBI; that John Kelly DID NOT KNOW that? How is that possible that the CHIEF OF STAFF did not know that?
- Okay, but the White House had said yesterday that Porter’s decisions to leave was a personal one, that he wasn’t pressured to do so. So would Rob Porter still be on the job today had he not decided to resign?
- He resigned? Or he was let go?
- But would he still be on the job? I mean, Sarah Sanders made it very clear he wasn’t pressured to do so.
- (Jim Acosta, CNN) Yes. So in terms of the Chief of Staff’s handling of all this, no regrets?
- But let me ask you, if I could follow up that — because as you were coming out here yesterday — or Sarah Sanders was coming out here yesterday, you were releasing a statement from Rob Porter, saying that he took those photographs. That appears to be an acknowledgment that this abuse took place, that he helped document it.
- How can the White House Chief of Staff, how can the Press Secretary, how can this White House still be standing behind him when Mr. Porter appeared to be acknowledging that he had this past?
- And if I could just ask you one other follow-up.
- (Jeff Mason, Reuters) Raj, did the President know that Rob was using a — was working on a temporary clearance?
- Over the last year, is that ever something that he was concerned about? Not the abuse, but was he concerned about —
- (Darlene Superville, AP) Do you have any information on how many senior White House staffers are currently working under an interim security clearance?
- (Not sure who this is, maybe CBS) What is the White House’s reaction to comments made by former White House aide, Omarosa, on “Celebrity Big Brother” where she said, she is “haunted by the President’s tweets.” She described the situation inside the White House as “bad” and said it is not going to be okay.
- (Not sure who this is either) Raj, we initially were told (just yesterday!!) that Rob Porter was going to stay on awhile and oversee a transition period, and now you’re telling us he was terminated yesterday. What changed?
- (Lalit Jha, Press Trust of India) Thank you. Congratulations for your (inaudible). Over the last one week, (inaudible) rallies by skilled Indian Americans who are seeking to lift off the per-country limit on green card. Everyone has been talking about illegal immigrants. These Indian Americans have been talking about legal immigrants. What is the administration’s part on this?
- (Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times) Normally, when you hire people, do you wait for the investigation to come back before hiring them? Is the burden of proof not on the people seeking the job to prove that they are qualified and don’t have any skeletons in their closet? Or do they just get to come aboard and you wait and see what happens with the investigation?
- And then also, what about women who don’t have photographs? Do you trust their stories? Because a lot of times — you haven’t been at the podium, but Sarah has said that allegations weren’t credible from other people. Do you need a photograph? And how should women feel if they don’t have a photograph?
- (Anita Kumar, McClatchy) Raj, I wanted to follow up on two questions on two different things. I just want to understand — you used the term “fully aware.” I don’t understand what that means. What does that mean John Kelly knew or didn’t know? What does “fully aware” mean?
- Did he know of the allegations?
- Did he know of some of the allegations?
- But YOU used the word “fully aware,” so I’m just trying to understand —
- I had a second topic which was, on Capitol Hill, members and their staffs are saying that, because the court case regarding DACA is now — meaning that the administration is now accepting DACA applications again — that they feel that there’s breathing room and that March 5th is no longer the deadline.
- And what’s going to happen if they haven’t done anything by then? Because it doesn’t look like they’re going to.
- If Congress hasn’t acted by March 5th, what is going to happen?
- (April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks) Okay, Raj. Two questions. I want to follow up on Noah. You said the President takes the issue of violence against women seriously. (Raj says “Yes”)
- Why did this administration close the Violence Against Women Office when he became President last year? He defunded it and everything. And also, he shut down the Women and Girls Office as well. And I have another question on Rob Porter.
- And a follow-up on that.
- The interim security clearance, does that allow Rob Porter to be able to touch — at the time when he was employed –to be able to touch and see classified materials?
- (Blake Burman, Fox Business News) Thanks, Raj. Let me turn your attention back to the Hill where there’s a spending deal going on. Republicans, for years, have said there needs to be fiscal restraint — years and years and years. Now we know that the deficit for this fiscal year is potentially going to reach a trillion dollars. You’ve got the House Freedom Caucus saying, about this deal, that “growing the size of government by 13 percent adds to the swamp instead of draining it,” and “this is not what the American people sent us here to do.” Essentially, they’re saying some within their party are being hypocritical. Is the President concerned about all of this spending? And what exactly is your plan to pay for it?
- You’re still going to be running deficits at that point, and now you’ve got this $300 billion cap to raise. So is it just economic growth? Is that the only way that you do it?
- (Stephen Portnoy, ABC) What can you tell us about the involvement of the White House Communications Director (that’s Hope Hicks) in crafting the statements that your office issued yesterday? Among them, you have the defense issued by the Chief of Staff; you have the statement that Sarah read from the podium, in which Rob Porter calls the allegations against him “vile” and “outrageous.” (Again, this was YESTERDAY!!) What can you tell us about the extent to which the Communications Director was involved in crafting those statements?
- Just one more question.
- Because you have repeatedly referred to the denials that Rob Porter issued, how much weight were those denials given within the White House?
MR. SHAH: You know, I think you’ve got to take allegations seriously. You’ve got to take denials seriously. And again, the statements reflected our experience with Rob Porter and other officials’ experiences with Rob Porter.
- (Margaret Talev, Bloomberg) Thanks. A couple more questions about this issue. It sounded like you’re saying the investigation is ongoing. Is that right?
- So I guess what I was going to ask is, once the investigation is totally completed — you’re satisfied, you know the answers to those questions — could you elaborate more specifically on the first time anyone mentioned this to the President? When, you know —
- Raj —
- But the President — hang on. I’m sorry, hang on a second, please. So, I guess, does the President retain full confidence in his Chief of Staff?
- And his White House Counsel?
- In his Communications Director?
- And all of the rest of the top staff?
- Can I ask you a finance question real quickly, on the spending plan?
- As I understand it — and notwithstanding whatever the budget is going to say — the U.S. is going to have to borrow more than a trillion dollars this year, and it could affect markets globally. Does the President feel confident — do you dispute that? And does the President feel confident that that’s still the right thing to do and it can be, kind of, mitigated in the budget plan?
- (Anne Gearan, Washington Post) Yeah, back to Mr. Porter. If I understood your description of the background check process correctly, the fact that the two ex-wives had made statements to the FBI about alleged abuse during that investigation was not a disqualifying factor in his initial hiring. Does the White House regret that? And going forward, do you plan to change the way you consider allegations of domestic abuse?
- (Francesca Chambers, Mail Online) Thank you, Raj. I wanted to clear up a few things that you said today on this. So, first, you said that the President wasn’t aware of Mr. Porter’s security clearance status. But when was the President aware of the allegations of abuse?
- And then secondly, you have said that Rob Porter was “terminated” twice in this briefing. Is the White House now saying that Mr. Porter was fired?
- And then the last thing on that is, you said that there are things that this White House could have done better with respect to this. Could you please detail that? What could the White House have done better?
- (Trey Yingst, OANN) Thanks, Raj. Just clarifying Francesca’s point, and i have two questions for you. So Rob Porter was NOT fired from the administration?
- Okay. And if I could follow up on — you said the President was saddened. You’ve spoken with the President about these allegations this morning. Can you give us a better idea about the concerns that the President had? This is a gentleman who was in the Oval Office, very close to the President numerous times throughout the first year of this administration. What did the President specifically have to say about this allegation?
- And if I could ask you about the memo from the House Intelligence Committee. Do you have any sort of update on the timeline? Has the President made a decision? And where does the review process stand?
- (John Gizzi, Newsmax) Thank you, Raj. Two brief questions. First, can you roughly say, are there a lot of other people, at the highest levels in the White House, operating under a temporary security pass?
- The other question, very simply: Are there going to be any further resignations by Friday or over the weekend?
- (Eamon Javers, CNBC) Yes, thanks, Raj. As we stand here, the Dow is off about 1,000 points or more. Can you give me the President’s reaction to the stock market volatility that we’ve seen so far this week? And does the administration still view the stock market as a barometer for its own performance? (Suddenly Trump is concerned with long-term economic indicators and the fundamentals!!)
- (Hunter Walker, Yahoo! News) Thank you, Raj. There have been reports President Trump is asking for preemptive military options for North Korea amid concerns from some Pentagon officials. Yesterday, here, Secretary Mattis said North Korea is “firmly in the diplomatic lane…with viable military options.” That’s a quote. Has President Trump asked for preemptive military options? And what is his view of the concerns expressed by Victor Cha and other experts that this would lead to catastrophic casualties in Seoul?
- (Not sure who this is) Raj, thanks very much. Yesterday, U.S. personnel in Syria were attacked and there were counterstrikes launched by U.S. forces. I wonder if you could give us an idea of the President’s involvement in this and whether you have any indication that there were any Russian personnel involved in the strike against — the attacks on U.S. personnel.
- (Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News) When you consider the Porter matter now, do you think that there were personal feelings, relationships in the White House among the senior staff, collegial and friendship relationships that clouded peoples’ judgment on how this was handled?
- Did anyone recuse themselves from participating?
- (Andrew Feinberg, Montgomery County Sentinel) Raj, I want to take you back to the reports of emails — or texts, I’m sorry, between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
Trump-Era Weirdness Sidebar. Andrew Feinberg is the guy who worked for Sputnik and last year sat in the briefing room as the first correspondent from Sputnik. Which is, of course, Russian propaganda. He left Sputnik shortly afterward, however. And then in September:
So now he gets to sit in the briefing room still but for a tiny tiny tiny newspaper, which he is editor and political reporter for:
I mean, that sounds like a zine.
- From the podium, Sarah has said that those texts are evidence of political bias. Now, everyone has opinions, so is the view of the administration that persons who are not fans of the President should not be allowed to investigate him? And also, can you point to any evidence, other than the text messages, that the investigation was conducted by people who were biased, other than these texts? I mean, was there anything — any way the investigation has been —
- (I think this is someone from a Chinese newspaper) Thank you, Raj. Two questions. First, President Trump and Dr. Kissinger’s meeting. President Trump tweeted that they would discuss China and also other areas. Can you tell us more about their meeting?
- (Saagar Enjeti, Daily Caller, a jerk website founded by Tucker Carlson) Raj, is Vice President Pence or Ivanka Trump willing to meet with Kim Jong-un’s sister while they’re at the Olympics? (I now realize that Sarah Sanders was pronouncing this guy’s name really wrong every time. By the way, he has a Richard Spencer hairstyle)
- (Not sure who this is. It’s a woman’s voice) Is the U.S. investigating reports of chemical weapons use by Bashar al-Assad in Syria?
(He says he’ll have to get back to her and he heads for the door. She raises her voice and says (yells) more assertively, “Are you concerned that Russia is blocking those efforts!?”
There’s just something about these four young lackeys filing out of the room right behind Raj Shah. Good job selling your souls, kids. Hope it’s worth it.