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White House Briefing Continues. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 25, 2017 - 14:00   ET


STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: Maduro may no longer take advantage of the American financial system to facilitate the wholesale looting of the Venezuelan economy at the expense of the Venezuelan people.


These measures will also undermine Maduro's ability to pay off political cronies, and regime supporters, and increase pressure on the regime to abandon it's disastrous path.

Under the executive order U.S. person's are prohibited from engaging in specified dealings involving the government of Venezuela and its instrumentalities. This includes state-owned oil company PDVSA. These prohibitions extend to transactions or activities occurring in the United States, and cover both debt and equity instruments.

In an effort to minimize the undo harm to the American and Venezuelan people and global markets, we are issuing general licenses permitting transactions that would otherwise be prohibited under the executive order. These include a 30-day wind-down period, the financing for humanitarian goods to Venezuela, and certain dealings in specified debt instruments that trade on secondary markets, and certain dealings with U.S. entities owned or controlled by the government of Venezuela.

Also, the executive order carves out short-term financing for most commercial trade, including the export and import of petroleum. This executive order builds on a number of actions taken by the U.S. government, to prevent the flow of funds to Maduro's regime.

On my first day in office, I was here with you at this podium, where the Treasury Department designated the Venezuelan vice president under the Kingpin Act. In this year alone, we have sanctioned 30 Venezuelan officials, including Maduro himself. We urge those within the regime, including those who have been sanctioned, to distance themselves from the violence and the dictatorship.

President Trump made it clear the status quo is unacceptable. Today's actions is the next step towards freedom for the Venezuelan people. We will continue working to achieve this goal, with allies around the world who have widely condemned Venezuela's dictatorship. With that, I'd be happy to take some questions.

QUESTION: Could you describe the (inaudible) for debt trading on secondary markets? And do you have of a sense of exactly how long those (inaudible) last and what they consist of specifically? MNUCHIN: So, there will be a general license that carves out specific

debt instruments that we know are held by U.S. entities, so we want to make sure that U.S. pensions, or U.S. fiduciaries are not hurt by this. And if they want to sell their bonds they can do so, but this will limit any new investments.

QUESTION: I have a question of both of you, General McMaster -- the president had indicated that military action was on the table. Is that still the case given these new round of sanctions? And can you talk about potential concerns about the impact this could have on the broader regional economic crisis that's already in place?

MNUCHIN: I'll let the general comment first on military actions, and then I'll comment on (inaudible).

MCMASTER: Well, the president directed us not just to develop plans for the current situation, but to anticipate the possibility of a further deterioration within Venezuela. As you know, the Venezuelan people are suffering tremendously, suffering more and more everyday as they see -- as they see democracy distinguished, and this autocratic regime put in place. And so the president said if things get worse, how could they get worse, and what are a range of options available to him that we could take in concert certainly with our partners in the region.

MNUCHIN: On the economic front, I would say our plan has to continue to hurt turn up the heat on the Venezuelan government. And these specific actions we've tried to balance things that don't hurt the Venezuela people. So we have made sure that humanitarian efforts are still allowed.

We've also made sure that certain U.S. entities can continue to trade. But we view that this will have a significant impact, and in no way do we want the American economy and the American financial markets to continue to finance these activities.

QUESTION: Secretary? Thank you, sir. I -- this is pretty strongly worded statement. And -- you described President Maduro as a dictator who disregards the rule of law and things like that. I'll ask you again, because I asked you this last time you guys were up here, on this subject.

How is what's happening in Venezuela with President Maduro any different from the situations with dictators in Turkey, in the Philippines, and in Russia, that also routinely step on the rule of law and ignore democratic norms.

And yet President Trump and his administration can't seem to bring themself to criticize them. Why is this dictator worse than all the other dictators?

MNUCHIN: Well, I think, as you know on Russia, we've taken very significant actions. And I say we will look at everyone of these on specific situations. And right now, we are dealing with a terrible situation in Venezuela, and that's what we're here to address. Yes, in the back. QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You said recently that you're working with congressional leaders to push for a clean debt ceiling hike. But the President said yesterday that he wants to attach V.A. reform to the debt ceiling. So, I'm just curious whether you feel you're on the same page on that front.

MNUCHIN: Sure. Well let me first assure you, the president and I are completely on the same page, and we're -- we're speaking on a regular basis on this. We had a meeting with the President and the Vice President yesterday in the oval office.

What the president said was that his strong preference had been that when they passed the V.A. bill before they left, that they attached the debt ceiling to that, so that we wouldn't be dealing with this in September.

And what I have said before, my strong preference is that we have a clean debt ceiling, but the most important issue is the debt ceiling will be raised in September.

I've had discussions with the leaders in both parties in the House and Senate, and we are all on the same page. The government intends to pay its debts and the debt ceiling will be raised.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, if General McMaster could clarify on the question of options for the President has asked for you. When the vice president was in the region, almost every nation he went to expressed reservations about U.S. military involvement in Venezuela.

Will that be enough to dissuade the President from taking any military action? And if military action is contemplated, what is the national security implication to the United States of the situation in Venezuela?

MCMASTER: I want to say the vice president had a very successful trip through -- through Latin America. And I don't think there has ever been a time where we are better aligned with our partners in the region that we are aligned with today.

On Venezuela, but on a broad range of other issues, as well. In term -- in terms of military options or other options, there is no such thing really anymore as -- as only a military option or a diplomatic option or a -- or an economic option. We try to integrate all elements together.

Now in term -- in terms of contingency planning, and -- and trying to envision what might -- what might trigger us to bringing, to the president, options, we always look at a broad range of contingencies and how this might evolve in the future.

But obviously any decision would be in conjunction with our partners in the region, and none of those -- none -- no military actions are anticipated in the near future.

But what the president asked us to do is -- he said look how this could evolve in the future, and provide a broad range, as we always do, integrated options for the president.


QUESTION: Thank you very much.

I want to ask you about a decision -- yesterday, Venezuela's government decide to order to cable television providers to cut a signal of two Colombian networks, including (inaudible). A few years ago, (inaudible) as well.

I want to know if (ph) you consider this as a crackdown on freedom of speech by Nicolas Maduro's regime. I don't know if you want to answer, or...


MNUCHIN: I think we've considered everything, and again, we'll continue to monitor the situation.


QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

One gets the impression, from the sanctions and what you said about the regime, that the United States would only restore the normal situation, the status quo, if Maduro -- and he (ph) is indicted by his president, or gone. Is that safe to say, that the U.S. would only deal with a regime that does not include either of them?

MNUCHIN: I mean, I'm not going to comment on the hypothetical of that. I think what the president is very clear on is the existing situation is unacceptable, and if they restore the proper democratic processes, we will react to that appropriately.

This is not about changing leadership, per se. This is about restoring the democratic process and rule of law.


QUESTION: Could you talk about debt restructuring? How will these sanctions impact the ability of Venezuela to engage in debt restructuring with U.S. investors?

MNUCHIN: Again, there will be no transactions with U.S. investors for new debt, including restructuring existing debt or extending maturities, without specific licenses being -- being issued.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I want to come back to the -- the debt ceiling. You sound completely confident the debt ceiling will be raised in September.

MNUCHIN: Yes. I am 100 percent confident. Leader McConnell said the same thing last week. I think there is no scenario where the government won't be paying its bills.

QUESTION: So what did the president mean when he said in the tweet this morning, "Now it's a mess"? He said it could have been easy, if it was attached to the V.A., now a mess. What'd he mean by that?

MNUCHIN: Well, again, I think there's a lot to do in September. We have the debt ceiling, we have the continuing resolution to fund the government, we have a budget, there's -- Congress has a lot of work this month.

And I think the president and I wish that they had raised the debt ceiling before they left. Having said that, we're -- we are where we are, and we're going to get it done.


QUESTION: If I could each of you gentlemen a question, General McMaster, if you could, help us all understand what the president meant on Monday night when he said that we're looking for an honorable and enduring outcome in Afghanistan.

And, Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you, your colleague, Gary Cohn, had remarks in an interview with the Financial Times, this morning, in which he said he felt compelled to express his distress about the president's remarks last week.

He said he felt intense pressure to resign. He said that he won't do so, but he believes that the administration must do better confronting hate groups. Do you associate yourselves with -- with those remarks? And did you feel the same pressure that Gary Cohn said he felt, to resign?

MNUCHIN: Well, let me first comment. I think you know I put out an extensive statement, earlier last week, on my view of the situation. I think there's no question that the president was not equating the hate groups with the people who were peacefully -- and under no circumstances was -- was I going to resign.

Gary and I have known each other for 20 years. I can tell you I'm speaking to him every day. His number-one focus is absolutely working on tax reform with me and getting tax reform done. And Gary's committed to be here and couldn't be more excited about that.

MCMASTER: Towards the -- the outcome in Afghanistan and broadly, in connection with the South Asia strategy, the president gave us very clear guidance that we worked on, as you know, over the period of several months across the whole national security team.

And that guidance was to prioritize the safety and security of the American people, and that's what our efforts are prioritizing now.

The second thing is he said that he wanted us to have a sound regional strategy, not a strategy that lasts a year. Some people have said - and I think there's an element of truth to this -- that we've had 16 one-year strategies in Afghanistan.

And so you see a fundamental change in an outcomes-based strategy rather than a time-based strategy. And that -- what that does is give us the greatest chance to combine what we're doing militarily, largely in support of the Afghan government and their long struggle against terrorists and groups in -- in the Taliban, but also to integrate that with what we hope we achieve diplomatically.

I think it was clear to anyone that -- that the approach of, well, let's talk with the Taliban and tell them we're leaving at the same time, how would that ever work? Especially when the Taliban were making battlefield gains associated in large measure with our disengagement from the fight with the Taliban in support -- in support of the Afghan forces.

And so, it is a fundamental shift in the strategy. Those who have said, well this is more of the same are absolutely wrong about that. Just think about that -- conditions based versus times based. A regional approach rather than a myopic focus on one little group or another group. We tried very hard in Afghanistan over recent years to disconnect the dots. All right, so we took a -- we took -- we took a broad approach at this, looking at this with our intelligence community and our partners. And the president has also asked us, how can others so more?

How can others share more of the burden and the responsibility? And so this strategy deliver on all of that.

In connection with your answer, the answer the American people and -- and abroad and here at home are safe and secure from terrorists who can otherwise gain a safe haven and support base, that they can use to organize, plan, finance and conduct attacks, not only in that region but -- but -- but globally and we know that's -- that's -- that's their design. We know that fro our own history, and we know that from the intelligence.

QUESTION: General McMaster, following on that, given the history and the ideology of the Taliban, are you confident that a political solutions settlement can ever be reached with the Kabul government that wouldn't end up once U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, and the Taliban reneging on their agreement and try to take over Afghanistan?

MCMASTER: Well, no, I don't think I'm confident. I don't think anybody is confident about that, unless we can demonstrate through whatever the -- an agreement is, that -- that -- that various groups who will cease their hostility to the -- to the Afghan government, would then recognize that constitution, and participate in a future of Afghanistan that -- that is -- that is acceptable to the -- to the Afghan people.

You know, the Afghan people remember, they -- they remember 1996 to 2001 pretty vividly, and what it was like to live under that brutal regime.

Now, the Taliban, as I mentioned, we work hard sometimes to disconnect the dots here, especially in connection with the Taliban's relationship with Al Qaida, the Taliban's relationship with other organizations.

But what we also recognize is none of these groups are monolithic or homogeneous either. So if there are those who are ready to -- to -- to join a political process like Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin did over the past year, then I don't -- I don't think the Afghan government would object to that in any way.

But the critical thing is if your enemies are fighting aggressively against you, it is not a good option to say you're not going fight them anymore, and then just hope for an outcome that secures the interest to the American people.

QUESTION: For General McMaster, could you define winning in Afghanistan? What does winning in Afghanistan look like for the United States

MCMASTER: All right, so winning in Afghanistan is really aimed at allowing Afghanistan to be Afghanistan. As the president said, not to nation-build, not to create a state in U.S. image.

Winning in Afghanistan means there are not terrorist groups who are able to control key parts of the territory and population centers there. That could be used to mobilize resources, raise funds, use those funds to then organize, plan and conduct attacks against us and our allies and partners.

And so that's what the success is, is really a sustainable outcome there that ensures the safety and security of the American people.

And as you know, Afghanistan is connected to broader security concerns across the region. And so the outcome is to ensure that a threat from that region doesn't threaten the safety and security of the American people.

MNUCHIN: Last question right here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) on tax reform. Yesterday Mitch McConnell said that this would happen during the Congress, suggesting that potentially this could be a 2018 event. Paul Ryan was much more certain, saying this is going to happen in 2017.

As you see it, the timeline, do you still believe that this could get done in 2017?

And secondly, now that this is being put in the hands of the committees from here on out to kind of do the work and come up with the figures, how confident are you that Congress can kind of handle this so you don't get burned on tax reform, like you did with healthcare reform?

MNUCHIN: Well, let me just comment that, first of all, Gary and I have been very focused on tax reform, working with leadership since January. I think you know earlier in the year, I said, I thought we'd get it done by August, and I was wrong, OK.

I am now going to say that I'm very hopeful, and I think we can get this done by the end of the year, but we will continue to revisit that.

And let me just say that as we've said before, our objective here is to have one plan that includes the administration, the House and the Senate to work very closely together. The group six has been working nonstop. We've put out a statement on that. We'll continue to put more details.

And I think -- we think that it's very important that both committees in the Senate and in the House have the ability to debate this and review it.

But I can assure you that the president's number-one objective is now to get tax reform done. He is going to go on the road. We're starting with his first trip next week, and the president is 100 percent supportive of us passing legislation this year.

Thank you, everybody.

BOSSERT: Everyone, sorry to move from one serious topic to another, but I wanted to come out and speak to you a little bit about Hurricane Harvey and the federal government's preparations, the state and local governments' preparations. If I could, I'll try to stick to the themes of informing you, and then maybe influencing, and then maybe inspiring may be the last (inaudible) or bit (ph), too far for me

Our highest priority at this point is the safely of the public. And by that we mean everyone in the path of the storm. But also the safety of the responders. So life safety here is our priority.

I want to walk through a few things that we've done. State and local officials have the lead for this. As always, we encourage individual responsibility and planning. As always -- and I would stress that this is a serious storm. As you've seen from the reporting we've had significant rainfall projected. Storm surge in Texas and Louisiana over the weekend and into next week are forecast to be serious. This could remain a dangerous storm for several days and certainly we don't want to lose any life.

Flooding, flash flooding and other high wind damages although we expect this to be a rain event more so than a wind event. Neither of those things can be counted upon. So, taking this seriously and preparing is very important.

Right now, President Trump and his entire team have been actively engaged with the state and local officials in Texas and Louisiana preparing for this storm. As you know, President Trump spoke to both governors. Today spoke to his FEMA administrator Brock Long, myself and General Kelly.

He also spoke to Acting Secretary Duke. We did that this morning around 10:15 a.m. Under that leadership team we couldn't have a better team to be honest with you. That leadership team at DHS we're in good hands at the federal level.

As you might know, the secretary of Homeland Security and the FEMA administrator are responsible for bring together the fire power of the federal government to assist the state and local governments. But the state and local governments are in the lead here and we've got a lot respect for and a lot of faith in the governors of these respective states, as well, directly in the path.

So, Governor John Bel Edwards in Louisiana has a strong handle on what he's doing and Governor Abbott in Texas likewise. So, what we'd like to do is reinforce their planning efforts, challenge the people in the path to be prepared, to listen to their institutions and their state and local governments. Now is not the time to lose faith in your government institutions.

Those emergency mangers giving you advice and making recommendations for you to evacuate and doing so with your best interest at heart. We encourage you to listen to them. And then, lastly I'd encourage -- a little shameless plug here -- and for all American's to visit

It sounds like something that might not teach you anything, maybe you know how to take care of yourself but I think maybe you'll learn something if you go there and it would help you and your family.

So, with that, I'll take some questions.

If I can start with John (ph).

QUESTION: Give us an idea of what the president is doing to monitor the development of the storm and what he'll be doing as he moves to Camp David this weekend, how's he going to be in touch with federal officials and local officials?

BOSSERT: So, first I'll start with what he has done. We've been giving him fairly regular briefings and by, we, I mean John Kelly and myself. We've also had him in touch of his secretary of Homeland Security and his FEMA administrator.

Now, that started several weeks ago and really several months ago as we transitioned into this administration we saw President Trump visit FEMA, give a talk to the team over there but also to set his clear expectations for his new FEMA administrator. I've known the Administrator Long now for 15 years.

We couldn't have picked a finer leader. He's had state director experience, he's had FEMA experience, he's absolutely the top of the top. And, what the president will do as we move forward is continue talking directly with them, directly with the governors, if they have any unmet needs, that's our problem.

The president won't tolerate that. But, he'll also continue talking to me and the secretary, now Chief of Staff Kelly. And, as we move out to Camp David as you know he's got a resources and capability to communicate with us.

QUESTION: Will the president sign an emergency declaration before landfall, that has happened in the past, to pre-prepare and set funding in motion even before the event happens? Is that being contemplated? Will that be done today?

BOSSERT: That's being contemplated. And, what we'll do is take the governor's request. I believe the governor has actually made that request. As you know the process works thusly. First the governor assesses whether he has unmet needs and the affected communities are unable to respond collectively to this event. If he makes that determination and a number of other statutory

requirements, he then requests of the president federal assistance. That request moves through the FEMA regional administrator to the FEMA administrator up to the president. I believe it's in that process right now.

Once it gets to the president of the United States with a formal recommendation from his FEMA administrator he'll act on that very quickly. I'm under the impression that the governor of Texas has made that request and it's at FEMA right now.

QUESTION: Do you anticipate a time? BOSSERT: If all the conditions are met, if it's appropriate to provide federal assistance, I believe the president will be very aggressive in leading forward and declaring that a disaster.

Tom (ph)?

QUESTION: Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley urged the president not to repeat the mistakes of the past, 2005, Katrina especially, how much is that in the back of your mind as you prepare for landfall of Harvey?

And also, in hurricanes past, typically there are events where the hurricane goes through and then you get into the aftermath to pick up the pieces. I know you (inaudible) Katrina in 2005, and we saw what happened there.

This time, though, this is going to be a multi-day event. What sort of challenges does that present in terms of trying to get aid to people who need it immediately while you still have buckets of rain coming down?

BOSSERT: Yes, so a number of good questions there. I'll start with the first one. I was also, in and through and had a role at FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. I remember it very clearly. I had a role in helping our government write the lessons learned report from that.

So I think, it's not just what's on my mind, but it's on the minds of all the emergency managers in our communities, especially those in Texas and Louisiana. That experience is still in their memory. It's still in their experience, their muscle memory, and what we've done has gotten a lot better as a government.

Congress has gotten better at passing laws to allow us the flexibility we need to employ, not just deploy, resources, and assets in advance of an event, which Brock Long has -- marshaled here until (inaudible). He'll employ those recourses carefully at the state requests, and we grant that declaration, which I -- I suspect we might.

And then, lastly to you point about how difficult it is to get assistance to people. I would say this -- you never want to plan for the federal government to swoop in and provide everything that you when you need it, just on time, right? It's going to be 4.6 million people, I guess, in the path of this storm depending on how the forecast goes. That's a lot of people. We encourage people to be ready, be prepared, take some responsibility for their own safety. And as the next 72 hours unfold, of course, food, water, shelter are the primary concerns.

But then secondly, when we provide that assistance, we do it in such a way that's so organized, if things work out the way they're supposed to, that the assistance flows either directly to the individuals that are eligible for it, or it flows to the state and local officials, who have the logistics trial in place to provide that food, water, and those commodities, and the shelter.

And lastly, I'd like -- I'd like to make a plug for non- governmental organizations as well. As you know, we've got a number of organizations, like the Red Cross and others, who made shelters. Those types of resources are imperative to the people that are confronting this peril, and I'd like to thank them for their work.

Before I take that next question, I would say that I just came off of what FEMA organizes, which is a conference call, actually, video teleconference call, of all the affected parties, and there were no unmet needs reported. We went across all the emergency support functions of the federal government, but also, the state and local governments, and the non-governmental organizations. And they all seem to be well postured, and they didn't report to us any additional needs. In fact, they all reported that they're in the right operational posture right now to help the American people in the path of this storm.


BOSSERT: Can I take a question in the back, please?

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. The president tweeted out...


QUESTION: (Inaudible) briefing him this morning. What questions did President Trump have for you about the preparations that are under way?

BOSSERT: So, the president had three primary concerns. His first concern was the life safety and evacuation timing. Are people getting out of harm's way that need to get out of harm's way.

And then his second concern was, do we have the appropriate resources to bring to bear? That was a question he directed at Administrator Long and Elaine Duke. Brock Long reported to him that he did in fact have all those resources pre-deployed.

And really, the third concern from the president's perspective after hearing the briefing was not only that the people in harm's way in Texas be prepared and be evacuated as appropriate, but that the people in Louisiana, should the forecast wobble in any direction, also, be prepared.

And so as we see this move to the south, the forecast track, don't lose track of the fact that we've got low-level areas all through the coast of Louisiana. Fifty percent of the population in Louisiana lives on that coastal region. New Orleans, as we've scene before to the allusion to Katrina, lives

below sea level. They rely a great deal on pumps to pump water out. The Army Corps of Engineers and others, through FEMA's coordination, have been providing necessary electric power generation to those pumps to make sure that if the conditions were to materialize in New Orleans that we don't have necessarily bad flooding that would put harm -- put lives in harm's way.

And so those were his three concerns: New Orleans, Texas, life safety and evacuations.

Yeah, thank you.


BOSSERT: I'm sorry -- can I come (ph) here, please?

QUESTION: Thank you. Can you tell us specifically who's going to be traveling with the president this weekend? You mentioned that you will be. Who will be accompanying you?

And is there any discussion about the president canceling his trip, in light of everything that you're saying?

And then, can you give us a sense of how he and you and your teams are thinking about this? Is this a storm, are you anticipating, that will be of the magnitude of Katrina, given all comparisons?

BOSSERT: No (ph), I don't want to make that comparison.

I guess the first answer is I don't have any insight into the travel package with the president, but I do have insight to the resources he has available to him at Camp David. So it is just as well-resourced as the White House, so he'll have access to anybody -- all the communications means that he might need.

So it's not a trip. I wouldn't characterize it as a trip. It's just 45 minutes up the road, as you all know. For those of -- of you in America, thinking Camp David is far away, it's -- it's right up the road.

So, secondly, I would say that we're not seeing this -- and every disaster is different, I don't want to make any starch (ph) comparisons here -- strong comparisons, rather -- stark comparisons.

But I would say this: For the person affected, if your house is flooded, it doesn't matter if 10,000 other houses are flooded or 10 houses are flooded. So what you need to do is -- is be prepared for your own damages, your own consequences. The government's -- need to be prepared for the uniqueness of each community.

We've got some low-level islands here, Galveston and others, that might be in the storm surge path. But Katrina was a massive event. It was a staggering event that took place in just the perfect condition. And as you know, we had a flooding event associated with levee failure, and other things. So I don't want people to draw those comparisons. I won't

characterize the magnitude of this event until it's over, though.


BOSSERT: Going to (ph) go here.

QUESTION: The nation's fuel supply chain may be impacted by this hurricane. What are you doing to prepare for that? Give me a sense about the concerns that you've expressed to the president about that particular issue.

BOSSERT: Yeah. So a number of things inform my thinking, here at the White House, for the president.

And one of the things I hope to do is -- is have full faith and trust, and I do, in this case, in the responders at the state and local level, --


-- and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate and bring to bear the full resources of the cabinet to keep this regional event --