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White House Daily Briefing; Mattis Says Pentagon Welcomes U.S. Senate Budget Deal; White House Staff Secretary Resigns over Domestic Abuse Claims. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 7, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:30:54] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Once again, we're following the breaking news. The leadership in the Senate, the Democratic leader, the Republican leader, they've worked out a bipartisan budget agreement, $300 billion or so, $160 billion in additional defense spending, $128 billion in nondefense spending, $80 billion for disaster relief for Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. A lot of specifics in this tentative deal. It's going to pass the Senate.

Question is, how will it do in the House of Representatives. It does not deal with immigration reform, the DREAMers, the DACA recipients, border security. But the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has promised Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, that will come up soon. They'll have a full debate, a fair debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate. That will then go to the House. We'll see what happens there.

The briefing that's about to begin, Sarah Sanders will introduce the defense secretary, General James Mattis. He'll open the briefing. I'm sure he'll welcome the extra defense spending. I'm sure he'll be asked about what the president wants, a military parade, maybe as early an Veterans Day. We'll see what he says on that.

John Kirby, you're our military analyst, a former spokesman for the Pentagon, a former spokesman at the State Department. You pointed out it was sort of unusual -- well, let's go to Sarah Sanders. She's going to introduce the Defense secretary.

SANDERS: Right on time today. Good afternoon.

We are pleased that Congress has been able to meet our defense spending requirement and come together on a two-year spending bill. This bill achieves our top priority, a much-needed increase in funding for our national defense. This still also increases budget caps, ends the sequester, and provides certainty for the next two years.

SANDERS: Defense spending will match the request made by the Pentagon and will reflect what the president signed into law with the National Defense Authorization Act.

The bottom line is that, thanks to the president -- thanks to President Trump, we can now have the strongest military we have ever had. Additionally, this bill increases the debt ceiling 'til March of 2019, which moves us away from crisis-to-crisis budgeting.

It also ensures funding for our other critical priorities, including rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure, tackling the opioids epidemic and taking care of our great veterans.

To discuss this agreement in more depth from a military perspective, we have Secretary Mattis here with us today. Secretary Mattis will come up to make a brief statement and take a few questions on the importance of funding our armed forces.

And then I will be back up after him to answer questions on news of the day.

Thank you.

MATTIS: Thank you.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. And thank you for taking time out of your schedules to be here today.

I spent the last day and a half on Capitol Hill briefing the members of Congress on our 2018 National Defense Strategy. I'm heartened that Congress recognizes the sobering effect of budgetary uncertainty on America's military and on the men and women who provide for our nation's defense.

Two days from now, I will visit our nation's first security force assistance brigade at Fort Benning as they prepare to deploy to Afghanistan. To advance the security of our nation, these troops are putting themselves in harm's way, in effect, signing a blank check payable to the American people with their lives.

Our military have been operating under debilitating continuing resolutions for more than 1,000 days during the last decade. During last week's State of Union address, President Trump said, "Weakness is the surest path to conflict."

In a world awash in change, with increasing threats, there is no room for complacency. Failure to implement or fund the 2018 National Defense Strategy will leave us with a force that could dominate the last war, yet be irrelevant to tomorrow's security.

We need Congress to lift the defense spending caps and support a two- year budget agreement for our military. America can afford survival.

For too long we have asked our military to carry on stoically with a success-at-any-cost attitude. The fact that our volunteer military has performed so well is a credit to their dedication and professionalism.

[13:35:15] We expect the men and women of our military to be faithful in their service even when going in harm's way. We have a duty to remain faithful to them.

MATTIS: Absent a budget this year, America's military will not be able to provide pay for our troops by the end of the year; we will not be a recruit the 15,000 Army soldiers and 4,000 Air Force airmen required to fill critical manning shortfalls; we would not be able to maintain our ships at sea with the proper balance between operations and time for training and maintenance; we would have to ground aircraft due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts, degrading our pilots' proficiency; we would deplete the ammunition, training and manpower required to deter war; and we would delay contracts for vital acquisition programs necessary to modernize our force.

I cannot overstate the negative impact to our troops' and families' morale from all this budget uncertainty.

Today's congressional action will ensure our military can defend our way of life, preserve the promise of prosperity, and pass on the freedoms you and I enjoy to the next generation.

Thank you.

I can take a couple questions here. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: General, how damaged would a shutdown be -- would a government shutdown be, given that you -- you have this deal, if there was a decision to shut the government down because, for example, the wall wasn't funded in -- in this deal, how bad would that be to the military?

MATTIS: Shutting down the government would be very damaging to the military for all the reasons I just cited about a continuing resolution, but then aggravated by the shutdown itself, where we actually send home all nonuniformed personnel except those in a few critical areas.

It -- it just paralyzes everything that we do, if we go into that, other than the ongoing active operations at sea; and there, the troops will continue to fight, the ships will stay at sea, but the bottom line is, training's delayed, the impact just ripples through the force. And it doesn't just happen today. It ripples on, as people who are not flying are no longer gaining the level of skill that you and I would associate with them, even a year from now, when they're promoted.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned you've been spending the last day and a half on Capitol Hill. This is a Senate arrangement. Do you have any sense, sir, if the House leadership on the Republican side -- is it equally receptive and as enthusiastic as you are?

And also, service secretaries, particularly the Navy service secretary, have said the funding problems are not maybe a direct cause, but contributed to the deaths of seamen in the South China Sea (inaudible) recent accident.

Can you tell the country if this money is, in fact, provided, all of the problems associated with training, maintenance that have been plaguing the military, will be eliminated? MATTIS: I am -- I am optimistic that what the House did earlier this week and what the Senate did today can come together this week, and give us the budget that then enables us to carry out our responsibilities. By "ours," I mean all the leaders in the Department of Defense, who will address the issues you just brought up.

Obviously a lot of work goes into the execution, then the quality of the training. But you can count on us: We'll earn your trust on this. We will spend the money wisely.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you about the recently- released Nuclear Posture Review...


QUESTION: ... it calls for smaller-yield nuclear weapons to be added to our arsenal. You're on record as saying, "There's no such thing as a tactical nuke. Any time a nuclear weapon is used, it's a strategic game-changer."

So how -- how does this new posture review add to global stability? Because there are many people who believe that if you've got a smaller-yield nuclear weapon, you might be more inclined to use it.

MATTIS: Right.

Remember that what we're talking about here is the nuclear deterrent. And in that nuclear deterrent, we believe that some nations could miscalculate -- one in particular -- and that nation could assume that if they used, in a conventional fight, a small-yield bomb, we would not respond with a very large-yield bomb. Our response to this is to make a small-yield bomb and say, "Don't miscalculate, it's a deterrent."

Remember, deterrence is dynamic; it changes from year to year, from decade to decade. We have to address deterrence in its current construct.

So we do this, the idea is to raise the threshold. Don't even think about lowering the threshold to a conventional fight and escalating it to one small-yield nuclear weapon, strategically changing the game, and then think our choice is either surrender or suicide, as Dr. Kissinger put it.

[13:40:00] Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can you talk about where things are in the planning stages for this military parade the president is seeking? And what -- what any cost estimates (inaudible)?

MATTIS: As -- I think we're all aware, in this country, of the president's affection and respect for the military.

We've been putting together some options. We'll send them up to the White House for a decision.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, a question about North Korea and a follow-up on Katherine's (ph) question there.

You just laid out the argument for fully funding the military, why you think every dollar counts. So why divert time, energy, financial resources to the planning of a parade, as the president has asked?

MATTIS: Again, I think that what my responsibility is to make certain I lay out the strategy and make the argument for the oversight of Congress to make a determination of fully funding us.

As far as the parade goes, again, the president's respect, his fondness for the military, I think is reflected in him asking for these options.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) can I ask you whether you think (inaudible) that war is actually nearer or closer with North Korea than it was at the time the administration took office?

And do you support any kind of meeting or communication between Vice President Pence and North Korean officials at the Olympics?

MATTIS: Well, on the second, Vice President Pence is quite capable of making the call on that there while he's in Korea.

As far as the situation with Korea, it is firmly in the diplomatic lane. We have seen much stronger diplomatic action. For example, the last three United Nations Security Council resolutions unanimous. And how often do you see France and Russia, PRC -- China and the United States, Great Britain all voting -- and other countries all voting unanimously? I think that makes it very clear this is firmly in the diplomatic lane.

And we, of course, back up Secretary of State Tillerson's foreign policy efforts, as guided by the president, with viable military options.

But thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.


SANDERS: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Due to timing and tight timelines, we will jump right into questions for today with no further statements.

Steve (ph)?

QUESTION: Nancy Pelosi is wanting to add immigration to this emerging budget deal on the Hill. Is that something the president would like to see?

SANDERS: I -- I think we've made clear that the budget deal should be a budget deal, and that members of Congress like Nancy Pelosi should not hold our military hostage over a separate issue. We've laid out what we would like to see in immigration legislation. And I think it's something that Nancy Pelosi should support. And hopefully she will come on board, we can get this budget deal done, and then we can focus on getting an immigration deal done.

QUESTION: A follow up: Is the president committed to this March 5th deadline for DACA, or is he going to extend the deadline?

SANDERS: Look, we are hopeful that we will make a deal with Congress, and we'll see what happens after that.

But our goal is to try to get something done. We don't want to keep kicking the can down the road, and we'd like to see a solution, which is why we've laid out a plan that we think addresses everybody's concerns and meets those needs.


QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

To put another point (ph) on it, will the president sign the budget agreement that was laid out by the Senate this morning?

SANDERS: Look, we -- we applaud the steps forward that they've made, but we're going to need to see what is in the final bill. But we're certainly happy with the direction that it's moving, particularly that we're moving away from the crisis budgeting that we've been on in the past.


QUESTION: Would you like the House to pass the Senate deal?

SANDERS: We would like to move forward on this front.

But again, we want to see the final components. But yes, we're supportive, primarily because it meets several of things that we laid out, including ending the crisis budgeting, and also, helps meet the needs of the military and defense spending, as were laid out by General Mattis.

QUESTION: Another question: Would you clarify the status -- security clearance of Rob Porter, and if the president has confidence in him, as the staff secretary?

SANDERS: I can give you two statements.

As is always been our policy when it comes to security clearances, we don't comment on them. I'm not going to change that today.

I can tell you that Rob has been an -- effective (ph) in his role as staff secretary, and the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.

And more of an update on that front: Rob has put out a statement which I can read to you now, and I think it will address some of those other questions.

"These outrageous allegations are simply false. I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago, and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described. I've been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.

[13:45:00] My commitment to public service speaks for itself. I've always put duty to country first and treated others with respect. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served in the Trump administration, and will seek to ensure a smooth transition when I leave the White House."


QUESTION: Sarah, is he going to be leaving the White any time soon? There was some conversation a couple of months ago that he was at least contemplating that.

SANDERS: He is going to be leaving the White House. It won't be immediate, but he is resigning from the White House, but is going to stay on to ensure that there's a smooth transition moving forward.


QUESTION: Sarah, less than 18 hours ago, the White House released several statements praising Rob Porter for his service. Obviously he's somebody who's very close with the president.

So why would the president accept his resignation, if the president thinks he did nothing wrong?

SANDERS: Look, I think that was a personal decision that Rob made, and one that he was not pressured to do, but one that he made on his own.

Katherine (ph)?

QUESTION: Will you clear up the matter of the security clearance? Did he have one or not?


SANDERS: As I just said, I'm not sure why this is complicated. We've addressed it quite a few times, in many circumstances.

As has always been the policy at the White House, we don't discuss security clearances one way or the other.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, can I ask you about the Democratic memo?

We understand -- and Chief of Staff Kelly illuminated this yesterday -- that this memo is -- is different in terms of its content than the Republican memo was. General Kelly said it's not as clean as the GOP memo was. Republicans who have read the memo are saying that it contains a substantial number of references to sources and methods.

My question to you is, do you believe that the White House is -- I don't want to say being sandbagged -- but being put in a difficult position by the Democratic minority, forcing you to make redactions or hold back this memo, so it can draw a contrast with your treatment of the GOP memo?

SANDERS: I'm not going to make speculations at this point.

We're still going through the process that we went through with the Republican memo. We're going to continue to do that. And once that's completed, we'll have something further to add. But as of this point we don't.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, can you clarify, the president yesterday said that he would like to shut the government down if he doesn't get funding for the wall, border security.

QUESTION: Is what he said yesterday now no longer operative; he's going to support a two-year spending bill without funding for the wall?

SANDERS: Look, as I said yesterday, the focus for us has always been to get a two-year budget deal. We've also laid out what -- the priorities that we want to see in any immigration legislation. And we expect to see that.

We do want to -- that we've made no secret the president wants funding for the wall and he wants border security, and we expect to see that reflected in the budget.

QUESTION: But he said he wanted to shut the government down if he didn't get it. Now that's no longer operative, that's no longer the position?

SANDERS: No, the position hasn't changed. And I addressed this yesterday.

The president is making the point, the only people that have shut the government down are the Democrats. We haven't shut the government down. We've laid out exactly what we want to happen and we're working towards achieving those goals.


QUESTION: He was the one who said he wanted to shut the government down. I'm not understanding. He said, "I want a government shutdown."

SANDERS: The point he's making when you put it in the context, is that if we are going to have that fight, it's a fight that the Democrats started last time and they lost, and we think that we would win again.

We want a two-year budget deal. We want an immigration plan that fixes the problem and doesn't further kick the can down the road. Those are the two focuses and we're hopeful we'll get those done.

QUESTION: How can the president still have confidence in his deputy attorney general when he said he feels vindicated in the Russian probe by the Nunes memo that mentioned Rosenstein and the fact that Rosenstein oversees the Russian probe?

SANDERS: Look, as I said yesterday, the president feels vindicated because he feels like the Russia investigation has been (sic) politically motivated witch hunt for the last year, and the memo clearly vindicates the president's position that there was political bias.

QUESTION: Has he actually read the Democrats' memo? You said he has seen it, but has he actually read it?

SANDERS: He has. And I told you also that he had met with the deputy Attorney general to discuss the differences yesterday.

QUESTION: And just really quickly, General Mattis was saying that the president has great affection for the military. But he has yet to visit Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wouldn't that be the ultimate way to honor the troops by going there rather than a parade?

SANDERS: Look, I think there are a lot of different ways; nothing has been decided or locked in stone. This is in the early discussion phases. And it's something the president is looking at, not just a way that he can but that the entire country can come together and show support and honor our military.


QUESTION: Does the president have any concerns about these domestic violence allegations raised against Rob Porter?

SANDERS: I haven't spoken to him about specific concerns.

QUESTION: You haven't talked to the president about this...

SANDERS: About whether or not he has specific concerns, I haven't asked him that question, Cecilia. (inaudible)

QUESTION: Has he seen the photos of Rob Porter's ex-wife with a black eye?

[13:50:00] SANDERS: I don't know.


QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah.

The president weighed in today on Twitter on the stock market, the first time this week he's done so. And he's done so quite a bit over the course of his first year in office. Will we expect the president to continue to weigh in on the daily fluctuations on the stock market going forward, or will he, sort of, let the market take its course?

SANDERS: I -- I don't think I'm going to speculate on what we may weigh in on every single day moving forward through the administration.

But the economy has obviously been a big focus for the administration and it's something we're going to continue to talk about. We have a very strong economy. We feel very confident in the direction that we're moving, and certainly the focus on the long-term economic fundamentals that this administration has been advocating for.

QUESTION: On the immigration deal, would the president be open to the idea of just two pillars of what he's put forward being part of an immigration deal, that being funding for that border wall with Mexico, and increased border security, and then, of course, a legislative fix for those DACA recipients?

SANDERS: We've laid out the four pillars that we want to see in immigration legislation.

SANDERS: Shannon (ph)?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) The president today called these text messages from the FBI "bomb shells." Does he believe there was a conspiracy in the FBI to try and undermine his candidacy to try and help Hillary Clinton? Can you explain a little bit more his thinking about what he's seen in these text messages?

SANDERS: I think it just further shows that there is reason for all of us to have great cause for concern in this process. And we hope that it's more thoroughly and fully looked at, as we move forward.


QUESTION: Are there some more specific changes -- personnel changes he would like to see at the FBI?

SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of at this time.

Steven (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, I just want to give you a chance to respond to the concerns about propriety of this parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

A lot of people in the country think that that's not how the American military should be presented to the world, rolling tanks down America's Main Street. What do you think?

SANDERS: Look, as I said, we haven't made a final decision.

The president's simply exploring different ways that he can highlight and show the pride that we have in -- in the military, the people that have served and sacrificed to allow us all of the freedoms that we have. The president's very proud of the United States military and all that they do on behalf of all of us, and we're simply exploring options.

I -- I think it's a way to -- far speculation to start weighing in on, you know, whether or not we think certain things are appropriate when nothing has been decided, and it's literally in a brainstorming session.

QUESTION: Is it true that -- the report that the president essentially gave a directive to the Defense Department, that this is something that -- that must happen?

SANDERS: No. The president asked them to look at different ways, and explore and see what those options look like, as the secretary said.


SANDERS: I'll take one last question. (inaudible)

QUESTION: Sarah, in -- to follow up on these text messages, the -- does the president believe that former President Obama was involved in the investigation -- the Russia investigation against him, which is what (sic) alleged between those texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of that specific concern, but I -- I think that there is a lot within those text messages that gives us great cause for concern. And we, again, hope that they look at them thoroughly, and investigate this process more fully.


SANDERS: Thanks so much, guys.

[13:52:37] BLITZER: So, there she is, Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, welcoming this bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Senate to work on a new budget deal that will increase defense spending by about $160 billion, what's called nondefense spending by $128 billion, $80 billion for disaster relief, including for Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas. A two year-deal. Warmly, enthusiastically welcomed by the White House. Senate likely to approve this legislation very soon. It will go to the House. There is some question about what will happen in the House of Representatives.

A very strong statement of support by the defense secretary, James Mattis, who opened the briefing. Extraordinary that he came over from the Pentagon, did this briefing in the White House. He wanted to make it clear, as far as the U.S. military and Defense Department are concerned, they welcome this bipartisan agreement.

Pretty extraordinary stuff going on right now. But there is still a bit of a question, will it get through the House of Representatives?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. As Chris was saying, earlier in the hour, that the far left and the far right will be hard to correlate on this. Members are digging in. We're at midterms. There's a whole lot of insensitive to agree. It will be up to those leaders to really bend them to their will and to get something done. We'll see if they'll be able to do it, especially when Pelosi seems to be siding with the left of her caucus.

BLITZER: Because Nancy Pelosi is making the case she does not support the Senate agreement unless they get a hard, firm commitment from the speaker, Paul Ryan, that there will be an up-and-down vote, a full debate on the floor of the House of Representatives for the DREAMers.

[13:55:02] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT- LARGE: That's right. I think what we need fleshed out more is what does she mean by a hard-and-fast commitment? We're slicing the onion pretty thin. But --


BLITZER: She says she wants a commitment from Paul Ryan that Schumer got from Mitch McConnell.

CILLIZZA: So my guess is he will be willing to give her something like that. I think the reason for it will be pure political calculation. I think there's going to be two dozen Republicans, maybe a dozen and a half Republicans who simply will not vote for a bill that adds to the debt in this way. They just won't. These are people who --


BLITZER: They like the extra defense spending --


BLITZER: -- but nondeference spending, they're not enthusiastic?

CILLIZZA: No. And I think there are some people, that is their issue and they will draw that line. Which means if he does lose two dozen, let's say, he needs Democrats. And my guess is that he will feel significant pressure from the White House, the Senate, and Mitch McConnell to do this. Again, the alternative is the government shuts down again. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Democrats will get blamed for it. Maybe. You know how these things play out. I don't know that Paul Ryan wants to risk it.

BLITZER: Another doozy item that came up, all of a sudden, the resignation of Rob Porter, White House staff secretary, largely someone not well known out there, but very influential in the White House, plays a key role. All of a sudden, he has announced he is resigning in the face of accusations from his two ex-wives of abuse.

MARY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME: Yes. Both of Rob Porter's ex-wives have accused him of physical and emotional abuse in a story published in the "Daily Mail" a couple of days ago. Behind the scenes, in the White House, this created a lot of chaos. He may not be a household name, but he is crucial to the functioning of the White House. He really is the man, besides John Kelly, who makes the trains run in that building. So it's been announced he is going to resign. He denies the allegations quite strongly but says he can ensure there will be a smooth transition. We don't yet have a date for when he will leave the White House, but he is saying, in the face of these allegations, he will not say in his position.

BLITZER: Clearly, the White House has accepted his resignation. There will be an interim period. He's basically gone.

Let's get John Kirby in on the defense secretary, showing up at the top of the briefing.

You were making the point that's pretty unusual for him to do a briefing in the White House briefing room as opposed to the briefing room as opposed to over at the Department of Defense.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes. I can't remember a time in any recent years when the defense secretary briefed from the White House. Just doesn't happen. I've seen presidents, Obama and Bush, go and brief at the Pentagon, but I've never seen it the other way around. I think it speaks to the degree to which -- and my colleagues will probably be smarter on this than me -- but the degree to which they want to make this budget deal about military spending. And it makes it that much harder for people to vote against it when you have Jim Mattis going to the White House briefing room, and with a full-throated endorsement of it, it's going to be hard for, I think, folks in the House to fight that. Maybe they'll have their causes, but that makes it tough.

CILLIZZA: And one thing that unified both parties, at least most of both parties was the sequestration deal in the first place. These are automatic cuts. I mean, that was something they don't --

BLITZER: That's going to go away?

CILLIZZA: This gets rid of that. So focusing on that piece of it is probably your smartest --


BLITZER: Remember Sarah Sanders, speaking for the president of the United States, said, Jackie, "We applaud what the Senate has worked up. We're happy about it. We would like to move forward."

They want to look at the language. Of course, they always say that. Clearly, sending a message to those Republicans in the House of Representatives: vote for this.

KUCINICH: Mattis also made it very hard for the president to root for a shutdown. Again, which he did just a day ago. And --


BLITZER: He flipped on that. Yesterday, he said --


BLITZER: She moved away. She's tried to clean up what the president said yesterday.

KUCINICH: But if you have your defense secretary going out with that full-throated defense, I think we know where the president stands at that point.


CILLIZZA: It leaves us sort of dead in the water.


CILLIZZA: It's a huge problem, 24 hours after the president said, I would love a shutdown.


BLITZER: Mattis said, flatly, he said, "A government shutdown would be very damaging to the military, would paralyze everything. There would be a ripple effect throughout the military force."

He basically said, don't shut down.

KIRBY: Yes. He doesn't want a shutdown. He also tried to find a little sliver in there to maybe not throw the president under the bus by talking about how the real damage comes from that continuing resolution.

BLITZER: All right, guys. There's, clearly, a lot going on.

The news will continue here.

That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

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