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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

White House Press Briefing; Anthony Scaramucci Resigns. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 31, 2017 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:08]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to start with that big breaking news in the politics lead today.

Could anyone have predicted so much staff turnover from a man whose catchphrase is, "You're fired"?

Just over an hour ago, another name added to the growing list of major exits under President Trump. Now it's White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gone after just a week and change on the job.

His official start date was supposed to be mid-August, for what that's worth.

In the last hour, during a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, President Trump made no mention of the Scaramucci departure, but we do expect to hear something more in the White House daily briefing, which is set to begin any moment now. We will bring that to you live.

We mentioned that long list of exits in just over six months. Other high-profile departures include Reince Priebus out last week as chief of staff, Sean Spicer out the week before as press secretary. Mike Dubke, he was the previous communications director. James Comey as FBI director, of course. Michael Flynn was national security adviser.

That doesn't even include lower-level departures. The White House now resembling the Red Wedding from "Game of Thrones."

Let's get right to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, there were questions about how Scaramucci might interact with the new White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly.

It's Kelly's first day on the job. He was sworn in this morning. This removal gives us a little bit of insight into how Kelly felt about Scaramucci.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It gives us a lot of insight into that, Jake. And the short answer is, he didn't think much of him. He didn't think

he was the right fit for this new order he's going to try to impose on the West Wing. But it also gives us a window into how much authority the president is going to give his new chief of staff.

Jake, this is something that may not have happened, you know, a few weeks or even months ago. It's clear the president is giving John Kelly, at least now in the opening days, this honeymoon phase, if you will, the full authority who goes in the Oval Office, who sees the president and the staffing decisions as well.

This is something that is a key question here. The chief of staff, among other things, is the one who controls access, who has the president's ear, who sees him in the Oval Office.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Here's Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the podium.

ZELENY: Sure.

TAPPER: We're going to listen in. Thanks so much, Jeff.

ZELENY: Right.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Waiting for you.

Good afternoon, everyone.

Before we get started, I'd like to bring up National Security Adviser 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.

H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: 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 its 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.

STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: 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, Nicolas Maduro 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.

[16:05:08]

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 Nicolas 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 have a full and prosperous democracy.

As the country's head of state, Maduro is directly responsible for Venezuela's dissent and for the destruction of democracy. Adding Maduro to OFAC's list of specifically designated national 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 (INAUDIBLE) and 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 will take a few questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, if these sanctions don't work, what would happen next?

And I guess, General McMaster, a question to you. Have we ruled out if there is anything on the table other than economic sanctions?

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.

QUESTION: And to General McMaster?

MCMASTER: The president's prioritized really his concern for the Venezuelan people. And so he's only considering those options which would benefit directly the Venezuelan people.

QUESTION: 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.?

MNUCHIN: I can't comment on his assets, and this will be the fourth head of state.

In the back, yes.

QUESTION: I have two questions, one on the sanctions and another one about the election yesterday.

And about the elections, I want to know if you see the elections as an attempt by Nicolas Maduro to consolidate power in the (OFF-MIKE) election next year? And, also, some say (OFF-MIKE) and also "The Washington Post" editorial board say that the Venezuela regime is only direction of a coup, is moving to the direction of a coup.

Does the American government fear that it's a coup under way in Venezuela? And then the question on the (OFF-MIKE) I asked about.

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.

(CROSSTALK)

MNUCHIN: Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

This question is for either or both of you. How is this different from what happened in Turkey, when President

Erdogan also seized expanded powers in the referendum that some considered to have a questionable result? President Trump congratulated President Erdogan on that, and he later came to the U.S. and his people beat protesters in front of his embassy.

What's the difference?

MCMASTER: Well, I mean, one difference is, you see the end of the constitution of Venezuela. And this is happening obviously at an accelerated pace and in recent months over -- in the Maduro regime.

[16:10:05]

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 Assembly, Constituent Assembly.

MNUCHIN: Right here. Yes. Right here.

QUESTION: Is the administration contemplating any action at the U.N. Security Council in terms of multilateral sanctions against the Maduro regime?

MNUCHIN: Again, I think, as we have said before, this president is not going to advertise what he is going to do in the future. So, all options are on the table and we will consider everything.

(CROSSTALK)

MCMASTER: I'm sorry? What was the question?

QUESTION: Have you spoken to any other American allies about the issue of punishing...

MCMASTER: Yes.

You have seen the president's statement to say 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's committed to working with partners in the region on behalf of the Venezuelan people.

MNUCHIN: And we had several countries last week join us in our previous sanctions.

Yes, right here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) conversations, Secretary, 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 these conversations to happen over the next 24, 48 hours?

MNUCHIN: I think we're not going to comment on that.

QUESTION: 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?

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 this situation and determine what's appropriate.

Right here.

QUESTION: 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?

MNUCHIN: Let me just say, as we continue to monitor the situation, we 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...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Would sanctions against oil...

MNUCHIN: I'm not going to comment on that. What I will say is, we will monitor all of our options.

QUESTION: 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 the direct succession.

This occurred in Haiti, when President Aristide was overthrown. Are you still abiding by the agreement Secretary Powell signed and ruling out any U.S. support of a coup or an uprising against the Maduro regime that brings in new leadership?

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.

Thank you. One more question right here. One more question.

QUESTION: Are there going to be sanctions on the minister of defense, the people linked to the military? MNUCHIN: Again, as I have said, we have announced sanctions. We will

continue to monitor the situation and consider everything in the future.

Thank you, everybody. Appreciate it.

HUCKABEE 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. I know we're used to doing the briefing, so I will just have a few updates before I get to your questions.

And 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's no better representative for the United States than the first lady. 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 that you may have.

As you know, the vice president is overseas on a three-country visit to Eastern Europe.

[16:15:02] 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 is one of only five NATO member states that meet 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. As the vice president continues to strengthen our relationships with our friends and allies in Europe during his travels.

Here at home, the Department of Commerce and Energy welcomed news of a partnership between American energy and the government of Ukraine. Ukraine state-owned power generation company will purchase American thermal coal ahead of the upcoming winter season. This participation 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 continue to move our country down the path of energy dominance, we hope to see more mutually beneficial partnerships like this in the future.

And, lastly, I know we all just saw the ceremony that just ended in the East Room. And Specialist 5 McCloughan was in at six (ph) afterwards, but I think his heroic story bears repeating again. For 48 harrowing hours of close combat fighting in Vietnam, he has voluntarily risked his life multiple times to protect his comrades. Even after 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.

With that, I'll take your questions.

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: What happened, Sarah?

SANDERS: This is kind of fun. How long will you yell?

Jean, go ahead.

REPORTER: Is Anthony Scaramucci still in the administration? Does he have another role besides communications director? Can you talk a little about the circumstances of his departure this morning?

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.

REPORTER: Is he at the bank?

SANDERS: Not at this time.

REPORTER: 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?

SANDERS: I'm not getting into the process, tick-tock. Look, as we've said several times before, what matters most to us is not who is employed in the White House but who is 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 focus on.

John?

REPORTER: Sarah, was it a chief of command issue? Because Scaramucci said he had a direct line of communication to the president. There's been some speculation that General Kelly may try to tighten up the number of inputs the president has. So, was it something about the chain of command or did it have anything to do with that interview Scaramucci did last week?

SANDERS: Look, the president firmly 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 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.

REPORTER: When you say didn't want to burden him with that line of succession, you mean the chain of command?

SANDERS: Yes. Correct.

REPORTER: If I could just clarify one point about this chain of command. Apparently, Jared Kushner said they look forward to following General Kelly's lead. When it comes to people who has access to the president, will that conduit be narrowed down now? Will everything flow through Kelly or will some things still fall from the chief of staff?

SANDERS: The president has given full authority to General Kelly and he'll make those determinations.

April?

REPORTER: Sarah, this statement that was released by the White House said 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.

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.

REPORTER: And a follow up, Sarah, with the new hierarchy with General Kelly, tell us what it looks like in this administration.

SANDERS: You know, 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.

[16:20:09] And in terms of -- I'm not going to draw out a work chart up here, but we'll keep you guys posted as --

REPORTER: 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?

SANDERS: I think I've been clear that General Kelly has the full authority to carry out business as he sees fit.

John Decker?

REPORTER: Thanks, Sarah. Real quick one first, I have two. Real quick one regards Sean Spicer, will he be in the administration in any way now that Anthony Scaramucci has announced that he will not be part of the Trump administration?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of any changes that have been made on that front. REPORTER: And my second one is this, 10 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?

SANDERS: I think it's pretty simple. I've seen it before, if you want to see chaos, come to my house with three preschoolers. This doesn't hold a candle to that.

Just to be clear, that's not an open invitation to come to my house. But if you guys want to schedule babysitting time, I'll be happy to work that out.

REPORTER: Does the president regret hiring Anthony Scaramucci?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get into anything beyond what I've said on that front.

REPORTER: You said you don't want to get into the process, but you already did. The statement said Scaramucci felt, so you're basically laying this on him, saying it was his decision. Was it his decision?

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.

REPORTER: 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. You said a few minutes ago, he didn't want to burden Kelly with that line of succession. The he there --

SANDERS: The president.

REPORTER: That's the president. So, you were saying that it's the president who was deciding that --

SANDERS: Look, we all serve with pleasure to the president, but I think this was a mutually agreed conversation that took place between several people.

Steven? Sorry, another topic.

REPORTER: On Russia and Russia's 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?

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. 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.

REPORTER: Why hasn't he taken the opportunity to say something to President Putin? I mean, I talked to folks today who said it's striking the silence from the president, you know, with no sort of response out of his own mouth. He had a couple opportunities today to say something about it and he didn't.

SANDERS: Right now, we're reviewing our options and when we have something to say on it, we'll let you know.

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: Not to beat a dead horse, but --

SANDERS: Why not, that's our favorite thing to do.

REPORTER: You said all staff will report to the new chief of staff. Does that include Jared Kushner? Does that include Steve Bannon, everyone reports to Kelly?

SANDERS: That includes everybody at the White House.

REPORTER: OK, and I also want to ask about tax reform. Will the administration absolutely support a version of tax overhaul that comes of the Ways and Means Committee?

SANDERS: We're working hand and glove with -- we put out a joint statement with the Big 6. We'll continue working with them and announce details as they come forward.

Francesca?

REPORTER: 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? Any more staff shake-ups? Everyone else in senior staff positions plan to remain at this time?

SANDERS: Yes, they are.

John Gizzi?

REPORTER: 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?

SANDERS: We'll let you know when we have any personnel announcements to make on that front.

REPORTER: 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?

[16:25:08] SANDERS: I believe he was making a joke at the time.

Trey?

REPORTER: 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?

SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get into anything beyond what I've said on that front.

REPORTER: 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?

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.

REPORTER: 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?

SANDERS: There are no conversations about any cabinet members moving in any capacity and the president has 100 percent confidence on all members of his cabinet. Hallie?

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: I have two questions for you. 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?

SANDERS: I said he found it inappropriate for a person in that position.

REPORTER: To do what?

SANDERS: I believe the comments that he made, he found those comments inappropriate. I'm not sure what's unclear.

REPORTER: OK, the betrayal (ph) sort of rest of the staff, I'm trying to find out, you talk about the messaging being important for the president here and obviously the head of the communications department is crucial to that effort. I'm trying to figure out what exactly went wrong between this morning when Scaramucci was here and this afternoon?

SANDERS: Again, I don't think it's complicated to understand the president thought the comments were inappropriate. I can't really explain it any further than that. I'm not sure the conflict -- REPORTER: On North Korea, obviously, through the weekend,

(INAUDIBLE), there's been some discussion from outside analysts who are increasingly speculating about the possibility of a first strike. That an option on the table for this White House?

SANDERS: As we've said many times before, the president is not going to broadcast any decisions, but all options are on the table.

Peter?

REPORTER: Thank you, Sarah. The president's week before last signed an executive order on infrastructure. Does that mean that the president has no -- not no 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 front for infrastructure, especially digital since he mentioned it in Iowa?

SANDERS: Absolutely. The president has been very outspoken for the need of a massive overhaul on the country's infrastructure system. That certainly still a priority, but legislative and in any capacity that he has the ability to carry that out.

Matthew?

REPORTER: Thanks, Sarah.

Just kind of big picture here. We've seen a chief of staff, the deputy chief of staff, and both communications director, press secretary, national security adviser, 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 getting into the process, but just all those things together, what's going on?

SANDERS: Look, we're continuing to focus on the president's agenda. We're going to have staff changes. We'll 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 this building, not focused on the ones within. We're going to continue to do that.

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: A quick follow-up on health care.

SANDERS: Sure.

REPORTER: Nick Mulvaney said the White House doesn't want any votes in the Senate until they're voting on health care with John McCain out, Pence out of the country, they don't appear likely to vote on health care. 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-health care things over the next few weeks and months?

SANDERS: We're continuing to push forward hopefully with the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. We've never been shy about that. We're going to continue to do that.

Alexis?

REPORTER: The president's legislative affairs director was talking today at the meeting about the president's tax reform initiative (ph). I wanted to know if you could elaborate on the president's hope to travel on August to begin to talk about tax cuts and tax reform and interesting maybe getting some Democratic senators, interested in supporting legislation. Do you have any details that you can supply about where he might go and the message he wants to confront?

SANDERS: Not at this time, but certainly, we'll be sure to keep you guys posted on the president's travel and schedule throughout August. And now, 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.