It had been more than two weeks since White House press secretary Sarah Sanders held a formal briefing.
And reporters had many, many questions.
Sanders faced a slew of queries from journalists on Monday about Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” and an anonymous op-ed published in The New York Times.
Early last week, excerpts were released from Woodward’s book, which depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation. Then, on Wednesday, a New York Times op-ed penned by an anonymous senior White House official claimed that a group within the administration is trying to “frustrate” parts of the president’s agenda.
President Trump said on Friday that Department of Justice should try to identify the op-ed writer. So a reporter today asked Sanders what, specifically, the president believed warranted such an investigation.
Sanders replied that if an individual is trying to undermine the presidency and is potentially attending meetings where national security is being discussed, “that would certainly be problematic and something the Department of Justice should look into.”
When a different reporter later continued to press the issue, Sanders replied, “I’m not an attorney. It’s the Department of Justice to make that determination, and we’re asking them to look into it and make that determination, and they certainly are fully capable of doing that. But someone actively is trying to undermine the duly elected president — that seems quite problematic to me and something that they should take a look at.”
When asked if the White House is actively trying to find out the identity of the op-ed writer, Sanders said that staffers are “focused on things that actually matter.”
“Frankly, it’s sad and pathetic that a gutless anonymous source could receive so much attention from the media,” she said.
Since Trump has brought up potentially taking action over the column being published, a reporter asked if the president seriously didn’t think the op-ed was protected by the First Amendment.
Sanders’ response to that question was a bit testy.
“I think it’s less about that part of it and whether somebody is actively trying to undermine the executive branch of the government and a duly elected president of the United States,” she said. “If they don’t want to be part of that process, they shouldn’t be here.”
She also said that “no lie detectors are being used or talked about or looked at as a possibility” to ferret out the writer’s identity. (Vice President Mike Pence this weekend said he would take a lie detector test “in a heartbeat” to prove that he was not the author.)
“Frankly, the White House and staff here are focused on doing our jobs and trying to show up here everyday and better the American people, not deal with cowards that refuse to put their names in an anonymous letter,” Sanders said.
When asked what the president thought about talk of invoking the 25th Amendment, a process to remove the president that was mentioned in the op-ed, Sanders said the whole notion was “about as ridiculous as most of Bob Woodward’s book.” (US Senator Elizabeth Warren is among those who have said Trump administration officials might do well to eye the 25th Amendment.)
“The fact that that’s actually being honestly discussed is ridiculous, and frankly it’s insulting” to the people who voted for Trump, Sanders said.
Several other reporters took on the president’s response to Woodward’s book, in which the author quoted several top administration officials — including John Kelly and Jim Mattis — telling close associates that Trump was an “idiot,” acted like he was “unhinged,” and had the intellect of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.” Trump dismissed the book last week as a “work of fiction.”
When one reporter asked if Trump, who has brought up libel laws, is actually considering filing a lawsuit over the book, Sanders said she would keep the press posted before going on at length about Woodward’s reporting methods, adding that Kelly and Mattis have pushed back on the comments attributed to them.
“A number of people have come out and said Woodward never even reached out to corroborate statements Woodward attributed to them, which seems incredibly reckless for a book that makes such outrageous claims — to not even take the time to get a $10 fact-checker to call around and verify that some of these quotes had happened,” she said. “No effort was made. It seems like a very careless and reckless way to write a book.”
A different journalist asked if the White House would give a list of everything in the book that they thought were inaccurate, to which Sanders replied, “I think that would be a complete and utter waste of our time, so no.”
And when one reporter asked how Trump could expect to win a credibility battle against Woodward — the Washington Post reporter who helped uncover the Watergate scandal and take down then-President Nixon — Sanders had a response ready.
“I would certainly rather take the actual on-record account from people who are here who have been working in this building, who have interacted with the president day in day out, like General Mattis, like General Kelly, like myself, not disgruntled former employees that refuse to put their name on things when they come out to attack the president,” she said.
Wire material from The New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.