White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah joined me this morning:
HH: I am joined now by Raj Shah, deputy press secretary at the White House. Good morning, Raj, great to have you.
RS: Hugh, thanks so much for having me on. Good morning.
HH: Now it is the fact that you have a two hour delay in D.C. today. The government doesn’t have to report for two extra hours. Why are you at your desk when you don’t have to be there until 10?
RS: I practically live at this desk, Hugh, working around the clock to support this President. We’ve got a lot going on today. We’ve got trade actions, we’ve got trying to rally support for this omnibus spending bill. So we’ve got a lot to take care of. And so, you know, talking to you is just the beginning of the day.
HH: All right, let’s get down to the most important thing. Obviously, the President and Joe Biden, I grew up, I’m a child of the 70s. The three fights between Frazier and Ali culminating in the Rumble in the Jungle, I mean, the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975. We’re going to have one or three throwdowns between the President and Joe Biden?
RS: Well look, I think that you know, if Joe Biden wanted to take on this President in the ring, so to speak, he could have in the last election. He could have actually, you know, jumped in and faced him and taken on Hillary Clinton as well and tried to challenge him. He didn’t. He couldn’t, because he, just like Hillary Clinton, would be running on eight years of failed policies that didn’t kick start our economy like you’re seeing right now, that didn’t kind of reorient our foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, in a way that’s actually showing victory against ISIS, and actual pressure on North Korea. So you know, we think that, you know, we’d like to see him at the ballot box. We’d like to see him in the boxing ring. You know, this President obviously can speak for himself and hold his own, but you know, I think that Joe Biden’s rhetoric has been over the top. And I love how the media likes to criticize only this president, but when Joe Biden goes into kind of La La Land, he gets a pass. Well, we’re not going to stand for that.
HH: Well now, you know, Mitt Romney got in the ring for charity, and so I’m thinking this could be a winner if we did this. So you might want to check with the boss to see if we can get this going. If Romney can do it, then we can get the President and Joe Biden to go three times, I think, just like the big three. You’re too young to remember that. That was such a big deal, kind of consumed all of life. Raj, let’s talk about the serious stuff first. In Axios this morning, a senior GOP Senate aide called, a Senate aide, called Jonathan Swan to vent. Everyone is over the leaks from this White House. Why is it that every emotional moment he has, has to be leaked, has to be a tick tock, every second has to be transmitted to you guys in the press? It’s a disservice to the President when every single thing and every single thought gets leaked out. I don’t understand why people don’t get that. It’s not fair to the President, to his agenda, and to those who work hard every day to move the ball down the field. I guess you just operate under the assumption, this is a second senior GOP aide from the House, I guess you just operate under the assumption that everything is going to be leaked out in short order, and you just have to be aware of that when you go to meetings with the White House. Is that your assumption, Raj Shah, that someone in your meeting is going to leak everything that is said?
RS: Well, I don’t go through that, go through life with that sort of assumption. And I would say that I don’t know who these unnamed Capitol Hill aides are. Obviously, it would be better if they could put their name on a statement like that, because they seem to be engaged in the kind of practice that they’re not preaching, rather preaching something that they’re not practicing. And also, we’ve had many meetings here on Capitol Hill in which literally moments later once the Hill staff or members leave, you know, the contents of those meetings are leaked to the press, and it’s not coming from our side. But leave that aside. You know, this individual, whoever said that, or individuals, they’re right on the points. Leaking is wrong. Leaking is bad. If you have a problem with what the President or the administration is doing, you should resign and go public and say so. You know, make your case in a way that is honorable, right? You know, so this phone call with Vladimir Putin, this most recent leak, is damaging. It’s troubling, because you know, the president of the United States should be able to receive confidential and candid advice from his advisors in briefing documents and other documents. These things are typically very sensitive, if not classified, and their leak does not allow us to do our jobs. And so…
HH: Raj, what, give the audience and me a sense of how many people would have had access to the briefing document. I don’t know what the providence of the briefing document is. I don’t know if the General McMaster wrote it or if it came down the line from the staff. I have no idea what credibility to assign it, because it’s out in the blue, and like you say, it’s classified. But how many people would have had access to it who could have leaked it?
RS: Well, I don’t have a number, but I will say it’s a small universe of individuals. It’s, you know, this is something that’s a little bit brazen in its nature and in its style. And frankly, it’s designed for one purpose – to politically embarrass the President from people that work for him, or that should work for this U.S. government and allow the free flow of confidential information to the President from his team to operate without it being leaked to the press routinely. And you know, this is a very big problem. This is something that you know, we in this building take very seriously. And you know, your unnamed aide, while I don’t know if they’re the best messenger, has a very strong point, which is that if you can’t have candid and confidential conversations with the President, and with senior officials here, that are being leaked to the press, how are we able to do our jobs?
HH: All right, Raj, let’s move on to, I had a conversation with Chris Coons earlier today about the omnibus, and about the President’s nominees. He committed to me to go to the minority leader, Schumer, to urge that Rick Grenell be confirmed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has talked about our ambassador designee for Berlin a couple of times. Are you confident that Grenell is going to get a vote?
RS: We are hoping. We are hopeful, and we believe that he certainly is highly qualified, absolutely deserves a vote. And you know, when you look at the tactics that Senate Democrats have been engaged in, they’ve really hit a new low when it comes to blocking nominees, qualified nominees. Often times, what you’re seeing is them forcing hours and hours of debate to just delay a vote on an individual, and then end up voting for him anyway. We’ve seen that with judges. We’ve seen that with cabinet nominees. We’ve seen that over and over. And their whole point, and their whole objective here is to just stall our agenda by blocking nominees. I mean, everybody kind of knows that the first, you know, two to three years is where a new president can get their agenda passed before they kind of move into reelection mode. And you know, this is the time, and by stalling, blocking, and doing everything they can to prevent really just the staffing of government, what they’re doing is preventing, then, moving on to issues like infrastructure, immigration and other matters that we need to focus on to get this President’s agenda passed.
HH: So why not now at a moment of maximum leverage, they’re going to have a deal, they’re going to send it to the President, they’re going to ask him to sign it. Why not say I will sign this as soon as the Senate gets a unanimous consent resolution on my 140 nominees? Why not use the President’s leverage right now to get his nominees?
RS: Well, that’s a fair question. And I think that you know, the President has been, and the team here has been pushing as hard as we can to get, you know, the Senate to begin acting more and more on our nominees. It’s, you know, something that the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has talked about, and something that others in the Senate have talked about. You know, we have different points of leverage. We’ll continue to use them when and if we can. But you know, the Constitution is clear. The Senate has the right advise and consent, not blockade and obstruct aimlessly.
HH: The minority doesn’t. The majority does. The majority can do that. We did that with the vacancy on the Supreme Court, but that was a majoritarian deal, not a minority deal. So Raj, is there some discussion about refusing to sign the omnibus until the vote on nominees occurs?
RS: Well, I’m not prepared to go there. You know, that has not, that has not been discussed before me. So I wouldn’t be prepared to issue that kind of an ultimatum. I will say, though, it’s really dishonorable, and it’s not just one of those political games that folks play back and forth. Not having ambassadors to key posts matters.
HH: Yeah, of course.
RS: And not having senior officials at DOD and State and other places matters. And blocking them for, you know, purely political reasons is dishonorable.
HH: Well, when you see the Chief of Staff or the President today, suggest it might be a good time to just say hey, we’ve got this great bill here, but I’m not signing it until I get my nominees. I think that would work. Now Raj, this is a technical question. I’m not asking for your opinion.
HH: I’m asking for a fact. Is there planning underway for a vacancy at the Supreme Court?
RS: Yes, there is. There always is. the President has actually released a list, and he actually expanded it last year around November…
HH: He added Bret Kavanaugh, yeah.
RS: Yeah, yeah, to have qualified Supreme Court justices, or potential justices that he would be intent on nominating should there be another vacancy. And he is, and the legal team here, has spoken with many of these individuals, knows a lot of these individuals, understands their judicial philosophy, and wants to make another all-star pick just like the President did last year with Neil Gorsuch. And I would say, and we commend the fact that this has been a very transparent process. The President’s philosophy on judicial nominees is clear to the point where he has offered names of individuals he intends to nominate from a list, all of whom share the similar philosophy, kind of like Justice, you know, the late Justice Scalia did, which is of you know, interpreting the Constitution as it was written and as it was intended to be interpreted, and not sort of rewriting the law and rewriting the founder fathers’ intent.
HH: That’s good. So do you personally expect one in June?
RS: That’s always hard to say. It’s hard to be predictive.
RS: I’ve not seen any information that others don’t have.
HH: Now let me ask you, let me move on to the question of the FBI special counsel. Mr. McCabe was fired, and it turns out he had opened a criminal investigation into Jeff Sessions and had not told the Attorney General about that. This is a smoking hot mess at the FBI. Do you, Raj, does the White House believe a second special counsel should be appointed by the Attorney General to investigate the conduct at the FBI and the intelligence agencies during 2016 and early 2017?
RS: Well, we have deferred to the Attorney General on these types of matters. The President’s personal attorneys have weighed in and have expressed support for a second special counsel. I think stepping back and looking at the issue more broadly, there are serious concerns about how the FBI has conducted the two most politically sensitive investigations in recent memory. With the Hillary Clinton investigation, the way in which it handled both her interview, the way it handled evidence, the way in which this individual, Peter Strzok, who was the leader investigator, had anti-Trump texts, was you know, writing and rewriting James Comey’s pretty famous statement last, or not last July, but in July of 2016, raised all sorts of questions up and down, you know, kind of the spectrum, and then the way in which they’ve handled this investigation, from relying on this dossier, from using it in a FISA Court. The GOP memo from the House Intelligence Committee, all sorts of questions have been raised about the FBI’s conduct. You know, we do believe that Chris Wray is the right man to go in there, clean up the FBI, clean up its senior ranks. He’s already begun to take action on a host of ones, and you know, Attorney General Sessions took action when it came to Andrew McCabe. You know, so we want the facts to come out. We want the public to be able to see what has and hasn’t happened, and we want, you know, confidence restored in the thousands of rank and file FBI agents who risk their lives and honorable serve this country on a daily basis. So we want to see that fixed. How and in what ways that happens, we’re going to defer to the Department of Justice and to the AG on how that is engaged in. But yeah, we’ve seen a lot of things that raise a lot of very serious questions.
HH: They do. I wish the President would just direct the AG to appoint him. He can do that. But that’s my second message back to the Chief of Staff and the President today. Raj Shah, always a pleasure. Follow him, @RajShah45 on Twitter. Let’s talk again soon, deputy press secretary at the White House.
End of interview.