Press Briefing by Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:49 P.M. EDT
MS. MCENANY: Hello, everyone. The front page of the New York Times is not the venue for discussing classified information. The White House podium is not the venue for discussing classified information. We are here today, having this discussion, because of an irresponsible, anonymous leak to the New York Times. There is no good scenario as a result of this New York Times report.
Who's going to want to cooperate with the United States intelligence community, who's going to want to be a source or an asset, if they know that their identity could be disclosed? Which allies will want to share information with us if they know that some rogue intelligence officer can go splash that information on the front page of a major U.S. newspaper?
Specifically, there are two bad scenarios that emerge from this report: Number one, this report makes it more difficult to come to a consensus on this matter, to verify intelligence. And number two, this level of controversy and discord plays directly into the hands of Russia and, unfortunately, serves their interests.
Since before President Trump assumed office, damaging and oftentimes erroneous leaks seeking to undermine or delegitimize the duly elected president have been published. According to the DOJ, classified leaks surged in this administration. There were, under President Obama, just 39, on average, criminal leak referrals. In this administration, we've seen 100 criminal leak referrals to the DOJ in 2017, 88 in 2018, and 104 on average per year.
We have seen targeted leaks of classified information against this President, and it is irresponsible: phone calls with foreign leaders, meetings with government officials, and now reports of alleged intelligence. Make no mistake: This damages our ability, as a nation, to collect intelligence.
As the National Security Council noted just yesterday, "To those government officials who betray the trust of the people of the United States by leaking classified information, your actions endanger our national security."
The ODNI said, "The selective leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats, and places our forces at risk. It is also, simply put, a crime."
And finally, the CIA said this: that "Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability."
To the anonymous sources who leak classified information, you should know this: You may seek to undermine our President, but in fact, you undermine our country's safety and our country's security.
And with that, I'll take questions.
Q: Thank you, Kayleigh. When did White House officials first learn that this intelligence about Russian bounties existed?
MS. MCENANY: I will say this: The President was never briefed on this, this intelligence still has not been verified, and there is no consensus among the intelligence community.
Q: Does the President wish that he had been briefed sooner? I mean, today, Joe Biden called it a "dereliction of duty."
MS. MCENANY: This is a piece of intelligence information that had no consensus, has not been verified. Still, to this day, has not been verified. And there are several intelligence agencies on the record noting that. You have the Department of Defense saying that there has — they have no corroborating evidence to validate [sic] — validate the recent allegations. The NSC: "...Allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the intelligence community..." And the ODNI: "We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reportings."
But that didn't stop the New York Times from putting it on the very first page of their newspaper and stopping us from getting to an ultimate conclusion and an ultimate place of having a consensus on the alleged intelligence.
Q: You said that —
Q: Just one more question. If this intelligence does turn out to be true, is the President prepared to take some serious action against Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin?
MS. MCENANY: The President has always taken tough, unadulterated action against Russia. We saw that there's no diplomatic presence on the West Coast of our country, of Russia, because the President closed the consulates. We saw he expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers; sanctioned hundreds of targets; withdrew from the INF Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty; tried to halt Nord Stream — still trying to do that; impose visa sanctions, and many other actions.
So make no mistake: This President is prepared to act and will always act in protecting our American troops. We saw in Syria, in the strikes in 2018, that dozens of Russian mercenaries were killed. He will always act, prot- — to protect American troops. That is indeed his track record.
Q: There's a briefing — an intel briefing on the President's schedule today. Will this matter be part of his briefing this afternoon?
MS. MCENANY: The President has been briefed on what is unfortunately in the public domain because of the New York Times and the irresponsible leak. Yes, he has been briefed, but that does not change the fact that there is no consensus on this intelligence that still has yet to be verified.
Q: I have one more question.
MS. MCENANY: Yeah. Darlene?
Q: On another subject: Republican allies of the President, like Kevin McCarthy and Lamar Alexander, have said that it would be great if the President would wear a mask in public, sometimes, to set an example. How much weight do words from McCarthy and Lamar Alexander carry with the President?
MS. MCENANY: The President has said he has no problem with masks; that he encourages people to make whatever decision is best for their safety and to follow what their local jurisdictions say. CDC guidelines are still recommended, but not required. And the President is the most tested man in America. It's his decision whether to wear a mask.
Q: But to set an example?
MS. MCENANY: Justin.
Q: I wanted to look back on you saying that the President had never been briefed. There's, I think, some dispute over whether, in February, his PDB included this intelligence information. And so I'm wondering if you can say whether or not, you know, he may not have read the briefing book that he was presented with, but was he at some point at least given access to this information.
MS. MCENANY: So the PDB is a top-secret document that is widely disseminated among government. I will never sit here and confirm or deny what is in a top-secret document. So I'll leave it at that.
One thing I will say that is routine is when there is intelligence — and I was speaking with some folks over at NSC about this earlier and some other folks around the White House — when we get intelligence — verified or unverified, deemed credible or not credible, deemed consensus or no consensus — if that information in any way impinges upon the safety of our troops, that information goes to our troops on the ground and to our allies so they can take the appropriate measures.
What is briefed up to the President — and in this case, it was not the case; was never briefed to the President of the United States because there was no consensus — what is briefed to the President is when there's a strategic decision to be made. So in this case, if there was a strategic decision to be made vis-à-vis Russia, those are the kind of things that are briefed to the President when they're deemed credible. But in this case, it was not briefed to the President, there is no consensus, it was not credible.
But make no mistake: This President will always protect American troops.
Q: I mean — sorry, just — just to follow on that. I think there's two points. One, I would say that press secretaries in the past have disclosed, in certain instances, what was in the PDB.
But secondly, I mean, this is a relevant issue because — and I think critics have seized on this and said, "Well, if the President isn't reading his PDB, he might not know that there are these policy decisions to be made," right? If a President was presented with this information, it's unverified, he could be alarmed; change his posture towards Russia; conceivably ask intelligence officials to work harder to determine whether or not this was true; make, you know, a series of judgments.
And so, I guess more broadly, you know, I would re-ask the question of whether it was in his material, but asking maybe to defend why the President isn't necessarily reading his PDB when there are these types of issues that could arise.
MS. MCENANY: The President does read, and he also consumes intelligence —
Q: So, then it wasn't in his PDB?
MS. MCENANY: — verbally. This President, I'll tell you, is the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face. You have Ambassador O'Brien, who sees him in person twice a day, who sometimes takes the upwards of half a dozen calls with this President. He's constantly being informed and briefed on intelligence matters.
But I'm not going to allow the New York Times to dictate when we give top-secret information and don't give top-secret information. That's —
Q: But let me just square the —
MS. MCENANY: — an untenable proposition.
Q: Just to square the circle there, then —
MS. MCENANY: Yes, Emerald.
Q: Thanks, Kayleigh. Does the White House have any comment on Bruce Ohr testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Hill today?
MS. MCENANY: So, no comment on that specifically. But what I would say more generally is that what Bruce Ohr and others in the Obama-era government have to answer for is quite substantial: When you had a dossier full of lies weaponizing against this President — Bruce Ohr's wife, of course, being involved in the creation of that dossier, which was funded by the Democrat National Committee and in coordination with the Hillary Clinton campaign, and was used to spy on the Trump campaign, to be the basis for two FISA warrants, to launch a three-year investigation into Russia collusion that ultimately ended in an exoneration of this President and an immense waste of taxpayer dollars — Mr. Ohr and many others have a whole lot of questions to answer for.
Q: So why wasn't it — why was it behind closed doors? Why wasn't it televised, given the public interest in these players in the Russia investigation?
MS. MCENANY: That would be a question for Congress, but I think the public deserves to know Mr. Ohr's answers on those matters.
Q: And then one more, if I may. You opened about leakers. Democrat lawmakers are calling for a briefing from intelligence officials. They aren't satisfied with the White House personnel today. Is there a concern to brief Democrat lawmakers, especially Adam Schiff, given the leaks out of his committee?
MS. MCENANY: Look, I mean, I think that Democrats should come forward in good faith. And if anyone has politicized intelligence — we've had the New York Times acting entirely irresponsibly, and you have the Democrat Party politicizing this information, which I think is absolutely disgraceful.
Q: Hi. Yes. Thank you, Kayleigh. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should, quote, "absolutely not," unquote, be allowed back into the G7. Does President Trump agree with Mitch McConnell?
MS. MCENANY: Look, I haven't spoken to him on that matter. The President believes that we have to have diplomatic relationship — relations with the top economies of the world. But there's been no one that's been tougher on Russia than this President. I went through several of those actions.
And also, I would note that when it comes to acting on viable, actionable, credible intelligence, there has been no one who has acted more forcefully than this President. He has a track record of that. He has made protecting our American troops overseas his highest and strongest priority.
As you know, Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of 600 Americans and thousands maimed from, quote, "explosively formed penetrators, other improvised explosive devices, improvised rocket-assisted munitions, rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms, snipers, and other attacks in Iraq." This is what Soleimani did to our American troops.
You had President Bush, who declined to strike Soleimani, who was, quote "in the crosshairs," according to the New York Times. You had Obama-Biden who, quote, "never made an effort to strike Soleimani."
But you had this President who, when he had actionable intelligence to protect American troops, he did it. He took that option. He was criticized by Democrats. "Democrats condemn Trump's strike on Soleimani," as your publication, Axios, had in a headline. NBC said, "Democrats demand answers on Soleimani killing." Politico, "Top Democrats blast Trump's ‘false' justification for Soleimani killing." And the Atlantic asked, "Why Kill Soleimani Now?"
We removed Soleimani from the battlefield — President Trump did — to protect our American troops, based on credible intelligence. He did the same with al-Baghdadi, who was responsible for 300 public beheadings, who killed thousands of captured prisoners of war. When this President had actionable intelligence, he took action, criticized by Democrats for it, but that's what this President does: He acts in defense of our American troops.
Q: You said it was "targeted leaking" in the New York Times. Who's doing the targeting and why are they doing it?
MS. MCENANY: It's a — it's a great question. But these are rogue intelligence officers who are imperiling our troops' lives. We will not be able to get — very likely not be able to get a consensus on this intelligence because of what was leaked to the New York Times. And you have both the NSC, ODNI, and CIA all noting what damage this leaks does, not just to the safety of our troops, which is paramount, but to the ability of the United States to aggregate information from our allies and have assets and have — get this valuable information. So who's doing it? It's —
Q: Are you saying members of the IC are going after Trump? Is that what you're saying?
MS. MCENANY: It very possibly could be. And if that's the case, it is absolutely despicable.
Q: Kayleigh —
MS. MCENANY: Yes.
Q: On that note, is the Trump administration doing anything or taking any action, like an audit of the IC? Or what steps are you planning on taking to try to find the source of the leaks?
MS. MCENANY: Well, make no mistake: The DOJ has done several criminal leak referrals — 120 in 2017, 88 in 2018, 104 on average, per year, under President Trump. So we do take those steps.
And we do have a President who, ultimately, when it comes down to the safety of our troops, he doesn't take impulsive action, he takes deliberate action. And we saw that in the killing of Soleimani and the killing of al-Baghdadi and the protecting of our troops. And at the same time, when you had Iran, who shot down a drone, he chose not to strike back in that instance. He chose to protect civilians, protect our troops. It was the measured response; it was a proportionate response.
And ultimately, the ultimate way to protect American troops is to not get into needless foreign wars. This President is on record for decades and decades and decades opposing — opposing foreign wars. And Iraq is a great example, a 20 — nearly two-decade war. You have this President who, when Washington was unanimous in saying, "We're going into Iraq," this President said, "No, that's not the right decision."
He's wound down our troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he's ultimately protected American troops and kept this country safe. And this President has a very strong foreign policy record to be incredibly proud of.
Kayleigh McEnany, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/342137