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White House Responds To Questions About More Staff Shake-Ups

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 10:05 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has been repeatedly criticized for the perception that he's too soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin and for waffling about whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. But today his administration took significant actions against Russia. It imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations in retaliation for that election interference. The targets include those named in an indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller. The actions are the most significant steps against Moscow since Trump took office.

The White House also issued a joint statement with Britain, France and Germany denouncing Russia as the likely perpetrator of a nerve gas attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. Asked whether Putin was behind the nerve gas attack, Trump said this.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it, something that should never, ever happen. And we're taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.

SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Does this represent some kind of new stance against Putin?

LIASSON: Well, as you said, there has been this narrative that the Trump administration and Trump himself is loath to criticize or take action against Vladimir Putin. They've been accused of dragging their feet in imposing the sanctions that Congress ordered with legislation that was passed almost unanimously. But today they did release that list of sanctions for a bunch of individuals and entities in Russia. They also put out a statement with NATO allies where they accused Russia of using the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II. They called it an assault on the United Kingdom's sovereignty.

And then you have the president himself saying he believes the nerve gas attack was Russian and probably ordered by Putin. But when asked today if Trump considers Putin a friend or a foe, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, hedged.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that's something that Russia's going to have to make that determination. They're going to have to decide whether or not they want to be a good actor or a bad actor. I think you can see from the actions that we've taken up until this point we're going to be tough on Russia until they decide to change their behavior.

LIASSON: So not a full-throated pushback against Russia, but definitely they're taking steps that they've been reluctant to take in the past.

SHAPIRO: And on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, The New York Times is reporting that Mueller's team has subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organization. What's the White House saying about that?

LIASSON: Well, this is a report that Mueller is subpoenaing documents relating to Russia - in other words, Trump Organization financial dealings with Russia. Or maybe they sold some condos to Russia. And the question that Sarah Sanders got today was about a comment Trump made a while ago in a New York Times interview where he said if the special counsel started to look into his family finances beyond any relationship with Russia, he would consider that a red line. In other words, the suggestion was that he might fire Mueller if that's where the investigation went.

Today, when asked about it, Sanders didn't answer the question. She referred it to the Trump Organization, which said today that it was fully cooperating all along with the Mueller investigation. And Sarah of course repeated that the White House is cooperating also, and of course there's been no collusion, which is what the president says over and over again.

SHAPIRO: I also want to ask you about the flurry of reports that more Cabinet changes are coming - any word from the White House on that?

LIASSON: Yes. The president himself has said he's moving toward the Cabinet and other things that he wants. Today he said there will, quote, "always be change." Sarah Sanders says this is just the normal churn of any administration. The president wants the right people at the right time. She rejected the idea that all this turnover creates an image of chaos or instability. That being said, there has been more turnover at the Trump White House and Cabinet than any previous administration.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson speaking with us from the White House. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.