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White House plays cleanup on Trump's Sessions tweet, grocery store claim

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president's tweet Wednesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should end the Russia probe was just an opinion, not an order.
Image: Trump acknowledges crowd during MAGA rally in Tampa
Sanders was asked about several statements the president made both during and after his Tuesday trip to Tampa.Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Cleanup in aisle POTUS.

In a rare briefing with White House reporters on Wednesday — there were just three in July, lasting a total of less than an hour — White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tried to tamp down growing brushfires over the president's call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe and his claim at a political rally in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday that customers have to show a photo ID to buy groceries.

"This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further," Trump tweeted Wednesday morning after saying nothing about the investigation the previous night. "Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!"

Sanders defended Trump's public lobbying of the nation's top law enforcement official on an investigation that has yielded prosecutions of Trump campaign and White House officials.

"It’s not an order, it’s the president’s opinion," Sanders said. "And it’s ridiculous that all of the corruption and dishonesty that’s gone on with the launching of the witch hunt. The president has watched this process play out but he also wants to see it come to an end, as he has stated many times, and we look forward to that happening."

And even though the FBI's probe of Trump's campaign was established before the FBI was given information collected by Christopher Steele, whose opposition research was paid for by both Republicans and Democrats, Sanders pointed to his materials as the catalyst for the investigation.

"The entire investigation is based off a dirty discredited dossier that was paid for by an opposing campaign," she said, accusing former FBI officials of acting corruptly.

Trump's photo ID assertion, which is untrue, was part of an argument he made for strengthening voter-ID laws to prevent fraud. He suggested in his remarks that it is harder to buy food than to vote, and has said in the past that he believes millions of votes were illegally cast in the 2016 election.

Sanders said she did not know when the last time the billionaire president shopped for groceries, or why that matters.

"Certainly if you go to a grocery store and you buy beer and wine you’re certainly going to show your ID," Sanders said.

"Is that what a president who doesn’t drink meant?" she was asked.

"He’s not saying every time he went in," Sanders said.

The president's remarks in Tampa on Tuesday did not suggest that showing ID was a requirement just for age-restricted sales of alcohol and tobacco: "You know, if you go out and you want to buy groceries, you need a picture on a card," he said.

More important, Sanders was asked whether Trump still maintains that millions of people voted illegally in the last presidential election.

"Even if there are 10 people that are voting illegally," she said, "it shouldn't happen."

The president's vote fraud commission, which was empaneled to investigate allegations of widespread fraud at the polls, was disbanded in January without uncovering any evidence to support those assertions.

Sanders also addressed a question about Trump rally attendees' shouting down CNN's Jim Acosta by chanting "C-N-N sucks" when he tried to broadcast live from the event Tuesday night.

"When it comes to the media, the president does think that the media holds a responsibility. We fully support a free press, but there also comes a high level of responsibility with that," she said.

"The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risk valuable national security tools. ... One of the worst cases was the reporting on the United States' ability to listen to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in the late-1990s."

The satellite phone story has been discredited. The Washington Post has previously reported that the story she alluded to was not the first to reveal the existence of bin Laden's phone, and that the terrorist leader himself had divulged his method of communication, as had the government of Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban at the time.

Asked again whether the president thought it was wrong for his supporters to interfere with reporters' ability to broadcast, Sanders appeared to suggest he did not.

"While we certainly support freedom of the press, we also support freedom of speech," she said. "And we think those things go hand in hand."

CORRECTION (Aug. 1, 2018, 5:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated when President Donald Trump held a rally in Tampa, Florida, and when Press Secretary Sarah Sanders held a briefing with White House reporters. The rally was Tuesday night, not Monday, and the briefing was Wednesday, not Tuesday.