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White House's Raj Shah On State Of The Union


Let's follow up on President Trump's State of the Union speech. Raj Shah is on the line. He is the deputy White House press secretary. Mr. Shah, welcome to the program.

RAJ SHAH: Thanks a lot for having me on this morning.

INSKEEP: So the president made a number of gestures toward unifying the country. He talked about protecting people regardless of their background or color or religion. But in the same speech, he also talked about illegal immigrants killing people. There was a lot of harsh rhetoric, and here's a response to that from Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Let's listen, then we'll talk about it.


CHRIS MURPHY: That was not a unifying speech. There were a number of great Americans there, and I was glad to stand up and applaud for them. But in between those introductions was a ton of divisive rhetoric. We didn't get any closer to a deal on immigration or on the federal budget. We got further away.

INSKEEP: Raj Shah, you are in the middle of these intensive negotiations. Why would the president throw in that rhetoric about murder and chain migration and so forth?

SHAH: Well, let me just say off the gate in response to Senator Murphy - I do think it was a very unifying address. There was a lot that Democrats could have embraced. They seemed unwilling to want to. You know, I saw clips of Democrats sitting on their hands when the president talked about historic lows in unemployment among all Americans, including African-Americans and Hispanics. If that's not news you can't clap for, I don't know what there is to clap for.

But on the issue of immigration, the president talked about four key issues and four key pillars of his plan that Democrats and Republicans agreed to only a few weeks ago at the White House to move forward. The president has offered a path to citizenship and legalization for nearly 2 million people here illegally. He's reaching across the aisle and offering something that Democrats can embrace and, in exchange, wants real border security, wants to end, you know, a pathway for criminal illegal immigrants to come across our porous southern border...

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you mentioned...

SHAH: ...Without - with very little security. Yeah. Go ahead.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned, Mr. Shah, that he has offered a pathway to citizenship for people in the DACA program, which makes me wonder - when he uses that harsh rhetoric in the State of the Union speech, is he actually speaking to his political base, hard-liners who are against that and reassuring them he's still going to be tough?

SHAH: Well, the president crafted out a pretty hard line during the campaign. He talked about building a wall. He talked about deporting criminal illegal immigrants. That was certainly part of the proposal that he introduced during the campaign, and he won the election. These are mainstream proposals that the president ran on, won on and he believes the American people - we believe the American people want.

The country wants a compassionate program for people who have come here illegally as children. But they also want security. Border security is one of the most popular polled items that this president stands for. And, you know, Senator Murphy and other Democrats may not agree with it, but he's offering right now a balanced approach that many Americans would agree to.

INSKEEP: One of the people watching the economic portions of the speech was a woman named Renee Elliott. And I want to hear from her next. She, along with about 500 other people, was laid off from a Carrier manufacturing plant in Indiana. And as you know, Mr. Shah, this is a plant where President Trump, before he even took office, intervened and tried to get what looked like a deal to save their jobs. Here's what Renee Elliott says now.

RENEE ELLIOTT: And he can tell other people stories, that's for sure. And it just - he strikes me now as an opportunist. And I am so disgusted within myself that I believed his rhetoric and bought into it.

INSKEEP: Did the president not live up to his word in the case of the Carrier plant?

SHAH: Well, our heart goes out to Ms. Elliott and everybody else who's struggling to find a job in our times right now or any other times. I would say on the issue of Carrier specifically, there were nearly a thousand jobs saved from the president and Governor Pence at the time's actions - now the vice president.

But on the issue of the economy, let's look at the whole nation and what the president's doing. You are having stories that we haven't seen in decades. You're having hundreds of companies make investments in the United States - create jobs, expand benefits, give workers bonuses - as a result of the tax cut bill. You're seeing unemployment at near two-decade lows, wages rising, the stock market soaring through the roof, which means more pensions and more secure savings for millions of Americans.

So the economic record overall of this president and what's happened over the last year is tremendous. I mentioned African-American and Hispanic unemployment - female unemployment, unemployment record levels for veterans - is all hitting new lows. And it's a sight that we haven't seen before. And we think that we're about to boom and move forward even quicker. So we think that millions - tens of millions of Americans have a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to the economy.

INSKEEP: Mr. Shah, I want to ask you about something that was not emphasized in the speech last night, and that is sanctions against Russia. As you know, Congress - everybody the president was facing - nearly all of them voted in favor of sanctioning Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. President Trump has repeatedly called that interference a hoax, and the administration says this week it's not actually going to enforce the sanctions. It feels that, for the moment, that essentially threatening Russia is punishment enough. Why not follow the will of Congress?

SHAH: Well, first off, if you look at the actual report issued by the State Department, they make a compelling case for why deterrence has worked. And when it comes to Russia, this president has been tough. He has called out election meddling. You used the word hoax. He has used that to describe allegations of collusion for which there have been millions of dollars of taxpayer money spent to try to find evidence of collusion between the president or his campaign last year - or rather in 2016 - and the Russian government. Not a shred of evidence has been found.

INSKEEP: OK, let me stop you for a second, though. I understand what you're saying there. But can you name an occasion on which the president has specifically and strongly said Russia interfered in the 2016 election, that was wrong, and it must not happen again, and we're going to make sure it doesn't?

SHAH: Absolutely, last November in Asia. And I would encourage you to find the tape and play it. The president was specifically asked about this and asked about comments that Vladimir Putin made to him. And he said while Vladimir Putin claims he didn't interfere in the election, he believes the intelligence agencies that many in the United States have told him that he does.


SHAH: And also...

INSKEEP: He actually said, I asked Vladimir Putin, and I asked him a couple of times. And you can't just keep asking him. That was as tough as he could manage to get with Vladimir Putin.

SHAH: No - and he said he trusts the words of the intelligence agencies. Remember, there were sanctions put in place in December of 2016. We have not lifted them. And the president has done much more to hold Russia accountable. He is arming Ukraine with offensive weapons. That's something President Obama refused to do.

INSKEEP: And that is surely happening?

SHAH: He issued airstrikes.

INSKEEP: That is surely happening?

SHAH: Hang on. He ordered airstrikes.

Sorry - say that again.

INSKEEP: I've just got about 10 seconds. The arming Ukraine with offensive weapons - that is surely happening?

SHAH: Absolutely, as with the airstrikes in Syria that President Obama refused to issue that were against Russian interests. This president's been tough, and he's going to continue to be tough.

INSKEEP: Raj Shah, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

SHAH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is the deputy White House press secretary.

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