Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:45 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Another light crowd today. Good afternoon. First off, before we get started, I’d like to bring up Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert to tell you about an executive order on cybersecurity that the President just signed. He’ll take a few of your questions and, respectfully, I ask that you keep your questions for him on the topic of the executive order. And don’t worry, I’ll come back and answer all of the rest of your pressing questions as soon as he wraps up.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Tom.
MR. BOSSERT: Thank you, Sarah. Thank you very much for your time. Couple of things positive to report today, and the first is that President Trump, about an hour ago, signed an executive order on cybersecurity. And that executive order, among other things, is going to keep his promise that he has made to the American people to keep America safe, including in cyberspace.
I’d like to do a few things. I’ll promise you that we will distribute the executive order, but if I could, I’ll preview the executive order for you, walk you through its three primary sections, some of its wave tops, and then take your questions.
Among other things, at least as an observation for me, I think the trend is going in the wrong direction in cyberspace, and it’s time to stop that trend and reverse it on behalf of the American people. We’ve seen increasing attacks from allies, adversaries, primarily nation states but also non-nation state actors, and sitting by and doing nothing is no longer an option. So President Trump’s action today is a very heartening one.
There are three sections. They’re in priority order, in a sense. The first priority for the President and for our federal government is protecting our federal networks. I think it’s important to start by explaining that we operate those federal networks on behalf of the American people, and they often contain the American people’s information and data, so not defending them is no longer an option. We’ve seen past hacks and past efforts that have succeeded, and we need to do everything we can to prevent that from happening in the future.
So a few things on federal networks. We have practiced one thing and preached another. It’s time for us now, and the President today has directed his departments and agencies, to implement the NIST framework. It’s a risk-reduction framework. It is something that we have asked the private sector to implement, and not forced upon ourselves. From this point forward, departments and agencies shall practice what we preach and implement that same NIST framework for risk management and risk reduction.
The second, I think, of note -- point in protecting our federal networks is that we spent a lot of time and inordinate money protecting antiquated and outdated systems. We saw that with the OPM hack and other things. From this point forward, the President has issued a preference from today forward in federal procurement of federal IT for shared services -- got to move to the cloud and try to protect ourselves instead of fracturing our security posture.
Third point I would make is that the executive order directs all its department and agency heads to continue its key roles, but it also centralizes risk so that we view our federal IT as one enterprise network. If we don’t do so, we will not be able to adequately understand what risk exists and how to mitigate it.
Number of thoughts on that. Among other things, that is going to be a very difficult task. So modernizing is imperative for our security, but modernizing is going to require a lot of hard, good governance. And responsible for that today is the President’s American innovation -- Technology Council, I’m sorry. The President’s American Technology Council is going to run that effort on behalf of the President here out of the White House. And we have great hope that there will be efficiencies there, but also security.
And I would probably note to you that other countries have taken two or three years to learn what we just came up with in two or three months, and that is that we can’t promote innovation without first thinking through risk reduction. So doing that together is a message that we’ve learned, but doing it together is a message we’d like to encourage private sector folks to adopt.
So point two in the executive order is our critical infrastructure cybersecurity effort. The President has directed the President’s Cabinet to begin the hard work of protecting our nation’s most critical infrastructures -- utilities, financial and healthcare systems, telecommunications networks. He’s directed them to identify additional measures to defend and secure our critical infrastructure. And he’s continued to promote the message that doing nothing is no longer an option.
So the executive order not only requires his departments and agencies to help those critical infrastructure owners and operators and the most important ones, but to do it in a proactive sense. The message is a tilt towards action.
We’ve seen bipartisan studies, as an observation from me, over the last eight years, both parties. They’ve made powerful recommendations. They have not been adopted for various reasons. This executive order adopts the best and brightest of those recommendations, in my view.
I’m going to stop with those three and take questions.
Q Two questions for you real quickly. First --
MR. BOSSERT: Actually, if I could --
Q Yes, please. Brian.
MR. BOSSERT: Brian, go ahead.
Q First, was the Russian hack in any way responsible or an impetus for this? Number two, I’ve talked to IT people who say putting stuff on the cloud actually can be problematic as far as security. So what additional security measures would you apply to the cloud to make sure that it’s not as risky as some of the IT people tell us it would be?
MR. BOSSERT: Couple questions there. So let me say three things first. The third section of the executive order -- may be the one I skipped over here a moment ago -- speaks to two halves. It speaks to not only the need to develop the norms and the interoperable, open communication system that is the Internet -- the United States invented the Internet and it’s time to maintain our values on it -- but it also speaks to a deterrence policy which has long been overdue.
And so the Russians are not our only adversary on the Internet, and the Russians are not the only people that operate in a negative way on the Internet. The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, other nation states are motivated to use cyber capacity and cyber tools to attack our people and our governments and their data. And that’s something that we can no longer abide. We need to establish the rules of the road for proper behavior on the Internet, but we also then need to deter those who don’t want to abide by those rules.
So the answer to your first question is, no, it wasn’t a Russian-motivated issue, it was a United States of America-motivated issue.
Q And the second question about the cloud, that security on the cloud -- IT people say it’s --
MR. BOSSERT: If we don’t move to shared services -- we have 190 agencies that are all trying to develop their own defenses against advanced protection and collection efforts. I don’t think that that’s a wise approach.
There’s always going to be risk. And so your questions is, are we still at risk? Yes. I’m not here to promote for you that the President has signed an executive order and created a cyber-secure world in a fortress U.S.A. That’s not the answer. But if we don’t move to secure services and shared services, we’re going to be behind the eight ball for a very long time.
Q Thank you.
MR. BOSSERT: You’re welcome. Sir.
Q You said “sitting around doing nothing.” Is it your contention that the Obama administration, that was its approach to cybersecurity? Sitting around and doing nothing? Question one. And number two, you talked about one enterprise network. Does that mean every system throughout the federal government under this executive order, the ambition is to make them all the same? Or protected in the same way?
MR. BOSSERT: No. So I’ll answer them in reverse order, if I can.
What we need to do is view the federal government as an enterprise as opposed to just viewing each department and agency as its own enterprise. So the Department of Homeland Security -- and Secretary Kelly will play a large and leading role in this effort in implementing the President’s executive order -- as an enterprise. And their enterprise network covers 340,000 or so employees and their contractors and so forth. They are responsible, and that Secretary of each department and agency will remain responsible, for securing those networks.
But we need to look at the federal government as an enterprise as well so that we no longer look at OPM and think, well, you can defend your OPM network with the money commensurate for the OPM responsibility. OPM, as you know, had the crown jewel, so to speak, of our information and all of our background and security clearances.
So what we’d like to do is look at that and say, that is a very high risk, high cost for us to bear, maybe we should look at this as an enterprise and put collectively more information in protecting them than we would otherwise put into OPM looking at their relevant importance to the entire --
Q So their budget, in other words.
MR. BOSSERT: No, not just their budget but based on what they do. So each department and agency has a responsibility to protect its own networks, but they now have a responsibility to identify their risk to the White House, to the President, so that we can look at what they’ve done and, just as importantly, what risk they know they’re accepting but not mitigating. There’s a lot of identified risk, but there’s also a lot of identified and not remediated risk.
So that mitigation strategy is going to have to come through a centralized place. We’ve seen other countries, Israel and others, adopt a centralized view of risk management and risk-acceptance decisions. So that’s the answer to your question.
The second question, though, maybe, is that --
Q “Sitting around doing nothing.” Is that the administration -- the previous administration’s approach, from your vantage point?
MR. BOSSERT: I think that the observation is that we have not done the basic block-and-tackling of thinking of the Internet as something that the American people benefit from. I think what we’ve done is focus on the federal IT portion of it. I think that a lot of progress was made in the last administration but not nearly enough. I think we’re going to change that. And I think looking at this from the perspective of a deterrence strategy, to be honest, yes, I think the last administration should have done that, had an obligation to do it and didn’t.
Q I was wondering if the administration has a view on what might constitute an act of war with regard -- what kind of cyberattack might constitute an act of war.
MR. BOSSERT: There’s a whole lot that we’ll talk about in terms of what constitutes a cyberattack, what’s war and what’s not war. The Tallinn Manual and other things are important. But I think the most important answer to your question is that we’re not going to draw a red line on cyberwar at this point today. It’s not within the direct scope of the executive order. But it also would violate I think the President’s primary mission he made to not telegraph our punches.
If somebody does something to the United States of America that we can’t tolerate, we will act.
Q You said that the goal of this is to secure the Internet. You talked about the Internet as something that Americans use and enjoy. Well, the technical standards for most things on the Internet are put together by many international standards organizations and engineers, and things like that that often aren’t in the United States. Has there been any talk of outreach to these sorts of bodies to try and build in security into the next generation of protocols?
MR. BOSSERT: Yeah, absolutely. So the message here is not just protecting the people of America. We have an “America first” perspective, but the idea of having likeminded people with similar viewpoints, like our allies, developing with us the open, operable Internet is something key to figuring out how we will define what is and is not acceptable.
We can’t cut off the Internet at our borders and then expect it to operate in a viable way. And if there are good ideas coming out of Germany, then we’ll take them. If there are good ideas coming out of Peoria, we’ll take them as well.
Q You mentioned the American Technology Council a short time ago. We really don’t have much of an indication that there’s going to be, like, significant Silicon Valley or tech leaders who are going to be coming here. We know that there have been reports the President has had a few phone calls with someone like Mark Zuckerberg. Can you enlighten us a bit? Who can we expect to see here coming to the White House next month? Can we expect to see someone like Mark Zuckerberg working closely with the administration when it comes to that council?
MR. BOSSERT: So let me go backwards a little bit. Instead of telling you who the President did and didn’t talk to -- I’ll probably get that wrong anyway -- I’ll tell you that there’s a lot to be learned from private industry. And among other things, that stuff needs to come into the White House in the appropriate way.
And so we talk on a regular basis to leaders, some that are technical leaders, some that are business leaders. My point of calling out the American Technology Council was to point out that they’re going to have a leadership role in modernizing our federal IT. And that has a lot of reasons, right? There’s efficiencies and cost-savings that are beyond just security.
So this executive order speaks to the security component of it. And I would direct you then to the American Technology Council and their efforts as you look through and think about those other efficiencies.
But as an example, we’ve heard numbers that suggest the federal government spends upwards of $40,000 per employee on their IT service costs. And that is so out of line with private industry that Secretary Ross and others would probably have a very easy time buying and making a lot of money off of a company that’s so poorly invested their dollars, and so I think you’ll see that innovation come from that group of leaders and thoughtful people.
And then in terms of what you’ll see over the next month, I would say I don't know the answer to that specifically, but I'd like to take the opportunity and the opening before Sarah pulls me to thank two or three people, and one of them high on my list is Mayor Giuliani. I'd like to thank him for the advice he’s given to me and to the President and to others as we formulate this thinking. I'd like to thank Representative McCaul. I'd like to thank a few other members of Congress -- Representatives Ratcliffe and Hurd; Representative Nunes, Senator Collins, Senator McCain, in particular; Senators Burr and Whitehouse. There’s a number of people that provided thought leadership and taken action to pass legislation -- all those things that we've liked and that has improved our cybersecurity over the last eight years.
So I don't want to be critical of things that have happened over the last eight years, but I do want to look forward to improvement.
Q Can you -- a former Obama administration official who dealt with other countries and other entities in other countries -- he said that there were tens of thousands of attempts to hack into government systems daily. Can you quantify, can you confirm or deny that?
MR. BOSSERT: No. The answer for “no” is that we see that happen and we then start getting into a numbers game. And what I think would be a better argument right now -- not to cut off that question, it’s a reasonable one, but the better answer here is for us to figure out how we can provide a better collective defense of our federal IT and those networks and data that we operate. If we do it based on an individual attack basis, we're probably looking at it in the wrong way.
Q So was this person correct when they said entities from around the world --
MR. BOSSERT: I would say it this way, without numbers -- the trend line is going in the wrong direction. We see additional attacks, additional numbers, additional volume, and occasionally additional successes that trouble us. And that's the best way I can quantify that for you today.
Q Thank you.
MR. BOSSERT: You're welcome. Thank you.
Q Can you just say why the cybersecurity order was delayed? This was going to come out one day early in the administration. And there had been a lot of talk about concern from Silicon Valley and tech leaders with the direction that it was going in. So are those -- do you have some sense of the kind of support that this order has, or not, from the tech world?
MR. BOSSERT: I want to answer you and even reject part of your question, if I can, and I think that will be clarifying. So first, I'll reject one part of your question. So we did see some concerns, but I don't think that they remain. And I look forward to their response after they read the President’s executive order today.
One of those concerns, for example, arose when they read the voluntary call of the President’s executive order, which I applaud today, that we reduce greatly the number of botnet attacks in the United States -- the distributed denial of service attacks. That's going to require voluntary cooperation among all the different owners and operators of different privately held companies -- from service providers to manufacturers of goods. And those things are going to have to happen voluntarily.
What the President calls for is for the government to provide the basis for that coordination, without defining who’s in and who’s out -- it's a voluntary operation. But we know that they have the technical capacity, if they have the will, to come together on behalf of the American people and reduce those botnets dramatically. And the President is calling for them to do that. He’s asking for the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Commerce to facilitate that.
And what we thought we saw was reflections of a concern that there would be a compulsion, and I think that's something that I can put to rest today -- and that's why I poked into your question a little bit.
But then, if I could, the broader question of delay, I don't really much take that either. I think sometimes we've been criticized for doing things too quickly, and now maybe we're being criticized for doing things to slowly. So maybe I'm right in the middle of the sweet spot, I would argue. But I think the President has hit this timing perfectly.
And I'll tell you three reasons why. One of the block-and-tackle things that he directed us to do before the executive order was to get the money right. He’s picked a Cabinet full of people that know that business operations and business functions have to follow first so that you can then provide policy that he can implement -- right? So policy sets direction and vision, but if you don't have the right money and back-office infrastructure and so forth to implement those things, then you have to either change your vision or change your amount of money.
And so, just off the top of my head, I just thought you might ask that question. The first I already preemptively answered, and that is that we tend to learn a lesson here that we don't want to innovate with policy on the innovation side, and secure with policy on the security side without doing that in tandem. And you saw the President signed on Friday last the Technology Council and he signed today the cybersecurity order. And that was done intentionally.
And then, lastly, in between now and then, the President’s FY18 budget allocated $319 million to DHS’s cybersecurity budget alone. We have dedicated an increase of $1.5 billion across all departments involved in protective cyberspace.
So, from my perspective, both his first budget request and his future ones have right-sized and aligned that amount of money, keeping America safe. And that might answer all three components of your question.
And with that, I know Sarah wants to pull me away. So thank you so much for your time.
Q -- the President address concerns Americans might have about political motivations that these cybersecurity companies like -- for instance, you mentioned Facebook -- they’re very political --
MS. SANDERS: Maybe Tom could come back to questions later. Thank you so much, Tom. And actually, he was wrong on one thing -- I would gladly have let him stay up here and talk cybersecurity with you all day. (Laughter.)
I have a few announcements. And then, as promised, I will get to, I'm sure, all of your many pressing questions. I'd like to announce that the President also just signed another executive order establishing a bipartisan presidential advisory commission on election integrity. This will be chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. The President is committed to the thorough review of registration and voting issues in federal elections. And that's exactly what this commission is tasked with doing.
The bipartisan commission will be made up of around a dozen members, including current and former Secretaries of State, with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach serving as vice chair. It will also include individuals with knowledge and experience in elections, election management, election fraud detection, and voter integrity efforts.
Five additional members that have been announced as of today -- Connie Lawson, the Secretary of State of Indiana; Bill Gardner, Secretary of State of New Hampshire; Matthew Dunlap, the Secretary of State of Maine; Ken Blackwell, former Secretary of State of Ohio; and Christy McCormack, a commissioner on Election Assistance Commission.
The commission will review policies and practices that enhance or undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of federal elections, and provide the President with a report that identifies system vulnerabilities that lead to improper registrations and voting. We expect the report will be complete by 2018.
The experts and officials on this commission will follow the facts where they lead. Meetings and hearings will be open to the public for comments and input, and we will share those updates as we have them.
In Cabinet news, Secretary Perdue is in Cincinnati, Ohio today to announce the Agriculture Department’s plan for reorganizing to provide better service to the American people, as the President directed in his March 13th executive order. With the barges of the Ohio River behind him, many of which contain products that are beginning a journey that will ultimately take them to markets overseas, Secretary Perdue will announce a new mission area for trade and foreign agriculture affairs, recognizing the growing importance of international trade to the agriculture sector of the economy.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement will hold a press conference at 2:15 p.m. today -- probably not too far away -- to announce the results of a highly successful recent gang surge operation. The President has made enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws a top priority, and today’s announcement will underscore not only that commitment but his focus on targeting transnational gangs and prioritizing the removal of criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety.
Also today, Secretary Mattis met with the Turkish Prime Minister in London to discuss a range of bilateral security issues, and the Secretary reiterated the United States’ commitment to protecting our NATO ally. And both leaders affirmed their support for peace and stability in Iraq and Syria.
One other thing I wanted to point out -- last night, Obamacare suffered another serious blow as Aetna announced its decision to pull out of the Nebraska and Delaware marketplaces, which ends their participation in exchanges completely. They’ve sustained hundreds of millions of dollars over the last several years and is projected to lose more than $200 million in 2017. The company attributes those losses to structural issues within the exchanges “that have led to coop failures and carrier exits and subsequent risk pool deterioration.”
This latest news adds to the mountain of evidence that Obamacare has completely failed the American people, and reinforces why there is no time to waste in repealing and replacing this law before it takes our entire healthcare system down with it.
Finally, I know -- those hands -- I know we sent out a timeline regarding the former -- the firing of former Director Comey yesterday, because there seemed to be some misperceptions about the meeting between the President and the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General on Monday. But I'm going to read it to you all again just to make sure we're all on the same page, because I want the sequence of events to be perfectly clear to everyone.
The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey. After watching Director Comey’s testimony last Wednesday, the President was strongly inclined to remove him.
On Monday, the President met with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General and they discussed reasons for removing the Director.
The next day, Tuesday, May 9th, the Deputy Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the Attorney General and the Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the President.
Hopefully, that clears up some of those things. And with that, I will take your questions.
Q Sarah, in the Lester Hold interview the President just had he made a number of remarks. Why did the President think that James Comey was a “showboat” and “grand-stander”?
MS. SANDERS: I think probably based on the numerous appearances that he made, and I think that it's probably pretty evident in his behavior over the last year or so with the back-and-forth. And I think that it speaks pretty clearly -- those words don't leave a lot of room for interpretation, so I think it's pretty clear what he meant.
Q When were these three conversations that the President had with James Comey about whether he was under investigation? He said one was at dinner, two phone calls. Was that since January 20th, or when?
MS. SANDERS: That’s my understanding. I don't have exact on when those phone calls took place.
Q Sarah, two parts of the Comey question regarding the interview the President just gave. First of all, isn't it inappropriate for the President of the United States to ask the FBI Director directly if he’s under investigation?
MS. SANDERS: No, I don't believe it is.
Q But one of these conversations the President said happened at a dinner where the FBI Director, according to the President, was asking to stay on as FBI Director. Don't you see how that's a conflict of interest -- the FBI Director is saying he wants to keep his job, and the President is asking whether or not he’s under investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I don't see that as a conflict of interest, and neither do the many legal scholars and others that have been commenting on it for the last hour. So, no, I don't see it as an issue.
Q But, Sarah, the other question I want to ask you about is, I asked you directly yesterday --
MS. SANDERS: That will be three, I think.
Q Different subject related to Comey. I asked you directly yesterday if the President had already decided to fire James Comey when he met with the Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General, and you said, no. Also the Vice President of the United States said directly that the President acted to take the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General to remove the FBI Director. Sean Spicer said directly, “It was all him,” meaning the Deputy Attorney General. Now we learn from the President directly that he had already decided to fire James Comey. So why were so many people giving answers that just weren’t correct? Were you guys in the dark? Was the Vice President misled again, as happened with Mike Flynn --
MS. SANDERS: I know you’d love to report that we were misled and what it creates -- I let you finish and read off every single one of those statements, so unless you want to trade places, I think it's my turn now.
I think it's pretty simple. I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly with the President to say -- I'd had several conversations with him, but I didn’t ask that question directly, “had you already made that decision.” I went off of the information that I had when I answered your question. I've since had the conversation with him, right before I walked on today, and he laid it out very clearly. He had already made that decision. He had been thinking about it for months, which I did say yesterday and have said many times since. And Wednesday I think was the final straw that pushed him. And the recommendation that he got from the Deputy Attorney General just further solidified his decision and, again, I think reaffirmed that he made the right one.
Q Was the Vice President in the dark, too?
MS. SANDERS: Nobody was “in the dark,” Jonathan. You want to create this false narrative. If you want to talk about contradicting statements and people that were maybe in the dark, how about the Democrats. Let’s read a few of them. You want to talk about them? Here’s what Democrats said not long ago about Comey. Harry Reid said Comey should resign and be investigated by the Senate. Senator Chuck Schumer said, “I don't have confidence in him any longer.” Senator Bernie Sanders said it would not be a bad thing for the American people if Comey resigned. Nancy Pelosi said Comey was not in the right job. Former DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Shultz said that she thought Comey was no longer able to serve in a neutral and credible way. President Obama’s advisor, Valerie Jarrett, reportedly urged him to fire Comey. Just yesterday, Representative Maxine Waters said that Hillary Clinton would have fired Comey.
If you want to talk about people in the dark? Our story is consistent. The President is the only person that can fire the director of the FBI. He serves at the pleasure of the President. The President made the decision. It was the right decision. The people that are in the dark today are the Democrats. They want to come out, they want to talk about all of these -- they love Comey and how great he was.
Look at the facts. The facts don't lie. Their statements are all right there. I think it's extremely clear that -- and, frankly, I think it's kind of sad -- in Washington, we finally have something that I think we should have all been able to agree on, and that was that Director Comey shouldn’t have been at the FBI, but the Democrats want to play partisan games. And I think that's the most glaring thing that's being left out of all of your process stories.
Q Sarah, you said from the podium yesterday that Director Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file of the FBI. On Capitol Hill today, the Acting Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe directly contradicted that. What led you and the White House to believe that he had lost the confidence of the rank and file of the FBI when the Acting Director says it's exactly the opposite?
MS. SANDERS: Well, I can speak to my own personal experience. I've heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the President’s decision. And I think that we may have to agree to disagree. I'm sure that there are some people that are disappointed, but I certainly heard from a large number of individuals -- and that's just myself -- and I don't even know that many people in the FBI.
Q And a question to what you were saying about the Democrats. Clearly, they didn’t like James Comey too much after the October 28th pronouncement that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Their point now is the timing is different, that this was in the middle of an investigation. Do they have a point?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. And I think Mr. McCabe made that point far better than I could today when he said that there’s been no impediment to the investigation. And as I said before, any investigation that was taking place on Monday is still taking place today. So I think that's, again, another sad story by the Democrats that they’re trying to peddle.
Q Thank you. Another comment from the hearing today -- the Acting Deputy Attorney General said -- I'm sorry, McCabe said that he considers the investigation into Russian meddling in the election to be highly significant. In the past, the President has said that the investigation was a hoax, and he’s questioned even recently whether maybe it wasn’t Russia, it might have been China. Does the President consider this investigation to be highly significant?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think he would love nothing more for this investigation to continue to its completion. I think one of the reasons that the “hoax” component is the collusion component that has been the false narrative that you guys have been pushing for the better part of a year. I think that's the piece that he is repeatedly talking about being the hoax.
Q But in terms of the threat to national security, does he take that seriously? Does he think that's significant? Putting aside the --
MS. SANDERS: Of course, he takes national security seriously. I mean, to even hint that he doesn’t I think is to misunderstand this President completely. From the very moment that he stepped onto the campaign stage, to the day that he took the oath of office to become President, he has talked about national security. He's made that one of the biggest priorities in the administration. You just saw Tom Bossert here talking about cybersecurity. On all fronts, whether it's securing the border, whether it's protecting people abroad here, the President has been focused on that.
Q Does the think what Russia did during the election was a threat to U.S. national security?
MS. SANDERS: You know, I haven’t had the chance to ask him about that. I think we're still waiting on the final conclusion of that investigation.
Q Is he open-minded about that? He doesn’t know --
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think any time we have somebody interfering with our election, that would be considered a problem, and I think the President would certainly recognize that.
Q Sarah, I appreciate it. Two questions. First, as has been mentioned, Vice President Pence yesterday said the firing was based on the recommendation of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. We know now that that's not true. Was the Vice President misled again, or did he mislead the American people?
MS. SANDERS: I believe I answered that question.
Q But if you have, I don’t think I caught it, because the Vice President said yesterday that the President chose to accept and support the decision of the Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General.
MS. SANDERS: He certainly accepted the Deputy Attorney --
Q (Inaudible) going to do it either way.
MS. SANDERS: But that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t still accept his recommendation. I mean, they're on the same page. Like, why are we arguing about the semantics of whether or not he accepted it? They agreed. I mean, I'm not sure how he didn’t accept the Deputy Attorney General's recommendation when they agreed with one another.
Q So if I may just switch topics slightly. If the President knew he was going to do this, why ask for those memos to begin with? Why not just fire Comey? Why have these memos put out and then explain that he did it because of the memos, but then say that he was going to do it either way? I'm confused as to why we even got those memos.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think he wanted it to get the feedback from the Deputy Attorney General, who the Director of the FBI reports to. Again, it further solidified the decision that he had made. The only person that can fire Comey was the President. He made that decision. It was clearly the right one, as evidenced by all of the comments, both by House and Senate Democrats, Republicans, and many people within the FBI.
I think instead of getting so lost in the process -- did this happen at 12:01 or 12:02, did he fire him because he wore a red tie or a blue tie -- he fired him because he was not fit to do the job. It's that simple. This shouldn’t be a complicated process. The President knew that Director Comey was not up to the task. He decided that he wasn’t the right person in the job. He wanted somebody that could bring credibility back to the FBI. That had been lost over these last several months. The President made that decision. He made it; he moved forward. It was the right one. I don’t think that the back-and-forth makes that much difference.
Q Did you call on me?
MS. SANDERS: Yes, I'm sorry.
Q Okay, thank you. Sarah, going back to what you said about Democrats -- yeah, you have some Democrats that say that Comey should have been fired, but they're questioning the timing. Why now? Even though the Deputy Attorney General did do that, they're questioning why now. He couldn’t wait anymore?
MS. SANDERS: I think that I've answered this. I hate to again just keep repeating myself, but we're kind of getting lost on the same questions here. He had decided that he wasn’t fit. There's never going to be a good time to fire someone, whether it's on a Tuesday or a Friday.
Q Why not day one, when he comes in?
MS. SANDERS: He decided he wanted to give Director Comey a chance. He did. And he felt like he wasn’t up to the task.
Q And then last question: Monday, Sean Spicer, when he was at the podium, he said after the testimony with Clapper and Yates, he said -- he talked about there was no collusion from what Clapper said. But he also said that there needs to be a timeline when the Russia investigation ends. And then yesterday you said it should continue. Which one is it? Should it continue or should it end? Because Spicer said the President wanted it to end, Monday. And now, yesterday, you said it should continue. I mean, I'm just trying to find out which one it is.
MS. SANDERS: I've said that we wanted to come to its completion. We wanted to continue until it is finished, which we would like to happen soon, so that we can focus on the things that we think most Americans, frankly, care a whole lot more about. I think the people in this room are obsessed with this story, a lot more than the people that we talk to and we hear from every day. We'd like to be focused on the problems that they have. That's the point -- is we’d love for this to be completed. But we also want it to be completed with integrity. And I think that was one of the other reasons, frankly, that I think that the decision the President made was the right one, because I think it adds credibility and integrity back to the FBI where a lot of people, frankly, were questioning.
Q We now know the President fired the FBI Director with more than six years left on his 10-year term because he was a show-boater, a grandstander. How important is it that the next FBI director not be a show-boater or a grandstander? And how important is it that this person show loyalty to the President?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the main factor that they're looking for is that they're loyal to the justice system, they're loyal to the American people. This President is looking for somebody who can come in, that is independent, and has the support, I think, across the board, whether it's Republicans, Democrats, members of the FBI, and certainly the American people.
Again, it wasn’t just one thing that caused the President to make this decision. A large part of why he made this decision was because he didn’t feel like Director Comey was up to the job. He had watched -- it was just an erosion of confidence that he had in his ability to carry out the task that needed to be done. He's looking for somebody who can do that.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. First, I want to follow up on what John asked about, the rank and file of the FBI. Don’t you think the acting director of the FBI has a better handle on the rank and file than you do?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I'm not going to get in a back and forth on who has a better handle. Again, I've heard from multiple individuals that are very happy about the President's decision, and I know that it was the right one. I believe that most of the people that we've talked to also believe it was the right decision to make.
Q And I want to also ask about the meeting yesterday between President Trump and the Russian Foreign Minister. Can you walk us through how a photographer from either a Russian state news outlet or the Russian government got into that meeting and got those photographs out?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah. The same way that they would -- whoever the President was meeting with when it comes to a foreign minister or a head of state. Both individuals had official photographers in the room. We had an official photographer in the room, as did they.
Q Usually, media -- independent media in the U.S. is typically invited into those meetings. Why didn’t that happen in this case?
MS. SANDERS: It varies, actually. Not always. Particularly sometimes, the protocol, when it is not the head of state, and prior to the President meeting with the head of state, that wouldn’t always take place. So, again, proper protocol was followed in this procedure.
Q Has the President been questioned by the FBI with regard to their investigation into Russian interference in the election?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Does he expect to be?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a chance to ask him that question, so I don’t know. I'm not going to guess on what he may expect.
Q So, at the Justice Department, there's a general protocol that discourages conversations with the President of the United States by the FBI director about anything that might involve the President. That's the general aspect of the protocol that's usually required to ensure that there is no confusion about political interference of any kind, of even the impression or the appearance of political influence on the FBI. That's the standard procedure. You just said here it was appropriate for the President of the United States to ask whether or not he was under investigation. Why is it appropriate if that's not consistent with the guidelines at the Justice Department to avoid that very encounter?
MS. SANDERS: We've talked to several -- again, several legal scholars have weighed in on this and said that there was nothing wrong with the President asking that question.
Q So the Justice Department should change its protocol on this?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t seen their protocol. I'm only speaking to the information that I have at this --
Q What you think and the President thinks.
MS. SANDERS: No, it's what I think. I mean, look at the people that followed up the interview. There were multiple attorneys that came on after and specifically stated that it was not inappropriate and it wasn’t wrong for the President to do so. So, again, I can only base it off -- I'm not an attorney, I don’t even play one on TV -- but what I can tell you is what I've heard from legal minds and people that actually are attorneys, and that's their opinion. So I have to trust the justice system on that fact, too.
Q Would you say, based on the experience that you and Sean and this communications office had Tuesday and Wednesday, that you were given all of the best information to relay to the American public, through us -- and your job is to relay that information to the American public; we're only intermediaries -- about what happened with this firing and the rationale for it?
MS. SANDERS: It's funny that you mention intermediaries. You seem to take a much more proactive approach most of the time. But I'll go with intermediaries for today.
Look, I think we were absolutely given the information that we could have at that time. It was a quick-moving process. We took the information we had, as best we had it, and got it out to the American people as quickly as we could.
Q And would you say that that information was accurate then or is more accurate now?
MS. SANDERS: I would say that after having a conversation with the President, you don’t get much more accurate than that.
Q And so by that standard, should reporters and the country essentially wait for a pronouncement from the President before believing that which is stated on his behalf by the White House communications staff?
MS. SANDERS: Look, Major, I'm not going to get into back and forth, that we have to have like a direct quote every single time. In this process, I gave you the best information I had at the moment. I still don’t think that it contradicts the President's decision. You guys want to get lost in the process.
Q I don’t think asking you a question and getting an answer is lost in the process, Sarah, with all respect.
MS. SANDERS: And I'm answering those questions. It's very simple: The President decided to fire Director Comey. Nobody else gets to make that decision. And he made it, he stands by it, as do the rest of us.
Q Two questions. Following up on this, back in, I think, October of last year, the former President was highly criticized by members of the FBI and other ethical folks outside of the FBI for making some comments on television that sort of suggested that he had an opinion about how the Hillary Clinton email case should go. And the charge was that he was interfering, that he was putting his thumb on the scale of an ongoing, active investigation. There was a lot of criticism from Republicans of the President about that.
Talk to me about how that -- how what this President did in his series of conversations with the FBI director doesn’t go far beyond what former President Obama did? And to Major's point, how can you argue -- regardless of maybe some pundits on TV who might be saying otherwise -- how can you argue that that doesn’t have an appearance of trying to influence an investigation that's actively going on?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President has encouraged this investigation to take place and complete so that we can move forward. We've been as compliant as possible throughout the entire process. We will continue to do so. Nobody wants this investigation to go forward complete and end with integrity more than the President.
Q But people clearly know which way he wants it to come out, right?
MS. SANDERS: On the right side. I think that he wants it to come out -- he's very well aware of the actions he has or hasn’t taken. He knows he didn’t take any action. And I think he's ready for the rest of you guys to understand that as well.
Q And one last question, just to follow up on the FBI thing. And I'm not trying to be overly combative here, but you said now today, and I think you said again yesterday, that you personally have talked to countless FBI officials, employees, since this happened.
MS. SANDERS: Correct.
Q I mean, really? So are we talking --
MS. SANDERS: Between like email, text messages -- absolutely.
Q Like 50?
MS. SANDERS: Yes.
Q Sixty, seventy?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re not going to get into a numbers game. I mean, I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they're very happy with the President's decision. I mean, I don’t know what I else I can say.
Q Sarah, there's a report from The Wall Street Journal that the Deputy Attorney General asked the White House Counsel to correct the version of events that was coming out initially after the Comey firing. Is that accurate? And does that contribute to the different version of events that we've seen over the last 48 hours?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not aware of a specific ask for a correction. I do know that we all want to make sure that we get this right. And that's been our -- what we've attempted to do all along. It's the reason we sent the update last night. I know there were several questions after the briefing yesterday, and I addressed that again in the opening today. Our goal is to get this as right and clear as we can.
Q And did the President know that Comey had sought more resources before his investigation, before he made the decision?
MS. SANDERS: No. And I also think, based on what I've seen, the Department of Justice has also pushed back and said that that's not accurate. But I would refer you to them.
Q So, Sarah, was it a mistake for the White House to try to pin the decision to fire James Comey on Rod Rosenstein?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think there was ever an attempt to pin the decision on the Deputy Attorney General.
Q -- it was on his recommendation.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think his recommendation, again, it was extremely clear. The President, though, makes the decision. The buck stops with him. Nobody has ever tried to say that this wasn’t the President's decision, that he wasn’t the one that carried it out. And to try to, I think, conflate those things is just not what took place. We know that the President has been thinking about this for a long time. Wednesday, it certainly, I think, expedited that -- the Director's testimony from last Wednesday. And then getting the recommendation from the Deputy Attorney General I think just further solidified the President's decision.
Q And just to clarify one thing you said. You said the President has encouraged this investigation into Russia. He wants to see it reach its completion sooner rather than later. How has he encouraged it if he just fired the man who was overseeing the Russia investigation?
MS. SANDERS: There are multiple people that are part of this, and it's not just the FBI. You've got the House Committee, the Senate Committee.
Look, again, the point is, we want this to come to its conclusion. We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.
Thanks so much, guys.
2:29 P.M. EDT