Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, 10/2/2017, #18
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:10 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Our thoughts and prayers today are with the victims and survivors in Las Vegas, and with the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands where massive storm recovery efforts are ongoing.
The President will be flying to Puerto Rico tomorrow to view the devastation, and he will assure the people there that we are with them 100 percent today and for the long haul. Puerto Ricans have shown incredible resilience, and we are fully committed to helping them rebuild their lives.
Last night, thousands of our fellow citizens endured what the President has rightly called an "act of pure evil" in Las Vegas. The President has ordered our flags to half-staff. And to further honor those lost in the attack, we will hold a moment of silence on the South Lawn this afternoon at 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time.
The President will visit Las Vegas on Wednesday to grieve with the friends and family of the victims, to offer his support to those recovering from their wounds, and to thank the courageous first responders.
In the coming days, this attack will directly impact communities all over our country whose residents were visiting the entertainment capital of the world to attend a concert. One man, 29-year-old Sonny Melton, had traveled from Tennessee to Las Vegas for the concert with his wife, Heather. When the bullets began raining down from above, Sonny shielded her from danger, selflessly giving up his life to save hers. They had been married for just over a year.
Others risked their own lives to save people that they had never met. Mike McGarry of Philadelphia laid on top of students at the concert to protect them from the gunfire. "They're 20, I'm 53," he said, "and I've lived a good life."
Lindsay Padgett and her fiancé, Mike Jay, fled for cover during the attack, and immediately returned to the scene with their pick-up truck to help transport the wounded to nearby hospitals.
Gail Davis, who was attending the concert with her husband, said she owes her life to a brave police officer who instinctively served as a human shield, protecting her from harm.
Sadly, multiple police officers, both on duty and off duty, were among those killed or injured. But what these people did for each other says far more about who we are as Americans than the cowardly acts of a killer ever could.
The Gospel of John reminds us that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend. The memory of those who displayed the ultimate expression of love in the midst of an unimaginable act of hate will never fade. Their examples will serve as an eternal reminder that the American spirit cannot and will not ever be broken. In the days ahead, we will grieve as a nation, we will honor the memory of those lost as a nation, and we will come together, united as one nation, under God, and indivisible.
And with that, I'll take your questions. Major.
Q Can you tell us a little bit about how the President first learned about it, and your engagement with him -- his own personal reaction to the events of today? And he also said in the Oval he might spend more than a day in Las Vegas. Was he referring to a couple of days there?
MS. SANDERS: We're still finalizing the details of the travel that will take place. We know for sure that he'll be there on Wednesday. And beyond that, we'll keep you guys posted as those arrangements are finalized.
In terms of activity this morning, the President was briefed early this morning by General Kelly, and has been updated regularly and constantly throughout the day, and will continue to as new information is provided by law enforcement officials.
Q Have you had a chance to talk to him about his own -- how he dealt with this?
MS. SANDERS: I've seen him today, and I think he, like most of America, is saddened. And certainly, his heart and compassion goes out to those that were affected.
Q Sarah, many times when these horrible massacres occur, it leads to questions about gun control. Has this particular massacre made the President think anything more about pursuing tighter gun laws, such as background checks, to prevent massacres like this from happening again?
MS. SANDERS: Look, this is an unspeakable tragedy. Today is a day for consoling the survivors and mourning those we lost. Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with all of those individuals. There's a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country. There is currently an open and ongoing law enforcement investigation. A motive is yet to be determined, and it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don't fully know all the facts or what took place last night.
Q To follow on that, Sarah, though, do you believe that -- or does the President believe that this is a moment -- that this is a time when this should not be a political discussion, it should be a policy discussion? Does he believe that he could bring something new to the gun debate that has been, I guess, locked in typical politics for so many years?
MS. SANDERS: I think today is more, again, like I said, a day of reflection, a day of mourning, a day of gratefulness for those that were saved. And I think that there will be, certainly, time for that policy discussion to take place, but that's not the place that we're in at this moment. But certainly, I think that there's a time for that to happen.
Q If I could follow -- before he was elected President, some 15 or 16 years ago, he did have a different view on guns than he had during the campaign. Does he believe that this is something that he could lead a bipartisan effort on at some point? At what point would that be appropriate?
MS. SANDERS: I think that's something that we can talk about in the coming days and see what that looks like moving forward. I think one of the things that we don't want to do is try to create laws that won't stop these types of things from happening.
I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn't helped there, so I think we have to -- when that time comes for those conversations to take place, then I think we need to look at things that may actually have that real impact.
Q Thanks, Sarah. On Puerto Rico, can you tell us a little bit about the President's aims for his visit tomorrow? And do you expect any tension, given some of his comments over the weekend?
MS. SANDERS: We have several stops that we'll put out later this afternoon in terms of the specifics of that trip. We are going to be spending a significant time there in Puerto Rico, meeting both with first responders as well as the storm survivors. And we'll, again, put out the details of that exact schedule later today.
Q And from some of his comments over the weekend, like that folks down there wanted everything done for them, do you expect that to come up in any of his conversations?
MS. SANDERS: I expect the focus to be on the recovery efforts, which we're fully committed to. The top priority for the federal government is certainly to protect the lives and the safety of those in affected areas, and provide life-sustaining services as we work together to rebuild their lives. That's going to be the focus, not just in the conversations tomorrow, but certainly the focus that we've had since this began.
Q Can I just pick up on that? Who exactly wants everything done for them, when he said "they"?
MS. SANDERS: I haven't talked to him specifically about a defined of who "they" might be. Again, the federal government is doing everything within our powers and capabilities to first focus on the life-sustaining and lifesaving measures, as well as on the rebuilding process. We've got over 12,000 federal staff on the ground. Sixty-four hospitals out of 67 are partially or fully operational; 14 are now back on the electrical grid. Forty-five percent of customers in Puerto Rico have access to drinking water. Eight commercial airports are operational. Sixty-five percent of gas stations are open. All of these things are things that we're continuing to push, continuing to move forward, and will be part of that effort.
Q And then just back on today's tragedy really quickly, if I may. Does the President believe that what happened amounts to an act of domestic terrorism?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we're still in a fact-finding mission. This is an ongoing investigation and it would be premature to weigh in on something like that before we have any more facts. And we'll leave that to local law enforcement to work with, [and] also the federal law enforcement to make those determinations.
Q Over the weekend -- this was pointed out -- the President was very sharply critical of Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is the Mayor of San Juan. Other than her comments on Friday morning, in which she criticized Elaine Duke for saying this was a "good news" story, in terms of DHS getting supplies out to areas that were needed, what was she doing that prompted such criticism from the President?
MS. SANDERS: Look, right now our focus is to bring the mayor into the coordination efforts. This administration, as well as other members on the ground, have reached out to her. We hope that she will join with us in those efforts and be a part of things. She's been invited to participate in the events tomorrow, as well. And we hope that those conversations will happen and we can all work together to move forward.
Q Has Tom Price reimbursed the government yet for his seat on those flights? And if not, is there a specific deadline when you and the President expect him to do so by?
SANDERS: I'm not sure on the timeframe for that or whether or not it's already taken place. But we'll certainly keep you posted on that.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Given what the President said about Secretary of State Tillerson's outreach to North Korea over the weekend, does the President still have confidence in him as Secretary of State?
MS. SANDERS: He does, yes.
Q And has he spoken to him since those -- since he sent
out those tweets?
MS. SANDERS: I believe so. I'll have to verify.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. It's a very sad day in this country, as you mentioned at the top. And as the President said in his remarks, he said that when he goes out to Las Vegas, he's going to meet with first responders and, in addition to that, families of the victims that were impacted by this. What's the message to each of those groups when he goes out there?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think it's very simple to say that his goal is simply to be there to show the support of people from around the country, and to stand united in not only this act of evil but against all acts of evil. And I think that was clear in the President's remarks today and something, certainly, that you'll see from his visit on Wednesday.
Q Sarah, thank you. Following up on the tweets
about the DPRK over the weekend, the President tweeted, "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" So is it the stated position of the White House that you're trying to get back to talks? Or have you given up?
MS. SANDERS: No, this is -- we've been clear that now is not the time to talk. The only conversations that have taken place, or that would, would be on bringing back Americans who have been detained. Like with Otto, those were the type of conversations that this administration was willing to have. Beyond that, there will be no conversations with North Korea at this time.
Q The Secretary of State talked about those three --
MS. SANDERS: There are three Americans still detained in North Korea.
Q -- (inaudible) lines of communication with Pyongyang. That's what you're primarily using it for? You're not using it to try to get major --
MS. SANDERS: That would be the only reason for us to have conversations with them at this time.
Q Sarah, can I follow on that? I also want to ask about today. But does the President believe diplomacy then is not worth pursuing in North Korea?
MS. SANDERS: There's a difference between talking and putting diplomatic pressure. We still strongly support putting diplomatic pressure on North Korea, which we're continuing to do. But now is not the time simply to have conversations with North Korea.
We've encouraged all of our allies and partners to do more, and we're going to continue to keep all options on the table when it comes to that.
Q And on the activities of today as well, you've talked about how now is not the time to get into a gun control debate or to talk about policy. After the Orlando shooting, the President that day was out on Twitter talking about policy. He was talking about this travel ban. So when, for example, Senator Chris Murphy says, "It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something," does the President agree?
MS. SANDERS: I actually agree with him that Congress should get up and do something. I'm not sure that it's specific to that, but I think Congress has had several months of doing very little and we'd like to see some actual legislation come through.
Q So related to gun control, what would the President like to see Congress do -- is the question I want to get at.
MS. SANDERS: Again, we haven't had the moment to have a deep dive on the policy part of that. We've been focused on the fact that we had a severe tragedy in our country. And this is a day of mourning, a time of bringing our country together, and that's been the focus of the administration this morning.
Q Can you explain where that's different from Orlando, though, Sarah -- when at that day he was talking about the travel ban, saying he didn't want congratulations, essentially? Why is this --
MS. SANDERS: I think there's a difference between being a candidate and being the President.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I do want to ask -- because before last night's massacre, the bill was advancing through the House; Republicans cleared it through the House Committee on Natural Resources that would, among other things, make it easier for people to buy silencers. Hillary Clinton tweeted about it this morning. She said that, "Imagine the deaths in Las Vegas if the shooter had a silencer, which the NRA wants to make easier to get." Does the White House have a position on this particular legislation?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I haven't spoken with the President about that specific issue, but I don't think that that is something that would have changed. Again, I think before we start trying to talk about the preventions of what took place last night, we need to know more facts. And right now we're simply not at that point.
It's very easy for Mrs. Clinton to criticize and to come out, but I think we need to remember the only person with blood on their hands is that of the shooter. And this isn't a time for us to go after individuals or organizations. I think that we can have those policy conversations, but today is not that day.
Q Sarah, are there any policy prescriptions that the President considers to be out of bounds on the policy debate that will happen in the next few weeks? Could you articulate a little bit what his position on gun control is?
MS. SANDERS: The President has been clear that he’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and I don't have anything further at this point.
I’ll take one more question. Fred.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Yes, a couple of questions. One, ahead of the trip to Puerto Rico tomorrow, I wanted to ask about -- there’s a bill in the Congress, the McCain-Lee Act, which would give a permanent exemption to Puerto Rico from the Jones Act. Would the administration consider either a permanent repeal of the Jones Act or at least an exemption permanent for Puerto Rico?
MS. SANDERS: I don't think that's something that's necessary at this time. If we deemed that it was, we could have that discussion then. But certainly something that we don't feel like is necessary today, so I wouldn’t imagine that would be something needed.
Q Also, on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, there's have been some attacks among senators, some in the media, on her religious beliefs. Does the White House have some concerns about that?
MS. SANDERS: We certainly support religious freedom and would ask that Congress also support that as well.
As you all know, we've got a moment of silence taking place on the South Lawn here momentarily. And so, with that, I’ll close.
And just again, I think we ask collectively that everyone across the country keep the people both in Las Vegas and in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in our prayers.
END 2:25 P.M. EDT