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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:04 P.M. EST

MS. SANDERS:  Good afternoon.  As you all saw, the President and First Lady enjoyed their time today with Prime Minister and Mrs. Netanyahu.  The bond between the United States and Israel is the strongest it has ever been.

The President’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital made good on the promises of numerous past Presidents.  And he appreciates Prime Minister Netanyahu saying today that his decisive action will be remembered by the Israeli people throughout the ages.

Our two nations stand united against terrorism and those who fund it, as well as in our shared goal to build a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East.

Before taking your questions today, I’d like to introduce you to a few special guests we have here with us in the briefing room.  Retired Marine Corps Sergeant John Peck and Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer both served combat deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  The President met both of them recently at Walter Reed.

Sergeant Peck suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq during his first tour of duty.  Then, after two years of therapy, he re-enlisted and deployed to Afghanistan.  While there, he stepped on an IED and lost both arms and legs.  He spent two years at Walter Reed, and in 2016 received a double arm transplant.  He is now doing physical and occupational therapy at Walter Reed, and doing incredibly well.

Staff Sergeant Dwyer endured a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq, but he re-upped and later went to Afghanistan.  While there, he stepped on an IED, resulting in the loss of his left leg and severe injuries to his right arm, leg, and torso.  Doctors were able to save his limbs and reattach them through over 50 surgeries.  And after previously spending four years at Walter Reed, he is back there to receive additional surgeries in the coming months.

Thank you both for your service and for inspiring us all with your bravery, sense of duty, and resilience.  These men represent the very best of America, and remind us why it’s so important to make sure our great veterans get the care they deserve.

Transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs has been one of the President’s top priorities.  We’ve announced plans for the VA to shift veterans’ electronic medical records to the same system used by the Defense Department.  This will end a decades-old rift in sharing information between the two agencies.

The President signed an executive order to ensure veterans can receive care outside of the VA system, when needed.  He signed into law a bill empowering senior VA officials to fire failing employees who are not taking care of our vets.  As a result, accountability is being restored.

He signed into law a bill streamlining the lengthy process that veterans undergo when appealing disability benefits claims.  Hundreds of thousands of vets are awaiting decisions regarding their appeals.  The President is pushing the VA to use the new, streamlined process to work through the backlog as quickly as possible.

He also signed a bill authorizing $2.1 billion in additional funds for the Veterans Choice Program.  This program helps vets facing long wait times or long distances from nearby VA facilities by empowering them to receive quality care outside of the VA system.  The White House has also set up a VA Hotline, staffed by veterans, to help vets needing assistance and quick answers.

I could continue with the list, but this should leave no doubt that President Trump is serious about taking care of our veterans.  They sacrifice so much for us, and we must never let them down.  Thank you, Sergeants Peck and Dwyer, for being with us here today.

And I met them while we were at Walter Reed, and they promised that they would be on their best behavior but we’ll see how that goes.  And if it gets really tough, I’m very happy to refer questions to both of them because I’m pretty sure that as tough as they are, they could certainly handle anything that is thrown at them.  But hopefully we don’t have to do that.

Major, go ahead.

Q    Sarah, under the heading of accountability, have you or the President read in full the IG report on Secretary Shulkin?  Are you satisfied with his response?  And is he in any jeopardy?  And does he retain the President’s confidence?

MS. SANDERS:  I know that that is being reviewed.  Secretary Shulkin has repaid, I know, several thousand dollars towards some of the travel costs of the trip that was in question.  And we’re continuing to focus on a lot of the great work that’s taking place at the VA while that’s still under review.

Secretary Shulkin has done a great job, as I laid out several of the things that have happened.  And one of the reasons these guys are here is to continue pushing to make sure that we improve the VA system and to continue to put extra encouragement on the VA Secretary to make sure we’re doing everything we can for veterans.

Q    From what you learned in that report, would you say the Secretary’s conduct was consistent with the standards the President has established for the VA?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, as that continues to be under review, I can’t go any further than what I have already.

Q    All right.  On tariffs, the Speaker of the House said he’s very concerned, urging the President “not advance with this plan” — that’s a direct quote — and that a trade war could, “jeopardize the gains achieved through the tax cuts and tax reform.”  What’s your reaction to Speaker Ryan?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, we have a great relationship with Speaker Ryan.  We’re going to continue to have one.  But that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.

The President has been committed and talked about this for many years, particularly on the campaign trail.  And the people came out loud and clear and supported this President, therefore supporting the policies that he campaigned on.

We want to solve the problem.  We want — the President believes in free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and hopes other countries will join him in pursuing that goal.  The President wants to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect American workers and to protect industries like the steel and aluminum industry that are so important to our country.

Q    And nothing about this would jeopardize economic growth, as the Speaker fears?

MS. SANDERS:  The President feels strongly that we have to protect some of the industries that are the backbone of this country, and we have to protect American workers.  We can’t ignore these industries.  It’s a matter of both economic and national security and something that he feels very strongly about, and we’re going to continue to move forward.


Q    So it looks like the deadline on DACA is going to come and go today with no resolution.  Clearly, any action that the White House would take has been suspended by the courts.  But what’s the next step and what’s your message to Congress that seems so badly to want to fix DACA but hasn’t done anything to do it?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, I think it’s absolutely terrible that Congress has failed to act.  The President gave Congress six months, and he also gave them a plan.  He gave them four pillars that he wanted to see in legislation — legislation and principles that the majority of members of Congress have supported in the past.  They claim to want to fix DACA.  The President laid out a pathway and an exact way to do that.  They failed to address it.  But we’re still hopeful that Congress will actually do their jobs, show up and get something done, and fix this problem, not kick it down the road and not continue to ignore it.

Q    When it eventually gets to the Supreme Court, I assume you’re expecting a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court.  So then what happens?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, we fully expect to win on an appeal, and if we needed to go to the Supreme Court, we feel very confident there as well.

But again, this is — it’s Congress’s job to pass laws.  And the President has laid out what he wants to see in them.  And the sad part is, is that both Republicans and Democrats don’t disagree on most of the merits of this legislation.  The fact that they can’t actually come together and get something done is pathetic, and now they’re using the courts as an excuse.  They need to come to work and actually do what they were elected to do.

Q    If the courts reinstates his authority to rescind the DACA protections, and Congress doesn’t act, is the President willing to back off on rescinding DACA?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not going to get ahead of what the President may or may not do on that front.  We’re still asking Congress to actually do their jobs.


Q    Thanks, Sarah.  The President had some tough words for U.S. allies today on trade, saying they were ripping off the U.S. just as much as our enemies.  So has the President ruled out exceptions under these steel and aluminum tariffs for certain U.S. allies, or are those still on the table?

MS. SANDERS:  We’re still finalizing what the final deal will look like.  And I’m not going to get ahead of the President’s announcement.


Q    Do you have timing?

MS. SANDERS:  We’ll keep you posted.

Q    Thanks a lot, Sarah.  It seems like many Republicans, including the House Speaker, were caught off guard by the President’s decision as it relates to tariffs.  Were they caught off guard?  Were they given a heads up in any way?

MS. SANDERS:  I think they should have been well aware this isn’t, again, something that the President has been shy about.  He’s been talking about this for quite some time.  So if they were caught off guard, they just simply haven’t been listening to what he’s been saying and what he’s been talking about, and how he has promised to make good trade deals and make free, fair, and reciprocal trade in this country.

Q    And is the President open to discussing this particular issue that he’s at odds with the House Speaker, trying to find some sort of compromise, perhaps, on this?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not going to get ahead of anything beyond where we are right now.  But again, the President is going to do what he feels is necessary to protect American workers.


Q    Thank you.  You had mentioned last week that the White House was going to come out with a proposal on guns or to let Congress know what it wanted to be done on guns.  Where is that proposal?

MS. SANDERS:  We’re continuing to have those conversations.  The President has laid out some specific things and some specific places that he does support.  For instance, again, reiterating the support for the Cornyn bill, as well as the STOP Gun [School] Violence Act.  Those are two pieces of legislation that the President supports.  We’re going to continue some of the discussions that have been ongoing, continue to engage with Congress, as we lay out some more details of what we’d like to see, including —

Q    And regarding —

MS. SANDERS:  — sorry, just — including the meeting that will take place on Thursday with some of the leaders within the video game industry.

Q    Regarding moving the embassy to Jerusalem, the President said that it was going to cost $250,000 to build the U.S. embassy there.  What was he referring to?  Or what did he mean by that?

MS. SANDERS:  I’ll have to get more specifics.  I think the point he’s making is that he’s going to do it faster and far less expensive than a billion-dollar project, as was projected.


Q    On the tariffs, the President tweeted that trade wars are good, easy to win.  Can you explain what he meant by that?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, the President, I think, is very confident that if that’s where we ended up, we certainly would win.  But that’s not the goal.  The goal is to get free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and hope that other countries will join in.

Q    And Paul Ryan is practically pleading with the President to reverse course on this.  Are you saying that there’s no way he’s going to reverse course on this?

MS. SANDERS:  The President said today that he wasn’t backing down.  But in terms of the specifics of what it looks like, I’m not going to get into that right now because those things are being finalized.

Q    So it’s possible that some of the details may change?  Because he said 25 —

MS. SANDERS:  Well, we haven’t actually, like, fully rolled out all of the details.  And so, therefore, it would be hard for me to say that they’re going to change since we haven’t put them all out.

Q    But the topline, he said 25 percent tariff on steel imports; 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports that would apply to everybody.  Are those details going to change?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, I’m not going to go any further than the comments he’s already made, and any other details we’ll let you know when we’re ready.


Q    We’ve already talked about Secretary Shulkin, but Secretary Pruitt is under scrutiny for his first-class travel on taxpayer dollars.  And Secretary Carson is under scrutiny for the

$31,000 dining set he bought.  Can you first —

MS. SANDERS:  I believe that was actually cancelled, just to be clear.

Q    After media scrutiny.  But I was wondering if you could first — specifically for both of those matters — explain the White House view, and then, taking all three of those secretaries’ behavior, broadly explain how you believe this fits the pattern of draining the swamp.

MS. SANDERS:  Look, as the President has said, he takes spending taxpayer dollars very seriously.  All of those individual secretaries’ travel are under review, and I can’t speak to them further while that is ongoing.

Q    An on draining the swamp?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m sorry?

Q    Can you explain how this behavior is consistent with the President’s directive to drain the swamp?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, that’s why they’re under review.  And once that is completed, we’ll have more information.  But I can’t get into anything further right now.

Q    Earlier in the Oval Office, the President said that he thought the Palestinians were wanting to come back to the table to talk about Mideast peace.  Can you say what he’s basing that on?

MS. SANDERS:  I can only tell you that we’re as committed today as we’ve ever been to the peace process.  And we’re going to continue having those conversations and pushing to get something done.

Q    But is he seeing something that the rest of us aren’t seeing, in terms of —

MS. SANDERS:  He sees a lot of things that everybody else isn’t seeing, but I can’t get in any further than that right now.


Q    Sarah, I want to ask you about some breaking news that we’re just getting.  Sam Nunberg, the President’s former campaign aide, is refusing a subpoena by a grand jury.  And he just said on MSNBC, moments ago, “I think he,” meaning the President, “may have done something during the election, but I don’t know that for sure.”  Your reaction?

MS. SANDERS:  Well, I definitely think he doesn’t know that for sure, because he’s incorrect.  As we’ve said many times before, there was no collusion with the Trump campaign.  Anything further on what his actions are — he hasn’t worked at the White House, so I certainly can’t speak to him or the lack of knowledge that he clearly has.

Q    What’s your reaction of him not cooperating with the grand jury, refusing this subpoena?  Would you encourage all of these witnesses to come forward and tell their story?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, I’m not going to weigh into somebody that doesn’t work at the White House.  I can tell you, from our perspective, we are fully cooperating with the Office of the Special Counsel.  We’re going to continue to do so.  And I’ll reiterate once again, the reason we are so comfortable doing so is because there was absolutely no collusion within the Trump campaign and any foreign government.

Q    Let me just ask you one on trade.  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was asked if there was any possibility that the President could change his mind on these new tariffs.  He said, “Whatever his final decision is, is what will happen.  What he has said, he has said.  If he says something different, it’ll be something different.”  If this was a carefully thought-out policy, Sarah, why the mixed messaging?

MS. SANDERS:  I don’t think there is mixed messaging.  This is a decision that —

Q    His own Commerce Secretary (inaudible) to know what the final decision is going to be.

MS. SANDERS:  But this is a decision that will ultimately be made by the President.  And so there are a lot of legal details that are being finalized, and the Secretary is not going to get ahead of that, and certainly not going to get ahead of the President.  At the end of the day, this is going to be something that the President makes a decision on, and he’s going to do so fully with the idea of doing what he can to protect American workers and to promote economic and national security.


Q    Two topics.  What, if any, of a shift was there today in Jared Kushner’s position at it relates to the meetings with Netanyahu today?

MS. SANDERS:  None at all that I’m aware of.

Q    So as it relates to the security clearance, he’s still — I mean, he doesn’t have the security clearance that he had —

MS. SANDERS:  As we’ve said many times before, I’m not going to comment on any individual security clearance.  But —

Q    Is he still allowed to carry on duties today in that meeting, as —

MS. SANDERS:  His role wasn’t impacted today.

Q    Okay.  And second question: Father Pfleger, from St. Sabina Church in Chicago, has written President Trump at least twice in reference to Chicago and guns.  And you say that you’re going to continue conversations about guns.  Would he be someone that you would bring to the table as he is someone who is on the ground, with gangs, and dealing with the issue of guns —  something that’s a focal point of this President, and Chicago as well?

MS. SANDERS:  I would have to look into that.  I’m not aware of the individual or the letters, and so I would have to check into that before I could make a comment on it.


Q    Thanks, Sarah.  Does the President believe we should take guns from people who are dangerous, before due process, as he said last week?

MS. SANDERS:  The President thinks that we need to expedite the process.  He wants to make sure that if somebody is potentially harmful to themselves or other people, that we have the ability to expedite that process.  Certainly, we still want to have due process, but we want to make sure that it’s not tied up for months and months and months, and someone that could potentially be dangerous is allowed to have a gun without us being able to expedite that process.  And that’s what he’d like to see us do.


Q    Thank you, Sarah.  We reported today that the President’s private attorney, Michael Cohen, had trouble reaching him before the end of the campaign to talk about the $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford.  Did the President and Michael Cohen talk about this payment at any time during the campaign or thereafter?

MS. SANDERS:  Not that I’m aware of.  And I’d refer you to Michael on that.


Q    I want to ask a follow-up about the Mideast peace process.  In the Oval Office, the President referred to the difficulty in reaching a deal.  It’s been more than a year since Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first visit here with President Trump.  He said, a year ago, that if the administration were to achieve a great peace deal, he’d be doing it very diligently.  Why hasn’t the administration put forward a proposal yet, a framework, for how he sees peace in the Middle East playing in?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, we’re going to do that when we think that the time is right, but we’re going to continue pushing forward.  We’re as committed now as we’ve ever been, and we want to continue in this process.  And we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on what that plan would look like.

Q    But it doesn’t seem as though there’s been any progress, at least within this administration, toward achieving some kind of proposal.  Why would that be?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, again, we’re not going to get ahead of where we are in this process.  The conversations are still ongoing.  This wasn’t a problem that was created in a short amount of time.  I don’t think we’re going to fix it overnight.  But it’s something we’re certainly very committed to fixing and to being part of.  And we’re going to continue those conversations and continue pushing for that peace.


Q    Thank you, Sarah.  Two brief questions.  First, The New Yorker is carrying a story in which the former British agent, Christopher Steele, claims that Russian sources within the Kremlin torpedoed the nomination of Governor Romney to be Secretary of State because he’s a sworn enemy of the Putin regime.  The administration’s response to that claim?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not aware of anything regarding that, and don’t know that to be factual in any capacity at all.


Q    The other thing — my other question.

MS. SANDERS:  Oh, sorry.  Yep.  Two questions.

Q    Yeah.  When the President announced the tariffs on China, he said that they would be in effect for a very long time.  I’m curious, why didn’t he simply say, “until China relents on its policy on steel,” and give, you know, a set goal for the tariffs that he’s proposing?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, again, the President’s ultimate goal is to get free, fair, and reciprocal trade.  And if China wants to come to the table and play ball, and make some significant changes, then I think we’d be open to those conversations.  But at this point, we haven’t seen an indication of that taking place.

I’ll take one last question.  Blake.

Q    Sarah, thank you.  And to end with trade, there was a study released today showing that this would be a — the President’s proposal is a net loss of 146,000 jobs.  Has the White House studied how many jobs may be lost or created because of its policies?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, this is something the President is committed to doing.  And he feels that both our national security are vitally important in this process, and we have to be able to have these industries to protect that.  And so that’s a big part of the goal.

Q    No study?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not going to say that we’re not looking at every facet of this, because we certainly are.  It’s been a very thoughtful and long process.  But that is the focus of the decision that he’s making.

Q    And lastly, the President’s close friend, Carl Icahn — it’s out there that he sold $31 million worth of stock of a company related to this whole issue just before the President made his announcement.  Can you tell us the last time the President has spoken with Mr. Icahn, and whether or not he told Mr. Icahn of what he was planning to do?

MS. SANDERS:  No, I’m not aware of any of their — of a recent conversation between the two of them.  So I’d have to verify and get back to you.  But I’m not aware of any conversations.

All right.  Thanks, guys.  I’m going to let — hold on.  I’ll let these guys take a break.  And if they want to say anything, they’re welcome, certainly, to make a quick comment before we leave.

Q    Sarah, can you speak to the morale in the White House, Sarah, after Scaramucci said Friday that morale has never been lower?

MR. SANDERS:  (Laughs.)  I definitely would not agree.  I think we’re in a great place.  Look, we have an incredible story to tell.  It’s been a historic first year.  And we’re continuing to focus on the things that President Trump campaigned on.  We’re excited about what we’ve done and where we’re going, and we’re going to continue working hard for the American people.

Thanks.  I’m going to let these guys take a break.  Thanks, guys.


3:24 P.M. EST

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