Wednesday July 26, 2017- New White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes questions from the White House press corps in her first official presser in that post.
Transcript of the press briefing
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:36 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. It’s that time again, as many of you have probably noticed and I know several of you have asked about, for us to announce where the President will be donating his quarterly salary.
Last quarter, the President’s salary went toward the restoration of two projects at a national battlefield. After his donation, additional donors quickly stepped up to bring the total gift to over $260,000.
In this quarter, the President will be donating his salary to the Department of Education. And with that, I would like to bring up Secretary DeVos to tell you about what the department will be doing with the President’s money to help equip the boys and girls who will be the leaders of tomorrow.
Secretary DeVos, it’s my pleasure, on behalf of the President of the United States, to present a check for $100,000 to the Department of Education.
SECRETARY DEVOS: Well, thank you so much, Sarah. I want to start by saying how grateful I am to the President for this generous gift. The President is committed to our nation’s students and to reforming education in America so that every child, no matter their ZIP code, has access to a high-quality education.
He and I have had many conversations about how best to put students’ needs first, and ensure we are setting them up for a lifetime of success. There’s much work to be done, but we are certainly on the right track thanks to the President’s leadership.
Just yesterday, Ivanka Trump and I hosted a summer reading event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where the focus was on getting young girls, age six to ten, excited about learning science, technology, engineering, and math. It was fun to see their eyes light up as they got to explore, create, and experiment in a collaborative environment.
Today’s and tomorrow’s economy requires students prepared for STEM careers. That’s why we’ve decided to use the President’s second-quarter salary to host a STEM-focused camp for students at the Department of Education. We want to encourage as many children as possible to explore STEM fields in the hope that many develop a passion for these fields.
We look forward to this exciting endeavor, and I thank President Trump again for this generous gift. Thanks.
MR. SANDERS: Thank you, Secretary DeVos. Thank you for coming and being here for that today.
Now, I know Anthony is probably a little bit disappointed that he’s not up here today, but since he did some TV this morning, he was able to go ahead and get his hair and makeup done, so I think he’ll be okay. (Laughter.)
As Anthony said when he was up here last week, we’re looking to mix things up a little bit. From time to time, I’d like to give us all a little reminder of why we’re here every day, which I imagine for most of us is because we love our country and want to help to make it better.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time around the President over the last year and I know exactly why he’s here. He’s tough, he’s a fighter, he’s a strong leader, and he’s somebody who deeply loves this country. And he loves its people and he wants to make America great again.
In Washington, it’s often easy to go to work, get lost in the process, and forget why we’re here every day. The reason we’re here is to serve the American people. And today I’d like for you to indulge me and let me tell you a little bit about what that means for me.
To the best of my knowledge, I’m the first mom to hold the job of the White House Press Secretary. That says less about me than it does about this President. It’s not just with personnel, it’s about people and it’s about policy. Empowering working moms is at the heart of the President’s agenda, particularly when it comes to things like tax reform.
I have three children, and the oldest, Scarlett, starts kindergarten in a few weeks. Scarlett and every little girl in America should grow up in a country that if we deliver on the President’s agenda of better jobs, better healthcare, and a better tax system, that incentivizes women to work and raise children.
As a working mom, it’s not lost on me what a great honor and what a privilege it is to stand here at the podium, and I thank the President for the opportunity. I’ll always do my absolute best to truthfully answer your questions and to deliver the President’s message.
Jonathan, I preempt you from asking that question later. (Laughter.)
But I also hope to send my daughter a message and to every other kid in America: Don’t listen to the critics, dream big, and fulfill your potential — because in this country, you still can.
To remind us a little bit more often about some of the forgotten men, women, and children that we’re here to serve and that the President is fighting for, we’re going to start the White House briefing every once in a while with a letter or an email that we may receive from some of those individuals.
To kick it off with that process, I’d like to read you a letter from 9-year-old Dylan:
“My name is Dylan Harbin, but everybody calls me Pickle. I’m nine years old, and you’re my favorite President. I like you so much that I had a birthday about you. My cake was the shape of your hat.”
And then Dylan goes on to ask a few questions: “How old are you?” Dylan, President Trump is 71 years old. “How big is the White House?” The White House is 168 feet long, it’s 70 feet tall on the south side, and 60 feet, four inches tall on the north, and it takes 300 gallons of white paint to cover the exterior of the White House residence. It has 132 rooms and approximately 55,000 square feet. “How much money do you have?” Dylan, I’m not sure, but I know it’s a lot.
“I don’t know why people don’t like you.” Me either, Dylan. “You seem really nice. Can we be friends?” I’m happy to say that I directly spoke to the President, Dylan, and he would be more than happy to be your friend. “My picture is in here. So, if you can, see me and say hello.” Dylan, I hope you’re watching, because the President wanted me to personally tell you hello. “Your friend, Dylan.”
Dylan, thanks for writing to the President. And if you’re ever in Washington, D.C., I hope you’ll stop by and let us show you around the White House.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q Sarah, Jeff Sessions was here today. What was he doing here? Did he meet with the President? And what does the President think about the conservatives who are rallying behind Jeff Sessions, saying he’s essential to staying in his office?
MS. SANDERS: The Attorney General was here for other meetings, not with the President — it was a principals committee meeting — and did not see the President while he was here.
I think the President has been very clear about where he is. He’s obviously disappointed but also wants the Attorney General to continue to focus on the things that the Attorney General does. He wants him to lead the Department of Justice. He wants to do that strongly. He wants him to focus on things like immigration, leaks, and a number of other issues, and I think that’s what his focus is at this point.
Q Can I just follow up? If the Attorney General launches a leak probe, would that help his status with the President?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think that’s the nature of the relationship. Again, I think that the President is disappointed. He stated that, and I don’t think there’s anything more to add beyond that at this point.
Q Sarah, thank you. A couple questions about the new policy on transgender servicemembers the President announced this morning. First, what happens to transgender servicemembers now? Are you they immediately thrown out of the military?
MS. SANDERS: That’s something that the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work together as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully.
Q So it’s possible — because I see the President was pretty clear in his tweet that transgender individuals — he will not accept or allow a transgender individual to serve in any capacity. So does that mean that those that are now in theater, that are now deployed to Afghanistan, for example, will have to be immediately sent home and discharged?
MS. SANDERS: Again, implementation policy is going to be something that the White House and the Department of Defense have to work together to lawfully determine, and I would imagine the Department of Defense will be the lead on that and keep you posted as that takes place.
Q Why did he decide to do this given that during the campaign he had declared that he would protect the rights of transgender individuals? He said he would be better on this issue than Hillary Clinton, and now he’s turned the clock back on this issue regarding the military.
MS. SANDERS: The President has a lot of support for all Americans and certainly wants to protect all Americans at all times. The President has expressed concerns since this Obama policy came into effect, but he’s also voiced that this is a very expensive and disruptive policy. And based on consultation that he’s had with his national security team, came to conclusion that it erodes military readiness and unit cohesion, and made the decision based on that.
Q Thank you, Sarah. If I could follow up on what Jonathan just said, the President actually tweeted, “Thank you to the LGBT community. I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.” And so I’m wondering, you said the policy — the President in general wants to protect all Americans. Does this shift in policy protect transgender Americans? And what is the message that he is attempting to send to them by making this shift in policy?
And if I could follow on that, healthcare —
MS. SANDERS: Let me answer that first, and then we’ll come back to healthcare.
Q Sure, sure.
MS. SANDERS: On that, the decision is based on a military decision. It’s not meant to be anything more than that, and it’s simply about — obviously it’s a very difficult decision. It’s not a simple one, but the President feels that it’s the best one for the military.
Q Okay, on healthcare, then, if I could follow really quickly. Can you repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and still protect Medicaid funding? We’re talking about the most dependent among us, and the need for Medicaid is great. And that seems to be a major concern among some lawmakers, including Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. So I’m wondering, from the President’s perspective, if congressional lawmakers do send him a repeal that does not protect Medicaid funding, is that something he would still support? And what is he doing to try to protect Medicaid as it is now?
MS. SANDERS: The President has been clear that he wants to protect those that are part of that program but also very focused on repealing and replacing. We’re working through that process. Excited about the progress that was made yesterday, and we’re going to continue pushing forward until we get a new and better healthcare plan.
Q Thank you, Sarah. One short thing and then questions. Can you provide us with a copy of the letter that you read, and even hold it up, or distribute a copy to us?
MS. SANDERS: Sure. I’ll be happy to.
Q That would be wonderful.
MS. SANDERS: I’ll knock out Dylan’s name — last name.
Q Yes, thank you.
But back on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. You said that he didn’t meet with the President when he was at the White House this week. Has he spoken to the President this week? Do you know when the last time the two of them spoke was?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe they’ve spoken this week. I’m not sure on the timeframe.
Q Okay. And then another follow-up on Jeff Sessions.
MS. SANDERS: Always two.
Q You said that the President has been very clear about his position on Jeff Sessions, and yesterday the President said that he wasn’t leaving him to “twist in the wind.” But he continued to tweet about him this morning. If he is so frustrated and so disappointed in him, why doesn’t he just ask him to resign or fire him? Why does he continue to just tweet about him instead?
MS. SANDERS: Look, you can be disappointed in someone but still want them to continue to do their job.
Q Does he want him to continue in that job?
MS. SANDERS: I think that I made clear last week that if there comes a point he doesn’t, he’ll make that decision.
Q Sarah, thank you. Let me have you please clarify if you can some comments that the President made in the Wall Street Journal interview yesterday about tax reform. He said — and I quote here — “The truth is the people I care most about are the middle-income people in this country who have gotten,” as he says, “screwed. And if there’s upward revision it’s going to be on high-income people.” On that upward revision part, what exactly was the President talking about? Is it a revision from his plan on the personal side of 35 percent, or is it reviving it up from the current tax code?
MS. SANDERS: When we get ready to walk through the full details of the plan, I’m happy to do that at that time. But right now, we’re focused on the three big priorities of the tax reform: a simple, fair tax code, middle class relief, and creating jobs. That’s where we are right now. We’re continuing to work through that process, and we’ll make announcements as we have specifics.
Q Let me just ask you a more general question on that. Does the President believe that the wealthiest Americans deserve a tax cut?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President is looking and prioritizing middle-class tax relief. He’s made no secret about that. That’s one of the biggest priorities of the three things that he’s focused on when it comes to tax reform.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two questions for you. First, the President has had almost 24 hours to review the Russia sanctions legislation. Has he decided if he’s going to sign that?
MS. SANDERS: Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Senator Corker actually came out earlier today and said that he’s not fully supportive of where the bill stands. We expect that there’s a possibility that more changes take place. And so we’re going to see what that looks like before we make a final decision.
But I can tell you that the White House, the President, and the entire administration — as we’ve said many times before — strongly support sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Q My second question is, is the President considering looking at any kind of policy about transgender people serving in the White House now that he’s tried to make a decision on transgender people serving in the military?
MS. SANDERS: No. Once again, this was a decision based on what was best for the military and military cohesion, and on the counsel of his national security team.
Q So the impression that we get at the Pentagon is they were a little bit — caught a little bit flat-footed by the President’s tweets. As I understand it, this was and has been for the last couple of weeks a conversation here specifically about Tricare coverage for transgender procedures. And it suddenly evolved for the President to then go on Twitter to announce this ban. And as you already told us, the White House and the Pentagon are going to have to lawfully implement that.
Typically, when you have an announcement of this magnitude, all of that work has been done at the procedural level between the bureaucracy of the Pentagon and the White House. Why wasn’t any of that work done? And why was the Pentagon caught so surprised this morning by the President’s tweets on it?
MS. SANDERS: As I said before, that the President’s national security team was part of this consultation. You mentioned yourself that there have been ongoing conversations —
Q Yeah, but the smaller issue, not a whole ban.
MS. SANDERS: Right. When the President made the decision yesterday, the Secretary of Defense was immediately informed as were the rest of the national security team that had been part of this ongoing conversation.
Q But you can’t answer the question of what’s going to happen to transgenders who are in the military now. Shouldn’t you have been able to answer that basic question for a policy of this magnitude?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think sometimes you have to make decisions. And once he made a decision, he didn’t feel it was necessary to hold that decision. And they’re going to work together with the Department of Defense to lawfully implement it.
Q Okay, one last thing on Sessions — just because this is the baseline question. You said earlier the President was “frustrated.” Is that frustration now in the past? And does he fully have confidence in the Attorney General to carry out his duties from this day forward?
MS. SANDERS: The President wants the Attorney General to focus on his duties as Attorney General. And I think we’ve both spoken about that pretty extensively, and I don’t have anything else to add.
Q You just announced the President is donating his second-quarter salary of $100,000 to the Department of Education. So, clearly, he must care about education. Why then is he calling for $9.2 billion in spending cuts to the Department of Education in the next budget?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that oftentimes you have a lot of duplicative efforts, and they want to streamline the process. And we simply have a government that’s completely out of control when it comes to spending. We have an outrageous deficit, and we’re looking to make things so that we have a balanced budget in the next 10 years. The President campaigned on it, he’s committed to seeing it through, but he’s also committed to education, as you can see by his own personal commitment and looking for ways that we can save and continue on to make education better, passing some of the decision-making down to more local and state control, and something we’re certainly supportive of.
Q Can I ask you then, quickly on transgender — just a quick follow-up. In June of 2016, in the heat of the campaign, he wrote, “Thank you to the LGBT community. I will fight for you.” Did the President today just betray his commitment to the transgender community?
MS. SANDERS: No. As I answered before, this was a decision about military readiness. And I’ve already answered even to that specific tweet.
Q But do you say to the transgender community that he is still committed to fight for them? And how is this not not fighting for them?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President has made very clear he’s committed to fighting for all Americans.
Q Is this fighting for all Americans?
Q Thank you very much, Sarah. Was this decision on transgenders in the military made to put pressure on Democrats running in 2018, particularly Democrats running in socially conservative districts like in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware.
Q And just to follow up on that, what is the timeline for when guidance will be delivered to the Pentagon on how the President’s decision should be implemented?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll let you know when we have an announcement.
Q Sarah, the President said this morning — or tweeted this morning, asking why the Attorney General has not fired Andrew McCabe as acting FBI Director. Why hasn’t the President fired Andrew McCabe as acting FBI Director?
MS. SANDERS: The President has made an incredible nominee in Chris Wray, and he’s looking forward to getting him confirmed and taking over the FBI.
Q (Inaudible) fire him, why should Attorney General Sessions fire him?
MS. SANDERS: Again, he’s made a choice to lead that agency and we’re looking forward to getting him confirmed soon.
Q Sarah, two questions. One following up on Major with Tricare and the transgender community. There’s been a concern from the transgender community before President Trump became President Trump that, if Obamacare changed to Trumpcare, they were wondering if they were able to get the procedures to help them complete their phases of becoming the other sex, or the other gender.
What do you say to those people who are seeing this now with this ban in the military? What do you say to transgender America who wants to continue with the change? Maybe some who already had part of the change and want to do the change and are scared because of what’s happening now, not for certain. What do you say to transgender America?
MS. SANDERS: As I’ve said before and I’ll try to make this clear, this was a military decision. This was about military readiness, this was about unit cohesion, this was about resources within the military, and nothing more.
Guys, I really don’t have anything else to add on that topic. As I do, I’ll keep you posted. But if those are the only questions we have, I’m going to call it a day. But if we have questions on other topics, I’ll be happy to take —
Q I’m sorry, Sarah, I wanted to finish. Everyone had a second question. On the morale of the Cabinet, Anthony Scaramucci this morning on “New Day” said that the Cabinet Secretaries need to have tough skin.
How is the President working with the Cabinet Secretaries right now? How does he build their morale after all of this with Sessions and we’re hearing things coming out of State with Rex Tillerson? How is the President working on their morale?
MS. SANDERS: I think the same way he works with all of us; he empowers us to do our jobs. And I don’t think it matters whether you’re a Cabinet Secretary or a low-level staffer. We’re here to do a job. He’s asked us to do it, and he expects us to get it done.
And I’ve spent a good bit of time with quite a few Cabinet Secretaries over the last couple days, and morale is high.
Q One more point about transgender servicemembers not here in this country, but overseas. And there are 18 countries where transgender servicemembers are allowed to serve openly. The U.K. is one. Australia is another. Israel is a third. The President in his tweet this morning referred to disruptions. What does he mean? And is he concerned that there are disruptions in our allies’ militaries in Australia and the U.K. and Israel? And should we worry about that from the military standpoint?
MS. SANDERS: As I said earlier, this decision was made after extensive discussions with his national security team, and the President decided it was in the best interest of the military to end this Obama policy.
I can’t speak to anything about another country. Pretty focused on making sure we get good things happening here.
Q Sarah, you were talking earlier about what the President wishes Attorney General Sessions to be doing in his job right now. Why hasn’t the President picked up the phone or invited him over into the Oval Office? Does the President have any intention of speaking with the Attorney General this week?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll keep you posted if he does.
Q Sorry. Second question on the transgender servicemember issue. You mentioned that the President reached his decision to improve or maintain unit cohesion. How does it maintain or improve unit cohesion to leave thousands of servicemembers, some who may be overseas, serving in units overseas, in the dark about their status within the military?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, this was a decision made after the consultation with his national security team and decided the best decision.
Q I want to ask you about a tweet the President had on Sunday. He said, “It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect the President.” Which Republicans was the President talking about? And what would he like to see from them? What sort of protection?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to call out any senators by name up here today. But I think the President is very committed to a robust agenda and changing America for the better. And Republicans have both the House and Senate — he’s hoping they’ll join him in pushing forward a lot of the policies that most of those people campaigned on, like repealing and replacing Obamacare. I think that’s a perfect example of Republicans needing to step up to commitments that they made during the campaign and since being elected, and get those things done.
Guys, I hate to cut it short. The President has got an event as I know you can all hear by all of the cheering children. I hope that we can join together in welcoming the boys and girls from the Girls Nation. Thanks, guys.
2:59 P.M. EDT