Tuesday September 12, 2017- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes questions from the rabid White House press corps.
Transcript of the press briefing
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:42 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
Q Good afternoon.
MS. SANDERS: There’s at least one person to say “hi” back. (Laughter.)
The President and the entire administration —
Q Good afternoon, Sarah.
Q Good afternoon, Sarah!
Q How are you? (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: Oh, there we go. What a happy class, yeah. Now we’re ready.
The President and the entire administration continue to monitor the situation in Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, Florida, Texas, and all areas affected by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
FEMA Administrator Long is traveling to the affected areas today, and the President will be making a trip to Florida on Thursday.
The President’s action during these times demonstrate why he’s a true leader who can bring the country together and get things done for the American people. He wants to continue building unity by working on more issues supported by both parties, especially restoring fairness to our broken tax code and cutting taxes for hardworking Americans.
Last week in North Dakota, he invited Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp up on stage to welcome her during his tax reform event in her home state.
Tonight, he’ll host Senator Heitkamp, along with colleagues of hers from both parties — Senators Donnelly, Hatch, Manchin, Thune, and Toomey — for a dinner at the White House to discuss working together to achieve real tax reform that allows Americans to keep more of their hard-earned dollars.
Ahead of the dinner this evening, Secretary Mnuchin and NEC Director Cohn are on the Hill this afternoon to continue their conversations with key members in this important policy push.
The Vice President also attended Senate Republicans’ weekly policy lunch today and is meeting with House leaders on the upcoming legislative agenda.
On issues ranging from national security to hurricane relief, to keeping our government functioning, the President is reaching across the aisle and to cut deals that help the American people. The President truly believes, as he often says, that in order to succeed and grow, we must work as “one team, one people, and one American family.”
Finally, speaking of family, I wanted to say a big congratulations to Eric and Lara Trump on the birth of their son, Eric Luke Trump, this morning. We all looking forward to meeting him soon.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. John.
Q Sarah, on tax reform. The Legislative Director, Marc Short, today, speaking to Christian Science Monitor breakfast, said that the one thing that you learn from Obamacare is that you can’t even rely on your own party to bring the votes across the finish line. But then at the same time, you haven’t really been able to get much bipartisan support either. So with that in mind, what is the President hoping to do tonight with this bipartisan dinner?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s start that conversation; start talking about things that we all agree on. As I’ve said many times, I think most everyone can agree that Americans should keep more of their money than the government. They spend it, certainly, far better than the government can. And I think that’s something that is a common goal that a lot of people want to come together on.
I think by nature of them sitting down with the President, that’s a very good first start. I’m not going to get ahead of the dinner tonight, but I think that it shows and is a great indicator from both sides that we have a big agenda and a very ambitious agenda legislatively this fall. And we want to work together to make sure we can get as much of that done as possible.
Q It looks like you might be able to get some bipartisan buy-in on the idea of lowering the taxes for corporations, certainly middle-class tax cuts, but the Democrats are really drawing the line at tax cuts for the highest income earners. Can the President cut some sort of deal with them that sticks to his principles but then also satisfies them? Or is there an unbridgeable gulf there?
MS. SANDERS: The President, I think, has demonstrated both in his business world and as President that he can make deals, and that’s certainly what he’s looking to do. And he’s going to work hard to make sure that we get the best deal possible on tax reform. And I think that starts with things like tonight and having this conversation and moving that ball forward, working bipartisan support from both sides.
Q Sarah, the Treasury Secretary at another event this morning seemed to express an empathy for people who live in high-tax states like New York and California. If the administration goes forward and Congress approves a plan that eliminates the deductibility of state and local taxes, theoretically people in those states could see their taxes increase, not decrease. Is the administration committed to doing something to help people in those high-tax states?
MS. SANDERS: Look, again, we’re looking to work with Congress to make sure we get the best deal possible for all Americans across the board, and that includes people in high-tax states.
Q Thanks, Sarah. It’s being reported that the Malaysian Prime Minister on his visit here is staying at the Trump Hotel. Two questions on that. Did that come up at all in conversations with the President during their meetings? And is it problematic for someone under DOJ investigation to be supporting the President’s for-profit company?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure about — if that came up. I’m not aware that that was ever discussed. And we certainly don’t book their hotel accommodations, so I couldn’t speak to the personal decision they made about where to stay here in D.C.
Q So you don’t think that’s in any way any sort of attempt to curry favor with the President?
MS. SANDERS: No, I don’t.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Steve Bannon today apparently told a room full of people that he was speaking to that he talked to the President every two or three days. Yesterday you said you thought they had only spoken once. So do they speak more regularly than maybe you were led to believe? Or can you give us any insight to how often they’re talking?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think they speak, certainly not that frequently. I’m aware of like two conversations that they’ve had, and nothing beyond that.
Q So it’s not two to three days — every two to three days, as far as you know?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. Again, I’m only aware of two conversations that have taken place.
Q I just want to get you quickly on one other topic. Why hasn’t President Trump called the President of Mexico in the wake of that earthquake there to offer condolences? Why was it the Secretary of —
MS. SANDERS: They actually have a call scheduled today. It’s taking place, I believe, within this hour. And we’ll have a readout for you on that this afternoon.
Q Sarah, apologies if you answered this yesterday, but is the President aware —
MS. SANDERS: It’s okay, everybody here likes to ask the same question many times. (Laughter.)
Q Is the President aware that Steve Bannon described firing James Comey as the biggest mistake in modern political history?
MS. SANDERS: Whether he is or not, I think that everybody knows exactly where the President stands on that issue. The President is proud of the decision that he made. The President was 100 percent right in firing James Comey. He knew at the time that it could be bad for him politically but he also knew and felt he had an obligation to do what was right, and do what was right for the American people and certainly the men and women at the FBI.
I think there is no secret Comey, by his own self-admission, leaked privileged government information. Weeks before President Trump fired him, Comey testified that an FBI agent engaged in the same practice; they face serious repercussions. I think he set his own stage for himself on that front. His actions were improper and likely could have been illegal. Comey leaked memos to the New York Times, your own outlet. He politicized an investigation by signaling he would exonerate Hillary Clinton before he ever interviewed her or other key witnesses.
He is very happy with the decision he made, and I think he has been fully vindicated by a lot of those new things and knowing that it was the right one.
Q Where in Florida is the President going? And what’s he going to be doing down there?
MS. SANDERS: Those details are still being finalized. We hope to have some of that ironed out later today, and we’ll certainly keep you guys posted on that travel.
MS. SANDERS: Sarah, two questions. First, a follow-up to the Malaysian Prime Minister’s visit. Did the ongoing DOJ probe into corruption, did that come up in conversation with the President today? And then secondly, a different matter, next week of course the President is going to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Past Presidents usually have a theme or a key idea they want to get across in their speech or some of their individual leader meetings. What will President Trump’s be?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of the specific conversation coming up in today’s meetings.
In terms of the U.N. General Assembly, I don’t want to get ahead too far. We will plan to outline some of those plans and more details about that trip at the end of this week, as we have done in past practice on those types of meetings. And we’ll certainly do that by the end of this week.
Q Thanks, I have two. Let me just follow up too. You said that the actions of James Comey could have been illegal. You, the other day, referred to potential false testimony. The DOJ is not commenting, but I would put to you, would the President encourage the DOJ to prosecute Comey?
MS. SANDERS: That’s not the President’s role. That’s the job of the Department of Justice, and something they should certainly look at.
Q Is that something you’d like to see?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure about that specifically, but I think if there’s ever a moment where we feel someone has broken the law, particularly if they’re the head of the FBI, I think that’s something that certainly should be looked at.
Q And on North Korea — I’m sorry, Sarah, my second question on North Korea — has this administration determined whether North Korea did test the hydrogen bomb?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t released those details yet.
Q Has the assessment been made though?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure, Hallie.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Yesterday, when you were talking about James Comey, you mentioned that he gave false testimony. I didn’t hear you say that again today. Do you still stand by that?
MS. SANDERS: I did say that actually today.
Q You did say —
MS. SANDERS: Yeah.
Q Separately, when it comes to Steve Bannon, the Wall Street Journal reported that they spoke the other night. That’s what Steve Bannon told the gathering in Hong Kong. Do you know if they discussed this “60 Minutes” interview? And has the President said that it’s something he would like to discuss with Steve Bannon?
MS. SANDERS: He hasn’t said whether he would like to discuss that — at least not to me — on that front.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Sarah. Two questions, if I may. First, going back to John’s original question regarding the Christian Science Monitor breakfast this morning, Marc Short was also asked about whether the President still supports Senator Luther Strange. And when I asked you that question, you said legal constraints kept you from answering. He said this morning that he’s standing by Senator Strange and he fully supports him in the runoff September 26th. Is that the White House’s official position?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President has liberties that I don’t, and legally I’m not allowed to comment on specific political elections that are ongoing. So I’m not going to weigh into that conversation.
Q But Marc Short can —
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I’m not in a place where I can comment directly from behind the podium about elections that are upcoming.
Q My other question is a political question as well. Two United States senators, Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, face spirited primary challenges. State Representative Justin Simmons, a strong supporter of the President in Pennsylvania, declared his candidacy against Congressman Charlie Dent, who announced his retirement on Friday. Will the White House back challengers to sitting Republicans in primaries?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to weigh in on elections that are ongoing from the podium. That’s something that the Hatch Act prohibits me from being able to do.
Q Sarah, on North Korea, what did the President mean today when he said that the latest U.N. sanctions resolution was not a big deal?
MS. SANDERS: I think he actually said this is a small step and part of the process. But, look, I think that the ultimate goal here is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. That’s what we have to push towards. We’re going to continue taking those small steps, but at the same time we know that those very parties that voted to do this all have to do more. The President has called on them to do more, and we continue to hope that they will.
Q Is the President comfortable with his son, Donald Trump Jr., testifying publicly up on Capitol Hill?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, can you —
Q Is the President comfortable with his son, Donald Trump Jr., testifying publicly up on Capitol Hill? Senator Feinstein has indicated that she would like to see that happen. And separately, but on the same —
MS. SANDERS: I think she said she’d just like to see him testify. Look, this administration has been very clear we’re going to be transparent and cooperative with this process. We know that there was — nothing improper took place, no wrongdoing. And we’re ready to see this come to its full conclusion and everybody else to see that as well.
Q So the President would be comfortable — judging by what you’re saying, he’d be comfortable with his son testifying?
MS. SANDERS: The President is comfortable with us being fully transparent and cooperating with this process, as we’ve done every day since it started and will continue to do as we move forward.
Q And finally, let me just ask a quick little follow-up question. Jared Kushner — was there any discussion about him stepping aside earlier this year, leaving the administration?
MS. SANDERS: No, no conversation that I’m aware of, and certainly no presentation as both the President’s attorneys have gone on record to say.
Q Sarah, Marc Short also said today that the administration would not tie funding for a border wall —
MS. SANDERS: I believe he actually said it would be premature to determine whether or not that would happen.
Q So I guess what I’m saying is, it seemed to leave the impression that the administration would be open maybe to a bill for the DACA recipients that would legalize them without any other strings. Is that what you’re saying?
MS. SANDERS: I think what we’re saying is what we’ve been saying all along. We haven’t mixed messages here. We want responsible immigration reform; that hasn’t changed. The President is very much committed to the wall. We’re also committed to some other principles that we’ve laid out, and none of those have changed.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Just a couple of questions, if I could, about the dinner tonight —
MS. SANDERS: A couple?
Q — on your efforts on tax reform. You mentioned guests this evening — three Democratic senators — Senator Donnelly, Senator Manchin, Senator Heitkamp, all up for reelection next year. Do you know how those particular guests were chosen, first of all?
MS. SANDERS: I think just by their willingness to want to sit down and have these conversations with the President. Certainly something that we are looking forward to and hopefully will be very productive steps forward in the process of having a very ambitious legislative agenda for the fall.
Q Senator Jon Tester of Montana indicated today that he was not invited but is open to talking about tax reform. Does that mean that he perhaps could be a future guest of the President’s for dinner? Will the President reach out to Senator Tester in that regard?
MS. SANDERS: The administration has been clear we want to sit down with anybody who’s willing to be serious about real tax reform for this country, about providing real relief for middle-class America, and actually looking to make bold changes. Those are the conversations we want to have. And I would imagine if Senator Tester wants to be involved in those and is serious about it, we’d certainly be willing to have that conversation with him.
Q Last year, on the campaign trail, the President said he wouldn’t support amnesty. But last week he asked Congress to legalize DACA. So why the change of heart?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President has spoken out very clearly that he wants us to make this decision based on a variety of factors. But the number-one thing is that he wants responsible immigration reform, and part of that is including that in the process.
Q But what convinced him to have — to want responsible immigration reform?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q What convinced him to want responsible immigration reform now?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President has always wanted responsible immigration reform — something that is important for the country moving forward. But he also wants to make sure American jobs are protected, American citizens are protected, and that’s why it can’t be just one piece, but comprehensive.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Earlier, you referenced two things about the former FBI Director, James Comey. First you said, the leaking of information likely could have been illegal. You went on to say, something that could be looked at. Are you encouraging — is this White House encouraging the Department of Justice to investigate the former FBI Director, James Comey, for leaking information?
MS. SANDERS: No. As I told Hallie, this is anybody that breaks the law. Whatever that process is that needs to be followed should certainly be looked at. If they determine that that’s the course of action to take, then they should certainly do that. But I’m not here to ever direct DOJ into actions that they should take.
Q And if I could follow on an earlier question, too. A lot of conversations here in Washington about the midterm elections in 2018. What role is the President looking to play in the 2018 elections? Will he be supporting specific candidates? And will he be using his support as leverage to have those members of Congress support his domestic agenda?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President is going to support the agenda and accomplishing things that help America. But in terms of specific elections and whether or not he’s going to weigh in, as I’ve said to a couple of your colleagues already today, I’m not going to be able to weigh in from the podium on that.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two topics. One, can you talk to us about the Tim Scott meeting tomorrow evening, and what’s the crux of it? Also, it’s supposed to be about Charlottesville, HBCUs, and just the African American perspective. What would you say is supposed to be taking place?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of their meeting. We’ll certainly be happy to provide information after the meeting is over. But at this point, I think it’s certainly a conversation that Senator Scott wanted to have with the President, and the President wanted to have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with the Senator. I’m not going to get into anything beyond that at this point.
Q A clear understanding — is the HBCU conference happening, or is it not — the White House portion?
MS. SANDERS: It is going forward. It is happening. It will take place here at the White House.
Q And last question. Just for an understanding, how does the President receive and give calls from his cellphone during work? I know it sounds very trite and small, but there’s been a lot of controversy about how the President is being handled, I guess, by General Kelly and how he keeps certain people in, certain people out. And then you’re hearing Steve Bannon say that he’s had many calls, and you’re saying — or that he’s talked to the President several times. And you’re saying you’re not aware of that.
So it leads us to believe that it’s this conversation, this phone thing. Could you talk to us about the use of his cellphone? Is this like during the day, after hours, or what? Because there have been stories about this cellphone use and people calling —
MS. SANDERS: There have been a lot of things that you guys have written that I’ve seen to be controversial. That one hasn’t been something I’ve seen a whole lot about. But the President has access — I mean, he can make calls from a landline, too. I’m not really sure what the question is here, whether or not he made a call from a cellphone or a landline.
Q But can you call from the White House? Those calls are more so logged. Do you have a log — versus a cellphone. It’s his personal phone, correct?
MS. SANDERS: The President — again, I don’t sit in on every single call he makes. I’m telling you about what I’m aware of at this point. Certainly, we’ll keep you posted, as we do with numerous calls that the President makes throughout the day and through the evening.
Q Sarah, on tax reform, two of the President’s top advisors said that a 15 percent corporate tax rate at this point seems unlikely. Is the President prepared to back off of that demand for 15 percent?
MS. SANDERS: The President is prepared to push for as low of a rate as we can get. We’re going to continue to push for that and work with Congress to make sure we get the best deal possible.
Q Based on conversations, it seems like they’re hovering around 20 percent. Would he accept a 20 percent corporate tax rate?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President is focused on getting the best deal possible. We’re going to continue working to make sure we get that done.
Q Sarah, thank you.
Q Can I just ask you one on North Korea, Sarah? The President tweeted on January 2nd, “It won’t happen.” He said, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Does he stand by that assessment, given everything that he has seen — all of the nuclear provocations from North Korea?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President is committed to taking every step and keeping all options on the table in order to have a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Q Thank you. Does the President believe that he needs to secure funding for a border wall before DACA? And I also have a second quick question.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think it would be — as Marc Short said, and as your colleague pointed out, it would be premature for us to make those determinations at this point. But certainly something that we want to make sure happens is that there is a wall — that’s something the President is committed to — but we also want comprehensive immigration reform.
Q And also, will the President be reading Hillary Clinton’s book? (Laughter.) And what does he think about the excerpts that have gotten out so far?
MS. SANDERS: Whether or not he’s going to read Hillary Clinton’s book, I am not sure. But I would think that he’s pretty well-versed on “what happened.” And I think it’s pretty clear to all of America. I think it’s sad that after Hillary Clinton ran one of the most negative campaigns in history and lost, and the last chapter of her public life is going to be now defined by propping up book sales with false and reckless attacks. And I think that that’s a sad way for her to continue this work.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions. First, the Treasury Secretary said this morning that Janet Yellen is being considered for reappointment as Fed Chair. Is that something the President is considering? Is she on the short list? And how close is the President to making that decision?
MS. SANDERS: When we have a personnel announcement, we’ll certainly make sure everybody in the room knows.
Q I wanted to ask you about what the President said about North Korea earlier. He said that the U.N. Security Council resolution was “nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen.” Is the President considering actions, including cutting off Chinese banks from the U.S. financial system?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve said many times before, that all options on the table. That hasn’t changed. The President has also said that he wants every country involved to step up and do more. This was a small step in that process, and we’re hoping that they’ll take a greater role and a more active role in putting pressure on North Korea.
Q A moment ago — you’ve used the language “responsible immigration reform”; a moment ago you said “comprehensive immigration reform.”
MS. SANDERS: I think the goal, again: responsible immigration reform; making sure that we have the principles that we’ve laid out and that I’ve laid out from up here accomplished in that package. So that’s —
Q But not necessarily comprehensive as it had been talked about before?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, responsible immigration reform.
Q Sarah, you’ve talked a lot about cutting deals here with the President. Marc Short earlier today said that one of the lessons of the fall is you can’t necessarily rely on 50 to 52 Republicans. And then he went on to say, “We don’t feel like we can assume that we can get tax reform done strictly on a partisan basis.” So is it the belief of the White House that you are going to need Democrats in the Senate to get this across the finish line?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s the belief of the White House that we want to have bipartisan support. As I said several times earlier today, the goal is to have everybody come together and help provide tax relief for Americans across the board. We hope Democrats want to be part of that process. They certainly should.
Q Do you think you need them though? I mean, what Marc Short said is, what we learned from healthcare reform is, even though people have been talking since 2010 about doing one thing, that’s not necessarily what they might do in 2017.
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s less about what we need and what the country deserves. The American people work hard every day. They should get to keep more of their money. That’s what this President is focused on, and that’s what we’re focused on doing, is helping — we’ll work with Democrats and Republicans to make sure we get that accomplished.
Q Do you know of any Democrats that are close to supporting what the President and the Big 6 — their framework?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’re in the beginning of those conversations, and hopefully, again, a lot of those people will come on board.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Let’s drill down on that a little bit, on the idea of Democrats coming across the aisle to support the President’s tax reform. The question is whether there’s enough of a shared vision between Democrats and Republicans for what tax reform ought to look like. So can you give us one or two examples of things, elements of this deal that the President could put into the deal that would attract those Democratic votes, but that would not alienate any Republicans? What are the specific —
MS. SANDERS: These are just the beginning conversations — these conversations are just starting with the Democrats coming to the table. And as those take place, we’ll certainly provide more information on that front. But this is just the very beginning, the first step in this process.
Thanks so much, guys. We’ll be around the rest of the day to answer other questions if you have them. Thanks so much.
3:07 P.M. EDT