Monday, March 12, 2018- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a press conference in the West Wing of the White House.
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:06 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Apologies for the delay. As you all saw, the White House rolled out the President’s school safety plan this morning. Every student should be able to feel safe and secure at their school, and no parent should have to worry whether their child will come home at the end of the day.
With that in mind, the President’s plan focuses on the following areas: First, hardening our schools. We will ensure our schools are safe and secure, just like our airports, stadiums, and government buildings, with better training and preparedness.
Second, strengthening background checks and prevention. President Trump is supporting legislation and reforms to strengthen the background check system and law enforcement operations.
Third, reforming mental health programs. The President is proposing an expansion and reform of mental health programs, including those that help identify and treat individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others.
And finally, continuing this important conversation, in addition to these immediate actions, the President is reviewing additional policy and funding proposals for school violence prevention.
These focus areas were identified after numerous meetings with students, teachers, lawmakers, and local officials, and the President will continue to lead the way on keeping our children safe.
Looking ahead to next week, President Trump will welcome Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to the White House on March 20th. The President looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and to advance our common security and economic priorities.
I’d also like to announce that the President will travel to Peru and Colombia next month. This will mark the President’s first trip to Latin America. He will attend the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru and will participate in a series of bilateral, multilateral, and cultural engagements.
This travel highlights the President’s resolve to deepen our historical ties with our partners in the region and our joint commitment to improve security and prosperity for the people of the Americas. The President is looking forward to meeting with partners and allies who share our values and believe, as we do, that the promise of a safe and prosperous future rests in strong democracies, fair and reciprocal trade, and secure borders.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Steve.
Q The President said Saturday night — he was talking about North Korea — he said, “If the meeting with Kim takes place.” Is there a chance that this meeting won’t take place?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we fully expect that it will. The offer was made and we’ve accepted. North Korea made several promises and if — we hope that they would stick to those promises and, if so, the meeting will go on as planned.
Q And what preparations are being made so far toward this meeting?
MS. SANDERS: We’re continuing to prepare on a number of levels. Most of that is an inter-administration, interagency process and I’m not going to get ahead of any of the details of the where, the when, or any of that here today.
Q Sarah, a couple of weeks ago, the President said that he wanted to raise the age on purchasing assault weapons. He talked about supporting universal background checks, about taking guns away from those identified as a threat even without due process. What happened to all those proposals?
MS. SANDERS: Look, a lot of those things are still outlined in the proposal that you’ll — if you don’t have yet, you should receive here in the next few minutes in your inboxes.
But look, right now, the President’s primary focus is on pushing through things that we know have broad bipartisan support or things that we can do from an administrative perspective that we can do immediately.
But we haven’t’ let go of some of those other things that we’re going to continue to review and look at, as I mentioned in the opening part of my first comments.
Q But is there a single thing in this proposal that’s from the President that is not supported by the NRA? Is there anything in here that the NRA opposes?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President still has, in this plan, the age limit increase and that is part of one of the things that will be —
Q But it’s not as federal policy, right?
MS. SANDERS: — one of those things will be reviewed on what the best path forward is on that front. Whether it can be done at a federal level or whether it needs to be done on a state-by-state basis.
But the President, as you know, doesn’t have the ability to just create federal law and he would need a number of other individuals to come together to help make that happen. So what he is pushing forward are things that can immediately be accomplished, either through the administration or that have broad-based bipartisan support in Congress. But that doesn’t mean that he has wiped away some of those other things that we’re still looking at how best we can move forward on.
Q And why did he name this DeVos Commission less than 24 hours after ridiculing the idea of Blue Ribbon commissions? He says, “All they do is talk, and talk, and talk, and two hours later they write a report.” And then on this issue, a commission is okay? Why?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President isn’t just — doesn’t just have one piece of this plan. There are number of things that he is pushing forward that are very tangible, both through support of specific pieces of legislation that we expect to move forward, as well as administrative action, like getting rid of the bump stocks that the President has been very vocal about and is going to continue to push for.
Q Yeah, Sarah, picking up where Jon left off, with regarding the National Rifle Association: At that February 28th meeting with lawmakers, President Trump sort of made an example of Republican senators who were afraid of crossing the NRA. And he said, “Some of you [people] are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified.” But based on the plan last night, it seems like President Trump was the one petrified of the NRA because he backed away from some of the ideas that he had brought into the discussion and I’m asking why he chickened out. Why he didn’t go forward with what he has proposed earlier?
MS. SANDERS: Look, he hasn’t backed away from these things at all. As I just said, they’re still outlined in the plan, but he can’t make them happen with a broad stroke of the pen. You have to have some congressional component to do some of these things. And without that support, it’s not as possible.
However, we are focused on things that we can do immediately. Let’s not forget that the Obama administration had the White House and all of Congress for two years, and never did anything. This President is actually supporting specific pieces of legislation and still laying out other priorities that he would like to see talked about and implemented, whether we have to do that on a state level —
Q But President Trump — he could have put out a proposal for legislation. He could’ve advocated for universal background checks. He could have called for raising the ages in the states. Instead he’s tabled that after this commission —
MS. SANDERS: He hasn’t actually. It’s actually listed still in his policy proposal that you’ll see.
Q For federal policy? Just to clarify. For federal policy?
MS. SANDERS: It’s reviewing the best path forward for how to do that. So that door isn’t closed on that front.
Q Sarah, I was hoping you could comment on news out of Great Britain today. Theresa May saying that the British government believes that Russia was behind the attempted murder and poisoning of a former spy with a nerve agent that has a Russian manufacturer. Is that the assessment of the United States government, number one?
Does the United States government plan on designating Russia as — like it did North Korea, earlier this year, regarding the murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother — of Russia using chemical weapons?
And, three, will there be any repercussions for Russia from the United States, in coordination with its British allies?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve been monitoring the incident closely, take it very seriously. The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation, and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families, and our support to the UK government. We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.
Q So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this act?
MS. SANDERS: Right now, we are standing with our UK ally. I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that. And we’re going to continue to work with the UK, and we certainly stand with them throughout this process.
Q Theresa May said it was either Russia using it themselves or that it had given its chemical weapons to a third party to murder a British citizen, the latter being highly unlikely, given the nature of this weapon. So —
MS. SANDERS: Like I just said, Zeke, we stand with our ally. And we certainly fully support them, and are ready if we can be of any assistance to them.
Q What was the President’s reaction yesterday to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos going on “60 Minutes” saying that she admitted she has not intentionally visited underperforming schools, then went on another network this morning and said that everything was one the table when it came to schools safety as well as guns? Clearly, it’s not — everything is not on the table.
MS. SANDERS: Well, the President has laid out what his positions are, both on the school safety front and what he thinks the best path forward, specific to immediate actions that we can take, and also things that need further review on determining the best path forward. That’s the focus of the President. Not one or two interviews, but on actual policy that can help protect the safety and security of schoolkids across this country.
Q Did he see the interview last night?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure if he saw the whole thing or not.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have a question about Congress and possibly blocking or delaying tariff implementation. How concerned is the White House about that? And a follow-up on China, if I may.
MS. SANDERS: Sure. Our position on this front hasn’t changed. The President has been clear for quite some time what his position is and what his authority is under the 232 statute, and we’re moving forward.
Q And then on China, if I might. I know the President sort of made a tongue-in-cheek comment about President Xi having the ability to rule for quite some time, perhaps indefinitely. Is there an administration position on something like that? Is that healthy for the relationship between our countries?
MS. SANDERS: That would be a determination for China to make, not something for the United States to weigh in on.
Q But is it healthy, from the administration’s perspective, in terms of our relationship, bilaterally, to have, say, a leader in a country that’s going to be there, potentially, indefinitely.
MS. SANDERS: I wouldn’t weigh in specifically on that. I can say that the President and President Xi have a good relationship. And a lot of the willingness of China to step up and participate at a far higher level than they have in the past to put maximum pressure on North Korea has certainly been successful, and has been, in large part, due to that relationship.
But as the President has also said, he wants to make sure that they don’t take advantage of us when it comes to trade. And we’re going to continue to push for what’s best for America.
Q Sarah, a couple on the guns issue. On the age restrictions, the President has said a couple of times — he’s criticized his predecessors saying they haven’t shown leadership on this issue. So I wonder, now, how you can make the political expediency argument for his school safety policy and that he’s explicitly backing only things he thinks can pass and not things that may need some additional leadership —
MS. SANDERS: That’s actually not what I said. We’re specifically driving forward on some of those things that we know can immediately happen. And we’re determining what the best path forward is on some of those other things that don’t have that same broad base of support. You can’t just decide that you want laws to pass and it happens. But you can look at the best process forward to actually implement that type of policy.
Q Okay, certainly, but the leader of the party — he’s the President of the United States.
MS. SANDERS: Which is why he’s laid those things out in his proposal.
Q He can push that policy forward if he so chooses &##8212; if he chose to.
MS. SANDERS: Which is why he laid that out in the policy that he’s put forth that he rolled out this morning.
Q On the commission, is Commissioner DeVos going to continue to be the face of the school safety policy and this commission after last night’s interview?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that the President is going to be the lead on school safety when it comes to this administration. He certainly has been since this process has begun, and he’s going to continue to lead on it as we move forward.
Q Sarah. Thanks a lot, Sarah. I have two questions. One on guns, and the other on the President’s trip to California tomorrow. On guns, the President, here in the White House, met with six students from Parkland, Florida and said, specifically, that he would go strong on the age limits. And this proposal doesn’t have the President stepping forward and demanding action from Congress on those age limits. Why is the President backing away from that promise to those six students that he would go strong on gun age?
MS. SANDERS: I guess I don’t know how many times I can explain the same thing. The President still supports this. That’s why it’s in his plan. And he is looking at and reviewing the best path forward to try to get it through.
Q Reviewing doesn’t count as going strong
MS. SANDERS: But at the same time, he is making sure that the things that we can do right now, we’re actually doing. Instead of holding everything back until we can get some of those other pieces done, we’re pushing forward on the things that have support, that can be accomplished immediately, and then we’re working through the process to see what we can do to get the other things done.
That actually seems smart, and it seems like bold leadership to me — to push through on things that help protect kids while not ignoring some other policies that the President supports, which we’re doing.
Q Can you tell us some more about the President’s trip to California tomorrow? Why is he going to the wall, to see the wall prototypes first? And also, this is a state that did not vote for the President. Is the President going to make an opportunity to reach out to people who didn’t vote for him by going to this state?
MS. SANDERS: I think that this is an important thing that the President has talked about — the safety and security of the country — and strongly feels that the wall is a big part of that. And he’s going to look at those prototypes.
One of the other things that he’ll also be doing is speaking to members of the military. You’ll see all five branches of the military represented at the speech he gives. While California may not have — he may not have won that state, there is certainly a lot of support for this President, not just there but across the country. And he looks forward to being there and presenting a lot of the specific policies.
Q The President — there’s a lot of Republican lawmakers in California that think that the wall would be too expensive and could be a waste of money. Is the President concerned that he might be putting undue political pressure on Republican lawmakers by visiting the wall in California?
MS. SANDERS: No. The President campaigned on this, he talked about it extensively, and he’s the President. And this is something that he is not going to back away from, and something that he is going to continue to push for.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Since Kim Jong-un’s overture to meet with President Trump last Thursday and his proposal to denuclearize, the North Korean media has mentioned nothing. They haven’t referenced the overture; they haven’t referenced this idea that North Korea would get rid of its nuclear weapons. I heard what you said a little bit earlier about how you believe that a meeting will still take place. What makes you think that, based upon the fact that Kim Jong-un hasn’t even mentioned this to his own people, that anything of substance will come out at such a meeting?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we know that the maximum pressure campaign is working. We know that they have responded due to that, and they have pushed this message through the South Koreans to us. We have accepted their invitation on the three promises that they made, and we’re going to move forward in this process.
Q Being nuclearized is a point on pride, we are told —
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the first part of what you said.
Q Being a nuclear country is a point of pride, we are told, for North Koreans. To just simply get rid of their own nuclear weapons, it seems, would be something that would undercut what that country and what Kim Jong-un stands for. Again, why would he get rid of his nuclear weapons?
MS. SANDERS: I think that shows the effectiveness of the maximum pressure campaign. And that’s one of the reasons that we’re not letting up on the maximum pressure campaign, and we’re going to continue pushing forward on it.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. First, following up on what Jon asked, we know that Kim Jong-un has been using a special envoy to Seoul to send messages. Has he sent any special messages through any special envoy to the President?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of or go beyond any of the things that we’ve already put out publicly.
Q The other thing is that, regarding tomorrow’s election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, the President’s campaign visit notwithstanding, he is reported in several sources today to have referred to Republican Rick Saccone as “weak” and said he’s run a poor campaign. This seems a little unusual in light of what he said Saturday, in light of Mr. Saccone’s praise of him as a friend. Did he actually say that about Mr. Saccone?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I can’t weigh in on any specifics of an upcoming election, but I can refer you back to the President’s public comments that he made on Saturday.
Q To double down on your answer to Brian’s question, is it the President’s intent, tomorrow, to pick a winning design for the wall? Is that we he’s going down there?
MS. SANDERS: Look, he wants to look at the different prototypes, and beyond that, I’m not going to get ahead of the President’s visit.
Q A quick question, there was a report this morning that the Saudi government inflicted physical abuse on the people who were held captive for the time at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Is this something that the White House intends to bring up with the Crown Prince?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of the conversations that will take place on the 20th, but we’ll have a readout of that meeting.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions. First, on guns: The President, during his campaign, said nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. But it sounds like now you’re saying that, because certain things that he supports does not have support in the Congress, that he’s only going to push forward on the things that are already sort of —
MS. SANDERS: That’s not actually what I said, but — you guys continue to misunderstand and misrepresent the comments that I’m making. I’m saying that the President is pushing forward on things that we know have broad-based support and that we can immediately get done, while, at the same time, we’re looking at the best way forward to push these other things through. Whether it’s on a state level, whether it’s on a federal level, we’re looking at the best process forward.
Because the President does have to work within the Constitution, we can’t just write things down and make them law; we actually have to follow a process. And the President is going to go through that process and determine the best path forward on a number of issues that are outlined that he has supported.
Q Let me ask you about the Manchin-Toomey universal background check legislation because it’s not yet clear whether or not the President actually supports having universal background checks. Obviously, in this proposal, he supports the Fix NICS bill, but can you tell us whether or not he does support the idea of background checks for online purchases and private sales?
MS. SANDERS: The President supports fixing some of the problems within the background check system that we have outlined in some of the legislation that we already support, and we’re considering other options beyond that.
I’ll take one last question. Mara.
Q Sarah, thank you. The President tweeted — he said, “…not much political support (to put it mildly)” for raising the age. I mean, I’ve looked at every single poll, and the support for raising the age is like 78 percent and 82 percent. Rasmussen was the lowest, with 67 percent. So what is he talking about? There’s tremendous support for it.
MS. SANDERS: He’s talking about Congress, who actually has the ability to make law, not online polls.
Q So he has determined that there is no support in Congress for this?
MS. SANDERS: Not broad-based support that could push this legislation through at this time. That doesn’t mean, once again, that we are ignoring the concept or not looking at how we can build a coalition of support for it, but we’re still determining what the best path forward is on how we can implement something like that, as well as a number of other issues on this.
Thank you so much, guys.
3:26 P.M. EDT