Wednesday, April 11, 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
4:00 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Earlier today, the President signed a bipartisan, anti-sex trafficking bill that provides law enforcement officials, including state attorneys general and local prosecutors, invaluable tools. The new law makes it clearer to take legal action against websites promoting advertisements for this modern-day slavery. Human trafficking is one of the most barbaric types of exploitation, and President Trump has been clear that it has no place in our world.
Advocates have long pointed to these websites as profiting from trafficking, including of children. It also provides new legal recourses for victims and law enforcement by enhancing penalties for people who promote or facilitate prostitution.
Yesterday, the President signed an Executive Order on Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility. The order provides nine principles of economic mobility that will guide agencies that administer public assistance programs to review all regulations relating to work and send a report to the President on what they can do to get Americans back to work.
The Trump administration recognizes that many states have been successful enacting commonsense work requirements and are seeing positive results, improving the lives of thousands of individuals and families. Many others have noticed and are leading the charge to provide greater opportunities to their citizens.
President Trump believes we can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.
We are also glad to see California Governor Jerry Brown work with the administration and send members of the National Guard to help secure the southern border.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. John.
Q Sarah, the Russian military has come out and said that there was no poison gas attack. That was Sergey Lavrov the other day who said they got no evidence of it. Today, a Russian military official says, oh, there was an attack but it was staged by the White Helmets brigade component of the rebels in Syria. What do you say to the Russian statement that this thing was staged by the White Helmets?
MS. SANDERS: The intelligence provided certainly paints a different picture, and the President holds Syria and Russia responsible for this chemical weapons attack.
Q I have an unrelated question on the Cohen raids the other day. It now looks as though prosecutors were looking for some sort of documentation that might have been connected with the Access Hollywood tape, as you know came out during the campaign, which you were a part of. And that is an effort to connect the dots between subsequent payments that were made to keep people quiet, which may constitute some sort of FEC violation for an illegal campaign contribution.
If the Mueller investigation has now morphed from looking at Russian collusion to an illegal campaign contribution by the President’s personal attorney, would the President consider that to be the Mueller investigation has strayed outside of its initial mandate?
MS. SANDERS: The President certainly has been clear that he has a very deep concern about the direction that the Special Counsel and other investigations have taken. This investigation started off as Russia collusion, of which there was none. It has been very clear that nothing has come up over the last year, and the President has spoken at length on this topic.
While the media continues to focus on this, despite the fact that there’s been no evidence after a year, we’re going to continue to stay focused on the issues.
Q A source, today, told me that President Trump is concerned that Paul Ryan’s retiring and not seeking reelection might encourage other Republicans to also not seek reelection. What do you say about that?
MS. SANDERS: We certainly hope that Republicans will continue to remain in the House, especially those that support the President’s agenda. And those that are campaigning, we look forward to a number of them coming out and also supporting the President’s agenda. I can’t get into a lot of details about specifics of individuals running for office.
But the President has been very clear about how he feels about Speaker Ryan. He knows that he’s a truly good man and will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. And he wishes him well as he moves forward in his future.
Q And Representative Scalise told me today — he said that there’s a tough political climate in that Republicans were already facing a lot of challenges and a lot of problems going forward. There are some people, though, that think that President Trump is part of the problem that Republicans have — that his rhetoric, his actions have made it harder for Republicans to win midterm elections. What does the President think about that? And does he actually plan to campaign with people? And does he think at all that he could hurt the chances of some Republicans if he goes out in the field?
MS. SANDERS: We think that Republicans, particularly the President, have a great story to tell moving into the midterms. We’ve had an incredibly successful first year and a half, focused on tax cuts, deregulation, working towards the defeat of ISIS, remaking of the judiciary, and a number of other things that we consider to be great successes and great things for Republicans to talk about as they look forward to the future.
Q Thanks, Sarah. With Syria set to chair the U.N. Conference on Disarmament next month, will the President consider, or does he have any plans to pull the U.S. out for the duration of Syria presiding over that group?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any specific announcements on that front right now.
Q And is the White House concerned with Facebook’s efforts to silence conservatives? It’s been a topic on the Hill today and yesterday.
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, the White House would always support not just conservatives but everyone having the ability to speak freely on a number of platforms across this country, and we certainly support the Constitution that provides that right.
Q Two questions about the President’s statement this morning. What does “Get ready Russia” mean? Is the United States planning to target Russian assets, personnel in Syria as part of the attack that the President himself said is coming — the missiles are coming? What does it mean?
MS. SANDERS: We’re maintaining that we have a number of options, and all of those options are still on the table. Final decisions haven’t been made yet on that front.
Q So does it mean anything at all? What does it mean?
MS. SANDERS: It certainly means — I think there’s a lot there that you can read from. But at the same time, the President has a number of options at his disposal, and all of those options remain on the table, and we’re continuing to look at each one of them.
Q If I might follow up with a separate question about another one of the President’s tweets this morning: Can you explain how the Special Counsel investigation has made for “bad blood” with Russia?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, I think that the President has been extremely clear that the constant focus of the fact that the President and his campaign had any collusion with Russia has hurt those relationships. The President has maintained, for a very long time, that the United States and Russia having a good relationship is good for the world. He certainly still believes that.
But at the same time, that’s hampered the ability to do so, as well as the actions — particularly the bad actions — that Russia has taken, including meddling in our election among other things. But tying the President to that has created a lot of unnecessary problems.
Q Two quick questions. You said that the final decision on Syria hasn’t been made yet. Does the President’s emoting on Twitter complicate the planning on this or present a national security risk?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all.
Q And on Michael Cohen, the Wall Street Journal and others have reported that Rosenstein signed off on the search warrant here. Does the White House believe this was a wrong decision from Mr. Rosenstein? And do they think he should step down?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I’m not going to get into the process, and that was something that you would have to talk to the Department of Justice about. In terms of personnel, I don’t have any announcements.
Q Sarah, two on Syria. Given your comments given here at the podium, given the President’s tweets this morning, is the White House prepared for the possibility of direct military engagement with Russia?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, all options are on the table, and I don’t have any further announcements about —
Q It sounds like a yes. Just — I want to be clear.
MS. SANDERS: It sounds like all options are on the table, and a final decision hasn’t been made, but we’ll keep you posted once it is.
Q And then let me ask that follow-up, too. The President, as you know, back in 2013, talked about why, when it comes to Syria, we can’t just, in his words, “be quiet and, if we attack at all, catch them by surprise.” Obviously, the President didn’t talk about a date or a time for any kind of attack on Syria, but he did talk about, as Steven points out, “get ready” for something. Why this time is the President not taking his own advice and being “quiet,” as he put it?
MS. SANDERS: The President, like you said — and actually answered my question for me — has not laid out a timetable, and he has a number of other options as well. And we’re considering all of those options and a number of different timetables of what any action we may or may not take would look like.
Q So that 48-hour timetable is out the window that he talked about Monday? We should disregard that?
MS. SANDERS: In a public sense, certainly the President has made some decisions. He made a decision not to travel to Latin America so that we could focus on this. That was the first step in this process, but we’re continuing to look at a number of options.
Q But, Sarah, the President was direct in talking about missiles. He said, “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” Why is the President telegraphing military intentions on Twitter; announcing, effectively, an attack on Twitter?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President has not laid out a timetable and still leaving a number of other options on the table. And we’re still considering a number of those, and a final decision on that front hasn’t been made.
Q And if I could ask — another one of the tweets, which Steven asked about, is also pretty direct here. He says, “…bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation.” Isn’t it Russia’s support for what the President himself calls a “Gas Killing Animal,” or its meddling in our elections, or its military intervention in Ukraine — aren’t those the actions that have cause bad blood? (Inaudible) Robert Mueller?
MS. SANDERS: It’s both of those things. Neither one of those things are good for our country. The President has been clear that the relationship with Russia is at a new low, and that’s due to a number of factors. Certainly, the things that you listed off, as well as the investigation, are all things that have hurt that relationship.
Q So Robert Mueller’s actions are similar to — I mean, another —
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t say that. You’re certainly putting words into my mouth.
Q Well, he’s the one that said “is.” He’s the one that —
MS. SANDERS: I said that both of those things are bad for America. That’s all I said.
Jeff, go ahead.
Q Sarah, Russia responded to the President’s tweet by saying, “Smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, and not towards the lawful government…” What’s the White House’s reaction to that?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President has been pretty clear what his position is on this front. Russia has proven themselves to be responsible in part for this. They guaranteed that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would not happen again. They failed at that. They’ve also helped enable Syria by vetoing six different U.N. resolutions that have helped protect Assad. So they certainly hold some responsibility in this, and certainly have proven themselves to be bad actors in this process.
Q Is the White House or the State Department in any kind of backchannel discussions with Russia to defuse the tension? And does the President still hope to meet with President Putin sometime soon?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any announcements on either front. I can’t get into the specifics on any conversations.
Q Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo were spotted today. Did the President meet with them to talk about Syria? And if so, what came out of that meeting?
MS. SANDERS: The President’s national security team met today. That meeting was chaired by the Vice President to discuss a number of options.
Q Sarah, you just said that the intelligence provided certainly paints a different picture, and that the President holds Syria and Russia responsible for the attack. However, earlier this morning, the Defense Secretary said, “We’re still assessing the intelligence — ourselves…We’re still working on this.” So what has changed over the last handful of hours from when the Defense Secretary said, “We’re still assessing the intelligence,” and now, to where you clearly point the finger at Russia and Syria?
MS. SANDERS: As I just stated to both Jeff and Jonathan, Russia holds some responsibility in the fact that they guaranteed that Syria wouldn’t use chemical weapons again, and they did. They also hold some responsibility in the fact that they have the six U.N. resolutions that they vetoed to help protect Assad. Both of those things lie at Russia’s feet in terms of responsibility in this process.
Q So then you still are assessing the intelligence then as the Defense Secretary stated before?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, there are things that are being assessed. I can’t get into the details. But we’re confident in the part of this process that we’re in to feel comfortable making the assertions that we have earlier today.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You said all these things about Russia and that they’ve been bad actors, they voted against the United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well. And this morning, the President, on Twitter, said that Russia is supported a “Gas Killing Animal.” So does the President now believe that Russia has firmly established itself as an enemy of America, especially since Russia has said that it will shoot down U.S. missiles if the President fires upon Syria?
MS. SANDERS: We certainly think they’ve proven to be a bad actor, and we hope that that will change.
Q What about an enemy, though? Are they an enemy, though, of America at this point?
MS. SANDERS: That’s something that Russia needs to play a role in determining. We hope that they will continue — or not continue, I’m sorry, to be a bad actor, and make some changes in their behavior. But that’s something that Russia will have to play a role in determining.
Q And one separate — just really quick.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Francesca, I’m going to keep going.
Q Sarah, as you say, “All options are on the table” when it comes to Syria and Russia. Has diplomacy been exhausted? That’s an option, as well.
MS. SANDERS: As I said, all options are on the table.
Q So it has not — is there — are you saying —
MS. SANDERS: Again, all options are on the table. That contains a number of different things.
Q So diplomacy could still be in play?
MS. SANDERS: It could be. But there are a lot of other options that are also on the table.
Q Sarah, four senators — two Dems, two Republicans — have a bill to ensure that a Special Counsel isn’t fired for political reasons. Does the White House support that bill? Does the White House think a bill like that is necessary?
MS. SANDERS: We don’t have an administrative policy on that right now.
Q Yeah, thank you, Sarah. Two questions. On Monday I asked you if the President had contacted President Macron and Prime Minister May about an alliance with France and England, not unlike that that President Obama tried to forge in 2013. He has had two conversations with both of them. Have there been any new developments? I mean, has he spoken with any other world leaders, especially those in Central Europe, about a larger coalition instead of the U.S. going it alone in Syria?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, we’ve had regular contact with regional allies and partners, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK, as well as a number of other countries at various levels.
Q What about Central Europe?
MS. SANDERS: We provided readouts of the conversations the President has directly had, but both the National Security Advisor as well as the Secretary of Defense, the Acting Secretary of State, and a number of others within the administration have had regular contact with their counterparts from a number of other countries.
Q And the other thing I wanted to ask: The President has a good relationship with Congressman Scalise, a good, personal relationship with his family. What does he think about the reports that Congressman Scalise will run for Speaker soon?
MS. SANDERS: The President has a great relationship with a number of members in the House of Representatives who support his agenda, and he looks forward to working with all of them over the course of the next six and a half — seven years, I guess. My math is not great.
Q Yeah. Is the President considering firing or in other ways pushing out Rosenstein?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any personnel announcements on this front.
Q Just one other thing. Paul Ryan today said that he’s been given assurances by the White House that the President isn’t planning to fire Rosenstein or Mueller. Do you know where he’s getting those assurances? Is it coming from the President? Is it coming from others? Where is it coming from?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I don’t have any announcements on that front.
Q Sarah, Senator Markey, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said today that the President must come to Congress for authorization prior to another military strike on Syria. And there are others who are also saying that. Does the administration intend to do that? And if not, why not?
MS. SANDERS: Obviously, the administration will follow whatever laws and regulations are necessary for any actions that we take. Because we haven’t laid out any specific actions that we plan to take, I can’t tell you exactly what needs we would have to go to Congress with.
Q It sounds like the President hasn’t really left a lot of wiggle room. You said that all options are on the table, but when the President says, “Get ready Russia…they will be coming,” the missiles are coming, how is that anything but an announcement of a pending airstrike?
MS. SANDERS: That’s certainly one option, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option or the only thing that the President may or may not do. Just because he does one thing doesn’t mean he can’t do a number of other actions as well.
Q Isn’t that telegraphing?
MS. SANDERS: And he certainly hasn’t laid out the timetable which would be broadcasting his intentions.
Q One other quick thing on Speaker Ryan’s announcement. There are some fears up on Capitol Hill, and we understand some in the White House, that a Democratic wave is coming; it could sweep the Republicans out of power in the House and that could potentially lead to impeachment proceedings that the Democrats could bring forward. What is the President’s thinking on that? What is your thinking on that?
MS. SANDERS: Like I said earlier, we are very confident in the record that we have and the very successful first year and a half that the President has had in office, and we expect to talk about that a lot. We’d love for you guys to talk about that a lot more, too. And we’d be happy to send you some talking points if you need some guidance on that.
Q Do you think a wave is coming? You think a wave is coming?
MS. SANDERS: We certainly think we have a great story to tell, and we think America will be ready to listen to that and certainly has, I think, felt the impact, certainly from an economic standpoint for this administration. And we’re proud of that.
I’ll take one last question. Right here, Andrew.
Q Just to follow up on Jeff and April’s question, is there anything that Syria or Russia could do at this point to avoid military action?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of anything. But certainly, like I’ve said a few times today, all options are on the table and we’ll continue conversations with our allies and partners and move forward from that point.
Thanks so much, guys. Have a great day.
4:19 P.M. EDT