Wedday, Nov. 1, 2017- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds an on camera press briefing.
Transcript of the press briefing to follow
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:15 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Let me just start by offering our thoughts and prayers today with the people of New York City — some of the toughest, most resilient people on Earth — in the wake of yesterday’s cowardly terrorist attack.
This attack underscores that the terrorist threat is real. And as we defeat ISIS and affiliated groups abroad, we must be vigilant here in our country as they seek other ways to attack the homeland. Inspiring such attacks through hateful propaganda has always been part of ISIS’s and other terrorists’ strategy.
This underscores the need for the most careful vetting of who enters our country. There are hundreds of active law enforcement investigations into foreign nationals suspected of engaging in terrorism, and we must vet those seeking entry to the United States thoroughly.
Last night, just hours after the attack, a million New Yorkers, including families with their children, marched through the city for a Halloween parade. Their message was heard loud and clear: The American spirit will never be broken. Those who hope we will succumb to fear will never get what they want. And those who seek to divide us will only bring us closer together.
In the midst of the attack, New York City’s finest — our incredible police and first responders — rushed to the aid of their fellow citizens. They did their duty, they ran into danger so that others could run away to safety, and they performed like the heroes they were born to be.
Specifically, Officer Ryan Nash, a five-year veteran of the NYPD, was among the first to respond to the scene, and fired the shot that stopped the attacker from continuing the violence.
He’s a hero, but that doesn’t come as a surprise to most of his colleagues. He’s already received two awards during his young career — one for Excellent Police Duty and another for other police action. Yesterday, he earned something that could never be properly displayed by a ribbon or medal; he earned the never-ending thanks of a grateful nation.
The President has vowed to defend our country, protect our communities, and put the safety of Americans first. This is the oath he took as President, and that is his sacred pledge to the citizens of our country.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q Sarah, in the hours — and, in fact, the days — after the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, the President repeatedly said now is not the time to talk about policy, now is not the time to talk about politics, and that’s for another time; right now we need to mourn the dead.
Yet, this morning, the President launched into a political argument with Senator Chuck Schumer on Twitter, literally hours after this incident yesterday. Why was he so quick to go the political route and point fingers at Chuck Schumer for the fact that this person was in the country at all?
MS. SANDERS: Well, look, this wasn’t about going the political route. This is something that, frankly, the President has been talking about for a long time. This isn’t a new policy. This isn’t a new position. This isn’t a new conversation.
The President has been talking about extreme vetting and the need for that for the purpose of protecting the citizens of this country since he was a candidate — long before he was ever President. This isn’t a new argument. This isn’t a new position. And this wasn’t new for the President to speak about it.
Q We heard today, at about 11:30 this morning, from the mayor and the governor of New York, who had said at that time the President had yet to call. Has the President called his mayor, his governor? He’s a New Yorker.
MS. SANDERS: The President has spoken with both the mayor and the governor of New York now.
Q Sarah, why wasn’t Uzbekistan on the travel ban list?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve outlined multiple times before, those were determinations made by several factors. In large part, Congress helped play a role in determining a lot of those factors, in placing specific priorities on different countries. And that would be the reason that they weren’t a part of that.
Q Why isn’t the President calling for Uzbekistan to be put on the list?
MS. SANDERS: Look, that may be something that’s looked at but that isn’t something that we have called for at this time, but certainly haven’t ruled it out.
Q Why? I’m just curious — why? Since he’s clearly looking for ways to —
MS. SANDERS: Again, there are a lot of different criteria that we use to determine which country should be on there, and they haven’t been determined as one of the countries yet, but I’m saying that hasn’t been ruled out either.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On Senator Schumer, can you tell us when is the last time he and the President spoke? And more broadly, the President is saying that he is responsible at least in part for this attack. Does the President still see him as someone —
MS. SANDERS: Before you go any further, let me be really clear. The President does not blame Senator Schumer and doesn’t feel that the senator is responsible for the attack. We believe very strongly that the individual who carried out the attack is responsible and no one else. However, we do think that there are policies that could be put in place that help protect American citizens. We’ve been talking about those for a long time, and we continue to push and advocate for those policies.
Q Does the President still see Senator Schumer as someone he can work with?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’d love to work with Senator Schumer to pass legislation on extreme vetting. And if he’s willing to do that, we would absolutely welcome his support on it.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. The President was asked a little bit earlier, when he was meeting with his Cabinet, about the possibility of sending this terror suspect to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And he said he is indeed open to that. Does the President believe he has the authority as Commander-in-Chief to send this terror suspect to Gitmo? That’s my first question.
And my second question is about Gitmo. What advantages does the President see in sending this terror suspect to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the point he was making is that he supports, or would support that. But he wasn’t necessarily advocating for it, but he certainly would support it if he felt like that was the best move.
Q Are there advantages in terms of sending any terror suspect to Guantanamo?
MS. SANDERS: That’s a question I think we’d have to dive into deeper and certainly talk with the interagency process before answering that.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The President said last night that he’d ordered DHS to step up “our already extreme vetting.” I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit specifically about what extreme vetting entails, and if there’s any indication that it might have had an impact on preventing yesterday’s attack.
MS. SANDERS: Sure. Some of the specifics for extreme vetting would be enhancing the collection and review of biometric and biographical data, improving our intelligence streams, improved documentation requirements and verification, improving information sharing with partner nations and foreign law enforcement and intelligence services, and an overall heightened scrutiny and more thorough review procedures for CBP and other agencies that would play a role in that process.
Q Sarah, separate from the Guantanamo Bay question, does the President believe this suspect should be classified as an enemy combatant?
MS. SANDERS: I believe we would consider this person to be an enemy combatant, yes.
Q Would the President therefore instruct the Justice Department not to charge him in federal court, and to therefore use the powers of enemy combatant and that status to treat him differently not only in terms of interrogation, but prosecution?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe that determination has been made. I think that’s something we’ll wait until we get a little further into the process.
Q Is the President open to not having him charged at all in federal court?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I said we haven’t made that determination, so I’m not going to speak to that yet until we’ve gotten —
Q Have you determined that — you said you’re open to the enemy combatant thing. You think he is an enemy —
MS. SANDERS: I said we would consider him to be an enemy combatant.
Q You do so now?
MS. SANDERS: But in terms of how we would process, yes.
Q And on what basis?
MS. SANDERS: I think the actions that he took certainly justify that.
Q Does the green card status in any way influence that determination?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Sarah, I want to follow up on the question Jon was asking you earlier. You’re making the case that these are not new policies he’s talking about, and yet the question still remains, he is delving into a policy and political discussion. And he and you were very clear after the Las Vegas shooting that it wasn’t appropriate to talk about policy. So what’s the difference now?
MS. SANDERS: I said it wasn’t appropriate to politicize the conversation, which I don’t believe we are. We’re talking about protecting American lives, and there are things that this President has consistently and repeatedly talked about, advocated for, pushed for, introduced executive orders for, supported legislation for, time and time again — since long before he was even President of the United States — that support this position. It’s not a new position.
There are facts that we know about this horrific tragedy, that we know caused some of the things in this horrific tragedy, that I think determine what those policy positions that he’s been advocating for long before yesterday are very consistent with the activity that could have prevented something like this from happening.
Q But, Sarah, the President invoked Chuck Schumer’s name. So how can you argue that it’s not a political argument that he’s making?
MS. SANDERS: Look, Senator Schumer has supported these opposing policies, and I think that that is a very basic fact.
Q Schumer and others say he’s not unifying the country —
Q — voted against them for the Gang of Eight. That’s not true.
Q Is he failing to unify the country at this point?
MS. SANDERS: He helped implement, on the front end, long before the Gang of Eight. And the Gang of Eight would have only addressed one part of that problem, as we’ve talked about many times before. He may have helped isolate one part of the problem, but it would exacerbated so many other parts of the problem that fall within our immigration system.
If you only address one part and not in the totality of it and introduce a fully and more responsible immigration reform like the President has proposed, like the President has outlined, then you’re not addressing the problem, you’re not fixing the problem. You’re only making things worse.
Q When he’s talking about “quicker”, “greater” punishment, is he just talking about better enforcement of laws that currently exist, or is he talking about some sort of extrajudicial process? And are you looking at doing an executive order that would empower him? Would you make something like that public, or would you consider doing a secret order?
And, very quickly, I also want to ask you: Is he really serious about tying the Obamacare, Medicaid stuff to the tax thing? That seems like it would just blow the whole deal up — blow right through that Thanksgiving goal.
MS. SANDERS: Very different questions. Let me try to address the first part. In terms of — I believe he was voicing his frustration with the lengthy process that often comes with a case like this. So I think that was simply the point he was making.
In terms of the mandate, we’re focused on pushing through tax cuts and tax reforms separately. Obviously, we’ve never made it a secret that we’d like to repeal and replace Obamacare. We’d still like to do that, but we still think it’s probably more likely to do something like that in the spring.
Q Sarah, John Miller, the Deputy New York City Police Commissioner, said the suspect committed the attack in the name of ISIS. Governor Cuomo said the suspect was associated with ISIS. How can the President make the case that we are annihilating ISIS when an attack like this occurs? Are his policies emboldening the remnants of ISIS?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. We certainly — I don’t think there’s any way that you could discredit the progress that has been made on ISIS with total defeat taking place in taking away their strongholds in both Raqqa and Mosul.
But when that happens, as the President even said today, you have people that splinter off, go others places. Look — and we’re meeting them in each of those places as much as possible, and we’re going to continue to do that. It’s another reason this President wants to institute extreme vetting to help keep more people out of our country that want to do us harm.
Q The President said earlier, today he’s starting the process of terminating the diversity lottery program. What did he mean by “starting the process”?
MS. SANDERS: Just that we’re going to continue pushing for and advocating for getting rid of this program. It’s something he’s talked about. We’d like to see the lottery visa program not be part of any immigration system that we have in this country.
Q Okay, sorry, just to follow up on Margaret’s question: So the President isn’t considering any broader criminal justice reform?
MS. SANDERS: As I said, we’ll look at other specific ways to deal with it, but right now he was simply addressing his frustration with the lengthy process.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A follow-up question on Jon Decker’s question. The criterion that you listed for enhanced vetting sounds very much like that for a national I.D. card — a subject that comes up every few years in Congress but which has never been acted on. Is the administration in favor of a national I.D. card as part of the enhanced vetting?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve laid out what our principles and our priorities are, and we’ll work with Congress on determining the best way to make those specific pieces of legislation. But the things that I outlined are what we’d like to see. And whether or not — what form that comes in, that’s yet to be determined. But those are the principles we’d like to see take place in any extreme vetting program.
Q You’re not ruling out a national I.D. card as part of the —
MS. SANDERS: Right, but I’m also not saying that we’re fully in. I’m saying that we’ve laid out the principles and the priorities that we’d like to see and that we think are important in an extreme vetting program.
Q Between the time the President sent the tweet out last night saying that he’s called for a step-up of extreme vetting until now, can you lay out exactly what has been stepped up in that timeframe?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think he’s taken a call to action. I know he’s spoken several times with members of his national security team to look and see what specific things can be done. But we have put in place executive orders already since the President has taken office that help go as far as we can at this point.
Q And then going forward on tax reform real quick, if I can, do you mind? It’s possible that one of the things that Republicans are looking at right now is drastically lowering the cap for 401(k)s. The administration has consistently said that this tax plan has to help the middle class. So how would bringing down the cap on 401(k)s help the middle class?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re continuing to work with the House, but I’m not going to negotiate — as I’ve said, I think, every day this week — with you guys here in the media. I’m going to let the economic team here at the White House work with members of both the House and Senate to put forth the best bill possible.
We also are making sure that the priorities that we’ve laid out, including helping the middle class, are part of the final piece of legislation. We support where we are in the process right now, and we’re going to continue working with both the House and Senate to make sure we get there.
Q Thanks, Sarah. On the tax cut bill, what does the President want that bill to be called? There are reports that he wants to call it the “Cut Cut Cut Act.” Are those accurate?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President — if it’s called the “Cut Cut bill” — great. I think that the biggest priority that he has is making sure it does what he’s laid out are his priorities in that piece of legislation that’s providing tax relief for middle class, it’s making it more fair, it’s making it more simple. Those are the things that he’s mostly focused on. If it’s called “Cut Cut Cut” and it includes massive tax cuts like this President is proposing, I think we’d perfectly be fine with that name.
Q Can you tell us if his Federal Reserve Chair pick is a man or a woman? (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: No, I cannot tell you that. But I can once again echo that it’s not Major Garrett again today. Still consistent.
Q — putting my résumé into everything.
MS. SANDERS: Poor Major. (Laughter.)
Go ahead, Peter.
Q Sarah, the President talked about wanting merit-based immigration today and criticized the diversity visa program. Is he aware that the diversity visa program actually does have a merit-based component to it?
MS. SANDERS: Look, there may be a component of it, but the fact that we have a lottery system that randomly decides who gets the greatest opportunity in the world — one of the best things that we have in this country is the fact that everybody wants to be here. And to give that away randomly, to have to vetting no system, to have no way to determine who comes, why they’re here, and if they want to contribute to society, is a problem.
And the President strongly supports making sure that the people that come here want to be here for the right reasons and not to bring harm to our country. And I don’t think that’s something that any American should want to support.
Q They’re ranked by their job that they have had and they have to have a minimum education.
MS. SANDERS: Peter, the whole idea is that they are randomly selected. This isn’t —
Q They have to meet certain criteria and have certain rankings. It’s not entirely random.
MS. SANDERS: It’s the lowest level of criteria that any part of our immigration system has is through the lottery system. And so to try to argue that this is a system that thoroughly vets people shows a total lack of understanding for what this process is.
Q So the 350,000 people have come in since the Uzbek gentleman yesterday came in — 350,000 people come into the country on this program. One of them now, apparently, has been accused of a terrorist act. One of the 350,000 create a problem then for that program?
MS. SANDERS: There may be more. Look, all I know is that you can’t randomly select people and not have them thoroughly vetted and not have the ability to know whether or not these people want to do good things or bad things when they get here. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that people that want to come to this country go through a vetting process to make sure that, when they get here, they want to contribute to society and not harm the people of this country.
Q Why did the President call the U.S. justice system a joke and a laughingstock during his comments in the Cabinet?
MS. SANDERS: That’s not what he said.
Q He said that the system of justice in this country was a joke.
MS. SANDERS: He said that process. He said the process has people calling us a joke and calling us a laughingstock. Look, I think, as I told Margaret, he’s simply pointing out his frustration of how long this process takes, how costly this process is. And particularly for someone to be a known terrorist, that process shouldn’t move faster. That’s the point he’s making and that’s the frustration he has.
Q If I could follow up on a separate subject if I could. Other folks had a couple of questions each.
Getting back to George Papadopoulos, does the President recall at that March 31st, 2016 meeting of his National Security Advisory Board, Mr. Papadopoulos suggesting a meeting behind then-candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin? Does he recall that?
MS. SANDERS: No, I don’t believe he does.
Q Sarah, two questions. First, Mary Frances Berry, the former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says everyone wants vetting, but to stop people from coming because they come from different countries is totally wrong. What say you?
MS. SANDERS: Nobody said because they come from a different country. I think that’s the whole definition of immigration, is that they wouldn’t be U.S. citizens.
We certainly haven’t said that immigration as a whole should be outlawed. So —
Q But the diversity lottery is specifically for those becoming from other nations that you are not favoring right now because you believe that there is a possibility of terrorism.
MS. SANDERS: I believe that we have a fundamental right to protect the people of this country. And if we see or think that someone is a threat to United States citizens, that we should take every precaution that we can to protect the people of this country.
And I don’t think most Americans would disagree with that. In fact, most Americans do support extreme vetting and certainly support the protection of the citizens of this country.
Q And second question, last question. Compromise, the issue of compromise — what is the definition of “compromise” as it relates to slavery and the Civil War?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I’m not going to get in and re-litigate the Civil War. It’s like I told you yesterday, I think I’ve addressed the concerns that a lot of people had and the questions that you had, and I’m not to re-litigate history here.
Q There were a lot of questions still lingering when you left. And I’m going to ask the question again, and respectfully —
MS. SANDERS: Why don’t you ask it in the way that you’re apparently accusing me of being?
Q I’m not accusing; I’m asking a questions, Sarah. Seriously. The question is: Does this administration believe — does this President believe slavery was wrong? And before you answer, Mary Frances Berry, a historian, said, in 1860 there was a compromise. The compromise was to have Southern states keep slavery, but the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter that caused the Civil War. And because of the Civil War, what happened (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: I think it is disgusting and absurd to suggest that anyone inside of this building would support slavery.
Q Yesterday, from that podium, you said all of our leaders have flaws — Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. What are President Trump’s flaws?
MS. SANDERS: Probably that he has to deal with you guys on a daily basis.
Q In fairness, he doesn’t deal with us on a daily basis. So what would you say in sincerity?
MS. SANDERS: I think most every day, actually, he does.
Q What are his flaws then, I guess? Simple question.
MS. SANDERS: I just gave you one.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two questions for you. What does the future of Guantanamo Bay look like under the Trump administration?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have announcements or changes or adjustments to policy at this point.
Q And if I could follow up on last night — could you give us a little bit more of the tick-tock of how the President found out about this terror attack in New York City — how he immediately responded, who he got on the phone with right away? Just trying to get a better understanding of where he was at this time, what he was doing, and what actions he took, following the news.
MS. SANDERS: The President was in the Oval Office when this took place, and he was first briefed by General Kelly shortly after it happened.
I’m going to take one last question.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Will President look for — will President Trump look for enhancing anti-terror measures with other foreign countries during his visit to Asia? And also, will President Trump call the leaders of Argentina and Belgium to express his condolences?
MS. SANDERS: I believe that arrangements are being made for him to speak with the leaders of those countries. They’re working between the two teams to set that up.
In terms of looking for conversations around anti-terrorism, that will certainly be discussed throughout the trip over the next several days. And as I said earlier this week, General McMaster will be here tomorrow to discuss the trip in more detail and certainly in more depth for the briefing tomorrow.
Thanks so much and have a good day.
Q Sarah, what time is the —
MS. SANDERS: We’ll let you know later today what time that should be.
Q Both in the afternoon?
SANDERS: Both will most likely take place in the afternoon. Thanks, guys.
3:37 P.M. EDT