Monday, September 25, 2017- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will give an on camera press briefing and take questions from many highly partisan, politically-opponent White House”jouurnalists.”
Transcript of the press briefing
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:14 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: It’s another busy day here at the White House. On the economic front, this week, the President will continue his push to secure tax relief for hardworking American families.
We are pleased to announce that the President will be traveling to Indianapolis, Indiana on Wednesday. While there, he will deliver remarks on the historic tax cuts and reforms that he has been working on with members of Congress. During his remarks, the President will discuss new details on the framework for these cuts and reforms. These details will include specific proposed rates for individuals, small businesses, and corporations, and he will also discuss the elimination of loopholes that have rigged the current tax code in favor of the wealthy and well-connected.
As the President has said before, we will give our workers the level playing field they deserve and they will win — because if the fight is fair, no one on Earth can beat the American worker. These cuts and reforms will deliver massive job creation and economic growth, and we are confident the American people will be very excited about what we are proposing.
While working to grow the economy of today, the President will also sign a presidential memorandum to ensure that American children are empowered to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow. Technology is playing a growing role in our economy, and this means that technical knowledge and skills are more important than ever. But more than half of our schools do not currently offer courses in computer programming, and nearly 40 percent do not offer physics.
The memo the President will sign today directs Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to take several steps to address this issue for our students. First, it directs the Secretary to establish high-quality STEM education with a particular focus on computer science as one of the Department of Education’s priorities.
Second, it directs her to establish a goal of devoting at least $200 million per year in grant funds toward this priority.
Finally, the memo directs Secretary DeVos to explore administrative actions that increase the focus on computer science in existing K-12 and post-secondary programs.
This memorandum comes on the heels of the executive order the President signed in June to expand apprenticeships giving more Americans the opportunity to earn while they learn, and to receive skills training that will put them on the path to fulfilling work.
The President believes it’s our responsibility to give our students — especially underrepresented groups, minorities, and women, and those from rural communities — every opportunity to succeed. By signing this memorandum, he is taking action to ensure that they have access to the high-quality STEM education they deserve.
The timing of this memo, which will be so important to America’s underserved communities, is particularly fitting today. September 25th is the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s first day of class at Central High School. A few weeks prior to their first day, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to stand by as segregationists blocked the nine black students from entering the all-white school.
One of the nine students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled — and I quote: “They moved closer and closer…Somebody started yelling…I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd — someone who could maybe help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed like a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
Twenty years ago today, as a new student at Central High myself, I watched President Bill Clinton and my dad, Governor Mike Huckabee, open the doors for the Little Rock Nine — the same doors that had been closed to them because they were black. The Little Rock Nine — Melba Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, and the late Jefferson Thomas — are American heroes who courageously advanced racial equality.
As President Trump has said, racism is evil. It has no place in our country. Today, Central High is one of the most racially diverse and high-achieving schools in Arkansas. This is a testimony to how far we’ve come in the last 60 years.
It’s not lost on the President or his administration that there is more work to do. We need better schools and we need better jobs to provide a safer, stronger, more prosperous future for every American. President Trump is working to make America great again for all of our citizens, and his actions continue to show just how committed he is.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q Sarah, clearly the President has strong views on whether or not players in professional sports teams should stand for the National Anthem. Given the response that the President has gotten over the last 48 hours, even from Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, who believes that what the President said on Friday night was very divisive, does the President regret at all describing these players who take a knee for the national anthem as SOBs who should be fired?
MS. SANDERS: Look, this isn’t about the President being against anyone. This is about the President and millions of Americans being for something; being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem, and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it.
I think General Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it best when he said this, this morning: “It’s important to remember that our military is composed entirely of volunteers. It obviously takes a special kind of patriotism for people to volunteer to risk their life for their country. Theirs is not blind patriotism that pretends there is nothing wrong with the country. Every man and woman in uniform knows we still have work to do to achieve the equality, opportunity, and justice for all to which we aspire. But every member of the military also knows that what is right about America is worth defending. And if it’s worth defending, it’s worth honoring.”
He continued: “I just hope that the athletes who are using the anthem as a protest understand why people like me intend to keep standing during the national anthem. We do so not because we agree with everything America has done or everything that has been done in America’s name, but because, despite all of that, the world is a better place because America exists. That seems to me to be worth the honor of respect during the national anthem.”
Q I understand all that. I understand General Dempsey’s position. I think people would thank him for his service to this great nation. But did the President go too far in referring to these players as SOBs who should be fired?
MS. SANDERS: I think that it’s always appropriate for the President of the United States to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem, and to defend the men and women who fought and died to defend it.
Q Sarah, let me ask you — you’ve often talked about how the President uses Twitter as a platform to sort of emphasize those things that are most important. Over the course of the last 72 hours, the President has tweeted more than a dozen times about sports, about kneeling, about NASCAR, and this topic. He tweeted zero times about Puerto Rico. So I guess the bottom-line question is: What message is the President sending by emphasizing sports right now and not a big crisis that’s affecting so many people?
MS. SANDERS: He’s not emphasizing sports. You’re missing the entire purpose of the message. He’s emphasizing something that should be unifying. Celebrating and promoting patriotism in our country is something that should bring everybody together.
When it comes to Puerto Rico, the President has sent both Administrator Long and Senior Advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Bossert, to Puerto Rico today. They’re on the ground to assess the damage. We’ve done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico and others that have been impacted [by] these storms. We’ll continue to do so and continue to do everything that we possibly can under the federal government to provide assistance.
Q So to be very clear, you say the President is instead emphasizing something that brings Americans together. Then what message does it send for the President to stand behind the presidential seal at a rally in Alabama and call an American citizen who is expressing his First Amendment rights a “son of a bitch”?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think it’s always appropriate for the President to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem —
Q Is it appropriate to use that language about an American citizen?
MS. SANDERS: Hold on, I’m not finished.
It’s always appropriate for the President of this country to promote our flag, to promote our national anthem, and ask people to respect it.
Q How about to promote the First Amendment?
MS. SANDERS: Jeff.
Peter, I answered your question. Jeff.
Q Switching topics, Sarah. North Korea’s foreign minister said that President Trump had declared war on North Korea and that it reserves the right to take countermeasures, including shooting down U.S. aircraft. Does the White House view President Trump’s comments at the U.N. as a declaration of war?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. We’ve not declared war on North Korea. And frankly, the suggestion of that is absurd.
Q What is the White House’s reaction to North Korea’s threat to shoot down U.S. aircraft even if it’s not in their airspace?
MS. SANDERS: It’s never appropriate for a country to shoot down another country’s aircraft when it’s over international waters. Our goal is still the same: We continue to seek the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — that’s our focus — doing that through both the most maximum economic and diplomatic pressures as possible at this point.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Does the President believe that there are very fine people who kneeled yesterday watching those games? Or are they all SOBs?
MS. SANDERS: I think you’re trying to conflate different things here. Look, we certainly respect the rights that people have, but I think we also need to focus — again, this isn’t about the President being against something, which is what everybody wants to draw. This is about the President being for something. This is about the President being for respecting our country through symbols like the American flag, like the national anthem, and the hundreds of thousands of people that actually stand versus the few hundred that may have knelt.
Q A quick follow-up, if I can. The President said that kneeling has nothing to do with race. Colin Kaepernick took a kneel — took to his knees in these games — many of these games — specifically because he said black people in this country were not being treated fairly by police. How is that not an issue of race?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the focus has long since changed and certainly the message and what a lot has been communicated over these last several weeks through this process — through this protest by these players.
Q Sarah, from this podium you’ve often expressed some frustration about the media not focusing on the agenda that the President has — substantive issues, things he wants to get done, tax reform, healthcare, etc.
When did the President decide at this rally that he was going to spend so much time talking about the flag itself? And doesn’t that distract from the things that you are trying to accomplish this week, whether it’s tax reform or healthcare or the efforts in Puerto Rico or the showdown with North Korea?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I certainly don’t think that talking about the American flag is a distraction for the President of United States. Again, this should be something that every American can get behind and support and celebrate is national pride in our country, and supporting those that have fought and died to defend it from all different backgrounds.
And so I think, again, that that certainly should be a priority of the President. But you act like that’s all he did over the weekend. We also did a lot of other things that are continuing to push forward on tax reform, continuing to push forward on healthcare, continuing to push forward on the safety and security of the border and our country.
Q So he changed the rally with that in mind though? That was a point he said, I want to put this in the headlines?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure when that decision was made; I wasn’t there. But I know it’s a priority for the President to always defend our flag, always defend the national anthem, and certainly to support the men and women in the uniform.
Q A couple of questions if you don’t mind, Sarah. On the German election, has the President called Merkel yet to congratulate her on her win?
MS. SANDERS: I know they spoke on Friday and they’re working on timing for a second call of congratulations. But I don’t believe that’s taken place yet today.
Q Why not yet? I mean, she won on Sunday. Is there a particular reason why he hasn’t called?
MS. SANDERS: No, I think they’re just working on the logistics piece of both leaders coordinating. So —
Q And then on tax reform, can you say when the President was briefed on the Big Six’s plan? Has he signed off on that? Does the President have a final plan now for tax reform?
MS. SANDERS: I know he’s had quite a few conversations with members of his team, both Secretary Mnuchin and Gary Cohn. Those will continue and he’ll make those announcements on specifics on Wednesday in Indiana.
Q Can you address the LA Times report over the weekend that the President was warned by top aides, including McMaster, not to provoke Kim, particularly in the United Nations speech, because it could potentially backfire?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry — I missed the first part of your question, what you said.
Q The LA Times report that the President was warned not to provoke Kim Jong-un in his United Nations speech because of — that it would potentially backfire, and now we see that they’ve taken this as a declaration of war. If you could tell us a little bit about this —
MS. SANDERS: As I’ve said many times before, I wouldn’t use another news source as your source, and I pushed back on that story at the time. But that’s a false narrative. The national security team was involved and engaged throughout the speechwriting process and was very happy with the President’s speech at the U.N.
Q Sarah, when Colin Kaepernick says that his protest is about fighting police brutality, fighting racial disparity, racial injustice, you’re not taking him at his word. You’re saying the focus has long since moved on. But when white supremacists say that their protest is about heritage and not hate, the President does take them at their word. So why is there this disparity about who gets to decide what protest is about?
MS. SANDERS: I think if the debate is really, for them, about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag.
Q So I wanted to ask on the interview the President gave this morning, on the radio, he seemed pretty pessimistic about healthcare and I wondered what his interactions were today. Is he calling individual senators? Is the Vice President calling? I know they — I know the Vice President has been doing that. What is his thought today? And do you think there will be a vote this week?
MS. SANDERS: Whether or not there is a vote, we sure hope so. We’ve been calling Congress to do what they were elected to do and certainly what most of them campaigned on, and that’s to repeal and replace Obamacare. We’re continuing to push forward. We know we can’t live with the Obamacare status quo. It’s a complete disaster. And so we’re hoping that this moves forward and goes through.
Q Is he making any calls though? Is he doing something specific?
MS. SANDERS: He’s continuing to be engaged both directly and through his team — legislative affairs team and the Vice President.
Q Tomorrow he’s going to New York. Can you tell us what that dinner is? It looks like some kind of fundraising dinner, as we’ve seen from some emails. Can you tell us what he’s doing tomorrow?
MS. SANDERS: There is a fundraising dinner, and I’ll have to get back to you with specifics.
Q This is a significant week, a pivotal week for the President, for Republicans. It’s an opportunity — some are saying the last best chance for repealing and replacing Obamacare, and yet much of yesterday and the beginning part of today was focused, as far as the President is concerned, on the NFL, on players who take a knee. Can you explain how that’s helpful to that effort of repealing and replacing Obamacare, when the President spent so much time on that other issue — the issue involving sports?
MS. SANDERS: It really doesn’t take that long to type out 140 characters. And this President is very capable of doing more than one thing at a time and more than one thing in a day.
Q But you see, Sarah, how it’s taken up so much oxygen, right? When the President speaks about that particular issue, you see how the majority of questions that have been asked of you so far today have been about this particular issue.
MS. SANDERS: But that’s determined by you guys.
Q He has a tremendous amount of power when he tweets, and we report on it. And so when he tweets something, it does take away from his legislative agenda, would you not agree?
MS. SANDERS: No, I don’t, because I think that it’s important for a President to show patriotism, to be a leader on this issue — and he has.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. One, Secretary Carson recently voiced his disagreement with the President and the Vice President on the runoff in Alabama tomorrow. My question is not about the runoff but about personnel. Are members of the Cabinet and the President’s official family free to disagree with him on matters such as a political contest?
MS. SANDERS: The President has a lot of people with a variety of backgrounds and certainly with a variety of opinions. He always welcomes them voicing those. On that specific issue, I couldn’t speak to that because I haven’t talked to the President about it.
Q My second question —
MS. SANDERS: Oh, second question.
Q Yes. On September 15th, Heather Nauert, the spokeswoman for the State Department, spoke at the National Press Club, and I think this is important because Prime Minister Rajoy is meeting with the President tomorrow. Ms. Nauert said that the U.S. took no position on the plebiscite that is scheduled in Catalonia October 1st about separating and becoming a separate country, and — and I quote — “we will work with any government or entity that comes out of it.” Now, does that mean that if Catalonia votes to secede from Spain, that the U.S. is going to recognize it as an independent country?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have anything further than what Heather has already said on that issue. If it changes after that takes place, we’ll let you know.
Q Sarah, thanks. Is the White House reviewing Jared Kushner’s use of a private email account for official government business? And how widespread is the use of private email accounts within this White House?
MS. SANDERS: To my knowledge, very limited. White House Counsel has instructed all White House staff to use their government email for official business, and only use that email.
Q Has he instructed them since this came up?
MS. SANDERS: I think we get instructed on this one pretty regularly.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Politico has reported that Secretary Price has been taking private jets for months, and White House Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, traveled with him to six states. So given that Conway was on some of these trips, one, was the White House aware of Price’s travel? And given that he spent more than $400,000 in taxpayer money on private jets just since May, is there any standard for what is and isn’t tolerated by this White House when it comes to this kind of conduct?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, this wasn’t White House-approved travel. This was done through the general budget of the Department of Homeland — sorry, the Department of HHS. And I think Secretary Price addressed this over the weekend. They’re conducting both an internal and an IG review, and all travels on private charter has been suspended until that’s completed.
Q So if I can just follow up on that, if I can get the White House’s take now on that travel, since you said it wasn’t approved ahead of time. And is it ever appropriate for a Cabinet official to spend taxpayer money on private planes? And note I said private planes to differentiate from, say, a military flight for national security purposes.
MS. SANDERS: I think there are certain instances where it probably is, but again, I think that has to be done at a case-by-case basis. I’m not going to give a blanket statement on hypothetical situations that I couldn’t possibly be aware of.
Q (Inaudible) whether or not the White House, now looking back on that, do you approve of that travel?
MS. SANDERS: The White House — again, that travel wouldn’t have gone through the White House for approval, and so I couldn’t speak to that.
Q Two immigration-related questions. One, do you anticipate a refugee announcement in the next couple of days on both the cap on refugees from the President, which has to happen I guess before the end of the fiscal year, the end of this week? And if so, can you give us some sense of what that’s going to be and what that’s going to look like? Are there going to be restrictions built in?
And then second, on DACA, there’s been word now for a while of a set of principles that the President and the White House wants to put out to sort of describe the way forward towards a legislative deal. Is that something that you can give us some guidance on?
MS. SANDERS: On the first question, I expect that something will happen on that relatively soon. And when we have those details and it’s appropriate, we’ll be happy to share them.
Q This week?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think it will be soon, and we’ll let you know when that’s been finalized.
In terms of your second question —
Q DACA principles.
MS. SANDERS: Yes, on responsible immigration reform, we will be putting out specific principles that the White House supports and would like to see done legislatively.
Q And when will that happen?
MS. SANDERS: Probably in the coming days.
Q Sarah, can you just clarify, were you saying that — are you encouraging NFL players to protest police?
MS. SANDERS: No, no, that’s not what I’m saying. I was kind of pointing out the hypocrisy of the fact that if the goal is and the message is that of police brutality, which they’ve stated, that that doesn’t seem very appropriate to protest the American flag. I’m not sure how those two things would be combined.
Q Today, Iraqi Kurds are voting on a plebiscite. And I was just wondering — you’ve already expressed your, kind of, dissatisfaction with that vote taking place, but I was wondering if the White House has a message for the Turks, the Iranians, and the Iraqis as they weigh their response to this vote.
And then I have a second question.
MS. SANDERS: We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran.
Q Okay, second question: Why is Saudi Arabia not included in the list of countries under the travel ban?
MS. SANDERS: Because the way that the travel order has been placed is that countries have to meet a minimum baseline requirement and also be part of sharing information. Over this last period of time, they’ve stepped up and met those baseline requirements that the United States has laid out.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Back to the situation in Puerto Rico, can you address some of the criticism from the island’s — the territory’s delegates, representatives, other lawmakers about the slow pace of federal assistance? What next steps is the administration taking presently and in the coming days to sort of increase the pace of relief and aid flowing to the island? And more broadly, the sense that the administration sort of caught flatfooted here after two other massive storms, that the third one sort of (inaudible) that bridge too far?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. The federal response has been anything but slow. In fact, there has been an unprecedented push-through of billions of dollars in federal assistance that the administration has fought for. Both, as I mentioned earlier, Tom Bossert and Brock Long are on the ground today to do a more thorough and deeper assessment of what needs there are.
Our focus is still continuing to be on the lifesaving efforts and the immediate disaster-response efforts, which are still currently underway. And those funds have been secured and are available. And once we have greater insight into the full assessment of damage, then we’ll be able to determine what additional funds are needed. But we’re still in kind of that fact-finding process on that piece of it.
Q One follow-up on Jen’s question earlier about tax reform. You didn’t answer her question whether the plan that the President will be announcing Wednesday is finalized. We’ve heard a number of different statements from the President over the last several days and other administration officials about it, including where the corporate tax rate will be set. So is the tax plan finalized right now — what the President will be rolling out in 48 hours?
MS. SANDERS: There are certain details that are finalized, and the President will be announcing those on Wednesday.
Q Thanks, Sarah. To follow up on Zeke’s question on Puerto Rico, what would the administration say to people on the island who are saying there’s not enough time to do this big fact-finding mission? There’s isolated areas on the island that don’t have any water, electricity, gas. There’s buildings that don’t even have roofs, and there’s water coming into houses. And this has all been reported out there in the media. What would you say to people on the island who say that there’s just not enough time and that aid needs to be rushed there immediately?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the response has been at an unprecedented level, and we’re supplying federal assistance as quickly as possible. We’re going to continue to do that. The President asked both Tom Bossert and Brock Long to go, be on the ground, and help come back and give us a list of what is needed and that we can turn around quickly.
I’m talking about longer-term assessment, which simply can’t be done today. We want to make sure that the funding is provided, but we also want to make sure that we’re actually funding the correct things.
Q Steve Bannon and another former White House official are supporting Roy Moore in the Alabama primary tomorrow. We also know that Bannon met with Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Dean Heller. Does the President believe — he talked about loyalty Friday night — does he believe that he owes it to Republican senators who voted for a Senate healthcare bill to support that? How does he feel about his own people basically supporting a challenger? And has he spoken to them about it?
MS. SANDERS: As I’ve said many times before, due to the political nature of the question, I’m not going to weigh in on a specific race or involvement in a race.
Q I’m not asking about specific races. I’m asking about a principle here. I mean, the President talked about loyalty Friday night. Does he feel, on principle, that if Republicans vote the way he pushes them to or wants them to, or asks them to, does he owe them something in return? And does he feel that the people who have worked in this White House should go along with his thoughts on these races?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President feels that he owes it to the American people who elected him, which means they supported the agenda that he was trying to promote. And the more that we have like-minded officials helping promote and push that agenda and pass that legislation, I think the better off we are. And that’s certainly the reason that the President was elected. And so I think the more that we can have people help make that successful, that’s certainly, I think, a positive thing and the right step forward.
Q Sarah, two questions for you. I want to follow up here. Will the White House commit to releasing Jared Kushner’s private emails related to government business?
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to ask. I’m not aware of that conversation.
Q Would it seem like something you would do, I mean, given your commitment to transparency?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of a conversation that hasn’t taken place.
Q Okay. Will you let us know?
MS. SANDERS: Sure.
Q Great. And then my other question, too. I just want to suss out, I think, a question that has been going around here today, because you talk about the President wanting to defend the flag. You know the oath of office was to defend the Constitution. So does the President have a problem with the First Amendment?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. The President is simply stating that pride in our country is a good thing. It’s something that we should all celebrate. It’s something that should, frankly, bring us together, not divide us. Standing up for the national anthem, he feels, is a symbol of that.
Q Can I follow up on what Hallie was asking? Why is it that the President, over the weekend, is going after or seeming to go after African American athletes, and then this morning he’s putting out a tweet praising NASCAR, which obviously is geared towards a different demographic, and the way they stand in respect and honor of the flag? Is he trying to wage something of a culture war?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. The President is not talking about race. The President is talking about pride in our country. What you saw yesterday were players and fans of all races joining together as Americans to honor our servicemembers. That’s what the President is talking about; that’s what his focus is on.
As you guys know, the President has got an event here in a few minutes, so we’re going to close there. Thanks so much.