Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, August 24, 2017, #6
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:57 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. It’s good to be back. You guys don’t seem nearly as excited. I thought for sure there’d be balloons or something. We’ll save that for next time, I guess.
Earlier this week, the President delivered his first prime time address to the nation on our path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia. The President’s strategy is based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables. And it will ensure terrorists never again use Afghanistan as a haven to attack the United States.
The brave men and women of our nation’s military have given extraordinary sacrifices to this longest war in American history.
The President recognized those sacrifices on Monday during his speech, and I would like to recognize one particular story here today.
Joseph, a gentleman from Santa Fe, Tennessee, sent his son, a master sergeant in the United States Air Force, a letter nearly 10 years ago while he was serving our country in Iraq.
Now his son is on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, and his father has generously shared the letter and mailed it to the President that he wrote.
Joseph told the President that he has been a police officer for over 30 years and that he sent this letter to his son and on to the White House in hopes that the President would actually receive it and read it, which I’m glad to say that he did earlier today.
In his letter to his son, Joseph wrote:
“Please don’t lose sight of your purpose. You are the only hope and glimmer of light for the good, innocent men, women, and children that you are protecting. This may be hard for you to see or understand. Most people know that all of you are there because you volunteered to be there. Your actions and dedication are seen by people throughout the world as without a doubt the most heroic action of any person which can be made.
You and the soldiers standing next to you from all of the other countries are the pride of not only the nations they represent but every individual that yearns to be free.
Stand tall, my son, and be steadfast for it is you who are the defender of freedom.”
We owe it to the servicemen and women like the master sergeant who have fought in our name in Afghanistan for 17 years -- and to the families who have watched them go -- to secure an honorable and lasting outcome to this conflict.
As the President said on Monday, “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. And once that victory has been achieved, they also deserve to return home to a country that honors their sacrifices and provides our nation’s heroes with the support they’ve earned by risking their lives to ensure the freedoms of all Americans.”
That’s why the President was also honored to sign yet another historic piece of legislation to support our veterans earlier this week. The VA Choice Act streamlines the lengthy process of appealing claims for disability benefits for the more than 470,000 veterans that are still waiting for decisions.
Under the leadership of Secretary Shulkin, the VA is steadily delivering on the President’s promise to fix the broken VA system.
Finally, before I’d open it up to take your questions, as you’re all very well aware, I kind of love birthdays around here. And oddly, we have quite a few of them going on. Major Garrett, happy birthday. But even more importantly, I’m pretty lucky -- I think I have two of the best parents in the world, and it’s my dad’s birthday. So happy birthday, Dad. And it’s my niece’s birthday, so I get to knock out a ton of stuff today. My only niece, Caroline, turned four today.
And with that, I will take your questions. Steve.
Q Sarah, there seems to be some acrimony between the President and the Republican congressional leadership. How do you repair this relationship going into the fall?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the relationships are fine. Certainly there are going to be some policy differences, but there are also a lot of shared goals. And that’s what we’re focused on.
We’re disappointed that Obamacare -- they failed to get it repealed and replaced. But at the same time, President Trump has worked with Leader McConnell to reach out to other members and to work on those shared goals, and we’re going to continue to do that when the Senate comes back from recess.
Q Will the President sign any budget bill that does not include funding for the wall?
MS. SANDERS: The President has talked pretty extensively about this. He campaigned on the wall, he won on talking about building the wall, and he’s going to make sure that that gets done. And he’ll continue to fight for that funding and ensure that it takes place.
Let’s not forget that there were a lot of Democrat senators that also voted for border security and a border fence. And hopefully some of those same individuals will talk to members in their current party, and maybe we can get a bipartisan group to support that and make sure it happens because this President is going to see it through.
Q Sarah, it’s my older daughter’s birthday, by the way too.
MS. SANDERS: Good, we’ll go ahead and cover that one too. (Laughter.)
Q It’s my understanding that when the President meets with Senator McConnell the beginning of September when Congress is back that he will ask him to take another swing at repealing Obamacare. At the same time, a judge in New Jersey, Judge Walls, has said that Senator Robert Menendez cannot come back to the Senate to cast votes. How does that, in combination with what the President might want the Senate Majority Leader to do on Obamacare factor into the balance of power and the vote count you need to get a repeal bill through?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure about the specifics of that case. I know there’s still ongoing judicial process taking place, so I’m not going to get into that. But I can tell you that the President continues to be committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare and making sure that America has good healthcare and the healthcare that they deserve.
Q But given what happened just before the August recess, does he really have a chance of getting it through?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re committed to continuing to make sure that we have the best healthcare we can. And if we can do that in that direction, I think that’s great. If we can’t, we need to look for other ways that we can make solutions.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Hurricane Harvey appears to be bearing down on the southern part of the U.S.; specifically Texas seems to be in its crosshairs there. There’s no replacement yet for General Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security. First question, does the President plan to name a replacement for him anytime soon? And second of all, is this problematic in terms of dealing with Hurricane Harvey -- the fact that there’s no one at the helm right now at DHS?
MS. SANDERS: No. There’s certainly someone at the helm. You’ve got Acting Secretary Elaine Duke, who’s watching this closely -- very involved in the process along with the Acting Director for FEMA.
And again, I think that we are in great shape having General Kelly sitting next to the President throughout this process -- and probably no better Chief of Staff for the President during the hurricane season. And the President has been briefed and will continue to be updated as the storm progresses and certainly something he’s very aware of, and we’ll keep a very watchful eye on, and stands ready to provide resources if needed.
Q Sarah, the President promised over and over again during the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall. So why is he now threatening a government shutdown if Congress won’t pay for it?
MS. SANDERS: The President is committed to making sure this gets done. We know that the wall and other security measures at the border work. We’ve seen that take place over the last decade, and we’re committed to making sure the American people are protected. And we’re going to continue to push forward and make sure that the wall gets built.
Q Why is he threatening a shutdown over paying for it? Again, he said over and over again -- he talked about it in the campaign over and over again. He said Mexico is going to pay for the wall. He asked people and his crowds chanted back at him, Mexico is going to pay for it. And now he’s pushing -- threatening a shutdown of the government.
MS. SANDERS: Once again, the President is committed to making sure this happens, and we’re going to push forward.
Q Thanks, Sarah. About a week ago, on August 17th, the President again referenced a fictitious story about General Pershing committing a mass execution in the Philippines. A couple of questions on that. Does the President know that this story is false? And if so, why does he keep repeating it? And why does the White House think it’s appropriate for the President to perpetuate this false story if he hasn’t been informed that it’s not true?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a chance to ask him about that so I can’t speak to it.
Q Then on the broader point, so the President is spreading false information via his Twitter account that seems to encourage wartime atrocities. No one in the White House has thought to inform him that this story is false?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t say no one had. I said I hadn’t had that conversation so I wasn’t going to speak to something I wasn’t aware of.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Thank you. The U.S. has withheld funding to Egypt over its human rights record. President Trump praised President Sisi back in April when he was here. Why the change in tone now?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the United States has always been committed on human rights issues, and we’ll continue to do that. And if I have further updates, I’ll let you know. But I’d encourage you to reach out to the State Department.
Q Sarah, two questions. On the economics of a government shutdown if the wall is not paid for, the President likes to talk about how the economy is doing well under his watch. If there is a government shutdown, people could be laid off for a moment or some people could lose their jobs. Talk to us about the economics. What does he view the economics of it with this wall for the average American that he’s fighting for?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into the weeds on that, but I know that the President is probably one of the strongest Presidents we’ve had on economic issues. There’s a reason that over a million jobs have been created since he took office. There’s a reason that the unemployment is at a 16-year low. There’s a reason that the stock market is at an all-time high. He’s very committed to job creation, economic growth, and he’s going to continue to do that.
Q And then with the HBCU Summit, there is a big back-and-forth about this HBCU Summit. Three of the organizations that are over top of the HBCUs -- that basically represent them -- are saying this is not the time to have this summit because of Charlottesville and the fact that some of the schools feel that they just did not get what was promised from this administration and there could be an alternate summit by a congresswoman. Talk to me. What’s going on here --
MS. SANDERS: Look, the HBCU Summit has been going on for over 30 years. We have no intention of canceling it. And as of right now, the summit is at complete capacity with a waiting list. With that type of engagement, I think it’s best that we move forward.
Q Can I see the list of schools and the names? Because we’re hearing from schools that are saying that they are not coming -- and a lot of leaders.
MS. SANDERS: I can only tell you who’s registered and certainly that we’re at capacity for the convention center with a pretty lengthy waiting list. In terms of whether or not we release that, I’d have to check on that and get back to you.
Q Sarah, what are the President’s thoughts on the situation in Cuba at the U.S. embassy? We understand now as many as 19 Americans have been injured.
MS. SANDERS: I know that they have been going through the process of bringing the majority of those people back to have thorough testing and see what actions need to be taken and how best to move forward.
At this point, I’d refer you to the State Department on anything further.
Q Does the President believe that Cuba is involved directly?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t comment on that at this time. Right now we’re under a thorough review, and as soon as we know something we’ll let you know.
Q Thanks, Sarah. This morning, the President said that the debt-ceiling approval process is a mess. Is it? Is that accurate?
MS. SANDERS: Look, it’s our job to inform Congress of the debt ceiling, and it’s their job to raise it. And Congress and the previous administration have obligated trillions in spending, and we need to make sure we pay our debts. We’re still committed to making sure that gets raised.
Q So, Sarah, does he want a clean debt-ceiling bill?
MS. SANDERS: Yes.
Q Does he want it to be clean? Yes.
MS. SANDERS: Yes.
Q I was just going to ask a follow-up question about that. The health attacks -- as the Secretary of State has deemed them -- has the President been informed of this? Has he been briefed?
MS. SANDERS: He’s been briefed. But again, I think there’s a thorough review taking place. And at this point, I’d have to refer you to the State Department for any further follow up.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I’m going to try a business question for you.
MS. SANDERS: Uh-oh.
Q Does the White House have any reaction to the FTC approving the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of that. I’d have to check and see if there’s an official administration response.
Q And second question, I want to read the comments from Senator Bob Corker -- I’m sure you’ve seen them -- over a week ago about the President saying that the President has not yet “been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” He also said that he’s not sure that the President understands the character of this nation. Do you have any response to that from a Republican senator?
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s a ridiculous and outrageous claim and doesn’t dignify a response from this podium.
Q Just to follow up on Jonathan’s question, since the President is going full-court press, threatening a shutdown over the funding of the wall, does that mean he is abandoning any efforts to negotiate with Mexico any payments for construction of the wall?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly don’t think any efforts have been abandoned. And an official happy birthday.
Q So wait, hold on, one second. You mentioned in the opening remarks “honorable” and “victory,” as the President did, in Afghanistan. Can you describe to the American people what both of those words mean for the President -- honorable and victory? What does it look like? What will the -- what does that mean?
MS. SANDERS: I think when he spoke on Monday he laid out what the top priority was in this process, and that's making Americans safe and protecting the American people and moving forward with this strategy and making sure that Afghanistan is never able to be used as a haven to attack the United States.
I think those are certainly clear goals and part of that process.
Q Does that mean, therefore, that U.S. military personnel will be there as long as there is any type of terrorist activity or cell in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think when it comes to the strategy in Afghanistan, they're going to be focused on the conditions on the ground, which will be determined by the generals in the military on the ground and certainly through the Department of Defense and General Mattis and his team, and not arbitrary timetables. And he’ll be the one that can lay out those specifics for you and what that looks like.
Q I’m just asking because you've mentioned terrorism. You mentioned threats. There are several different networks there -- Haqqani, Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS. Is the priority of this administration and the strategy that it will pursue until it is accomplished to eliminate all of those terrorist cells in either Afghanistan and Pakistan and only then can victory be achieved and that be described as honorable?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get down into that. I think that's a question that's, again, best answered by General Mattis and the Department of Defense.
What I can tell you is that the ultimate goal is a peaceful settlement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban that protects our interest and protects American lives. That's the focus, and I’ll let Secretary Mattis determine and lay that out for you more specifically.
Q Sarah, I’ve got a follow-up on Major of Afghanistan. So first of all, if what we've been doing in Afghanistan has been working, then why are we still here? And if it hasn’t been working, what are we planning to be doing differently moving forward?
MS. SANDERS: I think -- again, one of the things that is different is the decision and whether or not when and how to withdrawal would be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables; making sure that we have an integrated strategy that puts all of our American power -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- in a way that's sustainable and cost-effective. And making sure we have that integrated process is a big key to this strategy.
Q Adding troops is just prolonging the withdrawal. Is that what that is?
MS. SANDERS: No. Again, we're not doing this based on a timetable but conditions on the ground and making sure that we're protecting American lives and defeating terrorists.
I think that it’s very clear when the President laid that out on Monday.
Q And my second question -- hold on, wait, I had a second question on that. Whatever the final objective is, is it really worth the reported trillion dollars that it would cost? Isn’t there anything better we might be able to spend that on?
MS. SANDERS: I don't think you can put a price tag on American lives.
Q Sarah, one more question on Afghanistan. The President talked about putting more pressure on Pakistan to play a constructive role. But he also talked about having a new, closer strategic partnership with India, which is Pakistan’s prime antagonist. Why does the President think drawing closer to India will prompt the Pakistanis to play a more constructive role rather than becoming more defensive and playing more into a strategy of giving harbor to extremists?
MS. SANDERS: Well, we think it’s important that there’s a regional approach, and part of that is developing and strengthening that relationship and partnership with India. They've been making important contributions towards Afghanistan’s democracy and their stability, and we think it’s important to continue that effort.
Q Sarah, on this threat of the government shutdown if Congress doesn't secure funding for this wall, how is that not a concession from this White House that Mexico isn’t actually going to pay for this wall and American taxpayers will?
MS. SANDERS: Again, this is something the President is committed to. He’s committed to protecting American lives. And doing that through the border wall is something that's important. It’s a priority, and we're moving forward with it.
Q But he’s not saying that Mexico is going to pay for it now.
MS. SANDERS: He hasn’t said they're not either.
Q On the --
Q They have. They have.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you. I think we've had enough outbursts from that side. Thanks.
Q On the President’s ban on transgender service in the military, how close is the White House to sending guidance to the Pentagon on that? And the policy itself, how much discretion will be given to the Pentagon on implementing it?
MS. SANDERS: When we have an announcement on that, I’ll let you know, and we’ll be sure to answer those questions at that time.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions, please. First, the beginning of May with great fanfare, the President signed a string of religious liberty executive orders. In the last few days, the head of the Becket Fund -- a group that fights for religious liberty in court -- complained that that the executive order, even with the Johnson amendment, the tax-exempt status for churches, whether they deal in politics, and the Affordable Care Act’s contraception clause were both still being enforced in spite of the President’s orders that they not be. What is the President doing about this? And is he aware of these complaints?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure if he’s aware of the complaints or any specific places where that's being ignored, so I’d have to look into that, probably talk to our friends at HHS specific to the contraception thing, and get back to you.
Q All right. And my second question is: In Russia the major story there is that the theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, who is a well-known figure in the Russian entertainment industry and an opponent of the Putin regime, has been arrested and is being tried on what he said are trumped up charges regarding his finances. There are massive demonstrations beginning. Does the administration have a comment on what’s happened to Mr. Serebrennikov?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly can't make an official statement at this time, but I’ll circle back with you.
Fred. Sorry, Fred.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, you're over there. Thought I saw you in the back.
Q Yes, two questions. One, given the rift with the President and Republican leaders in Congress, is there an elevated role right now for Vice President Pence -- having been in Congress or kind of speaking both languages -- in terms of working with Congress going into negotiating the budget and so forth?
MS. SANDERS: The Vice President plays a key and pivotal role in the administration and the White House. I think he’s certainly always going to be an important part of the process of moving legislation forward on whatever that circumstance is or whatever the matter is. He is probably one of the best advocates here at the White House and certainly somebody that the President has a great deal of trust in and is happy to have him on his team.
Q I got one more question. Is that role elevated though considering that there seems to be a rift between the White House and Congress?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the Vice President is the second-in-command, so it’s a pretty high role where he is. And certainly, again, a key member of this administration and somebody who plays a pivotal role every single day in the White House no matter what the circumstances are.
Q One more topic. And then, Sarah -- there has been some increased criticism from conservatives about Commissioner Koskinen at IRS after an IG report came out that highlighted that there were 213 employees that were rehired after committing offenses, including some crimes -- for termination. And I was wondering if you could revisit why Commissioner Koskinen is still part of the administration and if the President has any plans put in place to replace him when his term is up in November.
MS. SANDERS: When we have a personnel announcement on that front I’ll certainly let you know.
Q Two questions on pardons, if I could. One on Sheriff Arpaio. Is the President seeking a recommendation from the pardon attorney and the deputy attorney general, or is he asking for an FBI background check in his consideration of that pardon?
MS. SANDERS: I would imagine they go through the thorough and standard process, and when we have an announcement on what that decision is after that’s completed, we’ll let you know.
Q And more broadly, beyond Arpaio, there are 2,200 other pardon applications pending. Does the President have any pardon policy, pardon philosophy, any particular way that he would like to use his pardon power during his term in office?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a specific conversation with him about that, but I know that the White House counsel plays a big role in that and would certainly be involved in that process and any deliberations on that.
Q Sarah, the President has made clear that -- in the past that he wanted to get started on tax reform, but we haven’t heard him say that much about it. Politico talked to a White House correspondent and published this week that the President has an imminent announcement about tax reform. Can you describe how he wants to kick off the fall campaign to get that accomplished this year? And are we going to hear from him this week, next week, what would you expect?
MS. SANDERS: Tax relief and the focus on tax relief for middle-class Americans is a huge priority for this administration and it’s certainly going to be a big focus in the fall. And we’re going to look a lot of different ways in which to talk about that and present that to the American people, working with Congress to make sure that that happens. And we’ll keep you guys posted when there are specific announcements. I think that you can expect some of that to take place in the very short order, probably next week and following through to the fall.
Q Then, Sarah -- it’s customary for Presidents to get annual physicals -- physical exams at Walter Reed. The President -- I think he last released information about his medical condition last fall during the campaign. Can you tell us whether the President intends to utilize the federal facilities at Walter Reed this year to get a physical and then release that information to the public?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll let you know if that’s going to happen.
Q Thanks, Sarah. On Tuesday, President Trump said “if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.” Does he stand by that statement?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President has been clear that this is a priority -- protecting American citizens is a priority, something he’s committed to. As I’ve said multiple times today, he’s committed to seeing that through.
Q Is there a plan to force a government shutdown to get the wall built?
MS. SANDERS: I think I’ve answered this question several times.
Q Two questions for you. First, the President at the rally in Phoenix mentioned that he seemed inclined to be pulling the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. His comments came after the first round of NAFTA renegotiation talks last week. So were those comments informed by the status of those negotiations last week here in Washington when he said -- that was his prediction that he was going to be pulling the U.S. out?
MS. SANDERS: The President is being kept up to date on those negotiations. I think he has certainly been clear about how he feels about NAFTA and making sure that we get the best deal for the American people. He’s committed to that. We’ll see how the negotiations go and then go from there.