James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:12 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Apologies for the delay.
Today, we solemnly remember the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was viciously gunned down in Memphis 50 years ago this evening.
In what would prove to be the final public speech of his incredible life, Dr. King said:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And [so] I’m so happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
These prophetic words were from a man who found his identity and his purpose through his faith, and selflessly led a movement that, while it cost him his life, changed the course of history.
In honor of his sacrifice, we continue to perfect our Union by defending the truth of all our country’s founding principle that all men are created equal.
Looking ahead to tomorrow, the President will be traveling to West Virginia. While there, he will participate in a roundtable with CEOs and workers from companies who have provided bonuses, pay raises, and other benefits to their employees as a result of the Trump tax cuts.
Also participating in the roundtable will be families who have more money in their pockets as a result of this new law, which passed without a single Democrat vote.
This will be the President’s fourth trip to West Virginia since he took office.
Later this month, the President will welcome the decorated U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams to the White House. This event will take place on April 27th. The President looks forward to celebrating these incredible athletes and their remarkable achievements in the 2018 Winter Games.
Before taking your questions today, I have a special guest here with us, Secretary Nielsen from the Department of Homeland Security.
As you all know, the President received a briefing yesterday on the administration’s strategy to confront the growing threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and violent gang members coming across our southern border.
As the President said, the mobilization of the National Guard will be an important part of the strategy. Secretary Nielsen will come up now to deliver brief remarks, then take your questions.
And after that, I’ll be back up to answer questions of the day and other topics. With that, Secretary.
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Well, good afternoon, everyone. I want to start — I’m going to give you some facts and perspective. Hopefully, I can put some things in context.
But I want to start with just a very simple statement for today’s announcement, which is: Border security is homeland security, which is national security. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not something we can separate out. It’s core to being a sovereign nation.
The President has reiterated this many times. In fact, he has specifically said that a sovereign nation that cannot, or worse not, chooses not to defend its borders will soon cease, in fact, to be a sovereign nation.
The threat is real. We have talked about it over the last 18 months. The Department of Homeland Security, since its creation in 2003, has watched for current and emerging threats. Despite a number of steps that this administration has taken, which I’ll talk about shortly, we continue to see unacceptable levels of illegal drugs, dangerous gang activity, transnational criminal organizations, and illegal immigration flow across our border. This threatens not only the safety of our communities and children, but also our very rule of law on which, as you know, our country was founded. It’s time to act.
So let’s talk a little bit about that today. In an effort to prevent such a consequence, the President has directed that the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security work together with our governors to deploy the National Guard to our southwest border to assist the Border Patrol. The President will be signing a proclamation to that effect today.
When the President took office last year, he issued a series of executive orders and directives that empowered DHS, for the first time in almost a decade, to fully enforce our border security and immigration laws. At that time, we saw a precipitous drop in unlawful border crossings — 44 percent down in the first few months after his inauguration.
This “Trump effect,” as many of you have referred to it and we have as well, on illicit border activity was undeniable, as smugglers, transnational criminal organizations, and those who are responsible for illicit activity across our border were forced to wait and see if enhanced enforcement efforts would scale back their criminal activity for good.
In the last 15 months, under the President’s leadership, the administration has taken major steps to methodically strengthen border security. Let me just give you just a few, but we’re happy to provide additional details.
We stepped up the targeting of dangerous criminal gangs, such as MS-13. We removed thousands more criminal aliens than the year prior. We no longer exempt entire classes of illegal aliens from the consequences of breaking our immigration laws. We began the first new border wall system construction in close to a decade. We modified our asylum system processing to more quickly adjudicate claims. And we ended so-called “temporary immigration programs” that were either constitutionally dubious or were administered in a manner that was inconsistent with the purpose of the law or contrary to the intent of Congress.
Despite these actions, we’ve recently seen the numbers of illegal border crossings rise from 40-year lows last April, back to previous levels. Our current border security and immigration laws fail the American people. The system rewards bad behavior. It does not punish lawbreakers. It undermines our nation’s economic interest. Make no mistake, interdiction without the ability to promptly remove those without legitimate cause is not border security. It is not national security.
When the President took office, the traffickers, smugglers, TCOs, and the illegal aliens that serve as their currency paused to see what our border enforcement efforts would look like and if we could follow through on the deportation and removal. While we have been apprehending aliens at the border with historic efficiency, these illicit smuggling groups saw that our ability to actually remove those who come here illegally did not keep pace. They saw that there were loopholes they could exploit to avoid detention and removal. And let me give you some numbers to put how that has changed the context of our immigration and border security system.
Before 2013, approximately one out of every 100 arriving aliens claimed credible fear, which is the first step in United States asylum process. Today, more than one out of 10 do so. Why this matters is because this number unfortunately demonstrates and is indicative of the rising level of fraud that plagues our system. This prevents us from timely helping those who really do need asylum. When we have to deal with the fraud and the backlogs, we are unable to help those truly in need.
Before 2011, over 90 percent of arriving aliens were single adult males. Today, 40 percent are families and children. The traffickers and smugglers know that if you arrive with a family, under our current legal and court system, you have a much better chance of being released into the United States. We have seen the smugglers advertise this as an enticement, and we have seen traffickers unfortunately fraudulently use children to gain entry into our country.
Before 2009 — the last stat here — 90 percent of arriving aliens were Mexican nationals. Today, nearly 50 percent are from Central America. The traffickers and smugglers know that these individuals cannot, under U.S. law, be easily removed in an expeditious way back to their country of origin and so they exploit the loophole.
Each of these reflect the effects of legislative and legal loopholes that have made it that much more difficult to remove the bulk of those we apprehend, whether they are criminals, traffickers, gangs, or illegal aliens.
Those falsely claiming asylum know that if they use the magic words, “credible fear,” because of the low threshold that currently exists and because of the very large backlog, they will be released with work permits into the interior for many years before they see a judge.
In 2012, when DACA was offered, families with children similarly understood that deferred action was on the table, and the possibility of further future deferred action has caused additional migration that continues through today. This is exacerbated because of the deeply flawed Flores Settlement Agreement, one that we have talked about before. And because of our inability to use expedited removal authority for all unaccompanied alien children.
Because of this, we do see many more Central American families with children attempting to enter the country illegally, many more than a decade ago.
Smugglers themselves are gaming the system, pure and simple. They take advantage of the loopholes in our laws. They know that we cannot prosecute as we need to to stop their behavior. And we know, in some cases, it takes many years for them to be removed. This, in addition, creates a massive magnet for additional illegal immigration, TCO activity, and criminal activity across our border.
Every day, we rely on a number of partnerships to help us accomplish our mission to secure our borders. State and local officials, interagency federal partners, Congress, and of course, our international partners. I have been with, and will, and continue to work with these partners. This is a problem that requires all of our attention.
This administration has also asked Congress for help. Congress makes immigration law. It’s that simple. That is how our system works. Congress makes immigration law. Congress decides which classes of aliens are allowed into the country and which can be deported. We’ve asked for changes to existing law to close loopholes that exacerbate the challenges we have and often result in a de facto court order or resource constrained resulting catch-and-release.
The President, as you know, terminated administrative catch-and-release last year, but due to these loopholes, we often find, particularly of those with family, they must be released after 20 days.
We asked Congress for additional funds for the border wall system for detention beds, personnel, as that magnet of lawlessness still draws people by the thousands to our borders. Why not attempt the journey if you have no belief you’ll ever be caught? We must change the environment. We must change and reduce those pull factors.
Unfortunately, time and time again, Congress has failed to act. Worse still, some members of Congress have continually opposed efforts to secure the border. As a result of this continued congressional inaction, the administration has drafted legislation, and we will be asking Congress again to provide the legal authority and resources to address this crisis at our borders.
We will not allow illegal immigration levels to become the norm — more than a thousand people a day, 300,000 a year. Violating our sovereignty as a nation will never be acceptable to this President.
Since becoming Secretary, I’ve spoken with hundreds of members of Congress on the need for legislation. I will continue to speak with anyone who will listen about the need to end catch-and-release and close these loopholes once and for all.
Based on conversations with congressional leadership, I am optimistic. We are a country based on the rule of law. I ask Congress to pass needed legislation with all urgency. I will work with you. Let’s get this done.
In the meantime, the President has directed the National Guard personnel be deployed to the southern border. The Department of Defense, as you know, has long supported the efforts of DHS to protect our nation’s borders. This includes ongoing counternarcotic missions, infrastructure construction, persistent surveillance operations training, and aerial support throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Department of Defense is a longtime partner of the Department of Homeland Security, and I thank them for their support.
While plans are being finalized, it’s our expectation that the National Guard will deploy personnel in support of CBP’s border security mission. It will take time to have the details in place, but we are beginning today and we are moving quickly. We are anxious to have this support.
I have spoken with all of the governors, and will be continuing these conversations. It is very encouraging that some of them have already taken dramatic steps in their own states to confront illegal immigration and to strengthen that border security to prevent the criminal activity and the inflow of drugs. These are leaders who understand the importance of enforcement in border security and how it improves public safety in their states. I look forward to working with each of them.
As a result, I will not provide the full details today because much of what we will be doing in conjunction with the border state governors will be worked out through the appropriate processes, as it has been in the past.
The urgency cannot however be underscored. We will be doing this today under the President’s direction. I will be continuing my conversation with all four border governors. And we hope to have the path forward very much specified in the near future.
I also want to just make sure, before I turn it over for questions, to mention that we’ve been in touch with my counterparts in Mexico regarding this action. They understand the administration’s desire, much like their own, to control illegal entry into our country. They understand and respect our national sovereignty. I thank them for their recent support in addressing the yearly caravan, as well as in signing a number of security-related agreements last week. I value their partnership and do not expect this operation to affect that relationship.
I want to close by saying that the problems of catch-and-release and unsecured borders are solvable problems. Congress has the ability and the opportunity to provide this administration and our country with the tools it needs for border security. In my conversations with members of Congress, all have said they are for border security and the rule of law.
The vulnerabilities we need to address are well known. The legislative fixes have been drafted and debated. The tools are tested and ready. All that is lacking is the will to act. I’m hoping that changes, and I call on all members of Congress to work with us to close these loopholes and to end catch-and-release completely.
Let me be clear, we are a welcoming nation. We support tens of millions of legal visitors every year, as well as over 1 million legal immigrants. We will continue to do so. But as I said earlier, border security is national security. Security of our nation is not a partisan issue. Border security is national security.
It’s a foundational element to the very security of our systems, of our citizens, and our homeland. The President is committed to securing our border and using all the tools that he has available to him. I thank him for his leadership and support of DHS.
I thank you for listening, and I look forward to your questions.
Q Maybe for some context, could you compare what the President is contemplating with what President Bush did? Six thousand National Guard personnel for about a year and a half — Arizona, New Mexico, California. President Obama did about 1,200. Is he contemplating something larger than that and something of a longer duration? And how soon do you think — whatever the number is — the deployments will begin?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: So let me take the last part first. We do hope that the deployment begins immediately. I will be continuing to have conversations with the governors today. As you know, it’s done through a memorandum of agreement. So we’re working with all haste to agree on that.
So we hope to — we’ve specified out the missions where we need support. They include everything from aerial surveillance, which, as you know, is part of Operation Phalanx, through to some of the support functions that the Guard was able to do under President Bush in Operation Jump Start. So we’ve been very specific state by state, locale by locale, of what CBP believes they need. And then we’ll work in conjunction with the governors who are, in fact, on the frontlines to see what they need, and work it within the National Guard.
But as soon as possible. Conversations are ongoing.
Q And size and duration of the force?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: So size and duration, we have not — I don’t want to get ahead of the governors. This is a partnership with them. We are giving them the opportunity to review our suggestions of how the National Guard can support the Border Patrol. But as soon as the numbers are available we’ll provide them.
Q Would you say it will be more robust than the Bush deployment?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: It will be strong. It will be as many as is needed to fill the gaps that we have today, is what I can tell you. So we’ll go through and make sure.
Q Madam Secretary, in terms of the operations that the National Guard will be involved in, Operation Jump Start specifically prohibited the National Guard from laying hands on immigrants; that they were only in a support capacity to the Border Patrol. Are you thinking of similar rules of engagement, if you will?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: We’re working with the governors, but we have had that conversation. As you know, it’s a partnership under Title 32. So I’m very interested in continuing the conversation with them. To date, what we have discussed are support activities that are very similar to Jump Start.
Q All right. So it wouldn’t be actual enforcement then?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Correct. As of now. As of now. Yes.
Q The President had also, in a tweet, he suggested that he would use some of the military appropriations to fund the construction of the border wall. Does the President have the authority to use money that Congress has appropriated to the Department of Defense to build the border wall?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: So it’s a good question. I’m only going to sidestep it because I’m not at the Department of Defense, and I’m not a lawyer over there.
What he meant was there are some lands that the Department of Defense owns right on the border that are actually areas where we see illicit activity. As part of what DOD does every day, in terms of force protection, we’re looking into options for the military to build wall on military installations on the border. Other than that, I can’t speak to the legality of the question.
You, and then right here.
Q Can you give a cost estimate for what this will cost, and who will pay for it?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: I can’t, unfortunately. I think looking at past numbers should be indicative. But it really depends on the very specific mission set that they’ll provide. For example, aerial surveillance, as you know, is done by flight hours. So first we have to translate that into a CONOPS and number of people, and then I can tell you how much those people will cost. So we’re working that real time.
Q Do you need congressional approval for any of that?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: To activate the Guard under Title 32? No, we do not. But we will do it in conjunction with the governors.
Q Madam Secretary, how much wall can you build with the money that you currently have?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: So the currently appropriated will build about 150 miles.
Q The $1.6 billion from the omnibus?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: So that’s for ’17 and ’18 together. Yes. And we have started building, as you know. So we’re building real time in Calexico.
Q So the new wall — how much new wall have we built at this point?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: New wall. So this is an important question. To us, it’s all new wall. If there was a wall before that needs to be replaced, it’s being replaced by a new wall. So this is the Trump border wall. In many cases, it will —
Q So replacing current wall would count as new wall, in your words?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Yes, it would.
Q And then how much will it cost to complete the entirety of the wall that you desire?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: So we are — the Border Patrol, as you know, has submitted a very specific plan to Congress — where we need the wall, what type of wall we need. We’ve finished evaluating all the prototypes. We have a toolkit, if you will. Some of the parts of the border are very different. In one place we even have a wall that almost floats with the sand, if you will, because of the conditions there. And other places will have taller walls, again, depending. Some places we have levees to do dual purpose.
So we’re continuing to work it out based on the funding that we have, and what we’ve learned from the prototypes. We should have a much better estimate soon.
Q So we don’t have the total ticket price at this time? It’s still unclear what you think it will cost?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: We have the down payments. We’re working with Congress real time to let them know what additional funds we need for what.
Q I was wondering, I’m not sure I understand what the urgency for this is. It seemed like it ramped up, you know, just over the last several days and since the weekend, in fact. The House is not here; the Senate is not here. Why is this such an urgent priority right now for the President to sign?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: I think, you know, what I would say is that the numbers continue to increase. April, traditionally, is a month in which we see more folks crossing the border without a legal right to do so. So partly it’s modeling, partly it’s anticipating.
We are seeing more and more advertising, very unfortunately, by the traffickers and smugglers to our south, specific to how to get around our system and enter our country and stay. We have documented cases of borrowing children, appearing at the border as a family unit in a fraudulent way.
So why today, not yesterday, tomorrow? Today is the day. Today is the day we want to start this process. The threat is real, as I mentioned.
Q But why not last year? I mean, what responsibility does the White House or the Department have for not urging Congress to do something more permanent, rather than having National Guard troops down to the border that are stretched thin already in their own states? Why now on this? All those problems were in place.
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Yeah, no. It’s a great question, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify. We do want Congress to act. We had been hopeful that we would be able to agree on a bipartisan bill. The President, as you know, supported two of the four that were offered on the floor this last go-around. So what we were trying to do is give Congress an opportunity to act. That has not gotten us where we need to be, in terms of enforcing the law. So we’re taking what actions we can as an executive branch and hope that we can soon again start the conversation with Congress.
Q You said that you hope deployment begins immediately. But what exactly does that mean? I mean, does that mean the troops could be heading to the border as soon as tonight?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: It does mean that. But what it also means is we will do it in conjunction with the governors. I want to be very clear. This is Title 32. So the governors retain control of the National Guard within their region. So I’m not going to get ahead of them. The ones that I have spoken to understand our urgency, our request. The National Guard understands the urgency and the request. So we will do it expeditiously as possible. But it is an MOA process. So we’re working through that real time.
Q Just a follow-up with Jeff’s question. Because this is the 440th day of the Trump administration. You talk about the urgency; you talk about it being April. But there’s a lot of speculation in the country that this might have something to do with something the President saw on television on Sunday morning, or it might have something to do with the fact that the President wants to shore up support amongst his political base. Can you speak to that speculation? Is it true?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: I think what is true is the President is frustrated. He has been very clear that he wants to secure our border. He’s been very clear that he wants to do that in a bipartisan way with Congress. I think what you’re seeing is the President taking his job very seriously, in terms of securing our border and doing everything we can, without Congress, to do just that. But I do hope, as soon as Congress comes back, that I can work with them.
Q Madam Secretary, how long have you been working on this plan? For how long have you personally been working on this plan?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: You know, it’s always on the table. It’s been done before, as you know. So it’s not a new concept. It’s nothing new. It’s one of the many things that we have looked at. We’re in continuing conversations with the governors. This is a partnership, as you know. So it’s not new. We’re just walking through all of the things that we can do. I listed some of the ones that we have done. We can provide you with others.
Q Madam Secretary, you spoke of DACA and some more programs as a magnet. And the President has made similar arguments. That same argument was made against the Gang of Eight bill some years back. Can you describe what sort of immigration bill that covers people who are here without papers would be acceptable and would not be a magnet? Or is the only bill that would be not a magnet simply one that restricts immigration?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I don’t think it’s the bill, per se. I think it’s — in some cases, it’s that the bill wasn’t passed. So all of that uncertainty gives the conversation wings in the south of us. “Hurry and get here now,” because nothing is —
Q But at the time, Republicans who opposed the bill said that passing this bill will cause a wave of people coming to take advantage of it. And the President made a similar argument about DACA, even though people who arrive now aren’t eligible for it. And you just made a similar argument about similar programs. So what, other than a bill that only restricts immigration, do you think wouldn’t be a magnet? Because every time —
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Border security. I mean, I’m not trying to be flippant, but that’s how the two go together. The problem with doing any of them in a vacuum is we continue the problem. We want a permanent solution.
Q Not to be difficult —
SECRETARY NIELSEN: Yeah.
Q But every time this issue comes up, and every time there is any sort of method where it — whether it’s administrative rule or legislatively — attempted to address this problem, the same people, every time, said, “It’s going to be a magnet. People are going to flood the borders trying to take advantage of it.” And so, I’m curious, if that’s constantly a problem every time this issue comes up, then how can you entertain any kind of comprehensive immigration bill?
SECRETARY NIELSEN: I understand your question. What I would say is, if we put together a package and then we pass it, the conversation is over. Vote for this tranche. Those are those who will receive some sort of permanent status. That’s what the President has been very clear on.
Q He rejected one this year. The (inaudible).
SECRETARY NIELSEN: He also favored two. Two bipartisan bills. But I think what he’s been clear on is he will not do half measures. We have to stop the actual pull. We have to have the ability to remove when we interdict. He’s been very clear and very strong on this. If we passed a bill that did not do either of those things, that would be a pull factor.
So what we’re trying to do is do them in conjunction. There’s some people here that we’ve all talked about giving permanent status to, but at the same time, we have to close these loopholes so that when we do that, we don’t pull up another huge population who are being told by the smugglers, “Go now. Go now. Go now.” That’s not how it’s going to work anymore.
I really thank you all for your time. I think — as Sarah’s — but please let us know — Sarah know — we will continue to give you details as we get them. But thank you for your time.
Q Thank you.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Secretary Nielsen. We’re already running long so we’ll jump straight into questions.
Q Back in January, the President told several of us that he was looking forward to, willing to answer questions under oath from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He said he’d expect it would happen in about two or three weeks. Does the President still intend to answer questions from the Special Counsel and do it under oath?
MS. SANDERS: The President is working in conjunction with his legal team and making a determination. I’d refer you to them on anything specific regarding that matter. We’re continuing to be fully cooperative with the Office of the Special Counsel, and we’ll continue driving the same message that we’ve been driving for over a year, that there was no collusion. And we’ll continue to be cooperative until that is — comes to a full conclusion, which we hope is soon.
Q So nothing has changed in terms of his willingness to answer questions —
MS. SANDERS: Again, I would refer you to his legal team. He’s working out — they would make that determination.
Q And what was his reaction to learning that he is not a subject — or that he is not a target of the Special Counsel investigation, although he is a subject?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to comment on the ongoing and the back-and-forth, out of respect for the Special Counsel. But as we’ve said many times before, there was no collusion between the President and Russia, so nothing has changed. We know what we did and what we didn’t do, so none of this comes as much of a surprise.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions. A Russia question and a DACA question. Does he agree with McMaster that we have failed to impose sufficient costs on Russia? (Inaudible.)
MS. SANDERS: What McMaster actually said is that we’ve been very tough on Russia. He echoed the President’s message that he said yesterday during the press conference with the Baltic leaders that no one has been tougher on Russia than this President.
What he also said was that other nations could do more and should do more. And we — that’s not different or in contrast to anything that we’ve said. We’ve continued to be tough on Russia. We’re going to continue to be tough on Russia until we see a change in that. But at the same time, as the President stated yesterday, it would be good for the world if there can be a relationship. But we’ll have to see what happens. A lot of that will be determined by the behavior of Russia.
Q So the President thinks other nations should be tougher, but we’ve been as tough as we can? Is that what you’re saying?
MS. SANDERS: We’ve been tough on Russia and we’re going to continue to be. We’re asking Russia to make a change in their behavior and to be a good actor in the process. But absolutely, other countries should step up. We expelled 60 Russian operatives; other countries did 4, 5. Certainly, we think everybody can step up, and do more, and put pressure to maintain good behavior.
Q On DACA, the President tweeted, “NO MORE DACA DEAL.” Does that mean when the courts resolve this issue, he will begin deporting the DACA kids?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re not going to get ahead of anything. We have tried and tried. Democrats have continued not to want to participate and actually find a solution. They failed to actually show up and do their jobs as they were elected to do. The President has been very clear, put multiple proposals on the table to fix the problem and Democrats have not been willing to take a deal that was actually a really good deal and went much further than the previous administration and went further than things that they’ve previously supported.
Frankly, you shouldn’t be asking me this question or the White House this question, you should be asking Senate Democrats and members of the House Democratic Party why they aren’t willing to actually fix something that they claim to want to champion day after day.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to keep moving. Major.
Q Sarah, Larry Kudlow and the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, both said today that negations are the most likely way the trade dispute is going to be resolved. Does the President agree with that? Or does he in fact intend to put the tariffs on the table, make them real — because they’re not real yet — and then see what happens?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re going through the review period. We’re very lucky that we have the best negotiator at the table, in the President, and we’re going to go through that process. It’ll be a couple of months before tariffs on either side would go into effect and be implemented. And we’re hopeful that China will do the right thing.
Look, China created this problem, not President Trump. But we finally actually have a President who’s willing to stand up and say, enough is enough, we’re going to stop the unfair trade practices. We’re asking China to stop unfair trade practices and we’re going to work through that process over the next couple of months.
Q So absent any change in Chinese behavior, these tariffs will take effect?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not to get ahead of the process of where we are. We’re in the review process right now. But certainly we expect China to make changes and stop the unfair trade practices that they have participated in for decades.
Q And if they don’t, the tariffs will take effect?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get — I just said, I’m not getting ahead of the review process, but I would anticipate that, if there are no changes to the behavior of China and they don’t stop the unfair trade practices, then we would move forward.
Q In the meantime, Sarah, as all this is taking place, we’re seeing some really wild swings in stock market which represents billions and tens of billions of dollars in real money. Is the President worried that this saber rattling is causing many people in this country to lose money?
MS. SANDERS: No, the President is worried that we have countries that have been taking advantage of us for decades and that he’s not going to allow that to happen anymore.
Q So he’s not worried about people losing money in the stock market?
MS. SANDERS: We may have a little bit of short-term pain, but we’re certainly going to have long-term success. And we’re focused on long-term economic principles and making sure that we have a strong and stable economy, and that’s exactly what the President is doing.
Q A question on Amazon: The Pentagon could potentially award a very large cloud computing contract to Amazon. Given the President’s recent criticisms of Amazon, is this something he would potentially have concerns about — about Amazon getting this contract? And would he ever personally intervene in the contract competition?
MS. SANDERS: The President is not involved in the process. DOD runs a competitive bidding process. And I would refer you to the Department of Defense on the specifics of how that process would work.
Q He wouldn’t be involved in that process whatsoever?
MS. SANDERS: That’s not something the President is involved in. Again, this is a process run by DOD, and it’s a competitive bidding process. For the specifics on it, I’d refer you to them.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Following —
MS. SANDERS: There’s a lot of Johns here today. (Laughter.)
Q We worked it out that way.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry.
Q The President — as Jennifer mentioned this — railed against Amazon over the course of the past few weeks, calling the deal that they have with the United States Postal Service, “a sweetheart deal.”
My question to you though has to do with another sweetheart deal, that’s the $50-a-night payment that the EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pays to — paid to a lobbyist that did business with the EPA. As you know, Sarah, the President promised to drain the swamp. His behavior — his actions seem very swamp-like. Why is the President okay with this?
MS. SANDERS: The President is not. We’re reviewing the situation. When we have had a chance to have a deeper dive on it, we’ll let you know the outcomes of that. But we’re currently reviewing that here at the White House.
Q Does the President have confidence in the EPA Administrator at this point?
MS. SANDERS: The President thinks that he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front. But again, we take this seriously and we’re looking into it and we’ll let you know when we finish.
Q Against two Republicans have called for his —
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I’m going to stick with the theme here and go another John, and then I’ll start mixing it up. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. Last week, BuzzFeed reported that Christopher Steele was claiming, in a report, documented evidence the FBI had a second report on the mysterious death of Mikhail Lesin, founder of Russian Television, RT, and former press secretary to Vladimir Putin. He died at the Hotel DuPont. Originally, it was said from a fall, but this report said he was bludgeoned after by people hired by oligarchs close to Putin. Does the administration have any comment on this given the concatenation of commentary on Russia and response to Russian activities abroad?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have anything specific on that incident at this point.
Q The other things is, can we have a readout from the Mexican Foreign Minister’s meeting here recently, including with the White House staff, and Jared Kushner?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the last —
Q I understand —
MS. SANDERS: Are you asking me if we’re going to have a readout?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry. We’re continuing in the NAFTA negotiation. We feel like we’ve made significant progress. We’ll keep you posted as that continues.
Q Sarah, was the President persuaded by his advisors that it’s important for the United States to stay in Syria?
MS. SANDERS: The President has maintained all along that our focus has been on defeating ISIS there. We’ve made significant progress since the President took office and under his leadership — with a complete collapse of the caliphate there.
We’re continuing to make progress. We’re continuing to work with our allies and partners in the region but we want to focus on transitioning to local enforcement and do that over this process to make sure that there’s no reemergence of ISIS in — and take away some of the progress that we’ve made.
And so that’s what we’re moving to. As this environment has changed because of the success under the President’s leadership, we’re evaluating it as we go.
Q The President has repeatedly expressed his annoyance or his dissatisfaction with Iran and criticized the Iranian regime. Wouldn’t taking U.S. presence out of Syria simply embolden Iran even further?
MS. SANDERS: No. Because again, the purpose would be to transition that and train local enforcement as well as have our allies and partners in the region who have a lot more at risk to put more skin into the game. And certainly, that’s something that the President wants to see happen is for them to step up and for them to do more, and that’s what we’re working with right now.
Q Sarah, just to follow up on that. The President said yesterday he wanted to see American troops come out of Syria — come home from Syria.
MS. SANDERS: Absolutely. The goal, again, is to defeat ISIS. And once we completely do that — we’ve made significant progress. And when there’s no longer a need for troops to be there and we can transition to that local enforcement, that certainly would be the objective.
Q Right. So what does that look like? What is the yardstick for measuring what eradicating ISIS looks like in Syria right now based on the conditions on the ground that military commanders are looking at? And secondly, what did he tell his commanders yesterday during this meeting about how quickly he wants to see that play out?
MS. SANDERS: As the President has maintained, since the beginning, he’s not going to put an arbitrary timeline. He is measuring it in actually winning the battle, not just putting some random number out there, but making sure that we actually win, which we’ve been doing. We’re going to continue doing that and that determination will be made by the Department of Defense and the Secretary of Defense which the President has given authority to do that.
Q But what do you mean by transitioning to local forces doing more —
MS. SANDERS: To training and helping transition to local forces to make sure there isn’t a reemergence of ISIS in Syria.
Q Will that be happening now?
MS. SANDERS: We’ve been — that’s continuing. We’ve been doing that. And we’re going to continue to do that and continue making sure that they’re prepared to take that.
Q I’m going back to two things that were talked about earlier. This sense of urgency about sending the National Guard to the border — the Secretary sort of sidestepped this question: Does this have anything to do with the report that the President saw on Fox News?
MS. SANDERS: I think it has everything to do with protecting the people of this country. I don’t think this should come as a surprise.
The President has been talking about securing the border for years, since he started on the campaign trail. He wanted to work through Congress. He asked them to do their jobs. He asked them to pass legislation that actually would close loopholes, that would secure our border, that would build a wall. He asked them to do a number of things.
They failed time and time again and now the President is making sure that, in between the Congress actually doing something, he’s doing what he can to protect the people of this country. And he’s going to continue to do that and look at different measures that he can do that, whether it’s through the National Guard, which is what he’s doing today; or whether it’s through other administrative actions that he has the authority to carry out without having to involve Congress, since they, simply — Democrats apparently can’t show up and actually do their jobs.
Noah. Sorry, I’m going to keep going.
Q This announcement of sending the military to the border is coming a week before the President makes his first ever trip, as President, to Latin America. What consideration has the administration given to the signal that sends to a region where the United States has had a long history of military involvement that’s been very unpopular in the region? And how does that affect his ability to present the United States’ vision of Latin America while he’s there?
MS. SANDERS: Look, they have tough laws on immigration, too. A lot of countries in Central and South America have infinitely tougher laws than the United States. I think they probably understand that the loopholes that we have in this country are a problem, and we want to be able to work with them to address it.
We want people to come here, but we want them to come here legally. And we’re not going to just have an open border where drugs and gangs and other bad actors can come in. But certainly, we want people from those countries to come here responsibly, and legally, and through the proper process.
Q Sarah, on Syria. Just to be very clear that — you were saying earlier, as the White House said, that the military mission is coming to a rapid end. The President, just a couple of months ago — just last month — said, “We should never ever have left,” referring to Iraq. He talked about that vacuum. So why wouldn’t leaving control over local forces that allow for a new vacuum just repeat what the President promised would not happen?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we’re going to make that determination. We’re evaluating this as we go. Progress has clearly been made with the complete collapse of the caliphate, and we want to make sure that there isn’t a reemergence. And we’re counting the Secretary of Defense, and our troops on the ground, and our commanders on the ground to help make that determination.
Q So he thinks local forces, at some point — he has confidence that local forces, independently, will be able to manage those countries and those situations?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, again, we’re going to work with those individuals. We’re training the local forces, but we also want all of our allies and partners in the region to step up and do more. Again, they have a far greater risk, being right there in that region with ISIS — if any chance of them reemerging, they’re the ones that are at the greatest risk. So they should be stepping up and doing more. And the President is calling on other countries to do just that.
Q Just quickly, on DACA — just because, obviously, this is a historic day —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I’m just going to keep going because we’re running light on time.
Q A quick one on Scott Pruitt. The President called him the other night. Why?
MS. SANDERS: Because he works for the President. It’s pretty routine that the President would speak to members of his own staff and Cabinet.
Q It was reported that he called to tell him to buck up, to keep fighting.
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into a private conversation that the President had. I can confirm that they had a call. I can tell you that we’re reviewing the allegations, and I don’t have anything beyond that at this point.
I’m going to take one last question. Mark. Sorry.
Q Sarah, thank you. Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego tweeted, “Using the National Guard to do border security is very expensive. For what it would cost the Guard to make just TWO arrests at the border, we could give a homeless veteran permanent housing for an entire year.” What’s your response? And how concerned is the President with the cost of sending the military?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think you can put a cost on American life. The President sees securing the border as a national security issue and protecting Americans. If that congressman is so concerned, maybe he ought to show up and actually support legislation that would fix these problems instead of blaming the President who’s actually trying to do something about it. We’d like to see him work with us in partnership and actually do something instead of just complain about it.
Thanks so much, guys. Hope you have a great day.
END 3:50 P.M. EDT