James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:32 P.M. EST

SANDERS:  Good afternoon.  Missed you guys.  Under President Trump’s leadership, the United States economy is growing at record levels, putting the President in a strong position to fix longstanding trade concerns with China.

On Thursday, the President will meet with the Chinese Vice Premier who is here this week for continued talks.

President Trump is committed to achieving greater market access for U.S. exports and better treatment for our farmers, ranchers, and businesses.  Fair and reciprocal trade with China will boost long-term economic growth, not only in the United States but globally.

As the President said last week, the United States proudly stands with the people of Venezuela who have courageously spoken out against the corrupt and illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro.  Maduro must do what’s right and allow for free, fair, and credible elections in accordance with democratic principles.

To speak more about U.S. policy towards Venezuela and to take your questions, I’d like to welcome to the podium National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow.

And after that, I’ll be up to take other questions of the day.  Thanks, guys.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Thank you very much, Sarah.  As you know, on January the 23rd, President Trump officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the Interim President of Venezuela.  Venezuela’s National Assembly invoked Article 233 of the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate.  This action was a statement that the people of Venezuela have had enough of oppression, corruption, and economic hardship.

Since then, 21 other governments in the region and across the world have joined the United States in recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s Interim President.

Today — and I’ll turn the podium over to Steven Mnuchin for this purpose — we’re going to announce sanctions against Petróleos de Venezuela Sociedad Anónima, or PDVSA, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym, the state-owned oil monopoly.

We have continued to expose the corruption of Maduro and his cronies, and today’s action ensures they can no longer loot the assets of the Venezuelan people.  We expect — and Secretary Mnuchin will go into this in more detail — that today’s measure totals $7 billion in assets blocked today, plus over $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year.

We also today call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the peaceful, democratic, and constitutional transfer of power.  And to a certain extent, this has already begun.  We have seen Venezuelan official and military personnel heeding this call.  The Venezuelan defense attaché here in Washington recognized President Guaidó a few days ago.  And just within the past hours, the first consul of Venezuela’s consulate in Miami, Scarlet Salazar, has also declared for Interim President Guaidó.

I call on all responsible nations to recognize Interim President Guaidó immediately.  Maduro has made clear he will not recognize Guaidó or call for new elections.  Now is the time to stand for democracy and prosperity in Venezuela.

I reiterate that the United States will hold Venezuelan security forces responsible for the safety of all U.S. diplomatic personnel, the National Assembly, and President Guaidó.  Any violence against these groups would signify a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.

Now let me give the floor to Steven Mnuchin, who will describe the sanctions that we’re imposing.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Thank you.  Today, Treasury took action against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, to help prevent the further diversion of Venezuela’s assets by former President Maduro.

The United States is holding accountable those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline.  We will continue to use all of our diplomatic and economic tools to support Interim President Guaidó, the National Assembly, and the Venezuelan people’s
…efforts to restore their democracy.

PDVSA has long been a vehicle for embezzlement, for corruption for Venezuelan officials and businessmen.  Today’s designation of PDVSA will help prevent further diversion of Venezuela’s assets by Maduro, and will preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela where they belong.

The path to sanctions relief for PDVSA is through the expeditious transfer of control to the Interim President or a subsequent democratically elected government who is committed to taking concrete and meaningful actions to combat corruption.

Today’s actions against PDVSA follows my determination that persons operating in the Venezuelan oil sector may now be subject to sanctions.  Today, OFAC also issued a number of general licenses that authorize certain transactions in activities with PDVSA for limited periods of time to minimize any immediate disruptions and support of ongoing humanitarian efforts.

Citgo assets in the United States will be able to continue to operate, provided that any funds that would otherwise go to PDVSA instead will go into a blocked account in the United States.

Refineries in the United States have already been taking steps to reduce their reliance on imports from Venezuela.  Those imports have fallen substantially in recent months.

We have also issued general licenses to ensure that certain European and Caribbean countries can make an orderly transition.  We continue to call on all of our allies and partners to join the United States in recognizing Interim President Guaidó and blocking Maduro from being able to access PDVSA funds.

Thank you.  With that — and I’d be happy to answer some questions.

Q    Ambassador Bolton, if I could, you’ve mentioned the words “significant response.”  How do you define “significant response”?
AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, we’re not going to define it because we want the Venezuelan security forces to know how strongly we think that President Guaidó, the National Assembly, the opposition and, most importantly, American personnel are not harmed.  This is an unequivocal statement on our part.

Q    Is there any circumstance under which American forces would get involved?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Look, the President has made it very clear on this matter that all options are on the table.

Q    Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  You explained that there are some actions being taken here to mitigate some of the impact on the U.S. oil market.  Can you walk us through those and explain how U.S. oil imports from Venezuela will be affected, and what’s going to happen with the money, and where you think that is going to have some impact on the oil market globally?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Sure.  Well, let me just comment that we will be releasing FAQs with the general licenses to explain a lot of these issues.  But effective immediately, any purchases of Venezuelan oil by U.S. entities money will have to go into blocked accounts.

Now, I’ve been in touch with many of the refineries.  There is a significant amount of oil that’s at sea that’s already been paid for.  That oil will continue to come to the United States.  If the people in Venezuela want to continue to sell us oil, as long as that money goes into blocked accounts, we’ll continue to take it.  Otherwise, we will not be buying it.

And again, we have issued general licenses so the refineries in the United States can continue to operate.  So I expect, in the short term, very modest impacts on the U.S. refineries.  We’ve been working with them closely on these issues.

Q    Did you walk the U.S. oil industries through what’s going to happen here in advance, or are they hearing about this for the first time right now?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  They’re hearing about this now.  But, you know, I generally say, we had — obviously, we made a press release recently.  I think we’ve indicated certain things.  So we had not disclosed to anybody these sanctions in advance, but I think a lot of people have been preparing for this over the last month.

Q    With the blocked accounts, what would be the mechanism and what would be the timeline if there is this peaceful transfer of government?  How would the money go from the blocked accounts back?  And Juan Guaidó would be the operating person to take it back and receive it back if he’s put into power?  What’s the mechanism there?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  So let me just comment that, in general, okay, as we’ve said in the past, the purpose of sanctions is to change behavior.  So when there is a recognition that PDVSA is the property of the rightful rulers — the rightful leaders, the President — then indeed that money will be available to Guaidó.  We will be working with them on the money in the blocked account and whether that can be used for them.

Q    Could you explain to the country what the strategic interests of the United States are in Venezuela now and its immediate future?  What’s at stake for us?  And why the significant response held in abeyance if this transfer of government isn’t achieved?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, we think stability and democracy in Venezuela …Well, we think stability and democracy in Venezuela are in the direct national interest of the United States.  Right now, under the Chavez-Maduro government, civil society in Venezuela is disintegrating.  The economy is in a state of collapse.  Something in the range of three to four million refugees have already fled the country for neighboring countries and the United States.

nd the authoritarian regime of Chavez and Maduro has allowed penetration by adversaries of the United States, not least of which is Cuba.  Some call the country now
“Cuba-zuela,” reflecting the grip that Cuba’s military and security forces have on the Maduro regime.  We think that’s a strategic significant threat to the United States, and there are others as well, including Iran’s interest in Venezuela’s uranium deposits.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Yeah, and let me just comment.  This is a country that is very rich in oil resources.  There is no reason why these resources shouldn’t be used for the economic benefit of the people there.  There’s no reason for the poverty and the starvation and the humanitarian crisis.

Q    Can I ask both of you — the United States has talked a lot about a potential embargo on sales of oil and also stopping selling of oil products to Venezuela.  Why haven’t those been considered yet?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  So there will be, as part of this, limitations on selling oil products as part of the sanctions.  As regards to an embargo, we’re not going to make any comment on that today.  We don’t comment on future actions.

Q    Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Mr. Maduro seemed to anticipate the actions that you’ve announced today in the briefing room.  He warned that Citgo is the property of the Venezuelan state, and he further said that we are the only ones who can decide its fate.  What is your response to Mr. Maduro?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Again, it’s the property of the Venezuelan people and the proper and rightful leaders of the country.  So we agree with that.  He’s not the proper leader of the country at this time.  And I’ve said these are valuable assets that we are protecting for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.

Q    Mr. Secretary, if I could hone in on the question about the impact of the markets.  Eamon asked you about refineries; you said it will have a modest impact.  But what do American drivers need to know about the possible effect at the price of the pump, if any at all?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Well, first, let me say, you know, there’s been a big reduction in the overall price of oil and particularly since we instituted the Iran sanctions.  I think you know we’ve been very careful in making sure that these costs don’t impact the American consumer.  Gas prices are almost as low as they’ve been in a very long period of time.  These refineries impact a specific part of the country.  And I think, as you’ve said, we’re very comfortable that they have enough supply that we don’t expect any big impact in the short term.

Q    Do you feel that that fact emboldens your position?  Or do you feel the United States is able to take these measures as a result of the low gas prices or low oil prices on the whole?  And does that — will increase the United States’ leverage in this debate?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  I would just say we are very determined — whether it’s in the case of Iran or it’s the case in here — to use sanctions, to use them in the right way.  And we’re very comfortable that we’ve coordinated with the Department of Energy and other people on this mechanism.

Q    Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  There have been reports that there are an estimated 25,000 Cuban troops in Venezuela — troops or secret police — which is a clear violation of the OAS Charter — Chapter IV, Article 21 — about troops of another country in a sovereign nation.  Will the United States raise a complaint, if nothing else, with the Havana regime about troops in Venezuela?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  As you know, Secretary of State Pompeo addressed the OAS General Assembly a few days ago.  We expect other meetings of the OAS — on this and related subjects — in the coming days, because as both Secretary Mnuchin and I have said, we know what the legitimate government of Venezuela is, and it’s our mission now to make a full reality in Venezuela what the people of Venezuela themselves want.

Q    Do you have confirmation of that number?  That’s a correct number?

(Crosstalk.)

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Yes.  Go ahead.

Q    Since we have you in the room here, if you don’t mind me turning your attention to the talks that will take place at the end of this week — a statement was put out just before you came out here — the talks with China.  In your opinion, where does all of that stand right now?  Are you comfortable with progress that’s been made in the last couple of weeks?  Larry Kudlow has said that the talks over the next couple of days will be determinative.  Is that your assessment as well?

SECRTARY MNUCHIN:  I think we’ve had very productive conversations going back between the meeting between the two Presidents, which was a very important time.  I think you know we sent a team over to Beijing.  There were very significant discussions for that period of time.  We’ve had conversations since then.  Ambassador Lighthizer and I are looking forward to the two days of talks.  President Trump is going to meet with Vice Premier Liu He at the end of those.

Now, let me just remind people: We do have another 30 days after this, so my expectation is that we’ll make significant progress at these meetings.  But I would just emphasize these are complicated issues.  We have a timeline of how we’ve mapped out the 90 days.

Q    How much progress has been made in the last month, if you can sort of characterize it?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Again, I would just comment that I think there’s been significant movement, and we’re working through what are still very complicated issues.

Q    Mr. Secretary, I want to go back to gas prices.  Can you qualify and quantify — I understand that you’re saying that gas prices are low now.  But in the midst of this, with all this that’s happening with Venezuela, how long do you believe that this will — that gas prices will move up to a modest impact on the oil industry?  And can you quantify by how much?  By cents, by tens of cents, or even by dollars.  I mean, what is the modest impact that you’re expecting?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Well, let me comment that, in general — I’ve said this before — markets are not always efficient.  They move in different directions.  So I want to be careful and not speculating on markets.

I mean, I think, kind of, oil went up a lot right before the Iran sanctions.  We were surprised that it went up so much.  I think, you know, President Trump had been on the phone with many world leaders and making sure there was ample supply.  Prices came down.  The U.S. is a big exporter of oil, so there’s a balance here.  But, you know, I think where oil prices are now reflect the supply and demand in the market.

And as I’ve said, we’re dealing with Venezuelan oil that is a rather modest part of our overall supply.  Again, we’re a net exporter of energy.  We are particularly concerned that there were a handful of refineries that had a dependence on Venezuelan oil.  I think they read the tea leaves; they reduced that dependence significantly along the way.  Most of them have in the neighborhood of 10 percent of less of their dependent on Venezuelan oil.  So I don’t expect that people will see an impact on the gas pumps.

Q    So are we talking about sweet or sour crude from Venezuela?  Sweet or sour crude?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Again, I’m not going to get into all of the specifics of the different oil markets, but let me just say that most of these refineries — this is about 10 percent or less.  There is plenty of supply at sea that’s already been paid for.  So there is inventories.  There has been excess oil.  I’m sure many of our friends in the Middle East will be happy to make up the supply as we push down Venezuela’s supply.

But let me again just emphasize, you know, the right outcome is a transition for PDVSA.  The right outcome for the Venezuelan people is to have these companies rebuilt and to make sure that they get out of poverty.  It’s a complete tragedy to have a humanitarian crisis in a country that has very rich resources.

Q    Mr. Secretary —

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Yes.

Q    Thank you.  Ambassador Bolton, can I ask you a question, please?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Wait, we were recognizing her and then you can go next.

Q    Thank you.  You were pointing at me.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

On China, if you would address what you believe is the — we’ve heard this word “enforcement” quite a bit and about being a priority for the administration in these talks.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  It is.  Enforcement will definitely be one of the topics that Ambassador Lighthizer and I have on the agenda.  And, I mean — I think this is pretty obvious — but we want to make sure that we expect, when we get a deal, that that deal will be enforced.  And I would say, in the conversations we had previous with them, there’s been acknowledge with China that they understand that.

Now, the details of how we do that are very complicated.  That needs to be negotiated.  But IP protection, no more forced joint ventures, and the enforcement are three of the most important issues on the agenda.

Q    Ambassador Bolton, has the President spoken directly with President Guaidó?  And if so —

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  I beg your pardon.  Could start that over again, please?

Q    Sure.  Has the President spoken directly with President Guaidó?  If so, can you summarize that conversation?  And how safe does the President believe our diplomats are currently?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  The Vice President has had several conversations with Interim President Guaidó, including most recently the night before we granted the recognition.  He’ll be meeting with Interim President Guaidó’s ambassador here in the near future.

In terms of American official personnel, it has been an absolute top priority for President Trump.  The Vice President, Secretary Pompeo, and myself, we have drawn down significantly personnel at the embassy.  All dependent personnel are gone.

We believe we are now prepared — as prepared as we can be.  We’re reevaluating the safety conditions at all time.  And it’s why we have said we’ve presented credentials to Interim President Guaidó.  We recognize him as the legitimate President.  He has asked for us to stay.  We have made very clear, to what’s left of the Maduro regime, that we hold them responsible and we take their commitment to do that very seriously.

Q    Ambassador Bolton, if I may ask you, what is your assessment of the relationship between Nicolas Maduro and his military?  Do you believe support is fracturing?  And do you believe that the Russians are playing any kind of role in trying to support the military?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, our assessment, based on numerous contacts on the ground, is that the rank and file of the Venezuelan military is acutely aware of the desperate economic conditions in the country.  And we think they look for ways to support the National Assembly government.  We think the junior officer ranks and the mid-level officer ranks are the same.  And we are also aware of significant contacts between general officers of the Venezuelan military and supporters of the National Assembly.

So you may have seen a statement last week by the Defense Minister, Vladimir Padrino, flanked by a number of generals in uniform.  What they didn’t know was how many of them were already talking to the National Assembly.

We’ll take one more here.

Q    My question is twofold.  Do we have a timeline where we’re going to reassess as to whether or not these sanctions are working and what the next step would be?  Is there a timeline in place for that?

And secondly, can you speak to the administration’s critics who say that, since the government shutdown, the administration is in disarray?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN:  Well, let me first say, on sanctions, we always evaluate sanctions continuously, both existing sanctions as well as future sanctions.  So we will carefully be looking at the effectiveness of these and whether we need additional sanctions.

Now, I would just tell you, speaking for Treasury, I want to thank all the large number of government workers who came in.  I will tell you, as it relates to specifically the sanctions area, people have been working around the clock.  And we couldn’t have gotten this done without the enormous support of all the people who came in.  So, quite the contrary — we weren’t in disarray.  Again, I want to thank all the important people who helped out on this.

MS. SANDERS:  Very briefly, I’m going to have Larry Kudlow come up, give a quick economic update, take a couple questions on that, and then I’ll be back up for the rest of the questions of the day.

MR. KUDLOW:  Good, thanks.  I’ll just say, as I have for a while, that I still think the economy is very strong.  I know there are some disagreements.  But I think, as the numbers shake out, the Commerce Department is reopening, we’re going to get a GDP report probably next week, we’ll get a jobs report this Friday.  So that’ll work out.

Based on things we’ve talked about here — unemployment claims, low; industrial production, strong; business investment, strong; holiday sales, very strong — I still think we’re on a 3 percent trend line growth rate, and I’m proud of that.

I think that the program of lower tax rates, and regulatory rollback, and opening up energy and so forth is working and is continuing to work.

And I think, frankly, the optimists — the guys that took the over — are going to be right.

Yes, Major.

Q    Do you consider valid the estimates that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy between $8 billion and $11 billion?

MR. KUDLOW:  You know, I looked at them.  I think you’re referring to CBO numbers that came out today.  We frequently disagree with CBO.  With all respect, they’re doing the best job they can; I get that.  No, I don’t — I won’t acknowledge any of that right now.  And in a $20 trillion economy, it’s awfully hard to make even the best guesstimates of those kinds of small fractions of numbers.  That’s what you’re looking at here.  Let’s see how it rolls out.

We’ll get a GDP report in about a week for Q4.  It’ll take longer for the first quarter.  As I’ve said many times, I think you have just a whole bunch of very temporary factors.  And now that the government has reopened, the switch goes right back on.  There’s certainly no permanent damage to the economy.

Q    If I could follow up, Larry —

MR. KUDLOW:  So I just — again, with the greatest of respect to my friends at CBO, who often disagree with us and do not acknowledge the importance of our pro-growth tax cuts — just to put an editorial in — no, I don’t really agree.  Sorry.

Q    Can I follow up and just say, from your economic perspective, how disruptive was this?  Not at all?

MR. KUDLOW:  Look, the hardships for individuals was always the key problem here, in my judgment.  And, as Steve Mnuchin said, no, there’s — I’m glad we’re back to work.  I’m glad all the federal employees, I’m glad all the people furloughed — TSA — you can go right down the line — I think those individual hardships were the biggest issue.  And I think everybody is glad we can reopen and put folks back to work.

Regarding the macro economy, Major, I don’t think it was a factor.  I just don’t.

Q    So, Larry, if the negotiations do not bear fruit and the government shuts down again — you have a lengthy shutdown, a reopening, and then another shutdown — could that compound any economic effect or hardship effect on these federal employees?

MR. KUDLOW:  Yeah, I just don’t want to speculate on “what ifs.”  We’ve got a process laid out here.  Let’s see if it bears fruit.  I just don’t want to speculate on any of the “what ifs.”  Again, the state of the economy — to me, my colleagues, Kevin Hassett, and so forth — it looks very strong.  And I don’t think that was disruptive.  I don’t.

I know things have been written and there are individual hardship cases — again, I’ll repeat that.  But, in the aggregate, you know, the numbers we saw — low unemployment claims, unbelievably strong same-store retail sales, the industrial production number from the Federal Reserve where business equipment went up for the seventh straight month — just a scattered look at all those kinds of data points suggests to us that we’re still in a very strong mode right now.  And I used the 3 percent as our longer-term view, but I also think it’s going to pan out in the short run.  So we will see.

Yes.

Q    In the Chinese talks this week, is it possible we’ll see the framework for a deal emerge?

MR. KUDLOW:  I don’t want to say anything on that.  Secretary Mnuchin is correct.  I don’t want to make any predictions on that.  These are very difficult.  Very, very important.

The only comment I’ll make is — and I’ve said this before — the scope of these talks will be the broadest and deepest in U.S.-China history.  We’ve never had anything this comprehensive.  And I regard that as a big plus.  How these things are worked out, we’ll have to wait and see.  The President has expressed some, I would say, “guarded optimism” about the talks.  Liu He is coming with his top people, and that’s very important.  And our top people will be negotiating.

But it’s encouraging to me that everything is on the table.  I know that’s a cliché in other areas, but, in trade talks, it is too.

Having said that, I do want to reiterate — I don’t recall whose point it was — enforcement issues will be very important.  And I know Ambassador Lighthizer has said that, and it’s a key part of this discussion.

Q    (Inaudible) government contractors who were furloughed also getting backpay?

MR. KUDLOW:  I’m not sure how — some of them do.  I think the defense-related ones will, but I’m not sure.  I’m not an expert on that.  I’d have to go and check that.  I’d have to take a look at the scope of it.  I honestly don’t know.

Yes.

Q    I want to get back to the CBO because they also looked at protections over the next decade, in which they said the deficit for Fiscal Year ’19 is going to be roughly $900 billion starting in 2022 — a trillion dollars, year after year after year after that; 2029 — 93 percent.  That’s the GDP.  And they say it is simply unsustainable, the path that we’re on.  Does the White House agree with that?  And if it is unsustainable, is the White House planning to do anything to change it?

MR. KUDLOW:  You know, we have a fundamental disagreement with that agency regarding the growth outlook.  Economic growth is the single biggest factor in compiling any of these numbers.  So they have had a very low growth estimate in response to Trump policies on taxes and deregulation, and we’ve had a much higher one — about a 1-percentage point differential, more or less.  We’re at 3; they’re at 2, more or less.

So the differential over 10 years is very significant.  You know, it could be as much as $3.5 trillion dollars in deficit reduction if we are right.

All I’m saying is that, in the first two years of the Trump administration, our view has essentially been correct, and their pessimistic view has essentially not been correct.

Now, again, I’m not here to rail on against the CBO.  They have a point of view.  We have a different point of view.  They’re professionals, and I respect that.  But that’s the single biggest difference.

Now I would say one other matter: We anticipate a very strong, tough budget coming out to hold down spending.  The President has talked about this — at least 5 percent reduction in the nondefense accounts across the board.  And I think that’s going to help.

And then, finally, my own view has always been: Economic growth is absolutely essential to reducing the deficit share of GDP, which is the burden on the economy.  And if you look at our numbers, which are moving somewhat but not enormously, we anticipate a much lower deficit share of GDP.  And that’s probably another reason we disagree.

Q    Larry, today, both Caterpillar and Nvidia said that a slowdown in demand in China is negatively affecting their businesses.  Is the administration at all worried that it’s putting too much pressure on the Chinese economy and that it could boomerang and negatively impact the U.S. economy — that is, a slowdown there could spread to a slowdown here?

MR. KUDLOW:  Well, look, we’re — you know, we’re — the kind of trade openings that we’re talking about and other structural factors are all pro-growth — every one of them.

If the trade negotiations, you know, turn out positively insofar as lower barriers, let’s say; and much better treatment of private property rights; and, as Steve Mnuchin said before, very important, ending the forced transfer of technology — things like that, look, we will export, I believe this strongly — the United States, give our people the chance to sell to China, and we will export a ton.  Our export sales will roar.  Roar.  And it will be much greater if they open their markets.  And that’s going to help China’s economy and it’s going to help our economy.  I’ve always believed that.

And the question here is fairness and reciprocity, as the President has emphasized and I completely agree.  But it’s also a matter of economic growth — lower barriers.  You know, the United States, in my judgment, is the most competitive economy in the world today.  We are the hottest economy and the most competitive economy.  I think the Davos survey just pushed us back to the number one spot and I’m proud of that.

So the China talks — what’s at stake here, I think, is, you know, the possibility of spreading prosperity, frankly, in both countries — all right — along with the need to make, you know, legal reforms and reciprocal reforms.

We got time for one more.  Yes?

Q    Larry, you talked a moment ago about hardships people felt during the shutdown.

MR. KUDLOW:  Yes.

Q    So if, at the end of three weeks, by February 14th or February 15th, if there is no deal, will you counsel the President not to shut the government down again?

MR. KUDLOW:  I just don’t want to make any comments on that.  We will see what happens.  As I said before, there is a process.  That’s — see if it works.  It’s not my place to say that.

Thank you.  Appreciate it very much.

MS. SANDERS:  Thank you.  Tough group to follow, but I will give it my best shot.

Jonathan, go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Sarah.  Is the President really willing to go through another shutdown if he can’t get any money out of the Democrats for the border wall?

MS. SANDERS:  The President doesn’t want to go through another shutdown.  That’s not the goal.  The goal is border security and protecting the American people.  Ideally, Democrats would take these next three weeks to negotiate in good faith, as they’ve indicated that they would, and come up with a deal that makes sense, that actually fixes the problem so we don’t have to go through that process.

Q    But what do you say to those, like Republican Rob Portman and others, who say that a shutdown should be taken off the table — in fact, to pass a law that basically says the shutdown can never be an option in the future?  Would the President support that?  Just take this off the table?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, I’m not going to get into the hypotheticals of taking that off the table.  I haven’t seen a piece of legislation for us to even consider at this point that would make that a reality.

But what I do know is that the President is committed to fixing the problem.  And it’s pretty simple; we have three weeks to work with Democrats.  As the President has indicated on a number of occasions, they could get this done in 15 minutes.  We agree on the fundamentals that border security is important.  We agree on the fact that there is a problem and we should do something about it.  So let’s spend some time over the next three weeks.  Let’s get it done.

The President has opened the government on the basis that Democrats have signaled to us that they’re willing to actually get serious about a real deal and get serious about fixing the problem at the border, including funding for a border wall.

Steve.

Q    The President’s proposals for protecting the DREAMer children and some of the other concessions he made in his immigration speech — are those still on the table?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, I’m not going to negotiate here.  That’s why they have the conferences for congressional members to work through some of those things, to come back the President with a deal.  The President has laid out things in the past that he’s willing to do.  We’ll see what they come back with.

But what I do know is if they don’t come back with a deal, that means Democrats get virtually nothing.  That will make the President — and force him to have to take executive action that does not give Democrats the things that they want.  So this is a perfect time.  And the table has been perfectly set by the President in order for a good deal to come together where everybody gets a little bit of something they’re looking for.

Josh.

Q    The President has described illegal immigration — unchecked illegal immigration as a perilous threat and has said that they’re taking American workers’ jobs.  Could you explain why the President hired and employed so many undocumented immigrants at his club for years and didn’t do more to prevent them from staying employed and working there?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, I can’t get into specifics about the President’s organization outside of the White House.  I’m only allowed to speak on behalf of the President in his official capacity.  I do know that the Trump Organization has put out a statement addressing that issue.  I would refer you to that and to them for further questions.

Q    But, Sarah, what does the President think — what does the President think should happen to a business that, you know, employs illegal immigrants and doesn’t use systems to check and make sure they’re not doing that?  Does the President —

MS. SANDERS:  I think that’s one of the reasons that the President wants to actually fix the problem.  He’s one of the people that’s identified the fact that we have a problem and we should fix our immigration system.  If Democrats want to get serious about fixing that, they have a President that’s more than happy to sit down with them and do exactly that.

John.

Q    Since I know so little about this, let me ask you a couple of questions and see if I can educate myself.  (Laughter.)

MS. SANDERS:  Well, at least we’re in agreement on something.  (Laughter.)

Q    Senator Joe Manchin —

MS. SANDERS:  It’s a joke.  Everyone settle down.

Q    Ha-ha.  Senator Joe Manchin said yesterday that if the President were to move further on DACA and offer at least a path to status, if not a path to citizenship, he’d likely get more Democrats to come to his idea about the need for a border barrier.  The President has been resistant to going any further than offering three years of more protections.  What is the reason why the President doesn’t believe that DACA recipients shouldn’t have a path to status?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, I’m going to negotiate up here.  That’s the reason that they’re going into conference —

Q    I’m not asking you to.  I’m asking why he doesn’t believe that they deserve or should have a path to status?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, I’m not going to get into negotiating immigration reform up here.  That’s why we have the conference.  That’s why the President has asked that that take place over these three weeks — whether or not that happens during this time or after.

The focus of this right now is border security.  We’d like to see that happen.  And the President would love to deal with the overall problem of illegal immigration, fixing a number of the loopholes that would prevent some of those things from happening so that we could move forward with a system that actually works and functions.

Mike.  And congratulations and welcome back.

Q    Thank you.

MS. SANDERS:  You look more well-rested than you should but go ahead.  (Laughter.)

Q    Is the White House going to have a representative in these meetings — the conference committee on the Hill?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not aware of a specific White House attendee that would participate.  Certainly we’ll be engaged with members across the board, both those that are part of the conference as well as the back-and-forth that will take place before and after.

Q    What’s your data point here that —

MS. SANDERS:  But we’ll keep you posted when White House is in attendance.

Q    Okay.  What is your data point here on the idea that Democrats are ready to, as you say, “get serious” about immigration reform?  What is the signal that the President specifically got from Democrats?

MS. SANDERS:  We’ve had a number of Democrats that have both publically stated support for border security, including a wall, including barriers.  We’ve also had a lot of private conversations in which Democrats have signaled their willingness, if the government is open, to sit down and negotiate.  The President is taking them at their word in hopes that they’ll negotiate in good faith.  And we hope that we’ll see that happen.

Jordan.

Q    Thanks, Sarah.  Stephen Miller is quoted in Cliff Sims’s book as saying, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.”  Is the policy of this administration to eventually get refugee resettlement down to zero?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not aware of any statement like that that Stephen Miller has ever made, and it’s certainly not the policy of the administration.

Q    Sarah, is the President going to have his physical exam soon?

MS. SANDERS:  The President will, as always, undergo a yearly physical exam.  We’ll keep you posted on the date and time when that happens.

April.

Q    Sarah, two questions.  One, I want to go back to what Darlene asked.  I’m going to ask in a different way: Can this economy sustain another —

MS. SANDERS:  Would you mind speaking up?  I’m sorry.

Q    I’m sorry.  I’m going back to what Darlene asked with Mr. Kudlow.  Can this economy sustain with another government shutdown?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, as I told Jonathan, we don’t want another government shutdown.  We want a deal that actually addresses border security.  It seems like it should be so simple.  We’re all in agreement that we need it.  We’re all in agreement that there’s a problem.  So let’s fix it so we don’t have to go through that process again.

Q    But can the economy — Larry Kudlow was very hopeful and optimistic, even though the numbers show otherwise —

MS. SANDERS:  Actually, the numbers don’t show otherwise.  The numbers show that we have an incredibly strong economy.  The numbers show that jobs continue to grow, wages continue to rise, unemployment continues to drop.  The numbers are actually very much in the favor of the things that Larry laid out.

Again, do we want another shutdown?  No.  But the President and his team have focused on long-term economic stability, long-term economic fundamentals.  And we think that, if we had to, we could sustain that, but certainly we don’t want to.  That’s not the goal.

Q    (Inaudible.)

MS. SANDERS:  go ahead.

Q    So there are several people that are now indicted that have some kind of connection to either the campaign or the President.  Have these people tried to make contact with the President via their mutual friends?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not aware of any contact from those individuals.

Jon.

Q    Thanks a lot Sarah.  On the State of the Union Address that was supposed to take place tomorrow night, I know that House Speaker Pelosi said that she would extend an invitation to the President once the government has reopened.  It’s reopened.  Has she extended an invitation to the President?  Do you believe, Sarah, that she’s acting in good faith in this regard?

MS. SANDERS:  I certainly don’t think she acted in good faith on the front end, considering she cited security concerns that didn’t exist, but we’re certainly hopeful that, moving forward in the future, that she will.

The President, as he always does, looks forward to addressing the American people.  And we’ll do that as soon as that invitation is received.

Francesca.

Q    One more if I could —

MS. SANDERS:  Sorry, go ahead, Jon.

Q    If I could, Sarah.  Do you expect her to extend an invitation to the President in the course of this three-week window while negotiations are ongoing?

MS. SANDERS:  That’s a better question for Speaker Pelosi.

Francesca.

Q    Thank you, Sarah.  You’re not exactly ruling out another shutdown, and many federal workers who came back today are concerned that there could be another another shutdown.  What’s your advice or message to them in this three weeks?  Should they be saving be their money?  Should they be concerned that they might not get another paycheck so soon?

MS. SANDERS:  My advice would be to call your Democrat members of Congress and ask them to fix the problem so that we don’t have to continue having this process, and so that we actually secure the border and protect American citizens.

Go ahead.

Q    On the same subject, Sarah, the President tweeted over the weekend and said that he made no concessions whatsoever.  But influential conservatives are saying that he has made concessions in this because he originally said that he would not sign any legislation that did not include money for the border wall, and then he went ahead and did that.  And, granted, it only keeps the government open for the next three weeks; he said he wouldn’t do that either.  And so how can the President say that he made absolutely no concessions to Democrats on this legislation?

MS. SANDERS:  Because the negotiations are still ongoing, and I would argue that conservatives that actually have influence have supported the President throughout this process.  They believe in border security; they believe in protecting Americans, just like the President; and they stand with him.

Again, this is a simple fix.  It’s easy for Democrats to sit down and come to an agreement and work with us to get border security.

John.

Q    Thank you, Sarah.  The President has spoken increasingly of declaring a state of emergency after February 15th and using funds already there for the building of the wall under the aegis of national security and homeland security.  Several conservatives who are normally supporters of the President warned not to go in that direction — that it would create too many problems with federal authority interceding with state authority.

President Bush in 2005 wouldn’t declare a state of emergency over Katrina because he did not want to get into that argument with governors.  Has the President considered this and the criticisms and warnings of fellow Republicans, notably Senator Blunt of Missouri?

MS. SANDERS:  Certainly the President listens to members of Congress, as well as constituents across the country, but the President’s number one duty and the number one responsibility he sees as Commander-in-Chief is protecting the American people.  He sees the crisis at the border to be a real one.  I don’t think anybody in the country can argue the fact that there is a real problem at our border.  It needs to be fixed and the President is going to do what it takes to address it.

Hallie.

Q    Okay thanks.  I have a question for you on the shutdown, but first I want to ask:  Has the President ruled out a pardon for Roger Stone?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not aware of that.  I haven’t had any conversations regarding that matter.

Q    Will you discuss it with him and let us know?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not going to get into that at this point, but, if need be, we’ll let you know.

Q    You talked about the possibility that the President may use his executive authority.  He has put that option on the table many times, most recently Friday in the Rose Garden.  If the President truly believes that what is happening is an emergency, why would he wait three weeks to declare it?

MS. SANDERS:  Because it’s real simple: As the President has said, as most of us in the administration have said on a number of fronts, the best fix is to be able to do it legislatively.  But if Congress, particularly Democrats in Congress, would rather play political games than actually do their jobs and fix the problem, then the President will be forced to take a different path.  Again, ideally, that doesn’t happen, but we’ll see what happens.

Q    But, legally, it’s either an emergency, Sarah, or it’s not an emergency.  You can’t have a half-emergency.  Right?  So which is it?

MS. SANDERS:  You’re missing the point.  It is not just an emergency, it’s a crisis at the border — both a national security and a humanitarian crisis.  But there is a process in which the President wants to exhaust all options, primarily doing what we feel is the best one, which is a legislative fix.  But if Congress doesn’t do their job, then the President will be forced to make up for all of their shortcomings.

Major.

Q    Two questions, Sarah.  You talked about what you’re not going to negotiate.  I’d like to ask you, is the $5.7 billion request from the President non-negotiable?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, I’m not going to negotiate from here.  That’s the whole point of the conference is to iron out those details and come back to the President with a deal.

Q    So it could be lower than that?

MS. SANDERS:  At the end of the day, the biggest thing that has to happen is there has to be real and adequate funding for border security, including funding for a wall.  And we’ll see what the conference comes back with.

Q    Would “real and adequate” be a number possibly less than $5.7 billion?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, Major, I’m not —

Q    (Inaudible.)

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not going to negotiate with you.  That’s not my role.  My job is to communicate where we are in the process, and right now we’re in the process of letting the conference do its job — negotiate a deal, and come back to the President.

Q    Thank you, Sarah.  Two questions for you, if I may.  First, on the government shutdown, the President made several — he made several promises to families, particularly to those who had been affected by crimes committed by illegal immigrants, that they would have a wall at the end of this government shutdown — at the end of this promise.  Can he maintain that promise that there will be — to those families — that there will be a wall on the southern border by the end of his first term?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, as you know, the President and his administration have engaged and built roughly 100 — or contracted to build roughly 115 miles of the border.  This three-week package that just passed that the Democrats actually voted for included over $200 million in funding for the wall.  And the President is not going to stop until the border is secure, and that includes having a border wall.

Q    Another question for you on Afghanistan.  There is talk in Afghanistan by the U.S. envoy of a deal that would basically pull U.S. forces out of the country in exchange for a guarantee from the Taliban that there would be no terrorist who remained in the country.  Is that a plan that has the White House’s support?  Does the President support that sort of plan?  And would that be a victory for the United States after almost 17 years of war there?

MS. SANDERS:  Our priority is to end the war in Afghanistan, and to ensure that there is never a base for terrorism in Afghanistan again.  Negotiations are going to continue.  For anything specific, I can’t get into that right now, but I’d refer you to the State Department beyond that.

Kristen.

Q    Sarah, thank you.  Just to follow up quickly on your answer to Hallie: You said, “I’m not aware of that” when asked if the President has ruled out a pardon for Roger Stone.  So does that mean he hasn’t ruled out a pardon?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, I’m not aware of any conversation even regarding that or a need for it.

Q    Can you — Sarah, just to follow up, can you guarantee that the President won’t pardon Roger Stone?

MS. SANDERS:  Again, I’m not going to talk about hypotheticals that are just ridiculous and things I haven’t talked about.

Q    Marco Rubio said that it would be a crime to be in discussions with WikiLeaks.

MS. SANDERS:  I never thought I would be shutting down one reporter to go to Jim Acosta, but here we are.

Q    Marco Rubio said over the weekend, Sarah, that working with —

Q    I’m behaving myself, by the way.  (Laughter.)

Q    — WikiLeaks should be considered a crime.  Does the President agree?

MS. SANDERS:  I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the last part.

Q    Marco Rubio said over the weekend that working with WikiLeaks should be considered a crime.  Does the President agree?

MS. SANDERS:  Look, I think every single outlet that are — that you all represent looked for and searched for information that WikiLeaks was providing, including reporting on it.  So I think there is a responsibility by members of the media.

Q    (Inaudible.)  This is different.

MS. SANDERS:  I’m not aware of anybody here ever working with WikiLeaks in any capacity, but I do know that every individual that represents a media organization here looked for that information.  Most of you reported on that information, so I think you’re just as accountable as anybody else in that process.

Jim, go ahead.

Q    If I can jump in: Roger Stone, last week; Paul Manafort; Michael Cohen; Michael Flynn — are you concerned, is the President concerned that that as more and more of his associates, former aides, are brought into this investigation — are indicted, plead guilty in this investigation — that this presidency is in danger?

MS. SANDERS:  Not at all.  In fact, I think nothing could be further from the truth.  The more that this goes on, the more and more we see that none of these things have anything to do with the President.  In Roger Stone’s case, the charges of that indictment have literally nothing to do with the President and have to do with his communications with Congress.

So, in fact, I think the further we get into the process, the more and more we see that this has nothing to do with President Trump.

Q    If I could ask a quick follow-up on that —

MS. SANDERS:  Sure.

Q    — if I may.  And can you assure the American people that, during these conversations that Roger Stone had with WikiLeaks and individuals who are tied to the dumping of that material, that at no time the President had any interactions with Roger Stone, that nobody close to the President had interactions with Roger Stone who may have told the President what was going on in those conversations?

All of this, when it comes to Roger Stone, is a complete surprise to the President.  He didn’t know about any of this.  Is that what you’re saying?

MS. SANDERS:  What I can tell you is that the President did nothing wrong throughout this process.  And the charges — of the indictment against Mr. Stone have absolutely nothing to do with the President.

I’ll take one last question.  Steve.

Q    Yes, Sarah.  We’re expecting, in a few moments, that the U.S. government will announce some criminal actions against Huawei, the Chinese telecom company.  And we’re just about to have this Chinese trade delegation here.  Are these two at all linked?  Are you taking some sort of carrot-and-stick approach with China?  What’s the strategy here?

MS. SANDERS:  No, those two things are not linked.  They’re a totally separate process.  The negotiations on the trade front will continue to be ongoing.

And I believe, on that other question and thing that you mentioned may be coming.  I believe they’re waiting on me to finish so that they can do that.  So, with that, I will say good afternoon and we’ll see you next time.  Thanks, guys.

END

4:22 P.M. EST