James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:13 P.M. EST
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. This afternoon, the President is looking forward to officially announcing the new Chairman of his Board of Advisors for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., who will be taking on this important role, is the former president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and is currently CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.
As you all know, the President previously signed an executive order promoting excellence and innovation at HBCUs. He believes this initiative will advance America’s full human potential. And with today’s announcement, he continues to demonstrate his commitment to HBCUs.
Before taking your questions today, I want to take a moment to highlight the historic obstruction by Senate Democrats — an issue that represents a threat to America’s interests and security.
Compared to the four previous administrations, this Senate has confirmed the fewest nominees. Senator Schumer’s tactics have led to 73 fewer confirmations than the next closest administration. Half of President Trump’s nominees are still waiting for confirmation in the Senate.
The obstruction is so out of control, even some Senate Democrats believe it is inappropriate. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said, “I don’t believe we should be holding nominees hostage…Enough is enough. We need people who are qualified to fill these important positions in our government.”
In the coming days, we will be highlighting specific, qualified nominees who are, as the Senator said, being held hostage by Senator Schumer.
Take, for instance, Ric Grenell, the President’s nominee to serve as Ambassador to Germany. Mr. Grenell, a Harvard-educated, experienced diplomat, was the longest serving U.S. spokesperson at the United Nations. He was nominated in September of last year. He was reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with bipartisan support. He is waiting to represent America’s interests and be our country’s top voice in a G7 country.
In short, Senator Schumer’s hyper-political delay on Mr. Grenell puts our national security, and America’s foreign policy interests, in jeopardy. The Senate should move to confirm him immediately.
We will continue highlighting more of these examples of Democrat obstruction in the days ahead.
Finally, I’m sure — on a lighter note, I’m sure you all remember 11-year-old Natalie Dalton, who wrote in to the President, offering to cook for him. We’re excited to announce today that Natalie, and her 8-year-old cousin Celia, will be coming to the White House on March 23rd to work with the White House kitchen staff. We look forward to hosting them.
And with that, I will take your questions. Jonathan.
Q Sarah, Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the NSA, said that he has not been granted any additional authority by the President to confront Russia — Russian cyber intrusion, interference with our election systems. Why has he not been given that authority?
MS. SANDERS: Look, just this week, they announced, through the State Department, that $40 million is being given to the Global Engagement Center to begin providing immediate support to private and public partners that expose and counter Russian and Chinese propaganda and disinformation. We’re focused on looking at a variety of different ways. As I told you last week, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, met with a number of both state, local, and federal officials working on ways that we can best prevent things like this in the future. And we’re looking at a number of different options, and we’re going to continue doing that over the coming weeks.
Q But Admiral Rogers is the one that would have the agency that could actually go and confront Russian intrusion at the source. And he hasn’t been given the authority. In fact, he says that the Russians haven’t paid a sufficient price to make them change their behavior. He’s the one with the power and with the means to do it. All he needs is a presidential directive, the authority from the President to do it.
MS. SANDERS: I disagree with the premise of your question. It’s not just one individual. It’s looking at a number of different ways.
Q But why not give him the authority, though? He’s in charge of Cyber Command. Why not give him the authority?
MS. SANDERS: Nobody is denying him the authority. We’re looking at a number of different ways that we can put pressure. Look, this President, as I told you last week, has been much tougher on Russia than his predecessor. Let’s not forget that this happened under Obama. It didn’t happen under President Trump. If you want to blame somebody on past problems, then you need to look at the Obama administration.
The President is looking at all of the different causes and all of the different ways that we can prevent it. And as we find different ways that we can do that, we’re implementing them — like you see with the money that was allocated from the State Department, as you see with the conversations that the Secretary from DHS is having. We’re going to continue looking at different ways to combat it, and I would imagine that that will be certainly a big part of it. But I can’t speak to anything further on it right now.
Q This is not about the past, though. This is not about the past. This is about protecting intrusion in the next election.
MS. SANDERS: Exactly. And that’s —
Q And he said that he needs the authority, and he hasn’t been given it. He says he can’t act without the authority.
MS. SANDERS: Well, I can’t speak to that specifically. I can tell you that we are taking a number of steps to prevent this, and we’re looking at a variety of other ways that we’re going to continue to implement over the coming weeks and months.
Q I have one on the renewable fuel credit. But first, just a housekeeping one on the clearances. The Oversight Committee requested details from the White House about still-pending clearances among White House staff, and whether there is any derogatory information there. They set a deadline of tomorrow. The Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter over today asking for some of the same information. I’m wondering if the White House is going to — plans to comply with those requests. And if — I know you’ve been hesitant to release some of that information, even in aggregate —
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t been hesitant. I’ve been very clear that we don’t discuss security clearances. And that’s not changing today, it didn’t change yesterday. It’s not going to change tomorrow.
Q So you don’t plan to comply with the request from (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t say that. I said I’m not going to discuss security clearances with members of the press. And that hasn’t been different at any point during this administration, and we have no intention of changing it right now.
Q When are you going to comply with those tomorrow?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll let you know when we have a chance to review that and make a decision.
Q But — can I do the fuel standard question?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, go ahead.
Q Yeah. You guys put out a statement today saying that the President supports the renewable fuel credit, but also that he is in support of energy producers. So it seems that the issue here is whether or not the President or the White House supports a cap to lower the cost of credit waivers. So I’m wondering if you could tell us what the President’s position is on that.
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President knows that there are a lot of differing views on this issue. We’re going to continue having conversations. He met, today, with Senator Cruz, Ernst, Grassley, and Toomey to discuss this and to continue that conversation. They had a productive meeting, and we’re going to continue working with not only those members but others as we go through this process.
Q Two questions, different topics. If I could return to something that we talked about yesterday: the President’s support to raise the minimum age of buying a long gun from 18 to 21. He expressed support for that idea in a tweet last Thursday. He talked about it with the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He didn’t mention it at CPAC. He didn’t mention with the governors. He said he had lunch with Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox —
MS. SANDERS: To be fair, of all of the governors, when that conversation was opened, none of them mentioned it either. But — in a two-hour discussion.
Q But he had supported it, so. He had lunch with Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox. The NRA remains firmly opposed to this idea of raising the age for long guns. The President said yesterday, if they’re not always with you, sometimes you got to fight them. Is he willing to take on the NRA on this idea of raising the minimum age for buying long guns?
MS. SANDERS: The President still supports raising the age limit to 21 for the purchase of certain firearms. We’re meeting with bipartisan members of Congress tomorrow. We expect that to be a topic of discussion. He knows that everybody doesn’t necessarily agree. We’re not going to get into the details on the specifics of what we will propose, but we expect that to be part of the conversation tomorrow.
Q Question number two on an unrelated topic. Jeff Sessions confirmed, a few minutes ago, that he is going to open an investigation into FISA abuses during the election. The President clearly has been expressing that he believes that Sessions should look into this. Is the President happy now that Sessions is opening this investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken with him about it to determine his feelings. But as you said, it’s something that he’s clearly had frustration over, so I would imagine he certainly supports the decision to look into what we feel to be some wrongdoing. I think that’s the role of the Department of Justice, and we’re glad that they’re fulfilling that job.
Q Sarah, I have one question. But one housekeeping item before that. You talked about nominations and how slow Congress is to move. I’m wondering, do you have a timeline on when the White House will name a nominee to be ambassador to South Korea?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have a timeline, and I don’t have any personnel announcements on that position, specifically.
Q Okay. And then the question I had, again, going back to Admiral Rogers. He said today, we are not where we need to be or want to be on cyber. Does the White House, does the President plan to hold a National Security Council session to discuss, specifically, these concerns about having a menu of options to respond to a cyberattack, and one specifically in relation to Russia?
MS. SANDERS: In terms of a specific meeting, I don’t know that a date is set. But I do know that there are constantly conversations going on within the administration on this topic. And we’re going to continue those, and I’ll keep you posted on the President’s schedule.
Q Has there been one so far on Russia and cyberattacks?
MS. SANDERS: I know that he’s been briefed on it. In terms of specifics beyond that, I’d have to check and get back to you.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Did anyone from the White House instruct Hope Hicks not to answer questions from the House Intelligence Committee about her time serving in the White House and in the transition?
MS. SANDERS: As is always the case, I’m not going to comment on any individual’s interactions with the Committee. But we are cooperating because, as the President has said repeatedly, there is no collusion. And we’re going to continue to cooperate. Hopefully they’ll wrap this up soon.
Q Why did she refuse to answer the questions about —
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to comment on any individual’s specific interactions with the committee. I’d refer you to outside attorneys for that.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. I just want to pick up on what Jordan was just asking you, and that is about this idea of citing executive privilege for conversations that took place during the transition period. We’re told that’s exactly what Hope Hicks, the Communications Director, cited in refusing to answer questions that were posed of her related to the transition period. Is the President aware, is the White House aware that no federal court, at any level, has ever granted that privilege pertaining to the transition period?
MS. SANDERS: Just because we ask the question in different ways, I’m still not going to comment on any individual’s interactions with the committee. I’m also not going to comment on leaks from what is supposed to be a confidential setting. There continues to be zero evidence of collusion, and we hope these investigations wrap up shortly.
Q To follow up on what Margaret was asking. Joseph Yun, the State Department’s envoy to North Korea, is retiring. How does that impact the diplomatic process?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re going to continue appointing people to different positions, whether it’s the Ambassador to South Korea and a number of other positions. I don’t have any specific announcements on it at this time.
Q And secondly, the Chinese economic minister is here for trade talks. As you consider tariffs on steel and aluminum, what do you hope to hear from this fella?
MS. SANDERS: He’s meeting with a few different members of the administration, but not the President directly. I don’t have any specific readouts from any of his meetings at this point.
Q Thank you very much. House Speaker Ryan, today, disagreed with the President on arming teachers. He says he thinks it should be up to the locals whether teachers should be armed. What is the President’s response to not having support from the Republican leader of the House?
MS. SANDERS: Look, as we’ve said, this is something that will continue to be part of the discussion with state, federal, and local officials as well as law enforcement. The President is going to be meeting with bipartisan lawmakers tomorrow, and that will be another one of those topics discussed, and we’ll have further specific policy announcements later this week.
Q But without the support of Speaker Ryan, how can this get any traction in the House?
MS. SANDERS: Again, this is part of an ongoing conversation. It’s something that the President still supports. It’s something he knows that there are a lot of differing views on. It’s one of the topics that we expect to come up tomorrow and we’re going to continue having that discussion.
I think the number-one thing that we’re looking at is, every possible action that we can take that helps protect the safety and security of the schoolkids across this country, we’re going to look at everything we can. A lot of those things that you guys have brought up today will be part of the discussion tomorrow. And we expect to have some specific policy proposals later this week.
Q Yes, Sarah. Today, the White House announced that it’s cutting about $8 million in aid to Cambodia for what it calls, “Recent setbacks in democracy there.” Can you talk a little bit about what went into this decision, and why, specifically, just Cambodia, and not other countries where there have also been recent setbacks to democracy, such as neighboring Thailand?
MS. SANDERS: The elections that happened earlier this month failed to represent the genuine will of the Cambodian people. That gave us great cause for concern. These setbacks compelled the United States to review that assistance. Based on the review, the government will suspend or curtail several assistance programs intended to support the Cambodian government. I don’t have anything further at this point.
Q Two questions on two different topics. First, does President Trump believe that the governor of Missouri — who, as you know, has been indicted — should resign?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken with him about that.
Q Okay can you go back to —
MS. SANDERS: But my guess is that he would refer to the people of the state of Missouri, but I haven’t spoken directly with him, so I would have to get back to you.
Q The President is the leader of the Republican Party, and obviously the governors —
MS. SANDERS: I’m well aware.
Q Well, I mean, he’s a Republican —
MS. SANDERS: Anita, I haven’t spoken with him. I’d have to ask him.
Q Can you get back to me on that?
MS. SANDERS: Sure.
Q Okay. Second question. The President is having several meetings, as you mentioned, with lawmakers of both parties this week on other topics. Is he going to be talking to them about immigration? His deadline that he set, March 5th, is next Monday. Congress is nowhere near doing anything about that. Is that still the deadline? Is he encouraging them to get something done?
MS. SANDERS: Absolutely, he’s encouraging them to get something done. That’s why he laid out exactly what he expected to see in a proposal that would not only help solve the DACA problem, but also provide border security. The President went above and beyond what previous administrations have done and offered on that program.
It’s really sad that Democrats are not willing to come to the table, get something done, and actually fix problems and do their job. But the President is still hopeful, and we’re going to continue pushing forward and hope we get something done.
Q So, on Monday — what’s going to happen on Monday when the deadline comes?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we’re still hopeful that something happens on this and that Congress will actually do its job.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I’ve got a couple for you as well. One on North Korea. Joseph Yun, who’s been the point person for North Korea policy, has announced he’s leaving. Does the President plan to replace him?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any personnel announcements at this time.
Q And then on the — we’re heading into the midterm election year, obviously. Have White House staff been briefed on the dos and don’ts of political activity, including the prohibition on using formal titles in campaign literature?
MS. SANDERS: I know for sure that Cabinet and senior staff have been, and I believe a paper memo was distributed to all staff, but I’d have to verify that to be sure. But I know that both Cabinet and senior staff have been briefed on upcoming midterm elections and what they are allowed to do and not do.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Does the President believe someone who’s on the no-fly list because of suspected terrorist activity should be able to buy a gun?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t spoken about that specifically and don’t have any policy announcement on that front.
Q I don’t want a policy announcement. I just want to know if he thinks that somebody —
MS. SANDERS: Well, that would be a policy. Whether or not the President supports something or not would be a policy.
Q So he doesn’t know?
MS. SANDERS: I said we haven’t — I haven’t spoken with him about it, so I’d have to get back to you.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two brief questions. One, I know it’s been announced — the President —
Q He’s closer today.
Q That was such good timing. (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: I know, I noticed that too. (Laughter.) You’re moving up in the world, John. And it scares your colleagues, I think. You’re making them nervous.
Q That was just such great timing. You sat down and you called (inaudible).
Q Thank you. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Anita.
Q (Laughs.) You’re welcome.
MS. SANDERS: You got a lot of support, John.
Q Reverend Billy Graham’s funeral is this Friday. We know the President will attend. Has it been determined whether he’ll make any remarks, any eulogies? Or will he be just there as a mourner and family friend?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure on the specifics. I do know he plans to attend there, as well as to head to the Capitol tomorrow for that stop. But in terms of specific remarks, I don’t have any comment on that at this point.
Q Right. My other question is that the President’s two immediate predecessors did a lot to build and expand the faith-based programs within the White House and throughout the executive branch of government. Many governors followed that example; one of them your father. It has been said that this President has not followed through on that; that there is no faith-based office within the White House now. Your reaction?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I don’t think an office is what determines the faith of the administration. I think that we have a number of people —
Q A faith-based program.
MS. SANDERS: Right. I think that’s something that the President has a faith council and a advisory council that regularly come to the White House and meet with. But I think in terms of whether or not you have an office doesn’t determine the faith of the administration. I think we probably have, actually, more people, front and center, speaking openly about their faith and advocating, and helping build on that foundation than probably any previous administration has.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You’ve mentioned several times that you expect to have some policy announcements later this week. I just wanted to follow up on that and clarify — are you saying that, this week, the White House will have a specific list that would be detailed, or an outline of the specific policies that the President would like to see in legislation on gun control, gun violence prevention?
MS. SANDERS: Specific to school safety, yes, we expect that there will be some policy proposals that will be out by the end of the week. As I’ve noted a couple yesterday, that the President has already voiced, and the administration has voiced, support for both the Cornyn legislation as well as the STOP Gun Violence Act [STOP School Violence Act]. Both are pieces of legislation that the administration supports.
Q All right. And following up on that, though, you’ve also said that before the President could support some of those things, he’d like to see what’s in the legislative text of those bills. We’ve talked about universal background checks in here before. But one of the two senators of this bipartisan bill who would be putting this forward says that they’re not going to put that back forward until they’re certain that they have the President’s support for something like that. So, conceptually, does the President support the idea of universal background checks? And would he be willing to support Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey’s legislation on that?
MS. SANDERS: At this time, the President — the only two specific pieces of legislation that we are announcing support for are the two that I just mentioned. Anything further will come later this week. The President, as I’ve said, expects to meet with a number of lawmakers tomorrow from both sides of the aisle, and we’ll have some more information about specifics after that.
Q Sarah, thank you. I want to ask you what’s happening in Georgia as it relates to Delta Airlines. The background, as I’m sure you know — they withdrew benefits for NRA members, and now the lieutenant governor there is saying that maybe there shouldn’t be a tax break for Delta. The lieutenant governor said, “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”
On the narrow front, does the White House believe that conservatives are under attack in the state of Georgia? And, more broadly, does the President think it’s a good idea for a state government to target a business for retribution for decisions that the business decides that it wants to make?
MS. SANDERS: The administration is focused, when it comes to this conversation, on what we can do to help the safety and security of America’s children. That’s our focus. We’re not weighing into other sidebar conversations right now.
Q Sarah, thanks. I want to ask you about Syria and some developments there. But just two quick clarifications. To Justin’s point, when he asked about whether the White House will meet the deadline tomorrow from House Oversight, it sounded like you said you’d let us know when you review it. But Trey Gowdy made that request two weeks ago. Have you guys not reviewed it yet?
MS. SANDERS: I said I would let you know and get back to you; that we don’t have any announcement on that at this front.
Q And then just to clarify on Jonathan’s question here. Just simply yes or no: Will the President give the authority to Mike Rogers to seek additional authorities to go after Russia?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of any specific direction by the President. But I can tell you that we are looking at a number of different things that we can do to prevent this from happening. And we’re going to continue to be tough on Russia moving forward, just as we have been in this first year.
Q And on Syria, Sarah. And it sounds like you’re open to doing that — that the President is open to those additional authorities.
MS. SANDERS: Open to — I’m sorry, what did you say?
Q To additional authorities.
MS. SANDERS: The President is open to looking at a number of different ways of making sure that Russia doesn’t meddle in our elections.
Q Speaking of international relations, does the United States have reason to believe that North Korea is linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any comment on that at this point.
I’ll take the last question. Mike.
Q Just one quick one. But first, I just want to button up Steve’s question about Liu He. You said he’s meeting with some administration officials. Do you know who he’s meeting with?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll get back to you on the specifics of who he’s meeting with.
Q The President mentioned last week that —
MS. SANDERS: And I know it’s not the President, I can tell you that.
Q Okay. The President mentioned last week that John Kelly has a decision to make about Jared Kushner’s security clearance. I know your policy — I’m not talking about security clearances, except, really, in the case of Kushner. You guys have talked about him quite a bit. Has the Chief of Staff made a decision on John Kelly [sic], and can you say what it is?
MS. SANDERS: As I said earlier, we do not comment on individual security clearances. We actually haven’t commented on Jared’s, as you indicated. But we have commented on his ability to do his job, which he’s a valued member of the team, and he will continue to do the important work that he’s been doing since he started in the administration.
Thanks so much, guys. Have a great afternoon.
2:35 P.M. EST