James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:53 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Happy Agriculture Day. Today, we honor the men and women who work every day to feed, fuel, and clothe the people of the United States and the world.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue hosted Vice President Pence at the Department of Agriculture to commemorate the day. As you may remember, when the President spoke at the American Farm Bureau Convention earlier this year, he said, “Our farmers deserve a government that serves their interest and empowers them to do the hard work [that] they love to do so much.”
This administration is making sure government does that by reducing burdensome regulations, allowing them to be more productive; by cutting their taxes and empowering them to make their own decisions about investing in their operations; and by working to make sure our trade agreements are fair and that other countries play by the rules.
The President was proud to issue a proclamation declaring today the 45th Annual National Ag Day.
Earlier today, the President was pleased to welcome Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House. This meeting provided an opportunity to make progress on a range of issues, including Syria and its sponsors, Yemen, the GCC, and our Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Today, we were able to engage with Saudi leadership, as we do on an ongoing basis, to increase our coordination on regional issues, advance shared strategic objectives, and develop new channels and capabilities to institutionalize these interactions.
This afternoon, the President also met — will also meet with top law enforcement officials, members of Congress, and administration leaders to discuss the threats of lawless sanctuary cities.
Sanctuary jurisdictions release thousands of criminal aliens out of our prisons and jails, and back into our communities. Such policies threaten the safety and security of our people.
Every American family deserves to live in safety and security in their home and neighborhood. Sanctuary cities make that goal much more difficult to achieve. And the President is committed to restoring the rule of law in these communities.
We’re also continuing to monitor the situations, both in Austin, Texas and in Maryland. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims involved in these situations, and we’ll continue to work with state and local law enforcement officials around both of those incidents.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. John.
Q Sarah, let me start by asking you what the President said about potentially meeting with Vladimir Putin “soon.” There’s nothing that will put them in the same city at the same time until November, at the earliest. So what he’s talked about, in terms of “soon,” would that include either a visit of Putin to the White House or the President going to Russia?
MS. SANDERS: There are no specific plans made at this time. But we want to continue to have a dialogue with Russia, and continue to talk about some of the shared interests we have, whether it’s North Korea, Iran, and, particularly as the President noted today, slowing the tensions when it comes to an arms race, something that is clearly important to both leaders.
Q And now that Putin has won yet another term as President, is President Trump concerned that he will continue his aggressive posture toward the rest of the world, and maybe even increase that posture?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re going to continue to maintain the position that we’ve had, and be tough when necessary. At the same time, we want to continue to have dialogue so that we can work on some of the issues that concern both countries. And we’re going to continue to do that, while also continuing to be tough on a number of things, including sanctions on Russia, rebuilding our own military, and exporting energy — things that we know are not great for Russia.
Q Let me get your reaction to a statement that Senator John McCain, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, just put out. And I’m quoting him directly here: “An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country’s future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin’s regime.” How do you respond?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President, once again, has maintained that it’s important for us to have a dialogue with Russia so that we can focus on some areas of shared interests — the ones that I’ve already named.
At the same time, we’re going to continue to be tough on them. The President joined other countries in these calls. Both Germany and France have reached out, as well as President Obama in 2012. These are conversations that sometimes take place. And, certainly, the President finds there to be an importance in having that dialogue with Russia so that we can talk about some of the big problems that face the world.
Q Does the White House disagree with Senator McCain’s characterization of this as a “sham election”?
MS. SANDERS: We disagree with the fact that we shouldn’t have conversations with Russia. There are important topics that we should be able to discuss. And that is why the President is going to continue to have that dialogue.
At the same time, we’ve been very clear in the actions that we’ve taken that we’re going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they’ve stepped out of place. We’ve placed tough sanctions on Russia and a number of other things where we have shown exactly what our position is.
Q But since you brought it up in context of John’s question about timing — since you mentioned North Korea and Iran, is it the President’s intention to meet with Vladimir Putin before he sees Kim Jong-un or makes a decision on the Iran nuclear deal?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we don’t have any specific plans laid out at this time.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Neither the White House readout of that phone call with Putin nor the Kremlin’s readout says anything about election meddling. Did the President not raise the issue of Russian election meddling in that phone call?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe it came on this specific call, but it is something that we’ve spoken extensively about and continue to look at ways and steps forward to make sure it never happens again.
Q And on the President’s new attorney, Joe diGenova, he says that there is this brazen plot by the FBI and the DOJ to frame the President. Does the White House share that view? Is there a plot to frame President Trump?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we certainly have said that there have been some concerns with some of the actions that were taken. But in terms of any comments that he’s made, I couldn’t speak to those.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two more questions on the Putin phone call. First, does the White House believe the election in Russia was free and fair?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Does the White House believe that the election in Russia was free and fair?
MS. SANDERS: Look, in terms of the election there, we’re focused on our elections. We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate. What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them how they operate. We can only focus on the freeness and the fairness of our elections, something we 100 percent fully support and something we’re going to continue to do everything we can to protect to make sure bad actors don’t have the opportunity to impact them in any way.
Q And you said election meddling didn’t come up in the call. I’m curious — did the recent poisoning in the United Kingdom come up in the call?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe that was discussed in today’s call.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Over the weekend, on one of the Sunday morning shows, Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said when responding to the various tweets that the President had put out over the weekend regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he said, “When you’re innocent, act like it.” What is your response to what Trey Gowdy said over the weekend?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has been very clear about the fact that there was no collusion between his campaign and any other entity. However, to pretend like going through this absurd process for over a year would not bring frustration seems a little bit ridiculous.
I don’t think that any individual, including members of Congress, would like it if they had been accused of taking their seat in Congress by doing something nefarious when they hadn’t, particularly if it went on for more than a year into their time in office. My guess is they would be more than anxious to push back, and certainly would defend themselves as the President has clearly done in this situation and has since day one.
Q Another Republican over the weekend, Lindsey Graham, also a Republican from South Carolina, said that, “If the President were to fire” —
MS. SANDERS: Maybe we need to work on our South Carolina members.
Q Yeah. He said that, “If the President tries to fire Robert Mueller, it would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.” What’s your response to what Lindsey Graham said?
MS. SANDERS: As White House Counsel, Ty Cobb said earlier this week, “The White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller.”
Q Do you feel like you’re losing Republicans in —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry?
Q Do you feel like you’re losing Republicans in some way? That these two prominent Republicans from South Carolina both spoke in this manner over the weekend?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly don’t think we’re losing Republicans at all. I think we’re voicing some frustration over this ongoing process that we look forward to ending soon.
Q In January, the President told a room full of reporters that he would love to sit down and do an interview with Robert Mueller under oath and in “just a couple of weeks.” At the time, that’s what he said. Obviously, that timeframe has passed. Does he still want to sit down and do an interview with Robert Mueller?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve been fully transparent throughout this process. We’ve been fully cooperative, and we’re going to continue to be cooperative with the Office of Special Counsel. Beyond that, I can’t go any further.
Q Can you just provide more clarity on the President’s tweets toward Robert Mueller over the weekend over the weekend, calling him out by name? What was behind that?
MS. SANDERS: Like I just said, clearly we have not been shy about the fact that there is frustration of this process. We would like it to end quickly and soon. And the President has contended since day one, and will continue to do so, that there was absolutely no collusion between his campaign and any outside force or country.
And so I don’t understand why it’s hard for anyone to process. If you had been attacked mercilessly and continuously, day in, day out, every single second while you’re trying to work hard to do good things for this country, and, literally, every day you wake up to an onslaught of people saying that you’re there because of reasons that are completely false, that’s frustrating. And, certainly, I think fair for him to be frustrated.
Q So why doesn’t he push for the firing? Why doesn’t he push for the firing of Robert Mueller if he thinks the probe shouldn’t have begun in the first place, if he thinks the whole thing is a witch hunt? Why doesn’t he push for the firing?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re going to continue to be cooperative, and we would like this to wrap up soon. We don’t feel like that’s the most productive step forward. But we would like to see this come to a conclusion.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I want to follow up on the accusations of fraud in the Russian election. Why does the United States government not believe that it should criticize Russia for these accusations, which have been brought up by the OSCE and UK government directly in a statement? You know, they’re listing things like restrictions on fundamental freedoms and lack of access for opposition candidates. I mean, why doesn’t the President or the White House believe that’s something that they should be discussing with the Russian leader?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t say that we couldn’t discuss it with the Russian leader. I said it didn’t come up on today’s call. Again, the focus was to talk about areas of shared interest. We know that we need to continue a dialogue. It’s important for a lot of the safety and security of people across the globe. We would like to be able to work with them on things like North Korea, on Iran, and also, both countries’ shared interest in lowering the tensions when it comes to an arms race, recognizing that that’s not the best thing for either country.
And so we want to be able to have those conversations. And that was the point of today’s call.
Q So when is an appropriate time to raise questions about, you know, political freedoms with Russia?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve continued to talk about these important issues, but that’s not simply what today’s call was about.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. First, we’ve discussed the President’s call to President Putin following his reelection. Did the President make a similar call to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has just formed a new government and assumed her fourth mandate in Berlin?
MS. SANDERS: I know he spoke with the Chancellor, I believe, it was last week. I’d have to look back at the specific details of their conversation, but I know that they spoke within the last week.
Q The other thing is that Congressman Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania is expected, if not today, sometime in the coming weeks, to announce he’s not running for reelection, making him the 38th Republican House member to announce retirement, resignation, or pursuit of another office — a post-World War II high in the exodus of Republican House members. Is this something the President is bothered about? And do members call him when they say they’ll make announcements like this?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, he’s had conversations with a number of members. I can’t speak to this situation specifically and whether or not he’s spoken with the President.
We’re not concerned. Right now, we think we’ve got a great story to tell after the first year of being in office, and we look forward to communicating that to the American people and continuing to push the President’s agenda.
Q Sarah, did the topic of religious liberty come up at all with the Crown Prince today? Did the President bring that up at all?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe that came up, but I’d have to check on the last half of the meeting to be sure, because I wasn’t there.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two foreign policy questions for you. Human Rights Watch estimates that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible in 2017 for the deaths of 1,000 civilians, and took part in 85 unlawful airstrikes. Did the President bring up these concerns about high civilian casualties in his meeting with the Crown Prince today?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware that that came up specifically. Again, I’d have to check on the last half of the meeting because I’m not sure, because I was on my way out here.
Q And if I ask you about the call between President Trump and Russian President Putin. The Russians said that Syria came up in the call. The readout that was released by the Trump administration did not include any mention of Syria. Did the President discuss the issue of Syria with Vladimir Putin? And did he discuss the high civilian casualties as a result of efforts by the Assad regime and the Russian government on the ground in Syria?
MS. SANDERS: It briefly came up. And as you know, we’ve had a number of public statements on our position there, and that certainly has not changed.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Yesterday, the Canadian Prime Minister noticed the signs of the pace of NAFTA talks is accelerating. And he said that the President — President Trump — is enthusiastic about getting a deal. Is the President that enthusiastic?
MS. SANDERS: The President is always enthusiastic about making a good deal, but that would be — the key caveat to any conversation is making sure that whatever deal he makes is good for Americans and American workers. And so anything we do, that would have to be a part of that conversation.
Q There seems to be a end-of-April deadline. After that, the entire political process is going to get over the negotiations on NAFTA. Anything possible be that quick within six weeks?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any specific announcement as of this time, but we’re continuing to have those negotiations and continuing to have those conversations being led primarily by Ambassador Lighthizer and working with the President.
I’ll take one last questions before the President’s event. Jonathan.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The President frequently speaks about the need to improve the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Can you explain his opposition to the Gateway Project, which is to put a rail tunnel between New Jersey and his home state of New York, but has the support of many Republicans, and also, according to one study, is key to 20 percent of the nation’s gross national product?
MS. SANDERS: The President specifically wants to address infrastructure on a broader scale, not put all our emphasis into one project. We certainly want to see the infrastructure across this country rebuilt, which is why we put forward priorities when it comes to that in a plan moving forward. And we look forward to working with Congress to make some real progress on that in the coming days.
Thanks so much. And the President has got an event here in just a few minutes. Thanks, guys.
2:10 P.M. EDT