James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:47 P.M. EDT
SANDERS: Good afternoon. As you all saw, the President led a Cabinet meeting this morning, with the opioid crisis being a major part of the agenda.
In recent weeks, we have continued combatting this issue on all fronts. And by making the opioid crisis the primary focus of today’s Cabinet meeting, the President is once again showing that it’s one of his top priorities.
There’s a long road ahead and much work to be done. But we will not rest until our streets are safe, our families are secure, and the victims of this terrible epidemic are able to live a life free of addiction.
As the President noted yesterday, and again today during the Cabinet meeting, the chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime against innocent civilians is horrifying. The images, especially of suffering children, have shocked the conscience of the entire civilized world.
Sadly, these actions are consistent with Assad’s established pattern of chemical weapons use. His forces are already responsible for previous chemical weapons attacks and other actions targeting civilians.
The President has noted that Russia and Iran also bear responsibility for these acts, since they would not be possible without their material support. It is also now clear that Russia has betrayed its obligations to guarantee the end of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program.
The President and his national security team are consulting closely with allies and partners to determine the appropriate response. As President Trump clearly stated, there will be a price to pay.
We call on all members of the international community to share any information related to this attack and to hold the perpetrators and their sponsors accountable.
And we call upon the Syrian regime and Russia to open the area to international medical assistance and international monitoring.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q The President was pretty definitive today in saying that this was an attack with banned chemical weapons. Yet, there hasn’t been any concrete proof of that. Russia insists that there is no evidence of chemical weapons. What makes the President so sure that he is willing to make such a declarative statement?
SANDERS: The President is confident. He’s been briefed by his national security team and being kept up to date constantly and regularly on the intelligence around that. And I can’t get any further beyond that at this point.
Q Do we have any proof at this point that it was, in fact, a chemical weapons attack?
SANDERS: Once again, I can’t get anything beyond the comments that we’ve already made, but we’re very confident in those comments.
Q Sarah, just a couple weeks ago, the President was talking about wanting to leave Syria very quickly. Now you’re saying that there is a price that has to be paid. Does the President believe that there are some things that are so atrocious — which is the phrase he used this morning — that the United States is, in fact, the world’s policeman and it demands response and demands the presence of the United States government in the region?
SANDERS: Look, the President wants to bring our troops home after we complete the mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria. At the same time, he wants to make sure Assad is deterred from chemical weapons attacks on innocent civilians. Signaling we want to remove our troops in no way degrades our ability to hold parties responsible.
Q Has the President been briefed that his comments about wanting to leave Syria could have played a part — emboldened Assad and played a part in these attacks?
SANDERS: The only individuals that played a part don’t reside in this country. And I think we’ve made very clear who we think is responsible for these attacks. And to try to conflate that and make this — on any part, blame this President is absolutely ridiculous.
Q Well, the President has criticized others for signaling military plans. It seems to be what he’s doing here. Does he regret those comments that he made last week?
SANDERS: The President has been clear that he wants to make sure that we have the defeat of ISIS. We’ve also been clear in our actions, as you have seen after previous chemical attacks, what this President has done. And I think we’ve been very upfront on that.
Q Thanks, Sarah. First, the news out of Syria this morning about apparent strikes carried out overnight. Does the United States believe that Israel was behind those strikes, as a number of reports claimed? And was the United States given a heads up by the Israeli government?
SANDERS: I can only speak on behalf of this government. For questions on that, I would refer you outside.
I can tell you, at this time, the United States is not conducting airstrikes in Syria, but I can’t go beyond that at this point in time.
Q So from the White House perspective, did the White House get a heads up from any foreign government about conducting strikes in Syria?
SANDERS: Again, I can’t go any further than commenting on behalf of our government. And I can tell you that, currently, at this time, the United States is not conducting airstrikes in Syria.
Q And back on the deterrence for a second. For a moment, you said the President wants to ensure that there’s — the Assad regime can’t conduct attacks like this in the future. Last year, when the President launched those cruise missiles, he had said that there was a deterrent, obviously.
What has changed between, sort of, months ago, when the Assad regime wasn’t using chemical weapons, and then this strike now? It seemed to be — the timing coming so soon after the President making that determination on wanting to pull U.S. troops out of Syria that there was — you can see why we’re drawing the timing there. So why, in the President’s estimation, did his deterrence — did his attempt to establish a deterrent effect on the Assad regime now failing?
SANDERS: Once again, the President has made clear that, with the defeat of ISIS, he wanted to be able to bring our troops home. But at the same time, he wants to make sure that Assad is deterred from chemical weapons attacks on innocent civilians, and we think you can have separation.
Q But, Sarah, didn’t the President, by saying that he wants to get out of Syria, essentially give a green light to Assad to do this, as John McCain had suggested? That the United States was leaving — was, kind of, pulling up and leaving it to the Syrians —
SANDERS: Look, we’re still there. And I think that it is outrageous to say that the President of the United States greenlit something as atrocious as the actions that have taken place over the last several days. The President, once again, made very clear how he feels about those types of actions when this took place roughly a year ago, and we’re going to continue looking at all of our options on the table currently.
Q Well, John McCain said that that emboldened Assad; that this was sending a message to Assad. Is that still his position? Does he still want to leave Syria?
SANDERS: I think the message that we sent to Assad was very clear, both in the President’s words over the weekend and in our actions that we’ve taken in the past.
Q Has the President’s attitude toward Vladimir Putin changed because of what’s happened?
SANDERS: The President has always been tough on Russia, as he said last week, as I echoed again when asked about it. This administration and this President have been tougher on Russia than previous administrations. I think you can see that both through the actions that we’ve taken and in the comments over the last several days.
Q But he singled out Vladimir Putin in the tweet yesterday. Does he feel that he can still, sort of, find some common ground and work with him on various things?
SANDERS: The President still feels that if we can have a good relationship with Russia at some point, that that’s a good thing for the world. But at the same time, this President is going to be tough on Russia until we see some changes in their behavior just as we’ve done every day over the last year and as we’ve outline multiple times before, both from the President and as I’ve done from this podium on many occasions.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions on the foreign policy front. Given the situation in Syria, and your statement today, could the President be in the process of forming an alliance with President Macron in France and Prime Minister May in Britain, not unlike that envisioned by the previous administration with France and Britain, when the first reports of chemical weapons came out?
SANDERS: Certainly, we have great relationship with both countries and are continuing conversations with both the UK as well as France, and hope to work with all of our allies and partners in a response.
Q And the —
SANDERS: Sorry, second question.
Q — other thing is, Prime Minister Orbán, an admirer of the President who has said many kind things about him, won a landslide reelection. Will the President call him? And are there any plans to extend an invitation for a state visit or a working visit to Prime Minister Orbán?
SANDERS: I’m not aware of a scheduled call at this time, but if there is one, we’ll keep you posted and likely have a readout to follow.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Today is the first day on the job for John Bolton as the National Security Advisor. Perhaps you can bring him out here one time and he can take our questions.
Q Here, here.
SANDERS: I’ll be happy to tag him in at some point.
Q Please do. (Laughter.) I wanted to ask you about some comments that he made about Syria back in 2013 on “Fox and Friends.” He said, “I think if I were a member of Congress, I would vote against an authorization to use force [in Syria].” He continued, “I don’t think it is in America’s interest. I don’t think we should, in effect, take sides in the Syrian conflict.” Is that a point of view that Ambassador Bolton is bringing to the table now as National Security Advisor?
SANDERS: The point of view that matters most here at the White House, as you well know, is the President’s. And as Ambassador Bolton himself has said, he is certainly here to serve as an advisor, but ultimately the decisions being made are the President’s. And the comments that he’s made previously are personal and he’s here to carry out the President’s agenda.
Q Scott Pruitt, the EPA Administrator, often flew first -class, had a 50-dollar-a-night rental on Capitol Hill, and tripled the size of his security detail. Can you explain what the President meant when he said, “Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK,” security spending somewhat more but it was okay. Why did he say that?
SANDERS: He was referencing a report done by the EPA, which we are continuing to review. But in that, it cites that the apartment was at market value and goes into other details, and that was what the President was reflecting.
Q Fifty-dollar-a-night on Capitol Hill, with a lobbyist, that was of market value, according to the EPA?
SANDERS: Yes — according to the Office of Government Ethics.
Q And with travel spending okay, is the President okay with Cabinet Secretaries taking first-class travel and tripling the size of their security detail? Is that okay?
SANDERS: Again, we are reviewing the specifics of each of those components. I know there was a much larger number of security issues surrounding the EPA Administrator than in the past. But for specific questions beyond that, I’d refer you back to the EPA.
Q Were those security issues or were those included in police reports? Because there’s been a reporting that across the country no one found the death threats or police reports that jeopardized his life or safety. What are you talking about when you talk about threats?
SANDERS: I can’t comment about police reports, but I do know that there have been a number of questions raised. And again, we’re continuing to review that. Until that’s complete, I’d refer you back to the EPA beyond that.
Q Sarah, two questions on Syria. With all that’s happened with Russia, with the sanctions last week and now these strong words associating Russia with the Syrian attack, is there an expectation or feeling that relations — diplomatic relations with Russia — with this administration, with our country with Russia — are eroding?
SANDERS: We’ve been very tough on Russia for quite some time. I think the only people maybe that didn’t understand that or see that were members of the press who continually questioned that. Now, I guess, people are concerned that we’re being tough on Russia. I guess I’m confused on which way you want to have it. The President would like to have a good relationship, but that’s going to be determined by the actions that Russia takes, and we’re going to continue pushing forward.
Q And second question. The items on the table, beyond strikes, is there a thought or on-the-table regime change with Assad? And also, where does diplomacy play in this, even with the strikes and all of this that you’re saying is on the table?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of any potential options that the President may or may not take, but I can tell you that we’re reviewing a wide range and a number of different options.
Q Thanks, Sarah. At the Cabinet meeting this morning, the President was talking about the potential impact of Chinese tariffs on American farmers, and he said the farmers are patriots for being willing to take a hit. And then he said, “We’ll make it up to them.” What did he mean?
SANDERS: The President has worked with his team to determine how best to respond to China’s attack on American farmers, and he has asked the Department of Agriculture to protect our farmers, and will present a plan on the specifics of that shortly.
Q Would he consider extra crop insurance subsidies that are often put in the farm bill for market fluctuations?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of potential options, but the President has asked the Department of Agriculture to come back with some specifics that we’ll announce to you guys shortly.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I’ve got two for you. First, on Syria. You talked about the idea of a possible military option being a deterrent. Last year, we heard something very similar from the President, who called that chemical attack last year an “affront to humanity.” He said it “cannot be tolerated.” Is the White House worried that Assad is now making a mockery of President Trump’s threats?
SANDERS: Not at all. What our concern is about is the fact that the Assad regime has taken an outrageous action against innocent civilians. Our focus is on responding to that, and that’s what we’re looking at.
Q And then I wanted to follow up on something from last week, just because we didn’t get a chance to, and specifically your comments on citing the LA Times article when asked, I think by Jon here, about the President’s rape remarks at that event last week that didn’t actually back up the President’s claims.
You actually, last fall, admonished reporters to make sure that we hold ourselves to a high standard of accuracy. Does the President also need to be held to that same standard of accuracy?
SANDERS: Absolutely. And as I said that day, it has been well documented that a number of those individuals — going back even to 2014, where there were multiple articles and studies put out that said 80 percent of the women that go through that process and try to enter the country are raped through that process. Something, certainly, that I think should be concerning to all of us, and certainly something that the President has voiced concern about.
Q And what about the voter fraud claim that the President made last week as well, also not backed up by evidence?
SANDERS: I’m sorry, can you be specific?
Q Yeah. The President talked about those claims of voter fraud again. It’s something he’s repeatedly brought up. It’s just getting the idea of when words matter, particularly in moments of a lot of international pressure, like this moment right now, what his standard of accuracy is when he’s speaking to the American public.
SANDERS: Certainly, the President still strongly feels that there was a large amount of voter fraud, and attempted to do a thorough review of it. But a lot of the states didn’t want to cooperate and participate. We certainly know that there were a large number of incidences reported, but we can’t be sure exactly how much because we weren’t able to conduct the full review that the President wanted because a number of states did not want to cooperate and refused to participate.
Q Two questions regarding Scott Pruitt. How long is the review going to take that the White House is conducting?
SANDERS: I’m not going to lay out an arbitrary timeline, but it’s something that we’re looking into and continuing to take under consideration.
Q Will it be quick or years?
SANDERS: I mean, obviously, we want to get through this process as quickly as we can, but I’m not going to just make up a timeframe here today.
Q Okay. And did Chief of Staff John Kelly recommend that Pruitt be fired?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get into any private conversations.
Blake, welcome back.
Q Thank you.
Q Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it. I want to ask you about Mark Zuckerberg — headed to the Hill to testify. This administration has often talked about deregulation and the deregulatory effort that the President and this administration has undergone. But there’s a question of whether or not Facebook should be regulated. Does the White House have a stance on whether or not Facebook should be regulated? And if so, what is that position?
SANDERS: I don’t have a specific policy announcement on that front, but I think we’re all looking forward to that testimony today.
Q What does the President make of Mark Zuckerberg? Does he have an opinion of him? Larry Kudlow was fairly critical of him, both on Fox News Sunday, yesterday, and when I asked him about Zuckerberg this morning. Does the President have any sort of opinion on Mark Zuckerberg?
SANDERS: You know, I haven’t asked him directly. I’d have to check and get back to you.
I’ll take one last question. Jim.
Q Is there anything that the Syrians can do at this point to prevent military action from being taken?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of what actions we may or may not take, so I can’t really answer that question, but we’ll keep you posted when we have something on that front.
Q And if I could follow up, just because, you know, you’ve been saying this over the last couple of weeks, that nobody has been tougher on Russia and Vladimir Putin than this President. Isn’t there some hyperbole in that, when you say that? I mean, obviously, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall”; John Kennedy put up a blockade around Cuba; Carter boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Obviously, there have been Presidents over the course of the last several decades who have been tougher on this President. Also given the fact that this President, up until just recently wasn’t really willing to criticize Vladimir Putin by name. We all saw that over the weekend, and took that as a new development.
SANDERS: Yeah, you cite, like, one example for each of those individuals. Let me list off just a few of the actions that the President has taken that previous administrations haven’t:
The Treasury Department issued new sanctions on numerous individuals and entities in Russia. The President has continued other sanctions on Russia’s malicious cyber activity in response to election hacking. He has expelled 60 Russian operatives from the United States and closed two consulates. The President has issued four statements condemning Russia’s poisoning of UK citizens on UK soil. He’s authorized the sale of lethal aid to Ukraine. He’s authorized military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, and has repeatedly called out Russia’s actions on that front. We’ve also exported energy to our allies in Eastern Europe.
Look, I think that you named off one or two things. It is without dispute that this administration and this President has done a number of things to be tough on Russia, and —
Q So if the President says that Vladimir Putin may pay a price for what’s happening in Syria right now — after all, the Russians were supposed to be responsible for helping the Syrians remove the chemical weapons from Syria. When the President says that they may “pay a price,” we should take that to the bank?
SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead, once again, of any actions that the United States may or may not take, but I think the President has been clear about what his intention is.
Thanks so much, guys. Have a great day.
3:06 P.M. EDT