James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:39 P.M. EDT
SANDERS: Good afternoon. Welcome back. Today, the President and First Lady welcome President Emmanuel Macron and Mrs. Macron to the White House, beginning the first state visit for the Trump administration. This visit will celebrate the long and enduring friendship between France and the U.S. Discussions will include economic, diplomatic, and global issues.
The First Lady has taken an active role in every detail and planning of the visit, including the state dinner, which will be held tomorrow evening. And we’re looking forward to a very successful state visit.
As you all saw, we now have three Democrat senators who have announced they will vote to confirm Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s highly qualified nominee for Secretary of State. However, a majority of Democrats continue their pointless obstruction to score cheap political points with their base as a willful attempt to undermine American diplomacy.
Regardless, the President is looking forward to Mike Pompeo’s confirmation so he can continue doing an incredible job on behalf of the American people.
I also want to commend the heroic actions of James Shaw Jr. early Sunday morning at a Waffle House in Tennessee. Mr. Shaw saved lives when he wrestled a gun from an active shooter who had opened fire. The President offers his condolences to the victims and their families. He is monitoring the ongoing situation and the White House is in regular contact with state and local officials.
Finally, I want to congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their third child, a baby boy. And from one mother to another, I know the reality of being outnumbered can be very scary, but I know she and Prince William will continue to be amazing parents. So congratulations to them.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Jonathan.
Q Sarah, on North Korea: Is the President willing to accept anything short of complete denuclearization before lifting any sanctions?
SANDERS: Certainly the goal is denuclearization of the Peninsula, and we’re going to continue the maximum pressure campaign that has been ongoing to North Korea until we see concrete actions taken towards complete and total denuclearization.
Q But does that mean no sanctions lifted until that’s achieved? Are you willing to go incrementally?
SANDERS: Certainly no sanctions lifted until we see concrete actions taken by North Korea to denuclearize
Q When the President said in his tweet that they had agreed to denuclearize, where did they do that? Have they already agreed to do that?
SANDERS: Certainly in a number of the conversations, including the comments, I’d refer you back to also South Korean President Moon, who has said that North Korea has expressed a will for complete denuclearization. And certainly that’s the focus of any conversation and negotiation that the United States will have with North Korea.
Q Sarah, to what extent will the Iran nuclear deal come up in the conversation between the President and President Macron? And what does President Trump want to hear from Macron on this thing?
SANDERS: Look, I’m not going to get ahead of any conversations that we expect to take place over the next couple of days. As you know, they just landed a few minutes ago, and haven’t even arrived here at the White House. I’m not going to presume what those conversations will look like. We certainly expect that that will be part of the conversation, and we’ll keep you posted if we have any specific details to put out about that.
Q And is the President still leaning towards decertifying the deal when it comes up again on May 12th?
SANDERS: I don’t have any announcements on that front, but the President has been extremely clear that he thinks it’s a bad deal. That certainly has not changed.
Q Wanted to ask you a question, sort of following up on what you were asked this morning about Michael Cohen. It was noticed by some that you didn’t close the door one way or the other on the President pardoning Michael Cohen. What is your read on that right now?
SANDERS: It’s hard to close a door on something that hasn’t taken place. I don’t like to discuss or comment on hypothetical situations that may or may not ever happen. I would refer you to personal attorneys to comment on anything specific regarding that case, but we don’t have anything at this point.
Q And can I just ask you about a tweet that the President put out last week? He tweeted a lot over the weekend. But last week, he said — he was talking about sanctuary cities in California and saying, “There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.”
We haven’t had a chance to ask you about that tweet. When he used the word “breeding,” was he making a derogatory term about Latinos in California — that they breed a lot or that they’re prone to breeding? Was he talking about —
SANDERS: No, he’s talking about the problem itself growing and getting bigger.
Q What does that mean though?
SANDERS: Sorry, I’ve answered a couple.
Justin, go ahead.
Q I also wanted to follow up on a couple of the President’s tweets. The first was earlier this morning. I’m wondering if you could explain the President’s tweet that he had ordered DHS not to allow large caravans of individuals into the country. So if you can say both what specifically he ordered DHS to do, and what that would mean for individuals claiming refugee status within the United States.
SANDERS: Look, the President continues to monitor the ongoing situation. A sovereign nation that cannot defend its borders will no longer be a sovereign nation. The Trump administration is committed to enforcing our immigration laws, whether people are part of the caravan or not. If you enter the United States illegally, let me be clear — you’ve broken the law, and we will enforce the law through prosecution of illegal borders.
While we are committed to doing everything we can on the border to secure our nation, we need Congress to do their job as well, and to pass legislation to close the legal loopholes and prevent us from securing our borders and protecting Americans.
Q And then in the other tweet that the President did over the weekend, he said that he didn’t see Michael Cohen flipping to get out of trouble with the government. I guess that prompts two questions. The first is, what the President believes his personal attorney might have done to get him in trouble with the government. And secondly, what the President has done that he is worried Michael Cohen could flip about.
SANDERS: The President has been clear that he hasn’t done anything wrong. I think we’ve stated that about a thousand times. Beyond that, I don’t have anything to add beyond the President’s tweet.
Q Thanks, Sarah. There have been a number of documented cases in the press recently of EPA Administrator Pruitt at least appearing to be dishonest about requesting raises for aides, about his relationship with a lobbyist who had business before the EPA (inaudible). Is the White House concerned at all about this pattern? And is there concern about him testifying before Congress on Thursday, as scheduled, where these issues are probably going to come up?
SANDERS: We’re continuing to review a number of the reports that you mentioned, and we’ll let you know if we have any changes on that front.
Q Sarah, President Macron is hoping that a proposed side deal between the U.S. and European powers could strengthen the Iran deal enough that President Trump would feel comfortable staying in it. So is that sort of a fool’s errand? And the President has said it’s a bad deal. Does he believe there’s anything that could be done to fix it in a way he’d be comfortable with?
SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of any potential conversations that are going to take place over the next couple of days. But as the administration has policy announcements, we’ll be sure to share them with you.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Just to go back to Jonathan’s question about North Korea, the President tweeted pretty flatly, “…they have agreed to denuclearization.” And then, you’re saying that they just agreed to talk about it. What is the President’s definition of complete denuclearization?
SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to negotiate with you guys. I’m going to leave that to the President and Kim Jong-un to walk through what some of those details would look like when that meeting takes place. But I can be very clear that we expect it not to just be mentioned in words, but there have to be concrete actions that take place towards total denuclearization of the Peninsula.
Q Does that mean removing all nukes — our nukes and theirs?
SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get into the negotiations of what will take place and what the agreement will look like. But there have to be concrete actions that stop the denuclearization of the Peninsula.
Q Sarah, President Macron appears to have a very robust agenda coming to Washington. He wants to change the President’s mind on a lot of different things — on the Iran nuclear deal, on keeping U.S. troops in Syria, on tariffs, and maybe even on the Paris Climate Accord. Does he have an open mind? Is it possible that he will change his mind after President Macron gets through with him?
SANDERS: I think that I feel very confident that we have the best negotiator at the table. Look, you have two leaders that have an incredibly good —
Q So there’s a great negotiator and not-such-a-great negotiator.
SANDERS: Hold on, let me finish. Let me finish. That’s not what I said. I said that we have a great negotiator at the table. I certainly was not commenting on President Macron’s abilities; simply stating the obvious, that we have an incredibly good negotiator at the table for the United States.
But what you do have are two leaders who have a great deal of respect for one another, who have a great friendship. Certainly, both have a great deal of interest in doing what is best for their country, but being able to have very open and candid conversations because of the relationship not only that the leaders have built, but that has existed between the two countries long before either of these individuals arrived on the scene. And we’re going to continue that relationship. But I think we can expect this to be a very productive and very positive state visit for both countries.
Q Positive for France?
SANDERS: I said for both countries.
Q Could the the President change his mind on some of these things?
SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of conversations that are going to take place. But as we have any policy announcements, I’m sure you guys will be the first to know.
Q His mind is open?
SANDERS: Again, the President wants to make good deals for this country. And if he feels like he can make a good deal that benefits this country, he certainly is going to engage in those conversations.
Q Sarah, why should North Korea believe that the U.S. is an honest broker, when the President has said publicly that he would like to get out of the deal the U.S. and others made with Iran?
SANDERS: Look, the President has been clear from day one that he thinks that’s a bad deal. I don’t think any deal that he would sign and agree to he would consider a bad deal. The President wants to do what is in the best interest —
Q So he would never backtrack on this deal?
SANDERS: The President wants to do what is in the best interest of our country and even in the world. And particularly having North Korea and the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, I think, is a good thing for everybody, and I think even you would be hard-pressed to find something different.
Q Sarah, beyond what you said about —
SANDERS: Sorry, Peter, I’ve got tight time and I’m going to keep moving.
Q Yeah, Sarah, I just want to follow up on that about North Korea. I’m wondering, what gives you any optimism that the North Koreans are really looking to denuclearize? Because of the statements that they’re making, everybody seems to be jumping on the very positive aspects of the statements. But they were also saying over the weekend that their completion of the nuclear arsenal, which they call their “powerful treasured sword,” firmly guarantees forever the country’s security and well-being. That doesn’t sound like any wiggle room on denuclearization.
SANDERS: Certainly, we’re not going to make mistakes from previous administrations, and we’re not going to take the North Koreans simply at their word. Like I said before and we’ve said many times before, the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue until we see concrete actions taken by — look, we’re not naïve in this process. We’ve seen some steps in the right direction. But we have a long way to go.
We also have seen a major change in what has taken place in the past by having our allies and partners in the region step up and do much more than they have in the past. China has taken a more active role in putting pressure on North Korea. They can certainly do more — we hope they will — and will continue working with us. And that’s all at the direction and because of the relationship that the President has built with President Xi of China.
Q I have two quick questions. The first one is, that the New York Times and others reported that federal prosecutors have recommended charges against the New York police officer involved in Eric Garner’s death. But the Justice Department has expressed some strong reservations. Where do things stand with the case of Eric Garner, and when does the Justice Department — when are they going to make a decision about the police officer and whether or not they’re going to charge him?
SANDERS: I don’t have an administration update on that front, but would refer you to the Department of Justice to get further details. And I’ll work on getting an update for you and let you know.
Q And the second question I have is the President tweeted —
Q Can you let all of us know?
SANDERS: Sure. Usually when we let one, it’s kind of a — it’s not exactly a secret. But, yeah, I’d be happy to share that with everybody.
Q The second question is the President tweeted, “James Comey illegally classified documents to press in order — leaked documents to press [in order] to generate a Special Council? Therefore, the Special Council was established based on an illegal act? Really, does everyone know what that means?” What does the President think that means? And is he indicating that the Special Counsel should be fired because of the way that it was begun?
SANDERS: As we’ve said many times before, we have no intention of firing the Special Counsel. We’ve been beyond cooperative with them. We’re continuing to cooperate with them. Turned over nearly — over a million pages and documents to the Special Counsel and have been cooperative.
Q So what does it mean?
SANDERS: Exactly what the President has been saying all along —
Q Yeah, but the question that he posed?
SANDERS: — that this was a false premise that this entire thing started on. We continue to repeat that we think that the idea that the Trump campaign was involved in any collusion with Russia is a total witch hunt. Our position on that has been very clear since the beginning of this process, and the President is echoing exactly what that position is.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Over the weekend, a fourth House Republican called for the EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to step down. He said he’s the wrong fit for the EPA. What’s your reaction to that?
SANDERS: Again, we’re reviewing some of those allegations. However, Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the President’s policies, particularly on deregulation; making the United States less energy-dependent and becoming more energy independent. Those are good things. However, the other things certainly are something that we’re monitoring and looking at and I’ll keep you posted.
Q Last week, Andrew Wheeler was confirmed by the Senate. He is Scott Pruitt’s deputy at the EPA. Couldn’t he easily implement all of the President’s agenda if Scott Pruitt stepped aside? He wouldn’t have a dark cloud hanging over the agency. What’s your view on that idea?
SANDERS: We’re very excited that the Democrats have finally allowed another one of our nominees to go through. We hope that they’ll allow some of the other several hundred that sit waiting to be confirmed — very highly qualified individuals — we hope that they’ll continue to follow in the footsteps of that, and get a lot more people within this administration working.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On the Iran nuclear deal, President Macron said don’t leave if there’s not a better option, and then the Iranian Foreign Minister tweeted today, “President Macron is correct in saying there’s no ‘Plan B’… It’s either all or nothing.” So my question to you is, does the White House believe that there is actually a realistic “Plan B” out there?
SANDERS: We certainly think that there should be a better deal, one that actually is positive, that works. And we don’t really typically look to the leadership in Iran to determine what our foreign policy is.
Q And then later today, on Mike Pompeo —
SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to keep moving just because we’re running out of time.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You may not be willing to be specific about the matters that President Trump and President Macron will negotiate on, but the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was very specific at the World Bank and IMF spring meeting. He said on Friday, the French will insist on, and I quote, “a full and permanent exemption,” of any trade tariffs the United States might want to impose on France.
He went on to say that if they are going to be a partner in dealing with China and other countries, they cannot have, what he called, a “sword of Damocles” hanging over them. That’s pretty strong language. Is trade and a permanent exemption —
SANDERS: We can at least agree on that. (Laughter.)
Q Is it on the table as Minister Le Maire wishes?
SANDERS: Again, we certainly expect this to come up in conversations over the next two days. When we have any policy announcements, we will absolutely let you know.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two quick ones. One on Syria: Is it fair to say the President agrees with the French President that a precipitous or too-quick removal of America’s presence from Syria would be a danger or damaging to the Syrian people? And if there is agreement there, is there a possibility that the two will come to some sort of a formal announcement during his time here?
And a follow on Mike Pompeo: What would be the number one issue that the President would like him to tackle assuming that, as expected, he is approved today?
SANDERS: First, I’ll talk about the Syria question. Again, certainly something that will come up. The President is committed to defeating ISIS. That is our primary goal and function and of being there. We want to see that happen. The President also wants to see the partners in the region step up and do more, both militarily and financially. And that’s going to be something that I can imagine will be raised, and we’ll keep you posted on that front.
When it comes to Director Pompeo, it is absolutely outrageous that he would not move through quickly. He is extremely qualified for the positon. The Washington Post, a number of other outlets that certainly aren’t typically the biggest advocates of this President, have said confirm him already.
I think you have to look back at history, specifically to Secretary of State confirmations and bipartisan votes. John Kerry was confirmed 94-3. Hillary Clinton was confirmed 94-2. Condoleezza Rice was confirmed 85-13. Colin Powell was confirmed unanimously by voice vote.
I think that if you even look at some of the questioning that has been brought up by the Senate, no one doubts Pompeo’s qualifications and his ability to do the job. So I think that not only is the White House but all of America should be calling on the Senate to actually do their job, do what they are required and expected to do. And that is to help government function and to help on the safety and the security of our country.
This is an incredibly important positon. And that plays a big role in that and they should certainly support Mike Pompeo and get that done, and get that done today. And I think, frankly, for particular members of Congress, that it’s very hard for them to justify voting in favor of someone like John Kerry and not following suit and voting in favor of Mike Pompeo.
Q Just on Pompeo, does the President consider Republicans who oppose Pompeo’s nomination to be obstructionist? And separately, what does it say to the rest of the world if Pompeo can’t get a favorable recommendation out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
SANDERS: Certainly don’t think that those members are being helpful. And I think what it says to the world is what we’ve been saying for a long time, is the Senate has got some real problems and they need to figure out how to actually show up and do their job a little bit better.
Q A couple of — one on NAFTA and Iran. On NAFTA, has the administration decided whether to bring — renegotiate the deal back to Congress? Is there a chance that those changes won’t need congressional approval? And just about Iran, that deal has been being looked at by a team that was appointed by —
SANDERS: Let me address NAFTA first. On NAFTA, those conversations and negotiations are ongoing. I don’t have any updates for you on that front beyond what we’ve already said.
Q The President’s Iran team was mostly put in place by McMaster and Tillerson. Does the President still have confidence in that team? Has he been briefed on their developments lately? And does he and John Bolton support where they’re at right now?
SANDERS: Absolutely. The President has got a great deal of confidence in a number of members across the board that remain part of his team — his national security team. Great group of people. And the President has been working very closely with them. And most of those individuals have been on and part of the administration for some time.
Q Sarah, a couple questions. Two questions. Going back to the issue of Eric Garner: A couple weeks ago, when I asked you about Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, and the issue of Eric Garner, you said it was a local issue. Does this White House give the directive now to the Justice Department that it’s a local matter and that’s why it kind of been held up? Is that what’s going on now with this Eric Garner case?
SANDERS: I can’t speak to anything specific in an ongoing process that is taking place with the Department of Justice, but we haven’t given specific instruction to them other than to follow the law. And when it is a local issue, there is not a lot we can do. But when the Department of Justice has a role to play, we want them to be independent and follow the law on that front.
Q And last thing, I want to follow up on Jim. What you said — “breeding.” The President was very clear at his statement about this issue. He said, in a tweet, “There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.” What did he mean by “breeding”?
SANDERS: Again, the President has recognized that this is a major problem, and a lot of people, even in California, want to see the issue of sanctuary cities addressed. And the President is doing what he can to do that.
Q But what does “breeding” mean? What does “breeding” mean to this President? Because when you think of breeding, you think of animals breeding — populating.
SANDERS: I’m not going to begin to think what you think —
Q But can you tell us what the President thought?
SANDERS: Certainly, I think that it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But the President is talking about a growing problem. And I addressed that with Jim, and I don’t have anything else to add.
Q Thank you. I wanted to ask you about Afghanistan. There have been quite a number of attacks in Afghanistan the last few days. This is the first fighting season after President announced his official policy. How do you see the situation in Afghanistan now?
SANDERS: I’m sorry, what was the last part of your question?
Q How do you see the situation in Afghanistan now?
SANDERS: We’re continuing to move forward with the strategy that was announced, and I don’t have any other policy announcements at this time.
I’ll take one last question. Brian.
Q Thank you very much. Two quick questions. One, just to define what the President meant about “breeding.” To be specific, he’s not talking about people having babies, yes?
Q He’s not?
SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. I’d have to ask him to dig into that deeper.
Q But how do you know he’s not talking about that?
SANDERS: I just said, “Not that I’m aware of.” And I would have to ask him to be more specific.
Q Okay. And in regards to the Mueller investigation —
SANDERS: Guys, I’m sorry. I’m trying to hear Brian.
Q In regards to the Mueller investigation, I understand this administration says that there’s no collusion. So if we take the President at his word, he can’t be aware of everything that went on underneath him by everyone who works for him. So if there’s someone who worked for him underneath him that is guilty or is prosecuted by the Mueller team, would he not support those who did wrong, even if he was unaware of it?
SANDERS: Certainly, we want everyone to follow the law. But I’m not going to comment on a — once again, a hypothetical situation. The President has been clear he and his campaign were not involved in collusion. If he had, I’m pretty sure —
Q I’m not asking about that.
SANDERS: Okay. You guys would have found that out.
Q I’m asking about those who work beneath him.
SANDERS: And I’m addressing that. Brian —
Q But he would support — right, he would support the prosecution of —
SANDERS: The President would absolutely support the law and individuals following the law. What the President doesn’t support is a year wasted distracting the world and the country from the great things that are happening in this country, from talking about issues that Americans actually care about. That’s what the President would probably tell you to stay focused on.
And with that, thanks, guys. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:03 P.M. EDT