James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:08 P.M. EST
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Let me start by introducing Francis Cissna, the Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. He’s here to provide a briefing on the attempted suicide bombing in New York and how it was enabled by flaws in our immigration system.
After he speaks and takes some of your questions, I’ll be back up to answer questions on other news. And, as always, if you can stay focused on the topic at hand, that would be great. Thanks so much.
MR. CISSNA: Hello. I’m here to talk to you about yesterday’s incident and kind of give you some of the context and perspective in the immigration system — how it works, or how it didn’t work, in this case — and what are the sorts of things our administration is proposing to change it to make it better.
So, as you all know, yesterday, the suspect, Akayed Ullah, was arrested in an attempted bombing in New York City. And there’s an immigration aspect to this. The immigration aspect is that he immigrated to this county; he was a green card holder, a lawful permanent resident. He came to this country based on family connection to a U.S. citizen. He was a national of Bangladesh. The U.S. citizen in question was his uncle, and that U.S. citizen, many years ago, came to this country originally as a visa lottery winner.
So this is the general background. I now want to try to explain what all that means, where those terms come from, and what the significance of all that is.
First, I would explain that, for those who aren’t aware, our immigration system has two principal components. There’s a family-based component through which the suspect in yesterday’s attack — alleged bombing incident — came through. And there’s an employment-based component.
In any given year, we have about 1 million immigrants. One million people come here to get green cards, immigrant visas. In fiscal year ’15, for example, of that 1 million, about 72 percent of our immigrants came based on a family connection, and only 6 percent — or about 1 out of 15 — came based on an employment or job connection, job offer. So you can see the immigration system is heavily weighted towards family migration.
There are other categories of people that immigrate as well, besides just family and employment-based, including refugees, asylees, and, of course, the visa lottery people that I just referenced. But those are very small compared to those two larger categories.
I want to talk now about these in particular — the family-based, the employment-based, and then the visa lottery. In the family-based migration category, there are multiple categories of people. The principal category — family-based immigrants — are called “immediate relatives.” These are people who are the spouses or children, nuclear family members, of U.S. citizens. In a given year, you have about half a million people in that category. In fact, I have better numbers than that. In fiscal year ’16, in that category — these are people who are the nuclear family members of U.S. citizens — there were about 566,000 people that immigrated.
An additional category in the family-based universe are what are called “preference” categories. These are more extended family connections. These include unmarried — the first category — unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; second category — spouses of green card holders, unmarried sons and daughters of green card holders; third category — married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; fourth category is brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens and their children. That’s the category that yesterday’s suspect came in under.
So the suspect in yesterday’s bombing came in under the most extreme, remote possible family-based connection that you could have under current U.S. immigration law — that being the child of the sibling of a U.S. citizen.
Under the employment-based categories — that’s a much smaller number — only 140,000 slots are allocated in a year to that category, but you’re only really getting about half that number of actual workers because the spouses and children don’t count towards that category.
There you have a number of categories, including categories for extraordinary ability of workers. You have people with advanced degrees. You have people who are skilled professionals and immigrant investors. There’s multiple categories, but a much smaller number than the family-based categories. And again, I remind you, only 1 out of 15 of our immigrants come in under those skilled categories.
Let me turn now to the diversity visa, which is the other visa program that is relevant to yesterday’s events. The diversity visa, or visa lottery as it’s called colloquially, is a program that was established back in 1990. There were some precursor programs before that, but, basically, the program as we know it was established in 1990. That’s seen 50,000 people a year based on an immigration lottery.
The qualifications for registering for the lottery are that you have to be from a country that had low immigration in the previous five years, and the person who’s applying for the lottery has to either have a high school degree or, if they have no education, at least two years of experience in a job that requires two years of training. So the criteria are very low.
The problems with the visa lottery are various. First, because the criteria are so low, either you have no education at all and very little skills, or you have a minimum of education and no skills at all. And because it’s a lottery, pretty much anybody on the planet who is from a qualifying country can take advantage of this.
In 2003, the State Department’s Inspector General Office observed that this low eligibility criteria could lead to exploitation by terrorists. They warned about this in 2003. The GAO, in 2007, echoed that warning — again, warning that terrorists could take advantage of the diversity visa program.
Also, the program is racked with fraud. In 2003, the State Department IG, 15 years ago, noted that the program was rife with pervasive fraud. The fraud, the low eligibility standards, all these contribute to its potential exploitation by terrorists and other mala fide actors.
Bangladesh is an interesting case. That’s the country where yesterday’s suspect came from. That country was a high user of the visa lottery program. In fact, in 2007 — which was the peak year for that country’s use of the visa lottery — 27 percent of the immigrants from that country came through that program, through the visa lottery program.
Uzbekistan, which was the country of origin of the alleged — the truck driver from October 31st in New York City — in 2010, 70 percent — 7-0 percent — of immigrants from Uzbekistan came through the visa lottery program.
So that program is used as a prime avenue for immigration for many countries.
Finally, let me touch on the subject of chain migration. When I use that word, what I’m talking about is a person who comes to this country and who, in turn, employs one of these many avenues that I just described, principally family-based, to sponsor relatives who are in the home country to come and join him or her.
Because the categories that we have that I just described in family-based migration are so extensive, it’s not just nuclear family. You also have, as I say, adult unmarried children; brothers and sisters; nieces and nephews. You can sponsor a person like yesterday’s alleged terrorist at the extremity of that chain, and then that person, in turn, can sponsor people and so on, and so on, indefinitely.
Hundreds of thousands of people come into this country every year based on these extended-family migration categories. And it is my view, it our administration’s view, that that is not the way that we should be running our immigration system. A system like that, that includes something like the diversity visa program, these extended-family categories are not the way anybody would have designed this immigration system if we could start from scratch today.
What we need is an immigration system that is selective. We want to be able to select the types of people that are coming here based on criteria that ensure their success; criteria that ensure their ability to assimilate successfully in our country. And random lotteries, extended-family connections — that’s not the way to run our immigration system.
So I appeal — we appeal — to the Congress as they consider these matters as we speak, and in the coming weeks, to seriously take into account these concerns that we have with the way the immigration system is structured and its vulnerabilities, as I just described, and correct that.
At that point, my formal comments are concluded. I’ll answer any questions you have.
Q Thanks a lot, Mr. Cissna. I want to ask you a question about what you’re suggesting. Is it your belief that the only changes that can be done to the immigration system are ones that need to emanate from Congress? Are there any things that the President can do on his own, by executive action, by executive order to change the process for either chain migration or the visa lottery?
MR. CISSNA: Well, I mean, that’s something we’re looking at right now in USCIS — my agency — which is the agency that administers all these visa programs. And there are some things that we could do. There are some things that the President has directed us to do by executive order, in particular with the temporary visa categories. We’re talking about green cards here. But if you look at temporary visa categories, yes, there’s a lot of things that we can do and that we’re going to do, for example, to increase protections of American workers.
In the green card domain, it’s a little harder. Congress has kind of occupied that field a little more densely than it has in the temporary visa area. But there could be. There could be. There could be some things that we could do to clarify how these categories are administered, yes.
Q There’s so much talk about DACA legislation right now. Do you think any DACA bill would have to be tied to bring in a merit-based system?
MR. CISSNA: Well, I mean, about two months ago, the President announced his immigration priorities. You can find it on the White House website. It’s a long list of about several dozen priorities that we, career officials at DHS and at the other relevant immigration agencies — at the time I was a career official — came up with as the things that we need to be able to do our jobs.
And in that list, there are these fixes that I’m just talking about, including getting rid of the diversity visa program, because it just degrades the integrity of our immigration visa programs, generally; ending chain migration. These are all things that we have suggested in the priorities that the President has advanced.
So we hope and expect that Congress will take those priorities seriously and will do as much as they can to accomplish the goals that we set forth.
Q If the (inaudible), if the President signed the DACA bill, it would have to have a merit-based system (inaudible)?
MR. CISSNA: I can’t speak for the President’s priorities and what he does or doesn’t want in a bill. But I know that what I want is something that I can implement and that I can implement well to get at the priorities that we set forth, is something that we need to do our job.
Q Would you be in favor of extending the blanket travel bans, as far as the countries are concerned, such as Bangladesh, which isn’t on the list, currently?
MR. CISSNA: My position on that is that my agency needs as much information as it can get from these other countries to be able to vet and screen people adequately to ensure that mala fide actors don’t come into the country. To the degree that that can be done under the executive order — the protocols established by the executive order — I’m all for it.
But I’m not in a position to prescribe whether the blanket ban, as you put it, should be extended or not extended. I want the information that these countries can give us to screen people.
Q How do you deal with people who have been here for years and then become radicalized once they’re here? How would any of that deal with what actually happened in New York? He had been here for many years.
MR. CISSNA: So, on that, there’s two points. I think the criticisms that we have of the diversity visa program or chain migration — in particular the diversity visa program — the vulnerability to exploitation by terrorists because of the low eligibility criteria and because of the prevalence of fraud, that’s not changing. That’s a sad fact of that program. For that reason, regardless of when the person became radicalized, I just want that door shut because it’s a vulnerability. It’s been recognized for 15 years.
Now, with respect to that person in particular and what do we do of people who radicalize afterwards, my agency in particular is focused very much so on ensuring that immigration doesn’t stop when the person gets the green card. It’s an ongoing process. I view it that way. I think that —
Q How so?
MR. CISSNA: Well, I mean, because what you want is an immigrant to become a citizen. I mean, citizenship is in the name of my agency. We ultimately want people to naturalize because naturalization is one of the best — it’s one of the best signs that a person has fully assimilated. And it’s also — once you naturalize, it’s one of the best guarantors of that person’s continued success in our society. We want people to naturalize.
And my agency is seeking to do everything it can to insure that people are enabled to do that and succeed in that quest.
Q Just to follow up quickly — is it your understanding that the suspect was radicalized before he came here? Or do you think that it happened here? And if it did happen before he arrived, then was something inherently missed?
MR. CISSNA: No, I have no idea. I don’t know.
Q Can you give us any sense of where he picked up this —
MR. CISSNA: I truly have no idea if he was radicalized at all. I don’t know. I don’t know that part of the investigation.
Q Well, you just said that because of the criteria and how low it is, that chain migrant immigrants or diversity lottery immigrants are more susceptible to being self-radicalized. Do you have data on that?
MR. CISSNA: No. What I think my point is, is that if you have immigrant visa programs where the eligibility criteria are low to non-existent — or even an outright lottery — you’re not selecting for the types of people that we want in this country, according to a criteria that will ensure their success in our nation; that will ensure that they will assimilate well.
Q I get that that’s a matter of priority. You want to select the immigrants, not just have them come in. I get that part. But you seem to saying that these kinds of immigrants are more likely to become terrorists.
MR. CISSNA: No. What I’m saying is that if you have a system that doesn’t select at all, or is barely selecting anybody, we don’t know what we’re going to get. It’s better if we take an active affirmative role in our immigration process and establish criteria that correspond to things that we want to see in our immigration pool.
Sir, in the back.
Q Yes, sort of following from that — the data shows that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Other than these isolated incidents, is there any data behind this plan?
MR. CISSNA: Well, I don’t know that I agree with your first point. I don’t know where that data came from, but I can’t comment any further on it.
Q Can you provide a couple of examples? The incarceration rates would be one example.
MR. CISSNA: That’s a bigger debate that I don’t know that we have time for here. But based on my questioning the validity of — the premise of your question, I don’t know that I want to engage in that dialogue at this time.
Q Does this administration believe that immigrants are more dangerous than U.S. citizens?
MR. CISSNA: I don’t know that anybody has said that.
Q Just two, sort of, points of clarification. I have you saying, with the diversity visa program, that there is a certain vulnerability because of the low eligibility criteria. By that, I think you mean because there is no higher education standard required. I mean, what is it that makes these people more vulnerable to radicalization and becoming terrorists?
MR. CISSNA: Well, there’s two parts to that. My criticism of the diversity visa program is that the eligibility criteria are minimal or next to nothing and that there’s a random element to it.
Q These are vulnerabilities?
MR. CISSNA: Right. The program is vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists because it’s a combination of the low eligibility criteria and the ability to defraud the system. Fraud is pervasive, as I said, in the program. So if you are a mala fide actor and you want to use that program to come into this country, it’s easy to fake a high school graduation certificate.
Q The charging document said that this suspect was radicalized approximately in 2014. He entered the United States in 2011. So that is why so many of us are asking these questions, because it sounds like you are implying that U.S. intelligence or Homeland Security missed something, and this guy was radicalized.
MR. CISSNA: Oh, I’m not implying that at all. No, no. I’m just talking about the immigration programs. I’m not talking about this one guy. I don’t have sufficient —
Q So this isn’t actually effective at screening out terrorists. You’re saying when they get here — because these people are more vulnerable — if they come in on this program, they are then subject to exploitation more easily?
MR. CISSNA: No. What I’m saying is that —
Q We’re just not getting the nexus to terrorism.
MR. CISSNA: The nexus to terrorism is that if you have a visa program that is easily exploited by mala fide actors, including terrorists, because —
Q But you don’t know that he did that.
MR. CISSNA: I don’t know that — he didn’t come in on the visa lottery program. He came in as an extended-family-based immigrant.
But I’m saying, with respect to the diversity visa program, which is also at play here, that program is — as the State Department IG found 15 years ago, as the GAO confirmed in 2007 — exploitable by terrorists or mala fide actors because the criteria are so low and easily faked. And it’s a lottery, so on multiple levels it’s an open door, it’s problematic. It needs to shut. That’s what I’m saying about that.
With respect to the individual in yesterday’s attempt, I would say, I don’t know. I don’t have a command of the facts relating to the investigation as to whether or if he was ever radicalized.
What I’m saying is, if you have any sort of visa program which is minimally selective, which is based solely on chance or lottery or low eligibility criteria, then we, as a government, aren’t doing our job in picking the people that come to this country in a competent and careful and intelligent way.
And if we’re not doing that, bad guys can come in.
MS. SANDERS: We’ll take one last question, guys.
Q Are lottery winners vetted?
MR. CISSNA: Yes. Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah.
Q So it’s screening — that’s the problem?
MR. CISSAN: Oh, yeah, they’re screened like any other immigrant. Yeah, yes.
Q So that’s an intelligence failure then?
MR. CISSAN: I don’t know that there’s any failure.
Yes, last question.
Q Thank you. We know from your confirmation hearings, testimony, that both your mother and your mother-in-law are immigrants. How did their experiences shape your thinking on this position? And do you have any reason to believe that they would both still have been able to come in and lead productive lives as Americans under the tightening that you’re at looking at now?
MR. CISSAN: The fact that my own mother and my mother-in-law are both immigrants has indeed influenced everything. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in this field, why I’m interested in it, and why I very passionately carry out my duties every day.
I think, though, that a policymaker or a citizen who is examining all these questions should not be handicapped or shackled by previous immigration programs from which we all — everybody in this room has benefitted from the immigration laws of the past. That doesn’t meant that every generation doesn’t have its own prerogative, its own duty and responsibility to look at the situation that we have now and determine for itself, ourselves, whether the immigration laws should be changed. It’s perfectly rational. So moving forward, maybe we’ll change things.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Director.
Continuing with national security theme, as many of you saw this afternoon, the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act. This legislation, which was approved with bipartisan support, represents an important milestone in the President’s plan to rebuild our military and bolster our national security.
For the first time in seven years, we are increasing rather than shrinking the size of our forces. This NDAA also provides our military servicemembers with the largest pay increase they’ve seen in eight years.
To put into historical context, it authorizes one of the largest defense spending increases since the days of Ronald Reagan. Previous administrations sadly oversaw deep cuts to our armed forces with serious implications for our military readiness and capabilities. This hindered the fight against ISIS and other enemies of freedom, and made our people less safe.
In signing this bill today, the President once again made it clear that we are serious about enhancing military readiness, expanding and modernizing our forces, and providing our incredible men and women downrange with the tools they need to do what they do best: fight and win.
President Trump also called on obstructionist Democrats in Congress to stop threatening to shut down the government. As the President said, at this time of grave global threats, Congress should send a clean funding bill to his desk that fully funds our great military.
We certainly hope that will happen, and we look forward to that taking place. And with that, I will take your questions.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The President said today that Senator Gillibrand would “do anything” for campaign contributions. Many, many people see this as a sexual innuendo. What is the President suggesting?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President is very obvious. This is the same sentiment that the President has expressed many times before when he has exposed the corruption of the entire political system. In fact, he’s used similar terminology many times when talking about politicians of both parties, both men and women, and certainly in his campaign to drain the swamp.
The system is clearly broken. It’s clearly rigged for special interests. And this President is someone that can’t be bought, and it’s one of the reasons that he’s President today.
Q So you’re saying that this quote — “Senator Gillibrand would do anything” — is a reference to campaign contributions in Washington, the swamp? This has nothing to do with her being a female? What is he alleging would happen behind closed doors with her?
MS. SANDERS: He’s not alleging anything. He’s talking about the way that our system functions as it is; that politicians repeatedly beg for money. That’s not something new. And that comment, frankly, isn’t something new. If you look back at past comments that this President has made, he’s used that same terminology many times in reference to men. There’s no way that this is sexist at all. This is simply talking about a system that we have that is broken, in which special interests control our government. And I don’t think that there’s probably many people that are more controlled by political contributions than the senator that the President referenced.
Q Does the President want Roy Moore to be seated in the Senate if he wins tonight? And does he plan to call him tonight?
MS. SANDERS: In terms of calls, I’m not aware that anything is scheduled, win or lose. In terms of being seated, I can’t speak on a hypothetical — certainly not one that could potentially influence an election one way or the other due to the Hatch Act.
Q Sarah, does the President agree with his outside legal counsel that a special prosecutor should be appointed to look into the goings-on at the Department of Justice during the election campaign in 2016 since the revelation about Bruce Ohr, the former associate deputy attorney general?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s something that certainly causes a lot of concern, not just for the President and the administration, but I think probably for all Americans, and something that if we’re going to continue to investigate things, let’s look at something where there’s some real evidence and some real proof of wrongdoing. And this looks pretty bad, and I think it’s something we should certainly look at.
Q So would he support the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into this?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t asked him that directly, but I know that he has great concern about some of the conduct that’s taken place, and something that we certainly would like to see looked at.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Congressional leaders are saying that they have no plans to re-impose sanctions on Iran by the deadline tomorrow that the President initiated back in October when he decertified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. Is the White House okay with this no-action? And, if so, where are the teeth in the President’s move to decertify them from compliance?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the administration continues to make encouraging progress with Congress to fix the U.S.-Iran deal and address long-term proliferation issues. There was actually no deadline to act by this week, as the administration did not ask that Congress introduce legislation to re-impose JCPOA-related sanctions.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Senator Grassley said that he’s advised the White House to reconsider the nomination of Jeff McClure to the federal court in Texas and Brett Talley in Alabama. Has the President spoken to Senator Grassley about his concerns? And does the President plan to pull back those nominations?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure if they’ve spoken directly. I’ll have to check and circle back with you.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Bashar al-Assad and Rodrigo Duterte have both recently have used the phrase “fake news” to dismiss damaging reports about their regimes. And a state official in Myanmar recently said that the Muslim minority, Rohingya, don’t exist and added it’s fake news.
Is the White House concerned at all about authoritarian regimes adopting this phrase “fake news” to try to delegitimize the press? And does President Trump bear any responsibility for the popularization of this phrase among some world leaders?
MS. SANDERS: I think the White House is concerned about false and inaccurate information being pushed out and to mislead the American people. I think I made that clear yesterday.
In terms of other leaders, I’d have to look at their comments to be more specific on what they’ve said. But our concern is making sure that the information that the people receive in this country is fair and accurate, and, when it isn’t, that it’s corrected and corrected in the same fashion in which it was first presented when it was wrong, which is very rarely the case.
Q But when you hear autocrats using the term “fake news” to describe events that reflect poorly on their regimes, that doesn’t cause concern here?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I’m not going to speak to specifics of another country when I don’t know the details. What I can talk about are the problems that we have in this country with inaccuracies that happen frequently within news stories. And so, that, I feel comfortable speaking about. Without that information and that detail in front of me, I don’t want to weigh in too deeply.
Q Sarah, thank you. The President tweeted today that the accusations against him are “false, fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met. Fake news.” And yet, the reality is he’s pictured with a number of the women who have accused him of the misconduct. So do you concede that that part of his statement is not true?
MS. SANDERS: The President was referencing the three individuals that were part of a press conference yesterday, and simply stating that you don’t know someone means that you don’t have a relationship with them —
Q So (inaudible) of all of his accusers? Because —
MS. SANDERS: Correct. He’s referencing the three from yesterday.
Q And, Sarah, members of Congress have called for an investigation into these accusations. Is President Trump as confident that they are not true? Would he support such an investigation?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has answered these questions. He has spoken to these accusations, and denied and pushed that they are all false and fabricated accusations. Frankly, I think if Congress wants to spend time investigating things, they should probably focus on some of the things that the American people would really like them to investigate, like how to secure our borders, how to defeat ISIS, how to pass tax reform that actually impacts them.
If you look at the issues, in poll after poll after poll taken by a number of the outlets in this room and pushed out regularly, the issues that are top-mind, number one, every single time: the economy, jobs, national security, immigration, healthcare. Yet we never talk about those issues.
In fact, 90 percent of the coverage that is —
Q And yet, this moment is an important moment, as well, Sarah. This is a moment that’s getting a lot of attention.
MS. SANDERS: Hold on, I let you finish. I’m going to finish this statement. Ninety percent of the coverage that comes out of the media is negative and rarely covers those topics. And those are the things that the American people want to talk about. If Congress wants to investigate something, I think that they should look at some of the priorities of the people that they actually represent.
Q And yet, Sarah, this is something that is being discussed in businesses all across the country. There have been a number of people who have been fired over this. So why not allow this congressional investigation to go forward? And if the President, he’s confident in the accusations being involved —
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has addressed these concerns. He’s addressed them directly. You guys spent months talking about them on the campaign trail. And the American people voted for this President, they have confidence in this President, and they wanted him to lead our country and they wanted him to focus on things like the economy, focus on healthcare, focus on fixing our broken tax system, focus on fixing our borders, and focus on national security.
That’s what we’re here to do, that’s what we’re focused on. These questions have been asked and answered, and we’re ready to move forward and focus on the questions of the day that the American people have.
Q Is Gillibrand owed an apology for the misunderstanding of the President’s tweet this morning? Because many — including the Senator — thinks that it’s about sexual innuendos.
MS. SANDERS: I mean, only if your mind is in the gutter would have read it that way. And — so, no.
Q No, it’s not. What he said was open, and it was not mind in the gutter.
MS. SANDERS: He was obviously talking about political partisan games that people often play and the broken system that he’s talked about repeatedly. This isn’t new, this isn’t a new sentiment, this isn’t new terminology. He’s used it several times before. As I said a few minutes ago, he’s used it several times before, referencing men of both parties, in fact. And so I think that there — if you look back at the past comments he’s made, it was very clear what his reference was.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Looking at this issue with the system, the President gave almost $8,000 to Senator Gillibrand over the years. His daughter also gave her $2,000. What specifically did they get for these contributions that she was offered?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think oftentimes what you do — you’re getting access. A member of Congress will take your phone call, they’ll take your meeting, and if you’re driving something as a businessman that the President may or not have been driving at any particular point, you can talk to that individual about it. And sometimes they carry your water. That’s the reason that we have a broken system. That’s a reason that often special interests control our government more than the people do, and that’s one of the reasons that this President ran to be president.
And it’s one of the top reasons, I think, that he won and that he’s sitting in the Oval Office today and Hillary Clinton is not. Because he couldn’t be bought, and everybody knew that she could because they’d seen it time and time again.
Q So he is admitting that he bought access in a corrupt way?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think he is admitting that he is participating in a rigged system. He said that on the campaign trail. He knows how the system works. I think it would be disingenuous for anybody not to understand that, but at least this President is being honest about the process and his willingness to actually fix it and drain the swamp.
Q So Kirsten Gillibrand called for him to resign, and he says over and over again that he’s a counterpuncher. So the next day, after she does that, he wakes up and you’re saying that he’s tweeting about the campaign finance system. Is that what you’re saying?
MS. SANDERS: I’m talking about the fact that she’s controlled by special interests. I’m talking about the fact she’s a wholly owned subsidiary of people that donate to her campaign. She’s a puppet for Chuck Schumer. I’m talking about a number of issues that she has, none of which make her an independent individual, but more somebody that is controlled by people that helped donate money to her cause. That’s simply all I’m saying.
Q And what kind of campaign finance reform does the President want?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has been talking about the need for us to put a stronger ban on lobbyists participating in the government process. We’ve taken a stronger ethics pledge under this administration than previous administrations. I think those are some of the first steps and something that we’re going to continue working on over the next seven years.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. You’re familiar with the President’s tweets. He tweets pretty often. In this particular —
MS. SANDERS: I’ve noticed that too. (Laughter.)
Q Yeah, a little bit. In this particular case, his criticism of Senator Gillibrand was very personal. Why must he criticize in such personal terms? He called a sitting, elected U.S. senator a “lightweight.” Why go after her in such a personal manner?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think that’s all that personal. I mean, if you want to talk about personal, look at the comments that she’s made about this President over the last several months.
Look, the President is always going to be somebody who responds. We’ve said that many times before. And he’s simply talking about a system that doesn’t work for the citizens of this country, and he wants to fix it.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two quick question for you. One following up on John’s question from earlier about a second special counsel. Does the President have confidence in the FBI as it exists today?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has confidence in Director Wray and his ability to clean up some of the mess left behind by his predecessor. I know I’ve addressed that before, and he certainly has confidence in the rank-and-file members of the FBI.
Q And then a follow-up on foreign policy. Today, Bloomberg has an article out about the Trump administration encouraging Saudi Arabia to consider bids from U.S. companies as it relates to building nuclear reactors. Does the President see this as an opportunity to bring up human rights in Yemen during these talks with Saudi Arabia?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of those specific conversations in this process, so I would have to ask and certainly get back to you.
I’ll take one last question. Margaret.
Q Thank you. H.R. McMaster gave some really interesting remarks at a luncheon earlier today. And he spoke in really strong terms about China and Russia. He said they were “undermining the international order and stability” and “ignoring the sovereign rights of their neighbors and the rule of law.” He went on to talk about Russia, in particular. He didn’t use the words “election meddling,” but he talked about subversion, disinformation, propaganda, and basically pitting people against each other to try to create crisis of confidence.
So what I wanted to know is: Does the President agree with all of General McMaster’s statements? And is that a foreshadowing of a national security strategy that will take a harder tack on Russia and China than the administration has so far?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think we’ve been very hard on Russia from the beginning. There have been sanctions, we’ve increased energy exportation from this country, and we’ve done things to put pressure on Russia, asking them to engage in a bigger and greater way on some of the common enemies that we face.
In terms of like a rundown, I haven’t had a chance to sit down with the President and go detail-by-detail. But General McMaster certainly is someone who understands and knows the President’s feelings and our relationships with foreign partners, and something that we certainly feel confident in him speaking about.
Thanks so much, guys.
3:44 P.M. EST