James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:22 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. I’m bringing out the big guns today. Since President Trump took office, the economy has created nearly 3 million jobs and the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.8 percent, matching the lowest level in nearly 50 years.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that job openings hit a record high of 6.7 million in April, meaning job openings outnumbered those that are unemployed.
American workers looking for new opportunities are finding them because of this President’s policies of lower taxes, deregulation, and fair and reciprocal trade. America’s economic potential has been unleashed.
I’ve invited the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, to join us today and offer more details about the growing economy and take your questions on this topic. After that, I’ll be happy to come up and take questions on news of the day.
MR. HASSETT: Thank you, Sarah. And I watch these things a lot, and I was noticing that not everybody is always in the best mood. And so I told Sarah what you guys need are some charts. Right? (Laughter.) And so we’ve got some charts for you today.
Q How did you know?
MR. HASSETT: Yeah, I know. Yeah, I could see. There are a lot of nodding people. Okay.
So I think that Sarah said it best that we’re in, as the President has tweeted, one of the best economies I’ve seen in my career, and that there are a number of facts that have developed over the last few months that are, I think, confirming some of the stuff we talked about last fall when we walked about — gosh, it was maybe in November — the tax bill and the economic impact that the tax bill might have on the economy. In addition, the President has pursued a trade agenda and deregulation. And we’re beginning to see the effects of all of this in the data.
In the first slide, if we can get it, is one of my favorite ways to just look at a summary of how the economy is doing is to look at the GDP growth over the previous year. And you might recall when President Trump ran for office and when he came in, and when I first started at CEA almost a year ago, that we were looking ahead to 3 percent growth. And everybody said, “No, no, no. We’ve got a new normal” — those blue lines which you see during the Obama years, where we’ve got growth in the ones, maybe up to two if we’re lucky, but we could never get 3 percent growth again.
Well, in the latest data that we have, we’ve got growth year over year that’s just a smidgen less than 3 percent. And the Atlanta Fed GDPNow number right now is that second quarter GDP will be high enough to make the year-over-year growth about 3.1 or 3.2. And so if you look at this chart, you can see that there’s been a clear trend break and that we’ve gone from a new normal of low growth to just normal, which is the 3 percent growth that Americans used to expect.
I could have the next slide, please.
In this chart, I want to show something that we, again, talked about in the fall, which is that one of the reasons why we had such low growth in the previous administration is it was so anti-business, and it was basically discouraging capital formation in the U.S. with inappropriate tax policy and high regulation. And you can see that in the data if you look at, for example, the blue dot from Q1 2015 to Q4 2015, business capital spending barely increased at all. And even in pre-election 2016, it stayed at about the same level.
But subsequently, after the election, already we started to see a big increase in business sentiment, and capital spending started to go up. And now that we’ve passed the tax bill, then you can see capital spending skyrocketing just as we said it would last fall. And that higher capital spending is exactly one of the key factors driving growth at this time. I can remember way, way back in the fall saying that if we passed the tax bill, we’d expect to see capital spending this year higher by about 10 percent. If you look at the last bar in the first quarter of GDP this year, capital spending was up 9.2 percent.
Next slide, please.
There are a number of other things that we can look at. And believe me, we could go on all day, but I promised Sarah I’d stop at about 10 minutes. This is one of the ones that I find most striking because it has such a big impact on our outlook for small business.
So right now, small businesses are as optimistic as we’ve ever seen since we’ve begun surveying them. And I think it’s also interesting to see — like you could say, “Well” — and sometimes people in the Obama administration will say, “Well, we just set this economy up for the President.” But you can see a clear break in this chart at the election. And so President Trump promised that he would cut taxes, that he’d reduce taxes on small business, and that he would reduce the heavy regulatory costs that were imposed on them by the previous administration. And you can see even before he began to act, that sentiment turned around.
Next slide, please.
And that’s helped lead to something that’s just really one of the more remarkable labor markets that we’ve ever seen. The job market right now is about as strong as I’ve ever seen. And there are a lot of different ways to put it in perspective. But for me, the easiest fact is just that it’s only seven times back to 1970 that we’ve had an unemployment rate below 4 percent. And two of those months were the last two months. And we expect that will continue.
As remarkable as that chart is, I think the next one is one of the ones that, I think, moves me even more. The next chart shows the gap between the unemployment rate of white workers and black workers. And you can see that the gap between the unemployment rate for black workers and white workers has gone to an all-time low, and it’s maybe about a third what it was on average during the Obama administration. And of course, we want that gap to get all the way down to zero. But we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress because President Trump started working to heat up the economy.
The next chart for a person who loves economic data is really my favorite, because you rarely ever seen anything that is the best since the Second World War in economic data. And this chart shows that the initial claims for unemployment insurance, which is those people who have the really bad news that they lost their job and then show up at the unemployment office to collect their unemployment insurance — that as a share of the workforce, they’re the lowest they’ve been since the Second World War.
And so, really, one of the worst, most destructive things that can happen to a person’s life is to lose their job. Right now there’s never been a better economy for this since the Second World War.
I’ve got one more chart, and then we’ll open it up for questions.
And the last chart is something that the President tweeted about, and this is just a chart of what’s happened to Americans’ wealth since the President was elected. This is how much money they’ve got in their checking accounts, their saving accounts, what the value of their house is, and of course, the value of equity markets. And you can see that, since the President was elected, that Americans’ wealth has increased by $7 trillion. And I would guess that when we see the data over the next coming quarters, that we’re going to cross the hundred-trillion mark for Americans’ wealth.
And so it’s very clear that the President’s economic policies are working. But I think that the most important thing is that they’re working for America’s workers; that America’s workers are being laid off at the lowest pace that we’ve ever seen, and wage growth, which we didn’t include in the chart, is also taking off as well.
With that, I’ll open up for a few questions. I promised Sarah that I would keep it at three or four, or something like that. And I’ll start with Roberts, and then work back.
Q Great. Kevin, good afternoon. Thanks for being with us today. The unemployment rate was 3.8 percent last month, but the labor participation rate still lags four points behind where it was the last time unemployment was below 4 percent down in this rate. What can this White House do to increase the labor participation rate?
MR. HASSETT: Right. Well, this White House has, going all the way back to the campaign, when the President was speaking to the forgotten people — the people who had exited the labor force because they were so discouraged that they had just sort of given up — and we said that we don’t believe the story that was being pushed by the previous administration that there’s no hope for you. We think that you should get back to the labor force. As of — I did this calculation as of the last jobs report; I haven’t updated it for this jobs report. But as of the last jobs report, 900,000 people — 900,000 Americans who were out of the labor force have gotten a job since President Trump took office.
So I’ll go back to you, ma’am.
Q Yes, thank you. Two questions. Does this administration put into account that the Obama administration had — they were dealing with a recession, they were coming out of a recession? Do you take that into account when you talk about the numbers, comparing apples to oranges, when you’re dealing with the economic question?
And then, going into black unemployment, the numbers have come down. But historically, the numbers have always been one and a half to two times, or even greater than that, of white America. Will this administration, since you love to tout those numbers, effectively target in to bring that gap to nothing?
MR. HASSETT: Thank you for that question. So, first, the Great Recession, that was — the targeting point is something we’ve been working on. But first, the Great Recession absolutely slowed growth in the early years of the Obama administration. But normally, what we should have seen in the economic recovery is that, at the end of the administration, that the capital spending and everything else would be getting back to normal. And that wasn’t happening, and that was clearly in the data.
As for the targeting, I think that one of the things that we’ve spoken in this room about before, that the President talks a lot about, is this increasing jobs in goods-producing industries; that’s manufacturing and construction. Those goods-producing industries are creating jobs right now at a pace that’s just a little bit under 50,000 a month. And that pace is about double what it was under the previous administration, and it’s precisely the thing that the President has been targeting. And if you look at the racial disparities across different professions, that it’s the good-producing industries that are in part responsible for the big reduction in the black unemployment rate.
Q So — wait, just to follow up on that —
MR. HASSETT: I will let you have one follow-up, I’m sorry. Yeah.
Q I’m sorry — thank you for that. But when it comes to construction, it’s known more so as a boost for Hispanic workers. What specifically are you going to do to target for African Americans, since you are talking about — I mean, you guys tout this (inaudible).
MR. HASSETT: The President’s policies are clearly working. The gap is the lowest in history, and his policy is to target goods-producing industries, and he’s been very successful at that.
Can I move back here? Yellow tie. Yes, thank you.
Q Let’s turn to trade for a second. The United States has its stance right now on possible tariffs. China has its stance on possible tariffs. Have you guys at all modeled at all, if there is a trade war between the U.S. and China, how that would impact the U.S. economy? And as well, you’ve had Republicans, over the last couple months, who have said the one thing that can stall tax reform — the impacts on the economy, as they see it — is the President’s trade policy. Are they on to something there?
MR. HASSETT: Look, the Economic Report of the President that we put out a few months ago documented something the President has talked about, I think very emotionally at times, going all the way to the campaign, which is that our trade deals are very asymmetric; that our markets are really open to the imports from other countries, but a lot of other countries have asymmetric treatment of us. And so, for example, in Europe, they have a 10 percent tariff on cars and we have a 2.5 percent tariff.
The President’s objective is to get fully reciprocal trade deals. And if you model a future where everybody else reduces their trade barriers to ours, then that’s massively good for the global economy and massively good for the U.S. economy.
Now, the President wrote the book, “The Art of the Deal.” We’re engaged in discussions and negotiations. And we’re hopeful that we reached that positive long-run equilibrium.
Let me move on to another one. Right here. Thanks.
Q Thank you, Kevin. I wanted to ask you about the benefits of the tax cut legislation that the President signed into law in December. A Morgan Stanley survey found that 43 percent of the tax cut savings are going to stock buybacks and dividends. Thirteen percent are going to employee raises and bonuses, employee benefits, something like that. Are you disappointed that you’re seeing that impact, that effect, from the tax cut that so much more —
MR. HASSETT: No.
Q — seems to be going to Wall Street than to Main Street?
MR. HASSETT: No, not at all. In fact, wage growth right now is the highest — if you look at over the last quarter, the employment cost index is the highest it’s been going all the way back at least to 2006. But that’s where they changed the way they do data. That we’ve got more than 6 million people that have been announced to have a pay raise because of the tax bill. The average pay raise for them is a little North of $1,200.
And the President said again and again, and CEA said again and again, that there would be a $4,000 increase in pay for people if we pass the tax bill. And people said that that number was completely implausible, but let’s look at the numbers now. Walmart, for example, has increased the minimum wage for their workers — the lowest paid workers at Walmart — by $2.00 an hour. If you run that forward, that’s just a little bit less than $4,000 this year.
And so if the lowest paid people at Walmart are getting the $4,000 the President has promised, then of course we’re not disappointed in the wage data.
Could I — a question over here?
Q Just a follow-up on a question that was asked earlier. Tariffs: Do you predict — and it was the trade question, I guess, that Blake was asking, following up on. There’s always a prediction that increased tariffs will depress the economy. What the President is engaged in, do you foresee any problems with the tariffs that he’s implemented? And what would be your reaction to it?
MR. HASSETT: I think that the President is pushing our trading partners hard to make their deals fair for America’s workers, and that that’s his objective and there are ongoing discussions right now. And I know a lot of other Presidents — I was over here at one point as an outsider coming to talk to President Obama’s team about this. A lot of other Presidents have wanted to make better deals and failed. And this President is not going to fail at that. He’s going to make better deals.
Q But to follow up with that, would that depress the economy, higher tariffs? Do you admit that that could cause problems with the economy?
MR. HASSETT: We expect that this is going to work out well and that we’re going to get fair trade deals.
Could I have back there, the fellow — yeah. Thanks.
Q Thanks. Just following up on that a little bit. What you said here, and what the President said also, is that talking about tariffs would be more of a negotiating tactic as much as anything. How far, though, can this be a negotiating tactic? Would mean you won — if (inaudible) had to pull the trigger (inaudible) other countries don’t (inaudible).
MR. HASSETT: I reject the view that it’s a negotiating tactic purely. For example, that the steel tariffs were put in place as a national security concern. The President is the Commander-in-Chief. He’s supposed to make those judgements in a time of where we need to be able to produce steel.
I think that there are a lot of things going on in the 301 space, to use the inside baseball term. We’re trying to get China to stop stealing more than $100 billion worth of intellectual property every year and open their markets to our products.
And so there are a lot of things going on right now.
I think last question, Sarah?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah.
MR. HASSETT: Okay. Yeah.
Q Do you have some indication of where we are in terms of the NAFTA negotiations right now? There’s this idea out there that the United States might want to break up the NAFTA negotiations and do a direct deal with Canada, a direct deal with Mexico. Is that the right approach? And what do you think is coming next?
MR. HASSETT: I think that the President’s approach is to negotiate with Mexico and to negotiate with Canada and to make better deals.
And I think that you’ll have to talk to Ambassador Lighthizer to get an update on the current state of negotiations.
So thank you very much. Thank you all for having me.
MS. SANDERS: Thanks, Kevin. Lastly, one additional update. The President and the administration applaud Senator Majority Leader McConnell and his decision to cancel the majority of the August recess and remain in session.
There’s been historic obstruction by Senate Democrats, and there’s a long to-do list, including important nominations and appropriations bills that we hope they can get taken care of.
And with that, I will take your questions.
Q Sarah, on the President’s decision to disinvite the Eagles, he’s suggesting this is about the National Anthem. Is the President aware that not a single player on the Eagles, through the entire season, knelt for the National Anthem?
MS. SANDERS: The President’s position on not just the Anthem has been clear. But let’s not forget this isn’t — there were 80 members of the Eagles organization that RSVP’d and committed to attend this event as recently as Friday, as well as over a thousand fans of the Eagles organization. And the Eagles are the ones that tried to change their commitment at the eleventh hour, and the President, frankly, thinks that the fans deserve better than that. And therefore, we changed the ceremony to be a focus on celebrating our great country.
Q But why is he acting like this is about the National Anthem? And is he concerned — we heard from Steph Curry and from LeBron James the suggestion that whoever wins the NBA Championship, they’re unlikely to be here. Is this about something more than the National Anthem? Something other than the National Anthem?
MS. SANDERS: Look, if this wasn’t a political stunt by the Eagles franchise, then they wouldn’t have planned to attend the event and then backed out at the last minute. And if it wasn’t a political stunt, then they wouldn’t have attempted to reschedule the visit when they knew that the President was going to be overseas. And if this wasn’t a political stunt, they wouldn’t have waited until Monday, well after a thousand of their fans had traveled and taken time out of their schedules to offer only a tiny handful of representatives to attend the event.
Q To be clear on that point: This isn’t about the National Anthem; it’s about so few players coming in the end, correct?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, the President has been very clear what his position is in regards to the National Anthem. We’ve never wavered on that. The President thinks that people should stand for the National Anthem. Particularly when it comes to the NFL, it’s not about a particular team. It’s about having pride in our country and about being respectful to the men and women who have fought and died to preserve our country.
In terms of this, the Eagles are the ones that changed their commitment at the last minute. The President felt it was appropriate to change the event to be a ceremony to celebrate our country.
Q Just to follow up, Sarah. Really important. The other day, on the statement that you made —
MS. SANDERS: Catherine. Sorry, I’m going to keep going.
Q — you referred us to the outside counsel on the Don Jr. statement that the President was involved in. The outside counsel did weigh in, saying that, yes, the President did dictate the statement. Rudy Giuliani was on CNN saying it was a mistake to say that the President didn’t dictate it. So do you want to correct the record on your statement from August when you said, “He certainly didn’t dictate”?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I’m not going to go into detail and go into a back-and-forth. And I know that you guys would love to engage on matters of conversations between the Special Counsel and the outside counsel, but we’ve purposefully walled off and I’m not going to comment on the outside counsel.
Q But you commented in August, and there was outside counsel in August, as well, but you still talked about it. So why can’t you correct the record now?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to answer questions that deal specifically with conversations between the outside counsel and the Special Counsel.
Q Are you being advised not to answer the question?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I am not going to get into a back-and-forth with you on that. And I would refer you to the outside counsel.
Q Sarah, President Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin. The GOP is looking to pick up a Senate seat there. Does he risk alienating key voters in that state by disinviting the Eagles, but also by the statement that the team abandoned the fans?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, we would hope that all of the people of Pennsylvania would share the President’s commitment to the National Anthem and the pride that we have in our country, and certainly not meant to be a slight to anyone, but, frankly, a reaffirmation of what a great country that we live in. And to stand for the National Anthem is something the President has been very clear on.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On Thursday, Prime Minister Abe will be here to meet with the President. What will be on his agenda going into the meeting? Will they discuss trade issues? And the President said the other day that Japan, China, and South Korea can provide economic assistance to North Korea. And does the President plan to raise this issue with Prime Minister Abe?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get ahead of the President’s meeting with the Prime Minister, but we certainly anticipate the summit with North Korea that will be next week to come up, as well as trade issues and other matters. And we’ll be happy to provide a readout, and the President will speak to that tomorrow.
Q And on the —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to keep going. Josh, go ahead.
Q EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt asked an aide, we reported today, to help his wife get a Chick-fil-A franchise. Does the President think that’s ethical behavior?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken with the President about that since that report came out.
Q One follow-up for you, Sarah. Back to her question. We’re not asking really about the Special Counsel or the outside counsel. The only question is, do you think your statement in August was accurate? Your statement; not his. Was your statement accurate or inaccurate?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I know you want to get into a back-and-forth with you on this conversation.
Q No, not a back-and-forth. You said something. We just want to know if it was accurate or not. Was the statement accurate?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I know your goal is to engage me in a conversation about matters dealing with the outside counsel, and I’m not going to do that today.
Q But, Sarah, not about the outside counsel. You said something from the podium. Was it accurate or not? That’s all we want to know.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I work day in, day out, and I believe, frankly, with the majority of you here in the room, I think you all know I’m an honest person who works extremely hard to provide you with accurate information at all times. I’m going to continue to do that but I’m not going to engage on matters that deal with the outside counsel.
Q I wanted to ask about OMB. But just to follow on this quickly — and I think you were asked the question earlier — is the reason that you’re unwilling to engage on this because either you have already or you anticipate yourself having to talk to the Special Counsel about this statement?
MS. SANDERS: It’s because the appropriate venue for these questions to be addressed would be through the outside counsel. And that’s why I would refer you to them to answer them.
Q So on OMB, they issued a revised rescission request today, and it withdrew the proposed cuts on Hurricane Sandy recovery funds and Ebola funding. I’m wondering if we should see those retreats as the administration inaccurately concluding at first that these were money that was no longer needing. And if that’s happened just in the last couple months, why that wouldn’t be true for other areas of the budget that the administration has targeted going forward.
MS. SANDERS: Not necessarily. But I would refer you to OMB to get into the details of that. And we’ll be happy to provide additional information, also, over the next few days on specifics with rescissions.
Q Sarah, the President again took a stick to his favorite piñata, Jeff Sessions, today. (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: Interesting reference.
Q What is the President’s goal here? Is it just simply to remind the Attorney General that he’s really PO’ed at him and he’s not going to let him forget it?
MS. SANDERS: You got some of your colleagues pretty —
Q Is he trying to get him to quit? Is he trying to emasculate him, holding him up? I mean, what is the President trying to do?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has made his position on this extremely clear, and I don’t have anything to add beyond that.
Just because you laughed the hardest at John’s joke, I feel like you’ve earned the right for the next question.
Q Sarah, the President tweeted today that he was concerned that the FBI was weakening or slow walking the DOJ IT investigation into the Hillary Clinton email investigation handled by FBI Director James Comey. What is he basing that concern on? Is it based on conversations that he’s had with FBI personnel currently, or is it simply an observation based on the past?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President would like to see this process move faster. They’ve been obsessed with a number of other issues in which they’ve spent a great deal of time on. I think he’d like to see some of that spread out and some time spent on that.
Q Does he think it’s appropriate to encourage the Inspector General to release it based on his timeline rather than their own?
MS. SANDERS: The President wants full transparency in this process, but he also wants it to be expedited and completed quickly on all fronts.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I wanted to follow up on Josh’s question and Sarah’s question, but in a larger sense. The President, whether it’s on his Twitter account or otherwise, keeps saying things that are not borne out by the facts, whether it is the Eagles thing is about the National Anthem, or we’ve got $6 billion for opioids and getting rid of that scourge that’s taken over our country and the numbers are way down; we have thousands of immigration judges. And so the President keeps saying things that aren’t true. And this thing with dictating the question —
MS. SANDERS: State the question. Sorry, Andrew. If you could get there.
Q Why, if things that you keep saying from the podium turn out to not be true, and things the President keeps saying in a number of venues keep saying — are turning out not to be true, why should we be able to trust that the information we’re getting from this administration is accurate? And more importantly, why should Americans be able to trust that what they hear from this White House is always the truth?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I don’t know how many times I have to address this, but I work every single day to give you accurate and up-to-date information. And I’m going to continue to do that. Frankly, I think my credibility is probably higher than the media’s. And I think that, in large part, that’s because you guys spend more of your time focused on attacking the President instead of reporting the news. I think that if you spent a little bit more time reporting the news instead of trying to tear me down, you might actually see that we’re working hard trying to provide you good information and trying to provide that same good information to the American people.
Q Respectfully, I’m not trying to tear you down, and neither are any of us.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Andrew. I gave you quite a bit of time. John, go ahead.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. I just wanted to get your reaction, the administration’s reaction, to a statement that was put out by a player on the Eagles, Malcolm Jenkins. He’s a strong safety on the Philadelphia Eagles. Very well respected on the team and throughout the league. He put out a statement today in which he said that the decision that was made by the President to cancel this event celebrating the Super Bowl victory by the Eagles paints “the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag, and anti-military.” What is your response to what Malcolm Jenkins put out in a statement today?
MS. SANDERS: I’ve addressed this a few times. Again, the Eagles were the ones that committed to an event on Friday. They submitted over 80 members of the Eagles franchise for the event, along with over a thousand fans to participate. And it was the Eagles organization that tried to change their commitment at the eleventh hour.
Once again, if this wasn’t a political stunt, then they wouldn’t have planned to attend the event and then backed out. If it wasn’t a political attempt — a stunt — they wouldn’t have attempted to reschedule an event for when they knew that the President would be out of the country, and they wouldn’t have waited until the very last minute to make these changes if this wasn’t about some type of political statement that they were trying to make towards this President.
Q Are you saying the President bears zero responsibility in this cancellation? This is a President who called NFL players S.O.B.s, who implied that some players who don’t stand for the National Anthem do not belong in this country. Does he bear zero responsibility for players like the Warriors and the Cavs not wanting to come and the Eagles bailing on this?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President — his position hasn’t changed on this throughout the process. And the President’s position was very clearly stated in a number of forums and venues. And the Eagles made the commitment to come and to be part of that event well after the President had established his feelings in regards to the National Anthem.
And once again, they made that change at the last minute. Not the President. He’s the one that has been completely consistent in his viewpoint when it comes to this.
Q Sarah, the President, last year, broke with recent tradition and did not host an Iftar dinner. Is the President hosting such a dinner this year? And can you tell us how the invitees were selected?
MS. SANDERS: He is hosting a dinner tomorrow evening. There will be roughly, I believe, about 30 to 40 different attendees. I’d be happy to provide you with more specifics. But I believe that it takes place around 8:45 tomorrow evening.
Q Sarah, thank you. Let me ask you about two possible trade deals — the one involving the Chinese in which it would be $70 billion of buying American products. The United States would back off its threat of tariffs. Is that something that President Trump would support?
MS. SANDERS: We’re in the negotiation process. And as Kevin said, and as the President stated many times before, our focus is on making sure we get good deals. I’m not here to make an announcement on what those look like, but he’s going to continue pushing forward to make sure that he gets the best deal for American workers.
Q Real quick on NAFTA. Larry Kudlow said today — Eamon referenced it — that maybe the President wants to deal with Canada solely, with Mexico solely, and that the idea of negotiating NAFTA might be gone at this point. Is the possibility of getting to a NAFTA deal done as this administration sees it?
MS. SANDERS: It’s not done. But again, the President is open to having individual deals. But he’s looking at the best way to make sure he gets the best deal possible for American workers. And whether or not that’s through NAFTA or other means, those options are on the table.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Back to the issue of presidential pardons. There’s been considerable furor in Illinois among Republicans, particularly supporters of the President and allies in Congress, such as Congressman Randy Hultgren, about him even suggesting commuting the sentence of former Governor Rob Blagojevich. Several party activists and colleagues of Congressmen Hultgren are becoming increasingly outspoken. Is he going to go ahead with the commutation, or is he backing down? And is he aware of the criticism from supporters of his?
MS. SANDERS: The President hasn’t made a final decision on that. But as you know, the President doesn’t base his decisions off of the criticism of others but on what he thinks is the right decision to make. And that’s what he’ll base it on.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The President is also meeting with lawmakers here this afternoon. What’s on the agenda?
MS. SANDERS: A number of items will be discussed at that event, and we’ll be sure to provide info afterwards.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Does the President still think his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico deserves a 10 out of 10 score now that estimates say almost 5,000 people died there?
MS. SANDERS: The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion. We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico. And we’ll continue to do so.
Q Any concern about the massive volume of the death toll there?
Q Thanks, Sarah. The administration came out in support of the baker’s freedom of expression in yesterday’s Supreme Court case. I guess I’m asking, why are athletes’ rights to express themselves freely any different than the baker’s?
MS. SANDERS: When it comes to the bakers, we were pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision. The First Amendment prohibits government discriminating against the basis of religious beliefs, and the Supreme Court rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for his religious beliefs.
In this case and others, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously defend the Free Speech and Religious Freedom First Amendment rights.
Q So I guess my question is simple: So if the White House supports the baker’s right of free speech, why doesn’t the White House support the players’ right to free speech?
MS. SANDERS: The President doesn’t think that this is an issue simply of free speech. He thinks it’s about respecting the men and women of our military. It’s about respecting our National Anthem. And it’s about standing out of pride for that.
Q It’s about police-involved shootings, Sarah. Why not deal with —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry. I’ll take one last question.
Q Sarah, why not deal with the underlying issue of police-involved shootings?
Q Sarah, this is — will he commit to a roundtable? Will he commit — will the President, then, if it is about free speech and he supports these ideas, will the President commit to a roundtable with America’s athletes on topics of social injustice?
MS. SANDERS: I’d certainly be happy to ask him. Steven.
Q Has he not — just for clarity, has he not — is it not something that has had any discussion to this point, given all the division in this country over this topic of social justice?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, we look at ways every single day to unify our country. The President has worked actively and tirelessly to be the President of all Americans. I think you can see that reflected in the policies that he’s put forth. It think one of the biggest things that you’ve seen come out of this administration, frankly, that is far and vastly different than previous administrations is providing economic opportunity for all Americans. And one of the greatest equalizers that we can have is to provide a level playing field, and the President has worked increasingly hard to make sure that that happens. Kevin spoke about that earlier, and he’s going to continue to do that.
I’ll take one last question. Steven.
Q Why won’t you answer about police-involved shootings? Is the President aware that this is about police-involved shootings and not about disrespecting the flag?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Steven. Go ahead.
Q Is the President aware of that, Sarah, please?
MS. SANDERS: Steven, if you could go ahead.
Q Please answer that. Please answer that.
Q I’m asking, this is — there’s an underlying issue and it just keeps going about disrespect of the flag and soldiers. There are black and brown soldiers that fight in the military, as well, who feel that taking a knee, bringing attention to police-involved shootings is something that this White House should deal with. Is the President aware that taking the knee is about police-involved shootings?
MS. SANDERS: The President has made his position crystal-clear. And that is about —
Q Is he aware that this is about police-involved shootings?
MS. SANDERS: I let you rudely interrupt me and your colleague.
Q I’m sorry, but this is important that this question get answered.
MS. SANDERS: I’m going to ask that you allow me to finish my answer. I would be happy to answer it if you would stop talking long enough to let me do that.
The President has made his position crystal-clear on this topic. He feels strongly that standing for our National Anthem is something that we should do, something that matters to what makes our country special and unique, and what sets us apart. He’s not going to waver on that. He’s not going to apologize for it. And frankly, more than 70 percent of Americans agree with him on that matter. If you go back to what the original intent was, this has been made a political argument of which the President is not going to back down from. And he’s been clear on it.
Steven, last question.
Q (Inaudible) but will he deal with the issue of police-involved shootings?
MS. SANDERS: April, I’ve addressed your question. I’m not going to continue to engage with you.
Q I understand. But people are now standing — the NFL is now telling people they have to stand. Will the President deal with the issue of police-involved shootings?
MS. SANDERS: I’m going to deal with the issue of addressing your colleague’s question.
Q But it’s a real question. Can you take it to the President and come back to us with it?
MS. SANDERS: Steven, go ahead.
Q Always happy to yield to a colleague.
Q Thank you.
Q But let me ask you about Scott Pruitt, because the two Republicans who represent Iowa in the Senate have had it with the EPA Administrator. Chuck Grassley said that Pruitt has betrayed the President. Joni Ernst says that Pruitt is as swampy as you can get. Josh and his colleagues report in the Washington Post today new elements of just how swampy that is. So let me ask you how is it, in the face of all that we’ve learned, how is that President Trump continues to have confidence in the EPA Administrator, assuming that he still does?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I haven’t had a chance to speak with the President directly about the Washington Post’s new report. We continue to have concerns and look into those, and we’ll address them.
END 2:57 P.M. EDT