Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sander, 2/28/2017
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:07 P.M. EST
MS. SANDERS: Good Afternoon. Sorry for the delay. Obviously, I never want to step on anything the President is doing, so I wanted to wait until he finished. The President has obviously got a full day and night planned, so I’m going to try to keep this short so that you guys can get focused on his speech coming up later.
First off, and I know Sean briefly spoke about this yesterday -- and, by the way, just for clarification, he is not here, clearly, because he is up on the Hill briefing House and Senate communicators about the speech and previewing that for them right now. But Sean mentioned this yesterday, and I’m sure that it stuck with me, but the story has developed further. I wanted to address the tragic shooting in Kansas. The President is keeping the family of the victim, who was senselessly, killed in his thoughts, and we’re praying for the full and speedy recovery of those who were wounded.
As more facts come to light, and it begins to look like this was an act of racially-motivated hatred, we want to reiterate that the President condemns these and any other racially- or religiously-motivated attacks in the strongest terms. They have no place in our country, and we will continue to make that clear.
In regards to the rest of the events today, this morning the Vice President swore in Secretary Ross as the Secretary of Commerce in his ceremonial office, and the President knows Secretary Ross is eager to get started building the country back up again, and we’re glad to finally have him in place at the Commerce Department to do just that.
Moving on to the President’s day, this morning, after receiving his national daily intelligence briefing, the President met with the National Association of Attorneys General, and then had lunch with members of the press, as is tradition for the day of the joint address to Congress.
This afternoon, the President, as most of you saw, just signed two bills and executive orders. The first bill, H.R. 321, also known as the INSPIRE Act, encourages NASA to have women and girls participate in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and to pursue careers in aerospace using extreme programs and resources.
H.R. 255, or the Promoting Women and Entrepreneurship Act, is a similar bill targeted to the National Science Foundation. The bill encourages NSF to also use existing programs to recruit and support the employment of women in the sciences. These bills are the next step in the President’s continued focus on empowering women of all ages and all interests to pursue their chosen careers.
As you saw, the President and Prime Minister Trudeau spent an afternoon speaking with female business leaders about the unique challenges facing women in the workplace earlier this month. And just last week, during his listening session with manufacturing CEOs, the President heard from a breakout group focused specifically on policies that could help lessen or remove some of those same barriers.
The President also signed two executive orders. The first instructs the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to review and reconsider the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule, as well as providing instruction to the Attorney General for current legal action on the rule. The Obama administration’s rule vastly expands federal jurisdiction into state and local areas, and the decisions that directly affects them, and that’s something that this administration does not take lightly.
The second executive order will make Historically Black Colleges and Universities a priority again in the White House. This order provides a framework for repositioning the HBCU initiative in the White House, allowing it to function across all executive departments and agencies in consultation with the Department of Education.
As you might have seen yesterday, the President welcomed the over 60 presidents of HBCUs and representatives from leading HBCU organizations to the Oval Office before their listening session with the Vice President and Secretary DeVos. The President is extremely committed to keeping the promises he made regarding HBCUs on the campaign trail, and looks forward to working with these leaders and organizations to provide HBCUs with the resources that they need.
Later this afternoon, probably right about now, the President is meeting with the guests who will be seated with the First Lady at his first address to the Joint Congress. We provided a list and shorts bios of each of the guests via email last night. Now, I’m also able to confirm two additional guests for the First Lady: Jessica Gregory and her proud mother, Sheila Gregory. Jessica was diagnosed at birth with spina bifida, and has undergone 11 surgeries at Children’s National Health System. Today, she is a dynamic 18-year-old honor student in Maryland, planning for college and a career as a public interest reporter, which was sparked by her experiences at Children’s National Seacrest Studios.
Later this evening, the President will proceed to the U.S. Capitol where he will address the Joint Session of Congress at 9:10 p.m. And, of course, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s safe to say that the President will be presenting a forward-looking vision to the American people. He’s already proven that he can bring results and relief to this country, and a wave of optimism is surging across the country in response.
In terms of an outline of some of the policy areas the President will address during his speech, the President will specifically ask Congress to join him in coming up with and implementing solutions to restart the engine of our economy, provide more access to quality, affordable healthcare, expand educational opportunities to every child no matter their zip code, and unite with law enforcement and the military to protect our communities and our homeland.
Together, with the help of Congress, state and local governments, the President will set our country back on the path to a bright future. Speaking of future, looking ahead in the schedule, I have some updates on the President’s upcoming travel. On Thursday, he will travel to Virginia to give remarks aboard the USS Gerald Ford, and participate in a roundtable with military officials, shipbuilders, and community leaders. Initial guidance for that has already been sent out, and we’ll have updates for credentialed media coming soon.
On Friday, the President will attend a listening session on school choice at St. Andrews Catholic School in Florida, and we’ll have guidance for that out soon. And with that, I’ll take you questions.
Q Yeah, Sarah, thanks. Two things: First, can you --
MS. SANDERS: Of course, let’s not mess with tradition here.
Q Very -- they’re simple things. Can you confirm a discussion that happened with the network anchors about immigration, where apparently the President is now open to a compromise bill on immigration reform, and something he might include in the speech tonight?
And the second point is regarding the State Department budget. There are some reports out there about possibly a 37 or 38 percent cut to the State Department budget.
MS. SANDERS: So I’ll start with the first question. I was not a participant in the lunch today, so not part of the specific conversation, so I can’t speak to the exact conversation that took place. But I do know that the President has been very clear in his process that the immigration system is broken and needs massive reform, and he has made clear that he is open to having conversations about that and moving forward.
Right now, his primary focus, as he had made over and over again, is border control and security at the border, and deporting criminals from our country, and keeping our country safe. And those priorities have not changed.
Q And the State Department?
MS. SANDERS: And the State Department -- as we said before, I think -- not congressman anymore --- but OMB Director Mulvaney made it pretty clear that the budget priorities that we laid out were just that -- they were priorities. And right now, we’re in a discussion process. This is the same historically today that it always works: We put out our priorities, we lay those out to the departments, they offer feedback to us, and so right now we’re just in a discussion process. So there’s nothing firm and exact on any numbers that may be coming out of that.
Q Two subjects for you. Kansas -- you started off your remarks talking about it. Can we expect the President to address that tonight? And forgetting about what may or may not have been discussed, is the President open to an immigration bill that would include a pathway to citizenship without undocumented immigrants leaving the country?
MS. SANDERS: On your first question, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was mentioned in the speech tonight. In terms of the immigration, again, I haven’t had further conversations with him about that today, but I do know that his priorities have been very clear on immigration, and that’s the number one focus right now.
Q One follow on that. Is it safe to say he wouldn’t --
MS. SANDERS: That’s three now.
Q -- rule out -- it’s a follow. It’s a follow-up.
MS. SANDERS: Just so you know, I’m not like Sean. I’m not going to let her set precedents and take three questions from everybody.
Q Very quick follow. Is it safe to say he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of an immigration bill that would not deport people who don’t have criminal records? In other words, is the focus still on those with criminal records? And is he very seriously considering some type to carve-out for those who don’t have criminal records?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the focus is certainly on those with a criminal background and criminal record. But until I’ve had a chance to have a conversation with the President, I’m not going to speak to that any further.
Sure, go ahead.
Q Thank you. Two questions, of course. First off, the budget and possible reductions to the State Department. Would that indicate -- would those reductions indicate any desire to run foreign policy more directly out of the White House as opposed to through the State Department and career diplomats?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I’m not following what you’re asking here.
Q Cuts to the State Department. There have been reports saying that Secretary Tillerson has been sort of marginalized in a lot of foreign policy discussions going on. And do these cuts indicate any desire to run foreign policy more directly from the White House and not through the State Department?
MS. SANDERS: Well, I would disagree that Secretary Tillerson has been marginalized. I think nothing could be further from the truth. And so I wouldn’t rely on sources outside of the White House in terms of who will be making decisions. And at this point, the Secretary of State is very much empowered to do that. Nothing has changed on that front.
Q Second question.
MS. SANDERS: Go ahead.
Q Not to belabor a point, but to follow up on Kristen’s question. The reports that are out there are still coming in about this conversation that was had today, but is it fair then to say that the President supports at least a compromise immigration bill? And then just give us a few details on how he’s spending the afternoon in terms of this speech. Like, is it done? Is he still tweaking? Things like that.
MS. SANDERS: I love that if we keep asking the same question we think we might get a different answer. I know. I appreciate the effort; I think you guys get As for effort. But again, I’m going to continue to say: Until I’ve had a chance to have that conversation with the President, I’m not going to speculate on what that would look like.
In terms of the afternoon, I know right now he is currently meeting with the people that will be seated with the First Lady. And this afternoon, he has plans to work through the speech and practice and make any last-minute changes to that.
Q So those people that he’s meeting with right now, is he going to be directly referencing them in his speech tonight?
MS. SANDERS: I think you can rest assured that most of those names will come up in the speech tonight.
Q And any idea when the excerpts will be coming out?
MS. SANDERS: I think we may have some later this afternoon. I don’t know that we’ll have the full text of the speech before, but I do believe we’ll have at least some nuggets of the speech that we will release later today.
Q Thank you. So first, on the JCC threats, apparently Pennsylvania Attorney General Shapiro is saying that in part of his conversation with the President, the President indicated that these threats may have come from “the reverse" or "to make others look bad.” Do you dispute that characterization of -- what did the President mean by that? Was he saying that these anti-Semitic threats are coming from -- I don’t know, you tell us.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I wasn’t part of a private conversation. What I do know is the conversations that I have had with the President, he’s been extremely clear and extremely consistent on this topic. Any act of violence towards people of the Jewish faith is condemned by this administration. Full stop.
Q And then one on healthcare, as well. There have been -- some Republicans have now come out publicly against the draft plan that is being circulated in Congress on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Is the President concerned about the fact that more conservatives are now saying they couldn’t support that plan? And what is his message to those Republicans?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all, because the draft plan is exactly that -- a draft. It’s meant to open up the conversation. The last several days the President has spent time with governors, he’s meeting with attorney generals, he’s met with CEOs of major healthcare companies to talk about how they can improve that plan.
The big things that he’s made a priority is that we will repeal Obamacare but replace it with something better. And that’s a lot of what these conversations that he’s had over the last several days are helping to do, is to make that plan better. And the one that’s been floated out there is nothing more than a draft.
Q Sarah -- and I want to ask two questions on two different things. When it comes to inclusion, what is the President talking about tonight when it's inclusion? Is it about race? Is it about politics? What does this inclusion vision or unity vision include?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s very clear, the President has made no secret from the campaign trail through the first month in office that his priority is putting Americans first. And when he says “Americans,” he means all Americans. He’s not specifying breaking it out by demographic. He’s talking about every single American, and I don’t think you can be any more clear when it comes to unity than that -- and inclusion.
Q And last question, on HBCUs. There’s no new money in it, but the people who came to the stakeout, who were in the room for the signing, were talking about a promise of more money. They’ve been looking forward to more money from (inaudible) Commerce. What is this next step for them, I guess, to do when it comes to getting more money and this promise beyond what you’re already doing trying to bring the agencies together to pinpoint things (inaudible)? What is this promise of hope for money?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure on the specific resources, but I do know that the President’s priority here is making sure that the HBCUs have a direct line within the White House and not layers of bureaucracy to have to go through. And so that conversation has opened up so that he can be part of that directly. And that’s a big part of moving this group back into the White House outside of the Department of Education.
Q So you don’t know anything else about --
MS. SANDERS: I do know that there have been a lot of different discussions on how that could happen. Some of that is through -- all of the different departments have -- there are quite a few departments -- you would be surprised, not just Department of Education, that actually have funding streams for HBCUs, and figuring out how best to streamline that so that more money goes back to the actual colleges and universities.
Q The Pentagon -- that 30-day report yesterday on defeating ISIS. Can you give us any sort of update on the options presented in that and what the President’s reaction was?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President has been very clear, he never lays out a strategy to defeat an enemy. And that’s exactly what he was asked to get back was a strategy and options. And I know that that was presented yesterday.
Q Did the White House reach out to the Pentagon to see what kind of information could be made public about what intelligence was gathered in that Yemen raid? Do you know if that’s something that occurred?
MS. SANDERS: I know we’ve had conversations with people at DOD. I haven’t been given specifics, but I do know that very clearly it was stated that there was substantial information gathered that was offered. And I’m trying to figure -- remember exactly how they phrased it -- but actionable items within that information.
Sure, go ahead.
Q Just to follow up on immigration, I know you said the focus is still on border security and deporting criminals. But can we expect the President to actually talk about a call for a broader immigration bill at all in the speech? Or is that just something you’re saying he’s open to but we’re not going to hear about it tonight?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get in front of the President’s speech tonight, but I do think that you can expect immigration to be mentioned. But I’ll let him fill you in on the details of what that actually looks like.
Q Two questions. So first, with regard to the anti-ISIS plan, how much of that can we expect to hear from him tonight? You’re saying that he doesn’t want to kind of reveal the game plan, but it could involve boosting troop numbers perhaps. I mean, the American people probably would want to know something like that. So is there anything that’s going to hint to that?
The second part is, General McMaster has been reported to say that he didn’t think that the phrase “radical Islamic extremism” is helpful, is a useful term. So is the President going to try to kind of tone that down in his speech tonight? Or can we expect to still hear that kind of language used?
MS. SANDERS: I know that national security will be a big part of the speech tonight. And again, I don’t want to get ahead of that, but I think you can certainly anticipate him addressing national security in depth tonight.
Q Thanks, Sarah. A follow-up question about the ISIS review. Sean yesterday promised a -- I guess more information today on the process, who was involved in drafting this review -- not specifics of what was in it. And yesterday, the principals committee, when as it actually brought the President? That's the first one.
The second one is, you've spent a lot of time talking about (inaudible) following up on a question earlier. Does the administration hope that the State Department keeps the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism? Or will the White House sort of commit to keeping that position?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, on the first question in terms of the plan and the specifics, luckily we're not all the way through with today. And it’s going to be a long day, so we've still got plenty of time to get that information to you. In terms of the second part, I’m not clear on the plan for that, but we’ll check and get back to you on it.
Q Just two small, short questions. Do you have anything on this immigration -- about the skilled laborers? For example, H-1B visa. Because there is a group of lawmakers who were in Delhi, and they spoke to Prime Minister Modi who gave -- there is a lot of fear about the H-1B visa being slashed. So do you have anything on that?
MS. SANDERS: I don't have any announcements on that right now.
Q And the Indian foreign secretary is in town from today until March 4th. Any meetings scheduled here?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of right now, but I’ll check and we’ll get back to you and let you know for sure.
Q Sarah, I was wondering if you have any details on the strike that may have killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, the al Qaeda number two?
MS. SANDERS: I don't have any comments at all. Not at this time.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two brief questions for you. One, in at least two of the televised debates during the Republican presidential nomination, candidate Trump made it clear he was for abolishing the Department of Education. Now he is President, and are there going to be major cutbacks in the Department of Education that have been approved by Secretary DeVos?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure about specific cutbacks. But I do know that there is a heavy emphasis and priority on moving power away from the federal government to the state and local government. And I know that that was one of the topics that was discussed yesterday with a lot of the governors that were in town. Specifically that topic came up. And I think you can look for ways that we’ll start moving power from the federal government to state and local governments where they're closer to education decisions. But as far as specific plans, I couldn’t speak to that today.
Q So it’s phasing out the department rather than abolishing?
MS. SANDERS: I did not say that we were phasing out the department. I said we were moving power away from the federal government to state and local governments. But as far as specifics go, I’m sure we’ll be getting to those over the next couple of months.
Q My other question is --
MS. SANDERS: Sean set me up for the take two here. (Laughter.)
Q The Islamic Resistance Council, one of the best-known groups in opposition to the government in Tehran, recently released documents saying the Quds Force, the Elite Revolutionary Guards in Iran have an extra-territorial division now that is fomenting violence in other countries, including Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Is the administration aware of this? And does it have any comment on it?
MS. SANDERS: That's a question I would refer to the NSC, instead of through us.
Q In his Fox interview, the President said this morning, "We will be putting out a replacement plan for Obamacare.” Who is "we"?
MS. SANDERS: Well, I think it’s no secret he’s been spending a lot of time working with members of Congress, his HHS Secretary, Secretary Price, himself. And again, he’s had countless meetings over the first few weeks in office with a lot of people that have major influence and major impact, and that a repeal-and-replace plan would impact a lot. So I think it’s a collective thing. But primarily the President, the Department of HHS, and Congress.
Q Will that be one plan? Or is it going to be a White House plan and a congressional plan?
MS. SANDERS: I don't think we're ready to make that full announcement today, but I definitely know that it’s a collective process that we've been working through.
Q Just to follow up on that question: Has there been some warmth shown to the Speaker’s office and to the House Republican proposal? That's what we're hearing from sources up on the Hill, that they're feeling a little bit better about the way the President is receiving their proposals for repealing and replacing Obamacare.
MS. SANDERS: Look, we -- absolutely, this President is very clear he wants to work with Congress. And we want to make sure that we have the best plan possible. And I think that requires that all of us come together and work together to make sure we get that. And that's exactly what we've been doing.
Q Can I just follow on that, Sarah? There are a variety of House Republicans who know that the working draft is dead in the House -- among Republicans for ACA repeal and replace. And their question is whether they're going to hear from the President something more specific that will help give them cover and lead them forward on ACA, publicly. So my question to you is: What is he going to say that might be in the vein that they're talking about -- leading, giving them cover, and describing something in more detail than Obamacare needs to be repealed and replaced?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of the President’s speech tonight. But I do know that he will address Obamacare. He’ll talk about some of his priorities for the plan, and I’ll let him speak to that later this evening.
Q Can I also ask -- Sean said yesterday we could expect a new immigration, travel EO by midweek. Is that still operable?
MS. SANDERS: I would say that's pretty likely.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The White House, I’m wondering, if you have a strategy for who is sitting with the President -- or rather with the First Lady in the box -- for instance, Democrats are purposefully bringing DREAMers, they're purposefully brining Muslims to show their opposition to some of the President’s strategy. So what is the White House’s message with the people that are sitting in the President’s box?
MS. SANDERS: I think the primary reason that a lot of times you have people in the box are they're -- that highlight specific parts of the speech and specific parts of the agenda. And I think you can see the people sitting with him. It’s pretty obvious the reason that most of them are there. And he’s laid out those priorities since day one of his administration. And so I think it’s pretty self-explanatory there, Francesca.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The President’s budget -- even though it’s not complete yet -- has already been running into some significant resistance among Senate Republicans. Senator McConnell is out there criticizing the State Department cuts. Senator Graham said it was dead on arrival. So I just want to know what the White House is doing to talk to these members, maybe assuage their concerns. Can you give us a picture what’s going on behind the scenes to get support for that document before it comes out?
MS. SANDERS: Sure. I mean, the President met with Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell earlier this week to talk about some of those priorities. But again, this isn’t a final budget. It’s a draft, and the whole point of it is to receive feedback, work together, and put the best budget forward possible.
And that's exactly what process we're in right now. Director Mulvaney is focused on doing that. And I know he’s got a lot of colleagues in the House and Senate, and he’ll be speaking with a lot of those people over the coming weeks as we lead up to rolling out our budget.
Q Sarah, the President said he believes that former President Barack Obama is secretly behind these waves of protests that have been coming up these last few weeks. What tangible evidence is President Trump basing this on? And when was the last time the two spoke?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll let the President’s comments on that stand for itself. And I’m not sure on the last time they spoke. I’d have to check on that and get back to you.
Q But does the White House believe that President Obama and his people -- like the President is suggesting -- are behind these protests?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the bottom line here is that we've all condemned the protests. I think that that's the bigger story here. And the focus that we should be talking about is that this isn’t something that helps and moves us forward. And that's what we're focused on right now.
Q Two questions -- one is on immigration.
MS. SANDERS: The topic of the day.
Q In 2014, President Trump, then-citizen Trump, spoke to CPAC and said that he thought immigration in the long term, if there was an immigration reform bill, that it would be a loser for the Republican Party; that the people who could be naturalized through the process would only vote for Democrats. Has the President come to a different political calculation that if there is a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally, that they could eventually vote for Republicans?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I haven’t had the chance to talk with the President about this specific policy that we've now asked about multiple times. But we’ll try to do that and get something to you guys in the next --
Q Does the President think that human exploration is something that is important for the -- human space exploration is something that’s important for the country to invest in, in the future?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure if I would say that it’s a top priority. But I know it’s something that's certainly been discussed.
Thanks, guys. We look forward to the speech tonight, and we’ll get you some more details.
Q (Inaudible) tonight?
Hopefully we’ll have some more information to lay out for you guys later this afternoon. Thanks.
3:33 P.M. EST