Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, 6/15/2017
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:41 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Since this is our first time formally getting together since the events of yesterday, I wanted to reiterate that the thoughts and prayers of the President and the entire administration are with Congressman Scalise, Agent Griner, Agent Bailey, Matt Mika, and Zack Barth, and all of their friends and family.
The President and Vice President have both visited MedStar Washington Hospital Center where Congressman Scalise and Agent Griner are being treated for their injuries. And we continue to monitor all the victims' conditions and pray for their swift and full recovery.
As you know, today the President signed an executive order on workforce development. Millions of American workers around the country are being failed by outdated education and training programs that aren’t equipping them with the skills they need to take full advantage of the current job opportunities. Think about that: We have millions of Americans looking for work and an estimated 6 million already-existing jobs that need to be filled.
In some cases, the only thing standing between them is the skills gap created and reinforced by an education program that hasn’t adapted for the 21st century economy.
President Trump is committed to changing that. And a big part of this commitment is providing more opportunities for Americans to gain the skills they need to succeed and thrive, such as apprenticeship programs.
A few months ago, President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel hosted an important roundtable on how the education system can work in partnership with the private sector to create programs that give students the specific skills they need for the well-paying jobs that are available to them.
CEOs from American and German companies brought along apprentices from their own companies who shared their success stories with the President. And one of the apprentices, Marie Davis, shared how a unique apprenticeship program in her small town in South Carolina helped her transition from the Air Force to a rewarding career in the manufacturing industry.
The President and his daughter Ivanka have heard many stories like Marie's, and that's why he's committed to reforming American education so that more students can come out ready for a job that they want, not just saddled with mounting debt, with no paycheck to pay it down.
Before I take your questions, I also wanted to let you know that the President will be traveling to Miami tomorrow to make an announcement on U.S.-Cuba policy. So, if you're in the pool, make sure you bring your sunscreen. I heard it's pretty hot and sunny down there. And with that, I'll take your questions.
Q Sarah, yesterday the President stuck to the script in his televised remarks. He didn’t lash out at opponents yesterday. He didn’t tweet about the Russia investigation. He stuck to a message of unity. That changed this morning with the President's tweets. Why did the President decide to weigh in again on the Russia investigation this morning?
MS. SANDERS: With regard to weighing in, I think there were some developments yesterday, and he was responding to those things -- stories that came out yesterday afternoon.
Q Can I follow up on that? I mean, the stories that came out, actually, were that Mueller was investigating the President for potential obstruction of justice. Given that the White House has been referring questions to Trump's personal lawyers, why is it the President feels like he, personally, should be weighing in on this?
MS. SANDERS: Again, that's a question -- I know you're not going to like my answer -- but anything specific to the case, you would have to reach out to the President's outside counsel.
Q I just have a follow, and then one more question -- and I know you're going to refer a lot of this to outside counsel -- but given the reports that have come out over the last 12 to 18 hours, does the President still feel vindicated?
MS. SANDERS: I believe so. But again, anything specific to the investigation, I would refer you to Marc Kasowitz and his team.
Q And who are the "bad" and "conflicted" people he mentioned in that tweet?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I would refer you to the President's outside counsel on all questions relating to the investigation.
Q Christopher Wray is your pick for the new FBI director. His nomination has not been formally sent over to the Senate. Can you explain what the holdup has been and where that goes from here?
MS. SANDERS: There's a pretty lengthy paperwork process, I know, that goes with selecting that individual. And so I believe they're in the middle of that process. And as soon as it's completed, it will be sent over.
Q Are you talking about security clearance? Or is it --
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know the specific pieces of paperwork that go with that position. I'd be happy to check and get back to you.
Q Was that announced too early then? Or was the President appropriate when he announced that?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly not too early. But again, there's a part of a process that has to take place before the formal paperwork that goes to the Senate goes through.
Q Thanks, Sarah. If the President is tweeting about the Russia probe, why can't you talk about it from the podium?
MS. SANDERS: Because I'm not the President.
Q Well -- but is there some messaging confusion there? Why can't you come out and answer questions about it if he's tweeting about it? Clearly, he feels comfortable speaking about it.
MS. SANDERS: I think, again, that there have been very clear guidelines set that we have relayed to you guys multiple times over that anything relating to the investigation, outside the President himself, needs to be referred directly to Marc Kasowitz and his team.
Q And let me just try one more time on the tweet -- to Hallie's point -- "they made up a phony collusion." Is that Democrats? Who is that? Who is he referencing?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I would refer you to the President's outside counsel.
Q Okay. And, Sarah, has anyone at the White House gotten a request from Mueller for any documents related to the investigation?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of, but I'd have to double-check to be sure.
Q Over the last day, since the shooting occurred yesterday morning, there's been a lot of talk about rhetoric and the extent that political rhetoric in this country may be fueling the kinds of incidents that happen. You saw the President -- it was just referred in the first question -- the President took a real, sort of, unity tone in that first statement, but he returned to the kind of divisiveness and tone that he normally does in the tweets this morning.
So I guess the question is, does the White House feel like the President and the White House, more broadly, have any responsibility to adapt a kind of different tone going forward, the way that many of the members on both sides of the aisle are calling for in the last 24 hours?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President was extremely clear yesterday where he thought the rhetoric should lie. And certainly, I -- I'm not sure how you would say that he should own responsibility in any of that.
Q Well, I guess, when it comes to a tweet, and not on the substance of the Russia investigation -- but when you call people "bad people" and "witch hunt," and sort of attacking -- impugning motives of your adversaries, that's the kind of rhetoric I think that people are talking about.
MS. SANDERS: I think there's been quite a bit of attacking against the President. I think he was responding to those specific accusations. But I think, as a whole, our country certainly could bring the temperature down a little bit. I think that was the goal that the President laid out yesterday, and hopefully we can all see moving forward.
Q Sarah, how does he plan to do that? Does he plan to use this moment as a teachable moment and try and urge people to, beyond the speech yesterday, try and urge people to bring down the heat of the rhetoric here? Or how does he view this as his leadership moment?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, I think yesterday was the first step in that process, but I also think by focusing on an agenda that helps empower all of America. That’s something he has been very out front and vocal about being a priority, whether it’s on education, creating jobs, national security -- it’s about protecting and empowering Americans. And so I think you can see the point of unity through his agenda.
Q Does he plan to do anything differently, though, in terms of give a speech solely on this or perhaps reach out to Democrats? What specifically does he plan to do different, if anything else?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President has tried a lot to reach out to Democrats. He had several members of Congress from the Democrat Party here earlier this week for dinner. I think we’ll continue to do things, but I certainly think that as much as we can, we have the opportunity to reach across the aisle -- and we certainly should -- and I think that should go both ways.
Q One final thing. Does he still have confidence, or does he have confidence in the special counsel?
MS. SANDERS: I believe so. Again, I think I made clear earlier this week when I said that he has no intention to make any changes whatsoever on that front.
Q You said you didn’t know, though, if he had confidence on Air Force One, I think. Do you think he has confidence in Bob Mueller?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a specific conversation about that, but I think if he didn’t he would probably have intentions to make a change and he certainly doesn’t.
Q The Secret Service says that they have no recordings of the President’s conversation while he was in office. Is that case closed for this White House? Does that answer the question of whether there are tapes or not?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I know this is in reference to the Comey conversations and I would refer you to the outside counsel for that.
Q Is that then where this answer is going to come from? Because, just a few days ago, the President said he would tell America --
MS. SANDERS: I’m talking about specific questions regarding that. You could ask them, but I believe the President intends to make it clear at some point. But in terms of questions that you’re asking regarding that matter, you’d have to ask outside counsel.
Q Should we expect that to happen this week? The President’s legal team said on Sunday that it would happen this week.
MS. SANDERS: Then, again, I would refer to them. If they said it will happen this week, then assume it does.
Q Today, the Senate passed new sanctions on Iran and then also on Russia as well. Secretary Tillerson said he felt that he didn’t want to be handcuffed by this. White House have a position?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, the administration is committed to existing sanctions against Russia and will keep them in place until Moscow fully honors its commitments to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. We believe the existing executive branch sanctions regime is the best tool for compelling Russia to fulfill its commitments.
Q Does the White House feel handcuffed, though, in terms of being able to reach out with the Senate action?
MS. SANDERS: No, right now we're still reviewing the new Russia sanctions amendment. The process is still ongoing. It needs to go through the House, and we don’t have a final product yet to weigh in.
Q Why has the President decided to give Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authority to increase troop levels in Afghanistan?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President is simply giving the Secretary of Defense -- this is one piece of a broader cohesive plan for that region -- and he wants to give Secretary Mattis the ability to manage the troops and the resources to do so.
For instance, under the current guidelines, you have instances where you send helicopters out without mechanics. He wants to be able to simply remove kind of an arbitrary cap that allows him to manage the forces more accurately.
Q How many more troops does the President want to see added to U.S. forces in Afghanistan?
MS. SANDERS: For anything more specific, I would defer you to Secretary Mattis and his team on that.
Q Two questions. First, on executive privilege. About a week ago, you said that in order to facilitate the swift examination of the facts sought by the House Intelligence Committee, President Trump will not assert executive privilege about Jim Comey’s testimony. Does that still hold for the Attorney General, Mr. Sessions? Does the President have any reason to invoke executive privilege or say that Mr. Sessions should not answer the questions from the Intelligence Committee?
MS. SANDERS: Look, there’s a longstanding precedent that close advisors to the President keep conversations with the President confidential. This has been respected by both parties. And specifically regarding Attorney General Sessions, there’s a DOJ legal opinion protecting conversations between the President and his Attorney General.
At the same time, we’ll continue to work with congressional committees to accommodate the process to ensure the equities of both branches of government.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions today. First --
MS. SANDERS: That's less than everybody else so far, so --
Q Okay, thank you. Last week, Sean put out a very strong statement about the Russian crackdown of dissidents, and this won wide applause from the Russia expatriate community, Mr. Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Kara-Murza, both prominent Russian dissidents. Mr. Kara-Murza called on the President to go a step further and bring up the plight of the hundreds of Russian dissidents who have been jailed in the last few days when he meets with President Putin in Hamburg at the G20 Summit. Does he plan to bring that up?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not sure. I'd have to check. But as usual standard, we try not to get ahead of conversations that the President may have. But I'm sure we'll provide a readout after they have a conversation, if that takes place.
Q My other question --
MS. SANDERS: Oh, sorry, you did say two.
Q Thank you. Was based on -- almost within a period of days after the strong statements from the President and Secretary Tillerson about Qatar, that the United States entered into a $21 billion arms deal with Qatar, and that includes $12 billion, I believe, for fighter aircraft. Does this mean that Qatar is following the U.S. example and cutting back on its ties to those the President considered unacceptable?
MS. SANDERS: The common security between all the regions is obviously our top priority. Qatar plays an important role in the region by hosting our forces, which are fighting ISIS and other extremist groups. This agreement between the United States and Qatar has been years in the making and is the tangible show of support for our defense relationship and Qatar's commitment to the U.S.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. The President, obviously, based upon his tweets, is not pleased with the investigation that is ongoing by Robert Mueller. Does the President, Sarah, believe it's in his power to shut down that investigation?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I would refer all questions regarding the investigation to the President's outside counsel.
Q On a separate topic, can you give us a little background about the President's visit with Congressman Scalise last night in the hospital, just beyond what we heard last night from Sean?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have a lot more to add other than what Sean commented on last night. Obviously, I would imagine it was an emotional time. It was a time the President wanted to show his support for the Congressman, the other victims, and have time to show that publicly and certainly in person with the Congressman's wife.
Q Sarah, one logistical one and one policy one. The logistical one is, while I love air conditioning, the fact that it's running and the fact that you're not on speaker is it would be great if we get the transcript because it's going to be really hard to get audio off this.
And the policy one is, does the President plan to nominate a Cuban ambassador, or will he leave that position vacant during his presidency?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not sure what the plans are for that and specific to any Cuba policy announcement. I'm not going to get ahead of the President's activity that's planned for tomorrow, and so I don’t know if that will be addressed. If not, we can try to follow up next week.
Q Sarah, on Bob Mueller, is there anything you can tell us more about when he came in to interview for the job, what the President was looking at offering him? Was it acting FBI director? Was it actually FBI director? Why didn’t the White House tell us more about that at the time when you did announce other people who were coming in for the director job?
MS. SANDERS: My understanding is he was actually here the day before he was named as a special counsel. In terms of specific job, whether it was acting or permanent, I'm not sure, and I'd have to check and get back to you.
Q But it was a job interview?
MS. SANDERS: That's my understanding, yes.
Q And does the White House believe that that presents any kind of conflict, that sequence of events you just described? The day before he's supposed to be the independent, outside counsel, he was meeting, presumably, with the President directly to talk about --
MS. SANDERS: No, since that's something he wouldn’t have been aware of.
Q Sorry, the President wasn’t aware of --
MS. SANDERS: Wouldn’t have been aware of the naming of a special counsel at that time.
Q So it's not a conflict?
MS. SANDERS: Right.
Sorry, you've been skipped over a couple of times.
Q I know, I keep thinking it's me and then someone else answers.
MS. SANDERS: So credit me for constantly --
Q Thank you, I appreciate it. So a couple of political things. Virginia had its elections the other day. That's the biggest -- big election of this year. I'm wondering if the President would campaign for the Republican nominee for governor, or any of the nominees; if he's spoken to Ed Gillespie, if they've had any conversation or any plans to do anything together.
MS. SANDERS: I'm not aware of any conversations that have taken place, and whether or not there will be activities. We certainly would keep you guys posted if that was to happen.
Q And you don’t know if he would campaign for him later in the year?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know if that's been discussed. I can't comment.
Q How about next week for the final week of the Georgia election? Any other --
MS. SANDERS: Plans for him to go? Not that I'm aware of at this point.
Q He wouldn’t do anything? Calls?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I'd have to double-check to let you know. I believe the Vice President has done something on behalf of the candidate there, but I would have to check to see if there are further activities planned.
Q Two questions on healthcare. Is anything the President would be willing to see happen in the Senate bill that would make it more palatable to conservatives? Because right now, centrist Republicans seem to be pushing more in the direction that's (inaudible) for them --
MS. SANDERS: I think he certainly would be open to things that make the bill better. I think he's been very clear about that from the beginning. He knows Obamacare isn't sustainable, and this is a big priority for him to get a better and more sustainable healthcare system in place.
Q Specifically, is it better for them?
MS. SANDERS: I'd have to check on actual specific details that might be better for conservatives. I'm not aware of the back-and-forth conversations that they've been having.
Q And on cost-sharing reductions, has the President made a decision yet -- has the White House made a decision yet on whether it will pay the cost-sharing reduction subsidies for the month of June?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know if there's been a decision on that made yet. But we'll keep you posted.
Q Who from the administration is planning on going to the baseball game tonight? And is there any other message to people that -- the teams that are playing, players in the game?
MS. SANDERS: I think, to kind of echo what the President said yesterday, I think this provides a great moment of unity to see members from both parties come out and have that time together, without conflict, on a baseball field, and enjoy a night like that. I believe there are several members from the administration that are planning to attend. But as far as specifics, I'm not sure of that right now.
Thanks so much, guys.
2:00 P.M. EDT