Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:26 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. This morning, the President continued his week of events highlighting technology and how it will continue to contribute to the economy of the future by bringing leaders in the industry to the White House to discuss emerging technologies. The President met with them after they participated in working groups separated by topic -- unmanned aircraft systems, 5G wireless connectivity, and financing -- where he saw firsthand how these important technologies are reshaping modern life.
Throughout this week, the administration has been putting the spotlight on the technologies that will improve the lives of every American, from cell towers as small as pizza boxes, to data analysis that helps our farmers and ranchers get their biggest yields, and having productive discussions with the industry on how government can both help them get there and take advantage of these incredible achievements for the American people.
Tomorrow, the President will focus on an issue that can have important responsibility to address, and that's caring for our nation's veterans. The President will be signing the VA Accountability Act, an important step in fulfilling the commitment he made when he signed an executive order on accountability for VA employees who fail our veterans.
As the President has said many times, we must never tolerate substandard care for our nation's heroes, and this bill will provide the VA with the tools it needs to improve the care and services that veterans receive. And he's glad to be signing it tomorrow morning.
This morning, the Senate released the discussion draft of its healthcare bill. The President is pleased to see the process moving forward swiftly in Congress, and he looks forward to seeing a finalized bill on his desk so that we can finally repeal and replace Obamacare before it completely collapses.
Just yesterday, another insurer announced that it's pulling out of Obamacare exchanges. Anthem is leaving the exchanges in Indiana -- the state in which the company was actually born and is currently headquartered -- and also in Wisconsin.
Finally, I want to welcome Alex Pfeiffer to his first White House briefing. Alex is young, so he might need some help from a few of his colleagues to help him with this process. And with that, ladies and gentleman, I'll take your questions.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I'm just curious about the President's revelation by way of Twitter that he has no knowledge of any tapes -- didn't have any tapes, doesn't have any possession of any tapes. What can you tell the American people about why he decided to sort of make the inference, at least at some point, that maybe there would be tapes?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President's statement via Twitter today is extremely clear. I don't have anything to add beyond the statement itself.
Q Can I follow up really quickly on the wall? I was at the rally last night. The President seemed to get great reaction to the idea that the wall was moving forward. And he mentioned the possibility of solar as a means to not only pay for the wall itself but also to enhance the wall. Can you sort of help me unpack that idea? Is this something that he’s been kicking around for quite some time? He said it was the first time he’d made it publicly known.
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s something he’s considering. It's certainly nothing final, but just an idea that he is considering and reviewing. Nothing more than that at this point.
Q I have a healthcare question but I just want to follow up on Kevin’s questions on the tapes situation. I get that the tweet is speaking for itself, but I’m curious why it took so long, 41 days, for this to be laid to rest, and whether the President is recording any Oval Office conversations.
MS. SANDERS: You guys asked for an answer; he gave you one. He said he would have it to you by the end of this week, which he did. And beyond timing of that, I can’t really speak anything further.
Q And any Oval Office recordings?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of anything. I think his statement here is pretty clear.
Q But I’m asking more generally, just not specifically to Comey, but, again, he --
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of, Hallie.
Q So no Oval Office recordings that you’re aware of?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q And then on healthcare, I just want to know a couple of things on that. Is the President confident that he will have something to sign in the next few weeks?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think we’re as focused on the timeline as we are on the final product. We’re looking for the best bill possible, and we’re going to continue being part of technical assistance and providing that with both House and Senate members as we work to get the best bill we can.
Q And just on that final product, the President -- this Senate bill, by analysis so far, cuts Medicaid. It doesn’t look like it will cut deductibles for folks. Does that have enough heart? Does the President think that is a bill that is not mean?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had that conversation but I do know that he made a statement earlier that said this is a negotiation, and so he’s going to continue that process with both House and Senate members and his administration until we get the best bill that we can, and that will be the one that he signs.
Q So he's open to changes.
MS. SANDERS: John.
Q Sarah, what was the President doing with this? I mean, he let it go on for 41 days, as Hallie referred to. That tweet 41 days ago seemed to be, you know, a very kind of ominous message to Comey -- “he better hope there are no tapes.” And then he was asked repeatedly during the intervening weeks whether or not the tapes existed. You were asked many times. Sean was asked. Why the game? What was he doing?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know there was a game. Again, he’s answered the question. He gave a timeline and the frame that -- which he would, and he did that. He said by the end of this week and he’s done that.
Q Do you have a sense for -- what was behind the original suggestion from him 41 days ago that there may be tapes?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think it was pretty clear in that original statement that he hoped for his sake. And that was, I think, the very intention. And he’s laid out his position on whether or not he personally was involved in that in his tweet today.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Back to the original tweet, did the President intend to threaten James Comey with that tweet?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. I don’t think so.
Q And so why -- again, why was he compelled for the deadline to be this week, to clear it up?
MS. SANDERS: I mean, that was -- has been laid out, I believe, also by Congress that they wanted an answer by the end of this week.
Q Sarah, if I can, the tweet ultimately, we know, according to James Comey, led him to share the memos publicly, which led to the hiring of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, which ultimately led to the reports that the President himself is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice. Does the President regret the tweet?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think so.
Q Then broadly, he said -- you can’t say whether there are any Oval Office recordings, but he did say that “[I] did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.” Did he ever have recordings of conversations with James Comey?
MS. SANDERS: Again, not that I’m aware of.
Q Let me ask about healthcare, if I can, quickly. On healthcare, the President said when he first became a candidate after coming down the escalator, he tweeted, “The Republicans who want to cut SS & Medicaid are wrong. A robust economy will Make America Great Again!” So if cutting Medicaid was wrong when he was a candidate, why is it right in the new Republican Senate bill?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe that the President has specifically weighed in that it’s right to cut Medicaid. I know one of the big parts of discussion is giving states flexibility. And again, the President hasn’t weighed in specifically on any specific measure in this bill, and, as he said earlier, this is a negotiation between the House and the Senate and we’re going to play a part in that.
Q Does the President still believe there should be no --
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, guys, can you -- one at a time.
Q Does the President still believe, as he did as a candidate, that there should be no cuts to Medicaid?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a specific conversation to see if there is an update to that, but I do know that he wants to protect that as much as possible.
Q What specifically will the White House be doing with the Senate as this healthcare moves forward? You mentioned technical assistance. What does that entail?
MS. SANDERS: I think -- I know members of OMB, Treasury, and certainly members of the HHS and senior staff have been involved in the process. They’re going to continue to do that. This has been one of those things where, from the very beginning, we’ve wanted all the stakeholders involved. And we’re going to continue to do that until we get the best piece of legislation.
Q Will the President be involved, or is he going to wait for the conference committee, which, presumably, will --
MS. SANDERS: I know he’s been involved by having members of his administration -- I think it would be hard to deny the fact they’re an extension of the administration when you have Cabinet secretaries and senior-level staffers that are in meetings and conversations regarding the legislation.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Twelve days ago, the President announced a press conference in two weeks on his entire ISIS strategy. Can we expect a press conference in the coming days?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll have to get back to you on a specific date for when that might be.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I wanted to ask you just -- about some of the reaction from the left that we’ve seen this week.
MS. SANDERS: I’m sure it’s friendly.
Q Well, our microphones caught a woman who was dragged off from McConnell’s office this morning. She was screaming, “My child is going to die, and my family is going to die, but they don’t give a damn about it.” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said this week, “The Democrats are going to lie down on the train tracks” to stop this bill from passing. What do you make of all that? What’s your reaction to that?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly think that not just Republicans, but I think any American would certainly not support something that allows a child to die. And the goal is, again, to look for the best healthcare possible that actually provides care -- not just gives insurance but actually provides care. That’s been a goal from the administration on the front end, and we’re looking for ways to do that.
Right now, we know Obamacare is not sustainable. It is literally collapsing under itself. Providers are pulling out every single day out of states. We are down to multiple counties that don’t have providers. And we are working day in, day out to make sure we have the best piece of legislation possible.
If Democrats really cared, they would try to be involved in the process. They said from day one that they didn’t want to be in the conversation if it had anything to do with repealing and replacing Obamacare. I think that it’s sad that they’ve chosen to play partisan politics instead of trying to have a seat at the table.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The intelligence community has concluded that the DNC hack was part of a Russian plot to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. I’m wondering, after the President’s tweet this morning, why does he continue to dispute that finding and call the hack a “hoax”? And then a follow-up, if I may.
MS. SANDERS: I believe that the President said even back in January -- and I’ll read the statement from then -- that he thinks it’s a disgrace, thinks it’s an absolute disgrace. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
I think he’s made it clear and been consistent that while everyone agrees the result of the election wasn’t influenced, he thinks that it probably was Russia. And I think that regardless, President Trump has made it clear that we have to protect the integrity of the electoral system. That’s one of the reasons he’s a strong advocate for voter I.D. laws and why he’s also put in place a voter election commission -- integrity commission chaired by the Vice President, which I think shows the level of importance he’s placed on that to make sure that the integrity of all of our elections, particularly moving forward, are as sound and correct as possible.
Q So then -- thank you. Just a broader follow-up on that. So like I said, this morning he called the hack a “hoax.” He hasn’t accepted the popular vote tallies. You guys have been touting jobs numbers that he used to call “fake.” You won’t tell us where he stands on climate science. So I’m wondering, why does the President choose to accept certain facts, but dispute and reject others?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware that he accepts certain facts. I think we accept all the facts.
Q But like the popular vote totals, climate science. You still haven’t told us where he stands on that.
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President won the election. I don’t know why we have to continue debating this.
Q I'm not debating that point.
MS. SANDERS: The Democrats lost because they didn’t have a message. They had a poor candidate. We had a message. And the President won. I’m not really sure what fact we’re disputing here. There’s only one winner and he was it.
Q Sarah, going back to the tweet, it happened before this gaggle started. Is the President concerned that surveillance is being conducted against him at the White House?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know specifically if there’s a direct concern. I do know that he’s concerned with the number of leaks that do come out of our intelligence community. I think all Americans should be concerned with that.
Q He did make clear in that tweet that he didn’t have any recordings, but he raised the prospect that there -- somebody else might have them.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think that it’s very clear what he meant there, but as far as surveillance --
Q But who else would have them, I guess?
MS. SANDERS: -- I wouldn’t know, Jeff.
Q Two questions. First on healthcare, if I can. Since the President won’t be weighing in specifically on any of the details of the Senate bill, can you help explain what his role will be exactly during at least this Senate phase of the process? Will he be whipping for votes to pass the Senate bill, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything that’s in it, just to try to advance the process along?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll keep you updated as his involvement takes place. Again, right now, I know that he’s got a large number of members of his administration that are involved in the process and continuing in those conversations.
Q Sarah, another question, if I can. The President is meeting today with the International Olympic Committee. Can you talk a little bit about what that meeting is for, and will he use it as a chance to lobby for Los Angeles’s bid for the Olympics?
MS. SANDERS: I know he’s certainly supportive of the committee, and we plan to have a read out after the meeting. I don’t want to get head of that before it takes place.
Q By the committee, you mean the bid? Or the --
MS. SANDERS: I mean, obviously, the committee itself -- and again, we'll have a readout for you after the meeting takes place. I won't get ahead of that.
Q Sarah, yeah, listen, I want to -- if you don’t mind, I want to go back to what Jeff was asking you a moment ago. I know you say this tweet is clear, but it talks about recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking. Is that activity that is being carried out by the CIA, the FBI, or other U.S. law enforcement agencies? Is that what his reference is to?
MS. SANDERS: I think those are questions you'd have to ask those law enforcement agencies, whether or not they're engaging in those activities.
Q But it's the President who has tweeted this. The President is the one who has actually put this information out.
MS. SANDERS: I think there's public record that talks about surveillance, that talks about unmasking. We know those practices take place. I think if you're asking about specific instances, you'd have to refer to those agencies.
Q Can I ask one follow-up on China? The President tweeted obviously the other day that the Chinese had failed to change the situation with respect to North Korea. I just wonder, in light of that, given how he had put China at the center of his North Korea strategy, what the next steps are. How does the U.S. bring pressure to bear on North Korea, if the Chinese are not willing to help?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the President has been extremely clear on this process. Of course, he hopes to work with China and continue to work with them to put pressure on North Korea. But if that doesn’t work, then the President has been clear that he will do whatever it takes to protect America.
Q Are there any more details on that? Any details on what that would be?
MS. SANDERS: The President is never going to outline his strategy in a public way, but I think he's been clear that he would certainly do what it takes to protect American citizens.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. First on healthcare. The Senate wants to vote in less than a week, or in about a week. Can you say whether the President supports the bill as it is right now? Because we don’t know how many changes can be made in the course of a week.
Q Again, I think he wants to bring the stakeholders to the table, have those conversations, and we'll get back to you as we go through that process. But I think right now we're in a negotiation process.
Q Does the President think that the process on healthcare is moving too fast then, if he wants to take time and talk to people? I mean, they're talking about having a vote next week. I mean, this may be like the --
MS. SANDERS: I mean, we've been talking about reforming healthcare for a number of years. I don’t think it's moving too fast when it's been nearly eight years.
Q Sarah, if the healthcare bill changes from what it is now, by the time it gets to the President's desk, will the President support a bill that funds Planned Parenthood?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not sure. I'd have to get back to you on that question.
Q Hasn't he that he wouldn’t support a bill that does?
MS. SANDERS: He has. I would have to get back to you on his specific mentality of the bill.
Q Well, let me ask you this: If the bill allows the use of healthcare tax credits to buy coverage for abortion, would he support that?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. But again, I think it would have to be in the context of the larger legislation. I can't speak to a hypothetical on one piece of the bill.
Q I wanted to ask more about the China question that Mark Landler brought up. Can you tell us more when you say the President will do what it takes with regard to North Korea? So that would mean a military option. Can you tell us more --
MS. SANDERS: I think he's said all along that we're not taking any options off the table, but we're not going to broadcast what those might be.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The intelligence community has been pretty unified and adamant that the Russian interference in the election was a very real and serious issue. Yet the President just called it a "Dem hoax." Does he believe that members of the intelligence community are colluding with the Democrats, or did collude with the Democrats? And what would he do about that?
MS. SANDERS: I believe the reference in the hoax is about the fact that they're trying to delegitimize his win in the election process, and less about the hack itself. I think he's said several times now that he believes that Russia was part of it, but also, some of those same members have said that they don’t think it influenced the election. And I think that's what a lot of this process is about; it's about trying to make excuses for why Democrats lost. And the President, I think, has been pretty clear on where he stands with that.
Q Sarah you just directed Mark's -- his questions about the President's tweet earlier to the various intelligence agencies. Is the President accusing elements of the U.S. government of wiretapping the Oval Office?
MS. SANDERS: That's not what I said. I said if he was asking about specific instances, he would have to ask them.
Q So, specifically, does the President believe he's being surveilled in the Oval Office?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Why is he tweeting about it?
MS. SANDERS: Because he was asked if he had tapes, and he was answering that question.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A question and a follow-up. In his speech last night, the President said that several of the major news corporations are not telling the truth to the American people. Are you willing to name any of those corporations? And also, are you keeping a list and following corporations that may not be telling the truth?
MS. SANDERS: I think there are quite a few instances where there have been false reports out there, and I would be happy when I'm not standing up here to help provide a list to you, John.
Q All right. And the other thing is, are you keeping this list ongoing?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have like a folder on my computer for it. But I certainly think we've got some knowledge of very specific instances that have taken place.
Q Are you going to release them?
MS. SANDERS: I'll let you know.
Q Thanks a lot, Sean -- Sarah. Were you given a heads up in any context --
MS. SANDERS: We look pretty different. (Laughter.) But, you know.
Q It's off-camera.
MS. SANDERS: Hey, John, if you're looking for instances of fake news, there's a good one for you. (Laughter.) I'm Sarah.
Q Were you given a heads up about the President's tweet?
MS. SANDERS: Yes.
Q And was the General Counsel given an opportunity to vet what the President tweeted out?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not sure. I'd have to double-check on that.
Q Sarah, the President talked last night about Governor Branstad going to China to become the ambassador. Is it consistent with the President's pledge to drain the swamp that he's giving so many of these first wave of ambassadorships to political supporters and campaign donors?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think it's pretty traditional that you would have somebody supportive of you and your agenda to go out and be an ambassador to speak on behalf of the administration. And Terry Branstad is somebody who has, I think, some of the best qualifications that you could have to send there. He's got a personal relationship with senior-level members of the Chinese administration, as well as a very strong understanding of trade practices given his background. And I think he's a perfect fit for that role.
Q Is legal status for DACA beneficiaries on the table? Has the White House conducted its review of the program?
MS. SANDERS: As of right now, that's still under review and I don’t have any announcements on the specifics of the program at this time.
Q Bloomberg reported that the President first raised the prospect of tapes strategically to make sure that Comey told the truth. Is that your understanding of the President's motivation for tweeting about it? And does he feel it was effective?
MS. SANDERS: I'm sorry? Can you speak -- I can't hear --
Q Do you want me to repeat the whole thing?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, sorry. No, the air -- It's hard to hear.
Q Bloomberg first reported that the President first raised the prospect of tapes strategically to make sure that Comey told the truth. Is that your understanding of the President's motive for tweeting that? And does he feel it was effective?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly think that the President would hope that the former director would tell the truth. But I think that it was more about raising the question of doubt in general.
1:47 P.M. EDT