Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, 9/13/2017, #14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:12 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. I want to start off by reiterating the messages that FEMA Administrator Brock Long and the President's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Officer Tom Bossert made this morning regarding the ongoing relief efforts in the wakes of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Life-sustaining operations are still underway, and we encourage everyone in the designated areas in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to register online at >www.DisasterAssistance.gov<. That's the quickest way to register for federal assistance.
As I said yesterday, the President was pleased that members on all sides of the aisle came together last week under his leadership to deliver critical relief to those affected by the storms. And he has continued that spirit of bipartisanship and unity this week.
Last night, he hosted Republican and Democrat senators to discuss advancing the administration's legislative priorities, particularly the importance of delivering tax cuts and reform for the middle class.
Today, in addition to important meetings with Republican and Democrat House members and Senator Tim Scott, the President will also host Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi this evening for a bipartisan discussion on the upcoming legislative agenda, with a focus on tax reform. Historic tax reform is one of the most significant ways that we will jumpstart our economy, creating jobs and raising wages for all Americans.
The President and his team will continue to engage with all members of Congress who are willing to work with us to deliver this critical relief for the American people.
Finally, on a slightly lighter note, I'd like to announce that Frank from Falls Church, Virginia, whose letter I read last month offering his services to mow the White House lawn, will be here on Friday. He'll work with the grounds-keeping crew here at the White House and will help cut the grass in the Rose Garden.
The President is committed to keeping the American Dream alive for kids like Frank, and we're all looking forward to having him here.
And with that, I'll take your questions. John.
Q A couple of questions if I could, Sarah. First of all, can you give us a readout of the meeting that the President had with Senator Scott this morning?
MS. SANDERS: Sure. This was a very productive meeting that the President and the Senator both wanted to have; something to discuss potential solutions moving forward to bring the country together -- a focus on unity, also talking and touching on some of the priorities for the legislative agenda moving into the fall.
Q Did Senator Scott express his displeasure at all with the President's initial reaction to Charlottesville?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. They talked about it pretty in depth, but the focus was primarily on solutions moving forward. And that was what both people came to the meeting wanting to discuss, is what we can do to bring people together, not talk about divisions within the country.
Q Second question. Following the meeting that he had with the President last night, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said, in his perfect world you get 30 Democratic senators and 30 Republican senators agreeing on a plan for tax reform. Does the President believe he can get 30 Democratic senators and still stick to his principles for tax reform?
MS. SANDERS: I think America hopes he can. I think for the sake of most Americans, the goal is -- I would actually set the sights much higher in that you have every member of the Senate come together to help pass massive tax cuts and bring tax reform to this country.
Q Thank you. Two questions if I can. The President's dinner tonight with Schumer and Pelosi -- they seem to be getting close -- but in the past, the President has called Chuck Schumer a "clown," Pelosi a "loser." But now he seems to recognize that he needs them. How does that work? What changed?
MS. SANDERS: I think it's less about him needing them but more about the President wanting to work with them and wanting to help move this country forward.
As we've said many times before, we've got a very ambitious legislative agenda for this fall, and the President wants to work with anybody that wants to move America forward. And if they're willing to do that -- sit down, be part of that conversation on both tax cuts and tax reform, responsible immigration reform -- then the President certainly welcomes those conversations.
Q But does he view Schumer and Pelosi as equal allies on the Hill for getting things done, on par with McConnell and Ryan?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President is a Republican, and certainly I think ideologically that's a much cleaner matchup. But again, if these people and these individuals, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, want to come together to push the President's agenda and the agenda that clearly the American people want to see, or they wouldn't have elected Donald Trump, then we're certainly happy to have that conversation and move that ball forward.
Q Hi. I know the President came out for Graham-Cassidy today, but a lot of people believe that may not come to pass. Senator Alexander has introduced a more incremental bill that would stabilize the insurance markets. Could the President support a bill like that, or does it have to be more of a full-scale repeal? And secondly, what does the President make of Democrats' efforts on single-payer?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President, as well as the majority of the country, knows that the single-payer system that the Democrats are proposing is a horrible idea. I can't think of anything worse than having government be more involved in your healthcare instead of less involved.
The President is focused on looking at ways where government gets out of the way, people have more control over their own healthcare. And looking at ways to, again, fully repeal and replace would certainly be a priority, but we want to move the system forward and make sure that we're in a place that's actually sustainable and that we have a healthcare system that works; that people who are under that healthcare system actually have a say in.
Q But could he sign something that's not a full-scale repeal? Obviously, I'm not just saying single-payer, but something along the lines of what Senator Alexander --
MS. SANDERS: We have to see the specific pieces of that legislation before we are going to weigh in on a hypothetical bill.
Q Thanks. Two questions. First, is Vice President Pence going to be attending that dinner tonight?
MS. SANDERS: I believe the Vice President is actually hosting another dinner at his residence with other members of Congress, and we'll make sure we get more details to you on that later today.
Q And on a different topic, I wanted to follow up on some statements you made yesterday about James Comey. You said some of his conduct likely could have been illegal. I was wondering what specifically you were referring to there, because the one thing you pointed out was those memos that were given to the Times, but those didn’t contain any classified information and were handed over once he was a private citizen.
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, the memos that Comey leaked were created on an FBI computer while he was the director. He claims they were private property, but they clearly followed the protocol of an official FBI document. Leaking FBI memos on a sensitive case, regardless of classification, violates federal laws including the Privacy Act, Standard FBI Employment Agreement, and nondisclosure agreement all personnel must sign. I think that’s pretty clean and clear that that would be a violation.
Q So what do you want to see happen?
MS. SANDERS: That’s not up to me to decide. I’m certainly not an attorney, but I think that the facts of the case are very clear.
Q And just following up on that a bit. So you’re not saying that the Justice Department should look into this, but you do believe that Comey did -- that his act of leaking those memos was illegal?
MS. SANDERS: The Department of Justice has to look into any allegations of whether or not something is illegal or not. That’s not up to me to decide. What I’ve said and what I’m talking about are facts. James Comey leaking of information, questionable statements under oath, politicizing an investigation -- those are real reasons for why he was fired. And the President’s decision was 100 percent right, which we’ve said multiple times, over and over. And, in fact, I think the more and more we learn, the more and more that’s been vindicated.
Q Okay, and just on another topic. Do you have any details on where the President will be going tomorrow in Florida? Any details on that trip?
MS. SANDERS: He will be in the Naples and Fort Myers area. And as soon as those final details about specific stops are locked in, we’ll certainly keep you guys posted.
Q Two questions. The first one, after meeting with Senator Scott, has the President’s mind changed at all about that initial statement? Should he have been more forceful? And will he sign this bipartisan resolution condemning the violence in Charlottesville as well as hate groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis?
MS. SANDERS: The President was clear in his initial statement that he condemned hatred, bigotry, racism of all forms. He continues to stick to that message. He’s been very consistent in that fact. He and the Senator talked about that and discussed that, and agreed that that was the appropriate place to be.
In terms of whether or not he’ll sign the joint resolution, absolutely. And he looks forward to doing so as soon as he receives it, which he hasn’t done as I came out here earlier.
Q And then one other topic -- his meeting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi tonight. This is the kind of thing that conservatives who ran against him in the presidential race warned about, that he would be cutting deals with Chuck and Nancy that would not uphold the ideals of conservatives. So why is he meeting with just the two of them this evening? And is he hoping to strike an immigration deal with Schumer and Pelosi?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s pretty disingenuous for people to say he’s only meeting with Democrats. The President is the leader of the Republican Party and was elected by Republicans. He beat out 16 other candidates to take that mantle on, and certainly, I think, is one of the strongest voices. And so the idea that the Republican Party ideas are not represented in that room is just ridiculous.
Q Two topics, just to follow up on that firstly. Is immigration going to come up? And would the President consider reaching some kind of deal similar to the three-month extension working with Democrats on the DREAMers issue?
MS. SANDERS: I wouldn’t be surprised if it came up tonight, but I’m not going to get ahead of the conversations that are going to take place later this evening. And as always, we’ll certainly keep you guys posted on what those look like.
Q And I also want to ask about the number two at FEMA withdrawing his nomination for consideration. Did the White House know about that IG audit when the President decided to nominate Daniel Craig?
MS. SANDERS: We’re not going to get into the back-and-forth. Our focus, particularly at FEMA right now, is on the safety and security of those that have been affected by the hurricane. We’re not going to go down rabbit holes on personnel. And our focus is on that, as of right now.
Q This morning on CBS, Senator Manchin said that last night, at dinner, the President was adamant that the tax reform would not be a tax cut for the rich. Do you know on what basis the President was able to make that promise? Is he pledging to hold the top tax rate at 39.6 percent? Are we not going to see a reduction in that rate? How can he assure Americans that the rich won’t get a tax cut?
MS. SANDERS: The President’s priority, when it comes to tax cuts and tax reform, is on the middle class -- helping grow the middle class, helping create jobs, simplifying the system. He’s laid out those principles and that’s where his focus is, and that’s what he’s going to push for as we move into this process.
Q Just to follow up on the question that was asked about Bernie Sanders's health plan -- in January, the President gave an interview with the Washington Post where he said he wanted to see a program that would allow for insurance for everybody, and that would leverage Medicare and Medicaid's ability to control drug prices. Bernie Sanders seems to be offering a plan that would do that. Why is the President not supporting him**?
MS. SANDERS: I'm pretty sure that it's -- not only does the President not support it, but America doesn’t support it, or Bernie Sanders would be sitting in the Oval Office right now. He pushed these ideas forward during the campaign; they were rejected, not just by America but Democrats. He didn’t make it through the primary, he didn’t make it into the Oval. I think that's a pretty clear indication of what America wants to see, and it's not a single-payer system.
Q I'd like to ask --
MS. SANDERS: I'll come back.
Q Thank you. Go ahead.
Q Two quick questions on tax reform. There are some Democrats who are confused. If the President was serious about creating a bipartisan tax plan, their thinking is that the President would also be meeting with ranking members or the minority members on Ways and Means and on the Finance Committee in advance of the disclosure of the consensus outline that's going to come out at the end of September. Can you describe the President's view about how to create a bipartisan tax plan? And does he want to get ideas from Democrats, or does he just want Democrats to buy into the plan that Brady and Hatch will reveal?
MS. SANDERS: I think just by mere fact that he's been sitting down both yesterday and today with multiple members of the Democrat Party shows that he wants to have that conversation with them. I don’t think you can make that any more clear than to have those ongoing conversations with multiple members of the Democrat Party.
Q Thank you, Sarah.
Q I said I had two questions. A quick question on Florida. How soon will the federal government be able to estimate with any kind of precision what kind of additional aid might be necessary to address the destruction in Florida in terms of what Congress may be presenting by the end of the month?
MS. SANDERS: We're still in the recovery efforts right now, and until we get a little bit further into the process, it would be premature to put those estimates out there, particularly with precision. I would imagine that that takes us a good bit more time. And once we have those numbers, we'll let you know.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I'd like to ask -- the United States is spearheading a meeting at the U.N., on Monday, on U.N. reform. Could you give me some specifics on what the United States hopes to accomplish in that meeting?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not going to get ahead of the meetings that are going to take place, but I can tell you that, on Friday, General McMaster and Ambassador Haley will be here at the briefing to talk in more detail about the U.N. General Assembly events and meetings that will take place next week.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Two questions on two different subjects. Just to follow up to the President's meeting that he had with Senator Scott this morning -- after the President's response to that white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Senator Scott said that President Trump's moral authority was compromised. In terms of the conversation that they had, does the President understand what troubled Senator Scott, in regards to his response?
MS. SANDERS: They had a very open and honest conversation, and committed to continuing those conversations and making sure that today was just the first step of many of those meetings where I think that will be an ongoing process and ongoing conversation that they have.
Q And then on tax reform, with the meeting that's taking place this evening with Democratic leaders from Congress, what has been the reaction that you've seen from the supporters that were onboard sort of the Trump bandwagon from the start, this new tack that the President is taking in reaching out to Democrats?
MS. SANDERS: This was something that the President talked about on the campaign trail, of being a good dealmaker and being able to sit down with members of both sides, and be able to bring a deal and bring good legislation for the American people. This isn’t new, and people listened and heard the President, and certainly supported him, and that's why he's here today.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two different questions on two subjects. First, your earlier remarks about the nature of repeal-and-replace legislation would seem to rule out the White House support for a flat-out repeal, which is favored by many Republican House members. Are you ruling out or discouraging a flat-out repeal measure first?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t ruled out anything that helps move this process forward. We're grateful for the efforts that are continuing in Congress, and we hope that they do what they campaigned on and what they promised the American people they would do, and that's not just repeal, but it's also replace. I think both of those parts are very important moving forward.
Q The other thing is, the President recently appointed 42 new U.S. attorneys, and it's been reported fairly widely that only one of them was a woman -- the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Joyce Vance, former Democratic-appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama, called this -- and I quote -- "a slap in the face." What is the reaction of the White House to that comment on this wave of appointees of U.S. attorneys?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the President has certainly surrounded himself with a lot of strong women in various positions, including myself in a pretty high position and senior position in the administration, as well as Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway, a number of others. He's continuing to add women to his staff at senior levels every single day, and I think that's a very positive step forward, considering -- particularly on the communications side, this is the first time in history that's happened.
Q Thanks, Sarah. It was reported today that Mike Flynn, Jr. is the subject of a federal investigation into election meddling. Is the President concerned that someone who served on his transition team is now the subject of a federal investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a conversation with him about that, but I'd refer you to outside counsel on that.
Q If I could follow up on a comment that Hillary Clinton made this morning. She said that she wished President Trump was the President for all Americans. Do you have any reaction to this characterization of the President's role in the White House?
MS. SANDERS: I think that type of misunderstanding of who this President is and, frankly, a misunderstanding of what he's been doing is exactly one of the reasons that Hillary Clinton is not the President and is instead pushing a book with a lot of false narratives and a lot of, I think, false accusations, and placing blame on a lot of other people instead of accepting it herself.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A little over a week ago, the Canada, U.S., and Mexico closed the second round -- closed out the second round of negotiations on NAFTA. The next round in 10 days is in Ottawa. Has the President been briefed on the second round? Is he happy with the result, if he was briefed? And is he still considering cancelling the entire agreement?
MS. SANDERS: Those negotiations are still ongoing, and a final decision hasn’t been made. And they're going to continue to push forward and make sure that the best deal possible for Americans and American workers happens.
Q Two questions. Number one, when was the last time the President spoke with Mike Flynn?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not sure. I'm not aware of any conversation that's taken place in quite a long time.
Q And I also want to ask about tonight's dinner. Why not also invite Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan?
MS. SANDERS: Look, you've got the leader of the Republican Party sitting at the table. This is the President's opportunity to have a very open and honest conversation with members of the Senate. And I think anybody that tries to distort it into something other than that is just misunderstanding what the purpose is.
Q Can I just clarify -- because I don’t want to get it wrong either. Are you saying that if Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan were there, then that conversation would be distorted?
MS. SANDERS: That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying that if anybody thinks that a Republican viewpoint isn’t being represented is completely misunderstanding that the President is the leader of the Republican Party.
Q So is the President negotiating on behalf of the Republican leadership on the Hill in this meeting?
MS. SANDERS: The President is negotiating on behalf of the American people exactly what he was elected to do. And the idea that you guys keep trying to distort this into a bad thing is, I think, exactly why this President was elected. They were sick and tired of business as usual. They wanted somebody who would break up the status quo, that would bring people from both sides of the table together to have conversations. This President has done more for bipartisanship in the last eight days than Obama did in eight years.
Q Sarah, I want to go to the Tim Scott meeting. What other topics were on the table with the President, beyond Charlottesville, with Tim Scott?
MS. SANDERS: They talked about tax reform. They talked about moving to a -- looking at different ways to bring the country together and about continuing ongoing conversations, making sure that they stayed in constant contact with one another, and having a pretty open and regular conversation.
Q Were there conversations about HBCUs in this meeting?
MS. SANDERS: HBCUs were not discussed in the meeting today.
Q Okay. And what about -- and a source is saying that there was a conversation about a request from black Republicans to have a high-ranking black Republican within this administration who knows issues and understands how Washington up and down Pennsylvania Avenue works. Was that a conversation in this meeting?
MS. SANDERS: There’s certainly conversations about adding additional personnel that can tap into the African American community. That did come up, yes.
Q So where did that go? What did the President say about --
MS. SANDERS: A commitment to absolutely work with Senator Scott to look -- to do exactly that. And for the two of them to continue to have those conversations; for his viewpoints to continue to be expressed directly to the President.
Q Did they speak of certain issues, of certain people as it related to that topic about bringing new --
MS. SANDERS: Specific people didn't come up.
Q Let me ask -- bring you back to taxes and a couple questions there. The President campaigned on a corporate tax rate of 15 percent. However, Steve Mnuchin yesterday said, “I don't know if we will be able to achieve that given the budget issues.” You were asked about Mr. Mnuchin’s comments, and you said, “The President is prepared to push for as low a rate as we can get.” However, Mick Mulvaney said today that he had spoken to the President, and the President was adamant about a 15 percent rate.
So is the official position from the administration that a 15 percent rate needs to happen? Or that all of this is subject to negotiation?
MS. SANDERS: The 15 percent has been the goal. It’s always been the goal. We're going to continue pushing for that. That certainly hasn’t changed.
Q And secondly, with working with -- or at least talking tonight with Pelosi and Schumer, one of the things that they want is Not One Penny, their campaign to the wealthiest Americans. That is a marker that they have drawn in the sand. At this point, is the President open to not having tax cuts as deep as once were maybe thought for the wealthiest of Americans?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President’s focus has never been on the wealthiest of Americans. It’s been on tax cuts for the middle class and tax reform as a whole. That continues to be his priority and will in tonight’s discussion come through.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions, if I may. One is, just since you raised the issue of Mrs. Clinton’s book having a false narrative and false accusations, could you point us to a couple specific accusations in the book that you believe are factually incorrect?
MS. SANDERS: I think probably the biggest one is anyplace within the book where she lays blame for the loss on anyone but herself.
Q Okay. Can I ask just a follow-up, separate topic? The President issued a strong statement the other day on Myanmar and the persecution of the minority Muslim population. I know that topic came up in his meeting yesterday with the Malaysian. I’m wondering whether the President feels that Aung San Suu Kyi, as a figure of great moral stature and the de-facto leader of that country, should be more forthright in condemning what’s happening in that part of her country.
MS. SANDERS: I think anytime anyone sees something like that taking place, public condemnation is certainly appropriate. We're going to continue working with our allies and partners to be part of the process in whatever way we can, moving forward.
Q Yes, you mentioned a couple times today -- you’ve sort of emphasized diversity in the West Wing. You talked about the President being very clear after Charlottesville in denouncing all hate. I just wanted to read a comment from an influential African American sportscaster from ESPN yesterday, who said, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy, period. He’s unqualified and unfit to be President.”
Why do you think -- do you have a reaction to that? And is the President aware of that comment?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure if he’s aware, but I think that's one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fire-able offense by ESPN.
Q If the President was so clear, as you said, why do you think influential African American figures are saying things like this?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to speak for that individual. But I know that the President has met, again, with people like Senator Scott who are highly respected leaders in the African American community. He’s committed to working with them to bring the country together. I think that's where we need to be focused -- not on outrageous statements like that one.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You said before that the President has done more for bipartisanship in the last eight days than President Obama did in eight years. Are you basing that off of meetings that he’s held with Democrats here at the White House?
MS. SANDERS: I’m basing that on the fact that he’s actually willing to sit down with members of the opposite party, something that President Obama rarely did, and certainly didn't listen to members of the opposite party. I can't think of a single time where he made a deal with anybody from the opposite side of -- from anybody beyond the Democrat Party.
And again, this President is committed to doing that. He hasn’t just done it once, but he’s continuing to do that as we move into one of the most ambitious legislative agendas that we’ve had in a long time. And we're committed to working with Democrats. He’s both stated that publicly and in these meetings that he’s going to continue to have.
Q Sarah, thank you. Does the President believe it was a mistake not to have invested more time and energy in the Schumer-Pelosi relationship at an earlier stage in his term?
MS. SANDERS: I don't think so. I think that right now we're at a critical time where we have some big things on the agenda -- tax reform, responsible immigration reform. He’s committed to working, again, with both Republicans and Democrats to push those through, and hopes that they’ll come on board to do that.
Thanks so much, guys. The President will be having an event here just momentarily. Thank you.
2:38 P.M. EDT