Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:49 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good Afternoon. I know it's been a few days since I've been up here. I'm sure that you have all missed me as much as I've missed you.
As many of you will recall, one of President Trump's core campaign promises was to defeat ISIS. With the stunning fall of Mosul in June, and now with ISIS nearly eradicated from Raqqa, it is clear that ISIS's so-called caliphate is crumbling across Iraq and Syria.
This eminent victory by the global coalition and our brave servicemembers comes at a high cost, particularly to the Syrian Democratic Forces who suffered many casualties as they fought to liberate their own country from the oppression of ISIS.
of caring for the urgent humanitarian needs of Raqqa's residents, ISIS utilized the money it stockpiled to finance terrorist attacks across the world, including against many Muslims.
As coalition and our partner forces closed in around them, ISIS used civilians as human shields and killed those who attempted to flee. ISIS’s barbaric acts have left many scars across the region, and we remain committed to supporting stabilization efforts and local security forces in liberated areas through a political transition in Syria.
Unfortunately, the Syrian regime and its supporters hinder the efforts to liberate Raqqa. Instead of focusing on fighting ISIS, the pro-regime forces attacked our partners and attempted to block them from liberating the Syrian people from the brutality of ISIS.
While we know ISIS and its destructive ideology will remain a threat, the liberation of Raqqa will mark the beginning of a new phase in the Syrian conflict. As we and our partners take away the ability of ISIS to plot and carry out attacks from territory they control, we will continue to seek the de-escalation of violence in other battlefields across Syria.
Looking ahead to tomorrow, we will be welcoming Governor Rosselló of Puerto Rico to the White House to talk about the ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts. We will continue working hand-in-hand with local leaders in all areas of our country that have been impacted by several natural disasters in recent months. And as President Trump has repeatedly said, we stand with our fellow citizens; we're here to help and get them back on their feet.
And with that, I will take your questions. Quiet.
Q Sarah, the President stated earlier today that he would not allow insurance companies to pad their pockets with money from the federal government. The White House has some concerns about the Alexander-Murray bill. Can you articulate what those concerns are?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we've said all along that we want something that doesn't just bail out the insurance companies, but actually provides relief for all Americans, and this bill doesn't address that fact. So we want to make sure that that's taken care of. We think that this is the step -- a good step in the right direction. This President certainly supports Republicans and Democrats coming to work together. But it's not a full approach, and we need something to go a little bit further to get onboard.
Q Can you articulate specifically what the White House is concerned about and -- something about outreach dollars and making sure that the money doesn't go to insurance companies?
MS. SANDERS: Some of the things that the President has stated before: He wants to lower premiums, he wants to provide greater flexibility, he wants to drive competition, he likes the idea of block grants to states. Those are a lot of the ideas that he'd like to see in a healthcare plan.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Let's go to the President's tweet this morning, if we can. What proof does President Trump have when he says Congresswoman Wilson is not telling the truth? Are there recordings of his phone call with Myeshia Johnson?
MS. SANDERS: No, but there were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the Chief of Staff, General John Kelly.
Q The President also said that he has called every family of someone who has died. Is that true? There are reports that --
MS. SANDERS: The President has made contact with all of the families that have been presented to him through the White House Military Office.
Q There have been families that have since come forward to the Associated Press -- the names are in these reports -- who say they've not actually heard from this White House in any capacity.
MS. SANDERS: All of the individuals that the President has been presented with through the proper protocol have been contacted through that process.
Q Sarah, just to follow up on the healthcare question. Is it correct, then, to say that President Trump does not support this deal in its current form?
MS. SANDERS: Correct. I think he stated that pretty clearly today.
Q And then just as a follow-up on another issue. He had a conversation today with Governor Reynolds of Iowa. Can you tell us a little bit about what they discussed? And then, did he make any assurances about the renewable fuel standard during that discussion?
MS. SANDERS: They didn't make any assurances on that specific issue. It was discussed, and they're going to continue to look at that process. But no definitive decision was made on RFS on today's call, but it was discussed.
Q Today, Secretary Mnuchin was talking about the tax framework, and he said it was "very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy" as part of a framework that cuts rates across the board. It seems like an acknowledgement of the realities -- math and sort of the independent analysis -- of the President's tax plan. But as recently as a month ago, the President said that this plan would not benefit the wealthy.
MS. SANDERS: That's not the focus of the tax plan. That focus, as we've said, time and time again -- the focus and the priority of the framework that the White House has laid out is to benefit the middle class, and that's what the priority is.
Q But you would agree with Secretary Mnuchin, then, that --
MS. SANDERS: That there may be some people that receive tax cuts that are also in the wealthy bracket? Yes. But the fact is, the priority again remains that middle-class Americans are the ones that are most impacted, and that's where the priority and the focus lies.
Q Sarah, what is the criteria that the White House Military Office uses for presenting names of families to the President after there's been casualties in combat?
MS. SANDERS: So there's a process that is a standard protocol. Once a person is killed in action, the first steps -- the process begins with a DOD Casualty Assistance Officer making next-of-kin notifications. After that, they create a package that's sent to the White House Military Office. That package is then reconfirmed. All of the details and the contents of the package have to be confirmed by the White House Military Office. Once that process is completed, the President or other members of the administration can engage in contact.
Q Just to follow up on that: So are you saying that if the President hasn’t contacted the family members of every servicemember who's been a casualty since he came to office, it's because of the protocols of that office?
MS. SANDERS: That's my understanding. If there's a specific case, I'd have to look into it. But as a whole, and generally speaking, that's my understanding.
Q And just to follow up on this week: Why did the President wait 12 days to speak publicly about the Green Berets in Niger?
MS. SANDERS: As I just said -- I walked you through that process. So the DOD package that was sent to the White House arrived on Thursday of last week. The White House Military Office confirmed the contents of that package on Monday. And the letters that had been drafted over the weekend, they were sent once that confirmation was completed, and calls were scheduled on Monday to be made on Tuesday.
Q But I wasn’t just asking about the families. I was asking about why he didn’t make public remarks.
Q So, separate from this controversy about contact, is the President satisfied he has learned everything he wants to know about the situation itself in Niger? Pentagon sources have described it as what was interpreted to be initially as a low-risk mission. The ambush was a big surprise. There was no air cover; 30 minutes for French air cover to arrive. Questions about the speed of the evacuation and having, perhaps, that something to do with whether or not these military personnel survived or not. Is the President satisfied -- he knows everything he needs to know about this particular raid, rules of engagement, and everything about it?
MS. SANDERS: I believe they're still looking into the details of that, but I don’t think that the President can ever be satisfied when there's loss of life from men and women in the uniform.
Q Is there anything he wants to know more about this that he's learned so far?
MS. SANDERS: I can't get into the specifics in terms of --
Q Because some of these issues have been raised with him by the families he's contacted.
MS. SANDERS: Right. I can't get into the specifics of the details of the raid at this point. But again, I don’t think you can ever use the word "satisfied" with the process when there's a loss of life for someone in the military.
Q Sarah, and on tax reform, because Secretary Mnuchin said yesterday --
MS. SANDERS: I'll come back. Deborah.
Q I have a Las Vegas question. Is the administration looking at having the ATF ban bump stocks? Or does the President think that Congress should do it?
MS. SANDERS: We're certainly still looking into, and having a review done, of that process. And when there's an official policy position, I'll make that announcement.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. When the Alexander-Murray bill came up at the scrum in the Rose Garden on Monday, there were questions about whether it would contain federal funding for abortions. And these concerns have been raised by several pro-life lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Will the President rule out signing any kind of measure that includes funding for abortion?
MS. SANDERS: The President stated that he would like to see a healthcare bill that does not include funding for abortion.
Q Will he rule out signing one that does?
MS. SANDERS: I believe that that is probably something that would be a priority for him. But in terms of negotiating
what that healthcare package would look like, I’m not going to do that from the podium today.
Q My second question --
MS. SANDERS: I’m going to try to take one question today to get to everybody.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A question about the NFL. Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, earlier today said that all players should stand during the playing of the national anthem. Earlier this week, there was no change in policy as it relates to the NFL mandating that all players in the NFL stand for the national anthem. Does the President believe that he’s winning this argument, or has won this argument, as it relates to what he said about whether players should stand for the playing of the national anthem?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction. As we've said many times before, the President supports standing for the national anthem, saluting the flag, and honoring those men and women in uniform that fight to protect it.
Q Sarah, does the President feel as a matter of principle that it is not adequate to simply send a letter of condolence to the family of a slain serviceperson as President Bush and President Obama typically did? And does he feel that it was not adequate for President Obama to have sent a letter to General Kelly but not call General Kelly on the death of his son?
MS. SANDERS: I don't think that there’s anything that any President can do. There’s never going to be enough that a President can do for the families of those that are killed in action. The point the President was making is that there’s a different process. Sometimes they call. Sometimes they write letters. Sometimes they engage directly. The comments were certainly, I think, taken very far out of context by the media. And if there’s any frustration, I think that's where it should be focused.
Q Let me ask you about something Steve Mnuchin had said, since you guys talk about the stock market a lot and the President does, as well. He said, and I quote here: “There’s no question in my mind that if we don't get it done” -- meaning tax reform -- “that you're going to see a reversal of significant amount of these gains.” Essentially saying if tax reform doesn't happen, there could be a major correction on the corner of Wall and Broad. How concerned is the President at this point of that possibility?
MS. SANDERS: We're confident that we're going to get tax cuts done, and so that's what we're focused on. And we're going to continue pushing forward until we get there.
Q And on the healthcare bill, if you don't mind, what changed --
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry. I’m just going to take one question today.
Q The President tweeted about the California wildfire situation. Does he have any plans at this point to visit California and to survey the damage in person? And if he doesn't, does that speak to a lack of interest in helping the state recover from the wildfires?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. Again, the administration has been very engaged throughout this process. We're going to continue to be there. We're continuing to talk with state and local officials on the ground and work with those individuals to make sure that whatever aid is needed, that we can help provide that process.
Q Is he going to go to the state, though?
MS. SANDERS: There’s not a trip planned at this time, but it certainly hasn’t been ruled out either.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Can you please clarify the President’s position on Kurdistan, especially -- on Iraqi Kurdistan -- especially given the takeover of Kirkuk? And does the President see Kurdistan as an ally in general?
MS. SANDERS: As we've said before, that position hasn’t changed. I know I’ve talked about it a couple times. We urge all sides to avoid escalating this further. We oppose the violence from any party, and we’d like for them to be focused on helping continue in the fights against ISIS and Iran. And that's where we’d like to see their energy focused.
Q Does that mean that they're keeping the status quo?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to keep to one question.
Q Thanks, Sarah. It’s been more than two months since the President said that he would declare the opioid epidemic a national public emergency. On Monday, he said he’d get it done next week, but that to get to that step a lot of work had to be done, and called it time-consuming work. Can you explain why it’s taking so long, and detail some of what this time-consuming work is and what players are involved in this process?
MS. SANDERS: There’s a very in-depth legal process that goes with declaring a national emergency. We’ll make further announcements on that next week, but there have been multiple people -- it’s an interagency process. A lot of different stakeholders have been involved, and we’ll have further announcements on that next week like the President said.
Q Can you talk about that? Is there --
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to stick to the one question.
Q Just following on the tax reform meeting today, can you just sort of talk about the strategy from the White House going forward on this? I know that Marc Short had told us before that Democrats were a must-have on this bill or on tax reform. Is that still where things are?
MS. SANDERS: I think it's pretty simple: The strategy is to get enough votes to pass tax cuts.
Q Okay, but can you just elaborate a little bit on the Democratic -- getting Democrats onboard?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we'd love to see them get onboard. We don’t why any Democrat would want to be against providing tax relief and tax cuts, specifically to middle-class America. I don't know why anybody wouldn’t want to get onboard with that.
Q Thank you, Sarah. It's been almost a month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Almost 80 percent of the island is without power, and about a million Americans -- a third of the population there -- still don't have reliable drinking water. Does the administration consider the current state of affairs in Puerto Rico acceptable? And when it comes to Puerto Rico, does the buck stop with President Trump?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we're continuing to do everything that we can to help the people of Puerto Rico. It's one of the reasons that the governor will be here at the White House tomorrow, to continue those conversations, to talk about how best the federal government can help aid state and local governments, and help in the rebuilding and recovery efforts.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On the Fed Chair search, the President once said that he considers himself to be a low-interest-rate guy. Does he still consider himself to be a low-interest-rate guy? And will that have any bearing on who he selects to run the Fed?
MS. SANDERS: As the President said yesterday, he's interviewed a number of very qualified individuals and he'll make that announcement in the coming days, and we can deliberate all of the details of that once that happens.
Q Days not weeks?
MS. SANDERS: I'm sorry?
Q Days not weeks?
MS. SANDERS: Days do add up to weeks, so -- (laughter) --
Q Are you signaling anything there, Sarah? That's all I'm trying to get at.
Q Can I clarify -- back on the phone call real quick. What exactly is the President denying? Is he denying that he ever spoke these words to the widow, "that he must have known what he signed up for"? Or is he just saying that she took it the wrong way and it was taken out of context, his words?
MS. SANDERS: The President's call, as accounted by multiple people in the room, believe that the President was completely respectful, very sympathetic, and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country, and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in their family. And I don't know how you could take that any other way.
Q So it was context. It wasn't that he didn't say those words. It was that the context -- he felt that she put it in the wrong context. Is that it?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth. I think that the sentiment of the President was very clear. He took the time to make a call to express his condolences to thank the family for this individual's service. And I think it, frankly, is a disgrace of the media to try to portray an act of kindness like that and that gesture, and to try to make it into something that it isn't.
Q Sarah, did the President speak to his Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, before invoking his son's death in what has become a political argument?
MS. SANDERS: I know he's spoken to General Kelly multiple times yesterday and today.
Q On this very topic? In other words, did General Kelly know he would be raising the issue of his son's memory when talking about the outreach?
MS. SANDERS: I'm not sure if he knew of that specific comment, but they had certainly spoken about it, and he's aware. And they've spoken several times since then.
Q So can you describe how General Kelly feels about it? Is he comfortable with the way his son's memory has been --
MS. SANDERS: I think that General Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost. I think he's disgusted and frustrated by that. If he has any anger, it's towards that.
The House, a few weeks back, passed the ban on (inaudible) abortions. (Inaudible) has said that the President would sign this legislation. Is the White House putting pressure on the Senate to pass the Lindsey Graham bill that would ban the 20-week --
MS. SANDERS: I'm sorry, what was the last part of the question?
Q Is the White House putting pressure on the Senate to pass the Lindsey Graham 20-week ban?
MS. SANDERS: I know that there have been conversations about that, and the administration supports that policy. But beyond that, I don't know if there have been further conversations or pressure applied, but certainly support that effort.
Q Sarah, Congresswoman Wilson -- I talked to her a couple of hours ago, and she says that this is the President's Benghazi. She says that Jackson was -- and his Green Berets were -- in Niger trying to find out information and doing a mission about Boko Haram. And she said that his transmitter was still emitting for two days -- emitting a signal when he was located. And she says that makes no sense why he wasn't located.
What say you about that? And also, what do you say about her comment that he did not know, and the wife, the widow, said that the President did not know his name? He kept saying, "Your guy, your guy."
MS. SANDERS: Just because the President said "your guy," I don't think that means that he doesn't know his name. As the President stated, the hardest job he has is making calls like that. I think it is appalling what the congresswoman has done and the way that she's politicized this issue, and the way that she is trying to make this about something that it isn't.
This was a President who loves our country very much, who has the greatest level of respect for men and women in the uniform, and wanted to call and offer condolences to the family. And I think to try to create something from that that the congresswoman is doing is, frankly, appalling and disgusting.
Q What do you say about what she said about Boko Haram in Niger? What do you say about what she said about the mission and then comparing it to Benghazi?
MS. SANDERS: As I said to Major before, I'm not going to get into the details of that action at this point.
Q Was she right? Was she right?
MS. SANDERS: As I said before, I'm not going to get into the details of that action at this time. And when we have further information, I'll be happy to discuss it with you.
Q Thank you. I just want to -- setting aside the congresswoman, setting aside the discussion about the politicization of this, the woman who raised Sergeant Johnson spoke to the Washington Post and said she felt like her son had been disrespected. And again, I'm not asking you about what Congresswoman Wilson had to say. I'm not asking you about any of that.
But given that somebody who -- as you rightly note, making these phone calls is probably one of the hardest things a Commander-in-Chief has to do. Given that, is the President at all reconsidering the way that he communicates with these families? Has General Kelly counseled him on, perhaps, how he might want to choose or change his words in the future?
MS. SANDERS: General Kelly was present for the call and thought it was completely appropriate. He thought the call was respectful, and he thought that the President did the best job he could under those circumstances to offer condolences on behalf of the country.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On NAFTA, Canadian and the Mexican negotiators have rejected the U.S. proposals -- proposals that were described as unconventional and troubling. Is NAFTA dead?
MS. SANDERS: Not yet. But as the President said, it's a bad deal and he wants to make sure that we have a deal that benefits American workers. That's what this administration is focused on. We're going to continue to push forward, and if we can't get there then we'll let you know what the changes are.
Q Thank you, Sarah. In a tweet this morning, President Trump said that former FBI Director James Comey had lied, leaked, and totally protected Hillary Clinton. He also asked, "Where is the Justice Department on this?" What exactly does the President want the Justice Department to do? Is he calling for a prosecution of James Comey? What's he asking for here?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the White House hasn't and won't offer a legal opinion on Comey's conduct. But, in fact, to the contrary, the White House has actually deferred, as it should, any and all legal questions regarding Director Comey to the Department of Justice. That's the appropriate venue for those things to be dealt with.
Q So what's he asking the Department of Justice to do, though, in his tweet this morning? That's what I'm asking.
MS. SANDERS: We refer any legal action to the Department of Justice. Anything on that front would be handled by them.
Q Sarah, normally when the President is upset about something, we hear from him pretty quickly about it, whether it's an issue with a senator, whether it's an issue with the NFL. So why did it take nearly two weeks for him to say something about this ISIS ambush -- not to reach out to the families, necessarily, but even to offer public condolences or to explain to the American public what happened and how the deadliest combat mission involving American troops went so wrong?
MS. SANDERS: As I said before, there is a protocol for that. But there's also -- we did make public remarks from the administration. I know I did, in short order after that happened, from the podium, at the direction of the President. And I speak on his behalf. And I did that on behalf of the President and the administration.
Q Sarah, you've brought up politicizing a couple of times, in relation to Congresswoman Wilson. But did the President politicize General Kelly's son's death by bringing it up as a defense for his claims about what past Presidents did or did not do with fallen soldiers?
MS. SANDERS: He was responding to a question and stating a fact.
Q Just to clarify your earlier answer, you're not denying that in some point in the conversation the President used the words, "it's what he signed up for"?
MS. SANDERS: I spoke specifically to the sentiment that was offered by the President. I didn't get into the details of a personal call because I don't find that to be that appropriate.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You opened up at the top discussing the liberation of Raqqa. So my question for you is: How does the President envision future U.S. involvement in both Syria and Iraq, post-ISIS?
MS. SANDERS: We want to continue to work with our coalition forces to completely destroy and defeat ISIS. Right now, that's the priority and that's the focus, and that's what we're going to continue to be focused on at this time.
Thank you, guys, so much for today. And we'll see you tomorrow.
3:13 P.M. EDT