Watch: White House Press Briefing 12/19/17 [video + transcript]
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on events and issues of the day including:
- Amtrak high-speed train derailment
- Tax reform progress
- Attribution of WannaCry malware attack to North Korea
- Mueller’s seizure of Trump transition team emails
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. As I’m sure you all just saw, the House of Representatives voted for final passage on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That brings us one step closer to the President making good on his promise to deliver tax cuts for Christmas.
We are looking forward to the Senate vote later this evening, and the President will be monitoring these developments throughout the day.
As December winds down, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to look back at what has been, by any measure, a historic year.
Nearly 1.7 million new jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.1 percent, the lowest rate in 17 years. The stock market reached a record high more than 60 times and closed above 24,000 for the first time in history.
Weve rolled back twenty-two regulations for every one new regulation, saving taxpayers over $8 billion and liberating Americas economy from the grip of bloated government.
Weve withdrawn from, or began renegotiating the trade deals that once threatened to destroy American industry and shipped our jobs around the world.
We finally set up our nation on a path to not only energy independence, but energy dominance. We approved the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, directed the EPA to end the job-killing war on coal, and upon the tax bills passage, will have opened up ANWR to responsible energy exploration.
The President has protected Americas communities. Weve seen the lowest level of illegal border crossings on record. We ended the Obama administrations dangerous catch-and-release policies, restoring law and order both on the border and in the interior. And weve designed and built eight wall prototypes for the border wall.
Weve taken unprecedented steps to tackle Americas opioids epidemic by directing the declaration of a nationwide public health emergency.
And weve promoted peace through strength. Under the Presidents leadership, ISIS has lost nearly all of its territory and its most important strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
We’ve restored old alliances, forged new ones, begun rebuilding our military, and made it clear to the world that there is no greater ally, no more fearsome adversary than the United States of America.
Weve reshaped the American judiciary for generations. Justice Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and 22 judges have been confirmed, including a record-setting 12 circuit judges. We protected life by reinstating and expanding the Mexico City Policy that protects $9 billion in U.S.-taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortions.
And this evening, hopefully upon passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the President will have delivered the most significant tax cut in the history of the nation and repealed the Obamacare individual mandate.
The President has delivered on promise after promise, issue after issue, time after time, and were just getting started.
As some of you may have seen yesterday, Disney World debuted its animatronic President Trump for its famed Hall of Presidents.
In the Presidents remarks for the exhibit, which he recorded here at the White House earlier this year, he said, “From the beginning, America has been a nation defined by its people. It’s why our Founders began our great Constitution with three very simple words: We the People.”
In the coming days, political analysts will write and the talking heads will discuss what this year means — what it means for the President, what it means for Republican and Democrat Parties, and for the never-ending political theater in Washington, D.C.
But I would encourage everyone to take a step outside of the Beltway bubble and consider what this year means for the American people.
To the forgotten men and women around our country, you are forgotten no more. This President is with you 100 percent. And as this year has already proven, he will never let you down.
And with that, I will take your questions. John.
Q Two questions on tax reform. Both are quick, if I could. First of all, what’s the schedule for signing? I understand this may not happen until after the Christmas break?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re still working on the details of the signing, but first we want to make sure it gets passed. That’s what we’re focused on right now is helping we make sure we see this through to the finish in the Senate. And then we’ll announce plans on what a signing would look like and where it would take place following that.
Q Second question. The carried-interest provision — this is something that — this is a loophole that President Trump promised again, again, and again to close. The carried-interest loophole is still there in this bill. Why did the President not insist on getting rid of that?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President was focused and he laid out what his four biggest principles were that he wanted to make sure were part of any piece of legislation. We feel that the piece of legislation where it is now certainly answered and addressed that. That has been our focus all along and what we’ve continued to talk about consistently here and every time we’ve talked about taxes.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The President has said that this tax bill is going to cost him a fortune. It’s actually not the case. How does he figure this is going to cost him a lot of money?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we expect that it likely will — certainly on the personal side — could cost the President a lot of money. Again, the President’s focus hasn’t necessarily been at all on himself, but it’s been on those four principles that we laid out — number one, and priority number-one, being that it helps the American middle class. We know what this bill does that, and that’s one of the biggest reasons that the President has supported it, been engaged, and will look forward to signing it, hopefully, in the coming days.
Q But he stands to benefit from pass-through deductions, top-rate tax reduction, estate tax exception is doubled. He’s going to make money on that.
MS. SANDERS: Look, again, this is a tax plan that we hope benefits all Americans. Primarily, and priority number one, is middle-class Americans. That has been this administration’s focus. We feel like that is certainly addressed and been prioritized in this legislation, and we’re going to be very excited to sign it hopefully in the coming days.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Early reports are indicating that that fatal Amtrak derailment out in Washington — similar to the 2015 derailment in Philadelphia — could have been prevented by positive train control, which Congress back in ’08 mandated was supposed to be on all lines by 2015. That’s been pushed back and it’s only on a quarter of passenger lines right now. Is this White House considering any steps to speed up the implementation of positive train control to stop these kinds of accidents?
MS. SANDERS: Right now we’re continuing to review and investigate exactly what took place yesterday. And once we have more detailed determination on that, we can take steps to prevent things like this from happening in the future.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. You ticked off a number of accomplishments that you see the President has made in this first year in office. Why are his approval ratings mired in the mid- to upper-30s, despite those accomplishments?
Q I think oftentimes because, while the President and this administration has been very focused on how we can better help the American people, I think oftentimes the media is focused on other things — certainly not talking about the growing economy; certainly not talking about the crushing of ISIS; not talking about the creation of jobs.
If you look at the amount of time that is spent on negative coverage of this President, 90 percent of the coverage is negative about this President, when, as you just said, I listed off a number of things that have been pretty historic in nature in this first year. And if people were focused a lot more on those things in the media, I think that his numbers would be a lot higher.
We anticipate that they’re going to go up as more and more of these things continue to happen and particularly as more and more people start to feel the impact of the booming economy, the tax cuts that will take place later tonight and go into effect in the first part of February. I think those are all things that are going to help boom our numbers.
Q And separately, Sarah — just if I may — Matthew Peterson, since we last met, withdrew his judicial nomination. There’s been a viral video of his inability to answer some basic legal questions when he went up before his confirmation hearing. How did he sort of slip through the cracks? Why was he nominated? And are you doubling up your effort here at the White House, over at DOJ, to make sure that your judicial nominees can answer those basic questions when they go up to the confirmation hearings?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President’s judicial selection process has led to a historic pace of confirmations, including 12 circuit court justices, and a Supreme Court justice. Every administration has individuals that don’t go all the way through the process. We’ve had sixty nominees and only three that haven’t gone through this process. That individual has withdrawn, and we’re going to make sure that we fill that spot with a really strong and good, qualified candidate.
Q Sarah, thanks. Where was the President watching when the House voted? And did you see his reaction? What did he do?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure. I’ll have to circle back with you on that. I was getting ready to come out. I was watching to make sure I didn’t make you guys wait too much longer.
Q One thing on nominations. Can you explain, now that we’re near the end of year, why the President has submitted far fewer names to the Senate for nomination than his predecessors, at this point in his term?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve been focused on filling positions as quickly as possible. But at the same time, the President has said before he doesn’t think that every single position in the government needs to be filled. He’s going to cut back on some of those positions. We’ve been focused on some of the top priority places and we’re going to continue filling out individuals.
But we’ve also seen a massive slowdown and obstruction by the Democrats. Hopefully, they’ll continue to push our people through, particularly in individuals that were held up, whether it’s in the judiciary or something that falls under the national defense profile.
Q Thank you. Let me ask you a couple questions and pick up where John Roberts left off. He asked you about the carried -interest loophole. You said, essentially, that it fell within the President’s four main principles that he laid out. How is keeping the carried-interest loophole, or at least a portion of it, good for the middle class?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the big priorities that we had — I’ll go back — were, make it easy, make it fair, win again, and bring it home. We feel like this tax legislation certainly does that. There were provisions that were put in place that directly help and benefit the middle class. They see more of their money come home. They see childcare tax deductions double. There are a lot of things that are going to impact the middle class, and we feel like those things address the need to really help give them that boost. And we think that this absolutely will.
Q Let me ask you this way: An individual who makes roughly $83,000 would pay about 24 percent with their rate. Somebody who benefits, a millionaire — tens of millions, potentially hundreds of millions, if not more — still might pay 24 percent on that money. Does the White House believe that somebody who makes $83,000 paying as somebody who has, potentially, hundreds of millions, do you guys believe that is fair?
MS. SANDERS: Look, again, I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth on a detailed hypothetical situation that I dont have in front of me and that I can’t quickly do the math on, but I can tell you we feel like this plan fully addresses helping the middle class, giving the majority of middle-class Americans more of their money back. And that’s what we’ve been focused on and we feel confident in that.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I actually wanted to ask about UFOs. (Laughter.) Several media reports this week — (phone interruption) — sorry. (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: I was going to say, I dont know if that’s a coincidence or not. I feel like I already want to pass on this question given that you’ve got aliens sitting among you.
Q Several of these reports have disclosed the existence of a secret Pentagon program that was researching UFOs. Funding ran out for that in 2012. Does the President believe in the existence of UFOs? And would he be interested in restoring funding for that program?
MS. SANDERS: Somehow, that question hasnt come up in our back-and-forth over the last couple days, but I will check into that and be happy to circle back.
Q Has the President made sure that the IRS has the resources it needs to implement these new tax reform rules?
MS. SANDERS: We understand that they’re fully prepared to take action immediately and that people will see the benefits of this tax package start at the first part of February. And we’ve confirmed that with the IRS.
Q Just to follow up on a couple of questions. Were you saying that this particular judicial nominee, who’s withdrawn after this viral video of his inept performance at the confirmation hearing, didnt properly go through your preparation and vetting process?
MS. SANDERS: No, I didnt say that. I said that we have been focused on pushing forward good candidates. We’ve put forward over 60 nominees. We’ve had three individuals that have had to withdraw; that individual was one of them. And we are focused on making sure we fill that position with somebody that would —
Q But with this confirmation hearing, based on your process, you thought he was prepared?
MS. SANDERS: We, again, are looking always for the best and brightest. And when we felt like that wasnt necessarily the right person for that position, he has withdrawn his nomination. We havent continued to go forward. That is pretty standard in most administrations. In fact, every administration prior to us has had to withdraw nominees. We’ve had to withdraw three out of sixty.
Look, I think a lot of people are focused on just those three and not at the overwhelming number. The President has had his nominees confirmed at a historic pace on that effort, and many of them with bipartisan support, including the 12 members of the Circuit Court and the Supreme Court justices.
Q And to follow up on Cecilia’s question, you dont disagree with what she said about the personal benefits that will accrue to the President based on provisions in the tax cut bill? You dont disagree that they will benefit him personally?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I said that, in some ways — particularly on the personal side — the President will likely take a big hit. But on the business side, he could benefit. But the biggest focus for this White House has been to make sure all Americans are better off today, after this tax package passes, than they were beforehand. We’re really focused on invigorating the middle class and making sure they got more of their hard-earned money, and we think that that will happen in this package.
Q Sarah, you said the focus is on the middle class. Why was one of the last provisions put in lowering the top bracket? And did the President support that? And if he did not support it, why did he not insist that that not be added at the end?
MS. SANDERS: Look, some of the back-and-forth, we respected the process. A lot of that took place in the House and Senate. We’ve been engaged in that process, but we laid out what our four priorities were, and we wanted to make sure those happened. That was our focus in the process, and we felt like those priorities were met.
Q Does that help the middle class, to lower the rate for — the bracket for the top individual earners?
MS. SANDERS: Some economists think that it does, and I’d be happy to refer you to some of them, that it would give you a very deep dive and get into a very wonky conversation on it. A lot of people think that that does impact and can help the middle class, and I’d be happy to set you up with those folks later.
Q What do you say to the millions of Americans who could, and likely will, end up paying more because the individual mandate is repealed in this tax plan?
MS. SANDERS: We’ve maintained all along that we think that that is the right step. Look, most Americans want to keep more of their money; this plan does this. Most Americans want to get rid of the special interest loopholes that benefit the rich; this plan does this. They want to simplify the tax code to make it easier for them to file their taxes; this does this.
And when you look at the actual elements of the bill in front of the American people, they overwhelmingly support it by — even a lot of Democrat support has picked up when you look at the elements in the bill.
Q To be clear, though, on the individual mandate specifically, you will acknowledge that many Americans will end up paying more as a result of it being repealed, correct?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve said all along that our healthcare system is broken, it has to be fixed, it’s not sustainable. This is one step in that process. We’re going to continue moving forward and looking at the best ways to improve our healthcare system. And we anticipate that being a big part of our focus next year.
Q To be clear, so for the time being, they’ll have to swallow paying more until that resolution comes?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. And we, again, are committed to fixing the system as a whole and not just looking at one element of it. And this is certainly a big step in the right direction and something that has to happen, because the system that we’re in right now is simply unsustainable.
Q Sarah, as women around the country continue to speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace, I wanted to check in with you and see if the President and this administration is considering any legislative fixes to protect women from harassment.
There are two notable bipartisan bills that have recently been introduced. This is Gretchen Carlson’s bill to remove arbitration clauses from employee contracts, and the Congressional Harassment Reform Act, which would require members of Congress to be found personally liable for harassment settlements and allow victims to speak publicly about their cases. Would the President consider signing either of these bills if they arrived on his desk?
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to talk to him and look at more detailed versions of the legislation. Obviously, we take this very seriously and are always looking for ways to protect all Americans, and especially and including women.
Q So at the moment, though, the White House isn’t considering legislation on this front?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of those considerations. I’d have to talk to our legislative affairs team and get back to you on specifics of those details of the bill.
Q Sarah, I have one on taxes. But because at the top you mentioned “forgotten men and women,” I wanted to ask about Puerto Rico. It’s been more than three months since the hurricane hit. Would the President still give himself right now a 10 out of 10 for the federal government’s response?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the federal government has continued to be engaged. In fact, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of HUD are in Puerto Rico today further engaging in this process, continuing to be partners with the leadership on the ground in Puerto Rico at the state and local level. We’ve given, every time we could, from the federal level. And we’re going to continue working with them until they’re fully restored.
Q So you think the President has been doing everything he can? Still a 10?
MS. SANDERS: We still firmly believe, and I believe you can refer back to the comments that the Governor has made previously, that every time they’ve asked, the federal government has delivered. We want to continue to be partners with them, with this, and make sure that we rebuild. And that’s what we’re doing, and that’s why the President has sent two members of his Cabinet directly to deal with that and be on the ground in Puerto Rico to further assess and see what other necessary actions we have that we can take.
Q And on the tax situation, Sarah — you’re getting a lot of questions about what will benefit the President, what won’t benefit the President. I get that he doesn’t want to release his taxes. That would obviously put all of these questions to rest. So can you just elucidate why — for 2016, the President can release his taxes — why won’t he do that and put all of these questions away, back up what you’re saying, prove that what you’re saying is correct? That’s the way to do it.
MS. SANDERS: As weve said many, many times before —
Q But I’m asking a different question, right? Not whether he will, but why won’t he.
MS. SANDERS: — the President’s taxes are still under audit. And until that is completed, then we wouldn’t move forward on putting his taxes out.
Q I guess I’m asking the “why” part of it, Sarah. And I don’t mean to belabor it, but I understand that the President wants to wait until after the audit. I’m asking why.
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think it’s that complicated. As long as they’re under audit, he’s not going to release his taxes. His taxes are under audit, so he’s not going to release those taxes.
Q Even though these questions (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’ve addressed this a number of times. I’m not sure my answering it another time will make the answer any different.
Q I have two questions on Russia. First, the Kremlin has recently threatened Twitter with a complete shutdown throughout Russia if it continues to carry the Twitter account of what they call “Undesirables,” notably the dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia group. They’ve made a similar threat to YouTube recently. What’s the administration’s reaction when the Russian government wants to shut down American-run businesses bringing an expression of opinion to their country?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, generally speaking, we would not support a government shutting down American businesses. And I don’t know why this would be different, but I’d have to look into the details on that specific action and request that they’ve made.
Q The other thing on Russia. Senator Rubio has introduced legislation to name the street in front of the Russian embassy here after the slain Russian dissident, Boris Nemtsov. Senator Corker has blocked it. Does the administration have an opinion on this at all?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q I wanted to ask you about the path forward on the Export-Import Bank. Now that a Senate committee is saying that Scott Garett’s name shouldn’t go forward, does the White House think that it needs to name someone else to run —
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re going to work with the committee on a path forward. That hasnt yet been determined. We’re certainly very disappointed in the Senate Banking Committee; missed an opportunity to get the Export-Import Banking fully functioning again. And we’re going to work with them to determine the next steps.
Q On his name or someone else?
MS. SANDERS: More generally speaking, just a path forward. We’ll let you know if it’s going to be with that individual or a different plan.
Q Sarah, just a couple of quick follow-ups. First, on Matthew, he was asking about Amtrak. There was a budget request, as I understand, from the President for $630 million reduction in the long-distance Amtrak routes. Because of the accident in Washington, do you plan on revisiting that issue?
On Matthew Peterson, the three that were turned down — it’s our understanding that they had close ties to the White House. Are you going to try to change the vetting process?
And then finally, on the one on UFOs —
MS. SANDERS: Let me start and do one at a time because I’m not going to remember all of those questions.
Q The one on UFOs is the last one.
MS. SANDERS: We’ll see if we can get to all of that. The first one was on judicial nominees?
Q Well, the first one was on the Amtrak —
MS. SANDERS: This is why we didn’t skip and let you take three.
So, on Amtrak, as I told Matthew a few minutes ago, we’re going to wait until that investigation is complete and there’s a more thorough review, and we’ll talk about next steps once that’s done.
In terms of the judicial nominees, I’ve walked through that a couple of times now. We have put through sixty — nominated sixty individuals; only three have had to withdraw or not gone forward in some capacity, and that’s pretty standard for any administration. Every administration ahead of us has had similar challenges where they’ve either withdrawn or not gone forward.
Q But because of their ties to the White House, because it’s looked upon as those were friends of the White House and that’s why they got that nomination, are you going to change the vetting process? Are you going to look at it more closely?
MS. SANDERS: I think if we were so focused on friends that were close to the White House, those individuals would be moving forward and not having withdrawn.
Q Sarah, the new National Security Strategy specifically calls out Russia for using subversive tactics to interfere with the affairs of other countries. Why didn’t the President use that kind of aggressive language in his speech yesterday?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has weighed in on Russia and his feelings on that a number of times. The policy and the strategy put forth in that very detailed paper was that of the President and it reflects his views. And, you know, he didn’t read every single page of it word-for-word. I’m sure you’re all thankful for that, because we certainly could have. Maybe I should do that for the next briefing.
But, look, the President has been clear what his position is. We’ve been tough on Russia, we’ve put sanctions on Russia, we’ve imported energy, and impacted them in a big way. The President has not been soft in this process. He chose to focus on different things in this speech, but those things were included in the National Security Strategy because they’re important, and they’re part of the administration’s viewpoints.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two things. First, I just wanted to go back to the Scott Garett issue. Does the President, at this point, regret having nominated someone who had advocated, previously getting rid of the Export-Import Bank to lead it?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. I’m going to take one last question.
Q And I also just wanted to ask — the President spoke with Prime Minister May today. Did they have any discussion at all about the President’s planned visit? Have you settled on any timing of a potential visit?
MS. SANDERS: That invitation has been extended and accepted. And we’re working with them to finalize the details, which we expect to announce soon. And we’ll keep you guys posted on that once that’s finalized.
Last question, Jim.
Q The President did say that this tax cut bill would cost him a fortune. That was false, right?
MS. SANDERS: No, because on the personal side, this actually could impact the President in a large way.
Q Has he looked at how it would balance out corporate versus personal, if he’s going to come out ahead?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure if he’s done a side-by-side, but I know that there are a number of provisions that would negatively impact the President personally. And so we contend that those comments are still very consistent.
However, like I’ve said, our focus has been on the middle class, and that is what we think is delivered in this tax package. And we very much look forward to seeing it passed later today and signed at a date soon. And we’ll be sure to keep you guys posted on that.
Thanks so much, guys.