Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hold a briefing to update the media on the issues and events of the day.
Mnuchin spent his portion of the briefing discussing the positive impacts of the Trump administration’s economic policies, the IRS’s efforts to ready the system for the new tax changes, sanctions on Iran, and the current status of NAFTA negotiations.
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
Q Good afternoon.
MS. SANDERS: I’d like to start today’s briefing by bringing up Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The IRS is releasing new withholding tables, which is great news for American workers who are going to be keeping more of their hard-earned money as a result of the new tax cut law. And the Secretary will get into those details on that and then answer a few of your questions on that topic. And then, as always, I’ll be back up here to take questions on other news of the day.
And with that, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Thank you very much, and it’s a pleasure to be here. Let me first just comment and say I am pleased that I will be leading the economic delegation for the President in Davos. We’ll have a very good, large group of Cabinet members traveling with us, and Sarah will give more information on that later.
I’d like to talk about the withholding tables. So today, the Treasury Department and IRS released new withholding guidance that will implement the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. This new guidance will mean that workers and their families will receive larger paychecks starting in February.
This has been a massive project that we’ve been working on, beginning to implement the tax plan. There’s a lot of work left to be done, but we’re estimating that 90 percent of the workers are going to see an increase in take-home pay because of the Tax Cuts Act.
This historic legislation doubles the standard deduction, simplifies the filing process, lowers the rate for millions of middle-income Americans and their families.
I want to acknowledge the Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy and the IRS who worked round-the-clock to meet our important objective to work with the existing forms and the existing systems. We want to minimize the burden on both employers and hardworking taxpayers in getting this implemented in February.
This is just the first step in a three-step process. Next, the IRS will be releasing a new withholding calculator that will be available on IRS.gov by the end of February. This will help provide individuals with certainty so that they are neither over-withheld or under-withheld and can plan their financial decisions.
We have reviewed this very carefully, and based upon last year’s withholding tables, approximately 76 percent of taxpayers were withheld so that they had refunds at the end of the year. We expect, based upon the new tables, there will be no material change in this number.
We will encourage taxpayers to use the calculator when it is released, and we’ll launch a marketing effort to make sure people understand that.
Finally, I’d like to say that the Treasury and IRS will work together to release a new W-4 for 2019. We expect to release that later in the year. We will be meeting with employers, payroll providers, to determine how to best to design the form to reflect the new law. And the IRS will continue to focus on simplification and a user-friendly process.
These new tables will help deliver the tax cuts as soon as possible to as many Americans as possible, with as little disruption as possible. This will continue to focus and fuel the optimism in economic growth that is returning to this country.
I’d also like to highlight the announcement this morning from Walmart. We want to thank them. They will be increasing their minimum wages, issuing bonuses, and expanding family benefits for over a million employees. Walmart is the latest company to make such an announcement, directly result of the Tax Cuts Act, and they join over 130 other companies across the nation who have already given such relief. We’re now up to over 2 million workers that have seen either special bonuses or additional wages.
And with that, I’m happy to answer any questions. I have to start with you, because you had the hat.
Q Okay, thanks. (Laughter.) You made me laugh. In regards to Walmart and the minimum wage — and since they already have the money and are increasing the minimum wage, does that mean that we can expect movement on the federal government’s behalf to increase the federal minimum wage for everyone?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, I think the most important issue is for companies to increase their wages, and Walmart’s number is already above the minimum wage. This is obviously an issue for the federal government; it’s an issue for states. But I’d say the real focus, which is what the Tax Cuts Act has been all about, is putting more money in companies. We’ve said all along we believe that 70 percent of this will be returned to workers.
Q And a quick follow-up. Do you believe that they should raise the minimum wage; that it should be a federal raise?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Next question, go ahead.
Q Mr. Secretary, just for those who are watching, on February 1st, will these withholding tables go into effect and that’s when the American taxpayer will first see a change in the withholding of their paycheck?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, it will definitely be in February. Some companies will have it set up for February 1st, some companies may have the next pay cycle. But we are encouraging companies to do this as quickly as possible. We’re ahead of schedule in the release of this. And we’d expect that in any event it’s in February.
Q And as far Davos, what is the point of the Trump administration going to a place that is regarded, usually, as a hangout for globalists?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, I don’t think it’s a hangout for globalists. I think the idea is the economic team is going to go over and talk about the America First economic strategy. We’re thrilled that the President is coming. And I think what we know is that the economy that’s good for the U.S. is good for the rest of the world.
Q You just talked about Walmart, and that’s a big deal. What has been the efforts with Walmart, with this administration, for them to raise their wages?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, again, the whole purpose of the Tax Cuts Act was to put more money in companies so that they could compete competitively with international companies. I think you know we had one of the highest tax rates in the world. We taxed on worldwide income. We’ve changed that. I mean, this is really a revolutionary process. We thought it would be great for the economy, and we’re thrilled with, already, the number of companies we see reacting accordingly.
Q But have you been talking with Walmart on this? How long have you been talking?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We’ve been talking with lots of companies for a long time, and we’re thrilled with how people are responding.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You are using an outdated — or the system will use an outdated W-4 form for this year. You will encourage people to go onto a calculator on the IRS website and maybe try to figure things out. Taxes are messy to begin with. How is this not going to lead to, in one way or another, some sort of implementation mess?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, you know, I’ve given enormous amount of credit for the team at Treasury and the team at IRS who have literally be working around the clock through the holidays.
You mentioned we had an existing form, we had existing technology. We had to figure out how to fit this in this format. That fact that we’ve been able to keep the same percentage of people that get refunds — we wanted to make sure that people weren’t over-withheld or under-withheld. So we ran lots of models to run this. That’s phase one.
Phase two: As soon as the calculator comes out — the calculator will work with the new tax system — child tax credits, $10,000 deduction — so a taxpayer can see, do I have the right number of exceptions that are filed or should I adjust that.
And then, as I said, we’re going to work on a super user-field form that fits the new tax system. We’re going to try to do that. I want to make sure we get a lot of feedback as we design that and update this.
Q I guess when people are hearing a three-step implementation process of a massive tax systems, in no way this was rushed to try to get this out there for pay checks in February?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Absolutely not. I mean, we update the withholding tables every year. You know, there’s more work, but again, our objective is to get people money as quickly as they can. Ninety percent of the people will see changes.
Yes, in the back.
Q Thanks, Mr. Secretary. I just want to be clear. It sounds to me like you are saying that the administration’s policies are partly responsible for the Walmart wage rise, but that the layoffs have nothing to do with you? Is that — am I understanding that correctly? And is that not inconsistent?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: What I’m saying is, the administration’s economic policies are a function of what we see — growth and investment. Different companies will do different things. Some companies will invest capital. Some companies will return money to workers. Lots of things are going on in the economy, and we appreciate what Walmart is doing.
Q Yes, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Last year at Davos, Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, made a speech and he talked about isolationism not necessarily being a good policy for most countries around the world. And so it was viewed very much as China making entreaties to a global economy, saying, “Hey we’re open for business at a time when other countries are turning inward.” Is the President going to respond to that line of argument when he goes to Davos? What’s he going to say when he’s there?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, I think you’ve heard a lot of the President’s messages. I expect that they’ll be consistent. I expect the President will talk about trade — reciprocal, free, and fair trade. We’ve obviously been very clear with the Chinese on the issue that we have with the trade deficit and making sure that the U.S. companies can compete fairly. And the President will talk a lot about his economic program and the impact on the global economy.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Staying with trade, can you give us an update on the negotiations over NAFTA? And how concerned is this administration over the fact that Canada has recently made a complaint to the WHO and that Mexico is concerned that this administration will, in short order, withdraw from NAFTA
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We gave the President an update this morning on trade. I think he’s very pleased with where things are going. Ambassador Lighthizer is doing an amazing job renegotiating NAFTA, and we expect that will be renegotiated or we’ll pull out.
Q Yes, Mr. Secretary, I know you’ve had a lot going on with taxes, but since we have you here, could you give us an update on Treasury’s progress on this list of Russian oligarchs that Congress had asked for? I believe we were expecting it sometime in January. Can you let us know where that’s a
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We’re working on it as we speak. It should be released in the near future, and it’s something we’re very focused on.
Q Mr. Secretary, if I heard you correctly, you’re predicting that there won’t be a great increase — or decrease, rather, in the number of American taxpayers who used to get a refund, who — basically, the same number will still get a refund that have been expecting to get a refund all along. Is that correct?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: That is correct. Again, what we’re trying —
Q And then, can you then address the Democrats’ charge that you all are juicing this?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I think this is another ridiculous charge. That’s why I specifically want to make clear that there won’t be a change in that number. We have people who have worked very carefully on this.
Our objective is not to have taxpayers over-withheld so that they owe money at the end of the year. As I’ve said, kind of, we have a system. Ninety percent of the people will get money. Kind of, the same number of people will get refunds. And we’re going to actively encourage and make sure that taxpayers understand how to go onto the calculator once it’s up and running. We’ll work with payroll providers. We’ll work with companies. We’ll do education sessions so that taxpayers are properly withheld.
Q Are you expecting any new sanctions on Iran to come from Treasury
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I am expecting new sanctions on Iran. We continue to look at them. We’ve rolled them out. And I think it’s a — you can expect there will be more sanctions coming.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Leaders in some states — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey — are talking about ways to limit the impact of the SALT scale-back, such as letting people pay their property taxes in a way that would then be charitably deductible. Is the administration going to try to halt any of those efforts? And how are you responding to that?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, let me just say, again, from the Treasury standpoint and IRS, I don’t want to speculate on what people will do. But I think it’s one of the more ridiculous comments, to think that you can take a real-estate tax that you’re required to make and dress that up as a charitable contribution.
I hope that the states are more focused on cutting their budgets and giving tax cuts to their people in their states than they are on trying to evade the law.
Q Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. As the national debt clock approaches $21 trillion, I have a few real and quick questions. First of all, is this something that the administration is concerned about?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I think we’ve said, under the last administration, the debt has gone from $10 trillion to $20 trillion, and of course, we’re focused on the debt. And that’s why we’re focused on economic growth. This tax plan was about economic growth that will create more revenues for the economy and more tax receipts for the government.
Q Okay. So then what can we realistically expect the national debt to be by the end of the — and I hope this is not a hypothetical — but by the end of the President’s first term, what can we hope the —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I don’t have a projection for that right now, but thank you.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You talk about the tax being flatter, and 90 percent of the taxpayers benefitting from it. Yet, it would seem that under those circumstances you’re going to eliminate a lot of the deductions which so many small businesses and self-employed business people depend on. Is there really a major cut in deductions? And how do you expect that will play with the small-business community?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, I think there have — you know, this is about tax simplification and getting rid of deductions — a lot of the deductions that rich people take. But I will tell you, on small businesses — I mean, one of the best features of the tax plan are all the features that go to small- and medium-sized businesses and pass-throughs. I mean, there are tremendous incentives, whether it’s the automatic expensing or whether it’s the discount for pass-throughs.
I mean, we’ve heard more good news from small business than even from the Walmarts of the world.
Q And self-employed business —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Self-employed too, yes.
Q Thank you. Mr. President, when you’re talk about the —
Q Mr. President?
Q I’m sorry, Mr. Secretary. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: He’s in the other room. (Laughter.)
Q 2020 news. Not yet.
Q Mr. Secretary, in talking about the impact and the benefit that most American workers will see under the tax cut plan, wouldn’t this be a good day for the President to release his tax returns so we can see how he benefits from the tax cut bill? And have you recommended that?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I’ve had this question before when I’ve been up here. I’ll say the same thing — I’ll give the same answer I gave you last time. I think that there’s a ton of financial disclosure that the President has given the American people. They voted for him. He’s the President. I think people are happy with that. And the President will decide what he wants to do.
Q Mr. Secretary, what does the administration hope to achieve with these additional sanctions on Iran?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I think the President has been very clear that many aspects of the Iran deal need to be changed; that there are many activities outside of the Iran deal, whether it be ballistic missiles, whether it be other issues; that we will continue to sanction that are outside the JCPOA; human rights violations. We couldn’t be more focused. We have as many sanctions on Iran today as we have on any other country in the process and we’ll continue to look at things.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Just two quick follow-ups to a couple of questions that have been asked. On Ann’s question related to the Democratic charge about the issues that could come up next year, are you at all — just yes or no — was there any consideration given to the midterms when you guys ensured that the implementation of this would happen in February and not, for example, later, to give you more time to sort all of this out?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, let me just explain. The IRS issues tables every January. We knew we were changing the tax bill, so it obviously made sense to wait from January to February so that we gave people time to institute this.
Any claims that we’re doing this for political issues are ridiculous. Okay? I’d also make a comment. You know, the Democrats made a bunch of noise about our numbers and at tax policy. The Inspector General just came out with a report that made very clear there was no political interference in this, in how we ran these numbers.
So I would hope the Democrats are focused on doing things that are good for the economy and the American people.
Q And then just to follow up on Davos, to Major’s question and Eamon’s. You talked about the message being consistent, that the President will deliver in Switzerland. Obviously, one of his big messages has been aimed at middle-class Americans. He got elected on this populist platform. I’m hoping you can explain how it’s consistent to take members of his Cabinet — many of whom are very wealthy — to go rub elbows with a bunch of other very wealthy people in Switzerland. Can you explain the consistency on messaging?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I can assure you that the members of his Cabinet have no interest in going over there and rubbing elbows with anybody. This is about meeting business leaders. This is about meeting our counterparts. This is all about creating jobs, creating economic growth for the U.S.
As you know, there’s tremendous — there’s tremendous investment in the U.S. There’s tremendous trade deals going on. I think we’ve been very clear and the President has delivered. Look where the stock market is again. The President is delivering for American workers.
So this trip is all business. I can assure you it has nothing to do with anything other than that.
Q Thanks, Mr. Secretary. Can you please say, when it comes to charitable giving, people worry that the new tax code, with the higher standard deduction, could limit giving to charities. Do you share that concern?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I don’t share that concern at all, and I would say quite the opposite — that we’ve raised the limits that rich people can give to charity to encourage charitable donations.
So I’ll take one more question. In the back.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Will the President decide today on the Iran deal? And do you anticipate that he will waive sanctions like he has done in the past?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I am not going to make any specific comments on that. It is still under discussion, and I know the President is contemplating recommendations.
Thank you very much, everybody.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Secretary Mnuchin. Just a quick addition — because I know all of you are wondering about that Walmart announcement — it is based in Arkansas. (Laughter.) So just in case anybody — to clear that up, because I knew you guys were going to ask.
In all seriousness, the tax law is already having an incredible impact on American workers and families. And this is only the beginning of what people have to look forward to in the Trump economy.
Eight days from now, funding for essential government operations will run out. Unfortunately, Democrats are continuing to refuse to fund our troops and other important national security priorities that keep our people safe.
Some Democrats are beginning to realize how irresponsible this is. Just yesterday, Senator Whitehouse said that funding the government should not be tied to immigration, that they should be separate issues. Threatening a government shutdown like that would be, in his words, “counterproductive.”
What’s interesting about this is that it’s the position most Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, held right up until the moment Donald Trump became President. Democrats should stop making our brave troops and essential government functions political pawns in their swamp games. They should stop their obstruction and work with Republicans to fund the government.
Looking ahead to tomorrow, the President will receive his annual physical at Walter Reed. Dr. Ronny Jackson, the President’s physician, will conduct the exam. And Dr. Jackson has been a physician to the President for three consecutive administrations. He will release a statement tomorrow after the exam, and then will join me here in the Briefing Room next Tuesday to give a detailed readout and answer a few questions.
And with that update, I will take your questions.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Can you walk us through the events in the building this morning that informed the President’s tweets about the FISA reauthorization vote on the House today? They seemed to be — he took different positions at different times. And as a follow-up to that, what do you say to the idea that having these seemingly in-conflict stances undermines the administration’s ability to get an agenda done?
MS. SANDERS: We don’t think that there was a conflict at all. The President fully supports the 702 and was happy to see that it passed the House today, but he does have some overall concern with the FISA program more generally. The President doesn’t feel that we should have to choose between protecting American citizens and protecting their civil liberties. He wants to do both, and that’s exactly what he’s going to do. We don’t see any contradiction or confusion in that.
Q A quick question about Dr. Jackson’s statement. It will come tomorrow after the exam, on paper?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, it would be kind of tricky if it came before. (Laughter.)
Q No, but — no, but tomorrow, though, right?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, he’ll put out a brief statement, but will take the weekend to compile the rest of the results, lab results, things like that. And he’ll join me here on Tuesday to give a detailed readout of the President’s exam and then answer a few questions from you guys.
Q Then on Walmart, if I might, just because it’s in Arkansas.
MS. SANDERS: Great state. Everybody should go.
Q At the same time as it announced the raises, it also announced that 260 Sam’s Club stores are going to close without much notice, and I’m wondering if you have any comment on that aspect of what’s happened today.
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any comment on that specific component. We are, again, very excited about the raises and the overall influx of investment that they’re putting into their company and helping over a million workers here in the country.
Walmart is the largest employer in the country. And to see them do — and make that kind of effort to over a million workers is a big deal, something we’re excited about, and I think further evidence that the tax reform and tax cut packages are having the impact that we had hoped.
Q Sarah, if there was no contradiction between the President’s tweet this morning and official White House policy, can you tell us why his first tweet sparked off a flurry of activity and phone calls between the White House and Capitol Hill —
MS. SANDERS: I think there’s a flurry of activity at the White House every day.
Q — and the White House and White House staff, leading one government official to say, we did more work before eight o’clock this morning than most people do in a week?
MS. SANDERS: That government official probably doesn’t work at the White House, because we usually do more work by eight o’clock in the morning, as most of you know, because you start calling us usually around 5:00 a.m., and we try to respond to emails and phone calls about 24 hours a day from you guys.
Q But can you speak to the official?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure about the flurry of activity. Again, to us, that’s a pretty normal day, and we’re always engaged with members on the Hill, members of our staff. So that seems pretty standard practice.
Q Two questions. One, Senator Flake has left some on Capitol Hill with the impression that there is a deal on immigration and DACA. Is there one? And does the White House believe it’s one it will support?
MS. SANDERS: There has not been a deal reached yet; however, we still think we can get there. And we’re very focused on trying to make sure that that happens. The President has been clear about what his priorities are in that process, and we’re going to continue working with members of the House and the Senate — Republicans and Democrats — to make sure that we try to get that deal done.
Q Related to that, is the White House familiar with what — of the contours that Senator Flake was talking about? And would it regard it as progress?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t speak to the specifics of Senator Flake. I can tell you that a deal has not been reached, and we’ve outlined what a deal would need to look like on our end for it to happen.
Q On Medicaid, can you explain from the administration’s point of view the value of demonstration projects in the 10 states that have asked for it for those who are able-bodied who receive Medicaid? Because there are critics who say — even as a demonstration project, it would fundamentally change Medicaid’s orientation to those who receive it because they qualify. And that’s historically been the method. If you qualify, you receive.
MS. SANDERS: Are you referencing the CMS, the new policy?
Q Yes, yes.
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, they’re announcing that to support states in efforts to strengthen the Medicaid program and getting Americans engaged in getting back to work. The policy will allow states to design programs that help beneficiaries improve health and wellbeing. At the same time, the policy protects the most vulnerable, including those determined to be medically frail or suffering from a substance-use disorder. That’s what the focus of that program is on.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Back to FISA, if I can. Many people are interpreting that first tweet from the President to mean he didn’t actually know how FISA works and, for that matter, that he wasn’t familiar with his own administration’s policy. Does he know FISA? Was he familiar with the policy?
MS. SANDERS: He does, which is why he issued a presidential memo last week, expressing concerns and asking for a review of it, which is also why DNI put out a new policy this morning. This is top of mind for the President, top of mind for the administration. And he has a full understanding.
Don’t believe me? Ask Speaker Ryan. Look to the comments that he made. He’s somebody who’s been in constant contact, had many discussions with the President on this issue, and he stated that in his press conference earlier today.
Q And how exactly was the Trump campaign so badly surveilled and abused under FISA as he seemed to claim in that tweet?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that there are a lot of things that indicate the surveillance that took place there. And I’m not sure what the part of confusion is on that front. You guys have reported on it many, many times.
Q If you’re a DREAMer out there, should you have confidence that this President is going to reach an agreement that will protect you from being deported?
MS. SANDERS: You should. I think you saw that. You guys got to come into the room in a pretty unprecedented way and sat in there for almost an hour, listening to the President talk about it, listening to the President commit to getting a solution on this.
Right now, we’re counting on Republicans and Democrats to come together — which we think they will — to make a deal on DACA and on border security, which is a vital part of that conversation and something that we insist be part of it.
Q And a quick follow-up on FISA. There seems to be a pattern — and correct me if I’m wrong, if there is no pattern — where the President watches something on “Fox & Friends” and then he tweets about it. Apparently, this morning, one of their personalities, Andrew Napolitano, said that, ‘This is not a good deal, Mr. President. Don’t do this.’ And then he went on Twitter and tweeted about the FISA program.
There have been folks out there who have said, there’s a cause and effect: He watches something on “Fox & Friends,” and then he tweets about it. Is that what happened this morning? And does that go on?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sure you’re disappointed that he’s not watching CNN. But —
Q I think he watches a lot of CNN, if you don’t mind me saying. (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think that’s true. Your numbers would be higher.
Q Oooh —
Q They’re actually better than they’ve been in a long time.
MS. SANDERS: In reference to the question specifically —
Q We can keep going.
MS. SANDERS: No, let’s not. In response to the question, as I just said, the President has a great deal of understanding. This is top of mind. He was talking about it last week. He issued a presidential memo on it, so it’s not something that just happened this morning. This has been an ongoing discussion and something of great importance.The President doesn’t believe that Americans’ rights or liberties should be abused, but he certainly believes that Americans should be protected. And he wants to make sure we do both of those things. And that’s why he supports the 702, but has concern with FISA more generally.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Sticking on the FISA topic.
MS. SANDERS: At least we’re consistent.
Q Yeah. If you didn’t see confusion and contradiction between that first tweet and the White House’s past stated policy, then why two hours later issue that second tweet that seemed to clarify the position?
MS. SANDERS: We weren’t confused, but some of you guys were. And we wanted to make sure you knew the White House position.
Q (Inaudible) people on the Hill or people in these offices who have been saying —
MS. SANDERS: I got several questions from people in the room, as I’m sure all of you know because most of you were the ones sending them. The President has been clear about what his position is. We’ve issued several statements on this, put out one last night that had to do with this.
Look, I can’t be more clear: I’m speaking on behalf of the President and on behalf of the administration on what our position is, and I think I’ve laid that out several times here today.
Q Sarah, on Medicaid and what CMS put out today, critics would say you need to be healthy to get a job in the first place. How are they wrong?
MS. SANDERS: Look, certainly we want the American workforce to be healthy, and we’re focused on helping improve healthcare across the board, but we also want people to have jobs. We’re working on both of those things simultaneously. I don’t see how that conflates with one another.
Q Do you think people are just taking advantage of the system? Is that what —
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Do you think people are just flatly taking advantage of the system?
MS. SANDERS: I think there are certainly cases where that happens. We don’t think that’s the overwhelming majority, but there’s certainly — that’s an issue and something we want to be sure to address.
Q Sarah, back in the summer, the President said “a hundred percent” he would talk with Special Counsel Mueller. Yesterday, he said, “We’ll see what happens.” He seemed to raise questions about whether there would be an interview. What’s changed between the summer and now, and the President’s thinking about speaking with Robert Mueller?
MS. SANDERS: Nothing has changed. We’re going to continue to be fully cooperative with the Special Counsel, as we have been. However, the President and his personal attorneys are going to discuss this matter with the Office of the Special Counsel, not reporters. And that’s going to be the process that we follow.
Q Those discussions are still going on?
MS. SANDERS: We’re still cooperating fully with the Special Counsel. Yes.
Dave, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Back on the tax cuts, you mentioned that the Walmart bonuses are having the impact that you had hoped. As you know, Republicans alone in Congress passed the tax cuts. The Democrats didn’t vote for it at all. Why do you —
MS. SANDERS: We think that’s sad. We wish they had.
Q How can you explain then that almost twice as many Republican incumbents are quitting Congress this year, as opposed to Democrats?
MS. SANDERS: Look, it’s a midterm election, but we fully anticipate moving forward with strong House and Senate Republicans. Whether it’s this year or next year, we’re still focused on getting things done for the American people.
And I really can’t weigh in too much on specifics of the elections or the midterms. But we feel really comfortable with where we are, and certainly with the record of success that we’ve had in 2017, to be able to run on that in 2018.
Q Sarah, I am still confused about the timing of the tweet this morning. It was at 7:30 this morning, and the President referenced the fact that the House was going to vote today on this controversial FISA bill. He intimated that, under FISA, his campaign was abused. Why would he do that this morning? The morning the House voted on a program that he so cares about and wants to —
MS. SANDERS: As I said, it was top of mind. The DNI also put out a new policy on FISA this morning. This is something that’s been ongoing, a regular topic of discussion, and the President wanted to put something out. There’s not much more than that.
Q Sarah, I’m not sure I got a clear answer from the Treasury Secretary to my question about what this administration hopes to achieve with addition sanctions on Iran. So I want to give you a crack at that.
MS. SANDERS: I’ll wait until additional sanctions are made before I weigh in on what that would look like. But as the Treasury Secretary said, we anticipate that that’s likely to happen, and we’ll keep you posted as it does, and what that process will look like.
Q That’s outside of the JCPOA, though — right, Sarah?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, we haven’t made a final decision on JCPOA.
Q So those he talked about — the new ones — would be outside of that?
MS. SANDERS: Obviously, yeah.
Q Not necessarily.
Q Back to immigration, real quick. Yesterday, I guess, a group of House Republicans put out an immigration plan that would deal with DACA but would also do a whole lot of things that weren’t under the umbrella of the four things that you guys outlined in the meeting yesterday. Was that helpful? Was that not helpful to getting to a deal ultimately? Does the President wish that they take that off the table so that you can focus on what might be happening with Senator Flake or others in the Senate? How does a competing package —
MS. SANDERS: No, we think it’s a great starting point. We think it’s a great place —
Q Even though it went beyond what the parameters that the President very specifically, and then you later, after the meeting, set out?
MS. SANDERS: He let out the things he felt had to be included, not just what could be included. Certainly, we think that this is a good starting point — part of the negotiation process. If we could get everything done, we think that’s much better than just getting part of it done, but we’re okay with getting a deal done as long as it falls into the parameters that the President laid out.
Q But he understands, right, that adding the extra things are what has the potential to make this more difficult, because various constituencies think of those things as poison pills that are actually going to make that more —
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s why it’s called a negotiation. Everybody puts everything on the table they want. You figure out what you’re not willing to give up, which we’ve laid out, and you try to come out with everybody winning, which that’s what we’re hoping to do — both Republicans, Democrats, the House and the Senate. We’ve laid out those non-negotiables for us, and we’re going to move forward in that process to help to get there.
Q And do you think you can get that by the end of — by the next week or so? Or do you —
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to put a timeframe on it, but we certainly hope to get it done. I think the priority is making sure that we get it done and we get it done right.
Q Sarah, Secretary Mnuchin said that this White House had been working with businesses as it relates — for a while — as it relates to this tax plan. And when it comes to Walmart, had this White House been talking with Walmart about a safety net for the employees that were going to lose their jobs today? Because I’m looking at a sign right now, from Sam’s Club, that says, “This Club will be closed on January 11th, 2018.” That’s today, the day that Secretary Mnuchin talks about how wonderful there will be increases in pay for Walmart workers.
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware about a conversation about a specific safety net. I can tell you that we’re excited about the fact that they’ve raised minimum wage; they have increased opportunities when it comes to paid family leave; and that they are increasing salaries to over a million American workers. We think that’s a positive. In terms of specifics on a safety net and conversations around that, I couldn’t speak to that.
Q And what’s the (inaudible) on welfare reform? Is there a status report? Because I understand that Ryan and McConnell are not together on issues of welfare reform as relates to education. Where does the President stand on this back-and-forth?
MS. SANDERS: We’re having conversations about that. We think it’s important policy to look at. But right now, our focus, primarily, is on the budget. And secondary is on getting deal done in regards to immigration, on DACA, and border security, and most likely, moving onto infrastructure from there.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two brief questions. The President said yesterday that, and I quote, “We are going to take a strong look” at the libel laws. Now, many lawyers said that was an unusual statement because all libel laws are at the state level and not the federal level. Was he referring to states should take a look at libel laws or something else?
MS. SANDERS: I think, certainly, states should take a look at it. Look, the President is frustrated with the misreporting and fake news that regularly takes place. He is tired of the media’s obsession over a recent fictitious book on the President and his administration. And he thinks that, when things like that happen, there should be some action of recourse. He’s simply stating that it should be looked into.
Q But I mean, he meant the states, not that there should be federal libel laws?
MS. SANDERS: I think he was speaking generally that libel laws should be looked at.
Q Right. My other question is, does the administration have any reaction to the reports of the arrest of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who was leading a protest movement against the regime?
MS. SANDERS: Not at this time. No, John.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Back on the President’s first tweet this morning on FISA. When he said that it “may have been used” — the FISA Act — to “surveil and abuse” his campaign, what specifically was he talking about there, when he said “may” and “abuse” and “surveil”? Could you point us in the right direction?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that this is something we’ve talked about many times before. There are a lot of things that indicate that there was surveillance at Trump Tower. And I’m not sure what the clarification is needed on that front.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two questions for you. First, a few days ago, you said the White House did not have any reaction to the transcript that was released on Senator Feinstein related to Fusion GPS. Is the President aware of this transcript? And does he have any reaction to the FBI references within the transcript and what was said by that gentleman?
MS. SANDERS: We certainly think it’s a gross overstep by Senator Feinstein to release that transcript. There’s been a lot of comments about obstruction of justice. And frankly, the only people that we’ve seen trying to influence the investigation are former Director Comey and Democrats in Congress — and that would include Senator Feinstein, Representative Schiff — who have both selectively leaked to the media witness interviews. We see that to be a big problem and something that should certainly be considered and looked at.
Q And my follow-up question: Today, Ecuador announced that it’s granting nationality to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Does the President agree or disagree with this decision by the Ecuadorians?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken to him about that.
Q Sarah, can I just ask you on Iran again? When the President went through the exercise in October of decertifying but signing the sanctions waivers, he said words to the effect of, “fix it,” or he wouldn’t do this again. The fix was supposed to include some legislation, which hasn’t happened yet. Is the President comfortable with where the “fix it” part of this process is right now? And what is his feeling about what a fix would look like?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President still strongly believes this is one of the worst deals of all time. And one of the single greatest flaws is that its restrictions leave Iran free in the future to openly develop their nuclear program and rapidly achieve a nuclear weapons breakout capability.
Obviously, we see big problems with that. The administration is continuing to work with Congress and with our allies to address those flaws, and we’ll keep you guys posted as a decision on that front is made.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I want to ask, actually, about offshore drilling. But before I do, I’m hoping you can clarify something that you’ve said a couple of times now, which is that a lot of people were confused by that tweet. So Mike Pompeo–
MS. SANDERS: Actually, I didn’t say a lot people; you guys said a lot of people were confused.
Q I think your quote was, ‘We weren’t confused, but some of you were.’
MS. SANDERS: Something to that effect.
Q Yeah. So I want to ask about that, because Mike Pompeo was obviously out talking about this, pushing for this, and (inaudible). A lot of people in the President’s administration were representing the President’s position on this, that he wanted this to pass. His tweet today was confusing. It was contradictory; it just was. So how are people supposed to trust — not us, as reporters — but lawmakers, stakeholders, policymakers, that the people representing the President’s position actually are?
MS. SANDERS: I think that the premise of your question is completely ridiculous and shows the lack of knowledge that you have on this process.
Q Can you explain why —
MS. SANDERS: I’ve tried several times. I’ll do it a tenth time here. Look, the President supports the 702, but he has some very strong concerns about the FISA program more generally. Again, this is why he put out a memo last week outlining such, and why the DNI director put out a new policy this morning. I’m not sure what the confusion is there.
Q I just want to be clear, Sarah, before I ask about offshore drilling, that you definitively are saying that the President’s tweet this morning was, in your view, not at all confusing and not at all contradictory. You think that’s an accurate statement? I just want to be very clear about this.
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, it wasn’t confusing to me. I’m sorry if it was for you.
Q Let me ask about the offshore drilling ban, Sarah?
MS. SANDERS: Sure, go ahead.
Q Because there’s been a lot of questions about what’s happening in Florida. There have been other states that have pointed to the reason this administration has given for exempting Florida, saying that they also are not — they also would like to be exempt. So how is exempting Florida from the ban anything other, in critics’ view, than giving a political favor to White House allies in a key battleground state?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President is a massive advocate for America not just being energy-independent, but being energy-dominant. That’s just part of that process, is the offshore drilling. That’s why it’s opened up for public comment. There are going to continue to be negotiations. We’re going to continue to look for places and ways that we can make America more energy-dominant. If that’s one of them, then we’re going to continue forward in that process. That’s why we’ve opened up drilling in ANWR, the Keystone Pipeline, and cut a lot of job-killing regulations that have to do with that.
We’re going to continue moving forward in that process. It’s an open comment period, and we’ll continue to talk with other stakeholders as we make decisions for other areas and other states.
Q So was it or was it not a political favor?
MS. SANDERS: It’s not — I’m not aware of any political favor that that would have been part of. So, no.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On prison reform, the President recently commuted the sentence of a first-time offender, a father of 10 children, who had been sentenced to an excess of 27 years. What kinds of injustices does the President view as priorities?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President is looking — one of the big topics of conversation for today, specifically, is looking at reducing the rates of recidivism specific to helping reduce violent crime. This is a beginning conversation. This is a listening session. And we’re going to continue working through this process. But that was the number-one topic at today’s meeting and that’s the big priority that he has on that front at this point.
Q There have been reports out, and if you could please clarify — what is Mr. Kushner’s role in the prison reform initiative, exactly?
MS. SANDERS: He’s hoping to lead that conversation and put stakeholders together from a number of different areas that have expertise on this matter.
I’ll take one last question. Anita.
Q Can you just — going back to immigration, can you just shed a little bit of light on what the holdup is? Members of the Republican Party were in the negotiations. They are the ones who were saying they agree with Democrats. The administration has been in the meetings, at least some of them. So what is the — what do you all not like?
MS. SANDERS: I believe there’s only one member that said that there was a deal reached, and the other members are well in-sync, on the same page, that we haven’t quite gotten there, but we feel like we’re close.
And again, we’re going to keep having these conversations. The President had a meeting here today with a number of members, both from the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, as a follow-up discussion on immigration. And again, we feel very strongly that we can get a deal made.
Q One piece that the President talked about missing — is that the issue? Or is there not enough funding? Can you shed a light —
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s Democrats agreeing to the other side of the deal. I think that’s where we are. And again, we’re confident and feel like we’re like we’re going to get there.
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