White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- Pakistan holding emergency meetings in response to Trump’s tweet
- Iranian protests
- China supplying oil to North Korea
- Impact of sanctions on North Korea
- DACA and border security
- Trump’s call for DOJ to go after Huma Abedin and James Comey
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
Q Happy New Year.
MS. SANDERS: Happy New Year. It’s great to be back with all of you — start by wishing everybody a Happy New Year, but you guys kind of stole my thunder a little bit on that.
The President would like to start by congratulating two great teams from two great states, both in the heart of Trump country. We look forward to a fantastic national championship between Georgia and Alabama next week.
And we know for certain that a lot of American workers are starting and having a very happy new year thanks to the wage increases and bonuses they got as a result of the President’s tax cut bill.
Companies are doing exactly what the President said they would — increasing investment and raising wages — and the workers are the big beneficiaries. We will be talking a lot more about that in the coming days.
With the new year, we also have a renewed appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy here in the United States. Unfortunately, millions of people around the world are not so fortunate. In recent days, we have watched widespread protests erupt in many Iranian cities. Years of mismanagement, corruption, and foreign adventurism have eroded the Iranian people’s trust in their leaders.
The Iranian regime spends its people’s wealth on spreading militancy and terror abroad, rather than ensuring prosperity at home. Prices for everyday staples and fuel are rising, while the Revolutionary Guard spend the nation’s wealth on foreign militant groups and enrich themselves in the process.
The Iranian people are angry at the rising tide of corruption in their daily lives. The people are tired of paying the price for their violent and corrupt rulers. As a result, we are now seeing an organic, popular uprising organized by brave Iranian citizens on the largest scale since 2009.
But the international community cannot sit silent as it did then. The United States supports the Iranian people, and we call on the regime to respect its citizens’ basic right to peacefully express their desire for change. America longs for the day when Iranians will take their rightful place alongside the free people of the world.
As the President said in October, “We stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regimes longest-suffering victims: its own people.” The citizens of Iran have paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their leaders, and the Iranian people long to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization, and its cooperation with its neighbors.
On an even more somber note, we are sad to have to announce that a brave American service member died in Afghanistan, and we are going through the notification process. And DOD will provide updates on that situation as available. And our thoughts and prayers are with that individual’s family and friends.
With that, I will take you questions. Major.
Q The Iranian protest — does that create an opening or renew the President’s desire to re-impose sanctions as part of the Iran nuclear deal? And I have a follow-up on Pakistan also.
MS. SANDERS: Look, we certainly keep our options open in terms of sanctions. In terms of signing a waiver later in January, the President hasn’t made a final decision on that, and he’s going to keep all of his options on the table in that regard.
Q Has the Iranian protest changed the calculations about that — meaning, created a situation in which the President, who was already inclined to be moving in that direction, could move more rapidly in that direction to send a signal not just to the Iranian regime but to the world?
MS. SANDERS: Not necessarily. I mean, I think the President has been very clear what his position is in support of the Iranian people. And in terms of what decision he’ll make on that waiver, he hasn’t made a final one yet, but he’s going to keep every option on the table with regard to that.
Q And on Pakistan, what precipitated the President’s tweet about threatening to withhold future U.S. aid? Is there something in particular that he was either briefed upon or that he noticed? Because it’s not necessarily a secret that there’s been a long-running dispute between the United States government and Pakistan about how cooperative Pakistan has been with counterterrorism measures and other issues.
MS. SANDERS: The President outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia earlier this — past year in August. And, at that time, he laid out and said that Pakistan is not fulfilling its obligations. The President is simply following through on a commitment that he made, because this is a President that does what he says he’s going to do. We know that Pakistan can do more to fight terrorism, and we want them to step up and do that.
Q What did the President mean when he said the “deep state Justice Department”? And does this administration believe that the “deep state” is a real thing? That there is this shadow government out there actively plotting to sabotage him?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President finds some of those actions very disturbing and he thinks that we need to make sure, if there is an issue, that it’s looked at. But if there was anything beyond that, I would refer you to the Department of Justice — that would look into it.
Q Does he believe the entire Justice Department and its more than 100,000 employees are a part of this deep state?
MS. SANDERS: Obviously, he doesn’t the entire Justice Department is part of that. You know, one of the things that the President has done is appoint Christopher Wray at the FBI because he wants to change the culture of that agency and he thinks he’s the right person to do that.
Q What does the President see as the end game in Iran? Would he like to see regime change?
MS. SANDERS: I mean, I think the ultimate end game would be that the citizens and the people of Iran are actually given basic human rights, and he’d certainly like to see them stop being a state sponsor of terror. I think that’s something the whole world would like to see.
Q Just to follow up, is there a risk that, by encouraging these demonstrators, that there could be a backlash against them from the Iranian government?
MS. SANDERS: No. And, you know, I think one of the big things — and I think even Hillary Clinton outlined this when she said that the Obama administration was too restrained of the 2009 protests and said that won’t happen again. And, for once, she’s right and we agree with her because President Trump is not going to sit by silently like President Obama did. And he certainly supports the Iranian people and wants to make that clear.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Another question on one of this morning’s tweets. Is the President requesting that the Department of Justice investigate Huma Abedin? And how did he reach his conclusion that she should be in jail given that she hasn’t been indicted or convicted of any crime?
MS. SANDERS: Look, obviously, the facts of that case are very disturbing, and I think the President wants to make clear that he doesn’t feel that anyone should be above the law in terms of any investigation. That would be something the Department of Justice would need to decide, and I would refer you to them on whether or not they move forward.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Was the President disappointed that Senator Hatch decided not to seek reelection? And is he committed to campaign for whoever the Republican nominee would be in 2018?
MS. SANDERS: Obviously, I don’t think we’ve made a determination in terms of campaigning, but the President certainly has the greatest and deepest amount of respect for Senator Hatch and his over four decades of experience in the Senate. He’s particularly thankful for the Senator’s leadership and massive effort that he played, and the role that he played in getting the tax cut and reform package passed. And the President certainly praises his service and is very sad to see Senator Hatch leave and knows that he will certainly be missed.
MS. SANDERS: Thanks a lot, Sarah. President Moon of South Korea has reached out to North Korea about a possible meeting between North and South Korean officials as early as next week. Is this a meeting that the administration supports? Would it any way upset your strategy for dealing with North Korea?
Q Look, our policy on North Korea hasn’t changed at all. The United States is committed and will still continue to put maximum pressure on North Korea to change and make sure that it denuclearizes the Peninsula. Our goals are the same, and we share that with South Korea, but our policy and our process has not changed in this.
Q Would such a meeting be helpful, though, in terms of defusing a situation that exists now in the region?
MS. SANDERS: Again, our policy hasn’t changed and we’ve been very clear about the fact of what our priority is, and that’s a denuclearized Peninsula and there’s nothing new to update on that front.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two on Iran. The President tweeted over the past weekend that the U.S. is watching very closely for human rights violations. What actions are being considered by the Trump administration should these violations occur?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ll keep you posted on any actions that we plan to take, and we’re keeping a lot of options on the table at this time.
Q And if I could follow up on Steve’s question about regime change. There are protestors who are calling for regime change in the country. Does the Trump administration support regime change in Iran?
MS. SANDERS: We support them giving basic rights to the people of Iran, and we support them stopping being a state sponsor of terror. And we want to see those actions take place.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Today, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that the aid cut for Pakistan was not tied to the United Nations vote on Jerusalem. But what is happening to the countries that did not vote with the United States? Both Ambassador Haley and President Trump made threats against those countries.
And I also wanted to ask you about what the President’s schedule is today, the rest of the week, and what he has been up to lately. We know that he had a lunch today, we know that he had his intelligence briefing, and clearly we saw him tweeting. What else is on the President’s agenda?
MS. SANDERS: That’s a lot of questions from a lot of different angles. I’m going to try to make sure I cover them all.
First, in terms of Pakistan, as I said, our goal is that we know that they can do more to stop terrorism, and we want them to do that. That seems pretty simple. In terms of specific actions, I think you’ll see some more details come out on that in the next 24 to 48 hours, and we’ll be sure to keep you guys updated on that front.
In terms of the President’s schedule, he’s had a number of meetings today. We’ll keep you guys posted on that. He met with the Vice President, Secretary of Labor, and a number of staff members talking about goals and priorities as we move into the new year, and we’re excited about having a successful 2018 as we did 2017.
Q Sarah, this morning the President tweeted that Hispanics and DACA activists will soon be falling in love with him and Republicans. So what protections is the President, if any, prepared to provide to DREAMers? And would any protections for DREAMers have to be tied to a tangible, physical wall on the border?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President wants to have responsible immigration reform. He said before that he would like to include a DACA resolution in that process, and we hope to be able to work with members of Congress to get that done. And that’s certainly a big priority for the administration in 2018.
Q Can you provide any specifics?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve laid out what our principles on immigration reform look like, and that would need to be part of any package that includes DACA.
Q Can I follow up?
MS. SANDERS: Sure.
Q There are folks on Capitol Hill that are under the impression that the White House is going to provide another document, a smaller list — more narrow list — of policy proposals it’s looking for in exchange for protections for DREAMers. So they’re expecting some other kind of document. Is that going to — is that coming? And is that something you’re going to talk about tomorrow?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll certainly keep you posted if it does. Right now, we’re still focused on helping achieve those principles that we laid out at the end of last year, and we want to continue to work with Congress to get those done.
Q Can I ask one quick question?
MS. SANDERS: Sure.
Q There are a couple —
MS. SANDERS: I’m in a good mood today and we havent been here in a long time. (Laughter.)
Q There are at least a couple of folks that were nominated last year that did not get confirmed by the Senate. Will you — will the White House re-nominate them? Or are you looking for other people to nominate?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any personnel announcements on that front, but we’ll keep you posted.
Q I want to go back to North Korea for just a second. The President, in one of his tweets this morning, said that sanctions and other pressures aren’t having a big impact on North Korea. But we learned this afternoon that Kim Jong-un is apparently making preparations for another missile launch, either this week or next. There was the rhetoric over the weekend about a nuclear button on his desk. Can you point out how these pressures are having a big impact, as the President says? And I know a lot of people want to know: If we stay on the current course of maximum pressure, are we moving further from war or closer to the brink?
MS. SANDERS: Again, the focus here is to continue, like you said, to apply maximum pressure on North Korea. And we want all of the other countries — this is not just a United States threat; this is a global threat, which is why we’re calling on everybody to step up and do more. And we’re going to continue to working with a lot of different leaders and other countries to help do that. And we’re going to keep all of our options on the table. As we have said time and time again, our policy on that front hasn’t changed.
Q To follow up on that point — if the policy is denuclearization and Kim won’t talk to the U.S. about that, how can it be good news — as the President suggested in his tweet — that North Korea wants to talk to South Korea about the Olympics?
MS. SANDERS: How can — I’m sorry, what was the last one?
Q He said it may be good news that North Korea wants to talk to South Korea about the Olympics. In what scenario is that good news for the White House?
MS. SANDERS: Look, our alliance and friendship with South Korea remains stronger than it ever has been, and we’re in close contact with those people about a unified response. We’re going to continue to work with South Korea to put maximum pressure on North Korea and work toward the ultimate shared goal that we both have.
Q Sarah, thank you. Just to follow up — does the United States support North Korean athletes’ participation in the Olympics?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t made a final determination on that front.
Q Is that something that you plan to determine in the coming days? Is it something that could (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know if there’s a set timeline that we’re going to do that in the next like 24 hours, but we’re certainly keep you posted.
Q All right, let me try to drill down on the President’s tweet about Iran earlier today. I know you’ve been asked a version of this question, but just to be very specific, the President said it’s time for change in Iran. Did he mean in leadership or in policy, or both?
MS. SANDERS: I think, again, the biggest thing is the change would be that the people of Iran have basic human rights, which their government is, frankly, not allowing them to have at this time, and certainly, in large part, stop being a state sponsor of terrorism. I mean, I think those are the changes we’re looking for. If they want to do that through current leadership, if that’s possible, okay. But those are our priorities, is making sure those principles are met.
Q Does the President think it’s possible with the current leadership?
MS. SANDERS: I havent ask him that direct question.
Q Happy New Year, Sarah.
MS. SANDERS: Happy New Year.
Q Let me ask you about some agenda items and then I’ll follow up with a question about the budget. Infrastructure, welfare reform, border security — which of these is the primary focus in the early stages of 2018? Or is this a buckshot approach and you’re simply going to go for them all and see which one you can stick the landing on first?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President was elected because of his ambitious agenda and his desire to get a lot of things done. We’re going to focus on that. The things that you listed are certainly going to be big priorities for us in 2018. A lot of the meetings that the President has this week with leadership will help determine what the best strategy is on each of those individual areas. But those are — certainly welfare reform, infrastructure, responsible immigration reform, and healthcare will all be top priorities for the administration this year.
Q And speaking of the meetings, both tomorrow and even coming up this weekend, for the American people who might be wondering, “So what happens in a meeting like this,” can you sort of lay out what the expectation might be from the President’s point of view?
MS. SANDERS: I think it would be to talk about, again, the strategy of the best way to accomplish maximum success in all of those areas that we’ve outlined. Obviously, the budget is, first and foremost, one of the biggest priorities right now and certainly the big priority in the immediate term. The President wants a two-year budget deal that provides realistic budget caps and provides certainty for our national security. That’s our biggest and number-one priority, and that will be the focus front and center of the conversations that are taking place this week. And then, beyond that, it will be talking about those four other priorities that I outlined and what the strategy to get maximum success on those would look like.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I wanted to circle back to the Orrin Hatch retirement decision. The President and Mitt Romney have obviously traded some very harsh words against one another. Would the President be open, though, to supporting Mitt Romney if he decides to run?
MS. SANDERS: I havent had that conversation with him. And I think I would be prohibited from weighing in too far right now, given the Hatch Act, on who we might or might not support in that race.
Q And then I also wanted to follow on the questions about the President’s Pakistan tweet. Just to be perfectly clear, so there was no particular incident, nothing the public doesnt know about, that prompted that tweet yesterday?
MS. SANDERS: Look, this is something that the President has been following and has talked about, again, back during August, when he laid out his Afghanistan and South Asia strategy. And this is something that the administration continues to watch on a daily basis and the President receives daily updates and briefings. And I can’t go into any further detail beyond that.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Several of the Iranian exile groups in the United States have praised the President’s comments and statements on Iran, as have former prisoners of the Iranian government, Pastor Saeed Abedini among them. Is the President in touch, either directly or indirectly, with any of the exile groups, notably the National Council for Resistance, in Iran?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of any conversations, and certainly not directly between the President. But I’d have to verify that no one in the administration has had those conversations. I’m just not prepared to answer that extensively.
Q Sarah, can I ask about another presidential tweet today? The President today appeared to take credit for zero commercial airline deaths in 2017. In fact, there hasnt been a commercial — U.S. commercial airline crash, fatal crash, in the country since 2009. So does President Obama deserve credit for that long stretch that dates back to 2009?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President has raised the bar for our nation’s aviation safety and security. He certainly is very grateful. Last year, the President announced his initiative to modernize air traffic control. And under his leadership, the Department of Homeland Security released enhanced security measures to ensure safer commercial air travel.
Look, the President is very happy that there were no commercial airline deaths in 2017, and we hope that that trend continues well into 2018 and beyond.
Q Just to follow up. Michael Huerta, the FAA Administrator — obviously, he’s had a successful run — he’s an Obama holdover and his term expires this week. Will he extend Michael Huerta?
MS. SANDERS: I dont have any personnel announcements on that front.
Q And one follow if I can, because you started talking football, so I’ll ask you about football. The two teams that are going to be in the national championship game come from the state of Georgia and the state of Alabama, as you know well. Obviously, Alabama just elected a Democratic senator. You said they’re right in the heart of Trump country. Does the President see the country as “Trump country” and the rest of the country?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I was certainly making a congratulations to two great football teams in the greatest conference in the country.
Q SEC —
MS. SANDERS: (Laughter.) Which I’m sure that most of you will all agree, even those that dont live in one of those lucky states.
Q I’m not going to ask you specifically about — well, I’m not going to ask if you worked during the holiday, because I think I know what you’ll say there. But what I do want to ask you —
MS. SANDERS: There was a holiday?
Q (Laughter.) Right? What I wanted to ask you is, will he give a comprehensive breakdown of what he accomplished during the holiday season? And specifically, he met with Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Robert Lighthizer — his Trade Rep, his Commerce Secretary, and his Treasury Secretary. Did you accomplish anything during that break? And could you let the American public know what it was that you accomplished?
MS. SANDERS: Obviously, the President has been extremely focused on trade. He talked a lot about it during the campaign, has talked a lot about it since he was sworn in. That’s going to continue to be a big priority for the President in making sure that American workers and American companies are at the best end and have better trade deals. He doesnt feel like we have very many of those right now, and wants to make sure that we make every effort to improve all of the trade deals that we have so that we’re benefitting our workers and our companies and our country. And that was certainly a big part of that conversation and will continue to be so, and we’ll keep you posted if we have specifics to roll out on that front.
Q Does he plan to hold — he’s had one solo press conference in a year. Is there any chance we could get him out here to answer some questions from us anytime soon?
MS. SANDERS: I will certainly make sure that you guys are aware if he’s going to make an appearance. Look, the President communicates; he’s one of the most accessible Presidents we’ve ever had. He gives feedback and answers questions in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it’s through a press conference. Sometimes it’s chatting with you guys on the way to and from Marine One. It’s often through Twitter, where he gets to speak directly to the American people and give exact information on what his thoughts and feelings are.
The purpose, if I understand correctly, is for you to get information about where the President is. And we do that in a variety of different ways.
Q Thank you, Sarah. And Happy New Year.
MS. SANDERS: Happy New Year.
Q So, in less than a year in office now, President Trump has visited golf courses 91 times. There’s confirmation that he’s played the game of golf at least 75 times. Sean, back in March, told me that this was different than President Obama’s use of golf, which was — Obama played far less than President Trump, but Sean said Trump was using the game much differently. Can you tell me the biggest single thing the President has accomplished for the American people during his time on the golf course?
MS. SANDERS: I think it would certainly be developing deeper and better relationships with members of Congress in which those relationships have helped push forward the President’s agenda, specifically when it comes to helping get the tax reform and tax cuts passed. A lot of that, I think, and the success of that came from the strong relationships that the President has. And he’s played golf with a number of senators and used that time, certainly, to accomplish that.
Q If so much has been accomplished during this time, there seems to be a bit of transparency issue with his time on the golf course. We don’t always get confirmation of what he’s doing there, despite a lot of requests. There was this incident with the box truck. Why does it seem as though the White House has some kind of issue about his time on the course?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s the press that has an issue with his time on the course. The President is extremely proud of the accomplishments we had during 2017. I don’t think anyone can argue it was probably one of the most successful first years in office: Passed major legislation, reworked the court system, and got a Supreme Court justice nominated and approved and on the bench in the first year; a booming economy; massive gains against the war on ISIS. I think we’ve had an extremely successful 2017, and some of that is due to the relationship-building that he was able to do there.
We’ll take one last question.
Q Is there a reason for no readout or confirmation when he’s having these meetings on the course?
MS. SANDERS: We provide information when it’s pertinent to the day, and we’ll continue to do that.
Eamon, go ahead.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Earlier, the President tweeted about tax reform, saying, “Companies are giving big bonuses to their workers because of the tax cut bill. Really great!” Will the employees of the President’s own companies be getting bonuses as a result of the tax cut bill this year?
MS. SANDERS: That’s a question you’d have to ask the Trump Organization. The President isn’t involved in that, and that’s something I would refer you to them.
Q Does the President feel that companies that can afford to pay bonuses this year, as a result of the tax bill, should do that for their workers?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I missed the first part of your question.
Q Does the President feel that companies that can afford to pay bonuses should pay bonuses to their workers this year?
MS. SANDERS: I think he certainly hopes that companies will either give bonuses to their employees or somehow reinvest and bring business back into this country. That was one of the big purposes and goals of the tax cut bill, which we’ve certainly seen play out over the last couple of weeks and expect to see a lot more good news come from that.
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