White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Obviously, the impending conclusion of the Schumer Shutdown is leading media coverage today, and I’ll get into that shortly, but I want to start with a couple of other national security issues first.
First, on northwest Syria, we call on all parties to remain focused on the goal of defeating ISIS, deescalating and resolving the Syrian conflict, and protecting innocent civilians.
We hear and take seriously Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and are committed to working with Turkey as a NATO ally.
Increased violence in Afrin disrupts what [was] a relatively stable area of Syria. It distracts from international efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS, It could be exploited by ISIS and al Qaeda for resupply and safe haven. And it risks exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.
We urge Turkey to exercise restraint in its military actions and rhetoric; ensure that its operations are limited in scope and duration; ensure humanitarian aid continues; and avoid civilian casualties.
We want to ensure that Assad’s brutal regime cannot return to Afrin, and we will continue working diplomatically to end the Syrian civil war.
In Afghanistan, where terrorists attacked a hotel in Kabul, such attacks on civilians only strengthen our resolve to support our Afghan partners. We commend the swift and effective response of the Afghan security forces. Afghan forces, with our support, will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemies of Afghanistan, who also seek to export terror around the world.
We call on Pakistan to immediately arrest or expel the Taliban’s leaders and prevent the group from using Pakistani territory to support its operations.
Lastly, in regards to the government shutdown, we were pleased to see Senator Schumer accept the deal that President Trump put on the table from the very beginning, which was to responsibly fund the government and debate immigration as a separate issue.
I have a statement here from the President of the United States that I will read:
“I am pleased that Democrats in Congress have come to their senses and are now willing to fund our great military, Border Patrol, first responders, and insurance for vulnerable children. As I’ve always said, once the government is funded, my administration will work toward solving the problem of very unfair illegal immigration. We will make a long-term deal on immigration if, and only if, it’s good for our country.”
And with that, I will take your questions. Jonathan.
Q Sarah, how is the President going to work with Democrats when he’s running a campaign ad that is calling them “complicit” in murder? How is he actually going to show leadership on this?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President’s number-one focus is our national security. He’s been very strong on discussing the need for border security and tying that directly to national security. That’s a big focus of both the President’s campaign at the time and also since he’s become President.
In terms of specifics of any ad running, those aren’t being done by the White House and I can’t get into any details. But his position in terms of the need for border security and how that impacts national security is something we’ve talked about and have been very clear on.
Q So is he going to be bringing the Democrats down here and bringing Republicans here, hashing this out? How is this going to be any different? We didn’t see him over the weekend. He was only talking to Republicans. Obviously, if there’s going to be a deal by February 8th, it’s going to need to be a deal with Democrats.
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve been very clear about what we want to see in any legislation. And I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of daylight between where we are and where the Democrats are. We certainly want to negotiate and get to a place, and we’re hopeful that we can do that over the next couple of weeks.
Q Senator Schumer, on the floor, claimed that the deal that he had on the table from Mitch McConnell today was much different than the one that he had last week. How did the ball move forward, if it did at all, between Friday night and this morning?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that Democrats realized that the position that they had taken, frankly, was indefensible, and that they had to focus on, first, funding our military, protecting Border Patrol agents, funding vulnerable children through the CHIP Program. These were things that they didn’t disagree with. They agreed with everything that was in this CR. The President stayed firm. Republicans stayed firm. And Democrats, I think, realized that they had to move past that piece of legislation so that they could focus on the conversation they’re desperate to have.
Q So is it your contention that the deal that Chuck Schumer accepted and lauded today is really no different than the deal that he had on the table Friday?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t see it to be drastically different, no.
Q Just so we understand, is there no interaction, and was there no interaction, between the President and the campaign committee in the creation of that ad? Did he approve it?
MS. SANDERS: That’s something I wouldn’t be part of that process, Major. I couldn’t speak to that.
Q But it’s an important question, Sarah.
Q It said, “I’m Donald Trump and I approve this message.”
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President has some liberties that I don’t. That would be something I would have to check. But I would refer you to the campaign because they’re the only ones that can speak specifically to that issue.
Q Would you, from this podium, describe that as an accurate representation of his belief about what Democrats are, and what their position was during the shutdown, that they were complicit, and would be complicit, in any future murders because of the shutdown?
MS. SANDERS: I think that if people are unwilling to secure our borders, that they’re unwilling to end chain migration, unwilling to end the visa lottery system, unwilling to fix all of the problems that we have in our immigration system, and aren’t willing to negotiate and actually do things that fix that system that we know to be problematic, then, yes, that would be a problem and certainly allow for future incidents to take place.
Q Just, Sarah, real quick — is a two-year requirement required from the President for defense spending going forward? Is that one of his top goals for the budget negotiations going forward? Not just this fiscal year, but two years on defense.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I’m not going to negotiate with you here. But we’ve made clear that that’s —
Q (Inaudible) issue expressed on the Hill.
MS. SANDERS: I’m not finished. We’ve made clear that that’s certainly our preference.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The President, several months ago, called on Congress to provide a legislative fix for those 700,000-or-so DACA recipients. Is it his position that he would sign such a bill, a clean bill? Or would he insist upon funding for that border wall with Mexico?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly we want to make sure the President and the administration have laid out what we’d like to see. Those priorities haven’t changed — a solution on DACA, end to chain migration, end to the visa lottery system, and funding for border security, and that would certainly include the wall.
Q On another issue — tomorrow, I believe, is the beginning of the final round of negotiations concerning NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. How are those negotiations going right now? What we’re hearing right now is that they’re not going well. They haven’t been going well for the first five rounds. Is the President prepared to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we don’t have any specific announcements, but we actually feel like things are moving forward. We’re going to continue in those negotiations. But as the President has said many times before, he’s going to make sure that he gets the best deal for America and American workers. That’s still the focus, and that will still be a topic of discussion as we move in these negotiations.
Q Sarah, thanks. After this shutdown episode, does the President feel like he can deal with Democrats anymore? I mean, for example, Senator Coons said over the weekend — he implied that the President didn’t know the difference between authorization and appropriation. And there’s been other leaks about conversations behind closed doors. What is the President’s level of trust with the Senate Democrats moving forward?
MS. SANDERS: I wouldn’t say it’s the highest level of trust, but I think we’re certainly hopeful that we can reach an agreement on responsible immigration reform. We’ve laid out what we want, and we hope that Democrats — we know they agree on most of those components, and we hope that they’ll come to the table ready to actually make a deal, and less focused on playing political games.
Q Beyond immigration, you have a budget, and you got infrastructure and other big things you want to get done. Is that going to be possible after this?
MS. SANDERS: We hope so. We hope that Democrats, again, will not play politics, and they’ll focus and put the needs of the country ahead of the political gamesmanship that they’ve been playing over the last couple of months. And hope we can move that ball down the field on a number of issues, but starting with the budget and then moving to immigration.
Q Sarah, would the President support a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers?
MS. SANDERS: We have said that we would support a permanent solution for those in the DACA program, and I think that would address that, on that front.
Q But to be very clear about that, you must have some position on it. The President clearly has conviction on this issue. So does he support this divisive issue — a pathway to citizenship for these individuals?
MS. SANDERS: I think on the specific — the number of people that are already in that program, we do hope to find a permanent solution that would address that.
Q To be clear, legal status versus pathway to citizenship. Or does it not matter to the President?
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s part of the negotiation process. But right now, again, we want a permanent solution for that program. But we also want to keep — a big priority for the administration is making sure we don’t find ourselves having the same battle in two, three, four, and five years down the road. So we have to have a responsible immigration reform that addresses a number of issues, not just the DACA program.
Q Yeah, I just want to follow up on that question. You just said you would be open to legal — a permanent legal solution for the 690,000 people in the DACA program. What about beyond that? Axios had a story last week that said, in the (inaudible), White House administration memo estimated that what the Democrats want would potentially legalize 3 million DREAMers. Where did you get that number? And what is the limit that the President has on how big this population of DREAMers really is? I think the DREAM Act would be — predicted it would legalize 1.7 million. Where do you draw the line?
MS. SANDERS: Look, again, I’m not going to negotiate with you any more than I was going to with Major. This is something that we’re going to work on with Congress and look for the best solution for our country, as long as — again, don’t forget a big priority for this administration is making sure we address this program in its entirety, not just that one piece of it.
Q You said this program — again, there’s certain people who had the DACA protections, and other DREAMers decided not to apply for various reasons. Is the White House open to addressing a deal in this go-around for a population that’s larger than just those in DACA?
MS. SANDERS: We’re open to having a debate on a level playing field on this issue, and negotiating that with Congress and making sure that we get the deal that meets the criteria that we’ve clearly laid out.
Q Sarah, thanks. One clarification before my question. The President is still planning on going to Davos?
MS. SANDERS: As of right now, if all things go as expected this afternoon, with the reopening of the government — which we expect that they will — the President’s delegation will leave tomorrow, and the President will continue on his trip later in the week.
Q And then, my question — the priorities of a DACA fix, where exactly does that rank? Because when you talk about what needs to happen for a deal — diversity visa lottery program, the wall, ending chain migration, DACA, some other components up on the Hill may need to be worked in as well — the actual DACA solution, how big of a priority is that, that one component, for the President?
MS. SANDERS: We look at all of those as equal parts in this process. That’s why we laid out what we called our four priorities, and listed that as one of them.
Q So a DACA fix is on the same level playing field as the wall?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we know that that’s going to be part of this negotiation. That’s something the President has committed to do, but we don’t want to do that without the other three components. It’s like having a stool with two legs; it doesn’t work very well. We want to make sure that we’re addressing this more fully and in a responsible way so that we’re not just kicking the can down the road but we’re actually dealing with the issue more long term.
Q Sarah, we haven’t seen him in a couple days. What has he been doing behind the scenes as this drama has unfolded?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’ve put out a number of readouts. He’s had several different calls, both with members on the Hill. He has met with a number of his Cabinet to manage the shutdown. That was a big priority for the President, was making sure that this was well managed and that it wasn’t, as Director Mulvaney calls, weaponized as it was in 2013, and making sure that we could make the impact of the shutdown have as little effect on Americans as possible. That’s been a big priority for the President.
I think that it certainly went much smoother than it has in the past. But also, the President was putting pressure and standing firm on exactly what he was willing to do and what he wasn’t. And it very clearly worked, because we’re back where we basically started on Friday. And the Democrats have now allowed this to move forward. Hopefully, the House will move this through quickly and it will be at the White House for the President to sign, and then we can start immediately on discussions on immigration reform.
Q When will we see him?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll keep you posted.
MS. SANDERS: We’ll certainly make sure you guys are aware when that time comes.
Q But will we see him sign the thing?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly possible. And we’ll let you know. The timing of that still isn’t finalized. We’ve got to wait on the House piece. There’s also OMB and legal reviews that have to take place before it actually finally hits the President’s desk. And so a little bit of that is just the timing and formality issue.
Q I’m wondering, are we going to see him today, regardless of what the House does or doesn’t do?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll let you know. We’ll keep you posted.
Q Sarah, just going back to the NAFTA discussions, does the President still have faith in Wilbur Ross? There was a report suggesting otherwise.
MS. SANDERS: Absolutely. I spoke with the President about it directly this morning. He has 100 percent confidence in Secretary Ross. He loves Wilbur. Thinks he’s doing a great job, and has been a strong advocate for the administration and been a great leader when it comes to the trade discussion on steel, aluminum, and certainly his involvement in trade across the board with the administration.
Q The President was very clear back in September when he said that DREAMers have nothing to worry about. Is that still the case?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’ve been pretty clear that we want to find a solution on the DACA program. And we’re going to hope that Democrats are willing to work with us to make sure we actually resolve this issue.
Q But, Sarah, there are a lot of DREAMers in this country who are, sort of, living on pins and needles not knowing what their fate is and has in store for them. What is this White House’s message to that population of people —
MS. SANDERS: I think that they should storm Capitol Hill and protest there, because that is the place that has held up this discussion. Democrats are the one that shut this discussion down by forcing a government shutdown, by being unwilling to fund the government. We lost four days, over this process of the conversation that should have been focused on immigration reform, fighting over the CR. If they had been part of the solution instead of part of the problem, then I think we would have already been further down the road in our negotiations on that package. And hopefully, we won’t have problems like that in the future.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. The first on the obvious that’s there. Congressman Tom Cole, a member of the Republican leadership, said over the weekend that — to a member — Republicans in the House were committed to the three priorities the President laid out in the process of reopening the government. Is the President in cement on those three, in the negotiations that are going to follow — the ending chain migration, the ending of the lottery, and the appropriations for the wall?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, we’ve been clear those are our priorities when it comes to immigration.
Q (Inaudible) non-negotiable?
MS. SANDERS: Look, these are the priorities we want to see in the package, and we’re going to negotiate that with Congress. But we’ve been pretty upfront — I think I’ve said it about 30 times already today — those are the priorities and the principles that we’ve outlined, that we want to see in any legislative package that the President signs.
Q My other question, Sarah, is on a completely different subject. Monsanto and Bayer — who are two giants in the seed industry — are prepared to — preparing to merge. Their CEOs have met with the President. And many fear that this is going to lead to a monopoly for them in the seed industry and raising the prices, which will hurt the farm community. Is the President in favor of the merger of Monsanto and Bayer?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken with him about that, John. I’ll have to get back to you.
Q Thank you. I understand that you guys have laid out your criteria for what you want in a deal. But is the President saying that, on March 5th, if he doesn’t get what he wants from the Democrats in those other areas, that he will begin to deport the DREAMers?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t determined that. We’re hopeful that we don’t have to do that and that we don’t have to get there. We would like Democrats to get serious about actually solving problems. They say they want to have this conversation, they say they want to negotiate, so much so that they were willing to shut down the government. If they’re that willing to go that far, surely they’ll be willing to come to the table and talk about real solutions and get something done.
Q But the President is the one who removed the deportation protection from the DREAMers.
MS. SANDERS: The President is the one that enforced the law. Yes, he is. That is his job as Commander-in-Chief. He did that, absolutely.
Q One other question. The President —
MS. SANDERS: Because — but let’s be clear — but that is because of Congress’s failure to actually address the issue. They’re the ones that actually pass and make those laws. And the President gave a six-month timeframe in order for them to do that. And now, I think all of America is counting on them to show up and make sure that happens.
Q And just one more. The President’s son, Eric, said that the shutdown was a good thing for us, meaning politically it was a good thing for the President and the party. Does the President agree with that?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t spoken to him about those comments.
Q What is the guidance on how quickly the government would reopen and how soon workers would be expected to be back at work, and national parks and other facilities that were closed will reopen?
MS. SANDERS: Again, most of those parks, they tried to maintain and keep those open. Unlike in past shutdowns, they really tried to minimize the impact on the American people. In terms of what the turnaround time for a full reopen — as I said earlier, we are waiting on the House to vote and clear, and then it will go through the OMB budget process and review — and a legal review, and then hit the President’s desk, which we expect sometime later afternoon, early evening, which would make most government offices already closed. And so they would start back in full capacity tomorrow morning. And if that changes, we’ll certainly let you guys know, but that’s, sort of, what we tentatively expected this time.
Q I was hoping to give you a chance to respond to the criticism that Senator Schumer lobbed over the weekend. In addition to saying that the President — negotiating with him is like negotiating with Jell-O, today the Senator said that the great dealmaker sat on the sidelines. Was it a concerted effort on the President’s part not to reach out to him this weekend? Was that part of his strategy?
MS. SANDERS: Look, what the President did clearly worked. The vote just came in 81-18. I would say that those numbers are much more in the President’s favor than in Senator Schumer’s favor. I’m not sure what changed for him and what he gained, other than maybe Nancy Pelosi taking a bunch of Republican members out for dinner to celebrate their shutdown. I’m not sure what other positive things came out of this weekend for Democrats.
Q You mean Democrat members.
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, sorry, Democrat members.
I’ll take one last question. Kristen.
Q Just following up on that, in addition to Chuck Schumer saying the President negotiates like Jell-O, even Leader McConnell said he wasn’t completely clear on where the President stood when it comes to some of these immigration priorities. So is the President shifting his policy positions behind the scenes, under pressure from his conservative base?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. Look, the President, as well as the administration, we’ve laid out clearly, in a three-page memo, what our priorities are, what our principles are for this process. And we have been very consistent on that front.
Q Do Jason Miller and John Kelly have veto power over any immigration deal?
MS. SANDERS: Jason Miller doesn’t work in the administration. The only person I’m aware of with veto power in this country is the President.