Watch: White House Press Briefing 2-7-18 James Mattis and Sarah Sanders [video + transcript]
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hold a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- Congressional funding of the government
- Trump’s “shutdown” comments on immigration fix
- New sanctions on North Korea
- The National Vetting Center
- Trump ordering a military parade to show appreciation for the troops
- Status of the Democrat response memo
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
We are pleased that Congress has been able to meet our defense spending requirement and come together on a two-year spending bill. This deal achieves our top priority: a much-needed increase in funding for our national defense. This deal also increases budget caps, ends the sequester, and provides certainty for the next two years.
Defense spending will match the request made by the Pentagon, and will reflect what the President signed into law with the National Defense Authorization Act. The bottom line is that, thanks to President Trump, we can now have the strongest military we have ever had.
Additionally, this deal increases the debt ceiling to March of 2019, which moves us away from crisis-to-crisis budgeting. It also ensures funding for our other critical priorities, including rebuilding Americas crumbling infrastructure, tackling the opioids epidemic, and taking care of our great veterans.
To discuss this agreement in more depth from a military perspective, we have Secretary Mattis here with us today. Secretary Mattis will come up to make a brief statement and take a few questions on the importance of funding our armed forces, and then I will be back up after him to answer questions on news of the day. Thank you.
SECRETARY MATTIS: Thank you. Well, good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for taking time out of your schedules to be here today.
I’ve spent the last day and a half on Capitol Hill briefing the members of Congress on our 2018 National Defense Strategy. I’m heartened that Congress recognizes the sobering effect of budgetary uncertainty on America’s military and on the men and women who provide for our nation’s defense.
Two days from now, I will visit our nation’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade at Fort Benning as they prepare to deploy to Afghanistan.
To advance to the security of our nation, these troops are putting themselves in harm’s way. In effect, signing a blank check payable to the American people with their lives. Our military has been operating under debilitating continuing resolutions for more than 1,000 days during the last decade.
During last week’s State of the Union Address, President Trump said, “Weakness is the surest path to conflict.” In a world awash in change, with increasing threats, there is no room for complacency.
Failure to implement or fund the 2018 National Defense Strategy will leave us with force that could dominate the last war, yet be irrelevant to tomorrow’s security. We need Congress to lift the defense spending caps and support a 2-year budget agreement for our military. America can afford survival.
For too long, we have asked our military to carry on stoically with a success-at-any-cost attitude. The fact that our volunteer military has performed so well is a credit to their dedication and professionalism.
We expect the men and women of our military to be faithful in their service, even when going in harm’s way. We have a duty to remain faithful to them.
Absent a budget this year, America’s military will not be able to provide pay for our troops by the end of the year. We will not be able to recruit the 15,000 Army soldiers, and 4,000 Air Force airmen required to fill critical manning shortfalls; we would not be able to maintain our ships at sea with the proper balance between operations and time for training and maintenance; we would have to ground aircraft due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts, degrading our pilot’s proficiency; we would deplete the ammunition training and manpower required to deter war; and we would delay contract for vital acquisition programs necessary to modernize our force.
I cannot overstate the negative impact to our troops and families’ moral from all this budget uncertainty.
Today’s Congressional action will ensure our military can defend our way life, preserve the promise of prosperity, and pass on the freedoms you and I enjoy to the next generation.
Thank you. I can take a couple questions here.
Q General, how damaging would a shutdown be — would a government shutdown be, given that if you have this deal — if there was a decision to shut the government down because, for example, the wall wasn’t funded in this deal — how bad would that be to the military?
SECRETARY MATTIS: Shutting down the government would be very damaging to the military for all the reasons I just cited about a continuing resolution. But then aggravated by the shutdown itself, where we actually send home all non-uniformed personnel except those in a few critical areas.
It just paralyzes everything that we do if we go into that, other than the ongoing active operations at sea and there the troops will continue to fight, the ships will stay at sea. But the bottom line is, training is delayed, the impact just ripples through the force.
And it doesn’t just happen today, it ripples on, as people who are not flying are no longer gaining the level of skill that you and I would associate with them, even a year from now when they’re promoted.
Q Mr. Secretary, you mentioned you’ve been spending the last day and a half on Capitol Hill. This is a Senate arrangement. Do you have any sense, sir, if the House leadership on the Republican side is equally receptive and as enthusiastic as you are?
And, also, service secretaries, particularly the Navy service secretary has said the funding problems are not, maybe, a direct cause, but contributed to the deaths of seamen in the South China Sea in the two most recent accidents. Can you tell the country, if this money is in fact provided, all of the problems associated with training, maintenance that have been plaguing the military will be eliminated?
SECRETARY MATTIS: I am optimistic that what the House did earlier this week and what the Senate did today can come together this week and give us the budget that then enables us to carry out our responsibilities. By “ours,” I mean all the leaders in the Department of Defense who will address the issues you just brought up.
Obviously, a lot of work goes into the execution, then — the quality of the training. But you can count on us. We’ll earn your trust on this. We will spend the money wisely.
Q Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you about the recently released Nuclear Posture Review.
SECRETARY MATTIS: Yes.
Q It calls for smaller-yield nuclear weapons to be added to our arsenal. You’re on record as saying there’s no such thing as a tactical nuke. Anytime a nuclear weapon is used, it’s a strategic game changer. So how does this new Posture Review add to global stability? Because there are many people who believe that if you’ve got a smaller-yield nuclear weapon, you might be more inclined to use it.
SECRETARY MATTIS: Right. Remember that what we’re talking about here is the nuclear deterrent. And in that nuclear deterrent, we believe that some nations could miscalculate — one in particular — and that nation could assume that if they used, in a conventional fight, a small-yield bomb, we would not respond with a very large-yield bomb.
Our response to this is to make a small-yield bomb and say, “Don’t miscalculate.” It’s a deterrent. Remember, deterrence is dynamic, it changes from year to year, from decade to decade. We have to address deterrence in its current construct.
So we do this, the idea is to raise the threshold. Don’t even think about lowering the threshold to a conventional fight and escalating it to one small-yield nuclear weapon strategically changing the game, and then think our choice is either “surrender or suicide,” as Dr. Kissinger put it.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you talk about where things are in the planning stages for this military parade the President is seeking and what any cost estimates you have at this point are?
SECRETARY MATTIS: I think we’re all aware, in this country, of the President’s affection and respect for the military. We’ve been putting together some options. We’ll send them up to the White House for a decision.
Q Mr. Secretary, I have a question about North Korea, but also a follow-up on Catherine’s question there. You just laid out the argument for fully funding the military, why you think every dollar counts. So why divert time, energy, financial resources to the planning of a parade, as the President has asked?
SECRETARY MATTIS: Again, I think that what my responsibility is — to make certain I lay out the strategy and make the argument for the oversight of Congress to make a determination of fully funding us.
As far as the parade goes, again, the President’s respect, his fondness for the military, I think, is reflected in him asking for these options.
Q Let me ask whether you think that war is actually nearer or closer with North Korea than it was at the time the administration took office. And do you support any kind of meeting or communication between Vice President Pence and North Korean officials at the Olympics?
SECRETARY MATTIS: Well, on the second, Vice President Pence is quite capable of making the call on that there, while he’s in Korea.
As far as the situation with Korea, it is firmly in the diplomatic lane. We have seen much stronger diplomatic action, for example, the last three United Nations Security Council resolutions — unanimous. And how often do you see France and Russia; PRC, China; and the United States, Great Britain all voting — and other countries — all voting unanimously? I think that makes it very clear this is firmly in the diplomatic lane.
And we, of course, back up Secretary of State Tillerson’s foreign policy efforts, as guided by the President, with viable military options.
But thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Due to the timing and tight timeline, we will jump right into questions for today with no further statements.
Q Nancy Pelosi is wanting to add immigration to this emerging budget deal on the Hill. Is that something the President would like to see?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’ve made clear that the budget deal should be a budget deal, and that members of Congress, like Nancy Pelosi, should not hold our military hostage over a separate issue. We’ve laid out what we would like to see in immigration legislation, and I think it’s something that Nancy Pelosi should support.
And hopefully, she will come on board, we can get this budget deal done, and then we can focus on getting an immigration deal done.
Q To follow up, is the President committed to this March 5th deadline for DACA, or is he going to extend the deadline?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we are hopeful that we will make a deal with Congress, and we’ll see what happens after that. But our goal is to try to get something done. We don’t want to keep kicking the can down the road. And we’d like to see a solution, which is why we’ve laid out a plan that we think addresses everybody’s concerns and meets those needs.
Q Thanks, Sarah. To put another point on it, will the President sign the budget agreement that was laid out by the Senate this morning?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we applaud the steps forward that they’ve made, but we’re going to need to see what is in the final bill. But we’re certainly happy with the direction that it’s moving, particularly that we’re moving away from the crisis budgeting that we’ve been on in the past.
Q Would you like the House to pass the Senate deal?
MS. SANDERS: We would like to move forward on this front. But again, we want to see the final components. But yes, we’re supportive, primarily because it meets several of the things that we laid out, including ending the crisis budgeting, and also helps meet the needs of the military and defense spending as were laid out by General Mattis.
Q Another question. Could you clarify the status of the security clearance of Rob Porter, and if the President has confidence in him as his Staff Secretary?
MS. SANDERS: I can give you two statements. As has always been our policy when it comes to security clearances, we don’t comment on them. I’m not going to change that today.
I can tell you that Rob has been effective in his role as Staff Secretary, and the President and Chief of Staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.
In more of an update on that front, Rob has put out a statement, which I can read to you now, and I think it will address some of those other questions.
“These outrageous allegations are simply false. I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago. And the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described. I’ve been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign. My commitment to public service speaks for itself. I’ve always put duty to country first, and treated others with respect. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served in the Trump administration, and will seek to ensure a smooth transition when I leave the White House.”
Q Sarah, is he going to be leaving the White House anytime soon? There was some conversation a couple of months ago that he was at least contemplating that.
MS. SANDERS: He is going to be leaving the White House. It won’t be immediate, but he is resigning from the White House, but is going to stay on to ensure that there’s a smooth transition moving forward.
Q Thanks. Less than 18 hours ago, the White House released several statements praising Rob Porter and his service. Obviously, he’s somebody who’s very close with the President. So why would the President accept his resignation if the President thinks he did nothing wrong?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that was a personal decision that Rob made, and one that he was not pressured to do, but one that he made on his own.
Q Can we clear up the matter of the security clearance? Did he have one or not? If he didnt —
MS. SANDERS: As I just said, I’m not sure why this is complicated. We’ve addressed it quite a few times. In many circumstances, as has always been the policy at the White House, we don’t discuss security clearances one way or the other.
Q Sarah, can I ask you about the Democratic memo? We understand — and Chief of Staff Kelly illuminated this yesterday — that this memo is different in terms of its content than the Republican memo was. General Kelly said it’s not as clean as the GOP memo was. Republicans who have read the memo are saying that it contains a substantial number of references to sources and methods.
My question to you is, do you believe that the White House is — I don’t want to say being sandbagged, but being put in a difficult position by the Democratic minority, forcing you to make redactions or hold back this memo so it could draw contrast with your treatment of the GOP memo?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to make speculations at this point. We’re still going through the process that we went through with the Republican memo. We’re going to continue to do that. And once that’s completed, we’ll have something further to add. But as of this point, we dont.
Q Sarah, can you clarify — the President yesterday said that he would like to shut the government down if he doesnt get funding for the wall, border security. Is what he said yesterday now no longer operative? He’s going to support a two-year spending bill without funding for the wall?
MS. SANDERS: Look, as I said yesterday, the focus for us has always been to get a two-year budget deal. We’ve also laid out the priorities that we want to see in any immigration legislation, and we expect to see that. We do want — we’ve made no secret the President wants funding for the wall and he wants border security. And we expect to see that reflected in the budget.
Q But he said he wanted to shut the government down if he didnt get it. Now that’s no longer operative? Is that no longer the position?
MS. SANDERS: No, the position hasnt changed, and I addressed this yesterday. The President is making the point — the only people that have shut the government down are the Democrats. We havent shut the government down. We’ve laid out exactly what we want to happen, and we’re working towards achieving those goals.
Q But he was the one who said he wanted to shut the government down. I’m not understanding. He said, “I want a government shutdown.”
MS. SANDERS: The point he’s making, when you put it in the context, is that, if we are going to have that fight, it’s a fight that the Democrats started last time and they lost, and we think that we would win again.
We want a two-year budget deal. We want an immigration plan that fixes the problem and doesnt further kick the can down the road. Those are the two focuses, and we’re hopeful we’ll get those done.
Q How can the President still have confidence in his Deputy Attorney General when he said he feels vindicated in the Russia probe by the Nunes memo that mentions Rosenstein, and the fact that Rosenstein oversees the Russia probe?
MS. SANDERS: Look, as I said yesterday, the President feels vindicated because he feels like the Russia investigation has been a politically motivated witch hunt for the last year, and the memo clearly vindicates the President’s position that there was political bias.
Q Has he actually read the Democrats’ memo? You said he has seen it, but has he actually read —
MS. SANDERS: He has. And I told you, also, that he had met with the Deputy Attorney General to discuss the differences yesterday.
Q And just really quickly, General Mattis was saying that the President has great affection for the military, but he has yet to visit Iraq and Afghanistan. Wouldnt that be the ultimate way to honor the troops, by going there rather than a parade?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think there are a lot of different ways. Nothing has been decided or locked in stone. This is in the early discussion phases, and it’s something the President is looking at — not just a way that he can, but that the entire country can come together and show support and honor our military.
Q Thanks. Does the President have any concerns about these domestic violence allegations raised against Rob Porter?
MS. SANDERS: I havent spoken to him about specific concerns.
Q You havent talked to the President about this —
MS. SANDERS: About whether or not he has specific concerns, I havent asked him that question, Cecilia.
Q Has he seen the photos of Rob Porter’s ex-wife with a black eye?
MS. SANDERS: I dont know.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. The President weighed in today on Twitter, on the stock market — the first time this week he’s done so. And he’s done so quite a bit over the course of his first year in office. Can we expect the President to continue to weigh in on the daily fluctuations on the stock market going forward? Or will he, sort of, let the market take its course?
MS. SANDERS: I dont think I’m going to speculate on what we may weigh in on every single day moving forward through the administration. But the economy has obviously been a big focus for the administration, and it’s something we’re going to continue to talk about. We have a very strong economy. We feel very confident in the direction that we’re moving, and certainly the focus on the long-term economic fundamentals that this administration has been advocating for.
Q On an immigration deal, would the President be open to the idea of just two pillars of what he’s put forward being part of an immigration deal? That being funding for that border wall with Mexico and increased border security, and then, of course, a legislative fix for those DACA recipients.
MS. SANDERS: We’ve laid out the four pillars that we want to see in immigration legislation.
Q The President today called these text messages from the FBI, “bombshells.” Does he believe there was a conspiracy in the FBI to try and undermine his candidacy, to try and help Hillary Clinton? Can you explain a little bit more his thinking about what he’s seen in these text messages?
MS. SANDERS: I think it just further shows that there is reason for all of us to have great cause for concern in this process, and we hope that it’s more thoroughly and fully looked at as we move forward.
Q And just quickly on the FBI. Are there some more specific changes, personnel changes, you would like to see at the FBI?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of at this time.
Q Sarah, I just want to give you a chance to respond to the concerns about the propriety of this parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. A lot of people in the country think that that’s not how the American military should be presented to the world, rolling tanks down America’s Main Street. What do you think?
MS. SANDERS: Look, as I said, we havent made a final decision. The President is simply exploring different ways that he can highlight and show the pride that we have in the military, the people that have served and sacrificed to allow us all of the freedoms that we have. The President is very proud of the United States military and all that they do on behalf of all of us, and we’re simply exploring options.
I think it’s way too far — speculation, to start weighing in on whether or not we think certain things are appropriate when nothing has been decided and it’s literally in a brainstorming session.
Q Is it true — the report that the President essentially gave a directive to the Defense Department? “This is something that must happen.”
MS. SANDERS: No. The President asked them to look at different ways and explore and see what those options look like, as the Secretary said.
I’ll take one last question.
Q Sarah, to follow up on these text messages, does the President believe that former President Obama was involved in the investigation — the Russia investigation — against him, which is what alleged between those texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page?
MS. SANDERS: Im not aware of that specific concern, but I think that there is a lot within those text messages that gives us great cause for concern. And we, again, hope that they look at them thoroughly and investigate this process more fully.
Thanks so much, guys.