White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- D.C. District Court Ruling to restart DACA
- Tuesday’s State Visit
- Status of the Iran nuclear deal
- Ronny Jackson‘s nomination as VA chief
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. The first state visit for the Trump administration was a tremendous success, and the First Lady, in particular, deserves a lot of the credit. Her attention to every detail and full engagement in the planning helped highlight and showcase the special relationship between the United States and France, our oldest ally.
President Trump and President Macron also had a number of important conversations on critical issues facing each nation at home and abroad. As the President said yesterday, the future between the United States and France has never looked brighter.
Tomorrow, the administration will be participating in the 25th anniversary of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. The President looks forward to welcoming many of your children and the children of those who work here at the White House.
As a reminder, this Saturday is National Prescription Take Back Day. Across the country, many businesses, medical offices, state, local, and tribal governments, and first responders will host drop-off events where Americans can safely dispose of unused medication. Disposing of unused pills can prevent the misuse of commonly prescribed opioids.
During the last National Take Back Day in October, Americans disposed of a record-breaking 900,000 pounds of prescription pills.
The Trump administration encourages everyone to take part. We can all be part of the solution. For more details on that, I encourage you to visit TakeBackDay.dea.gov to find your local collection site and learn more about how to safely dispose of prescription medication.
And with that, Ill take your questions. John.
Q I asked the President yesterday about the allegations that Dr. Ronny Jackson is facing. There are more allegations that have been leveled at him in the last 24 hours, one of which might involve a HIPAA violation, or an alleged HIPAA violation. Do you have anything more on the allegations against Jackson? Is the White House saying anything about it?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, Dr. Jackson’s record as a White House physician has been impeccable. In fact, because Dr. Jackson has worked within arm’s reach of three Presidents, he has received more vetting than most nominees.
Given his unique position of trust and responsibility, Dr. Jackson’s background and character were evaluated during three different administrations. Dr. Jackson has had at least four independent background investigations conducted during his time at the White House, including an FBI investigation conducted as part of the standard nomination vetting process. During each of those investigations, Dr. Jackson received unanimous praise from dozens of witnesses, and the investigations revealed no areas of concern.
Dr. Jackson has received glowing evaluations from his superiors, including several from President Obama, which said — such as, Dr. Jackson should “continue to promote ahead of his peers” and “already at a level of performance and responsibility that exceeds his current rank.”
Q But what about some of these allegations about overprescribing? The other one that I just mentioned a moment ago.
MS. SANDERS: I think that makes it pretty clear, in terms of — a very thorough investigation and vetting process has taken place. None of those things had come up. We’re continuing to look at anything beyond that.
Q Despite what you just said there, is the White House doing any sort of additional looking into Dr. Jackson’s background in light of all of the allegations?
MS. SANDERS: There’s been, again, a pretty thorough vetting process done by the FBI, as well as three other independent investigations. But that’s part of what the nomination process of Congress should do and what it’s supposed to look like, and why they should move forward with a hearing.
Q And since you are — since the White House and the President are standing behind him, will he ask the Senate Veterans Committee to reschedule his confirmation hearing?
MS. SANDERS: We’re continuing to work with members on the Hill.
Q Sarah, I’ve got one on this and a couple on foreign policy.
MS. SANDERS: A couple?
Q So is it the position of the administration that the people who have raised these allegations are lying?
MS. SANDERS: That’s not what I said. I said we’ve done — multiple background checks have taken place, and we’re continuing to look at the situation.
Q Do you not find them credible, in other words, these allegations?
MS. SANDERS: Again, these are new. I can only speak to —
Q And do you think there’s anything that suggests political motivation behind them?
MS. SANDERS: I can only speak to some of the personal accounts that those of us have, as well as the records that we have that are substantiated through a very detailed and thorough background investigation process.
Q So, on North Korea. During the State of the Union address, the President described the North Korean regime as one that shamefully tried an American, Otto Warmbier; sent him back to the country nearly dead; starves its own people; and is a dictatorship worse than almost any other. That’s what he said in the State of Union. How could that also be true if Kim Jong-un is “honorable” and “open”? How do you reconcile those two assessments of the leader and the regime in North Korea?
MS. SANDERS: The President is referencing the conversations that we’ve had ongoing over the last month or so in regards to the meeting to take place and their willingness to denuclearize on the Peninsula. And that’s —
Q So he’s changed his appraisal of Kim Jong-un?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly not that, but he wants to have the ability to sit down and have these conversations. And in that process, they have been open with their willingness to denuclearize, and that’s certainly been the focus and what we have been pushing for and expect to happen.
Q He thinks the regime has changed?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q He thinks the regime has changed?
MS. SANDERS: We think that the maximum pressure campaign is working. But again, we’re not going to let up on that campaign until we see some of the words that they’ve made go into concrete action. But they’re moving in the right direction.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. I wanted to get your reaction to the ruling that came down from a federal district court judge here in Washington concerning DACA. He said that the President’s decision to end DACA was arbitrary and capricious. So what’s your reaction to this ruling? The third federal judge to rule against the President on DACA.
MS. SANDERS: The DACA program violates federal law. President Obama went around Congress and created the illegal DACA program. We believe the judge’s ruling is extraordinarily broad and wrong on the law. What’s worse is that it creates an incentive for more illegal immigrant youth to come here, and causes them to expect similar judicial policies be applied to them.
This ruling is good news for smuggling organizations and criminal networks, and horrible news for our national security. It’s time for Congress to do what the President has called on them to do, and offer to be part of and actually fix this problem.
Q Is it still the main argument by the administration that the reason why it was necessary to cut off the DACA program was because of the threat of lawsuits by Republican attorneys general?
MS. SANDERS: That was certainly a big part of us knowing that this is an illegal program and something that Congress has the ability to actually create laws. And they’re the ones that have to be part of this process and fix this problem.
Q Yes, Sarah. I’d like to ask you about the drop in the ranking for the United States in the World Press Freedom Index. The United States now down to 45. And according to Reporters Without Borders, much of the blame for that goes to the President for his attacks on the media. What’s the reaction of the White House? And does it accept that the President’s comments has denigrated our freedom of the press in the United States?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly would not — would reject the idea that the President or this administration has halted freedom of the press. I think we’re one of the most accessible administrations that we’ve seen in decades. I think by mere presence of standing up here and taking your questions, un-vetted, is a pretty good example of freedom of the press, and I think it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. One on President Macron’s visit and the other on foreign policy. Yesterday, there was some scuttlebutt late in the afternoon that no Democrats were invited to the dinner last night. And then later, a check of the list showed that there were at least four Democrats invited. However, the accurate report was there were no congressional Democrats invited.
Now, going back to state dinners to when President Roosevelt hosted the King and Queen of England in 1939, and invited potential opponents, there have always been congressional Democrats at state dinners. Why the exception last night?
MS. SANDERS: Again, as you said, there were Democrats present at the dinner, and the focus of this dinner was to keep it intimate and small, and that’s exactly what we did. There was a wide range of individuals that participated, and we think it was a great success and very proud of not just the dinner but the entire visit, and certainly the relationship that we have with our great ally in France.
Q But no congressional Democrats. Was there any discussion of that in preparing the list?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we talk with congressional Democrats all the time. We don’t have to have dinner with them to have conversations with them. We’ll continue to talk with them about policy-related issues. And again, I think that the fact that there were a number of Democrats that were present kind of negates the fact that it wasn’t a bipartisan dinner.
Q My other question —
MS. SANDERS: Oh, sorry — your second question.
Q — was about the proclamation the President signed regarding Armenia and Turkey. He used the word, “Meds Yeghern,” which is Armenian for “catastrophe” or “atrocity,” but he never used the word “genocide” in this resolution. Does the President believe in Armenian genocide?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a detailed conversation with him about that, but I understand that the resolution the President signed was consistent with past administrations as well.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Rap superstar Kanye West has been in the news lately for supporting the President and expressing his admiration for the President.
MS. SANDERS: Covering all range of topics today. (Laughter.)
Q I’m curious whether the President has reached out to Kanye West and whether he’d be willing to meet with him at the White House.
MS. SANDERS: I dont know of any conversation that they’ve had over the last week or so. I’ll keep you posted if that changes at any time.
Q Two weeks ago?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I know they met during the transition. That’s the only meeting I’m aware of that’s taken place for a conversation. Before everybody has a meltdown and thinks that we had a meeting last week.
Q In today’s Supreme Court arguments about the travel ban there was much discussion of the President’s proposal during the campaign that all Muslims be barred from entering the U.S. And it was noted during those arguments that the President has never actually disavowed that proposal. And it was also noted that he had not made those comments since being sworn in as President. So I wanted to ask: Does the White House disavow that campaign proposal, or does it stand by it?
MS. SANDERS: The administration’s top priority is to ensure the safety and security of the American people. For that reason, the administration has put in place enhanced global security measures to improve screening and vetting capabilities and share information. It’s working. There’s been significant improvements in identity management and information sharing with foreign governments. Because of this, our international partners have raised their own baseline requirements.
Without the ability to impose entry restrictions, the United States may be forced to unsuspectingly allow dangerous criminals or terrorists into the country. Additionally, without the restrictions, foreign governments have little incentive to improve their information-sharing and identity-management practices.
The focus of this travel ban has been on safety and security, is limited to a small number of countries, and a lot of Muslim-majority countries have the same abilities to travel to and from the United States as they did in previous administrations.
I think that alone, in action, answers your question clearly.
Q I just wanted to follow up on Dr. Ronny Jackson. Yesterday, the President suggested that Dr. Jackson does not have the experience to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. Is that a fair assessment, that he lacks that experience?
MS. SANDERS: That’s not what the President said. I think you’re taking some of his words out of context. And based on your tweet today —
Q He said experience is an issue.
MS. SANDERS: — I know you dont appreciate when people take your words out of context. So I’d appreciate if you not do that to the President. If he didnt think he had the experience, he wouldnt have nominated. He said that that had been one of the questions that people had posed about him. Obviously, the President thought —
Q So he thinks Dr. Jackson has all the experience necessary to run the department?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think he has an incredibly strong —
Q It’s a yes or no question.
MS. SANDERS: — background. He’s a highly qualified, highly skilled individual. And if he didnt think he was capable of doing the job, he wouldnt have announced his nomination in the first place.
Q Let me just follow up, if I can. Just since you brought up being taken out of context, if seems to be a press-related question. Are you trying to say that this administration is a champion of a free press? That seems —
MS. SANDERS: I certainly think that, as I stated a moment ago, we support a free press but we also support a fair press. And I think that those things should go hand in hand, and there’s a certain responsibility by the press to report accurate information. I think a number of people —
Q Isn’t there a certain responsibility on the part of the President —
MS. SANDERS: I think a number of people in this room do that every single day. They do their very best to provide fair and accurate information. I certainly support that, and that’s one of the reasons I’m standing here taking your questions —
Q We appreciate that.
MS. SANDERS: — and a lot of times taking your questions in a tone that’s completely unnecessary, unneeded, and, frankly, doesnt help further the conversation or help the American people get any more information in a better way, which is your job and my job. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Q I fully appreciate that. But, Sarah —
MS. SANDERS: I’m going to move on. David, go ahead.
Q But the President’s tone towards the press —
MS. SANDERS: Jim, I’m finished here.
Q The President’s tone towards the press is obviously not helpful at times —
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Jim.
Q — and I think that that’s plain to see.
MS. SANDERS: David.
Q A Navy inspector general had problems with the way Jackson ran his medical office, which only has 50 people in it. What makes him qualified to run a big department that has 350,000 people?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I saw a number of members of both the House and Senate do interviews today, just earlier this morning, in which they said, look, we’ve tried this a number of other ways with people who have run massive organizations, and it hasnt worked out very well.
This is a different approach, but it certainly doesnt mean it’s a wrong approach or that he’s not qualified. This is somebody who’s been on the battlefields, made decisions at a very high-stress level, and saved a number of individuals’ lives in some of the most trying circumstances. Somebody that understands the relationship between veterans, and the needs and the care that they have as a veteran himself — or as a service member himself, and somebody who has a relationship and a deep-rooted care and concern for those individuals that may be far and above what we’ve seen from previous administrators that have overseen that agency. He’s a highly qualified individual, and we’re going to continue looking at this and continue moving forward.
Q Are you telling us that the White House was not aware of any of the allegations before the President decided to name Dr. Jackson? Just, first of all, to clarify.
MS. SANDERS: I’m telling you that none of those things have come up in the four separate background investigations that have taken place. There’s been no area of concern that was raised for Dr. Jackson specifically.
Q Can you describe to us, then, what the vetting process was at the White House before he was named, given that, as David just mentioned, there is an inspector general report and there have been allegations in the past that are now coming to light, but they existed before the President chose him?
MS. SANDERS: Again, Dr. Jackson has undergone four separate background checks. One that was conducted by the FBI, and all those revealed nothing and came back with a clean recommendation.
Q So the only vetting that was done of him as a nominee was to look at his past background checks, is what you’re telling us?
MS. SANDERS: No — I mean, there’s a number of things. But you also have to remember this is somebody that spends more time with the President than just about anyone. These investigations are very thorough and certainly something that was taken into consideration.
Q Sarah, thank you. Let me ask you a couple questions about the Tim Cook meeting that is either wrapped or going on right now. Do you, by chance, have a readout of what exactly took place? Did the President promise to —
MS. SANDERS: The meeting was still ongoing when the briefing started. I know that the primary focus and purpose of the meeting is to discuss trade. It’s something that’s been on the President’s schedule for the last couple of weeks. If we have any additional information, we’ll let you know.
Q Let me ask you. In the last month now, the President has met with Bill Gates, who is the second-wealthiest individual in the world. Now he’s meeting with Tim Cook, who runs the largest company in the United States. Does the President have any intentions, at any point, to meet with the wealthiest individual in the world, Jeff Bezos? And if so, under what conditions would that be?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of that being on the schedule. I certainly haven’t seen it on any of the look-aheads. I think the President would be open to it, but I’m not aware of anything being locked in at this point.
Q Sarah, Scott Pruitt lived for below-market rent in a Capitol Hill row house owned by an energy industry lobbyist. He reportedly directed staff to give raises to top aides, and then obfuscated about it. He spent over $150,000 of taxpayer dollars on first-class travel. And he reportedly once even tried to get his security detail to use their sirens so he could get to a reservation at Le Diplomate, among other alleged ethical lapses.
I know you’ve said yesterday you were looking at reports about him, but can you sort of explain why he still has a job in the President’s Cabinet, and also how his behavior is in keeping with the values of draining the swamp?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we’re evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA Administrator to answer for them, and we’ll keep you posted.
Q Thanks. Just to follow up on that — when you say you expect Administrator Pruitt to answer for these accusations, where do you expect that to happen? Like, are you looking for this in hearings? Is the White House asking questions?
MS. SANDERS: We’re having ongoing conversations.
Q And also, just to follow up on Jackson. When you say that he’s been through four background checks, can you say — but these allegations have now come up, and some of them are very serious — is the White House going to look into the allegations that have been made against him about drinking on the job and (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly something that we would look at, absolutely.
I’ll take one last question. Francesca.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I wanted to clarify, too, about these four background checks. Were any of these background checks since President Trump took office or since he was named as the nominee for VA Secretary? And has the White House ever been informed of allegations like these — like excessively drinking on the job or passing out medication like candy, as it were — since he was the physician for President Trump?
MS. SANDERS: Im not aware of any of those allegations being made until the nomination was made.
Q And to follow up on what I was asking about the background check. When was his most recent background check?
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to look at the specific date, but my understanding is that a new one took place at the time of the new administration.
Thanks so much guys. See you tomorrow.