White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- Trump repayment of Stormy payoff
- C-130 plane crash in Georgia
- U.S. and allies operations in Syria
- U.S. – China trade talks
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Today in the Rose Garden, President Trump continued the tradition of celebrating the National Day of Prayer. The President also signed an executive order to ensure that all faith-based communities have strong advocates throughout his administration. The President encourages people of all faiths across the country to join together and pray for our nation.
In that same light, President Trump extends his thoughts and prayers to the nine victims and their families of yesterday’s military plane crash in Savannah, Georgia. The nine members of the Puerto Rico National Guard, who had a combined 167 years of service, were on an official mission. The President has been briefed on the incident, and will work with the Department of Defense to provide assistance and resources to the Puerto Rico National Guard.
As you all know, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week.
In her 33 years at the agency, Acting Director Haspel has held senior positions around the globe, overseeing covert operations and counterterrorism efforts to protect the homeland.
She’s one of the most qualified, most capable individuals ever nominated to lead the CIA. We are seeing widespread support from across the political spectrum and within the intelligence community. People that worked at the CIA, people that led the CIA, support Acting Director Haspel.
Jeremy Bash, the former Democratic chief counsel to the House Committee on Intelligence and chief of staff at the CIA under President Obama, called Acting Director Haspel “the rare CIA director nominee that both parties should love.”
With planning and preparations underway for the summit with North Korea, and with Secretary Pompeo now engaged from the State Department, Republicans and Democrats should come together and confirm Gina Haspel as the Director of the CIA.
Today, we also mark World Press Freedom Day. This comes after a recent suicide bombing in Afghanistan claiming the lives of at least 10 journalists. Many journalists around the globe do their jobs at great risk every day. The United States stands in solidarity with these men and women who work for free and open societies.
And with that, I will take your questions. Zeke.
Q Thanks, Sarah. First, just a quick question. I don’t know if you saw the news out of Iran, but Foreign Minister Zarif put out a video statement saying that Iran would not renegotiate or add on to the JCPOA. How does that influence the President’s thinking? And do you have a response to that?
MS. SANDERS: We don’t have any announcements at this time. When the President has a final decision on what he will do, in terms of the JCPOA, we’ll let you know.
Q And secondly, on another topic in the news today. Can you explain why the President, when he spoke — when he answered questions from reporters a few weeks ago about the $130,000 payment from Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels, why the President was not truthful with the American people and with the people in this room?
MS. SANDERS: As Mayor Giuliani stated — and I’ll refer you back to his comments — this was information that the President didn’t know at the time, but eventually learned.
Q If I could take a broader view on this, because I know you can’t talk about the details. But can I ask you, when the President so often says things that turn out not to be true, when the President and the White House show what appears to be a blatant disregard for the truth, how are the American people to trust or believe what is said here and what is said by the President?
MS. SANDERS: We give the very best information that we have at the time. I do that every single day, and will continue to do that every day I’m in this position.
Q But the President — I mean, when the story first happened came out that Ty Cobb would be leaving and Emmet Flood would be coming in, the President said, “fake news,” said it was not true. When he talked about the prisoners in North Korea, he said the previous administration had failed to get them out. At least two of them were taken prisoner while Donald Trump was President. And obviously, the totally conflicting statements on the Stormy Daniels claim. I mean, these are statements that are just not true.
MS. SANDERS: When it comes to North Korea, I think you can also look at Otto Warmbier, who was detained during the previous administration, as was one of the current detainees. And so that would reflect the President’s comments that he made.
When it comes to the other — the last instance that you mentioned, as Mayor Giuliani stated, this wasn’t something that was initially known but later learned. And again, we give the best information possible at the time. And we’re going to continue to do that every single day.
Q He started paying back Michael Cohen back in February of last year. I mean, the reimbursement was happening long before the President was asked about this.
MS. SANDERS: Is that a question or a statement?
Q But I’m saying, I mean, how could he not have known? He was paying him back. He was paying him back —
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to get into those details, and I would refer you back to the statements — pretty lengthy statements made by Giuliani both last night and this morning, as well as the President’s tweets, where they’ve both spoken about that.
Q Just to follow up on that — the President did talk about monthly retainers in his tweet, and then Rudy Giuliani said that the President only knew about this 10 days to 2 weeks ago. How can you only be aware of something 10 days to 2 weeks ago, but at the same time be in the process of paying monthly retainers that apparently covered this reimbursement to Michael Cohen?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I can’t get into the details of the ongoing litigation. I’d refer you back to the President’s outside counsel.
Q If I could just follow up on — you said, on March 7th, “There was no knowledge of any payments from the President, and he’s denied all of these allegations.” Were you lying to us at the time, or were you in the dark?
MS. SANDERS: The President has denied and continues to deny the underlying claim. And again, I had given the best information I had at the time. And I would refer you back to the comments that you, yourself, just mentioned a few minutes ago about the timeline for Mayor Giuliani.
Q But that statement — but, Sarah, that statement —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Jim. I’m going to move on.
Q That statement was in reference to the reimbursement — the payment.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I gave you the best information that I had. And the allegations —
Q That means you were in the dark. You didn’t know. You didn’t know at the time.
MS. SANDERS: — the allegations, the President has denied and continues to deny the underlying claim.
Q Why can’t you just answer “yes” or “no” whether you were in the dark — I think, is a fairly simply question — whether you just didn’t have the information at the time —
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s a fairly simple answer that I’ve given you, actually, several times now. I gave you the best information that I had and I’m going to continue to do my best to do that every single day.
Q Sarah, can you give us an update on the three Americans held in North Korea? Rudy Giuliani said that they were going to be released today. Is that true?
MS. SANDERS: We can’t confirm the validity of any of the reports currently out about their release. But we certainly would see this as a sign of goodwill if North Korea were to release the three Americans ahead of discussions between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Q In addition to being an attorney —
MS. SANDERS: Steve.
Q Sorry, Sarah, in addition to being an attorney for the President, does Mr. Giuliani — Mayor Giuliani have a wider remit to talk about things like foreign policy, as he did?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Yes, Sarah, I wanted to ask you about the these reports citing U.S. intelligence that the Chinese have installed new missile platforms on disputed islands in the South China Sea. And they also appear to now be basing fighter jets there. Meanwhile, pilots are being warned that the Chinese military personnel are pointing lasers at U.S. military aircraft in Djibouti in Africa, injuring American pilots. Does any of this cross a red line for the President? And how does the administration intend to respond?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah, we’re well aware of China’s militarization of the South China Sea. We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this. And there will be near-term and long-term consequences. And we’ll certainly keep you up to date.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. Were you caught off guard by Major Giuliani’s comments on Fox News last night?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not part of the legal team and wouldn’t be part of those discussions.
Q So is the administration — is the President, is he pleased with the job that Major Giuliani is doing right now? It seems as if he has opened the President up to some sort of criminal liability as it relates to federal election campaign violations.
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t discussed that with the President. I wouldn’t be part of those conversations.
Q And so the President then is pleased with the job that Mr. Giuliani is doing —
MS. SANDERS: Again, I haven’t had that conversation with the President. That’s an outside counsel, and not something I would be a part of.
Q Thank you, Sarah. When was the last time that the President talked to Michael Cohen? And is Michael Cohen still his attorney? And also, is the White House concerned or is the President concerned that any conversations he would have had with Michael Cohen would have been picked up by the wiretap that we learned about today?
MS. SANDERS: Let me see if I can get all of those questions since there were quite a few all together. I’m not sure when the last conversation took place. On the second part, I’m not aware of specific places where he’s representing the President. And on the last one, I would refer you to the President’s outside counsel about any concerns of wiretapping. That wouldn’t be something that we would —
Q And just to clarify, when did you specifically know that the President repaid Mr. Cohen for the $130,000? You personally.
MS. SANDERS: The first awareness I had was during the interview last night.
Q Sarah, you said earlier that, when you’ve given answers around this general topic, you gave us the best information you had at the time. Now it appears that your position is you’re not going to comment because it’s ongoing litigation. Have you been advised not to wade into this to protect yourself from any potential legal exposure by giving either false information or information that proves later not to be able to be withstood in court?
MS. SANDERS: No, but I would always advise against giving false information. As a person of human decency, I do my best to give the right information —
Q But the point of Jonathan’s question earlier — when you say, before, that you gave the best information you had at the time, and —
MS. SANDERS: And I continue to do that today.
Q — but it turns out not to be correct, or accurate, are you then trying to limit the liability that you may encounter by not dealing with any of those questions now, and pushing them all off because you say it’s ongoing litigation?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m giving the best information I have. Some information I am aware of and some I’m not. When I can answer, I will. But beyond that, I really don’t have anything to add.
Q Let me ask you something that the Mayor said last night, not related to the questions you’ve gotten so far. He said, he — being the President — “fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation.” Is that the White House position now, explaining why James Comey was fired?
MS. SANDERS: There are a number of reasons that James Comey was fired. The President has named several of them. But the bottom line is he doesn’t have to justify his decision. The President has the authority to fire and hire. And I think every single day —
Q So that was —
MS. SANDERS: — we’ve seen that he made the right decision in firing James Comey.
Q Is that the reason he was fired?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think that there are a number of reasons that he was fired.
Q Is that one of them?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly, James Comey was fired —
MS. SANDERS: — for lying, leaking, and politicizing the FBI. And the President has been, I think, repeatedly, day after day, been proven to be exactly right in his decision to fire James Comey.
Q He also said —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Major, I’m going to keep going.
Shannon, I’m going to —
Q — he said that this is a completely tainted investigation. Do you agree with that?
Q Sarah, can you —
Q He said it’s a completely tainted investigation. Do you agree with that?
MS. SANDERS: Shannon, go ahead.
Q Can you clear up this timeline a bit, back to Jim’s question, about when exactly did the President learn that the payments were going to Michael Cohen to cover the Stormy Daniels —
MS. SANDERS: I would refer you back to Mayor Giuliani’s comment. And for anything further —
Q — ten to two weeks.
MS. SANDERS: — I would refer you to —
Q And did the President know that Mr. Giuliani would specifically be talking about these payments on Hannity last night? Was he aware of the time and the message —
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know. That’s a question you’d have to ask the Mayor.
Q Thank you very much. A follow-up to Jeff’s question. Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani have both commented publicly on the North Korean hostages. Are they involved in any way in efforts to secure their release?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Why are they commenting on this, then?
MS. SANDERS: That’s a question you’d have to ask them. I don’t speak for people on the outside.
Q Sarah, thanks. Is the President concerned that his own Justice Department authorized a wiretap that may have gathered communications between him and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not sure of the comments on that report, or the claims in that report. That’s something that you would have to talk with the Department of Justice and the President’s outside counsel.
Q Was the President concerned when he learned the reporting that Michael Cohen’s phones were wiretapped several days before the raid?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t talked to him about that. And again, I’m not — I can’t verify the validity of that report.
Q And just going back to the payments question, how many payments did the President make to Michael Cohen after the election?
MS. SANDERS: You’d have to ask the President’s outside counsel.
Q But, Sarah, you’re standing here speaking for the President.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Kristen.
Q Can I just ask you about Rudy Giuliani’s comments? Rudy Giuliani said, this morning, “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton” — a reference to the payment. So does the White House now acknowledge that that payment was made with politics in mind?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not aware of the back-and-forth, and I would refer you to the President’s outside counsel.
Q Sarah, yesterday the President threatened to get involved in the Justice Department if memos were not turned over in a timely manner to the House Intelligence Committee. What actions is the President considering taking? And what does a “timely manner” mean to the President? How soon does he want the un-redacted version of the Special Counsel memo?
MS. SANDERS: Probably yesterday. But in terms of —
Q So what has he threatened to do?
MS. SANDERS: — what he might do, as the President likes to say, we’ll see what happens.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On the Haspel nomination, would you remind us what the President’s position is regarding the potential use of interrogation tactics that meet international definitions of torture?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure what those two things you’re trying to connect. I know that Acting Director Haspel has done everything appropriate under the law, and she’s going to be a great CIA Director, and we look forward to her being confirmed.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A question on Russia. This morning, the Financial Times reported that Alexei Kudrin, a former close associate of President Putin, and a strong advocate of warmer relations with the United States, may well be rejoining his government. This raises another question. You said that the President would have a summit with Mr. Putin sometime in the near future. Can you give us any clues when that will be? Has anything been determined on a possible Trump-Putin summit?
MS. SANDERS: Nothing has been finalized on that front. I think the next big summit, if you will — word — I’ll borrow your word — that the President will engage in will likely be between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. Beyond that, I don’t have any updates.
Q So there will be no meetings — it’s likely that there’s no meetings with President Putin before the Kim-Trump summit?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of. Certainly, nothing is finalized at this point. But certainly the President would still be very much open to sitting down with the leader of Russia.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Following up on — question, in regards to those memos and the congressional oversight, Rod Rosenstein is saying this is extortion. What is the White House’s response to him calling it extortion? And does the President support the Freedom Caucus’s articles of impeachment for Rosenstein?
MS. SANDERS: The President would like to see the request of Congress to DOJ met. I haven’t have a conversation with him about the articles of impeachment.
Q You just said that James Comey was fired for lying and leaking and politicizing. What did he lie about before he was fired? And what did he leak before he was fired?
MS. SANDERS: There were a number of allegations — one in which he lied during congressional testimony. And has been continually, I think, had a number of contradictions since then, which I’ve pointed out, that the President said he has learned every day since firing Comey that it was the right thing to do, and certainly has been justified in doing so.
But again, going back to — the President, frankly, doesn’t have to have a justification. He can hire and fire whomever he wants. And he made the decision to fire James Comey. And that’s certainly a decision he stands by and one that he feels very justified in since.
Q Was Giuliani correct in saying that he was fired in part because he wouldn’t tell the President that he wasn’t part of the investigation?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t speak for Mayor Giuliani. I haven’t talked to the President about that.
Q Sarah, did the President file a fraudulent personal financial disclosure last year when he filed a report that did not include a loan from Michael Cohen or any company affiliated with him? I mean, if there was no loan, then what would he have been reimbursing?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know. You would have to talk to the President’s outside counsel.
Q Thank you.
Q Can you say why he was talking with Giuliani about the North Korean prisoners, given that he doesn’t have a high-level clearance?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware that they spoke about that, so I don’t know.
Q Was he aware that Giuliani was going to be talking about them on TV during those negotiations?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not aware that they spoke about it, so I can’t answer that.
Q So a couple of quick questions. Does the President believe he’s above the law?
MS. SANDERS: No.
Q And does he prefer to sit down with Kim Jong-un before or after —
MS. SANDERS: I’ll answer the first question: No.
Q Thank you. And then does he prefer to sit down with Kim Jong-un versus Bob Mueller?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly think that the President feels like stopping a nuclear war and helping protect the safety and security of people across the globe would certainly be the number-one priority of the President of the United States, and certainly, I would think, would be the priority that most Americans would share and support the President doing.
I’ll take one last question. Lalit. Sorry, April.
Q Okay, Sarah, really fast. Two questions. Can you — if you’re not ready — (laughter) —
MS. SANDERS: I was looking for him. I thought he was over here. He’s usually standing over there. I’ll come to you next.
Q So, Sarah, at this point, can you tell us definitively if the President plans to answer any questions from Bob Mueller? And if not, what is now in place here at the White House to go through that process of a subpoena, a possible indictment, a possible grand jury?
MS. SANDERS: Again, those are all questions you would need to refer to the outside counsel.
Q Okay. Well, now, going to Rudy Giuliani — did Rudy Giuliani do harm to the President today and last night in his conversations to Fox?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe so.
Q And are you —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I’m going to take Lalit’s question like I promised to do.
Q Why didn’t he talk to the White House Press Office about his impacting stellar statements about what was happening? Everyone (inaudible).
MS. SANDERS: The White House Press Office wouldn’t coordinate with the President’s outside legal team on legal strategy.
Q But you were blindsided — you said yourself, I was blindsided by what he said.
MS. SANDERS: I actually didn’t use that term.
Q Well, I said it. (Laughter.) But you were blindsided, from what you said.
MS. SANDERS: Well, with all due respect, you actually don’t know much about me in terms of what I feel and what I don’t.
Q (Inaudible) been here for 21 years, so I understand how this operates. Do not discredit me.
MS. SANDERS: All right. I think (inaudible).
Lalit, go ahead.
Q Last week, there was a meeting between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping in China. How does the White House see the meeting between the two leaders — India and China — trying to improve their relationship? And did President have a role in that?
MS. SANDERS: We don’t have an official policy, but certainly think it’s always good when other world leaders are getting along. And certainly when we can cooperate, that’s definitely a good thing. We have a great relationship with both countries, and hope to continue to do so.