White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds a briefing to update the media on the events and issues of the day including:
- withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal)
- North Korea’s release of American prisoners
- Hawaii volcanic activity
- moving of U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
Q Good afternoon.
MS. SANDERS: Only got one. This morning, the families of the three Americans detained in North Korea received the news that they have long been hoping for: Their loved ones will be coming home.
The President views this as a positive gesture and a step in the right direction from the North Korean leader. However, total denuclearization will remain the top priority.
The President, joined by the First Lady, looks forward to welcoming Secretary Pompeo and these three brave Americans back to the United States early tomorrow morning at Andrews Air Force Base. This will be a proud moment for all of America.
As you all know, CIA Acting Director Gina Haspel appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. She was introduced by two former members: Democrat Evan Bayh and Republican Saxby Chambliss.
Mr. Bayh, a former senator and governor of Indiana, noted that she is, without question, the most qualified person ever nominated for the position.
Mr. Chambliss, a former vice chairman of the Committee, said he cannot name the last time so many former intelligence professionals agreed on a single nominee.
And in her opening statement, Acting Director Haspel outlined what she is focused on to better position the CIA for tactical and strategic success and to accomplish its mission.
The Acting Director clearly demonstrated why the President selected her: her character, her experience, and her commitment to protecting the country. She is the right person to lead the CIA, and the Senate should confirm her.
Because the President is traveling tomorrow and we won’t have a briefing, I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity to wish my daughter, Scarlett, who will be six tomorrow, a happy birthday.
And with that, I will take your questions. Jeff.
Q Sarah, you mentioned the CIA Director nominee. Gina Haspel said today that if the President asked her to do anything to restart the interrogation program that the CIA was criticized for, that she would not do that. Is that something that the President would ever ask?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of any request by the President to the past CIA Director or what we hope to be the new CIA Director very soon.
Q May I ask you one more question, Sarah? Just on a separate subject, following up on the Iran announcement yesterday from the President. The Europeans are working hard now to keep that deal alive, despite the United States being pulled out. Can you say, will the White House ensure that European companies who trade with Iran will not suffer the sanctions that the United States is going to put back on?
MS. SANDERS: The sanctions that were in place prior to the deal will go back into place. But for the specifics — I know there’s a wind-down period — for specifics on any particular company, I would refer you to the Department of Treasury.
Q Thanks, Sarah. The President today on Twitter suggested stripping journalists of their press credentials. Is that a line that, as Press Secretary, you would be willing to cross?
MS. SANDERS: I’m standing up in front of you right now taking your questions. I think a number of you have mentioned both off air — or on air or in private, in a number of occasions, that this is one of the most accessible White Houses. We’re very committed to a free press. And I think that we demonstrate that every single day, not only by me being up here and taking your questions as I’m doing right now. The President did it just a couple of hours ago and has made multiple sets of remarks, and will be in front of the press later tonight as well.
Q How is the suggestion of taking American journalists’ press credentials away advocating for a free press in this country? Those two do not go together.
MS. SANDERS: The fact that I’m standing here taking questions, the fact that the President took questions from your colleagues just two hours ago demonstrates this White House’s commitment to accessibility and to providing information to the American public.
At the same time, the press has a responsibility to put out accurate information. Just yesterday, the New York Times accused the Secretary of State for being AWOL — AWOL — when he was flying across the globe to bring three Americans home. That is an outrageous claim.
Just earlier this week, The Washington Post accused the First Lady of not living in the White House. That outrageous claim was then repeated again in this room.
We are here. We are taking questions. We are doing everything we can to provide regular and constant information to the American people. And there is a responsibility by you guys to provide accurate information. And we’re going to continue to try to work with you, as I’m doing right here, right now, and as the President did just a couple of hours ago.
Q You know we wouldn’t be able to ask those questions without those credentials in this room.
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q We wouldn’t be able to ask these questions that you’re here to answer without these credentials.
MS. SANDERS: And you are. So you’re clearly sitting right here asking them right now.
Q Let me ask you this question, Sarah. The confidential financial records of Michael Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, were made public, prompting the Treasury Department’s Office the Inspector General to launch an investigation as to how that happened.
But among the records were payments from AT&T to a person very close to the President at a time when AT&T was looking for government approval of a proposed merger with Time Warner. There were also payments of over $1 million from Novartis Pharmaceuticals at a time that the President was talking about doing something to bring down the cost of pharmaceuticals.
Is the President concerned about any aspect of what we’ve learned in the last 24 hours?
MS. SANDERS: As you know, due to the complications of the different components of this investigation, I would refer you to the President’s outside special — or outside counsel to address those concerns.
Q But is the President concerned that major corporations were giving money to somebody very close to him at a time when they had business before the federal government?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t heard the President express any specific concerns about that.
Q Sarah, do you believe that Michael Cohen was ever in any way qualified to provide insights into this administration?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into somebody else’s qualifications. That’s something that an independent company that hires an individual would have to make that determination, not me.
Q But let me ask you this — because what we know is Michael Cohen received millions of dollars, apparently peddling the insights that he said he could provide into this administration to America’s largest corporations. Is the President in any way embarrassed or ashamed of that? Because it seems to be the definition of swampy behavior —
MS. SANDERS: I think that would be up to those individuals who make the decision to hire someone, just the same way that the companies that you work for make the decision to determine whether or not they think that you’re qualified to serve in a position. That’s the decision of an independent company and has nothing to do with the White House.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I’m happy to take the answer from the private counsel also, but I have made efforts and haven’t been able to. So I’ll pose it publicly, and if you can address it, I’d appreciate it.
Do you know whether Mr. Cohen ever approached the White House as a representative of any of those companies, whether the President was aware of the payments, or whether he was aware that Mr. Cohen was marketing himself that way?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware. And again, I would refer you to the outside counsel.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The President promised to drain the swamp. So does he feel it’s appropriate that Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, was selling access to him?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to weigh in on this. That’s a determination that individual companies have to make, and I haven’t spoken with the President.
Q But, Sarah, based on what you know — you’re the Press Secretary, and you’re standing there at the podium. Based on what you know and what’s been revealed over the past 24 hours, does the President think it’s appropriate that his personal attorney was selling access to him, given that he promised to drain the swamp?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I am purposefully — as has our team — we are not engaging in matters and this process at all. And I would refer you to the outside counsel for anything that has anything to do with Michael Cohen or others.
Q Let me ask you one more question.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Kristen. I gave you a couple. I’m going to keep moving.
Q Let me just ask you one more question. Has the President taken any action during his administration to benefit Novartis, AT&T, or Korea Aerospace?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Sarah, Saudi Arabia said that they would pursue a nuclear weapons program if Iran were to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Would they have the administration’s support in the event that that occurred?
MS. SANDERS: Right now, I don’t know that we have a specific policy announcement on that front, but I can tell you that we are very committed to making sure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons.
Q Sarah, thank you. The President said today — about Iran, he said, “We’ll see how we do with Iran. Probably, we won’t do [very] well with them but, that’s okay.” Does the President feel as if he can negotiate with Iran going forward? Or is he resigned to the fact that these two parties might be so far apart on a potential new deal going forward?
MS. SANDERS: As the President said yesterday, he would like to see something happen, but we are 100 percent committed to making sure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons. And that’s — until we see that happen, we’re going to continue to put maximum pressure, enormous sanctions on them.
All of the sanctions that were in place before the deal are back in place, and we are preparing to add additional sanctions that may come as early as next week.
Q And can you tell us — the President had expressed an interest in meeting Kim Jong-un at the DMZ, but today he said that is not going to be the case. Can you walk us through why that’s no longer the case? What were the issues that have not made that possible?
MS. SANDERS: I can tell you that a date and location are set, but beyond that, I don’t have any other announcements at this point. But we expect that to be announced here in the next few days.
Q Yeah, if I could follow up on that. For this administration, what are the most important criteria for the location for that summit?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into the specifics at this point. When we make an announcement about the date and the location, we’ll provide further detail at that point.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Was the decision to send Secretary Pompeo to North Korea yesterday at the very time the President was ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal, was that meant to reassure North Korea that we can — the United States can make a nuclear deal that will be stuck to?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I couldnt hear the last part of your question.
Q Was that intended to reassure North Korea that it’s worthwhile getting into negotiations with the United States over a nuclear deal that we will stick to?
MS. SANDERS: The purpose was to make sure that we continued the progress that we have had on setting the date and the location for the President’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, which happened, as well as an additional thing which you all know about, and that was Secretary Pompeo was able to bring home those three Americans, which will be back in the United States later tonight.
Q Sarah, I want to ask you about the tone of this potential summit, because earlier this week, North Korea criticized the President’s claim that his so-called maximum pressure campaign was responsible for the meeting between South and North Korea. And just yesterday, a senior North Korean official reminded Secretary Pompeo that that happened not as a result of outside sanctions. So does President Trump maintain that he had “everything” to do with that meeting? And is he worried that the backlash about that claim could impact the tone of his own meeting with Kim?
MS. SANDERS: The President has talked about, certainly, that the maximum pressure campaign has worked. We have seen North Korea make progress since that campaign started. But the President has also been very clear that some of that success is due to our allies and our partners, particularly both President Moon, Prime Minister Abe, and President Xi, and their role in helping put pressure on North Korea. And they have all played a big role in the maximum pressure campaign. But a lot of that is due to the fact that the President has spent time developing relationships with those individuals, and they’ve collectively been able to put pressure on North Korea.
Q And can I ask you another question about the three detainees? Can you give us any details about how and when they were informed they were coming home and their immediate reaction? And if nothing else, their families, how they found out, and whether the President has spoken to any of them directly.
MS. SANDERS: I know that there has been a number of different points of outreach from the administration, starting early this morning, to contact the families. In terms of other details, I dont have that for you right now, but we’ll be happy to provide it as we have it.
Q Thanks, Sarah. There were reports this morning that NAFTA negotiations had hit a snag over autos. Is the White House now pessimistic it will reach a deal on NAFTA by the end of this month?
MS. SANDERS: We’re going to continue to push forward in those negotiations. But as the President has said, he wants to make sure that we get the right deal. But I dont have any announcements on it yet.
Q How would he handicap the chances of a deal?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not a gambler, so I’m not going to throw out wild percentages here. But we’re going to continue in that process.
Q Thank you, Sarah. For a long time, you and the President, and other administration spokesmen, have been saying there will be an infrastructure bill. In fact, you were saying it before Scarlett’s last birthday, when you corrected me on her name. (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: That’s a pretty good memory, John.
Q Francesca briefed me.
MS. SANDERS: But you nailed it this time, so —
Q Right. I got it right. And on Capitol Hill, and in business, people doubt that they will see any kind of bill see the light of day. They point out that you could say, maybe the $20 billion in appropriations bill that deals with infrastructure, or the reauthorization of measures such as the FAA, could count as infrastructure legislation. Aside from the concatenation of things in other bills, will there be an infrastructure bill, yes or no?
MS. SANDERS: Ever? Or are you talking about by the end of —
Q This year.
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know that there will be one by the end of this year. Certainly, the administration, as you mentioned, secured some funding for infrastructure projects. We also laid out priorities that we wanted to see in an infrastructure legislation package. We’re going to continue to look at ways to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I’m not aware that that will happen by the end of the year.
Q Sarah, Gina Haspel told the Senate today that she would not reopen enhanced interrogation programs if she becomes CIA Director. And how does the White House square that with President Trump’s long-held belief that torture is acceptable? He, on the campaign trail, repeatedly endorsed torture as a form of interrogating terror suspects.
MS. SANDERS: The President has confidence in Gina Haspel to lead the CIA and wants to see her do exactly that, and is going to allow her to fulfill that position and make those decisions.
Q But, Sarah, just to follow up on that — does the President still believe that torture works, as he said during the campaign?
MS. SANDERS: You know, honestly, I haven’t had a conversation with him about that recently.
Q And if I could follow up on the questions about these payments regarding Mr. Cohen. You said that you’re not able to answer these questions in the briefing; that you’d refer us to his outside counsel. Could you possibly work on an arrangement where, perhaps, Mr. Giuliani or somebody who could speak on behalf of the President from a legal standpoint, could they come into this briefing room and answer these questions so we’re not, on a daily basis, trying in vain to ask you about all of these legal troubles facing the President? Could you do that for us?
MS. SANDERS: Mr. Giuliani is not an employee of the White House, but I’m happy to encourage him. I know he’s done a number of interviews with several of you. I’m sure he’d be happy to do a few more.
Q And then just to follow up on that, Sarah. Don’t you think that — I mean, don’t you think the public has a right to get some answers about these questions; that there are payments coming from Russian-connected entities or Russian individuals connected to the Kremlin through a shell company that is controlled by Mr. Cohen to pay off whoever? I mean, doesn’t the American people have a right to have some information about that?
MS. SANDERS: And I think there are appropriate venues and channels in which to do that. And I’ve encouraged you to reach out to them to do exactly what you just outlined.
Q Thank you, Sarah. On North Korea, before he was the National Security Advisor, John Bolton was critical of the Obama administration for sending Bill Clinton to negotiate the release of American detainees in 2009. Did the National Security Advisor raise any reservations at all about the current negotiations? And can you talk about what circumstances are different now than they were in 2009 to make it more appropriate?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of anything that he raised. Also, to be clear, the purpose of Secretary Pompeo’s trip was to negotiate and discuss the upcoming meeting between President Trump and the leader of North Korea.
Q Can I ask another question on DACA? Can you explain what the President’s views are on the discharge petition and efforts by some Republicans to force a vote on DACA?
MS. SANDERS: We’ve been clear what our position is. We laid out several months ago what we wanted to see happen. We’d still like to see that happen, and we’d love to see a piece of legislation that includes all four of the principles and the pillars that the President outlined.
Q Thank you, Sarah. At his most recent campaign rally in Michigan, the President mentioned that the unemployment rate was so low that we could bring in more guest workers under H-2B visas. I’m curious whether the President is concerned about wages not rising as quickly if that eventually takes place.
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of any concerns on that front.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and former President Barack Obama all weighed in on the President’s Iran decision. A sampling of what they said: John Kerry was, it “weakens our security, breaks America’s word, isolates us from our European allies.” President Obama — former President Obama said that — called for, “principled, fact-based, and unifying leadership that can best secure our country.” And then Hillary Clinton said, “Our credibility is shot.” And they called it a mistake. What is the President’s response to them? And what does the White House think about those former Obama administration officials commenting on this and the appropriateness of that?
MS. SANDERS: I think based on each of those individuals’ lack of success in this entire process on foreign affairs, they would probably be the last three people that we would look to for advice and counsel, and whether or not we had made the right decisions.
I’ll take one last question.
Q And, Sarah, does the President still have confidence in Rudy Giuliani?
MS. SANDERS: Yes. He thinks he’s done a fine job.
Last question. Andrew.
Q Thank you. I have two questions, if you’ll indulge me. First, I want to take us back to one of the President’s tweets from earlier this week when he referred to the “13 angry Democrats” running the Russia investigation. Setting aside the fact that Robert Mueller is a Republican, is the President aware that federal law prohibits discrimination in hiring based on political affiliations? And how does he — does he believe that political affiliation should be taken into account when hiring prosecutors, regardless of this law?
MS. SANDERS: We’ve been fully cooperative with the Special Counsel. We’re going to continue to be. Beyond that, I don’t have anything to add on that front.
Q And my second question — thank you. The second question: Today, Senate Democrats, plus Susan Collins, filed a discharge petition to repeal — for CRA to repeal the FCC’s repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality rules. The President signed 15 CRAs. Would he sign a 16th?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll keep you posted when we have a specific policy announcement on that front. Thanks so much guys. We’ll see you later tonight.