James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:49 P.M. EST
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
Q How was your weekend?
MS. SANDERS: It’s good. It’s great to be back with you guys. (Laughter.)
Q Glad you’re here.
MS. SANDERS: Glad I picked a slow time to be gone. It’s, as always, a busy day here at the White House, so I’m going to jump right into a couple of highlights and then take your questions.
This morning, the President unveiled a legislative outline for rebuilding infrastructure in America. The six principles of the plan are as follows: $200 billion in federal funds to spur at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments with partners at the state, local, tribal, and private level. New investments will be made in rural America, which has been left behind for too long. Decision-making authority will be returned to state and local governments. Regulatory barriers that needlessly get in the way of infrastructure projects will be removed. Permitting for infrastructure projects will be streamlined and shortened. And America’s workforce will be supported and strengthened.
As the President has said many times, “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land. And we will do it with American heart, and American hands, and American grit.”
This morning, the President also released his fiscal year 2019 budget, which addresses three of the President’s most important priorities: rebuilding our military and funding for our great men and women in uniform; growing the American economy; and ending waste.
We look forward to working closely with Congress to achieve these priorities and ensure the safety and security of the United States for generations to come. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney will be answering questions on the budget immediately following today’s briefing, so I encourage you all to stick around for that and save your budget questions for Director Mulvaney.
I’d also like to add a quick congratulations to the U.S. Olympic team, which is off to a great start. We especially look forward to snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Red Gerard bringing their Gold Medals back home with them very soon.
And with that, I will take your questions.
Q Sarah, Rob Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, spoke with the FBI as part of his clearance process on January 25th, 2017, during which she says that she laid out all of the allegations that have since been aired against Rob Porter and provided the FBI with the photographs that were the turning point in his termination last week.
At any time, between January 25th of last year and last Wednesday, did the FBI make anyone here at the White House, whether it was at the Counsel’s Office, the Chief of Staff’s office, or anyone else — did the FBI make anybody here aware of the allegations that had been raised against Porter by Colbie Holderness and his second wife, Jennie Willoughby?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we learned of the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening, and within 24 hours, his resignation had been accepted and announced.
We announced a transition was going to happen, and within hours, it did. The President and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly. Above all, the President supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process.
We’ve addressed this situation extensively, and we have nothing more to add at this time on that topic.
Q The allegations that were raised against him would make him a prime candidate for blackmail, which would leave any responsible person at the FBI to come to the White House to say, “Just want to let you know, this person will likely never get a permanent security clearance.” Was that concern ever raised to anyone here at the White House?
MS. SANDERS: As I know Raj addressed last week, we let the process play out. It was ongoing, hadn’t been completed. And beyond that, and the statement I just gave you, I don’t have anything else to add.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Why haven’t we heard the President say exactly what you just said right there, that he takes domestic violence very seriously?
MS. SANDERS: I spoke with the President, and those are actually directly his words that he gave me.
Q But why hasn’t he said that? He had the opportunity. He’s, as you know, been active on Twitter.
MS. SANDERS: It’s my job to speak on behalf of the President. I spoke to him, and he relayed that message directly to me, and I’m relaying it directly to you.
Q Does he believe Rob Porter’s accusers? Or are they lying?
MS. SANDERS: Look, as I just said, the President, along with the entire administration, take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be thoroughly investigated. And, above all, the President supports the victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process.
Q That doesn’t answer the question.
MS. SANDERS: As I just said, I’m not going to go beyond that. That’s where we are right now.
Q Does the President still wish Rob Porter well? Does he still believe that he wants him to have a great career ahead of him? Because that would seem —
MS. SANDERS: I think the President of the United States hopes that all Americans can be successful in whatever they do. And if they’ve had any issues in the past — I’m not confirming or denying one way or the other — but if they do, the President wants success for all Americans, and that he was elected to serve all Americans, and he hopes for the best for all American citizens across the country.
Q What about the President’s tweet over the weekend? “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” It seems like the President was believing Mr. Porter as opposed to his alleged victims. Why did the President tweet that over the weekend? Why is he seemingly defending Mr. Porter publicly? Is it because he has faced his own allegations? Is there some sensitivity there? Is that why that is?
MS. SANDERS: Look, as I just said, and I’ll repeat it again, the President and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously, and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly. He certainly supports the victims of domestic violence above all else, and believes that everyone should be treated fairly and with due process.
Q But is there some tone —
MS. SANDERS: The President is simply saying that there should be a due process that should be followed and looked at.
Q But is there a tone deafness there? Is there just a being on the wrong side of things?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think the President being on —
Q I mean, he had the opportunity to talk about it on Friday, and tweeted —
MS. SANDERS: Supporting due process for any allegation is not tone deaf. I think it is allowing things to be investigated, and a mere allegation not being the determining factor. He’s not taking a side necessarily one way or the other on any specific issue here. He’s talking about mere allegations shouldn’t be the determining factor for any individual; that there should be due process. I think anybody here, if they were accused of something —
Q But I think these alleged —
MS. SANDERS: Hold on, Jim. I’m not finished.
Q Sarah, but I think these alleged victims were hoping that there would be something for them.
MS. SANDERS: Hold on. Jim, hold on.
What I’m saying is, I think anybody here, if they were accused of something, would want the opportunity to go through due process. That’s all we’re saying.
Q The Vice President said he was appalled by the allegations. Why did the President not use this as an opportunity to say something like that? Why does he have to speak through you?
MS. SANDERS: The President has been clear multiple times, through myself and others within the administration, that we condemn domestic violence in all forms.
Q He has not said it. Why has he not said it?
MS. SANDERS: I’m the spokesperson for the White House and for the President, and I’m saying it to you right now.
Q Why does the Vice President have to say it? Why didn’t he say it?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure how I can be any more clear. I think the President has espoused his views on this, and I certainly have echoed and told them for everyone.
Q His views are that he wishes Porter well and that he believes that people should have due process. But he hasn’t addressed the victims of domestic violence at all.
MS. SANDERS: That’s actually not true. If you were paying attention to what I just read to you, you would understand the opposite.
Q Where is he? Where is he?
MS. SANDERS: He literally dictated that statement to me, and so I’m not really sure how that’s not the President speaking on that topic.
Q Is he afraid to say it himself?
MS. SANDERS: Matthew.
Q Two questions, if I may. Does the White House have a rule or policy regarding how long an employee is permitted to operate with an interim security clearance?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve said, we’re not going to get into the details of how the clearance process works. Last week, we went further than we ever have before due to extenuating circumstances, and there’s nothing further to add on that front.
Look, this is a process that doesn’t operate within the White House. It’s handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community. And we support that process. It’s the same process that has been used for decades in previous administrations, and we’re relying on that process at this point.
I do think that it’s up to those same law enforcement and intelligence agencies to determine if changes need to be made to their process.
Q To follow on that, can you say whether the White House is beginning to examine or review cases of staffers who are operating under an interim clearance or —
MS. SANDERS: I can’t weigh in — sorry, go ahead.
Q — examine their cases more closely, in light of the Rob Porter situation?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into the details of the process beyond what we’ve already said, but I can tell you that we do rely on the same process that has been used for decades. And if changes are thought to be made, that would be made by the law enforcement and intel communities that run that process, not the White House. But that’s something that could be looked at, certainly, in light of this.
Q Do you have any more information for us on Vanessa Trump? How was the President informed of what happened in New York?
MS. SANDERS: I know the President spoke with her. Beyond that, at this point, it’s an ongoing and active investigation, so I can’t comment any further. But I can say that the President has spoken with her within the last hour.
Q Sarah, I want to just go back to Cecilia’s point, which is that the President has a history of defending men who have been accused of sexual assault and harassment and abuse, including Mike Tyson, Bill O’Reilly, Steve Wynn, Corey Lewandowski, Roy Moore, and, now, Rob Porter. Would the White House like to say, today, unambiguously, that the President believes women making these accusations?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President, like I said, above everything else, supports the victims of any type of domestic violence, but the President also supports due process. And I don’t have anything else further to add beyond that.
Q I just want to get back to the timeline, Sarah. So, the Intercept reporter, Ryan Grim, tweeted out photos of Colbie Holderness’s black eye at 1:53 a.m. on Wednesday. And The Daily Mail published them at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. Then the White House sent CBS’s statement at 1:45 on Wednesday afternoon, 12 hours after all of these photos were already published and out. Why was the White House still saying that Porter was a man of integrity and honor after these photos had circulated?
MS. SANDERS: The comments that were made by members of the White House were based on our personal experience, and we could only speak to the interaction that we had personally had.
Q Sarah, thanks. Why are high-level aides allowed to work with classified information without a permanent security clearance?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, that’s a question that the FBI and other intelligence communities — they make that determination. That’s not something that’s decided by the White House. It’s the same way that it has been —
Q Can you guarantee that you are protecting classified information given that you have someone like Rob Porter who didn’t have a permanent security clearance?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry? I missed the first part of your question.
Q Can you guarantee that you are protecting classified information given that you have someone like Rob Porter who didn’t have a permanent security clearance to access classified information?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’re doing and taking every step we can to protect classified information. I mean, frankly, if you guys have such concern with classified information, there’s plenty of it that’s leaked out of the Hill, that’s leaked out of other communities well beyond the White House walls. If you guys have real concerns about leaking out classified information, look around this room. You guys are the ones that publish classified information and put national security at risk that doesn’t come from this White House.
Q Is this White House jeopardizing national security?
MS. SANDERS: We take every precaution possible to protect classified information and certainly to protect national security. It’s the President’s number-one priority, is protecting the citizens of this country. It’s why we spend every single day doing everything we can to do that. And I think if anyone is publishing or putting out, publicly, classified information, it’s members of the press, not the White House.
Q At the end of last week, the White House said that there are things that — everyone could have done a better job handling this situation. Have you identified anything specific other than — I know you mentioned law enforcement agencies and the FBI, and their process. What about your process? Has the White House identified anything it could have done better in this situation to prevent something like this from happening again?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’re looking at that internally, and agree that there are things we could have done better. And we’re going to continue to look at the process and the role we all played, and how we can do it better — but not just in this. I think, every day, we come to work and we hope to do a better job than we did the day before. And we’re going to keep doing that. Every single morning we come to work, we’re going to do our best to make this day better than the last, and make this country better than the day it was before. That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re going to do in every situation.
As we recognized last week, there were some things we could have done better, and we’re certainly going to look at every single instance, in every single thing we do, how we can always do it a little bit better than we did the day before.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Tuesday night, when the initial story came out, the White House praises Rob Porter. Wednesday morning, photos come out. The White House stands by its statement. Wednesday afternoon, the White House continues to praise Rob Porter. And Chief of Staff John Kelly says he acted 40 minutes within knowing the allegations. Can you explain that?
MS. SANDERS: As I said — and I’m going to repeat what I said earlier — that we had learned of this situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening, and within 24 hours, his resignation had been accepted and announced. We announced a transition was going to happen, and within hours, it did.
And in terms of timeline, I don’t have anything else to add.
Q The Chief of Staff said 40 minutes. I don’t understand that. Can you explain that?
MS. SANDERS: I can tell you that a conversation took place within 40 minutes. And beyond that, I really don’t have anything else to add.
Q And additionally, we’ve reported, and others have too, that Don McGahn, over a period of months, was told repeatedly by the ex-girlfriend, by the FBI, by others in the White House, about these accusations, and didn’t do anything. Can you explain why no action was taken by Don McGahn, the chief White House lawyer?
MS. SANDERS: Those allegations that have been reported are not accurate.
Q Sarah, you keep saying the President says you take domestic violence very seriously. Moving forward, how seriously will he take it? What will he do to raise awareness about it, combat against it, particularly as — again, I asked this last week of Raj — as this administration ended the Violence Against Women office, as well as closing down the Women and Girls office? What will be new and different as it relates to combatting this?
MS. SANDERS: I believe there’s an individual that’s in the nomination process to run an office specific to domestic violence. And when we have that process completed, we’ll make that personnel announcement. But we are in process of doing that.
Q Okay, I have another question, real fast. On infrastructure. Infrastructure is about jobs, job creation, and you’re talking about rural America. When you’re talking about these jobs, are there going to be guidelines as to who can and who won’t be hired?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of anything to that nature.
Q Because a lot of the infrastructure projects during the Obama years, when Hilda Solis was Labor Secretary, a lot of those jobs went to Hispanics. And the —
MS. SANDERS: A lot of those jobs were never completed or started. They were announced, but nothing ever happened on them. We’re expecting a very different result to actually announce and complete projects versus just announcing and doing nothing.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. I just wanted to get you to clarify something. I think you’ve answered this, but I just wanted to have you clarify it, if you could. It’s about the White House Counsel, Don McGahn. Are you saying that the White House Counsel never learned, until last Tuesday, that there was any allegation, of any sort, that was ever leveled against Rob Porter?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to go into the specific details of how the process works, but I can say that we learned of the extent of the situation —
Q Who’s “we”? When you say “we,” who’s “we”? Because I want to get to Don McGahn, specifically.
MS. SANDERS: The White House, generally.
Q Okay. And to Don McGahn, specifically, though, had he learned, at any time before last Tuesday, when this story was broken by The Daily Mail, that there was any allegation of any sort leveled by any person against Rob Porter?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I can’t get into the specifics. I can tell you that we were — the process for the background was ongoing, and the White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check. So I can’t go any further than what we’ve already said on that front.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two brief questions. As a follow -up to the last two questions, what is Don McGahn’s status as counsel right now?
MS. SANDERS: I think the same as it was two weeks ago, two months ago, a year ago. He’s the head of the White House Counsel, and I have no indication to see differently.
Q All right. And the other question is, Senator Corker said last night he was reconsidering and possibly will reverse his decision not to seek reelection. Already, a Republican primary is in process in the state. What’s the President’s view? Should Senator Corker run again? Would he try to persuade him to? Or just let him — urge him to go back home to Tennessee?
MS. SANDERS: We haven’t had that conversation about Senator Corker’s plans. But as always, I can’t weigh in on any specifics of the potential of a race. But I would have to talk to the President before making any comment.
I’ll take one last question. Frank.
Q Last year, the administration said that the national debt is a crisis not just for the nation but for every citizen. Does the President still believe that it is a crisis? And if it is a crisis —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I missed the first part. A national what?
Q The national debt.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry.
Q And if it is — if the national debt is a crisis, why hit the gas pedal, instead of the brake, when it comes to spending?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President — one of the biggest and top priorities of the President’s first year in office was to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which we think will have a big impact on that moving forward. It’s been a major focus on the economy and the budget today that provides funding for the President’s priorities, including national security.
The President also knows that one of the most important jobs he has is protecting this country; therefore, the need for rebuilding our military that had been ignored for so long, infrastructure, focusing on defeating the opioids crisis, and a border wall. At the same time, the budget reduces the deficit by over $3 trillion. This budget not only funds the President’s priorities, but puts the country on a path to restoring fiscal discipline.
I’d encourage you to stick around and talk to Director Mulvaney, who would be happy to go into more detail on the budget and other things regarding that here in the next bit.
Thanks so much, guys.
END 4:09 P.M. EST