BY PRESS SECRETARY SARAH SANDERS,
TREASURY SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN,
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER
AND HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER TOM BOSSERT
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:55 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you don’t mind, I brought a few friends today. We’ve got a lot to get through so I’m going to keep it short on the front end, and then of course I’ll be back up to take your questions.
First, I’d like to invite Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster up to discuss the new financial sanctions on the dictatorship in Venezuela that the President imposed today. They’ll each deliver brief opening remarks and take your questions on that topic.
After that, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert will be up to give an update and take your questions on preparations for Hurricane Harvey. The administration has been closely monitoring the situation, and we want to make sure the American people are fully briefed on this important news of the day.
And finally, after all the three of them wrap up, I’ll be back up here to take a few of your questions on other topics.
GENERAL MCMASTER: Good afternoon, everybody. As you’ve seen, the President signed a new executive order that strongly punishes the Venezuelan regime. This order demonstrates more clearly than ever that the United States will not allow an illegitimate dictatorship to take hold in the Western Hemisphere at the expense of its people.
Through the President’s strong action, the United States will target the means with which the Maduro dictatorship can accumulate debt to enrich its corrupt regime insiders and perpetuate its repressive behavior.
Only six weeks ago, several million Venezuelans voted overwhelmingly against the Maduro regime’s plans to convene a constituent assembly that the people of Venezuela never requested. The United States and the regional community stood in solidarity with the Venezuelan people and demanded that their voices be heard.
But Maduro chose to embrace dictatorship over his own people. As a result, a dozen of Venezuela’s neighbors gathered in Lima, Peru, and rejected Maduro’s actions.
President Trump promised strong action if Maduro moved ahead and ignored his people’s will. With today’s announcement, the President is keeping his promise of strong action and continuing to show strong leadership.
This executive order does not need to be permanent. The President has said that “a stable and peaceful Venezuela is in the best interest of the entire hemisphere.”
We will continue to work with our friends and partners in the international community to support the Venezuelan people until their rights and democracy are fully restored.
Now I’ll turn it over to Secretary Mnuchin to describe this executive order in greater detail.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Thank you. Today’s executive order demonstrates the U.S. government’s condemnation of tyranny and dictatorship in Venezuela. The Maduro regime has consistently shown hostility to the rule of law, democratic institutions, and the Venezuelan people.
This has been a catastrophe for the country. Nicolas Maduro has financed his regime by hollowing out Venezuela through economic mismanagement, corruption, and the assumption of onerous debt.
Let me be clear: Today’s action is focused on restricting the regime’s access to American debt and equity markets. Maduro may no longer take advantage of the American financial system to facilitate the wholesale looting of the Venezuelan economy at the expense of the Venezuelan people.
These measures will also undermine Maduro’s ability to pay off political cronies and regime supporters, and increase pressure on the regime to abandon its disastrous path.
Under the executive order, U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in specified dealings involving the government of Venezuela and its instrumentalities. This includes state-owned oil company PDVSA. These prohibitions extend to transactions or activities occurring in the United States and cover both debt and equity instruments.
In an effort to minimize the undue harm to the American and Venezuelan people and global markets, we are issuing general licenses permitting transactions that would otherwise be prohibited under the executive order. These include a 30-day wind-down period, the financing for humanitarian goods to Venezuela, and certain dealings in specified debt instruments that trade on secondary markets, and certain dealings with U.S. entities owned or controlled by the government of Venezuela.
Also, the executive order carves out short-term financing for most commercial trade, including the export and import of petroleum.
This executive order builds on a number of actions taken by the U.S. government to prevent the flow of funds to Maduro’s regime. On my first day in office, I was here with you at this podium where the Treasury Department designated the Venezuelan vice president under the Kingpin Act. And this year alone, we have sanctioned 30 Venezuelan officials, including Maduro himself.
We urge those within the regime, including those who have been sanctioned, to distance themselves from the violence and the dictatorship. President Trump made it clear the status quo is unacceptable. Today’s actions is the next step towards freedom for the Venezuelan people. We will continue working to achieve this goal with allies around the world who have widely condemned Venezuela’s dictatorship.
And with that I’d be happy to take some questions.
Q Could you describe the carve-outs for debt trading on secondary markets? And do you have a sense of exactly how long those carve-outs would last and what they consist of specifically?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: So there will be a general license that carves out specific debt instruments that we know are held by U.S. entities. So we want to make sure that U.S. pensions or U.S. fiduciaries are not hurt by this, and if they want to sell their bonds they can do so. But this will limit any new investments.
Q Thank you very much. I have one question for both of you. General McMaster, the President had indicated that military action was on the table. Is that still the case, given this new round of sanctions? And can you talk about potential concerns about the impact this could have on the broader region and the economic crisis that has already in place?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I’ll let the General comment first on military actions, and then I’ll comment on that.
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, the President directed us not just to develop plans for the current situation, but to anticipate the possibility of a further deterioration within Venezuela. As you know, the Venezuelan people are suffering tremendously — suffering more and more every day as they see democracy distinguished and this autocratic regime put in place.
And so the President said, if things get worse, how could they get worse, and what are a range of options available to him that we could take in concert, certainly, with our partners in the region.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: On the economic front, I would say our plan has to continue to hurt, turn up the heat on the Venezuelan government. And these specific actions we’ve tried to balance things that don’t hurt the Venezuelan people, so we have made sure that humanitarian efforts are still allowed. We’ve also made sure that certain U.S. entities can continue to trade. But we view that this will have a significant impact, and in no way do we want the American economy and the American financial markets to continue to finance these activities.
Q Thank you, sir. This is a pretty strongly worded statement, and you describe President Maduro as a dictator who disregards the rule of law and things like that. I’ll ask you again, because I asked you this last time you guys were up here on this subject: How is what’s happening in Venezuela with President Maduro any different from the situations with dictators in Turkey, in the Philippines, and in Russia that also routinely step on the rule of law and ignore democratic norms? And yet President Trump and his administration can’t seem to bring themselves to criticize them. Why is this dictator worse than all the other dictators?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, I think, as you know, on Russia we’ve taken very significant actions. And I say, we will look at every one of these on specific situations. And right now we are dealing with a terrible situation in Venezuela, and that’s what we’re here to address.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You said recently that you’re working with congressional leaders to push for a clean debt-ceiling hike, but the President said yesterday that he wants to attach VA reform to the debt ceiling. So I’m just curious whether you feel you’re on the same page on that front.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Sure. Well, let me first assure you the President and I are completely on the same page, and we’re speaking on a regular basis on this. We had a meeting with the President and the Vice President yesterday in the Oval Office.
What the President said was that his strong preference had been that when they passed the VA bill before they left, that they attach the debt ceiling to that so that we wouldn’t be dealing with this in September. And what I have said before, my strong preference is that we have a clean debt ceiling, but the most important issue is the debt ceiling will be raised in September.
I’ve had discussions with the leaders in both parties, in the House and Senate, and we are all on the same page. The government intends to pay its debts, and the debt ceiling will be raised.
Q General McMaster, just to clarify on the question of options for the President that’s asked of you. When the Vice President was in the region, almost every nation he went to expressed reservations about U.S. military involvement in Venezuela. Will that be enough to dissuade the President from taking any military action? And if military action is contemplated, what is the national security implication to the United States of the situation in Venezuela?
GENERAL MCMASTER: I would just say the Vice President had a very successful trip through Latin America, and I don’t think that there’s ever been a time where we are better aligned with our partners in the region than we’re aligned with them today on Venezuela, but on a broad range of other issues as well.
In terms of military options or other options, there’s no such thing really anymore as only a military option, or a diplomatic option, or an economic option. We try to integrate all elements together.
Now, in terms of contingency planning and trying to envision what might trigger us to bringing to the President options — we always look at a broad range of contingencies and how this might evolve in the future. But, obviously, any decision would be in conjunction with our partners in the region, and no military actions are anticipated in the near future. But what the President asked us to do is, he said look how this could evolve in the future, and provide a broad range, as we always do, integrated options for the President.
Q Thank you very much. I want to ask you about the decision yesterday in Venezuela. The government decided to order to cable television providers — to cut the signal of two Colombia networks, (inaudible). And three years ago (inaudible). I want to know if you consider this a crackdown on freedom of speech by Nicolás Maduro’s regime. I don’t know if you want to answer or —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I think we’ve considered everything. And again, we’ll continue to monitor the situation.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. One gets the impression from the sanctions and what you said about the regime that the United States would only restore the normal situation — the status quo — if Maduro and his indicted Vice President are gone. Is that safe to say that the U.S. would only deal with a regime that does not include either of them?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I’m not going to comment on the hypothetical of that. I think what the President is very clear on is the existing situation is unacceptable, and if they restore the proper democratic processes, we’ll react to that appropriately. This is not about changing leadership, per se. This is about restoring the democratic process and rule of law.
Q Can you talk about debt restructuring — how these sanctions impact the ability of Venezuela to engage in debt restructuring with U.S. investors?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, there will be no transactions with U.S. investors for new debt, including restructuring existing debt or extending maturities, without specific licenses being issued.
Q Mr. Secretary, going back to the debt ceiling, you sound completely confident the debt ceiling will be raised in September.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yes. I am 100 percent confident. Leader McConnell said that same thing last week. I think there is no scenario where the government won’t be paying its bills.
Q So what did the President mean when he said in a tweet this morning, now it’s a mess? He said, “It could have been easy if it was attached to the VA. Now a mess.” What did he mean by that?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I think there’s a lot to do in September. We have the debt ceiling, we have the continuing resolution to fund the government, we have a budget. Congress has a lot of work this month, and I think the President and I wish that they had raised the debt ceiling before they left.
Having said that, we are where we are, and we’re going to get it done.
Q If I could ask each of you gentlemen a question now that you’re here. General McMaster, if you could help us all understand what the President meant on Monday night when he said that we’re looking for an honorable and enduring outcome in Afghanistan.
And, Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you — your colleague, Gary Cohn, had remarks — an interview with the Financial Times this morning in which he said he felt compelled to express his distress about the President’s remarks last week. He said he felt intense pressure to resign. He said that he won’t do so, but he believes that the administration must do better confronting hate groups. Do you associate yourself with those remarks? And did you feel the same pressure that Gary Cohn said he felt, to resign?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, let me first comment. I think you know I put out an extensive statement earlier last week on my view of the situation. I think there’s no question that the President was not equating the hate groups with the people who were peacefully. And under no circumstances was I going to resign.
Gary and I have known each other for 20 years. I can tell you I’m speaking to him every day. His number-one focus is absolutely working on tax reform with me and getting tax reform done. And Gary is committed to be here, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.
GENERAL MCMASTER: In terms of the outcome in Afghanistan and, broadly, in connection with the South Asia strategy, the President gave us very clear guidance that we worked on, as you know, over the period of several months across the whole national security team. And that guidance was to prioritize the safety and security of the American people, and that’s what our efforts are prioritizing now.
The second thing is he said that he wanted us to have a sound regional strategy, not a strategy that lasts a year. Some people have said — and I think there’s an element of truth to this — that we’ve had 16 one-year strategies in Afghanistan. And so you see a fundamental change in an outcomes-based strategy rather than a time-based strategy. And what that does is give us the greatest chance to combine what we’re doing militarily, largely in support of the Afghan government and their long struggle against terrorists and groups and the Taliban, but also to integrate that with what we hope to achieve diplomatically.
I think it was clear to anyone that the approach of, “Well, let’s talk with the Taliban and tell them we’re leaving at the same time,” how would that ever work? Especially when the Taliban were making battlefield gains associated in large measure with our disengagement from the fight with the Taliban in support of the Afghan forces.
And so it is a fundamental shift in the strategy. Those who have said, “Well, this is more of the same,” are absolutely wrong about that. Just think about that.
Conditions-based versus time-based. A regional approach rather a myopic focus on one little group or another group. You know, we tried very hard in Afghanistan over recent years to disconnect the dots. So we took a broad approach at this — looking at this with our intelligence community and our partners, and the President has also asked us, how can others do more? How can others share more of the burden and the responsibility? And so this strategy delivers on all of that.
In connection with your answer, the answer is, the American people abroad and here at home are safe and secure from terrorists who could otherwise gain a safe haven and support base that they could use to organize, plan, finance and conduct attacks, not only in that region but globally. And we know that that’s their design, and we know that from our own history, and we know that from the intelligence.
Q General McMaster, following on that, given the history and the ideology of the Taliban, are you confident that a political solution settlement could ever be reached with the Kabul government that wouldn’t end up once U.S. forces leave Afghanistan and the Taliban reneging on their agreement and trying to take over Afghanistan?
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, no, I don’t think I’m confident. I don’t think anybody is confident about that unless we can demonstrate, through whatever an agreement is, that various groups who will cease their hostility to the Afghanistan government would then recognize that constitution and participate in a future of Afghanistan that is acceptable to the Afghan people.
You know, the Afghan people remember — they remember 1996 to 2001 pretty vividly, and what it was like to live under that brutal regime. Now, the Taliban, as I mentioned — we work hard sometimes to disconnect the dots here, especially in connection with the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda, the Taliban’s relationship with other terrorist organizations. But what we also recognize is none of these groups are monolithic or homogenous either. So if there are those who are ready to join a political process, like Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin did over the past year, then I don’t think the Afghan government would object to that in any way.
But the critical thing is, if your enemies are fighting aggressively against you, it is not a good option to say you’re not going to fight them anymore and then just hope for an outcome that secures the interest of the American people.
Q For General McMaster, could you define “winning” in Afghanistan? What does winning in Afghanistan look like for the United States?
GENERAL MCMASTER: All right, so winning in Afghanistan is really aimed at allowing Afghanistan to be Afghanistan. As the President said, not to nation-build, not to create a state in U.S. image. Winning in Afghanistan means that there are not terrorist groups who are able to control key parts of the territory and population centers there that could be used to mobilize resources, raise funds, use those funds to then organize, plan, and conduct acts against us and our allies and partners.
And so that’s what the success is, is really a sustainable outcome there that ensures the safety and security of the American people. And, as you know, Afghanistan is connected to broader security concerns across the region. And so the outcome is to ensure that a threat from that region doesn’t threaten the safety and security of the American people.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Last question right here.
Q Mr. Secretary, while you’re here, if you don’t mind — on tax reform, yesterday Mitch McConnell said that this would happen during the Congress, suggesting that potentially this could be a 2018 event. Paul Ryan was much more certain, saying that this is going to happen in 2017. As you see it, the timeline, do you still believe that this can get done in 2017? And, secondly, now that this is being put in the hands of the committees from here on out to kind of do the work and come up with the figures, how confident are you that Congress can kind up handle this so you don’t get burned on tax reform like you did with healthcare reform?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, let me just comment that, first of all, Gary and I have been very focused on tax reform, working with the leadership since January. I think you know, earlier in the year I said I thought we’d get it done by August, and I was wrong. Okay? I’m now going to say that I am very hopeful, and I think we can get this done by the end of the year. But we will Congress to revisit it.
And let me just say, as we’ve said before: Our objective here is to have one plan that includes the administration, the House and the Senate to work very closely together. The Group of Six has been working nonstop. We’ve put out a statement on that. We’ll continue to put more details. And I think that it’s very important that both committees in the Senate and in the House have the ability to debate this and review it.
But I can assure you that the President’s number-one objective is now to get tax reform done. He’s going to go on the road. We’re starting with his first trip next week, and the President is 100 percent supportive of us passing legislation this year.
Thank you, everybody.
MR. BOSSERT: Everyone, sorry to move from one serious topic to another, but I wanted to come out and speak to you a little bit about Hurricane Harvey, the federal government’s preparations, the state and local governments’ preparations. If I could, I’ll try to stick to the themes of informing you, then maybe influencing, and then maybe inspiring. Maybe the last will be a little bit too far for me to go.
Our highest priority at this point is the safety of the public. And by that, we mean everyone in the path of the storm, but also the safety of the responders. So, life safety here is our priority.
I want to walk through a few things that we’ve done. State and local officials have the lead for this, as always. We encourage individual responsibility and planning, as always. And I would stress that this is a serious storm. As you’ve seen from the reporting, we’ve had significant rainfall predicted. Storm surge in Texas and Louisiana over the weekend and into the next week are forecast to be serious.
This could remain a dangerous storm for several days, and certainly we don’t want to lose any life. Flooding, flash flooding, and other high wind damages — although we expect this to be a rain event more so than a wind event — neither of those can be counted upon. So taking this seriously and preparing is very important.
Right now, President Trump and his entire team have been actively engaged with the state and local officials in Texas and Louisiana preparing for this storm. As you know, President Trump spoke to both governors today, spoke to his FEMA Administrator, Brock Long, and myself and General Kelly. He also spoke to Acting Secretary Duke. We did that this morning around 10:15 a.m.
Under that leadership team — we couldn’t have a better team, to be honest. Under the leadership team at DHS, we’re in good hands at the federal level. As you might know, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the FEMA Administrator are responsible for bringing together the firepower of the federal government to assist the state and local governments. But the state and local governments are in the lead here, and we’ve got a lot of respect for and a lot of faith in the governors of these respective states, as well, directly in the path.
So Governor John Bel Edwards in Louisiana has a strong handle on what he’s doing, and Governor Abbott in Texas likewise.
So what we’d like to do is reinforce their planning efforts, challenge the people in the path to be prepared, to listen to their institutions and their state and local governments. Now is not the time to lose faith in your government institutions. Those emergency managers giving you advice and making recommendations for you to evacuate are doing so with your best interest at heart. We encourage you to listen to them.
And then, lastly, I’d encourage a little shameless plug here for all Americans to visit Ready.gov. It sounds like something that might not teach you anything. Maybe you know how to take care of yourself, but I think maybe you’ll learn something if you go there and it would help you and your family.
So with that, I’ll take some questions. If I could start with Jon Karl.
Q Tom, give us an idea of what the President is doing to monitor the developments of the storm and what he’ll be doing as he moves to Camp David this weekend. How is he going to be in touch with federal officials and local officials?
MR. BOSSERT: First, I’ll start with what he has done. We’ve been giving him fairly regular briefings. And by “we,” I mean John Kelly and myself. We’ve also had him in touch with his Secretary of Homeland Security and his FEMA Administrator.
That started several weeks ago, really several months ago, as we transitioned into this administration. You saw President Trump visit FEMA, give a talk to the team over there, but also to set his clear expectations for his new FEMA Administrator. I’ve known Administrator Long now for 15 years. We couldn’t have picked a finer leader. He’s had state director experience. He’s had FEMA experience. He’s absolutely the top of the top.
And what the President will do as we move forward is continue talking directly with them, directly with the governors. If they have any unmet needs, that’s our problem. The President won’t tolerate that. But he’ll also continue talking to me and the Secretary — now Chief of Staff Kelly.
And as we move out to Camp David, as you know, he’s got the full resources and capability to communicate with us.
Q Will the President sign an emergency declaration before landfall — that has happened in the past — to pre-prepare and set the funding in motion even before the event happens? Is that being contemplated? Will that be done today?
MR. BOSSERT: That’s being contemplated, and what we’ll do is take the governors’ request. I believe the governors actually made that request. As you know, the process works thusly; first, the governor assesses whether he has unmet needs and the affected communities are unable to respond collectively to this event. If he makes that determination and a number of other statutory requirements, he then requests of the President federal assistance. That request moves through the FEMA regional administrator, to the FEMA Administrator, up to the President. I believe it’s in that process right now.
Once it gets to the President of the United States with a formal recommendation from his FEMA Administrator, he’ll act on that very quickly. I’m under the impression that the governor of Texas has made that request and it’s at FEMA right now.
Q Would you anticipate it tonight?
MR. BOSSERT: If all the conditions are met and if it’s appropriate to provide federal assistance, I believe the President will be very aggressive in leaning forward and declaring that disaster.
Q Tom, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley urged the President not to repeat the mistakes of the past — 2005 Katrina, specifically. How much is that in the back of your mind as you prepare for landfall of Harvey?
And also, in hurricanes past, typically there were events where the hurricane goes through, and then you come in in the aftermath to pick up the pieces. I know — Mark Lemondi (ph) and I were at Katrina in 2005. We saw what happened there. This time, though, this is going to be a multi-day event. What sort of challenges does that present in terms of trying to get aid to people who need it immediately while you still have buckets of rain coming down?
MR. BOSSERT: Yeah, so a number of good questions there. I’d start with the first one. I was also in and through, and had a role at FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. I remember it very clearly and had a role in helping our government write the “lessons learned” report from it. And so I think it’s not just what’s on my mind, but it’s on the minds of all the emergency managers in our community, especially those in Texas and Louisiana. That experience is still in their memory. It’s still in their experience, their muscle memory. And what we’ve done has gotten a lot better as a government.
Congress has gotten better. It passed laws to allow us the flexibility we need to employ, not just deploy, resources and assets in advance of an event, which Brock Long has marshaled heretofore. He’ll employ those resources carefully if the state requests and we grant that declaration, which I suspect we might.
And then lastly, to your point about how difficult it is to get assistance to people, I would say this: You never want to plan for the federal government to swoop in and provide everything that you need when you need it just on time, right?
It’s going to be 4.6 million people, I guess, in the path of the storm, depending on how the forecast goes. That’s a lot of people. We encourage people to be ready, be prepared, take some responsibility for their own safety as the next 72 hours unfold.
Of course, food, water, shelter are the primary concerns. But then secondly, when we provide that assistance, we do it in such a way that’s so organized — if things work out the way they’re supposed to — that the assistance flows either directly to the individuals that are eligible for it, or it flows to the state and local officials who have the logistics trail in place to provide that food, water, and those commodities, and the shelter.
And lastly, I’d like to make a plug for non-governmental organizations as well. As you know, we’ve got a number of organizations, like the Red Cross and others, to manage shelters. Those types of resources are imperative to the people that are confronting this peril, and I’d like to thank them for their work.
Before I take that next question, I would say that I just came off of what FEMA organizes, which is a conference call — actually, a video teleconference call with all the affected parties, and there were no unmet needs reported. We went across all the emergency support functions of the federal government, but also the state and local governments and the non-governmental organizations, and they all seem to be well-postured. And they didn’t report to us any additional needs. In fact, they all reported that they’re in the right operational posture right now to help the American people in the path of this storm.
I’m going to take a question in the back, please.
Q Thank you, sir. The President tweeted out a photo of you briefing him this morning. What questions did President Trump have for you about the preparations that are underway?
MR. BOSSERT: So the President had three primary concerns. His first concern was the life safety and evacuation timing. Are people getting out of harm’s way that need to get out of harm’s way? And then his second concern was, do we have the appropriate resources to bring to bear? That was a question he directed at Administrator Long and Elaine Duke. Brock Long reported to him that we did, in fact, have all those resources pre-deployed.
And, really, the third concern from the President’s perspective after hearing the briefing was not only that the people in harm’s way in Texas be prepared and be evacuated as appropriate, but that the people in Louisiana, should the forecast wobble in any direction, also be prepared. And so, as we see this move to the south — the forecast track — don’t lose track of the fact that we’ve got low-level areas all through the coast of Louisiana. Fifty-percent of the population of Louisiana lives on that coastal region. New Orleans, as we’ve seen before, to the allusion to Katrina, lives below sea level. They rely a great deal on pumps to pump water out.
The Army Corps of Engineers, with FEMA’s coordination, have been providing necessary electric power generation to those pumps to make sure that if the conditions were to materialize in New Orleans, that we don’t have necessarily bad flooding that would put lives in harm’s way.
And so those were his three concerns: New Orleans, Texas, life safety, and evacuations.
Yeah, thank you. I’m sorry, can I come here please?
Q Thank you. Can you tell us specifically who is going to be traveling with the President this weekend? You mentioned that you will be. Who will be accompanying you? And is there any discussion about the President canceling his trip, in light of everything that you’re saying? And then can you just give us a sense of how he and you and your teams are thinking about this? Is this a storm, are you anticipating, that will be of the magnitude of Katrina, given all the comparisons?
MR. BOSSERT: I don’t want to make that comparison. I guess the first answer is, I don’t have any insight into the travel package with the President, but I do have insight into the resources he has available to him at Camp David. So it is just as well-resourced as the White House, so he’ll have access to anybody, all the communications means that he might need. So it’s not a trip. I wouldn’t characterize it as a trip. It’s just 45 minutes up the road, as you all know. For those of you in America thinking Camp David is far away, it’s right up the road.
So, secondly, I would say that we’re not seeing this — and every disaster is different, so I don’t want to make any starch comparisons here — strong comparisons, rather. Stark comparisons. But I would say this: For the person affected, if your house is flooded, it doesn’t matter if 10,000 other houses are flooded or 10 houses are flooded. So what you need to do is be prepared for your own damages, your own consequences. The governments need to be prepared for the uniqueness of each community. We’ve got some low-level islands here — Galveston and others — that might be in the storm surge path.
But Katrina was a massive event. It was a staggering event that took place in just the perfect condition, and, as you know, we had a flooding event associated with levy failure and other things. So I don’t want people to draw those comparisons. I won’t characterize the magnitude of this event until it’s over.
Going to go here.
Q The nation’s fuel supply chain may be impacted by this hurricane. What are you doing to prepare for that? Give me a sense about the concerns that you’ve expressed to the President about that particular issue.
MR. BOSSERT: Yeah, so a number of things inform my thinking here at the White House for the President. And one of the things I hope to do is have full faith and trust — and I do in this case — in the responders at the state and local level and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate and bring to bear the full resources of the Cabinet to keep this regional event focused on the life-saving, life-sustaining efforts and to make sure Americans in harm’s way are protected.
Second concern you have, though, is making sure that that regional event doesn’t lose containment and become a national or international event. And so as the refining capacity, as I understand it, approximately 50 percent of the Gulf Coast refining capacity and a third of the U.S. capacity is in the storm path. That’s something we have to take very seriously. There have been reports on that speculating on potential gas price increases and so forth.
I’m not in a position to confirm those increases, but I will tell you that the last report I received was that the appropriate steps were being taken by the private sector to take their refineries into a position where they were ready to withstand some wind and some flooding. We still have to wait it out, let Mother Nature play its course, and see what kind of damage is on the other side.
But the hope is they’ll be able to fix those damages, repair them quickly, and be right back in business. And so, while a large proportion is affected, it might not cause a large and long-term disruption.
Q South Florida right now is marking the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew. So in that situation, the FEMA response was incredibly slow. By comparison, how quickly are you prepared to move into Texas?
MR. BOSSERT: We’ve made leaps and bounds since 1992 in our federal planning, in our state and local planning, and as an emergency management community as a whole. We had a federal response plan that failed. We updated that federal response plan after 1992. Then we had a 9/11 event that caused us to create a national response plan. We tested it in Katrina and found deficiencies, and created a national response framework. A great deal of effort went into changing those names of those documents, and a great deal of effort went into training the people to execute those changes.
And so I’ve got a tremendous amount of experience here and a tremendous amount of confidence in the people at FEMA, and the people at the state and local levels in these emergency management operations centers. And I actually have a lot of confidence in the American people that they’re going to do what they need to do in this case.
Q Can you give us a timetable? How quickly can you move into the area then?
MR. BOSSERT: Well, it’s not about how quickly we can move into the area. The federal government has already pre-positioned all sorts of resources in the area. So what we do is we begin helping people from before a storm landfall. We’re already helping people in a way, depending how you assess and define that. So we’re already providing resources. In fact, I mentioned as an example, the Army Corps is providing extra generation capacity. That’s going to help a lot of people if those pumps stay running.
So we’re already leaning forward, and the authorities that were given to us by Congress after Katrina have allowed us to do that in a more full-throated way.
Q You mentioned in your opening statement that now is not the time to lose faith in your government institutions. That struck me as a very interesting line coming from somebody behind the White House podium. Can you talk a little bit — expand on that a little bit? Is there a fear that you have or the administration has that either political climate or rhetoric being used either in this town or more broadly could have real impact on lives — in this case, people maybe not listening to a government if they lost faith in their government, as you warned?
MR. BOSSERT: No, not at all. I’m telling you from my own personal experience that it’s important in every emergency, and I’ve been through a lot of them, to remind people to listen to their state and local officials. Because, inevitably, people don’t, and then they end up thinking they wish they had. Right? So you have nothing to lose but your life, and I want you to take it seriously, and I want you to listen to those state and local officials.
In fact, I’m not worried about you losing faith in the federal government; I’m worried about you losing faith in the state and local government that provides you the best information that they have. And so don’t worry about parsing whether they’re right or wrong. If they’re asking you to evacuate and telling you to do it now, listen to their advice.
Oftentimes people try to supplant their own judgement for theirs, and what they don’t understand is the number of time and man-hours that go into planning those evacuation routes. You have to coordinate them with other counties farther north, and you have to do road closures and reverse the traffic flow, and there are things that people just might not be aware of. So have a little faith in the professionalism of your emergency managers, listen to their advice, and you’ll be better off for it.
And lastly, I’d say if you do, and you’re out of harm’s way, you don’t put a responder’s life in jeopardy later, and you allow us to recover more quickly, which is really the goal.
Q Because there has been some controversy in Texas — I’m thinking of Corpus Christi — about mandatory evacuation, can you add what FEMA’s experience is, particularly related to the length of flooding that might follow this storm, about the federal government’s perspective on whether local officials should or should not declare mandatory evacuations?
MR. BOSSERT: No, I’m going to leave that judgement to the state and local officials that make those determinations. A lot is said about mandatory versus not mandatory, and that’s one of the responsibilities I have here to enforce both of those decisions and to reinforce them with rhetoric. I think the idea here is, we have faith in their judgement. The people affected by those local government officials should as well. Mandatory or not, if you’re asked to leave, I think it’s a good idea to make those preparations and take those steps.
Q Related question on that. There’s been some concern that patrol checkpoints for the Border Patrol north of the border in Texas are being maintained and that could dissuade some people from getting a shelter. Are you addressing that?
MR. BOSSERT: Let me understand your question. There are people that can’t get across the border for life-saving purposes?
Q No, not across the border. North of the border there are immigration inspection checkpoints, and supposedly those are being maintained, as well as the fears that there could be checks at shelters. So that would dissuade people from evacuating from –
MR. BOSSERT: I haven’t heard that, but people shouldn’t be fearful of going to a shelter and receiving food and water. That’s not a problem.
Q Tom, you have described your experience and Director Long’s experience, but this is the first time President Trump will be in charge for a national disaster of this — natural disaster of this scale. What do you think he has to project in terms of leadership or skillset for the country to feel that he has led well in this situation?
MR. BOSSERT: This is right up President Trump’s alley. Not only has he shown leadership here, but his entire focus has been on making America great again. He is focused on the Americans that voted him into office. He’s focused on the Americans that didn’t vote him into office. He’s focused on effecting positive change in this country. And when we go in and brief him on the preparations for this hurricane, he is acutely focused on making sure that — and just the right thing, by the way — that the American people in the storm’s path have what they need.
His questions weren’t about geopolitical issues or about large political consequences. His questions were about, are you doing what it takes to help the people that are going to be affected by this storm.
You might not, if you’re living in the northeast, think about this storm over the weekend; you might go about your business. But the President is worried about the 4.6 million people or so that are in that area of Texas that are going to be affected by this, because to them this is the most important thing they are going to have to worry about for the next 24, 48, 72 or more hours.
So from my perspective, I was extremely happy with his leadership instincts on this, and I think that that will carry through as you see him respond to this event.
Q Governor Abbott has requested disaster declaration before landfall. Is that something the President would do? And does it really make much of a difference in the response, one way or the other?
MR. BOSSERT: It can make a little bit of a difference here, and it makes every bit of a difference to the spirit mentality of the people that have to employ those resources. So to the extent that it meets the criteria, I would advise him to consider it very favorably. And to the extent that any ambiguity be cleared up at the implementation level, people know that they have the ability to employ resources for FEMA to start mission assigning and providing money to the other departments and agencies to do what they have to do. It’s a good idea and there is precedent for it.
Q Was there any discussion with the President about him coming out and addressing the nation, given the magnitude, potential magnitude, of this storm? Should people be hearing from their Commander-in-Chief about the preparations the government is taking, and just hear it from his mouth that he believes that you should be listening to state and local officials and offer assurances at a time like this?
MR. BOSSERT: Yeah, I think at the time when it’s appropriate, the President will come out and address this. I think right now what’s more appropriate is that the faces and the voices of this event be the two governors of the affected states.
Remember, no matter what we do, no matter how forward- leaning we are, all the federal families here support the two governors in this event and any governor in this event, and they’re there to support the local officials.
So this is kind of an enshrined principle of federalism. If and when this becomes of the magnitude and the severity that it overwhelms the state and affect local officials and the President declares such, and issues a declaration that this is a major disaster, provides all the federal assistance, then it might be a good opportunity for him to come out and speak to you on it. But for right now, let’s hope and pray that people follow the advice of their officials; that they do what they have to do to stay out of harm’s way, that there is no loss of life in this event.
Let’s say a little prayer for those that are affected over the weekend. Know that here in the White House, over across the street at DHS and FEMA, and all the way down to the lowest level — local level — in Louisiana and Texas, that people are doing the right thing.
You’ll hear from the President later, I’m sure, if it merits. Let’s hope that this event fizzles and that the forecasts are all wrong, but I don’t think that is the right thing to hope for right now. We’re executing and we’re going to do what it takes to save people’s lives and to make their lives easier as they sustain damage.
So I really appreciate your time today. Thank you very much. And we’ll keep you informed, okay? Thank you.
MS SANDERS: Thank you, Tom. Due to the President’s departure coming up here shortly, I am going to take a few questions. We are a little tight on time today. I will skip any opening comments. But just so you’re aware, the press staff will be around the rest of the day and throughout the weekend, providing updates both on the storm and any other issues that we certainly don’t get a chance to cover today.
Also, we just received an update a few minutes ago that it looks like the President will try to make plans to go to Texas early next week. And we’ll keep you posted on details about those as they’re firmed up, and certainly on any other plans and schedule changes throughout the weekend.
Q Sarah, has the President spoken to Gary Cohn about his comments? He said that the administration “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning hate groups.”
MS. SANDERS: The President is in regular contact with Gary. I’m not going to get into a deliberation on specific conversations they may have had. But the President has been very outspoken in his condemnation of racism, of bigotry, of hate of all forms.
But I think as long as those things exist, there’s always more that we can do, and that we should be looking and we will be looking for ways that we can do more as an administration.
Until there is zero of those things, then there’s always more that you can do. And I think that doesn’t just happen within the administration, but I think that happens with the American people. I think that the President has called on America to come together to unite certainly throughout his comments over the course of the last week. And I think that’s something that we should all step up and be willing to do is come together and look for ways that we can get rid of racism, bigotry, and hate in all forms.
Q What did the President mean —
MS. SANDERS: John. Sorry, we’re really tight on time, so I’m going to try to get to several of your colleagues.
Q What did the President mean when he said there were very fine people on both sides? Who were the very fine people who were protesting with the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville?
MS. SANDERS: Go ahead, John. Sorry.
Q Who were the very fine people —
MS. SANDERS: Jon, we’re super tight on time, so I’m going to try to cover as many of your colleagues as possible.
Q I’m just wondering, was the President aware of the content of Gary Cohn’s interview before it was published?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think everybody wants to focus on a really small part of that interview. Ninety-five percent of that interview was on tax reform, and we’re looking at a very small portion of it.
The President, as I said, and Gary have spoken many times. Gary has not held back what his feelings are —
Q Was he —
MS. SANDERS: — if you’ll let me finish — Gary has not held back how he feels about the situation. He’s been very open and honest. And so I don’t think that anyone was surprised by the comments.
Q Two quick tax questions. For the Missouri trip next week, do you expect the President will reveal any new details about what he’d like to see in the tax reform overhaul?
MS. SANDERS: If he is, I certainly wouldn’t announce that today. I’ll let the President do that while he’s in Missouri next week. I know he’s looking forward to really focusing on tax relief for middle-class Americans as we move into the fall. That’s going to be a very big priority for this administration and something that I think everyone can expect to hear a lot more about over the coming weeks.
Q And then on the corporate tax rate —
MS. SANDERS: Sorry. I’ve just got to keep moving because we’re really tight today.
Q Sarah, the President mentioned two weeks ago possible military action in Venezuela, but H.R. McMaster just said that there’s nothing in the near future. Does the President now feel that way? Or is he still pushing towards possible military action?
MS. SANDERS: I think we’ve been clear that the focus is first to use things like sanctions. That’s the first line. That’s where we’re focused on right now. And hopefully that will have the impact that we’re looking for.
Again, as General McMaster said, we leave all options on the table, and we’re not taking any of those things off. But nothing in the immediate. We’re going to focus on these sanctions at this point.
Kristen. Sorry. Go ahead.
Q Sarah, thank you. I want to ask you about DACA. Has the President made a decision about whether to end or phase out DACA? And is that imminent?
MS. SANDERS: The administration has indicated several times before that the DACA program is under review. It continues to be under review, and when we have an announcement on it, we’ll let you guys know.
Q Is the decision imminent, Sarah?
MS. SANDERS: Again, once we have an announcement on that, we’ll let you know.
Q Thanks, Sarah. A number of charities and other groups have cancelled events scheduled at Mar-a-Lago in the wake of the President’s Charlottesville comments. Does that, coupled with these Mr. Cohn comments that we’ve discussed, the disbandment of the business council, does that make him rethink and reconsider at all his remarks and his reaction in the wake of Charlottesville?
MS. SANDERS: I can’t speak to anything regarding the Trump organization, but I can tell you that, again – and I’ll echo the President’s comments, his words, and his feelings on this situation — is that he condemns this in the strongest form possible. We will continue to do that and continue to look for ways to bring America together. That’s the focus of this administration currently and will continue to be as we move forward.
Q Sarah, the President today took to Twitter to criticize Senator Bob Corker. And in just the past month, he’s criticized a number of Republican senators. He’s criticized Leader McConnell on Twitter, Senator John McCain, Senator Flake, Senator Graham of South Carolina, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. What is the end game for the President? What does that do for him in terms of trying to move his legislative forward when he criticizes these important people, given the majorities are so slim in the Senate that are necessary to move his legislative agenda forward?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s clear that the endgame is for Congress to do its job and actually pass legislation. I think the American people are very frustrated with Congress’s lack of action. And for years they’ve been all talk and no action. We’re looking for them to step up at this point.
Sorry, guys, to cut short today. We’ll be around for the rest of this afternoon to answer your questions. But as you know, the President is departing here in a few minutes.
Thanks so much, guys.
2:44 P.M. EDT