James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:12 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon, everybody. Today, Sean is actually on Navy Reserve duty, so you guys are stuck with me — today and tomorrow. So brace yourselves for a fun 24 hours. I know we have a vote happening here very soon that we are all closely watching, so we’ll keep this quick today.
Earlier today, the President signed an executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty. And this order does three important and primary things. It directs the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which it could use to deny or revoke a church’s nonprofit tax-exempt status. Repealing the Johnson Amendment was one of the President’s key campaign promises.
Number two, it directs the Department of Health and Human Services to amend the Obamacare regulations that force people of faith to pay for birth control in direct conflict with their religious beliefs.
And three, it directs all federal agencies and departments to protect religious liberty and free speech, consistent with guidance to be issued by the Department of Justice.
During the last eight years, Americans of all faiths have been under attack from a federal government that has targeted individuals and institutions just for following their faith. The President was proud to take these important steps toward promoting two pillars of American society — free speech and religious liberty.
Also today, most of you know, the President announced during his remarks at the National Day of Prayer that he will be making some additional stops ahead of his attending the G7 Summit in Italy, engaging with several important allies. The trip will kick off with a summit in Saudi Arabia with leaders from across the Muslim world. From there, he will travel to Israel and then to the Vatican in Rome. From Rome, he will continue on his previously announced visits to Brussels for the NATO Summit and meetings with EU and Belgian leaders, and to Sicily for the G7 meetings.
Also, as you know, I think the big topic today is the healthcare vote. We’ve got that coming up very shortly on the American Health Care Act. With Obamacare on the verge of collapse, it’s critical that the House passes the AHCA today. And we continue to make progress towards repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Just yesterday, Aetna announced it’s pulling out of the individual market in Virginia, meaning 27 counties could only have one choice in 2018. Aetna’s CEO himself said in February that Obamacare is in a “death spiral.” An incredible one-third of counties and five entire states only have one insurer left on the exchanges. Premiums and deductibles are spiking nationwide, and it’s not surprising that fewer people signed up during the open enrollment period this year than last.
We hope to see our fellow Republicans follow through on the promise they’ve been making to the American people for the last seven years and on the floor of the House this afternoon — and pass that vote.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Go ahead.
Q Hi. Can you tell us anything more about why the President’s schedule changed and what he will be doing during the healthcare vote specifically?
MS. SANDERS: Sure. The President still has some meetings this afternoon, and because of that we have pushed back his departure. In the process of that, we have spoken at the very highest level to members of the Australian embassy, as well as, I believe, the President — spoke with the leader of Australia earlier today as well, great conversations. They’re very much looking forward to meeting later this evening. They will continue to have the bilat as planned just a little bit later following the dinner later this evening.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I want to ask you about something Senator Graham said earlier today on Twitter. He wrote, “A bill — finalized yesterday, has not been scored, amendments not allowed, and three hours final debate — should be viewed with caution.” What’s the White House response to that? And then I have a follow-up.
MS. SANDERS: Of course you do. Look, I think the Senate is going to have their time to talk and debate this bill. Today it’s about the House.
Look, right now, Obamacare is collapsing under itself. It’s simply not sustainable. I think everybody in the country, including Senator Graham, is well aware of that fact. We have to take drastic changes to reform the healthcare system. This is the first step in the process that the House is making today. And Senator Graham and his colleagues will have I think ample time to do that when it comes to the Senate.
Q And on that note, a number of House members have said they expect the bill, obviously, to change in the Senate and change for the better. Does the President agree with that sentiment? And can you give us some idea of the types of changes he would like to see in the Senate?
MS. SANDERS: I think the biggest point on the healthcare bill is both the House, the Senate, and the administration believe in the principles of what we’re looking to do — lower cost, create competition, state flexibility. Those principles we don’t want to change. If some of the way they get there in order to get senators on board, they tweak that a little bit, I think that’s fully expected as it goes through the legislative process as long as the principles remain the same, that the President laid out throughout the campaign and that we’re seeing reflected in the bill in the House today.
Q Sarah, follow-up on that. You know, a lot of us sat through the debate over Obamacare and were around during the 2010 midterms when the Republican Party ran on this issue of fiscal responsibility, talked about the opacity of the Obama administration. And I remember when the final score on the reconciliation for the Affordable Care Act came out, that was a huge moment for Republicans, and they pointed out that they needed that as a tool to determine that this was a fiscally irresponsible bill. Isn’t it hypocritical to not have a score before they vote on this? That’s the first question.
The second one is, what’s the big rush? Can’t you guys wait a week and actually get a score on this?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think even if they were to score it it’s impossible to score a lot of the things that would go into this because it has so many different factors that you simply can’t predict what governors may do in their states, specific conditions that patients may have.
So even if it was to be scored, I think it would be impossible to predict how that might actually affect and impact.
Q Sarah, can you elaborate a little bit on that third piece of the EO? I think it was actually the first — last night it was the first — the policy statement directing all agencies to observe religious freedom? What kinds of rules are you looking at there?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s less about rules and more about the Department of Justice would be the one that would have to defend anything that any agency would do. And so in order to produce guidance that would run through the Department of Justice, I think it’s simply just pointed out that process.
Q Is this going to affect, for example, employment or the baker that doesn’t want to cater the gay wedding?
MS. SANDERS: This executive order doesn’t address any employment specifically. There’s no language in that here.
Sorry, go ahead.
Q How would you describe Jared and Ivanka’s role in the formation of this EO?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware of any specific role they may have played. I think that they are supportive of the President’s decision on this. I don’t think it’s any secret this is something he’s campaigned on for a long time and they joined him on the campaign trail every day. And so I think that they would be supportive in this process.
Q Did they argue for the softening of any of the language in it?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q I’ve got two quick questions. We know President Obama happily embraced the term “Obamacare.” Is Trump going to embrace “Trumpcare” for this legislation?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President is embracing reform. I think that’s what he’s done since day one. I don’t think it’s about a label or a name, it’s about providing better care for Americans across the country. That’s been his focus. It’s not about taking credit for something, but it’s about fixing a broken system. That’s what he’s doing. That’s what his focus is. And that’s why you’re not seeing him run out and try to put a label on it today.
Q So it sounds like he doesn’t want to call it Trumpcare. And then a preexisting conditions —
MS. SANDERS: Shocking, a reporter took something out of context.
Q He does want to call it Trumpcare then?
MS. SANDERS: Look, again, the point here isn’t about the label, it’s about getting better care. If you want to get into the semantics of that, that’s fine, but that’s certainly not what I said.
Q All right. About better care, the preexisting conditions mandate under Obamacare ensured coverage, but it also protected against raising rates for people with preexisting conditions. So can you guarantee in this legislation that people with preexisting conditions will not be paying more for those conditions, for their healthcare?
MS. SANDERS: I know that nobody will be charged higher premiums for keeping their coverage. Look, the goal is to lower costs across the board through competition, through market forces. We’ll lower those premiums and make healthcare easier for everybody. We’ve also put I believe the Upton Amendment as well as other things, extra layers of protection for those with preexisting conditions.
Q Can you walk us through the steps the President has taken to help sell this latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare? I remember the last time, Sean talked about the number of calls and meetings. And also, can you talk about what specific case he’s making to lawmakers beyond listening to their concerns? Is he making a case on the policy front or on the sort of general, this-is-what-we-need-to-win front?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly. The President has been incredibly engaged in this process, particularly over the last several days. He’s made well over a dozen, probably close to 15 to 20 direct contacts, whether through meetings or phone calls — actually that’s 15 to 20 members. Some of those people he’s talked to more than one time.
Again, the President recognizes what a problem Obamacare is, and that it has to be fixed. He’s made it a priority to help get that through the House this week, as well as the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, and other members of the team. And he’s been very directly engaged.
I think part of the case that he’s made outside of simply “let’s get this done” is that it’s a necessity. Obamacare is simply unsustainable. I think even Democrats have started to recognize that we can’t continue on the path that we’re on and this is our moment and our time to fix it, so let’s do it, let’s do it right, and let’s do it now. And that’s what he’s been doing this week.
Q Just one more question about what a senior administration official told us in the last briefing ahead of the foreign trip. They said, “This trip will reverse the trend of America’s disengagement from the world.” Can you expand on that and talk about how America has disengaged from the world? Because it seems like part of the President’s argument during the campaign at least was that America doesn’t have to be the policeman of the world, sort of arguing against, I guess, more engagement.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that the President’s point and certainly his kind of priority and leading philosophy has always been an American first. And that’s not different. And I think that those things are compatible.
America can be first but still be a global leader. And I think, frankly, America has to be a global leader. The rest of the country [sic] looks to us for that. We’re at a time — when the President took office where a lot of our allies simply didn’t respect us or trust us, and our enemies didn’t fear us. And we’re back to a place where we’re developing our relationships with our allies, we’re strengthening those, and we’re also putting everybody else on notice that we have a President that’s strong and that is not going to allow things like North Korea to continue to grow and continue to move out of control.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The ACLU and a bunch of other groups are — already announced their plan to sue the administration over this executive order, saying it violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. What’s your response to that? And do you have a legal strategy to fight back these lawsuits?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I don’t think anybody is surprised that the ACLU — they love to come out against Republicans. They love to talk about debating tolerance except when it comes to people of faith. And I think that this is actually — they should be celebrating that people are being protected. That’s what this executive order is about. It’s not about discriminating, it’s not about being against anyone, but it’s simply about protecting people of faith, and that’s people of all faith across the country. That’s something that the President heard from religious leaders of all diversities during his time on the campaign. It’s something that he promised to do. And that’s something he’s fulfilled on.
And I think that the Constitution is on our side here. The very basis of it is freedom of speech, and that shouldn’t be taken away simply because of a faith that you may hold.
Q Sorry, can I ask a follow-up?
Q Go ahead.
Q Did the Counsel’s Office prepare for these lawsuits, and how were they involved in the drafting of the EO?
MS. SANDERS: I think the counsel’s office, I know, is prepared and certainly recognizes the role that they might play in this, and has very firm ground on which they stand here.
Q Sarah, just following up on Athena’s question a bit, can you talk about the legwork the President has done today in these final moments before the vote? What has he been doing this morning? We know that he spoke yesterday.
Congressman Billy Long came out here and told us that he had received multiple phone calls from the President. What has he done this morning leading up to this vote?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I think he’s continued to have conversations with different members of the House and looking for ways to push this forward. And we feel very confident. I think a lot of that took place yesterday. One of the big pieces, as you mentioned, was meeting with Representatives Long and Upton. That was a huge and pivotal moment, and, I think, a direct result of the President being engaged in pushing the bill forward.
Q A question on the foreign policy trip: Can you talk about the President’s decision to head first to Saudi Arabia? How directly he was involved in this? We did receive some background information on this, but talk about the President’s involvement in planning this part of the trip.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think he recognizes the importance of bringing all of our partners together, and certainly looking for ways that we can combat some of the greatest threats to all of the world. And that’s going to take some buy-in and some of the people in the Middle East taking a larger stake in that process. And I think that’s a big part of what we’re going to see on that trip.
Q Sarah, following up on what Glenn asked earlier — but following up on what Glenn asked, why not score this in a week and eliminate the argument against it by saying it wasn’t scored? Why not?
THE PRESIDENT: Look, again, I think I addressed that when I answered Glenn’s question. I think even if we went through the process of trying to score this legislation, it’s going to be inaccurate. It’s going to be hard to do because there’s so many factors — whether it’s decisions that governors would make and individual — one of the big pieces that makes this popular is the flexibility that it provides — something we didn’t see with Obamacare. That’s going to be hard to score, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we should continue to move forward.
Q The other one is on the separation of church and state. There are people saying that what you’ve set up with this particular — well, it’s a follow-up on a different one.
MS. SANDERS: It’s totally separate.
Q Some totally separate issue.
MS. SANDERS: We’ll let it slide.
Q Well, to follow up on him, wouldn’t it just take the air out of the balloon of the Democrats if you said, hey, look, it’s scored, now you can argue with it?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think the air is out of the Democrats already. They want Obamacare, and that’s simply not a sustainable piece of legislation. I think their balloon deflated a long time ago.
Q Okay, so on the follow-up on the other. Just the signed executive order — what about those who say, look, it’s eroding the separation between church and state and that’s why it’s a bad thing?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think it’s very hard to argue that a pastor or another faith leader shouldn’t be able to speak out about morality in the public square. I think that it would be almost like Martin Luther King, Jr. shouldn’t have been allowed to speak out against George Wallace. I don’t think anybody in this room would argue that that would be an appropriate thing to do, and that is what the Johnson Amendment currently does. And we see this as a hurdle to freedom of speech, and certainly something that should be protected.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You mentioned that the meeting now with Mr. Turnbull will be, did you say after the dinner?
MS. SANDERS: I believe it will be before. I know we’re going to issue updated guidance here shortly, but I believe it will be about 7:15 will be the new time for the bilat.
Q So I have a question about that. So the fact that it’s being pushed back, the departure time, what should we take from that? If you guys have the votes for healthcare, why is the President pushing back his departure?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t say that the President was doing — I said he had meetings and that doesn’t mean they pertain to healthcare in any capacity. He’s got some other things he wants to take care of before he leaves town, and so it’s nothing more than that.
Q And finally, could you possibly give us a little preview of what we should expect tonight with this meeting? What’s the significance of having it on the Intrepid? What does he hope to get out of it? We haven’t heard very much about that.
MS. SANDERS: Look, I don’t want to get ahead of their visit, but I think that you can expect a strengthening out of an already-strong ally, and furthered continued great relationship that we have with them.
Q When the President was speaking to President Putin (inaudible) did he mention his plans for the Middle East and the trip that you described today? And is there a chance that they might meet during that trip to Europe?
MS. SANDERS: I know we put out a readout on that call, and at this point I don’t have anything further to add. I know that the topic did come up — whether or not they may meet later this year — but nothing was finalized on that.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I have two brief questions.
MS. SANDERS: I can always count to hear you from the back. (Laughter.)
Q Regarding the President’s upcoming visit with the Pope, is he going to meet with, or has he met already with, say, American cardinals or other church leaders to kind of sketch out what the agenda will be for the papal visit?
MS. SANDERS: I know he met, actually, a number of church cardinals earlier today. There was a small private meeting with that group and with other — I think roughly over 100 other religious leaders today as well as last night. So I think certainly he’ll continue those conversations in preparation for that trip.
Q Two weeks ago, Senator Grassley predicted there would be another vacancy on the Supreme Court by the summer, and that the President would choose from his list of 25 that he released during the campaign and from which he chose Justice Gorsuch. If there is a vacancy and Senator Grassley is correct, will the President limit his choices just to that list that he released or will he bring other names into the equation?
MS. SANDERS: My understanding is that he would stay focused and draw from that list. So I don’t see any reason for him to go a different direction.
Q Insurers are filing their rates for 2018 coverage right now. They’re already in Virginia. And so, to the extent that there is turbulence in the market, and the House needs to vote on AHCA today, how long is the President willing to give the Senate to decide what to do with it?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think a specific timetable has been discussed, but I do know that it’s certainly a priority for the administration to get this done. So I would hope that the Senate will take action quickly.
Q Weeks? Months?
MS. SANDERS: Again, we haven’t laid a timetable out, and I don’t think we will. But I know that we hope to have this done in short order.
Q Is he worried about any uncertainty in the meantime?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe so, no.
Q Sarah, if the vote passes, can we expect — there are reports out of Capitol Hill that some members are prepared to come to the White House for some sort of celebratory event. Can you tell us anything about that, and can we expect to hear from the President directly here before he departs?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t have any announcements right now, but if something happens, as always, we’ll certainly keep you guys posted.
I’ll take one more question. Go ahead.
Q Sarah, Syria, please?
MS. SANDERS: Sorry. Sure, I’ll take both for you guys. Sorry.
Q I was just going to ask if what — the Senate, if, assuming it will pass later today, goes over to the Senate, that the President will be as involved in getting it passed in the Senate as he’s been getting it passed in the House?
MS. SANDERS: I would certainly think so.
Q The Vice President said this week that President Trump is seriously considering moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What’s the thinking right now on that?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we don’t want to get ahead of any of the conversations that we’re going to continue to have with leaders. I think the President will be the one to speak to that, certainly not me, not here, and not today. But we’ll leave that to the President to further comment on that as we get closer and possibly on our trip while we’re there.