James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:58 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. Thanks for being patient. Wanted to make sure we had time for the lunch the President was holding to wrap up. I know there is a pretty high level of interest in that. And so due to that, we have Marc Short, the President's Director of Legislative Affairs, here to give a quick rundown of the discussion and answer any questions that you all may have. And then, as always, I'll be back up to follow up with any other questions. Thanks.
MR. SHORT: Thanks, Sarah, and thank you all for being here. As you probably saw in the opening remarks from the President, he made the case to the American people and to the members attending the lunch that inaction is not an option. That Obamacare has continued to implode. That promises of reductions in premiums of $2,500 have not proven true, and instead insurance premiums, on average, have increased by roughly $3,000. That in fact, premiums are so high that today 6.5 million Americans chose last year not to sign up for a plan on the insurance exchange and instead just pay the penalty to the IRS.
He discussed the fact that, right now, forecasts are that if Obamacare is not repealed, there will be over 1,300 counties across the United States with only one insurer. And in fact, 40 counties will have no insurers on the exchange.
He encouraged senators that they should not leave town until a deal is done, until a bill is presented to him. He reminded them that he has pen in hand and is ready to sign the bill, and that he's asking members of Congress who have made promises to repeal Obamacare for the last seven years, since they started running in the midterms of 2010, that now is the time to deliver on that promise and he's anxious to sign the bill.
There were additional conversations about Senator Lee's and Senator Cruz's Consumer Freedom amendment. I think there was shared analysis that had been done by HHS on what the impact of that amendment would be, both on premiums as well as on rates. There was some discussion about additional -- continuing to devolve programs down to the states and what additional flexibility could be provided to states. A lot of enthusiasm from some of the members who I think had been holding out behind a notion that we could continue to amend the bill to provide more flexibility to governors.
I think that, though, in general, there was a general enthusiasm for recognizing that this is not something that we can walk away from. And this is a promise that's been made, and that members are anxious to continue to work to get it done. And to that end, there was announced a meeting tonight, at the Senate, for those members who are still having challenges about getting to yes, for them to work out their differences tonight on Capitol Hill. And I think that the administration will be represented in that meeting as well to continue the conversations.
But in general, I think that the mood inside the room was recognizing that this is, again, a promise that has been made. It's something we need to do. And I think they're anxious to get back to work to complete this. So that's where we stand.
Q Hey Marc, what is the President's current position on what he want Congress to do? Is it repeal and replace? Repeal now, replace later? Or is it let Obamacare fall apart?
MR. SHORT: I think the President has been clear that what he wants is repeal and replace. That's what he said during the transition, that's what he has said ever since. He has mentioned that, if Republicans cannot find consensus on what the replacement plan is, then we should at least deliver on a promise to repeal. But his preference is the Senate bill, as it's constructed right now, he expressed that openly in the meeting, and walked through many of the benefits that are included in the bill, including the tax-free health savings accounts and additional monies that are provided there to pay for premiums.
He mentioned talking about the opioid resources that are being provided for those senators in many of the Midwestern states that are particularly stricken by that epidemic.
And also, there was a lot of discussion about -- conversation about Medicaid. I know there's been a lot of coverage about the cuts in Medicaid. But I think inside the room, there was clarity in recognizing that this bill continues to increase the absolute dollars in Medicaid spending to put it on a sustainable path. It is currently not on a sustainable path.
What the bill will do -- what current law will do is it will bankrupt Medicaid and it will not be there for people. And what the President and those in the room were talking about is that the Medicaid expansion and the continued growth rate is a reduction in the growth rate, but that is not a cut. That is increased actual dollars.
Q Marc, so a question for you. Can you kind of explain a little bit -- the President said today -- I mean, as the bill stands right now, not enough senators support it for it to proceed. Yet the President said today, publicly, that they were close. So in what ways do you guys think you are close? Did senators give you any indication today that they're going to get behind this thing? And this kind of very public push from the President, it's not often we see him in this setting. Is this too little too late?
MR. SHORT: No, I think that the President is not too little too late. I think the President has been engaged throughout. As many of you know, he was making calls to senators when he was over in Paris, earlier last week.
Q But this is a public push, right?
MR. SHORT: This is a more public push, but he was certainly very public during the House debate. I think there's a difference when you have 240 House Republicans versus 52 Senate Republicans. And so the number of members who we're trying to convince at this point is much smaller. So some of the public display of that is going to be less.
But I will say that, to your question initially about what is it that we're going to be moving on to as far as the motion to proceed, I think that if you are not willing to vote on a motion to proceed, it's a little bit like Leslie Nielsen in "Naked Gun" with an explosion behind you, and saying, "There's nothing to see here."
What we're saying is that if you're not willing to move to proceed, you're basically acknowledging that there's nothing wrong, that Obamacare is fine. And we believe that Republicans have their opportunity to amend the bill, but you have to get on the bill first.
And the President was making that case and so was Leader McConnell, that, look, for all of us who are trying to deliver on the promises we made to repeal Obamacare, we have to first get on the bill. You can't pretend there's not an explosion behind. You can't pretend that Obamacare isn’t collapsing. You got to move on to the bill, and that's what the discussion was.
Q What time is the meeting tonight? And who are some of the members who were invited?
MR. SHORT: The meeting is at 7:30. It's pretty much open to all members. But I think that it's focused on those that are still in the undecided category.
Q Marc, two questions really fast. On Medicaid, did you get into the weeds in the conversation with the senators? I mean, not just talk about how we're going to make sure this is sustainable and make sure that people still have services. Did you get into the weeds -- because people are concerned about hearing these grandiose topics for "this can be done," but they don’t have the substance behind it. Did you get into Medicaid? Did you get into the opioid issue? Did you get into the other issues, in the weeds, when you were in the conversation?
MR. SHORT: There was more conversation regarding Medicaid. There was an acknowledgement and discussion upfront of the work of Senators Capito and Senator Portman on the opioid dollars that are inserted into the bill. But there was more discussion, I think, on the growth rate of Medicaid, and particularly I think Senator Toomey making the case, and again that I articulated here, that we don’t believe the current path is sustainable. And so the reforms that are in there help to make sure that the program is viable for future consumers.
Q Last question. Mitch McConnell said they didn’t have 50 votes. The President said, you know, we're close. But let's go beyond next week. Let's say maybe it doesn’t pass after this vote passes. What's plan B? What's plan C?
MR. SHORT: We are confident we will get this bill passed. We are confident that, at the end of the day, we will deliver on the promise that's been made to repeal and replace Obamacare. So all of our efforts right now is to get on to a vote.
To answer your question, it depends on what the amendment process is. That's the great thing about the greatest body in the world, is you can offer open amendments. And so this is an opportunity for members to make changes to the bill. But you can't make changes if you're not willing to at least have the conversation about it. So we're asking them to get on the bill first.
Q So you're not going to give up at all?
MR. SHORT: No. I don’t think --
Q If the amendments are not to your liking, you're not going to give up?
MR. SHORT: No, I think there's a lot of people that underestimate this President before. He's not one to give up.
Q Two questions. One is, you mentioned the meeting being open to everyone. Does that include Democrats?
MR. SHORT: The meeting is open to the Republican conference. I think that if there are any Democrats who are willing to work with us on the repeal and replace effort, I'm sure they'd be welcome to.
Q And second of all, does the White House approve of FreedomWorks giving out traitor awards to those who vote "no" on the motion to proceed?
MR. SHORT: I don’t think we have any comment on what FreedomWorks is doing.
Q Do you support it?
MR. SHORT: I'm not familiar with any traitor awards that they're giving, so it's hard for me to comment on that.
Q Senators Murkowski and Moran have said that the President had strong words for them, including some negative words for them once the cameras were out of the room. How productive do you think it is for the President to essentially be calling out people who voted against this or have severe questions about this?
MR. SHORT: I don’t think he had strong words. I think that the conversation was very respectful and it was one of disagreeing on a couple of points. But I don’t think that there was any badgering. I think the President was trying to be an encourager and say, here's how we need to get there, guys, and let's get it done. Because not only is this a promise he made to the American people, there are Americans who are suffering right now. They're suffering without us delivering on the promises that we made. It's time to solve that problem for them.
Q If he's asking them to stay for the August recess, what is he going to do differently in the coming weeks? The approval for this bill is still incredibly low. Does he have any more plans of traveling to some of these red states where they're from to try and explain the bill more, with the megaphone that only he has?
MR. SHORT: I think you'll see that in one form or another. I think that several senators raised the notion that the President could be extremely helpful to them in making that case. And I think that he was receptive to that. I do think that, overall, collectively, that it's often easier to be against something, and that messaging is easier than it is to communicate what you're for. But I think there's a lot of things in this bill that -- the President started his remarks by saying, look, guys, here are all the things that we are doing in this bill that we should be talking about that are positive for the American people. And so I think you'll see that engagement.
Q You're talking about the President being open to going out and trying to solve this. The President is a branding person. You talked about the need for Republicans to recognize you can't bet on Obamacare imploding. But it seems like -- that the brand you're selling is "Obamacare is failing," not "here is what the plan is." Are you recognizing here that there hasn’t been a clear message from this White House as to what it stands for in this healthcare bill? What do you mean when you say the President was receptive to what the senators were asking him? And what does "close" mean?
MR. SHORT: In which part?
Q The President said "we're close." Are you talking about votes?
MR. SHORT: Yes, I think he's talking about how close we are in the votes; that he's had conversations over the last couple of days from some of the senators who have publicly come out and said they wouldn’t vote for the motion to proceed but they've communicated to him that, actually, I was getting a lot closer, and so give me a little bit more time, let's work through a couple more things, and we can get there. So I think that's what he was communicating when he says that we're close.
Q But in terms of what the message is that the President is going to be selling in these states, if he visits them, what is the message, other than "it's not Obamacare"?
MR. SHORT: Well, I think that there's several things. There is part of that that I think Americans have rebelled against, which is the individual mandate. Part of that is the taxes that are buried inside the bill. And I think that relieving Americans of that makes a big difference. Another part that we will sell is that we will be reducing costs, which I think is an important component. Estimates of 30 percent over the next few years, and I think some estimates with consumer freedom options suggested that it's even greater than that.
One of the things we're selling is that we're actually trying to return the relationship between a patient and a doctor as opposed to the government being in the middle. And I think there's also protection of life that, for many of our constituents, is really essential and important. And that's a promise the President has delivered on and that many of our supporters cherish.
So there's a lot of things in this bill that we can trumpet, and I think you will see it happening.
Q Did the President recognize he hadn't done those things?
MR. SHORT: No, I think that the President has continued to be active in this effort. I think that he's hearing from senators who say, you know, your efforts in being able to communicate on this is a bully pulpit that is greater than ours, and so we welcome it even more. But I don't think there's a sense that he hasn't been active.
Q To get some of the senators who are concerned about the Medicaid expansion on board, is it being discussed at all about increasing the growth rate for the Medicaid program beyond where it is now in the GOP bill? What if we increase it a little bit more beyond where it is right now in the Senate bill?
MR. SHORT: I think there's been a lot of resources provided in the stabilization fund that's continued to grow so that it's now $180 billion in the most recent draft of the bill that will provided, in many cases, to help with that transition. The growth rate doesn't slow until eight years into this process, and I think that the vast majority of members in the Senate conference are very comfortable with the way it's written right now.
Q And just one more follow-up. The President had some pointed words for some of the senators in there. Is he sending a signal that if you don't support, if you don't vote on this bill, I won't be there to support you in two or four years?
MR. SHORT: No. There's not a sense of a veiled threat. The President has been pretty direct in his words, and he's right now saying, this is what you promised. I want to live up to my promise. I'm ready to sign the bill. Get me the bill so we can get this done for the American people and then we can also move on to tax reform and other items that are part of our agenda.
Q Marc, on the issue of subsidies, the President said, we pay hundreds of millions of dollars a month in subsidies that the courts don't even want us to pay, and when those payments stop, it stops immediately. Is the President actively considering ending the cost-sharing payments, especially if it just doesn't pan out in the Senate?
MR. SHORT: I think he's basically stating a fact. The courts have ruled that the Congress never appropriated those dollars. And he's acknowledging that and saying that, you know, here we are propping it up in ways that are keeping Obamacare afloat that the courts have already ruled we arguably shouldn't be doing.
So yeah, he's concerned about that policy, and he continues to evaluate it each month.
Q He needs to make a decision next week on whether to fund for the next month, correct?
MR. SHORT: He is continuing to evaluate that. It's on an ongoing basis.
Q But the President asked senators to stay in town until he's got a bill on his desk. Is he going to stay at the White House until that happens?
MR. SHORT: I think the President will be traveling, but I would imagine that members would be traveling too. So I don't know that that's a fair comparison. But he will be here working on it as long as they are, and he wants to get it done.
Q But how is that not a fair comparison --
MR. SHORT: Well, because members will be traveling home on weekends too. So it's not a matter of being here, it's a matter of whether you recess the Senate. And he's encouraging that they stay focused on in-town until it gets done.
Q Marc, you mentioned this idea that they can proceed to debate and then they can offer amendments. But hasn't the issue been that there are factions in the Senate and throughout the Republican Party that have just very different ideas of what they would want out of a bill? So what amendments do you think could be offered that would satisfy both the conservatives and the moderates who have raised concerns about these bills?
MR. SHORT: I don't want to try to limit that because it's an open amendment process, and I think that there's a lot of different options. But certainly I think that Senator Lee is interested in expanding it from a single-risk pool to a two-risk pool. I think there are moderate members who want to see additional dollars provided in Medicaid funding.
So I think there's a lot of different amendments that could still be offered; Some who want to block grant more dollars down to the states. Those are certainly a few, but I think that there's a lot of creative ideas that members have that they could continue to improve the bill, and we're open to that.
As I said from the start, I think if you're saying that you're not willing to move to the bill, what you're in essence conceding to the American people is you're comfortable with Obamacare and all the campaign promises that you made were hollow. So it's time that we get on the bill and we can then amend it and fix it.
Q Did something change between yesterday at lunch, when the President said he's very disappointed -- he's learned that he needs more Republicans in the Senate because there clearly aren't enough now? That was yesterday. And then today at lunch, he said, you know, let's do this. Did you advise the President to give it one more go? Did Leader McConnell say they were going to have this vote next week, keep the momentum going? What changed between yesterday and today?
MR. SHORT: I'm not so sure it's inconsistent to be able to say, hey guys, we need to keep working at this until we get it done, and also expressing the desire that we wish there were more Republicans in the Senate because some of these efforts we could move more quickly. I don't think that that's inconsistent.
Q So does the President not think that he needs more Republicans? He has enough now?
MR. SHORT: I think that you will see him in 2018 working hard to make sure that the number of Republicans in the Senate continues to grow.
Q Marc, at what point do Republicans own healthcare in America?
MR. SHORT: I think that's a good question. And I think as soon as we're able to replace Obamacare with our solution, then at that point it will begin the ownership. There will likely be a transition period.
Q But to be clear, so right now, you control the Senate, Republicans control the House, they control the White House. So why, if they're unable to accomplish it now, aren't they responsible?
MR. SHORT: Well, at this point -- well, I think that there's a difference between saying responsibility and owning it. I think that we all feel a level of responsibility. That's why we're trying to change it, in all honesty. But as far as owning the Obamacare policies, I'm not familiar with any Republicans who voted for Obamacare.
Q Not Obamacare, but healthcare in general. Americans don't care about Obamacare now. They just care about their own healthcare.
MR. SHORT: Sure. But I think in many ways, that's one in the same, Peter. At this point, there was not a single Republican who voted to pass Obamacare. And so I do think that that is still the law of the land. Until we replace it, I just think that they own it.
Q Quick follow-up on this conversation here. The President tweeted recently that "the Senate must go to a 51 vote majority instead of current 60 votes." Is the President not concerned that perhaps somewhere down the line, the Democrats might try to re-repeal the -- what will then be healthcare bill, especially as there aren't any Democrats that are supporting it now?
MR. SHORT: I think that, in general, I think it's better for us to leave the rules of the Senate to the Senate. But I think the President's comment is making the case that he feels very certainly that, if Senator Schumer were in control, he would change the rules of the Senate in a heartbeat. And so I think that's what his concern --
Q Sure. But then why wouldn't they go back and forth every four to eight years?
MR. SHORT: It's possible that it would. I just think he's acknowledging that Schumer would do this if he had the opportunity.
Q But is that a solution, though? Temporary --
Q Can I clarify something in your answer to Ken? Under the option of repeal and delay -- one option -- or the option of failure and the Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land, there's a period of time in which the President is in charge of the Affordable Care Act.
In response to your -- the question from Ken, you suggested the President is considering withdrawing the subsidies. My question to you is, if he is in charge of the Affordable Care Act under either of those two options, you do not think there will be political repercussions if the President were to withdraw and try to hasten the demise of the existing law?
MR. SHORT: I think that the President wouldn't view it as what are the political consequences. He's going to view it as what's right. And right now, there's a legal opinion on that. And I think that there's additional opinions being researched within our White House and giving him different advice on what should be the best course of action on those.
I know where his heart is. I think he's expressed that very openly what he thinks of those payments. But as far as what the next step is, I think that we'll find out in the near future.
Q To follow on, to the members that he talked with today, they would not have any political repercussions to face?
MR. SHORT: I don't know. I don't know. I think that if the courts have said that this is -- right now, it's an unconstitutional payment but we've put it aside as it continues on appeal, I think that that's something that we need to consider is to what should be the right action of our administration.
Q The President has specifically raised Dean Heller's race next year, saying that he would like to remain a senator, aka get on board with Obamacare. Did he make some kind of specific promise to Senator Heller that, if he supports this bill that the President will be there to campaign for him next year?
MR. SHORT: Look, there is not a quid pro quo, but I'm sure that the President looks forward to supporting Dean Heller's reelection.
Q Can I follow up to that, please? Was there some thinking behind the seating arrangements, that Dean Heller (inaudible) Capito, Murkowski because -- are these the people he thinks are easier to get to "yes" or harder to get to "yes"?
MR. SHORT: I think that the President, I think welcomed a chance to have one-on-one conversations with Dean Heller during the lunch. I think that that's an observed fact. But I don't want to comment on exactly how strategic this meeting was. That's just -- that's part of our job.
Q Thank you, Marc. Supporters of repeal and delay say that they are not worried about enactment of the Biggs amendment in the House. In the Senate, three Republicans have said they are against it so far -- Senator Capito, Murkowski, and Collins. Are those people that, if repeal and delay got to the Senate for a vote, the President would try to influence and talk to to support repeal and delay?
MR. SHORT: Again, I don't want to really differentiate those, John, because I think the President is trying to say, we need to get on the bill to amend it. And if you're not willing to do that, you're basically saying there's no problem here. And so, yes, McConnell has said the first bill he'll bring up is the 2015 bill, and that's the first step. But there will be an open amendment process to continue to bring in a replacement effort too.
Q Marc, two questions for you. Following up on Peter's -- I understand that the White House's argument is that Democrats own this as a policy matter. But from a political matter, as you mentioned, this is the President in the room with Republican senators. If they can't get this done, and I know you say that you're confident that they will, but if they can't get this done, is it politically the problem of the people in that room for not being able to get it done?
MR. SHORT: We're going to get it done.
Q Okay. I get that as your answer. Let me go to one other thing that you said. You said the President has always said that repeal and replace is his policy. And that's certainly what he's saying today. Just yesterday, he tweeted and said, as I've always said, let Obamacare fail and then come together. Since there are two versions here of what the President has always said, can you at least acknowledge that the White House has been somewhat inconsistent on this?
MR. SHORT: What I think I said to start is the President's preference has always been repeal and replace. If I didn't, I apologize. But that's what I -- the President's preference has always been repeal and replace.
Q Okay, just looking at the President's own words, the four or five different positions in the last 48 hours, there's been some inconsistency here from the President, correct?
MR. SHORT: The President is committed to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a better solution.
Q You don't think there's been any inconsistency?
MR. SHORT: I think that we are for repeal and replace.
Q Marc, can I ask you about conversations that President has had with Senator McCain who obviously couldn't be here today but, as you know, issued a statement on Monday night saying he wanted to start from scratch with the Democrats because he didn't want it to be a single-Party issue the way it was during the last administration.
MR. SHORT: I think that the President has wished Senator McCain well. Our thoughts and prayers are with him, but I’m not going to divulge any private conversations they've had on that matter.
Q Marc, you mentioned the protections to life in this bill. Tell me exactly what you meant by that and why the President (inaudible)?
MR. SHORT: So the tax credits have a Hyde amendment protections in them to ensure that the dollars are not used to pay -- taxpayer dollars are not used to pay for abortions as well. There's a year prohibition of federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Q Can you talk about the priorities of that to this President? How important is that?
MR. SHORT: I think that the President, from the very first day of the administration, has pursued pro-life policies. He promised that on the campaign. You look at Mexico City and the reversal he did there from the very start. He expanded even to include international beyond that -- international funding of abortions.
I think that this was the first Vice President to speak at the March for Life rally. The President has been, I think, very consistent in putting forward federal judges who respect life. And so I think that it's been a consistent part of the administration. And so, sure, it's a priority in this bill too.
Q Marc, thank you. You’re giving us a lot of ambiguity here on the issue of CSR payments and whether the President is going to make them or not. The number of insurance companies --
MR. SHORT: Well, I -- you know, look it. I think it's the President's --
Q -- that it's that ambiguity that’s causing them to have to raise premiums going into next year because they don’t know whether those payments are coming or not. What do you make of the argument that says that it’s actually the fact that they can’t plan for next year that means the prices are going up for consumers?
MR. SHORT: I think the price has been going up for consumers for quite some time. Would you not disagree with that?
Q Clearly that’s your position. My question is, are you adding to the price increases by putting that ambiguity --
MR. SHORT: I think that there were promises that insurance plans would decrease the forecast by $2,500 per plan and they increased by over $3,000 before this President came into office. To suggest that the premium increases are a result of our stance on CSR payments -- I don’t think it stands.
Q With the deadline looming, what should insurance companies do?
MR. SHORT: Let me also offer this. That despite the fact we’re still considering what to do with it, this administration has continued to pay them, so it makes it additionally harder to say there’s any price increase that’s been related to that to date.
Q Marc, does the White House support the Senate bill introduced by Rob Portman and Ben Cardin that would outlaw Americans supporting an international movement to boycott Israel?
MR. SHORT: I’ll have to get back to you on that one. Sorry.
Q Yeah, thank you. I’m curious about a lot of (inaudible) concern about how Planned Parenthood funding might be related to the stall in this healthcare agenda.
MR. SHORT: I’m sorry, your question is how the Planned Parenthood is related to the stall?
Q How could Planned Parenthood funding, could be related to the stall in healthcare?
MR. SHORT: I’m not sure it is related to the stall. I think that there’s support for the position right now, and when the bill passed ten times in repeal only it denied Planned Parenthood funding. So I think that’s been a consistent position that has support from the conference.
Q Last week during the debate on the Defense authorization bill, there was an amendment that was voted upon and rejected that would have banned any kind of funding for transgender people in the military. In defense of his vote against that Representative Justin Amash said that Secretary Mattis and the White House urged a "no" vote to combat that amendment. Did the White House urge lawmakers to vote "no" on that amendment?
MR. SHORT: I’m not familiar with the White House urging a "no" vote. I do think that there was a position as to whether or not that amendment belonged on NDAA, and there was some discussion about withdrawing, but I’m not familiar with us whipping the vote one way or the other.
Q Would the White House assert a position that the memo was sent out (inaudible)?
MR. SHORT: I’m not saying it's (inaudible). The position was whether it belonged on NDAA.
Q Marc, can you say if Corey and David Bossie were working as your lieutenants on this bill?
MR. SHORT: No, I wish that Corey and Dave Bossie were my lieutenants on some days, but no, that’s not the case.
Q Were they freelancing? What were they doing?
MR. SHORT: I don’t know what you’re referencing.
Q There’s a story that they were working --
MR. SHORT: I haven’t seen the story.
MR. SHORT: I’m not familiar with that.
MS. SANDERS: We’ll take one last question.
Q Senators Graham and Durbin are reviving a piece of legislation that would address Dreamers through a legislative process. What’s the administration’s position on that?
MR. SHORT: I think that the administration has opposed the DREAM Act and likely will be consistent on that.
Thank you all very much.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Marc.
Later this afternoon, the President, along with the Vice President, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, and Director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, Peter Navarro, will host representatives from small and medium-sized companies that manufacture products here in the United States. We’ll be highlighting products made in American factories by American workers to our economy and how the process of certification ensures the integrity of the iconic Made in America label.
The Trump administration is dedicated to helping build, certify, and defend the Made in America brand so that American products can reach every shore and stock every shelf and American workers can reap the benefits. Unfortunately, the Made in America brand is under attack from a flood of illegally subsidized imports and counterfeit goods. Through a comprehensive plan involving multiple government agencies, the administration will continue to build and defend Made in America’s status as the world’s standard for quality and craftsmanship.
Over on the Hill this afternoon, the House Ways and Means Committee will be holding a hearing on another major administration initiative that will provide relief for American businesses: reforming our overcomplicated and broken tax code. The House hearing today will emphasize how simplifying our tax code will help individuals and families, and small businesses like the ones visiting the White House this afternoon. Taxpayers will spend nearly 7 billion hours and over $250 billion annually to comply with the current system. The hours and dollars that businesses spend on compliance could be much better spent to grow their operations so that they can put even more Americans in well-paying positions.
The Trump Administration is working from all angles to bring jobs back to our country by making it a better place to do business. This morning, United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced that the first round of negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement will take place here in Washington from August 16th to the 20th. These negotiations are beginning on the first possible day allowed by statute, and USTR’s swift actions are reflective of the priority the President has put on renegotiating this deal so that it is better for America’s workers, farmers, businesses, and manufacturers. USTR will be able to help you out with further inquiries on those negotiations as they proceed.
President Trump’s plans to strengthen our Southern border, which is another central part of his agenda to make America safer and more prosperous. The Army Corps of Engineers has begun to lay the groundwork for the construction of a wall along our Southern border, including drilling and taking soil samples in New Mexico, California, and South Texas. In addition, Customs and Border Protection, is currently evaluating design proposals, and we’re already seeing the results of the President’s focus on immigration enforcement. Since the President entered office, illegal border crossing are down by almost 70%, which is a historic low. The President is glad to see serious progress being made on one of his biggest promises he made to the American people.
Finally, I want to welcome senior government of Iraq spokesmen and media directors who are visiting Washington as part of a State Department sponsored exchange program. During their visit, they participated in last week’s Coalition meetings and participated in a series of briefings at the Department of State. They’ve also done some press, both at the State Department and last week at the Pentagon, where they held a joint Press Briefing with Coalition spokesperson, Colonel Ryan Dillon. We’re glad to have them here with us today.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Jim.
Q Sarah, the Obamacare repeal has about one trillion dollars in cuts over time. If it doesn’t pass, those cuts would obviously be off the table. How then, can Congress cut taxes and move on to tax reform without jacking up the national debt? And will the President push for tax cuts knowing this will probably balloon the deficit?
MS. SANDERS: I believe you heard from Marc that we’re confident that this will go forward, and we’re continuing to push for tax reform. At the same time, we’re working on developing that further and we’ll continue to do so and making progress on that front.
Q Thanks, Sarah. President Trump said millions of people voted illegally and cost him the popular vote, but it was said repeatedly at today’s Voter Integrity Commission meeting that the committee has no preconceived notions or preordained results, and Trump himself said that the committee should have conclusions already drawn. So which is it? Did millions vote illegally or do you guys not know? Because the White House has now said both.
MS. SANDERS: No we haven’t. The President --
Q Well, you have, as I have just indicated.
MS. SANDERS: Hold on. I let you finish your question. I’ll answer now. The purpose of the commission, I think we can all agree, both Democrats and Republicans, that we want the highest standard and the greatest level of integrity when it comes to our elections. And the purpose of the commission is exactly what you said. It’s fact-finding. That doesn’t mean that the President doesn’t have any thoughts and opinions, but the purpose of the bipartisan commission is to come together and to look at voter integrity across the board on a litany of different issues. We know there have been a lot of previous studies that have taken place. They’ll take those into account, but also not make any pre-determined decisions on anything based on those studies but conduct a full review of their own.
Q But the President made the conclusion that millions voted illegally and cost him the popular vote. Today he’s saying he doesn’t want this commission that he formed to investigate that to have any of their own conclusions. I’m still not understanding how he --
MS. SANDERS: I don’t understand how the President isn’t allowed to have an opinion while encouraging a committee --
Q So that's just opinion.
MS. SANDERS: -- to take a full review of the election process, which is what it’s setup to do. I mean, there are, again, a lot of studies that have been conducted on this that have facts that they will take into account, but the point is to have a full and complete review, which has never been done from all 50 states, and to make sure it’s as thorough as possible. And that’s the purpose.
Q Sarah, there was a report that just posted that Trump will make the cost-sharing payments to health insurers this month. Is that correct? Has that decision been finalized that he will make those cost-sharing reduction payments?
MS. SANDERS: I believe that the decision has been made to make those through this month and determine beyond that.
Q Sarah, it’s triple play Wednesday, if you don’t mind. First of all, there’s been a lot of talk about what happened in this chance encounter, or whatever you want to call it, at the G20 dinner. Can you set the record straight as to how long the President spoke with President Putin and to the best of your knowledge, what they spoke about?
MS. SANDERS: I think that once again the Russia fever has caught up with the media, and everybody ran out and tried to create a story that simply didn’t exist. There was an official dinner. It was made very public by the release of the President’s schedule as well as the official schedule of the G20 that the President would be at the dinner, that he would participate, that the First Lady would be at the dinner and participate.
This was something hosted by Chancellor Merkel. The seating arrangement were determined by the host, and you know, there were 40 people there to make it look -- actually there were more than 40 because you had all the leaders, plus each delegation was allowed one translator to be present -- and to try and create that there was some kind of private conversation in a room with 40-plus people seems a little bit ridiculous.
Q Sarah, how long did they talk? What did they talk about?
MS. SANDERS: They had a brief conversation, and I’m not going to get in the specifics of the conversation. But again, this was a social dinner where the President spoke with many world leaders, as is the purpose. I think it would be incredibly awkward for them to all sit a dinner and not speak to each other, and I would imagine that all of you would agree with that.
Q Sorry, triple play Wednesday. Can you confirm that the President has ended the CIA’s program to arm moderate Syrian rebels, which is something that Russia was looking for?
MS. SANDERS: I can't at this time.
Q And then the third question --
MS. SANDERS: This is like eight play.
Q No it’s not. (Laughter.) You force the follow-ups. Does the President support the security (inaudible)?
MS. SANDERS: Yes, the White House does support that.
Q Secretary of State on the Russia meeting -- the Secretary of State provided a pretty full readout of the President’s conversation with President Putin in the actual one-on-one. Why not provide some sort of inkling of what was said in that conversation at the dinner? And secondly, why did it take so long for the administration to talk about this conversation?
MS. SANDERS: First of all, the first account given by Secretary Tillerson was a formal bilat, which is very different from a social working dinner with all of the leaders. He was seated next to the First Ladies of Japan and Argentina, and we didn’t offer readouts of either of those conversations.
As a set precedent, President Obama had a pull-aside in 2011 at the G20 where there also was not a readout. In fact, ABC said at the time that it wasn’t necessary because it was a private conversation of a social gathering. There’s a very different standard that you guys like to draw between this White House and previous administrations, and you try to create a situation that frankly just wasn’t there.
In terms of how long, again, this was a publicly disclosed event. The President participated in an official dinner of the G20 that was part of his schedule that was released publicly. You guys came and took pictures of it. It wasn’t like this was some sort of hidden dinner. The pictures have been replayed over and over. It was part of the official G20 schedule, so to act as if this was some secret is just absolutely absurd.
Q There's a great deal of public interest in the candid exchange between these two leaders. Why did it take so long?
MS. SANDERS: Why did it take so long for what? I’m lost on your question here. I’m not trying to be dismissive, but it seems silly that we would disclose a dinner that we had already announced he was participating in. I’m not sure what other announcement should have been made. You guys have pictures of the event taking place, and it was on both the President’s schedule as well as the G20 schedule.
Q But not pictures of those two together in their private meeting.
Q Sarah, is the President confident that the Kremlin translator was accurately conveying what he meant to convey to Vladimir Putin? I mean, it is typical protocol to have another official or translator there so that the Presidents can understand each other properly. Did he trust the Kremlin translator to portray what his thoughts were accurately?
MS. SANDERS: I believe so. Even members of the previous administration from the State Department said that it wouldn’t be advantageous for that translator not to be fully accurate.
Q Do you mean to say, though, that it wasn’t in depth enough or sensitive enough that he felt it a matter of a need to have accuracy and have someone else there? Because obviously there was a staffer -- he was staffed for the Japanese translator.
MS. SANDERS: Right. Again, this was a social dinner and that was the nature of the evening.
Q I’ll go for the double play, Sarah, but let me follow up on Margaret here, and John, because this news from the Washington Post that the President is now going to end this program to arm anti-Assad rebels is obviously significant. Did this come up in that conversation at dinner?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Okay, so the second question then on the Election Voting Commission. The person that the President has installed to be the vice-chair, Kris Kobach, is now saying that nobody -- we may never be sure if Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Also saying it’s possible, if that’s the case, we may never be sure if Donald Trump won the Electoral College. Is that the position of this White House? That it’s unclear whether Hillary Clinton won the popular vote?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s clear who’s the President based on the fact of who’s sitting in the Oval Office.
Q So then does he not trust Kris Kobach to be running this commission given those comments?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Given those comments and if the President in fact does believe that the vote tally was accurate, does he not trust Kris Kobach to run this commission?
MS. SANDERS: Look, once again, the purpose of the commission is to look at how we can best uphold integrity in our election process. We’re not going to make any pre-determined comments on their fact-finding mission, but what I can tell you is Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and he was elected by the people of this country, and he’s serving them very well.
Q Sarah, given the private conversations that the President had with the Russian ambassador and the Russian Foreign Minister here in the White House where it was later learned that he revealed some sensitive information -- classified information -- to those Russian leaders, can you say with certainty that the President revealed no sensitive or classified information in any way to Vladimir Putin during that private conversation?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I haven’t had a conversation about the details, but I know the nature of the evening was a social dinner.
Q Sarah, piggy-backing off of Peter, why didn’t you have a conversation with the President about it? Especially since it has been in the news. It’s, again, another cloud of secrecy, controversy, omission.
MS. SANDERS: It’s not a cloud of secrecy. You guys want to create one, but it just doesn’t exist, April. Sorry.
Q But have you thought about asking the President so that you can put to rest all of these questions?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had a chance to talk to him today. He’s been in the lunch for the last several hours.
Q And lastly, the NAACP said they sent a letter to President Trump in January for an invitation to be a speaker at their convention next week. Presidents going back to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush -- a Republican President -- and Barack Obama, have spoken at the convention. They have not received one word from this administration as to the President or any administration official, be it cabinet secretary or what have you, to speak. Is it under consideration or what is it? Because they said they have a lot of issues, to include issues of healthcare, they want to hear from the President about, and it’s not an organization that’s leaning to one party or another. It’s a 501(c)(3) (inaudible).
MS. SANDERS: My understanding is that the invitation has been declined for this year, but certainly the invitation for dialogue with that group would happily take place, and we would certainly like to be able to continue to do that.
Q When was the organization? When did they get the letter?
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to check on the exact date.
Q Because as of last night, they had no word of any kind.
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’ll have to check on the exact details, but that’s my understanding.
Q Yesterday you rejected any suggestion that the President would be responsible for the healthcare bill failure.
MS. SANDERS: The Obamacare failure. I’m sorry.
Q Yeah, right. Four years ago he tweeted, “Whatever happened, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.” If the healthcare repeal doesn’t move forward, will the President shoulder any blame for what happened?
MS. SANDERS: As I said yesterday and as Marc said earlier today, when we’re talking about the responsibility of the failure of Obamacare, no, the President is not going to own that. We are committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare and expect that to take place.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You previously said that the President and Vladimir Putin only talked about the sanctions related to election meddling. It now sounds like you haven’t spoken to the President about what they may have discussed at that dinner. So would it be true to say that you don’t know, at this point, whether other sanctions came up?
MS. SANDERS: My understanding is that the President only spoke with him about that specific type of sanction, and that was, I think, across the board comment from him.
Q And then I had a question about the travel, following up on Mr. Short’s comments. Will the White House commit the President to not taking any personal travel and staying in Washington for anything but the personal travel until the healthcare bill is done? That would specifically include the weekend trips to Bedminster or any of his other golf courses.
MS. SANDERS: As Marc said, that the President is committed to being here and working on the healthcare bill.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. Mark Walker, the Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said that the RSC draft budget is pretty much in line with what the administration wants except it wants to reform the three entitlements, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The President wants to preserve them, and he hopes to talk to the President about. I believe he’s already talked to Director Mulvaney. Is this something that the President is in cement on or that he would negotiate on?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll check and get back to you.
Q Thanks, Sarah. Two questions for you. To follow up on Adrian’s question, where does the responsibility lie from the perspective of the White House on the pace at which the healthcare process has unfolded?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, on the pace?
Q How quickly it’s unfolded and been addressed.
MS. SANDERS: As I’ve said before, we’re not as focused on shoving this through but making sure we get it right. We’re going to continue to push to fully repeal and replace Obamacare and make sure that gets done.
Q You’ve obviously spoken to the President about the healthcare push from the White House. Has he expressed any sort of concern about his domestic policy agenda and the speed at which healthcare has gone through? Is he concerned that this could affect tax reform, immigration, other agenda items that he has.
MS. SANDERS: He hasn’t mentioned that to me.
Q Sarah, let me pick up on that. An answer that you gave yesterday -- I was hoping you could clarify as it related to healthcare and taxes. You said, “We’re not done with the healthcare battle. We’re going to continue pushing forward on that and hopefully get that completed and then transition fully to tax reform after that’s over.” It sounded like there you were saying that healthcare has to get done in order to move to tax reform. We know that healthcare reform is kind of in this neutral position right now. Is that indeed the case that tax reform still has to wait until whatever happens with healthcare gets settled or are you willing to walk from healthcare at a certain point and say we got to get going on taxes?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t believe it has to wait, but that’s certainly the preference.
Q Sarah, thank you. I just want to go back Marc’s answer on the President’s commitment to stay or go to stay in town. What he said was the President will be traveling, but I imagine the members will be traveling too. So why is it not fair to ask that the President stay in town if he’s asked the senators to do the same?
MS. SANDERS: I think Marc was referring to the weekend but not specifically taking recess. I think that is the expectation -- is that they don’t take a full August recess until the healthcare bill is complete.
Q So we can expect to see the President go to Bedminster, perhaps, during this time?
MS. SANDERS: As always, we’ll keep you guys updated on specific details of the President’s schedule, but as Marc said, we plan to be here while the Senate is in session and get the healthcare bill completed.
Q Two questions. Just to clarify on the conversation between President Trump and President Putin at the dinner. So you’re saying it was very brief. Is that less than an hour, less than a half-hour? Do you have any timeframe for how long that talk was?
MS. SANDERS: We weren’t following him around with a stopwatch, but like I said, it was a brief conversation and certainly not an hour.
Q And then the second question on a different topic. So the U.S. and China were having economic talks today about trade, and there were two press conferences planned for both sides. Both of those press conferences have been canceled. Should we take that as maybe there’s some issues with these economic talks going on -- the trade talks going on with China?
MS. SANDERS: I would refer you to the Department of Treasury to talk about the details of those plans and whatever schedules they may have changed. I can’t speak about their schedule.
Q Sarah, just a quick question. I think this was sort of brought up with Marc when he was just here, but did anyone at the White House ask Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to go to the Hill on the President’s behalf to lobby lawmakers on the healthcare bill?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure of any asks that took place.
Q Are you guys aware that they are there doing this?
MS. SANDERS: I read a report saying that they were there, but beyond that I don’t have any knowledge of a specific ask made of them.
Q Is it possible that they were asked to do that from someone in this administration?
MS. SANDERS: I mean, I think these are both two people that strongly support the President, support his agenda, and that certainly I think very public given that they have been supportive of the President throughout the campaign and even in the administration. And I don’t find it surprising that they would advocate for the agenda of the White House at any opportunity they get. Just like many other supporters that were part of the campaign also support the President on many fronts.
Thanks so much guys. The President is going to have an event here in a few minutes.
3:48 P.M. EDT
Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon.
The United States is very concerned about tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, a site holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and calls upon the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to make a good faith effort to reduce tensions and to find a solution that assures public safety and the security of the site and maintains the status quo. The United States will continue to closely monitor the developments.