Between President Trump’s tweet about having a “bigger and more powerful” nuclear button than North Korea and the blistering statement released about Steve Bannon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders must have known she’d have a lot of questions to answer Wednesday.
During the daily afternoon press briefing, Sanders defended Trump’s tweet on North Korea, saying Trump “is a president who is not going to cower down and will not be weak.”
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
One reporter asked whether the American people should be concerned about Trump’s “mental fitness” after the tweet.
“I think the president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” Sanders replied, saying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made repeated threats and tested nuclear weapons, before again referring to Trump: “This is a president who is committed to protecting Americans . . . and he’s not going to back down.”
When a reporter asked whether it was “dangerous” to be taunting the North Korean leader on Twitter, Sanders replied, “I don’t think it’s taunting to stand up for the people of this country. I think what is dangerous is to ignore the continued threats.”
After some back and forth with the reporter on whether the tweet was, in fact, a taunting one, the reporter said, “Sarah, it’s a taunting tweet to say that he has a larger nuclear button than Kim Jong-un.”
Sanders responded, a bit under her breath: “I think it’s just a fact.”
When a different reporter pointed out that there is no such thing as an actual button that Trump can push to launch a nuclear weapon, Sanders replied that Trump “is very well aware of how the process works and what the capacity of the United States is, and I can tell you it’s greater than North Korea.”
“I think the president’s statement is extremely clear,” Sanders said, adding later that there is “not much gray area” on what Trump’s feelings are in regards to his former chief strategist.
The president’s remarks came hours after the Guardian reported on comments Bannon made about Trump and his campaign in a forthcoming book.
When asked if Trump’s son had committed treason — which Bannon reportedly alleged in the book — Sanders called the accusation “ridiculous.”
And a reporter asked if Trump was indeed “furious” when he heard about Bannon’s comments, Sanders said he, in fact, was, adding that Trump was also “disgusted,” calling the quotes in the excerpts “outrageous and false claims.”
“I think going after the president’s son in such an outrageous and unprecedented way is not a way to curry favor with anybody,” Sanders said.
Read the full transcript of Wednesday’s press briefing, as provided by the White House:
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon.
Q Good afternoon.
MS. SANDERS: Light crowd. As we speak, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short are on Capitol Hill participating in ongoing budget negotiations with congressional leaders. The President urges Democrats to adhere to the so-called Schumer rule and not hold the government hostage in an attempt to advance a radical political agenda.
We must fully fund our military and ensure our brave men and women in uniform have the resources they need. They’re always there for our country and we must not let partisan bickering get in the way of the government taking care of them. The President wants a clean funding bill that fulfills our obligations, takes care of our military, and keeps our people safe.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Cecilia.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The President says that when Steve Bannon was fired, “he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” Does he feel betrayed by Steve Bannon? Does he regret hiring him?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President’s statement is extremely clear what his position on Mr. Bannon is. It was pretty lengthy and pretty detailed, and there’s not really much to clarify or to add.
Q But is there regret there? I mean, he said a lot in this book. And they did have a long and close working relationship. So is there a sense of betrayal?
MS. SANDERS: Once again, I think the President’s statement fully addresses what his position and what his relationship with Mr. Bannon is.
Q Sarah, when is the last time the President talked to Steve Bannon? And this is a serious question: Is the President now blocking Steve Bannon from calling his cell phone?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware that he was calling his cell phone. But I believe the last conversation took place at the first part of December.
Q And what does this mean to the base that these two powerhouses are fighting in the Republican Party? What does this feud do to the President’s base?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think it does anything to the President’s base. The base and the people that supported this President supported the President and supported his agenda. Those things haven’t changed. The President is still exactly who he was yesterday as he was two years ago when he started out on the campaign trail. He agenda hasn’t changed, and he’s continuing to fight for and push for that agenda.
And I think the base is extremely excited and happy with the job that this President has done in his first year in office. Look at all he’s accomplished. I think they’re pretty happy with where he is.
Q Steve Bannon has a distinct following: the alt-right and some people who may not necessarily be for the other; people who are xenophobic. What happens there?
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s a question you’re going to have to ask Steve Bannon. The President’s base is very solid. It hasn’t changed because the President hasn’t and his agenda hasn’t changed. And we’re continuing to accomplish a lot of the things that were on the President’s agenda as we did last year, and we’re going to do a lot more this year as we move into the beginning of 2018.
Q A couple questions. I’ll try to make these simple. First, did the President --
MS. SANDERS: You don’t think I can handle the hard ones? (Laughter.)
Q Did the President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., commit treason?
MS. SANDERS: I think that is a ridiculous accusation and one that I’m pretty sure we’ve addressed many times from here before. And if that’s in reference to comments made by Mr. Bannon, I’d refer you back to the ones that he made previously on “60 Minutes,” where he called the collusion with Russia about this President a total farce. So I think I would look back at that. If anybody has been inconsistent, it’s been him. It certainly hasn’t been the President or this administration.
Q So to follow up on that, did the President meet any of Donald Trump, Jr.’s guests at that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting on that day?
MS. SANDERS: As the President has stated many times, no. And he wasn’t part or aware of that.
Q Finally, quickly, if I can ask you about the tweet about nuclear threats -- the nuclear button tweet. Should Americans be concerned about the President’s mental fitness that he appears to be speaking so lightly about threats regarding a nuclear button?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea. He’s made repeated threats. He’s tested missiles time and time again for years. And this is a President who’s not going to cower down and he’s not going to be weak, and is going to make sure that he does what he’s promised to do, and that’s stand up and protect the American people.
Q But, Sarah, isn’t it possible --
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, Peter, I’m going to keep moving. Jon.
Q But isn’t it possible that he could misinterpret that? You said he’s unpredictable. So couldn’t he misinterpret a tweet like that if he’s so unpredictable?
MS. SANDERS: I didn’t say that. I think it’s extremely clear what the President’s position is, and our position on North Korea hasn’t changed since the beginning. This is a President who is committed to protecting Americans and protecting the people of this country, and he’s not going to back down from that.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. It’s a very harsh statement that the President put out today, and it’s not the first time that Steve Bannon has been topic A here at the White House briefing. The last time, as you made reference to, was after his interview on “60 Minutes.”
And during that White House press briefing on September the 11th, and when a series of questions were asked of you at the time, you were pretty much hands-off in terms of going after Steve Bannon. The President didn’t really respond in any particular way to this “60 Minutes” interview. What’s changed? What’s changed between then and now, after the interview that he apparently did with Michael Wolff for his book?
MS. SANDERS: Look, once again, I think the President and his feelings towards Mr. Bannon are very clear in his statement, and there’s really not much else to add beyond that. I don’t think there’s much gray area in what his feelings are.
Q Thank you, Sarah. But to pick up on that, this is a pretty dramatic falling out between the President and someone who worked on his campaign, and also worked in this White House very close to him every day. And so I think everyone is wondering what led to this quite dramatic falling out. And was it the loss of Roy Moore in that Senate race that was mentioned in the statement? You mentioned that they had last talked in early December. Is this a direct response to Steve Bannon calling the President’s son “unpatriotic” and saying that he committed treason?
MS. SANDERS: I think there are a number of factors that played in. I would certainly think that going after the President’s son in an absolutely outrageous and unprecedented way is probably not the best way to curry favor with anybody.
Q Sarah, you mentioned the statement the President put out. It was very harsh, and it basically says the entire book is fiction. That said, a note explaining how the book came to be said that the author conducted interviews for 18 months, including many with the President, spoke to over 200 people, many of the President’s top aides and people that he spoke to.
MS. SANDERS: He never actually sat down with the President, just to be very clear.
Q He never? Well, two questions. Did they ever speak on the phone?
MS. SANDERS: There was one brief conversation that had nothing to do, originally, with the book. It was, I think, around five to seven minutes in total since the President has taken office. And that’s the only interaction that he’s had.
Q So the only thing was only a phone call between the author and the President?
MS. SANDERS: That’s the only interaction that the President has had with Michael Wolff since he took office.
Q My original question was just if you could reconcile the President’s statement with the author’s statement about how the book came to be.
MS. SANDERS: I’m not sure what the author’s statement is on how the book came to be. I know that the book has a lot of things, so far of what we’ve seen, that are completely untrue. You have many people that have quotes that are sourced to them that are now coming out publicly and saying that those things are not true.
And so I can’t speak to what the author’s comments were. I can only speak for the White House.
Q Does the White House have a copy of the book now?
MS. SANDERS: I believe there may be some individuals that do.
Q Sarah, the statement -- the President’s statement suggests that Steve Bannon had very little influence in the White House. But the President himself elevated him to the same level as the Chief of Staff and put him on the National Security Council. How do you reconcile that?
MS. SANDERS: I wouldn’t say that he elevated him to the same level of the Chief of Staff. And I think that in the actions that Steve took, the President was clear that it didn’t have a lot of influence on him or the decision-making process throughout his time here at the White House.
Q Sarah, can you clarify? Because many of us here have seen Michael Wolff at the White House on multiple occasions. We’ve seen him firsthand. So we know he was here. Who gave him access to the White House? What was he here for? Can you explain any of that since we don’t have access to the logs?
MS. SANDERS: Yeah. So far, from what I can tell of the roughly just over a dozen interactions that he had with officials at the White House, I think close to 95 percent were all done so at the request of Mr. Bannon.
Q So the compliance, really, you would just say came from Steve Bannon? Other White House officials were not working with him in helping to share information?
MS. SANDERS: Any that did so far, as far as we can tell, did so at the request of Mr. Bannon.
Q The President tweeted that he’ll be announcing “the most dishonest and corrupt media” award of the year Monday at 5:00 p.m. Can we get some details on that? Where will he say it? Will it be televised? How many awards will he present?
Q Will there be an audience?
Q Will there be any other judges?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly don’t want to spoil anything -- (laughter) -- but my guess is that there are quite a few individuals that could be up for those awards. And beyond that, I think we’ll have to see what happens on Monday.
Q Will the press corps be there? Will the press corps be in the room for that?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll certainly keep you posted. It might be hard for him to present trophies if you guys aren’t there. But I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see what happens on Monday.
Q I have two policy ones. The first one is, there was some controversy over the weekend about a letter from the Department of Transportation suggesting that the administration doesn’t support the split federal/state framework for the Gateway Rail Tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey. Since it’s infrastructure week -- (laughter) -- I’m wondering if the President --
Q Is it infrastructure week?
Q When isn’t it?
Q -- in principle, supports at least a 50-50 split on that. And if not, what’s changed from when he met with the bipartisan New York delegation earlier last year?
MS. SANDERS: We don’t have any new policy announcements on that front at this point. But as we get further into the year and further into the conversations on infrastructure, we’ll be rolling out more details on what we want to do, what we hope to accomplish, and what the plan is to do that.
Q And then, you got some questions yesterday about the, sort of, shorter list of demands on immigration. I’m wondering if that’s something that Mick Mulvaney and Marc Short brought up to Capitol Hill today as a part of those discussions.
MS. SANDERS: It’s possible that it comes up. We’re certainly open to having conversations on that. The conversation today, the primary focus, is on the budget. Once again, we’d like a clean budget bill, and so that’s not what our focus is going into today’s meeting.
But our priorities on what we would hope to have in any immigration bill and in any DACA deal haven’t changed. They would include securing the border with a wall, ensuring interior enforcement, eliminating the visa lottery program, and ending chain migration. All those things are still the same.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Can you nail down some of the data points with respect to Steve Bannon? You said that the last time the President spoke with him was in the early part of December. Was that before or after the special election in Alabama?
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to look back to that exact date and circle back.
Q Will you take us through the drafting of the statement that the President issued today? It’s rather lengthy. Did he write it in his own hand? Did he dictate it?
MS. SANDERS: Look, these are the President’s words. I think they’re very clear, and there’s not much to add beyond that.
Q And one more thing. It’s been reported that he was furious when these reports first came out, what Bannon was quoted as saying. Is that an accurate depiction?
MS. SANDERS: I think furious, disgusted, would probably certainly fit when you make such outrageous claims and completely false claims against the President, his administration, and his family.
Q Sarah, thanks. I wanted to ask you personally -- and I know you speak on behalf of the President, on behalf of the American people -- how surprised were you at what you read, these excerpts attributed to Mr. Bannon? Did that surprise you in any way? And if so, how?
MS. SANDERS: Certainly surprising. I, for one, was somebody who very much believed that the President could and would win. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have dedicated so much time to that. But not only that -- I worked in the White House since the very first day, and a lot of the characterization that I saw that he was pushing out was the opposite of what I saw take place every day that I’ve been here.
Q And I want to follow up very quickly on North Korea. There’s been some folks in town who’ve said, listen, it doesn’t help, despite the idea being we’re going to be forceful, we’re going to push back. Some of have said it doesn’t help when the tweets come out the way they do. And yet, we know that the President has made clear, ‘I am who I am, I’m going to tweet the way I want to tweet.’
Has there been any consideration that tweets like the one on North Korea actually don’t advance the agenda, meaning working with other partners in the region?
MS. SANDERS: I think what didn’t help was the complacency and the silence of the previous administration. This is a President who leads through strength, and he’s going to do that and he’s going to focus on everything that he can do in order to keep Americans safe, and he’s not going to be pushed around by the leader of North Korea.
Our policy with North Korea has not changed. We’re fully committed to continuing to apply maximum pressure and working with all of our partners in the region including South Korea, who we have a better relationship now than ever before. We’re going to keep working with them and keep pushing forward, and hopefully North Korea will start making better decisions.
Q Sarah, thank you. You just said that people should question the mental fitness of Kim Jong-un. So, then, isn’t it dangerous for the President to be taunting him on Twitter?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think that it’s taunting to stand up for the people of this country. I think what’s dangerous is to ignore the continued threats. If the previous administration had done anything and dealt with North Korea, dealt with Iran, instead of sitting by and doing nothing, we wouldn’t have to clean up their mess now.
Q But you acknowledge it’s a taunting tweet --
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, I did call on her.
Q Sarah, it’s a taunting tweet to say that he has a larger nuclear button than Kim Jong-un.
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s just a fact.
Q Just one more. What does it say about the President’s priorities that he unleashed a four-paragraph statement about Steve Bannon and one tweet on North Korea?
MS. SANDERS: The President has issued a number of statements, as have I, as have the administration -- Ambassador Haley, Secretary of State, Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense -- have all talked extensively about North Korea. To try to limit it down to one tweet is just disingenuous.
Q The President knows that there’s no actual one nuclear button. You’re saying it is actually bigger. But the reality is --
MS. SANDERS: The President is very well aware of how the process works and what the capacity of the United States is. And I can tell you that it’s greater than that of North Korea.
Q Two foreign policy questions. One, yesterday you said there would be more details on Pakistan in the next 24 to 48 hours. We’re seeing some reports that the administration plans to announce as soon as Wednesday or Thursday that it plans to cut off security assistance to Pakistan. Is that accurate?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll continue to keep you posted as those decisions are finalized.
Q Okay. And then, regarding Jerusalem and Israel, the President tweeted last night that, “…We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.”
First, taking it off the table -- when the President announced that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, the administration policy was stated as that the borders were not being decided; this doesn’t affect negotiations. This tweet seems to contradict that.
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think so. It doesn’t affect the negotiations. We still want to continue to have conversations and continue the peace process. We’re still very much committed to that and hope we can continue to push forward in that point.
Q And what is this “pay more” thing?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q He said that Israel would have had to pay more.
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to check on the details of that. I’m not sure, Tamara.
Q Thanks, Sarah. In light of this book and the back-and-forth over how much access Michael Wolff had to the White House, will the White House reconsider its decision to block public release of visitor logs? Will you release visitor logs to the public?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t anticipate any changes to that policy at this point. But if it happens, I’ll certainly make sure you guys are aware.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. First, during the campaign, the President said repeatedly entitlements were off the table and he would preserve Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare Part D as they were.
Now with the passage of the tax reform legislation and the recent statements of House Speaker Paul Ryan that entitlements should be considered in the budget, has the President changed his position from the campaign?
MS. SANDERS: The President hasn’t changed his position at this point. Again, as conversations go on, if that does change, we’ll let you know.
Q My other question: Is it safe to say Steve Bannon is off the list of social invitations for the White House? (Laughter.)
MS. SANDERS: Probably so.
Since those are controlled by the First Lady, I think her statement is pretty clear on her position as well.
Q Thank you, Sarah. A couple questions on Steve Bannon and one on North Korea. How would you describe Steve Bannon’s role in the White House when he was serving in this administration?
MS. SANDERS: I think the President addressed what he feels it was, and, to me, that’s the most important voice in this process. And he’s spoken very clearly on that front.
Q And if I could follow up: Is the President looking for an apology from Steve Bannon? What is he looking for, in the future, from Steve Bannon?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think anything.
Q And if I could follow on North Korea. Discussing earlier the idea that Kim Jong-un would be the one who is mentally ill, is the President concerned that tweeting about nuclear war could cause someone like Kim Jong-un to act with military force?
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’ve addressed this. I think the President is concerned about the continued threats that this individual has made towards the United States and others, and he’s not going to allow him to continue doing that without saying something and standing up for the people of the country.
Q Two questions. First, three former DHS secretaries have said that the deadline for DACA really is this month; that there’s not enough time to put a new program in place by March if it’s not done this month. Do you all agree with that? I mean, does that make you feel like you have to get this done sooner? I know there’s been some talk here about not worrying about it until March.
MS. SANDERS: We’d like to get something done, but, again, we want to make sure that we have complete and responsible immigration reform and we’re not just dealing with one piece of it. And we’ve laid out what our priorities are and what it would take for us to make a deal on that. And we look forward to having those conversations and getting that done.
Q Does it have to be done this month though?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry?
Q Does it have to be done this month, as they are saying?
MS. SANDERS: I don’t know that it necessarily has to be done this month. Look, we’d like to make a deal on securing funding for the border wall as well as ending chain migration, ending the visa lottery program, interior enforcement. We’d like to do that right away. So if the Democrats are willing to sit down and make that deal, I think we’d be happy to get that done by the end of the month.
Q I said I had second question -- a very quick one -- which is, I just don’t understand the timing of something. Steve Bannon left in the summer, late summer. If the President says he lost his mind when he left, why did he continue to talk to him for so many months?
MS. SANDERS: Look, the President continued to have conversations with him, often asked for by Mr. Bannon. The President spoke with him, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t hold that position.
Q Thank you very much, Sarah. Your comments about Kim Jong-un and his mental stability, is that based on a U.S. government assessment, a psychological assessment, or is that your opinion?
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into any further details on that front.
I’ll take one last question. Go ahead, Andrew.
Q The President enjoyed a slight bump in popularity when he was down in Florida golfing. I’m sure you saw this. Is it possible that Americans like him more when he is out of the news and not tweeting?
MS. SANDERS: I think Americans like the fact that he got the largest tax cut in history done. I think they like the fact that they’re going to see a lot more of their paycheck. I think they like the fact that American companies are investing back in this country and not other ones. I think they like the fact that American companies are now giving out massive bonuses across the board.
We’re seeing every single day more and more companies announce decisions like that. I think that’s what most Americans certainly were very happy about, particularly as they went into the holiday season, and they had a little bit more money to consider spending as they celebrated Christmas with their family.
I’ll take one last question. Connor, go ahead.
Q In the past day or so, we’ve seen President Trump attack the press, the Justice Department, and now his former ally, Steve Bannon. By attacking critics and key institutions in our democracy, isn’t the President engaging in authoritarian behavior?
MS. SANDERS: Not at all. The President is simply responding often to news of the day. I think if the President can’t respond aggressively to an individual like the leader of North Korea that continues to threaten Americans, then that’s a dangerous place that we don’t want to go down.
Q But we’ve seen both you and the President call for critics to be fired from their jobs. That’s not the President of North Korea.
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the first part of your question.
Q We’ve seen both you and the President call for critics to be fired from their jobs. That’s --
MS. SANDERS: I don’t think it’s necessarily critics. We’re certainly happy for people that have different opinions, but there is a difference between different opinions and different facts. And people are entitled to an opinion but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And we have a big problem with people putting out misleading information. Those are very different things.
Thanks so much, guys.