James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:36 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. First off, before we get started, I want bring up Tom Homan, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and John Huber, the United States Attorney from Utah, to tell you about two upcoming pieces of immigration legislation that will be voted on in the House later this week. And after they finish, as always, I will come back and take some more questions.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Tom Homan, and I’m the Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I’m at the White House today to participate in a roundtable discussion with President Trump and other important stakeholders, including families of victims who have been killed by illegal aliens.
ICE’s new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, otherwise known as the VOICE Office, is working with families like the ones we’ll be sitting with today to assist them in the aftermath of crimes that could have been prevented.
More than 400 calls from victims have been referred to our community relations officers and victim specialists for assistance with accessing resources, getting more information about a specific case, and how the immigration process works. Sanctuary jurisdictions pose a threat to the American public by refusing to work with ICE and allowing egregious criminal offenders back into the community to put the lives of the public at risk. Not to mention the fact, it also puts my law enforcement officers at risk because they have to go back on the street to arrest somebody they could have arrested in a county jail.
When some law enforcement agencies fail to honor detainers or release serious criminal offenders, they — it undermines ICE’s ability to protect public safety and carry out its mission. Most work with us, but many don’t in the largest cities, and that is where criminal aliens and criminal gangs flourish. It is safer for everyone if we take custody of an alien in a controlled environment of another law enforcement agency as opposed to visiting an alien’s residence, place of work, or other public area. Arresting a criminal in the safety, security, and privacy of the jail is the right thing to do.
Beyond the issue of sanctuary jurisdictions, the two executive orders signed by the President earlier this year have finally allowed my officers to do what they do best: uphold the integrity of our borders and our immigration system by enforcing the laws as they were written.
ICE’s job is to execute a mission within framework provided us, that framework meaning laws, policies, and executive orders. Our job and our sworn duty is to enforce the laws of this country. The current numbers show that the executive orders and the policies are working. Immigration and illegal crossings on the border has significantly decreased. No one can argue that.
What many people don’t realize is ICE is comprised of three major law enforcement arms. I want to talk briefly about them. The Enforcement and Removal Operations referred to — ERO, Homeland Security Investigations, known as HSI, and the third enforcement program is ICE Attorney cores, Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, OPLA.
The mission of ICE’s ERO is to identify, arrest, and remove aliens who present a danger to national security, our public risk, public safety risk, and a risk to border security. ICE conducts targeted enforcement operations in compliance with federal law and regulation. We do not conduct sweeps, raids, roadblocks — this is important to know. This is a targeted enforcement operation, which means we look for a specific person at a specific location based on intelligence and criminal investigative work. They’re not raids. They’re not sweeps.
However, as Secretary Kelly has made clear, no class or category of removable aliens is exempt from enforcement. As you may know, since the President’s executive orders on immigration enforcement were signed, we have arrested nearly 66,000 persons that were either known or suspected to be in the country illegally. Forty-eight thousand of those were convicted criminal aliens. Therefore, 73 percent — 73 percent — of everyone we have arrested were criminals, something that’s been lost in the messaging on immigration enforcement.
As for Homeland Security Investigation, ICE special agents, officers, and attorneys enforce provisions of approximately 400 statutes. ICE is very focused on breaking up gangs and transnational smuggling organizations by identifying, arresting, and prosecuting them, along with removing those that are illegally in the United States.
Since the beginning of January, HSI has already arrested 3,311 gang members across the country in a number of targeted operations. Project New Dawn, a recent gang surge led by HSI, netted 1,378 arrests. Operation Matador in New York recently arrested 39 MS-13 gang members.
In closing, as the executive orders make clear, ICE is ordered to faithfully execute the nation’s immigration laws. Through a sustained commitment to enforcement, illegal immigration will come down and has come down. When people ask us not to arrest those who are not serious criminals I say this: Those who enter our country illegally violated our country’s laws. It’s a crime to enter this country illegally — 8 U.S.C. 1325, illegal entry into the United States.
The moment law enforcement starts carving out exemptions is the moment the rule of law starts to erode. Again, ICE prioritizes those that are a threat to national security and public safety. But prioritization doesn’t mean others that violated our laws are off the table and should be ignored. I personally have been enforcing immigration law for 33 years. The two pieces of legislation we’ll be discussing later today are the most significant pieces of immigration enforcement legislation I’ve seen in my entire career.
This legislation will help the fine men and women of the Border Patrol and ICE to do their job in securing the border, enforcing the immigration laws within the interior of the United States, and make our nation and our communities safer as a result. America deserves that. Law enforcement is a dangerous job, we all know that. This legislation and its effects will also help protect the law enforcement officers that work at ICE and the Border Patrol. And those officers that leave their families every day to enforce the laws of this great nation deserve that.
With that I’ll turn it over to the Department of Justice.
MR. HUBER: Transnational gang members and criminal alien drug traffickers are a significant source of violent crime in the United States. Just last month in Utah, a federal judge issued a sentence of life in prison plus 80 years to Roberto Roman. Roberto Roman, prior to 2010, had been removed from our country no less than three times. He had served a stint in state prison for drug trafficking. And regardless, that was not enough to dissuade him from coming back to our country and selling methamphetamine to addicted persons in rural Utah.
It was in January of 2010 that Deputy Josie Greathouse Fox — the first patrol deputy in the history of rural Millard County, Utah — was working with her partners late at night to interdict drug trafficking in the wide-open spaces of Utah. She intercepted Roberto Roman’s Cadillac on a lonely highway in the west desert of Utah. Roberto Roman is an amoral criminal who had no intention to follow the laws of the United States. Without warning and without remorse, he pulled up his AK-47 style semi-automatic rifle and gunned down Deputy Fox in the middle of the road. He left her to die there.
In a different case, in 2011, in the pristine Dixie National Forest of southern Utah, Mexican cartels had set up an illegal marijuana farm, out of sight and hopefully out of mind of law enforcement. Apparently to help with operational security, the cartel had recruited members of MS-13, three members, who were found with firearms, multiple firearms, protecting the site. In 2011, a federal judge in Utah issued 15-year sentences to each of the three defendants for their role in the crime.
Although Utah has not suffered violence at the hands of MS-13 like occurs in California and here in the states of the East, their influence is creeping ever closer to Utah, where I live. Even still, if MS-13 is not the common-day problem, other transnational gangs are. Take, for example, the Surenos gangs that plague us in Utah. These transnational drug-trafficking organizations and criminal gangs have an outsized influence on the public safety in Utah.
I am a career prosecutor and I’m at the beginning of my third year as a United States attorney, which makes me, presently, one of the longest-tenured U.S. attorneys serving. And both as a line prosecutor and as a lead prosecutor, I have dutifully served both Democrat and Republican administrations. Utah perennially leads the interior states and districts in criminal alien prosecutions. Every year, we prosecute hundreds of federal felony cases.
Now to be clear, these are criminal aliens — drug traffickers, gang members, domestic violence abusers, human traffickers, child exploiters. From my perspective, in Utah, where it should be a presumptively safe mountain haven, criminal aliens significantly impact our quality of life by exposing our nation to unwarranted risk of violence.
That is why Attorney General Sessions has directed myself and my colleagues as U.S. attorneys to prioritize these cases in our prosecutions. If it’s a problem in Utah — and it is; 40 percent of my caseload, my felony caseload in Utah are criminal alien prosecutions. If it’s a problem in Utah, it’s a problem for the nation. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors need more tools and unfettered coordination to address the challenge.
So this pending legislation — Kate’s Law on one hand and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act on the other hand — advance the ball for law enforcement in keeping our communities safe. The laws, if passed, would give officers and prosecutors more tools to protect the public. Stiffer penalties for reentry offenders make sense. It just does.
The status quo is not deterring the criminals from returning. As an example, just today in Salt Lake City, my office initiated one more prosecution in what is projected to be over 300 felony prosecutions this year against a criminal alien. This defendant’s record indicates that he has been convicted four times for drug trafficking. He has been convicted two times for unlawfully reentering the United States after deportation. And, well, he’s back in Utah, and what do you know — in 2017 he was arrested yet again for drug trafficking.
Kate’s Law enhances our ability to stem the tide of criminals who seem to almost always return to victimize us. On the other hand, moving unnatural impediments between local and federal law enforcement will enable coordination that we need to keep our country and our neighborhoods safe. The priority for public safety overrides and wins out against what these so-called sanctuary policies promise.
We don’t gamble with our public safety. Criminal aliens don’t need encouragement to reside in our beautiful cities. Criminal aliens warrant handcuffs and removal. Law enforcement professionals are very good at what they do, and we should not impede them from their excellent work in keeping us safe.
Thank you. We can take a few questions on these topics if you’d like.
Q Specifically, could you tell us what you could do if these laws become passed and approved by the President that you can’t do now? What would enlarge your capabilities that you don’t possess now?
MR. HUBER: Case law — the gist of case is that it raises the maximum penalties for criminals who reenter our country. And it’s a graded formula as it’s presently drafted. So the more you have on your criminal record, or the more times you’ve been deported and reentered, the higher the penalties would be.
Now, that is a message that is sent — if Congress passes this, it’s sent to the executive branch that these are priority cases and they’re important. So as high as 25-year maximum for one of these crimes, depending on your record, sends a message to me that that’s a priority for the nation. It also sends a message to the judicial branch, to the judges that the more these people commit crimes in our communities, the more often they come back, the more serious the penalties will be.
Q Anything else that — you talked about tools to improve law enforcement. That’s just a penalty after a crime has been committed. I’m just curious if there’s anything operationally that’s different or that would be different under these two laws?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: Well, under the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act law, there’s just specific actions — specific thing that changes for us. The new legislation bans any restriction on compliance and cooperation with ICE. The new legislation makes it clear that state and local law enforcement cannot be precluded from asking immigrants their status. Any jurisdiction — a violating jurisdiction can be limited from receiving grants from the Department of Homeland Security or DOJ.
I think this new No Sanctuary for Criminals Act will bring more law enforcement agencies to the table to accept our detainers. It also — there’s a piece of this legislation that if that jurisdiction gets sued for honoring our detainees, the government will take on that lawsuit. So we provide immunity from lawsuits for following the detainer guidance.
That’s what my biggest concern is. For the jurisdictions that don’t believe they’re going to honor our detainers, we think — DOJ and DHS thinks our detainers are legally defensible. The lawsuits that have been pending in the past few years were a different form. They didn’t require probable cause, didn’t accompany a warrant of arrest; the new detainer form does.
So this is what I’m here today to talk about because those criminals that walk out of jails without ICE’s attention are going to reoffend. Recidivism rates — if you look it up it’s between 45 percent to 70 percent, depending on the crime — they’re going to reoffend. That’s a public safety issue and that’s an officer safety issue. For every alien that I can’t arrest in a county jail, one of my officers have to knock on the door. That’s unfair. It’s dangerous and we can prevent this.
I think all law enforcement wants to work together to keep our community safe.
Q I have a question, gentlemen. Can I ask you about the Kate Steinle circumstance? In your experience, can you sort of crystalize for us what that story, what that crime meant to you and why the American people should, frankly, rally behind this if you feel like this is something that they should be talking to their lawmakers about? That particular story seemed to captivate a great many people in our country and I just want to draw on your experience from that story and why that is also why you’re here today.
MR. HUBER: Kate Steinle and other cases like it are great motivators to us. And we can’t bring her back. She’s gone because of the hands of a criminal alien who was released rather than being handed over, according to lawful process, to federal law enforcement. What a tragedy that was. And if we can plug that hole through efforts like these bills try to advance, then that improves our society.
It’s a great motivator. And to name it after her immortalizes the sacrifice that she made to bring this issue to our minds. I don’t know where you stand on the political spectrum, but to have someone who should have been in jail, who had a lawful process requiring him to be in jail but is let out for some philosophical reason, and then to lose a dear family member — it just doesn’t make sense.
Q Was that AK-47 bought legally?
MR. HUBER: AK-47 — any firearm cannot be possessed legally by an illegal alien. So just him possessing him the firearm —
Q — traced it back to the source?
MR. HUBER: As soon as he took possession of a firearm, or — any alien, whether they have a criminal record or not, cannot lawfully possesses a firearm.
Q But was it traced back to the source of where he got the AK-47?
MR. HUBER: We’ve — yeah, he traded that — he traded drugs for that gun, which is a crime also. And that’s part of his life-plus-80 sentence. You can’t do that.
Q Can I get you to also respond to the Kate Steinle question, if you wouldn’t mind?
Q Let me ask you a — I’d like to find out more. When it comes to — thank you. When it comes to not just enforcement of sanctuary cities but, for example, a border wall, I’m wondering, based on your expertise, do you believe that a physical border wall would have stopped, for example, the death of Kate Steinle, or other of these crimes that we’re seeing victims from immigrants?
MR. HUBER: As with many of our public safety challenges in the United States, they’re multifaceted and they’re complicated. Attorney General Sessions has made it clear that keeping people out in the first place is one way to solve or put off the problem. They still make it to Utah. Regardless of the security we have in place right now on the border, they make it to Utah by the hundreds and victimize us.
Q And my second question to you — this is clearly a message that you think is important. You’re here talking with us in the briefing room. Do you believe this would have been more effective to do on camera so you could get your message out directly to the American people?
MR. HUBER: That’s something for the White House to answer. I’ve not a position on that.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I’d like to respond to your question on the Kay Steinle thing. Kay Steinle’s case kind of put this front and center, right? But this happens every day across the country.
Just this morning I looked at the statistics. In FY12 — compared to FY12 to FY16 with this whole detainer litigation and the sanctuary city issues, we issued 196,000 less detainers in FY16 than we did in FY12. I could sit here for the next three hours and talk about cases of aliens that we put detainers on in these sanctuary cities. I’ll give you one — I read one this morning. Someone gets arrested for domestic violence. We put a detainer on him. That’s not honored. He gets out. He kills the victim of domestic violence.
I can go on and on about the number of DUIs — of aliens convicted of DUIs, arrested for DUIs we put detainers on. They go out and reoffend — I read this morning killed a 12-year-old boy on a skateboard. This happens every day across this country. And that’s why this is so important to us.
On the border wall, the border wall is one tool to help control the border. And I hear a lot of times, well, the numbers are down, why build a border wall — why not? We’re talking about securing this country, and a border wall is one tool. You’re still going to need men and women on the border. You’re still going to need border enforcement agents. You’re still going to need a true interior enforcement strategy and enforcement of the laws in the interior. But I have homeowner’s insurance, but I never used it. But it’s to ensure the security of this country.
So that border wall I think is a necessary tool in a whole toolbox of how we control the border and protect this country.
Q Sir, aren’t you concerned though about exacerbating fears about undocumented immigrants? You’re making it sound as if undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than people who are just native-born Americans. There was a Cato Institute study put out in March of this year that says all immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans relative to their shares of the population; even illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans. What is your sense of the numbers on this? Are undocumented people more likely or less likely to commit crimes?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I think you’re misinterpreting what I’m saying. What I’m saying is two things. Number one, people that enter this country illegally violate the laws of this country. You can’t want to be a part of this great nation and not respect its laws. So when you violate the laws of this country — and the taxpayers in this country spend billions of dollars a year on border security, immigration court, detention. And they go through a process. They get a decision from the immigration judge — most times will appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, then to a circuit court. When that due process is over, that final order from a federal judge needs to mean something or this whole system has no integrity.
I don’t know what other federal agency in this country is told to ignore a federal judge’s order from a bench. We are simply doing our job. Did I say aliens commit more crimes than U.S. citizens? I didn’t say that. I’m saying, number one, they’re in the country illegally. They’re in the country — they already committed one crime by entering the country illegally. But when they commit a crime against a citizen of this country, they draw our attention.
As far as fear in the immigrant community, I testified a couple weeks ago and I get a lot of media saying, well, you’re instilling fear in the immigrant community. My purpose is to dispel the notion that if you enter this country illegally and violate the laws of this nation, you should not be comfortable. None of us in this room would be comfortable if we go speeding down a highway. We’re going to think, maybe I’ll get a ticket. If you lie on your taxes you may get audited. Well, if you enter this country illegally, you should be concerned that someone is looking for you. You should be concerned because you violated the laws of this country.
Q And nobody wants to excuse lawbreaking, but what do you do with a family where a mother brings her children across the border, she has committed a crime in your view at that point by crossing the border illegally, she’s in this country with her two young children, those children grow up, become the so-called DREAMers in this country. Do you deport the mother and separate the mother from the family? Because what you’re saying — if you look at this from a cold and clinical standpoint, what you’re saying is because the mother crossed the border illegally, committed a crime, that she should be separated from her children. What do you say to that?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: Well, I got to tell you —
Q You’re not setting policy here. You’re here to talk about enforcement.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I’m here — I’m here to —
Q But that enforcement has real impacts on people’s lives.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: U.S. citizen families get separated every day when a parent or when a parent gets arrested for a criminal charge. So those here illegally, they put themselves in that position.
So when it comes to separating families, when someone chooses to enter this country illegally and they’re here illegally and they choose to have a child that’s a U.S. citizen, they’ve put themselves in that position, not the U.S. government, not the ICE officers. So, again, we’re enforcing the law.
Look, if we don’t have border security, if we don’t enforce the laws that’s written in the books, you’re never going to control the border. Why do you think we got 11 million to 12 million people in this country now? Because there has been this notion that if you get by the Border Patrol, you get in the United States, you have a U.S. citizen kid, no one is looking for you. But those days are over.
Q So you should arrest the mothers, go after the mothers?
Q Sir, is that the message from this White House, you standing at this podium today that if you are an undocumented immigrant in this country right now listening to you that you should be fearful, that you should be concerned, you should be looking over your shoulder that ICE is looking for you?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: Well, you’re losing the message.
Q No, I want to make sure that that’s what the message is.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: No, I’m saying — let me just say it again. ICE prioritizes our enforcement efforts on national security threats, public safety threats, those who have been ordered removed by a judge and failed to depart, and those who have been ordered removed, were removed, and reentered the country — which is — the legislation is about — that’s a felony when you reenter the country after removal. That’s what I’m saying. That’s our priorities.
However, what I’m saying, during the course of those operations if we find someone here illegally, we’re not going to turn the other way. We’re going to put them in front of a judge. They’re going to have their due process and let the criminal justice system work the way it’s been designed.
Again, we’re enforcing the laws enacted by Congress and signed by the President. ICE officers, U.S. attorneys don’t make these laws up. Our job is to execute the laws of the country.
Q Do you believe that that should apply to children who are brought here illegally, the DREAMers?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I think the administration has been clear that the deferred action for childhood arrivals, they still have deferred action. And the only DACA people that I know have been arrested are those that violated our policy by committing crime.
Q Do you agree with that policy, that they should be allowed to stay?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: That’s above my pay grade.
MR. HUBER: Yes, ma’am.
Q Yes, okay, so a question. Several of the families that have lost loved ones to illegal alien crime are here today at the White House. And one of the things that I wanted to ask is, a lot them have issues of this alien was convicted of DUI twice and was still here and then hit my child, and then even then only served like 35 days in jail after that offense that killed her child — Sabina Durden is that one. What about prosecutorial discretion? I hear a lot of Border Patrol agents talk about the issue of catch and release, and that these — like drug crimes are not — they use prosecutorial discretion and then like don’t actually bring those cases?
MR. HUBER: We are very motivated. And with the leadership in the Department of Justice from Attorney General Sessions, we are mandated to make these cases a priority. My heart goes out to the victims of these crimes. And we can’t go backwards in time, but we can learn the lessons and move forward.
In the words of the Attorney General, the times for drug traffickers and gang members to target us need to turn. And the Department of Justice is committed to targeting them on our terms. And that is where the instruction to me comes from.
Q And can I just give you a follow-up? You mentioned Kate’s Law, you mentioned this other sanctuary cities law. Do you think the sanctuary cities law that you talked about is strong enough? And also what about Grant’s Law and Sarah’s Law?
MR. HUBER: Well, one adage in our society is don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. These bills advance the ball for law enforcement.
And with your question about victims and their families, the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, if passed, provides an avenue for them to hold accountable noncompliant cities or counties for their decisions that endangered them.
Q Sir, you have a piece in here talking about gangs. And the President has been talking about gangs since he’s been here at the White House. Is there anything in Kate’s Law that once you I guess handcuff the criminal repeat offender, criminal aliens — is there a piece in Kate’s Law that works also to break the backs of the gangs that you have pointed out?
MR. HUBER: We are committed to dismantle gangs, criminal gangs. What Kate’s Law does is give us one more tool that is fairly easy to use, because we’re not reliant upon witnesses who may be intimidated by the gangs or victimized by the gangs. This enables us to, based on a person’s status and their criminal record and their deportation record, to simply prosecute them in federal court, obtain a prison sentence, and get them out of here. That is one more tool for us to fight the gangs back.
Q So but does this also allow for tentacles to go in to find out more information about the gang activity? You get this one person who could be a component, who could be selling drugs with the gang. Is there any kind of tentacle or piece that will allow you to do what the President wants, to break the backs of the gang once you infiltrate and get someone who is part of a gang?
MR. HUBER: This is one more tool in my toolbox. And the great special agents and local law enforcement officers who develop those leads and work their way up to the top of the chain so that we can dismantle these gangs organizationally, this is one more tool that will help us do that.
Q Director Homan, you said — you’re talking about a tool kit and you’re talking about the border wall being part of the momentum of being able to deal with this issue. A lot of people on the other side have said that comprehensive immigration reform might be a way to ease some of these stresses. What do you think about comprehensive immigration reform as a tool in your tool kit?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I think — look, I think Congress enacts laws and they pass laws. I think there’s always room for discussion. I’ve certainly been around a long time.
I want to follow up on something earlier — the gentleman mentioned “cold,” and people think I’m standing up here and I’m the devil. Let me make something clear: Why am I so strong about this? I’ve been doing 33 years. I started in the Border Patrol. I was an investigator for 20 years. I climbed the ladder. If you saw what I saw the last 33 years, I wouldn’t get half the bad media that we get.
People weren’t with me when I found dead aliens on a trail that were abandoned by smugglers. People were not with me when I was in Phoenix, Arizona seeing these people being held hostage and their smuggling rates being doubled; the families couldn’t pay them so women were raped, children were molested, or the smuggled alien was killed at the hands of these organizations. People weren’t with me in Victoria, Texas when I stood in the back of a tractor trailer with 19 dead aliens, with a five-year-old that died in his father’s arms because he suffocated to death. How do you think that five-year-old felt his last 10 minutes of his life looking at his father that couldn’t help him, or his father looking at his child that’s dying in his arms, can’t help him?
These organizations are callous. They’re transnational, criminal organizations. So the people that move these immigrants that come here for a better life are the same ones that move criminal aliens, are the same ones that moves — they smuggle weapons, they smuggle dope, and they can smuggle people that can come to this country to do us harm.
So the more we endorse the non-enforcement of immigration laws, we bankroll these organizations.
Q But back to that question about immigration reform and a path to citizenship, this has been one of the really big issues and it cuts across party lines. Do you think that having a path to citizenship and creating sort of a more rational process, in the minds of some opponents of this policy, would be helpful from an enforcement perspective?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I’ll say this. Generally if we reward illegal behavior, why would that illegal behavior ever stop? If people think they can enter this country illegally, get by the Border Patrol, the fine men and women of the Border Patrol — I was in the Border Patrol. They’re a great organization. But if you get by the Border Patrol and you hide in the United States long enough that you get something in the end? That’s just a magnet to bring more illegal immigration. I think this administration is doing the right thing.
They have put true consequence and deterrence on illegal, unlawful activity. And if you see the numbers on what’s going on on the border, it is working. The numbers are the lowest they’ve been in a long, long time. And we’ve got to continue this pace.
Q I just want to nail down — I think I heard the answer to this in one of your answers, but how many illegal immigrants do you believe are in this country?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I see the same estimates you see — 11 [million] to 12 million.
Q Do you give any credence to the notion that there’s 30 million illegal immigrants in the country?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I never heard that figure.
Q It’s something the President Trump said on the campaign trail a lot last year. I’m just wondering if you think there’s any truth to it.
Q President Trump uses that figure.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: The number I have always seen is 11 [million] to 12 million.
Q Director, what do you say to some taxpayers who might agree with this bill on its substance but who are concerned that ultimately it’s going to cost them more money? According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, it’s going to balloon the federal annual prison deficit by at least $2 billion and increase the number of people who are in prison by 57,000. What do you say to those concerns?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I’d say what cost do you put on making communities safer? What cost do you put on actually securing your border? I mean, this administration — their policies are working. Their numbers are down on the border. We have better control of the border than we’ve ever had. Look at the numbers. Numbers speak for themselves.
So I think — what cost do you put on national security and border safety and community safety? I think that’s a question they’d have to answer.
Q Do you think the message you just shared with us here would be of interest to the viewing public if the viewing public was allowed to view it on-camera?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: That what, sir?
Q Your message was strong. We hear it. Do you think it would be of interest to the viewing public if it was allowed to be viewed by the public on cameras?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: I have no problem meeting with any congressional rep that wants to sit down and talk to me, any media person that wants to sit down and talk to me. I think the message needs to get out. I think what we’re trying to do here — and the statement I made is we need to send a clear message that if you violate the laws of this country you need to be held accountable, you need to be concerned. Because this notion that it’s okay to violate laws of this country and be comfortable thinking there’s going to be no enforcement activity — that’s not the America I grew up in, and that’s not the America we should have.
Q And that’s what — want to get out to the public, but yet the cameras aren’t rolling.
Q Director, would you support allowing victims of illegal aliens to sue the city officials of sanctuary cities?
MS. SANDERS: We’ll let this be the last question.
DIRECTOR HOMAN: Yes.
Q Would you support allowing victims of criminal aliens and sanctuary cities to sue the city officials?
DIRECTOR HOMAN: For those who make the decisions to release those alien citizens to the street, yes.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, guys, very much. Just to be clear, I know it’s been asked a couple of times about their availability to be on camera. I believe the plan is that they will go to the sticks shortly after we conclude and be happy to take a few of your questions on camera. My guess is if they had stood here, though, you probably wouldn’t have covered them like they were Secretary Perry, Secretary Shulkin when they opened the briefing just a few days — yesterday. A couple of weeks ago, multiple networks didn’t cover those openings, so hopefully you guys will take the opportunity at the sticks and be sure to cover that.
Obviously this issue is something that the President spoke about very passionately on the campaign trail. And given the fact that this legislation has 80 percent approval around the country, the President looks forward to seeing Congressman Goodlatte’s bills pass with bipartisan support.
In regards to the rest of the President’s schedule for today, he continued Energy Week this morning by hosting a roundtable with tribal, state, and local leaders. As Secretary Perry told you all yesterday, the Trump administration is looking to create an energy-dominant America. An energy-dominant America will bring even more hard-working Americans into the high-skill, well-paying jobs and careers the energy sector offers. When we can export American energy to markets around the world, the President will also be able to use it as an important tool to increase our global leadership and influence, advancing our global agenda and helping to keep our citizens safe.
Before I take your questions, I wanted to highlight Samsung’s announcement this morning that it will be investing nearly $400 million in a new plant in South Carolina that is expected to create nearly 1,000 local jobs by 2020. This is big news for the residents of Newberry County. As Secretary Ross said this morning, it’s another sign that President Trump — America is becoming an even stronger destination for global businesses to look and grow.
With that, I will take your questions. Kristen.
Q Sarah, thanks so much. I want to just be clear on where the administration stands right now on Syria. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said earlier today, “I can tell you due to the President’s action, we did not see an incident.”
MS. SANDERS: I’m sorry, we did not see —
Q “We did not see an incident.” Is the sense that the threat from Bashar al Assad at least right now is over? That he’s no longer planning an imminent chemical weapons attack?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I can’t get into specific intelligence matters. I think that the action that the U.S. took was successful.
Q And did the President ever consider taking preemptive military action, or was that statement the only thing that was on the table this week?
MS. SANDERS: I know that was the action decided. I’m not, of course, going to go into detailed conversations that may have taken place or may not have taken place. I know that there have been, actually, a lot of questions about the timeline regarding Syria. I know several of you in the room have asked about that.
So, Kristen, to be clear, I’d be happy to walk you through, step-by-step, exactly how that process unfolded. There were a lot of stories about the process not working or relevant agencies and people being out of the loop. Those are simply false.
At a regularly scheduled meeting, as I mentioned yesterday, the President was presented with information that indicated the Assad regime was preparing another chemical weapons attack. The President proposed issuing a statement to warn the regime of consequences. Senior administration officials, including NSA McMaster, DNI Director Coats, and DCI Pompeo were present when the statement was initially proposed. They and their teams remained in the loop throughout the drafting process. Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis remained in the loop and were consulted in-person later that day. The military chain of command was also fully aware of the statement as it was being prepared and later released. Secretary Tillerson also spoke to his Russian counterpart, and Lieutenant General Townsend engaged his Russian counterpart in Syria.
The White House staff secretary’s office reviewed the statement and coordinated it with White House leadership. And over the next few hours, the White House staff secretary used its typical coordination process to solicit comments from all relevant departments and agencies. By the time the statement was issued, every relevant department and agency had ample opportunity to provide feedback and input.
As the President stated on April 6th, the use of chemical weapons threatens U.S. vital national interest, and the statement was clear and reinforces this message. We have seen indications that the Syrian regime is preparing — was preparing a major chemical attack, and the President warned the regime of consequences should they proceed.
Q Just one more quick follow-up. Is the use of chemical weapons the President’s only red line when it comes to Syria?
MS. SANDERS: As we’ve said many times before, the President is never going to broadcast the decisions on matters like that.
Q But he does see that as a red line, the use of chemical weapons?
MS. SANDERS: I think he’s been clear on his position. Kevin.
Q Thank you, Sarah. I want to ask you about the Kate Steinle announcement here today. Is her father by chance going to be among the guests? I know that — at least when we came out here — I hadn’t seen a list. And secondarily, because you know that story very well, what does it mean to you to see the administration get to this point? And I’d like to ask you a follow-up.
MS. SANDERS: On the first part, I don’t believe that they are here but I will double check and let you know. But as far I’m aware at this point, not that I know of. I think any time we can take a step in protecting Americans, it’s a great step forward in the process.
Q And also, if I could ask you about — yesterday you had a day to sort of look back. Did you go to the gym and hit the heavy bag? Did you laugh it off? Many of us have covered multiple administrations and you hear worse, you see worse. I’m just wondering what you were thinking and feeling a day later.
MS. SANDERS: I think that the White House had a great day yesterday, Kevin.
Q Thank you. If the GOP healthcare plan fails, is the plan B really to let Obamacare implode? What’s plan B for you guys?
MS. SANDERS: We’re focused on plan A, and that is repealing and replacing Obamacare. The President is fully engaged as — along with his administration in working with House and Senate members to make sure that we repeal and replace Obamacare and put in place a healthcare reform system that is sustainable and that works and serves all Americans. And that’s the focus right now, and that’s the only focus.
Q And I know you’ve seen the criticisms — and part of the criticism that’s been out there is that the President has not been fully engaged on this one. Your response to that, and if you could detail his level of engagement for us.
MS. SANDERS: Again, as I just said, the President’s been very engaged in this process, as have multiple members of his administration. And he’s made a lot of calls directly to members. He had roughly I think 46 members of the Senate here yesterday. They had a long and lengthy and very good and productive conversation. We’re going to continue doing that, just like he was with the House. He was engaged and making sure that happened. And he’s somebody — as we’ve said before, I would never underestimate this President, and if he’s committed to getting something done he will.
Q Thanks a lot, Sarah. You said yesterday during the briefing that the President was optimistic about getting passage for the Senate healthcare bill. As you know, there are at least nine Republican senators that have come out opposed to the healthcare bill as it’s now structured. What gives the President reason for optimism given the way it looks to most people is perhaps a reason for pessimism?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s really simple. Look, Republicans have been talking about doing this for a number of years, and they’re committed to getting it done. And this is part of the process. This is one of the reasons we’ve never been focused on a timeline of having to get it done on a certain day, by a certain holiday or anything else. It’s about getting it done right.
And the President, as you know, again, sat down with a lot of those members that you’re referencing yesterday. Those same people are committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare and putting something in that actually works. They’re committed to doing that, and that’s what we’re focused on. That’s what we’re going to make sure happens.
Q During that Q&A session, that meeting with those Republican senators, did the President hear anything from those opposed to the Senate healthcare bill that leads him to believe that they will change their minds as it relates to this legislation?
MS. SANDERS: I think he heard — again, like I just said — what all of Americans have been hearing all of these members talk about is that this is something that has to happen. Obamacare is simply not sustainable. Even Democrats have recognized that. And our path forward is to repeal and replace it. It’s very simple.
Q Sarah, you mentioned the meeting yesterday with the 46 members of Congress. I believe you said also yesterday that he talked to four on the telephone. We know that Rand Paul was here. He had a meeting with GOP leaders about this. Is there anything else that the President was doing? I ask this specifically because Susan Collins had mentioned that they — that she feels that there could have been more personal engagement before this point in time. And I’m wondering if the President could have done more, if you think the President could have done more, should have done more, and what he’s going to be doing moving forward to get this across the finish line?
Q I mean, I think you’re talking about it as if it’s over, and it’s certainly not. I mean, again, this is part of the process, is walking through. We’ve said from the beginning that there were going to be changes that would probably take place within this piece of legislation. That’s where we are.
Again, the President has been directly engaged and will continue to be so.
Q Sure. On another topic, I want to ask you about an NPR and Marist poll that came out today. One of the questions they asked was about the President’s tweeting. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said that they found it distracting and it wasn’t helpful. I know that you guys have said repeatedly that you think that the President is the best, the most effective messenger, and that you think the tweeting helps. What do you — where are you guys getting that from when you see polls like this that say that a majority of Americans think that it’s a distraction?
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t seen the poll that you’re referencing but I do know that the President speaking directly to the American people is always a good thing. No matter who the President is, that’s a positive no matter what.
For the people to hear directly from their President, no matter what format that is in — whether it’s through social media platforms, whether it’s through speeches, whether it’s through interviews — that’s always a positive. And I think most people agree.
Q The President, as we all know, is having an event tonight at his hotel. Is he running for reelection?
MS. SANDERS: Of course he’s running for reelection. I think it would be — but right now, he’s focused on his agenda, focused on the midterms. That will be the first election. He’s raising money for the party. I don’t think that’s abnormal for any President.
Q We’d appreciate it if you could open that event up to coverage tonight?
MS. SANDERS: I’ll be sure to pass that on.
Q Thank you, Sarah. You’ve focused a lot on the problems in the Obamacare exchanges and said today again that this situation is unsustainable. Does the President believe that Medicaid in its current form is unsustainable?
MS. SANDERS: I know that the plan as of right now and certainly in the most recent draft of the bill is to make sure that Medicaid is protected.
Q In its current form?
MS. SANDERS: In its current form, that anybody who is currently on wouldn’t lose coverage.
Q But what about in the future? Because this plan drastically changes Medicaid, which actually is a bigger chunk of the healthcare delivery system than the Obamacare exchanges?
MS. SANDERS: Look, I think that’s — again, part of this process is working through that and figuring out the best way to provide medical care.
Q Does he want changes in the Medicaid portion of the bill?
MS. SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of, but I would have to speak directly to him. I just don’t know the answer to that directly.
Q Sarah, Paul Manafort, who was for a time the general chairman of the campaign, and Rick Gates who was a figure in the campaign and also the presidential inaugural committee, have registered retroactively as representatives of a foreign government to retroactively comply with a law which they were not in compliance with. Does the White House regret that they were not in compliance with the law when they were working on behalf of candidate Trump or the inaugural committee? Do you have any reaction to the fact that they’re now trying to retroactively do something they should have done long, long ago?
MS. SANDERS: I certainly can’t speak for the campaign. I’m here solely as a representative of the White House, and that would be a campaign matter. And I couldn’t speak to that.
Q Let me ask you about healthcare. Yesterday, Senator Paul after his meeting with the President didn’t say directly, but he left the impression that part of their conversation was for Senator Paul to express that he didn’t believe the current draft fully repeals the Affordable Care Act, and that’s one of his grievances. And he left the impression that the President might agree with him on that. So I want to ask you directly: Does the President believe that one of the flaws with the current draft is that it does not go far enough to repeal the Affordable Care Act?
MS. SANDERS: I wasn’t part of that conversation. I would be happy to ask that question and follow up with you maybe.
Q Thank you, Sarah. There’s a lot of changes being floated out there — changes to Medicaid, changes to U.S. coverage requirements. Is there a change that’s being proposed that would be a nonstarter for President Trump that would be a deal-breaker, that if it was included he wouldn’t put his signature on the bill?
MS. SANDERS: I’m sure that there are things. I mean, there’s a lot of crazy things I’m sure that could be suggested that would be deal-breakers for all of the Senate. But we haven’t sat down and made a list of deal-breakers. If we have, I’m not aware of it. But I can certainly ask if there is one and circle back.
Q Thank you. Sarah, at the State Department, the positions of Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism and the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom have — they remain vacant. It’s my understanding that the special envoy position is going to expire or be empty in a few days. This as anti-Semitism and religious persecution, of course, worldwide is on the rise. These are values the President routinely raises. Is this a missed opportunity? Does the White House or does the State Department plan to fill these positions? What’s going on here?
MS. SANDERS: I mean, I think certainly one of the biggest missed opportunities is the ability for us to staff across the board. We have seen obstruction like never before. The average time that it’s taking for us to get somebody through the process and confirmed is significantly longer than any historical precedent by several weeks.
We have nearly a hundred people in the queue that are waiting to be pushed through. And due to the lengthy process and the obstruction by Democrats, that’s held up a number of positions not just at the State Department, but across the federal government. Hopefully we can get those positions filled. And certainly I would imagine those would be on that list.
Q Two things — to follow up on a question earlier. Why is the White House choosing to keep the President’s remarks at the fundraiser tonight closed to the press?
MS. SANDERS: I think that’s been tradition. And as you’re shaking —
Q Only in private homes.
MS. SANDERS: — that’s actually not true. There were actually quite a few instances during both of the two previous administrations not to open up fundraisers. If that changes, I’ll certainly —
Q But we go — the pool goes in at the time.
Q But what is this administration’s explanation for why that’s necessary?
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s a political event and they’ve chosen to keep that separate for the time being.
Q And then I also wanted to ask you about one of the President’s tweets earlier today when he talked about The Washington Post and Amazon, referring to Amazon not paying Internet taxes, he says, which they should. What was the President referring to?
MS. SANDERS: I’d have to check on that. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it.
Q Thank you. I have two for you. One on healthcare, the President in the West Wing here was talking about Senator Chuck Schumer. He says that he’s done a lot of bad talking and doesn’t seem like a serious person. There’s some discussion on the Hill that there needs to be a bipartisan solution with healthcare. So given those comments about Senator Schumer, who presumably would have to come to the table, is the President abandoning Democratic cooperation?
MS. SANDERS: I think Democrats abandoned the ability when they said that they were unwilling to come to the table and have, frankly, refused to be part of the conversation from the beginning. And I think they set that tone and certainly set that standard by not participating, by not wanting to be part of the process.
Thanks so much, guys.
2:32 P.M. EDT