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Remarks by President Trump at FIRST STEP Act Roundtable with Governor Bryant and Law Enforcement Leaders

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Date:
Location: Gulfport, MS

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Thank you for being here. I'm thrilled to be back in the great state of Mississippi.

We're here today to discuss a landmark prison reform bill called the FIRST STEP Act -- so important. This legislation will help former inmates reenter society as productive law-abiding citizens and it has tremendous support no matter where we go. Tremendous support. Beyond anything I would've expected.

We're grateful to be joined by Vice President Mike Pence. Mike, thank you very much.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Governor Phil Bryant. Phil, great job you've done.

Senator Roger Wicker. Where's Roger? Roger, right here. Roger -- come here, Roger. Give me five. You've been a tremendous help.

Senator -- and we can almost say, "Senator-Elect" -- if you want to know the truth. But you have been there and you've done a great job.

SENATOR HYDE-SMITH: Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: And hopefully you will be Senator-Elect, because tomorrow we're tomorrow we're going to elect her. And we have a tremendous race going on, and she's -- Cindy Hyde-Smith has been fantastic. And she's been not only a great candidate, but she's been really an outstanding person in Washington for the short time, and now for a long time -- for many years, we hope, Cindy. So good luck tomorrow.

SENATOR HYDE-SMITH: Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Good luck tomorrow.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who's my friend and done a fantastic job, especially with the hearings on Justice Kavanaugh. That was an amazing moment, I will tell you.

Jared Kushner has worked so hard on what we're here about tonight. Jared, thank you. Fantastic job.

And a number of the tremendous Mississippi law enforcement leaders who will be talking in a little while. I think we're going to be hearing some of their comments and suggestions, Phil. And I look forward to that.

The FIRST STEP Act has been a great bipartisan effort, and I look forward to continuing to be partners with Cindy and all of the people; Roger; the people of Mississippi who have worked so hard on legislation, and this legislation in particular.

What we'll have here is communities will be safer by helping inmates gain the skills that they need to obtain jobs and stay out of prison after they are released, which has been a tremendous topic. I think we've helped a lot, because the economy is so good that a lot of people that would not have had a chance -- Phil, you know this -- that they would not have had a chance are now getting jobs, and the people that are hiring these people are saying some incredible things. I guess not in all cases, but in many cases. Right? It's not in all cases for anyone. But frankly, they are getting phenomenal reviews, so that's really good. So the economy is a big factor.

Enact reasonable sentencing reforms to ensure fairness while keeping dangerous criminals off the street -- so important -- and revitalize our criminal justice system to be tough on crime but also smart on crime.

So I think what I'd like to do is maybe just go around. And I'd love to start with you because you have done such a great job. Phil has told me all about you. And maybe I'd like to start with you, and hear your ideas and any suggestions on the bill.

COMMISSIONER HALL: Mr. President --

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.

COMMISSIONER HALL: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to be taking part in such a most important conversation from a justice reform.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

COMMISSIONER HALL: And being a member of the correctional system, the leader of the correctional system, recognizing that there had to be a shift in our focus from true incarceration to rehabilitation or reentry.

We've done tremendous efforts in Mississippi with our criminal justice reform legislation that we passed in 2014, House Bill 585, that was (inaudible) criminal justice reform to address those issues of citizen reform to look at who we are incarcerating, the reasons that we're incarcerating those people and for the lengths of those sentences, recognizing that not everyone belongs in the criminal justice system --

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

COMMISSIONER HALL: -- and in prison, and that we had to have something alternative to incarceration.

So with the support of Governor Bryant and our legislative body, we've made some great changes in our process.

The Department now has more reentry services, and we know that it takes resources to be able to do that -- that vocational training.

We have to address all of those issues that cause people to recidivate. We have to address their housing needs, their employment needs, their educational needs, and their substance abuse and mental health needs.

Our correctional system in Mississippi has approximately 19,400 people in it. We were able to divert that population with our criminal justice reform legislation. From 2013, we were projected to grow well over 23,000 people. We made some successes in reducing our population to 19,400, but we have much more work to do.

And so with all of those measures that we're trying to put in place -- like you said, being smart on crime reduction -- that we're addressing their reentry needs and making sure that they have vocational training when they leave our system; making sure that we are getting them transitional housing so that they have a place to go once they leave, and that we're making sure that we address all of those needs.

Our system has approximately two-thirds of it that have substance abuse issues --

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

COMMISSIONER HALL: -- whether it be alcohol-related issues or, you know, substance abuse. And so we knew that we had to expand what we were doing from a alcohol and drug treatment standpoint.

We were able to get a grant -- and I don't want to talk too long, Mr. President --

THE PRESIDENT: No, it's okay. No, it's very fascinating what you're saying. No, you go ahead. She's very passionate and really knowledgeable. That's very nice. Go ahead.

COMMISSIONER HALL: I appreciate it. We were able to get a grant with the Department of Mental Health. And with that grant, we're able to service people with co-occurring disorders, those with both the mental health and substance abuse issues. And in 2016, we were able to get a $600,000 grant for the state of Mississippi to address those needs.

We've done so well with those measures they've extended our grant, and so we've extended for three years to expand in other counties across the state to address those needs. And so we recognize that unless we deal with that population from a mental health and substance abuse standpoint, we're going to lose.

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

COMMISSIONER HALL: And so we're expanding our services in that regard, but we're also addressing the vocational training. That is a great need. Like, you talk about that second-chance employment that the private sector has now gotten onboard with us and said, "Okay, what can we do help you reemploy these people that are leaving our correctional system?"

We know that anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of the people in our system are coming back to our communities. So we want to make sure that they're coming back better than they were when they were in our system. So we're making sure that they get that vocational training that they need.

One new problem that we had -- and I think the Governor is proud of it -- is our CDL program, because we know the trucking industry is one of those industries that employs a lot of people returning to the communities. And so --

GOVERNOR BRYANT: Commercial Driver's License.

COMMISSIONER HALL: That's right. That's right. So with those commercial driver's licenses, we're going to be able to employ a lot of people leaving our correctional system.

So the construction industry, the trucking industry, as well as the factory-related businesses -- Nissan has come out as a very good partner of ours; the Brown Bottling Group -- all of those industries has said we're willing to offer second-chance employment.

So we recognize that as a benefit to the Department, and we're going to continue to do more of that and expanding those programs, but recognizing that it's going to take the resources; that you have to invest in corrections in order for us to realize those great benefits. And we're doing that with the help of the Governor and others in the state of Mississippi.

And so we're on track to ultimately save the state $264 million over a 10-year period.

THE PRESIDENT: And better lives.

COMMISSIONER HALL: That's right. That's right. To make more taxpayers and tax burdens. And that's what we're all focused on doing. And investing in corrections and investing in the criminal justice system is ultimately investing in true public safety and crime reduction, and that's what we're all about.

THE PRESIDENT: Boy, that is so great. Such passion, too. That was really impressive. Fantastic job you just did.

And the level of -- that is really -- would you say, Lindsey, that is great passion and that's why you're so great at what you're doing. And I've heard you've had tremendous success. Phil told me about it. And I want to just thank you very much.

COMMISSIONER HALL: Thank you. I appreciate it.

THE PRESIDENT: Beautiful job. Really beautiful job.

COMMISSIONER HALL: Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Phil, how about you saying a couple of words?

GOVERNOR BRYANT: I do know you've heard me, and Pelicia, who did such a good job -- Commissioner Hall.

But these ladies here have a very special -- you've got a prosecutor and a Miss Mississippi. And that's really an example, along with corrections and law enforcement, of who would support this bill.

So maybe we could hear from a tough District Attorney. And, Angel, if you'll talk a little bit about the -- from a prosecutorial side.

MS. MCILRATH: Yes, sir. Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.

MS. MCILRATH: Mr. President, as prosecutors, we basically have two categories of offenders we deal with. We've got the violent, habitual major drug-traffickers that need to be in prison to protect society, but then we've got this category of people who are low risk and who can be rehabilitated.

And so, criminal justice reform in Mississippi is working. What they did for us is they left intact our ability to deal with these dangerous offenders and keep them in prison, but opened the door for more people to be eligible for alternative sentencing, like the recidivism reduction program in MDOC, or our drug courts. Our drug courts are a Mississippi success story.

And so those are things that are important to prosecutors. I can tell you that it's working here, and I believe that your Act is going to work as well.

THE PRESIDENT: That's fantastic.

GOVERNOR BRYANT: As you can probably tell, she's pretty special young lady.

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

GOVERNOR BRYANT: She's had a few challenges in life, but her platform as Miss Mississippi is to take on this corrections reform. And we love her to death, and we're so very proud of her.

MS. BRANCH: (Inaudible) me to speak.

I do a lot and I've seen a lot. And I am very fond of this bill because I see the impact that it can have. And the most important thing when it comes to inmates is reintegrating them into society and then being successful and reducing the recidivism rate, which is incredible. And so I think this will be very beneficial, honestly. You see the amount of people that get arrested and then end up right back in there. But if they are able to attain a job and be productive citizens --

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

MS. BRANCH: -- then there's hope and a future. And then, of course, public safety. People aren't as threatened by people who are being productive citizens and, you know, helping society.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's really good. Thank you very much, both. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Phil?

GOVERNOR BRYANT: Ron Matis chairs the Governor's faith-based initiative and has done such a great job working with churches and synagogues, and all of those faith-based organizations. And, Ron, we'll let you talk in just a moment about our faith-based effort in the prisons.

MR. MATIS: Yes, sir. Thank you, Governor and Mr. President, and Mr. Vice President.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.

MR. MATIS: I was excited to come here tonight because I think that the faith community is one of the most natural partners in addressing this issue.

As I've traveled the state, after the Governor pioneered to founding a faith advisory council in Mississippi, I found a lot of churches who were involved in this process and were wanting more tools to be able to help these folks who are, frankly, getting out of the system and not knowing exactly how to become productive members of society.

In some ways, the system created a glass wall where they could see what productive citizens are, and yet they couldn't fully participate because they don't have a place to live or they don't have proper ID, or some of these just, kind of, basic things that go into being productive citizens.

So, you know, Governor Bryant, we joined in the last legislative session in working towards passing criminal justice reform, working on some sentencing, some of the things that you've mentioned. And we're really just excited to take the next step. As reviewing the FIRST STEP Act, it does make many of those -- does take many of those steps.

So I just think the faith community is ready and willing and able. And it's a wonderful opportunity to serve, kind of, as a bridge from government in the Department of Corrections to the faith community, who really has a passion for this. Nothing could be more central to the gospel than helping those being restored and being -- finding a place in society that's productive.

So, you know, we've got a great team. We've got a rabbi, we've got a members from the Baptist faith, from the Catholic faith, from the Pentecostal faith. Because at the end of the day, we're all in this to serve and to find a solution so that Mississippi is a better place for all of its citizens.

So I'm excited to be here because I see both the state leadership and the federal leadership pointing in that direction. So thank you for your leadership, Governor. Thank you for the opportunity.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.

GOVERNOR BRYANT: Marshall Fisher is our Commissioner of Department of Public Safety, a Navy veteran; spent most of his career in the Drug Enforcement Administration working for the federal government. I was able to not only bring him on managing the Department of Corrections, but talked him into being Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. He's a lifelong law enforcement officer. One of the best I know.

Commissioner, I'm going to turn to you for comments.

COMMISSIONER FISHER: Thank you, Governor. Mr. President, thank you for being here, and thank you for including law enforcement in this important conversation. Being a 40-plus- year law enforcement man, we're hard-headed sometimes, we're hard to get to the table. And --

GOVERNOR BRYANT: I told him that. (Laughter.)

COMMISSIONER FISHER: But it is important. We, in Mississippi, as you can see, we work as a team. And our most important asset here is coordination and collaboration. And I'm an old dinosaur that didn't think the way I think now. We realize now in law enforcement, we can't arrest our way out of these situations. We realize there are people that need to be in prison.

But for the most part, there a lot of people out there that we can put back on the street with investment in transitional housing, with investment in alcohol and drug treatment, drug courts, mental health courts. And these are things that guys like me didn't believe in years ago. But now we do. I'm telling you, we do believe in this. It's important. And we do have a team here. It's a collaborative effort. The Department of Corrections Commissioner and I talk on a weekly basis, if not biweekly.

Thank you. Thank you for what you're doing.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. That's very well said.

COMMISSIONER FISHER: Thank you for what you're doing.

THE PRESIDENT: So you're now a believer. You wouldn't have been a believer 10 years ago, maybe. Right?

COMMISSIONER FISHER: I wouldn't have been a believer five years ago.

THE PRESIDENT: That's fantastic. So what changed your mind?

COMMISSIONER FISHER: The Governor asked me to come back into state service, and I ran the Department of Corrections -- or maybe it ran me for a couple of years. (Laughter.) And I have a unique perspective. I'm a retired DEA agent; I was a police officer before that. I've been able to see things from different sides. And it was a wakeup call for me. And I'm blessed that I had that opportunity.

THE PRESIDENT: It's very nice to know. Really is. Very nice to know. Thank you very much.

COMMISSIONER FISHER: Yes, sir.

GOVERNOR BRYANT: Finally, our Lincoln County Sheriff, Sheriff Rushing, is now president of the Sherriff's Association. And you know how I feel about the sheriffs. My first real job was working for a sheriff.

So, Sherriff, we'll turn to you for comments. Thank you for being here.

SHERIFF RUSHING: Thank you all for having me. Mr. President, thank you for having me. As Senator Cindy Hyde said, I'm her sheriff. I've been sheriff about 12 years now, and I'm president of our association.

This Act really does not affect us on the local level, but we do see the benefit in what it can become. Like everybody spoke tonight -- the Commissioner said it best that, you know, 10 years ago, I wouldn't have told you that no way in the world I would have been at this table discussing this.

But we see the benefit in some of these programs. Drug court has been a great program for our area helping people. Guys that we see on the street in our daily lives that we would have never thought would have been straight (inaudible). I see them every week come in in drug court, and he's out being a productive citizen. So we're honored. This is a great honor for being here, especially with the way you've supported law enforcement. We can't speak highly enough of the feeling knowing we got somebody supporting us.

And at the same time, we're here to work together. I understand our national association had a couple issues here and there, but we're here to work any way we can with the federal, state, and local officials to better our communities, because that's our job as sheriff is to serve and protect our community. That's our first priority.

But I'm honored to be here. And thank you for --

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Sheriff.

SHERIFF RUSHING: -- and thank you all for being here.

THE PRESIDENT: Appreciate it very much. Thank you very much.

SHERIFF RUSHING: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Roger, would you say a few words, please?

SENATOR WICKER: Well, this is all very compelling. And I would also say that when it comes to the bill, I had a very fine conversation with Chairman Chuck Grassley today, who is very actively supporting this and has moved the ball down the field for a couple of years now. It's not hard -- it's not easy to get a bill passed by both Houses and signed into law. He feels like he's very close.

I would also -- I would also mention that I come from a background of my dad being circuit court judge. The criminal trial court of highest jurisdiction in the state of Mississippi. And I remember a day when judges had more leeway to work with convicted persons, people who had pled guilty, to size them up as to their ability for rehabilitation in a quicker way.

We've moved away from that, I'd guess, two decades ago, maybe when Lindsey and I first got to Congress, maybe a little while before, under President Clinton. And that trickled down to the states.

It's also impressive to me that this bill, through the leadership of Jared Kushner, has passed the House of Representatives in essentially the same form. And I'm impressed by that. And a few tweaks might have to be made. But I think Senator Hyde-Smith and I understand that there's going to be a real effort to see if we can essentially pass what is essentially the House bill with a tweak or two, and have this as an accomplishment of this Congress and this administration this year.

So I commend the state officials who work with it every day. You've got the chief corrections officer of the state. You've got the chief law enforcement officer of the state. You have the clergy you mentioned. You have the people on the local level. You have a prosecutor. And you've got Asya with her own personal testimony and story, and it's quite compelling.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Roger. That's very nice.

Cindy?

SENATOR HYDE-SMITH: Well, Mr. President, as I've said many times, there's two types of inmates: ones you're scared of, and ones you're mad at because they did something stupid when they were young.

For the ones you're scared of, you know, we've got a place for them. But so many people, as he referred, many years ago would say lock them up and throw away the key. Everybody in Pelicia Hall's recordkeeping, there's a release date down there. Everybody has a sentence with a release date. I think we better be very smart on what we're doing when that release date comes, because it is a revolving door. The recidivism rate is just a revolving door and they're back. So we've got to be smarter about this.

And I don't know if you're familiar with drug courts. Drug courts are working fantastic in Mississippi. These are inmates who have to be spoon-fed. They have to come once a week, they have to be tested for drugs. They have to tell the judge are you employed; are you paying your child support; did you do anything over the weekend concerning drugs?

And when you get them to that point that they're reporting before a judge every week, you are spoon-feeding them. But the best thing about that is, because of this process, if they test hot for drugs, or if they violate anything -- a provision of drug court -- they go to prison right then. Am I correct on that?

Unless it's changed, the original law that I helped to pass as a state senator -- there is no motion. The rest of the drug court participants, they see them put in an orange jumpsuit, they see them shackled. And they go out the door, and the next stop is prison.

So you've got their attention. But it's people you just have to hold their hand every step of the way. So drug courts are phenomenal in Mississippi.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you, Cindy, very much. Appreciate it. And good luck tomorrow.

SENATOR HYDE-SMITH: Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: A big day.

SENATOR HYDE-SMITH: I'm passionate about this. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Jared, how about saying a few words? You've worked so hard on this.

MR. KUSHNER: Sure. First of all, thank you for your leadership on bringing everybody together. I know we've been negotiating hard with the Democrats in Congress and with the Republicans for the last year and a half to try and get to this compromise. Because these are very tricky issues, and you have to make sure all of the different voices are heard, especially the law enforcement community, which we've spent a lot of time engaging with. And they've made a lot of changes to the bill along the way that have made it much better of a bill.

One of the law enforcement officials we were talking with said, "I'm sorry we've been such a pain." I said, "No, that's how this process is supposed to go. If there are things that are bothering you, you're supposed to be asking for them." We're supposed to be making modifications wherever we can, and keeping the balance to get it done.

When you put something into law, you never really know how it's going to turn out, but one of the great advantages of a law like this is we've based it on a lot of what's been done in a lot of the states like Mississippi.

So I'm very confident that hopefully we'll get this passed. And I'm very confident that it will be very successful in accomplishing the objectives of lowering crime in communities, helping people who have made mistakes in their life have a second chance or a third chance. But I think these programs will really make a difference for those people.

And then also, hoping to help us at the federal level, reduce some of the money we're spending on housing people, and putting that into the front end to make sure that we're preventing crime on the streets in the first place, and putting the money with law enforcement and in a lot of the areas that make a difference.

So I think we all want the same thing. We want safer communities. We want people to have better opportunities and a better life. And also the point you made before is very true too: In a very tough employment market -- we have record-low unemployment now because the economy is doing well -- we need workers. And so we've got a lot of people who are dying to be given a chance.

And I know personally, from my experience dealing with people who have been given that second chance, they don't take that for granted because they know that that comes with a lot of responsibility to the other people who they were imprisoned with -- knowing that if they do well, it will make their employer more likely to potentially hire somebody and give a second chance to that person. If they screw it up, they know that it means that their friends and the people who they went through the system with will have a lower probability of getting a chance like they got.

So I think this is really great legislation. I think it shows that people in Washington are working hard to really do good for the American people. And again, I don't think this could have gotten to where it is under any other President other than you.

So, really, thank you. And thank you to the Vice President for your leadership on this. And thank you to Governor Bryant and all of you for the great work you've done in Mississippi to really make this happen.

THE PRESIDENT: That's very good.

Lindsey.

SENATOR GRAHAM: Well, it would be a great way to end 2018. I hope we can bring it to the floor. We'll get 80 votes if we do. There's always a reason to vote no, but this is a -- to the people of Mississippi, you should be proud of the folks at this table. This has been an amazing turnaround of how you approach incarcerating people. And 10 percent of the people in jail are at the federal level.

And, Jared, if this ever happens, it'd be because of your dogged determination. And when you jumped onboard a couple weeks ago, Mr. President, everything fell in place.

So I'm hoping, if Chuck and Mitch are listening, let's vote in the next couple of weeks. Let's end 2018 on a good note.

I've been a prosecutor. I've been a defense attorney. I've been a judge. And now is the time to look at what's not working. And I promise you, if you keep doing the same old thing, you're going to get the same old outcome. And the people of Mississippi showed us, if you do something different, you'll probably get a better outcome.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Lindsey, and thank you for working on it. All of you -- everybody in the room has been incredible.

And I think what I'll do is I'll finish up with our great Vice President who has worked as hard or harder than anybody, other than maybe Jared, right? I think we have to say, Jared, you really have been -- you really pulled it together. And it's been very popular. Some very strong law enforcement people have called me. They said, "We love this. This has been…"

And you go to the state of Texas -- you know, you think of Texas as a tough law-and-order state, and they've done it. And Kentucky and Georgia and a lot of great places. And the job you've done, Phil. So it's become, really, very popular. I hope they get a vote, and I think it's going to be bipartisan.

And, Mike, what do you have to say?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you, Mr. President. And I think it's very clear, especially with the law enforcement and corrections leaders here, that this is a law and order administration. This President has supported law enforcement with resources and respect, and will continue to. I can promise you that.

I checked the statistics today -- FBI's Unified Crime Reporting. Violent crime is down; murder is down. We've set a record for prosecuting violent criminals last year.

But from very early on in this administration, this President recognized that the cycle of recidivism, where within the first 18 months -- 30, in some cases -- 40 percent of inmates are back in prison is a challenge in our communities, and a challenge that we need to confront with creative approaches.

And I think one of our very early conversations, Mr. President, was about our efforts in the state of Indiana at criminal justice reform. And I want to thank Governor Phil Bryant for being such a great example of this on the national level, and working so closely with you and with the administration, and you sharing what Mississippi has done here.

But what I would say to each and every one here is that this is a President who believes that breaking the cycle of recidivism for certain inmates that are qualified -- with job training, with transitional housing, with access to faith-based and character-based programs that give them a way to take that first step to living as law-abiding citizens -- is a pathway towards safer communities and more secure communities. And it's consistent with this President's commitment to law and order.

So I'm grateful to Senator Wicker and Senator Hyde-Smith and to Senator Graham for their expressions of support for this legislation. We'll be back on Capitol Hill tomorrow. And, Mr. President, we'll be carrying your strong support for this legislation and your desire to see the Senate act, and act before the end of this year in getting this bill to your desk, and really taking a first step toward a fresh start and a second chance for Americans who are currently in our corrections system, but given the right tools, given the right transition, given the right educational opportunities, will be able to choose a better path and a better life for their lives and for the safety and security and betterment of our communities.

So thank you for your leadership, Mr. President. It's an honor to be here with you.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much, Mike. Such great progress has been made. And a lot of people are shocked, because when this began -- a long time ago, really; they've been trying to get it for years. But we're at a point now where we have a chance to take a vote.

And I think you're going to get, as Lindsey would say, 80. I don't know if it's 80, but maybe if it's 60, that would be okay, too. But actually, we'd be disappointed, if you want to know the truth.

SENATOR GRAHAM: We'll take 80.

THE PRESIDENT: I think we want to see that support, because really, it's going to be tremendous support. I really think it's going to be --

GOVERNOR BRYANT: (Inaudible) great Christmas present, Mr. President, for a lot of families.

THE PRESIDENT: It'll be a tremendous thing for our country.

So I want thank you all. Fantastic job, everybody. Appreciate it very much. And we will see you. And hopefully, we'll have a little celebration in Washington fairly soon. This will be terrific. And good luck to everybody, and good luck to you tomorrow.

Q Mr. President, will you insist that Senator McConnell bring this bill to the floor before the end of the year?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we're talking to him, and we're doing -- we're doing a count. And we want to make sure that we have the votes because we don't have to bring it if we don't have the votes. But from everything that we're looking at right now, we have more than enough.

So, at a certain point, we'll have a talk. But if we have the votes, I'm sure that we'll be voting.

Q Is there anything, sir, that you can do to negotiate with McConnell? Can you -- do you have leverage in any way? Can you threaten him with anything?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't need leverage. Look, he's a friend of mine. He's a really good guy. And I -- honestly, I think he believes in this also. And he wants to make sure -- like I do, too -- I want to make sure we have the votes. But we look -- we're looking like we have the votes, as of right now, and maybe an abundance of votes. So I think we'll be okay. I think we're in pretty good shape. What do you think, Lindsey?

SENATOR GRAHAM: I think you're right.

Q Have you changed your mind -- you heard law enforcement officials today talk about changing their minds in the last five or ten years. What did you think about criminal behavior 10 to 15 years ago? Have you changed your mind?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think a lot of people have changed their minds. You know, it's a more modern system. It's a different system, when you see the tremendous success they've had in Texas; and in Kentucky, where they've had great success; and in Georgia, where the Governor has been speaking about it like it's almost a miracle.

When you see one after another, and then you Governor Bryant talking about it the same way, I mean, so many things are -- now, nothing's perfect and it's a very complex subject, but I would say that a lot of people have changed their minds. I mean, my mind was never made up one way or the other. My mind was just on very strong law and order.

But this is actually a part of it. And if you look at some of the people that are most supportive of this -- I was going around -- like, as an example, Chuck Grassley, and Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, and some people that you wouldn't necessarily expect, it's very impressive.

People that really are into the world of strength, and law and order, and they're totally supportive of this as much as anybody. And then, on the other side, you have great support also. So I think a lot of people have felt very strongly, but I think we're going to have a lot of success with it.

And most importantly, I think we'll get it. And after we get it, it's going to work. That's very important.

Thank you for the question.

Q Mr. President, if the votes are there, do you want the Senate to stay in Washington until they pass this?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we'll see what happens. I think we're going to have a vote. And I think we should do it now, rather than later.

This is something that could also pass later, but we have such a good group of people right now, and such great support, I think you're better off -- let's take the victory for everybody -- for Democrats and for Republicans, very bipartisan. And I think we should take the victory.

Q Is criminal justice reform, in your view, more important than securing funding for building the wall before the end of the year?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I think (inaudible) and you can do both. Really, you can do -- I think the wall is a very important thing. Funding for the wall is very important. We're building big parts of the wall. You see that. And it's having a tremendous impact. In fact, the only little breach yesterday, we took care of it very nicely, quickly, and apprehended those that breached. The small breach was in one area where the wall wasn't quite built yet; it wasn't completed. But the areas that have been completed have been very, very strong.

And when people look at what's going on on the border, you know, they just agree pretty much -- not pretty much -- they agree with what we are doing very strongly.

Q Will any of the migrants be prosecuted?

THE PRESIDENT: We're going to look at that. We're going to see.

Q Because Secretary Nielsen --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, some are very violent, and have been very violent, and have been very dangerous to the police and to the Border Patrol. And all of the people including -- we have ICE there. We have ICE there. Normally, they'd be in other sections, and right now they're on the border.

But we've had some very violent people. And we don't want -- frankly, we don't want those people in our society. We don't want those people in our country. But we had tremendous violence -- three Border Patrol people yesterday were very badly hurt through getting hit with rocks and stones.

And if you look at the Mexican police, who have been fighting very hard -- and, you know, don't forget: Ninety-five percent of it is taking place -- and more than that -- is taking place in Mexico, and on the Mexican side.

You know, we just said, "Look, if they come over here, we're going to apprehend them and we're going to close the border." That's not really been done to extent that I am doing it because I mean it, and I'll close it for a long time.

And as far as trade is concerned, that's okay. Because Mexico, frankly, has done very well with trade and the United States. So we would close it and we'll keep it closed if we're going to have a problem. We'll keep it closed for a long period time.

Q What needs to happen to close the border?

Q What would convince you to close it?

THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me?

Q What would cause you to close the border?

THE PRESIDENT: Violence.

Q Like we saw the other day?

THE PRESIDENT: If they do a charge. Because, with a closed border, it's very easy to stop; with an open border, it's not. If they do a charge -- as you know, we have a big caravan coming up, another one.

The interesting thing is, because of the very tough stance -- and we've had this stance from the beginning, but now, I suspect because of how well the country is doing, we have a lot more people coming. And it does seem to be an organized -- I mean, there is somebody organizing it. This isn't just happening by luck. If something is happening in Honduras, and Guatemala, and El Salvador -- because, you know, you look at the way it's organized, it's so -- they hand out papers, they hand out directions -- this is not just, you know, by luck it's happening.

But I would say the violence is very strong. We have over 500 people that are serious criminals and gang members. And it's a tough situation. We just don't want that in our country. And we're keeping it in Mexico. And Mexico's done a very good job, but a lot of the law enforcement people from Mexico have been very seriously injured. They've been badly hurt. You saw what happened yesterday.

If you look at Tijuana, where not only the mayor, but a lot of the people who were interviewed said, "Hey, these are rough people. You start talking to them, and they punch you in the face." We don't want that in our country. We don't want it. Okay?

Q Mr. President, you mentioned the "rough people." You mentioned the criminals. But how did you feel when you saw the images of the women and children running from the tear gas yesterday?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I do say, "Why are they there?" I mean, I have to start off -- first of all, the tear gas is a very minor form of the tear gas itself. It's very safe. The ones that were suffering, to a certain extent, were the people that were putting it out there. But it's very safe.

But you really say, "Why is a parent running up into an area where they know the tear gas is forming and it's going to be formed, and they're running up with a child?"

And in some cases, you know, they're not the parents. These are people -- they call them "grabbers." They grab a child because they think they're going to have a -- they're going to have a certain status by having a child. You know, you have certain advantages, in terms of our crazy laws, that, frankly, Congress should be changing.

You know, if you changed the laws, you wouldn't be having this problem. And I think the funding of the wall right now has never looked better.

Q How satisfied are you with the Mexican government's performance here?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the Mexican government is trying very hard. I would've stopped them a lot sooner than the border. We're stopping them at the border.

But I really think Mexico is working hard. They were violently attacked. I mean, their police were violently attacked at the northern border. If you look at -- if you look at their border, their southern border -- they were really -- that was violence at a high level. That was a terrible thing that took place. And they really geared up after that because they had -- a lot of their policemen and a lot of their soldiers were injured badly. So -- but I think Mexico is doing a good job.

Now I'd like to see Mexico take those people and move them back to Honduras, move them back to Guatemala, move them back to El Salvador where most of them come from.

Q What about people seeking asylum? Should people be able to apply for asylum if they feel like there's violence in their home country?

THE PRESIDENT: At a certain level they should. But when we have the border closed, there's nothing we can do about that. But at a certain level, maybe they should. That's the laws. We're -- we have very strict standards for asylum. As you know, when you go to court looking for asylum, very few people qualify for asylum.

And, you know, one thing I do mention: They're all coming up and they're all saying about their country is so dangerous, but you have flags all over the place representing Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and some other countries.

And you say, "Well, if these countries are so bad, so dangerous, why are they all waving, proudly, their flags?"

Q But there are people with women and children that applying for asylum. Should they be able to apply at the border today?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, if you look, the percentage of women and children is very small, relative to young men coming in. And you have a lot of gang members coming in. And we have over 500 people -- and you know that -- and they have lists that are criminals. And we don't want the criminals and we don't want people in that don't come in legally.

So, we're working very hard. People are not coming into our country. They have not been able to breach. They're not going to breach. And if they do breach, they get arrested on the other side. It's a very small event.

But we do appreciate Mexico working hard and we have a very good relationship. I have a very good relationship with both -- you know, both the past and the current -- the soon-to-be current leadership of Mexico.

In fact, Mike is going to the inauguration. And we've worked very closely with the future President of Mexico, and I think the relationship will be good. But we'll see. I mean, we're going to see. But if it's not good, we're just not going to be trading very much; we're not going to be trading with Mexico.

Q This is your second trip to Mississippi.

THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me?

Q This is your second trip to Mississippi in the last several months, campaigning for Senator Hyde-Smith.

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

Q Why is Mississippi, in your view obviously, so important?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I get along very well with the people of Mississippi. They like me and I like them. I mean, as you know, I won by a tremendous amount. I don't know, how many?

SENATOR WICKER: Eighteen and a half points.

THE PRESIDENT: Eighteen and a half points. I'd say that's a lot. And I think when you win by eighteen and a half points, and you're running for the Senate, you say, "Mr. President, do you think you could come up and give us a hand?" I really think that Cindy is doing very well. I know the state very well. I like the state a lot. And I think she's going to have a tremendous victory tomorrow. And frankly, I don't want to take my chances.

We did very well. The press has not wanted to talk about the Senate. But if you look at the Senate, we did -- I mean, I won't say historic, but we did numbers that were shockingly good. You know, we're going to end up -- if Cindy wins, we end up at 53-47. That's a big improvement from where we were.

And, you know, people talk about the House. Now, don't forget, with the House, I didn't campaign for the House, other than if somebody happened to be there. There are just too many people. But where I did campaign, like in Kentucky, where we went with Andy Barr, who was down by six points, and he ended up winning against McGrath, who was a tough opponent. He ended up winning after I left, and so many other places.

Plus, we had tremendous success with governors. I mean, you look at Ohio. You look at Florida. You look at Georgia. I mean, Georgia, as you know, President Obama was there; Michelle was there; Oprah was there. And I was there all by myself. And, in all fairness, Mike went also about four times. That's true. I had Mike, and they had Oprah. I'll take Mike. (Laughter.)

Q You used the term "grabbers" earlier, and I just want to be clear that I understand what you're talking about. Are you suggesting that the women who were photographed yesterday at the border with children, were grabbing those children, are not their mother?

THE PRESIDENT: No, no. But it's a term that's used, because as you know, many people -- very -- it's a very violent, horrible thing. But they feel they have an advantage when they're with a young child. And they're called "grabbers." Well, that's a term I've heard, but it's -- that's what they're called, "grabbers." They grab a child, because when they have a child, they feel a lot safer. And I don't know who was there yesterday. I will say this: When you know there's going to be potential violence, you know there's going to be tear gas or something, you don't take your child and bring them there.

So I can't tell you that, but I can say that all over the border you have a lot of grabbers. You have a lot of people that grab children, and they have no idea who these children are. They're not parents. They have no idea. And frankly, to release the children to these people is a disaster.

And just about that, by the way, the releasing -- if you look at President Obama, if you look at other Presidents, they've had the same. You know, these laws have not been changing every 24 hours. In many cases, they should because they're so bad. But these laws have not been changing. They were the same for President Obama. They were the same for President Bush. And it went back quite a ways.

But we're doing a great job. We're very, very tough on the border. And I think that's what people want. I guess you could have open borders. But if you want open borders, and if you want everybody to pour into our country, I would really have a great suggestion for you: Vote Democrat. Because that's what they want; they want open borders.

Q And, sir, about Mississippi -- about the Mississippi race, there's a sense here that -- especially when you talk to Democrats -- that race is a major theme --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I hope it isn't. Yeah.

Q -- because of the comments that Senator Hyde-Smith made. Do you think that that comment about public hanging was appropriate?

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, there was an apology made, and I heard that loud and clear. Second of all, really, it was something that was sad and it was a little flip. And frankly, I think that Cindy, when I spoke to her -- she called me -- she said, "I said something that I meant exactly very different." And I heard an apology loud and clear.

And I also know Cindy, and I know her very well, and I've gotten to know her over the last period of time as a senator, as a very, very talented United States senator. And I know where her heart is, and her heart is good. That's not what she was meaning when she said that.

Q Mr. President, how is your Attorney General search going?

THE PRESIDENT: It's going well. It's going well. In the meantime, we have somebody that's a very good man, Matt Whitaker. But it's going well. We're looking. A lot of people want that job. It's a great job, if you're into the world. We have a lot of law enforcement in here, and I'll tell you, every one of them wants to be the Attorney General of the United States. (Laughter.) Every one of them. I can take these guys over here. How about you guys? All right? (Laughter.) There's a man -- he'll take it. He'll take it. We have a lot of good people. Sheriff, you'll take it, right? So we have no dearth of talent, I can tell you that.

No, we're looking at some people. And I and a lot of other people, by the way, have tremendous confidence, in the meantime, of Matt Whitaker. He's a tremendous person and he's a great gentleman. And he's really liked and respected by a lot of people.

Q Mr. President, are you close to a deal with the incoming Mexican administration to keep asylum-seekers on that side of the border?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't want to say that. But we are having great talks with them. As I said, Mike and Ivanka and some other people are going down to the inauguration, and they look forward to it. It's going to be, I hope, a beautiful day. And we're getting along very well with the incoming. We got a lot well with the past administration. We're doing very well with the incoming administration. And I like him a lot, I must say. I've spoken to him; I like him. We get along. I think we have some views that are a little bit different, but maybe they're becoming joined.

But when it comes to the border, it's not a question of incoming or past administrations. We're closing the border if we have any problem. If people think they're going to rush our border, we just lock up that border so tight nobody gets through. And behind that, we have ICE and we have the Border Patrol, and we have the local police, and we have police, and we also have our military. And our military has done an incredible job reinforcing walls, putting up the barbed-wire fencing, which is very, very powerful stuff. Nobody has gone over the barbed-wire fencing.

Q Mr. President, did Mexico actually agree to keep asylum-seekers in Mexico while their cases are being processed? What was the back-and-forth?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no. Very serious talks were had and are currently being had also.

Q Did they break down at one point?

THE PRESIDENT: No. No. No, not at all. No, we're talking very seriously.

Look, it's important to Mexico because we are a tremendous trading partner for Mexico, much more so that way than the other way. I mean, Mexico, frankly, on trade, does much better than we do with them. So when we close the border -- I mean, it's much more painful for Mexico than it is for us by a factor of maybe about 10 or more.

So we're getting along very well with Mexico and we intend do, and I hope it can continue that way. But we're not letting people into our country that we don't want there. We're not letting people into our country that don't come in legally. They have to come in legally.

And we want people that are going to help us. We have a lot of companies moving into our country. Tremendous car companies and Foxconn, and a level like we've never seen before. We need people, but they have to come in based on a merit system, based on a system where they can help us, not where they're going to hurt us.

Q You also told us --

Q On the prison reform -- sorry, Jill. Go ahead.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, go ahead.

Q You also told us in Mar-a-Lago that you were planning to interview potential new members of your administration. Which positions did you interview for? And did those happen?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I have certain -- I'll tell you -- let me start off by saying I have a fantastic Cabinet. We have incredible people. It's a lot of people. There are a few positions that I'm thinking about. But I could leave it the way it is right now and be very happy, or I could make changes and maybe be even happier with those positions.

But we have a great Cabinet. We have some tremendously talented people, and they're really doing a good job.

Thank you very much, everybody. I appreciate it. Thank you.

END


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