James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:57 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon. Matt, you had a phenomenal story today. (Laughter.) Get that joke? If you didn't, look it up. A little delayed reaction to that. (Laughter.)
Before I get into the events of today, there's a few items I wanted to update you on, things that have happened since our last briefing yesterday.
The President spoke with Prime Minister al-Abadi of Iraq to thank him for his productive visit and meeting on March 20th.
A readout of that call should have been issued after the pool last night.
Yesterday, he also notified Congress that the national emergency declared Executive Order 13694 regarding malicious cyber-enabled attacks will continue beyond April 1st, 2017.
As you all know, this notification is required by statute in order to extend the national emergency that the past administration declared.
The President believes that the significant cyber-enabled activities continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to our national security and economic prosperity, and therefore he has determined that it was necessary to continue this national emergency.
Last night, a federal judge in Hawaii put an indefinite hold on the President's executive order that was issued on national security. The Department of Justice is reviewing the ruling and is considering the best way to defend the President's lawful and necessary order.
This ruling is just the latest step that will allow the administration to appeal. Just a week ago, the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia upheld the President's order on the merits. The White House firmly believes that this order is lawful and necessary, and will ultimately be allowed to move forward.
This morning, we announced that the President will host President Xi of China at Mar-a-Lago on April 6th and 7th. The President looks forward to meeting with President Xi and exchanging views on each other's respective priorities and to chart a way forward on a bilateral relationship between our two nations. They will discuss the issues of mutual concern, including North Korea, trade, and regional security.
Now, on to some of the events of today. This morning, the President had a meeting with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. The Secretary, along with the National Economic Council and the rest of the President's team of experts have been meeting with and hearing from stakeholders on all sides of the tax reform debate.
Tax reform has been a centerpiece of the President's economic agenda from the beginning of his campaign. The team is weighing the best option to develop a plan that will provide significant middle-class tax relief and make American businesses more competitive.
Enacting the first significant tax reform since the 1980s is going to be a serious undertaking. And we are at the first stages of this process, beginning to engage with members of Congress, policy groups, business leaders, industry, constituents from around the country, and other stakeholders.
Tax reform has been a part of the political discussion for years, and, accordingly, lots of people have a lot of ideas about it. We intend to hear from them. He and his team will continue to meet with those who support and oppose the various policy options, as they all are still on the table, because the President is committed to delivering results that the American people and American businesses will be able to see and feel in their paychecks.
On the Hill this morning, the President was glad that the nominations of his Secretary of Agriculture-designate Governor Sonny Perdue and Secretary of Labor-designate advanced out of committee. Although he was disappointed to see that Democratic senators who had previously expressed their support for Alex Acosta, the Labor Secretary-designee, nonetheless, while they had previously supported him, seem to have stuck to a party-line vote. The President looks forward to having them officially on the team and in the Cabinet as soon as possible.
Also this morning, the Department of Commerce and First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) announced that AT&T will build the first nationwide [wireless] broadband, a network dedicated to America's first responders. This step was part of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations on improving the ability of our police, fire, and emergency medical personnel to communicate seamlessly across jurisdictions, which is critical to their missions. It's also a sign of the incredible ability of public-private partnerships to drive innovation and solve some of our biggest problems while also creating jobs and growing the economy.
Back to the schedule, this afternoon the President hosted a legislative affairs lunch on opioid and drug abuse. The lunch was an opportunity to discuss the goals and agenda of the President's Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which he established yesterday.
The commission, which is going to be chaired by new Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is the next step in the President's promise to the American people that he would take real action to keep drugs from pouring into our country and corrupting our communities. Under Governor Christie's leadership, and working closely with the White House Office of American Innovation, the commission will bring together leaders on both sides of the aisle to find the best ways to treat and protect the American people from this epidemic.
Many members in attendance at the lunch played a key part in passing the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, also known as CARA, the first major federal addiction legislation in 40 years, which authorized over $181 million to fight the opioid epidemic. Part of the mission of the President's commission will be to ensure that those funds are spent efficiently and effectively. Too many lives are at stake to risk wasting any money on this effort.
Moving on, later this afternoon the President will welcome Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark for a working visit.
We'll have a readout on their bilateral meeting for you at its conclusion.
A couple follow-ups from yesterday: I know Hunter asked about the House and the Senate passage disapproving of the Federal Communications [Commission's] regulations on privacy rules from last year. So let me just expand on that a little and get to your question.
The White House supports Congress using its authority under the Congressional Review Act to roll back last year's FCC rules on broadband regulation. The previous administration, in an attempt to treat Internet service providers differently than edge providers, such as Google and Facebook, reclassified them as common carriers -- much like a hotel or another retail outlet -- and opened the door to an unfair regulatory framework. This will allow all service providers to be treated fairly and consumer protection and privacy concerns to be reviewed on an equal playing field.
The President pledged to reverse this type of federal overreach in which bureaucrats in Washington take the interests of one group of companies over the interests of others, picking winners and losers.
The President has signed more legislation under the Congressional Review Act, ending job-killing rules and regulations than all previous Presidents combined already, and he will continue to fight Washington red tape that stifles American innovation, job creation and economic growth.
Jeff was here yesterday, Roberta is here now -- but following up on Jeff's question, he asked about the administration's position on the Paris climate treaty. We are currently reviewing issues related to the agreement, and expect to have a decision by the time of the G7 Summit, late May-ish, if not sooner.
Before I take your questions, I wanted to speak quickly about Judge Gorsuch again and the process behind his nomination and confirmation. From the beginning, I think the President has been clear and 100 percent transparent about his choices, if he had been elected, who he would choose from. As a matter of fact, I'd say that the level of transparency is probably unprecedented in modern times, at least.
During the campaign, he gave the American people a list of 21 judges which he would pick his choice for the Supreme Court from. The American people sent him to the White House to nominate one of those judges -- and he did it. Prior to the President making his final decision, the White House spoke with 29 senators -- more than half of whom were from the Democrat side of the aisle, including every Democrat member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- to seek their advice and consent on the nomination. The consensus was that the President's pick should be a respected mainstream judge.
As I've laid out many times before, from unanimous consent of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to the extraordinarily low rate of majority opinions accompanied by dissent, Judge Gorsuch is the definition of a mainstream, respected judge. He has offered the Senate plenty of material to vouch for that. Since his nomination, Judge Gorsuch met with nearly 80 senators.
In response to requests from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Gorsuch provided the following: over 70 pages of written answers about his personal records in response to 299 questions for the record by Democrats on the committee, the most in recent history, which he submitted within six days of receiving the questions; over 75,000 pages of documents, including speeches, case briefs, opinions, and written work going back as far as college; and over 180,000 pages of email and paper records related to the judge's time at the Department of Justice
In fact, the Department of Justice provided access to many documents that would normally be guarded by various privileges, in a historically unprecedented move in the spirit of cooperation with Senate Democrats. And the judge sat for three rounds and nearly 20 hours of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which he was asked nearly 1,200 questions, almost twice as many as Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, or Ginsburg.
The White House and the judge did all of this in the hopes that Senate Democrats, many of whom already had announced their intent to filibuster Judge Gorsuch's nomination, would look beyond their political game and see for themselves how eminently qualified he is to sit on the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, it looks more and more like Senate Democrats would rather do all that they did in reading and questioning for nothing more than for political theater.
Finally, before I take your questions, a letter was transmitted just recently to the ranking member and chairman of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that said, "In the ordinary course of business, national security staff discovered documents that we believe are in response to your March 15, 2017 letter to the intelligence community seeking 'documents necessary to determine whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled and leaked.'" We have and will invite the Senate and House ranking members and Chairman up to the White House to view that material in accordance with their schedule.
With that, I'd be glad to take a few of your questions.
Q: Thanks, Sean. I'm trying to gauge the probability of a government shutdown at the end of April. Are your directions to the Capitol Hill to hold firm on the spending cuts that the President wants, or to try to wheel and deal and get a bill that can keep the government open?
MR. SPICER: I don't know that they're mutually exclusive. I think we want --
Q: You wouldn't want pushback on Capitol Hill from some --
MR. SPICER: There generally is. But I think that we want both. I think we want to maintain some of the spending priorities as well as some of the reductions in the 2017 budget. We want to do so responsibly and do so within the priorities that the President has laid out.
I think his funding requests and priorities are laid out in the budget that Director Mulvaney detailed and sent up for the remainder of 2017. There are some key things in that, and I think that it is going to begin a conversation that we will continue to have with the House and Senate.
But I don't think both of those goals are mutually exclusive. Obviously, we don't want the government to shut down, but we want to make sure that we're funding the priorities of the government.
Q: Thanks a lot, Sean. I wanted to ask about some news that the President made today with a tweet that he put out on Twitter. He seemed to be picking a fight with the Freedom Caucus; and the Freedom Caucus, as you know, has 30 members. Does the President realize how important this caucus is, this coalition is, in terms of passing a replacement bill for the Affordable Care Act and passing the rest of his legislative agenda?
MR. SPICER: Well, of course he understands that the goal of all legislation is get to a majority in the House, majority in the Senate. But at the end of the day, he recognizes that he has a bold and robust agenda that he is trying to enact that he ran on and told the American people that he would do when he was President, and he's going to get the votes from wherever he can.
Q: Can he pass that agenda without the help of the Freedom Caucus?
MR. SPICER: Well, there's two questions. One is, I mean, mathematically, yes. But secondly, I think that there's a few members of the Freedom Caucus, both prior to last Friday's vote and since then, who have expressed a willingness to want to work with him rather than necessarily as a bloc. And I think that there continues to be some promising signs with that.
So again, I think part of is, is that I think if people are more concerned with voting as a bloc than in what's in the best interests of their constituents and the American people, he's hoping that people will see the bigger picture, the goals that we outlined, and sometimes not let the really good be the enemy of the perfect.
Q: He seemed to imply in that tweet that he would be in favor of primary-ing some individuals in the Freedom Caucus who oppose his agenda. Is that correct? Did I read that correctly?
MR. SPICER: I'm going to say -- I'm going to let the tweet speak for itself. For those of you who think -- or just for your understanding, it would be improper of me to discuss the election or defeat of any candidate from this podium.
Q: Thanks, Sean. Two questions, if you don't mind.
MR. SPICER: I want phenomenal questions from you.
Q: That's what I'll give you. (Laughter.) First, we know now --
MR. SPICER: You get it?
Q: No, I got it. (Laughter.) So two White House officials, according to New York Times reporting, provided Representative Nunes with the information that he spoke about last week. And according to the Times, the senior director for intelligence on the NSC, who was hired by Michael Flynn, started going through these documents after the President's tweet -- the wiretapping tweet. So I'm wondering if the White House thinks it's appropriate for national security officials to be conducting what's basically a political task, which is trying to find information that then validates something the President said.
MR. SPICER: So I read the report, and respectfully I think your questions assumes that the reporting is correct.
Q: It does.
MR. SPICER: And so I would just suggest to you that the letter that was submitted earlier to the ranking -- the chairman and the ranking members of the two committees -- two intelligence committees on the Hill, the reason that the White House has asked them to come up is to view that information.
And again, I don't want to get in front of that. As I've said before, we are not as obsessed with the process as much as the substance. And I think that our goal is to make sure that the ranking members of both committees, as well as the chairman, see the information that -- the materials that are important to this, and then worry about the outcome at the end of this.
Q: And then on a different topic, with Ms. Walsh's departure today, are you expecting any more staffing shakeups in the West Wing?
MR. SPICER: No.
Q: Sean, are you saying that The New York Times reporting today is not correct on whoever was --
MR. SPICER: I'm saying that in order to comment on that story, would be to validate certain things that I am not at liberty to do.
Q: For days you haven't been able to tell us who he met with, what the circumstances were.
MR. SPICER: And I understand that. And again, and I think that there is an assumption, as I've said before, we cannot condone that -- in the same way that you protect sources when I call you and say you've got 18 anonymous sources, and you go, well, I can't reveal my sources; Chairman Nunes in conducting an investigation and a review has an opportunity to have his sources.
Our view was -- is that the smart move was to make all the materials available to the chairman and the ranking member of the relevant committees. And I understand the obsession with the process piece, but we are focused on the substance of it. And I think the goal is to make sure that people have the substance that are looking into this that we have asked to look into this --
Q: So the White House did make materials available already?
MR. SPICER: No, no, we have sent a letter within the past few hours to both of those committees informing them that we wanted to make that available to them.
Q: And what kind of message do you think this sends to people watching this? Does it --
MR. SPICER: I think it sends a message that we want them to look into this, that I think that -- as we have maintained from all along, that I think there's a belief that the President has maintained that there was surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election that was improper, and that we want people to look into this and take the appropriate legal responsible steps to both understand it and then address it.
Q: I want to read to you something you said here at the podium on March 23rd when you were originally asked if the White House might have had any role in providing information to Chairman Nunes. You first said it didn't make any sense to you, and you went to say -- and I'm quoting you here: "I don't know why he" -- Chairman Nunes -- "would brief the Speaker and then come down here to brief us on something that we would have briefed him on. It doesn't seem to make a ton of sense. So I'm not aware of it, but it doesn't really pass the smell test."
There is now reporting -- which I can't tell if you're disputing or not -- that identifies two people within this White House as the sources of this information. So I'm just trying to put these things together, where you said it "doesn't pass the smell test" on March 23rd. Now there's reporting that suggests that it is within the White House, that they were the sources of this. I'm just trying to put those two things together.
MR. SPICER: All right, so number one, the first quote that you're reading, if you actually go back, I was responding to -- I was very clear that I said, "Based on what Chairman Nunes has said" -- the following doesn't make sense.
Q: Okay, so within that --
MR. SPICER: But that's an important part.
Q: -- I'm gathering that you've learned something new since then, so please tell us what you've learned.
MR. SPICER: Right, and again -- no, no, no, because again, Major, I've commented on this both yesterday and today, that your obsession with who talked to whom and when is not the answer here. It should be the substance.
In the same way that when you guys print a story with 18 anonymous sources, your obsession is the substance, it seems now that you continue to look at from a backwards prism, which is, "What happened? Who drove in what gate? Who did they meet with? What were they wearing that day?" as opposed to, "What's the underlying substance of this? Did something happen in the 2016 election? Did leaks occur?"
We are not going to engage actively in that kind of leaking that has been a problem. In fact, if you look at Obama's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense that is out there, Evelyn Farkas, she made it clear that it was their goal to spread this information around, that they went around and did this. And she said, "That's why there are so many leaks."
They have admitted on the record that this was their goal -- to leak stuff. And they literally -- she said on the record "Trump's team." There are serious questions out there about what happened and why and who did it. And I think that's really where our focus is in making sure that that information gets out.
Q: But can't the process, from your vantage point, validate the importance of the substance?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think there's a review that we've asked for probably --
Q: And you've told us that you're willing to look into and ask questions about the process and provide us answers. That's all I'm trying to --
MR. SPICER: No, no, no -- no, don't -- please don't put words in my mouth. I never said I would provide you answers. I said we would look into it.
The responsible thing for us to do is to provide the individuals and the committees who are doing the review the materials that they're looking for -- or some of them. We don't know how many -- what they're exactly looking for, what they've seen, and what they haven't.
Our goal is to be as forthright as possible. They asked the intelligence communities and others in a March letter for information. We are willing to provide them with the information that we have -- the materials that we have come across. And I think that is an important step.
Again, it is not -- our obligation is to make sure the review is done both in the House and the Senate as we asked for a few weeks ago, not to make sure that we illegally leak out information to you.
Q: And when you say "we have information," are you disputing the reports in the New York Times?
MR. SPICER: I'm not commenting on the reports, Major. I just got asked the same question.
Q: But you're saying "we." So I'm just trying to find out, they're naming some people that work for the NSC, who work at this White House --
MR. SPICER: No, no, no, I'm saying -- no, "we" meaning the White House, is not going to start confirming --
Q: -- who have been named now publicly for the first time.
MR. SPICER: I get it. We are not going to start commenting on one-off anonymous sources that publications publish.
Q: If it were wrong, would you tell us?
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to get into it. As I've just said, I get it. How many times you can ask the same question?
Q: Thank you, Sean. I have two questions. The first, President Trump is pushing for a major tax cut, increases in defense and infrastructure spending, and the border wall. Does he think this agenda has to be deficit-neutral, or is he open to plans that might initially add to the debt?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think when it comes to tax reform, he's got three underlying goals. One is tax simplification, two is to lower the rates, and three is to grow jobs and the economy. And I think part of it is, is that if you look at it dynamically, as the plan develops -- and again, as I mentioned earlier, we're not there yet; we are beginning that process of engaging with stakeholders. As the plan develops and there's a cost put on it, that's going to be a decision that gets looked at as well as what are the economic growth and job-creation aspects to it.
So to answer that question without knowing what the full scope of it is, is looking at something and answering it in a vacuum.
Q: And then, just to clarify one thing with the New York Times story, I know you won't identify Congressman Nunes as "sources," but isn't it abundantly clear that at least some White House officials had to be involved in him getting information here because they would need to help them access the complex?
MR. SPICER: I cannot get into who those individuals were.
Q: Right, but it was someone at the White House, right?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, it's -- again, if I start going down the path of confirming and denying one thing, that we're going down a very slippery slope. I've made our position very clear on that.
Q: Thank you, Sean. Thank you for announcing the visit of the Chinese President. I have a couple of questions about that visit, if you'd entertain me. Can you talk about the location and how it was chosen for this visit?
MR. SPICER: There is, as you can imagine, on any trip, no matter who the foreign leader is, there's a lot of discussion that goes back and forth between the White House, the State Department and the equivalents of the other head of governments, their appropriate counterparts. And those are the kind of things that go back and forth in terms of how long, the activities, what will be discussed. Every single thing is discussed on both sides.
And so that was a long and ongoing negotiation with the government of China and with their representatives lasting several weeks now.
Q: So how did you arrive at Mar-a-Lago as opposed to the White House?
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to get into the back and forth. I would just suggest to you that both sides discussed various locations and topics and agendas and length, et cetera, and aspects to the trip. And this is what we've arrived at.
Q: So what is the goal for the White House to accomplish during the visit?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think there's a few things. One is, I think this is an opportunity for President Trump to develop a relationship in person with President Xi. He's spoken to him on the phone a few times. But we have big problems, and -- I mean, everything from the South China Sea, to trade, to North Korea. There are big issues of national and economic security that need to get addressed, and I think there's going to be a lot on the table when it comes to that over the two days that they will talk.
Q: And lastly, the Chinese are expecting the White House to provide some sort of framework for the relationship to be viewed for. Are you prepared for that? And can you talk a little bit about what that framework might be?
MR. SPICER: Can you expand on that a little?
Q: Kind of put a floor under the relationship, looking for how to view the relationship. Obviously, you had the rebalance and the pivot in the prior administration. Is there a tagline or a vision for U.S.-China relations that you will roll out during this visit?
MR. SPICER: We'll see. I'm not -- if you have any hashtags, let me know. But I think right now we're not worried so much about slogans as much as progress. There's a lot of big things that we need to accomplish with China, and I think that we will work on them.
Q: Thanks, Sean. Did the President direct anyone in this White House or in his national security team to try to find information or intelligence to back up his assertion about wiretapping?
MR. SPICER: I don't -- I'm not aware of anything directly. I'd have to look into that in terms of -- again, there's two sides to this. One is the information side, and two is the policy and the activities and the legal piece of what happened. And I don't -- those are big buckets, if you will.
Q: So it's possible.
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to comment on it.
Q: And one more. Don't sort of the daily questions about this make it necessary to have some type of outside independent investigation to lift any lingering cloud that there may be?
MR. SPICER: No.
MR. SPICER: I think you have two committees looking into this. The FBI has been looking into this, as they mentioned at the hearing. I mean, how many do you want? I understand that you may not have --
Q: Do you think the House intelligence investigation is still valid given all of these questions?
MR. SPICER: How is it not valid? I'm asking --
Q: There are all these questions about where Devin Nunes got his information from, was it politically motivated to lift that cloud. Would it not be smart to have an outside independent investigation?
MR. SPICER: No -- well, again, I think you got the FBI, probably other intelligence committees that looked -- 17 of them issued a report earlier in terms of involvement in the 2016 election. And then you've got two congressional committees looking into it.
So I'm not really sure the exact need. I think that people are doing -- I understand sometimes there's a need for you guys to have more information and more sources. I think this is being done in a responsible way where people are being discussed -- what they know at an appropriate classification level and information is being shared.
Q: Can you just quickly talk about the timing of inviting the leaders of this investigation to the White House now? Is it because of this report? Why not do that initially?
MR. SPICER: I think a couple things. One is, they asked -- they tasked the various committees in mid-March to -- or the agencies, rather, to provide information. We felt we had information that was relevant, and I think there was some -- there's a desire to make sure that both sides of the aisle who are looking into this, as well as both chambers, had that information.
Q: Eric Trump gave an interview a few days ago to Forbes Magazine in which he said that he would update his father regularly, perhaps quarterly, on the business, including giving profitability reports. So I had two questions about that. One is, have they spoken about the business since January? And two, how does this not violate what the President set out as the protocols for how he would deal with the business?
MR. SPICER: Well, two things. I don't know if they've spoken. It's not -- this may be a question better directed to the Trump organization. But secondly, I think everything that he's done is in accordance with what the Counsel's Office and the ethics folks --
Q: Just following up, I believe he said the he wasn't going to talk to his children, his sons, about the business. So how is that --
Q: Again, I think everything that is being done in terms of reports or updates is being done in a consultation with the Counsel's Office. So I think that's --
Q: I have two things I want to ask. The first is just to follow up on Major and ask about the substance. It's sort of unclear what you guys are telling the chairman and the ranking members you have. Is it information that would validate the President's claims about surveillance during the 2016 campaign? Or is it information about their broader Russia investigation? I'm trying to --
MR. SPICER: Again, I'm not here to share that. That's why we've invited them up to view it in a classified setting, in an appropriate setting. It's not to be shared with people that don't have the appropriate clearances and access to --
Q: But you're not intending to imply that this is the information that Chairman Nunes has been talking about.
MR. SPICER: No, what I'm suggesting is that there has been information that has been -- material that has been made come to light, and that we want to make sure that the people who are conducting the review have that information, have access to it.
Q: And then, Westinghouse Center filed for bankruptcy yesterday. I'm wondering if that's prompted national security concerns in the administration, and if there is any effort within the administration to sort of help them navigate this bankruptcy, considering that the --
MR. SPICER: I'll have to check on that. I think there's obviously a couple departments that would be interested in that.
Q: Sean, I just want to ask you to elaborate more on what you have so far told us. You said that in the ordinary course of business, the national security staff discovered documents. Can you explain how these documents were uncovered? What does it mean "in the course of business"?
MR. SPICER: I don't think -- no, I'm not. That's why we've invited them up into a classified setting, is for them to see these materials and understand it. This is not the setting that is appropriate to discuss that.
Q: So who in the national security staff, then, uncovered the documents?
MR. SPICER: Good question. That is not -- again, as I've mentioned multiple times, we're not here to go through the process. Our job is to get to the substance of this and to make sure that the people who have the appropriate access and authority to look into this matter, and then take appropriate steps.
Q: Are you in a position right now to deny or rule out the possibility that members of the national security staff have already informed the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee?
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to get into any further details on this. I would just suggest to you -- again, if I can go back for a second to something that the Obama administration's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense noted very clearly on the record, that they were engaged in an effort to spread information about Trump officials that had come up in intelligence. That's not -- that is several networks. Evelyn Farkas made that proclamation about what was going on during the Obama administration regarding the Trump team. So that is something that they made very clear on the record.
Q: A couple of things, Sean. First of all, on the Freedom Caucus, in response to the President's tweet, Congressman Amash of Michigan responded on camera, saying, most people don't like to be bullied -- in response to the President -- also saying that sending out such tweets is constructive in the 5th grade and it may allow a child to get his way, but that's not how government works. Could you take a moment to respond to Congressman Amash? Was the President trying to bully the Freedom Caucus?
MR. SPICER: No. I think this is consistent with everything that he has said since Friday of last week. And I think that he is looking for members on both sides of the aisle, who want to be constructive, to achieve the goal of a patient-centered healthcare system. That's it, plain and simple.
And I think that his comments and his tweets speak for themselves with respect to how he feels and why.
Q: Following on that, is this a divide-and-conquer strategy?
MR. SPICER: No, it's a math strategy, which is to get to 216 and pass an effort, and continue to move the agenda forward.
Q: And then if I could, following on what Major said, you've accused people in this room several times of being more interested in the process than actually in substance of things. But when information is discovered by the Intelligence Committee Chairman in the House, at the White House, that is potentially exculpatory to what the President has tweeted out, and it's reported that one of the people who was involved in uncovering that information is a White House staff member who was kept in his position over the request of the National Security Advisor by the political leadership here at the White House, does the process not then take on some relevance?
MR. SPICER: Well, the process in the sense that we are -- as I've noted, we have invited the chairman and the ranking members who are looking into this and reviewing the matter up here. That doesn't mean that we allow uncleared members from the media to come in and look at it. That means --
Q: I'm not asking that question.
MR. SPICER: No, you are. You said --
Q: No, I'm not asking that question.
MR. SPICER: But I think it is, because --
Q: That's not what I asked. What I asked was, when you have that connection of dots all the way along, does the process, the prominence of this information not become relevant to the overall investigation?
MR. SPICER: It's for the people who are conducting the review to decide that, not for the people in this room to decide it. It is up to the people who are cleared to look at that information and that material, to look at it and make their evaluations. And I think they are conducting their review. You've seen very clearly, both on the House side and then starting today on the Senate side, them looking into this matter. That is the appropriate venue, forum, and personnel to be reviewing it, plain and simple.
Q: Sean, a quick follow up on that.
MR. SPICER: Zeke.
Q: You mentioned a couple of times --
MR. SPICER: Zeke.
Q: Thank you. Has the President already been briefed on this information --
MR. SPICER: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.
Q: Has the President been briefed on this information that you're now inviting the congressional committee chairs to come in and view? And when was he briefed on it?
MR. SPICER: I will look into that. I'm not entirely sure when or what the status of that is, but I can follow up on that.
Q: So then why would you brief -- why would the White House brief congressional --
MR. SPICER: I understand the question. Like I said, I will look into whether or not -- where that stands.
Q: Sean, thanks. A couple on taxes. The timeline here had been healthcare first, tax reform second. There was a Fox poll out, released yesterday, that said 73 percent of Americans want tax reform to happen this year. With healthcare now at least being on hold, is healthcare the number-one priority for this administration -- is tax reform the number-one priority for this administration at this point, or is healthcare still kind of taking up some of the oxygen?
MR. SPICER: Well, I don't know that it's taking up oxygen. I think there's plenty of oxygen for both to go on. I think the President would still like to see it done. But I think there's no reason that we can't -- I mean, if you look at the timeline for tax reform, you're talking several months, and so I think the process is beginning on that, and I think you can have a dual-track strategy. It's not an either/or proposition.
Q: And you described what was going on with the meeting today as the first phase. Can you lay out to us what is somewhat entailed with that first phase? Is the President being given detailed strategies? Or is it broad principles? What is involved in this first phase?
MR. SPICER: I think it's a little of both. They're talking about the process that they intend to partake -- how this is going to lay out, who they're engaging with, how they're going to begin that process, and then some of the guiding principles in making sure that any updates that he has or any principles that he wants to suggest are incorporated into that plan as they begin to meet with stakeholders. But part of this is to level-set with him as to what they intend to do and how they intend to do it.
Q: And you just mentioned a dual track between healthcare and tax reform, but then there's also infrastructure hanging out there. So can all of those go together?
MR. SPICER: Lots of tracks. I mean, again, remember they're not all the same people; some of them overlap, some of them don't. But I think part of this is, is that you got to remember that some things can happen sooner than others because of the legislative calendar. Some things are going to take longer because of both the legislative calendar and because of the number of individuals involved and the complexity of the situation. But there's a lot of things that can be moving at once because of how they'll play out.
Q: Thank you, Sean. Turning to the foreign front, yesterday, Vladimir Kara-Murza, the twice-poisoned Russian dissident and vice-chairman of the Open Russia Movement, testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, backing continued sanctions against Russia. He also called on Secretary of State Tillerson to meet with Russian civil society members --in other words, anti-Putin dissidents like himself -- when he makes his trip to Moscow next month.
Mr. Kara-Murza also said he was meeting with many members of Congress of both parties, but he would be very happy to meet with any administration officials. Are there any plans for the President or anyone in the White House to meet with Mr. Kara-Murza? And will Mr. Tillerson meet with the Russian civil society?
MR. SPICER: I would suggest to you -- I'm not aware of anything. Both the National Security Council, as well as the State Department are probably more appropriate for you to address that to.
Q: Sean, can I ask a question -- but before I do, get some clarification on the answer that you gave to Hunter and to Major? I thought it was just yesterday that you said that when you were asked who cleared in Chairman Nunes, that you had asked some preliminary questions and not gotten answers, and that you would continue to ask.
MR. SPICER: Yeah.
Q: So my question today is, you know the answers to that and you are saying you will not answer that question today? Or you don't know?
MR. SPICER: No, no, that's not -- right. So what I'm saying to you is, is that the decision that has been made is to bring in all the relevant individuals that are reviewing the situation and make them available; that getting into sources and process is not the proper way to conduct this review. And we want the people who are conducting it to understand more fully the materials -- not necessarily who came in what time and whatever.
Q: So you're -- just to clarify again, you asked the questions? You were not given answers?
MR. SPICER: No, no, that's -- I'm just saying that --
Q: You said yesterday you asked that -- wait, let me finish. You said yesterday that you asked, you didn't get the answers. And so what you're telling us today is you are never going to get the answer -- you, yourself -- you are never going to get the answer to who cleared in Chairman Nunes?
MR. SPICER: What I'm saying is, is that the decision was made -- it's supposed to focus on the process, to focus on the substance, and that the decision was made --
Q: You're not answering my question.
MR. SPICER: I let you ask the question, so let me answer it, please.
And the answer that I'm giving you is that the decision was made internally to focus on the individuals who are doing the review, both Republicans and the Democrats, House and Senate, and have them come in and look at the materials. That's what the focus should be, Alexis.
Q: Wait, wait, wait, here's my bigger question. The President has expressed his affirmation, his support for the finding that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. That is the centerpiece of the investigation at the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee. My question is -- can you update us, what is the President doing now in the administration to respond to Director Comey's testimony that that interference is not just election-year-based but continuing?
MR. SPICER: You're talking about the executive order, is that correct?
Q: I just asked, can you update what is the administration doing to prevent that, to --
MR. SPICER: So okay --
Q: -- to respond to that preliminary finding already, that we already know, that it is continuing?
MR. SPICER: Well, so the executive order that the President signed that continues the national emergency deals with looking into malicious attempts and cyber attempts to come into the United States. That's what the executive order that he signed was.
Q: That's the sum total of the response so far?
MR. SPICER: Well, I'm not going to get into what's being done behind the scenes in terms of the intelligence and law enforcement community. But the bottom line is that there was an emergency declared with respect to challenges that the United States faces from a variety of actors outside the United States to come in and use cyber techniques to hack the United States. The national emergency will continue under the President to address the threats that we face from abroad and from a variety of places.
Q: Wait, no. I was just going to --
MR. SPICER: April.
Q: Yes, Sean.
MR. SPICER: We'll get to you. (Laughter.)
Q: He called on someone else? I'm sorry. Go ahead, and then come back to me.
MR. SPICER: Okay, I'll do Kaitlan and then April. I'm sorry.
Q: She can go first, but I'll just go after her.
MR. SPICER: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q: Okay, thank you, Kaitlan. So, Sean, what is the ultimate goal of the leaders coming in to get this information? And will it be information that Nunes received plus? Or will it just be basically a synopsis of a synopsis of what Nunes received?
MR. SPICER: Well, it's going to be the materials that are relevant to the discussion in the area that they're reviewing. And that's up to them to decide the relevancy of that. I think we have, from the National Security Committee, has gone into -- come upon some materials that they want to share with them. It's up to them to make a decision about the relevance of those documents and what they would lead them to believe.
But there's two issues here. One, April, is what do they see, and then what do they want to see in addition to that or as a result of those materials. Right? So, in other words, they may see things and say, hey, this is interesting, I wonder if there's a pattern; this is interesting, I want to see more. Or they may come to a conclusion right away.
But that's part of the idea of -- to the first part of your question -- in sharing information with them is to allow the members of both of the committees on a bipartisan basis to come in to review materials that we think are relevant to the issues that the President talked about with respect to surveillance, the masking -- unmasking of individuals, the handling of it, et cetera, et cetera. And then it's up to those members to decide what to do with that information, how to explore that more in depth.
Q: So, ultimately, in their questioning, they could actually wind up reviewing what Nunes received, possibly? If they do, even ask different questions, just sitting in the intelligence meetings like the President does -- if he decides to give more he'll give more?
MR. SPICER: It depends. I think that's possible. I don't want to prejudge what they ask and what comes in response to it. It also has to do with what documents we have. They may go down a particular trail and have to follow up with an agency and say, we saw this, can we see a follow-up on that. As you saw from many reports the NSA has been asked to provide documentation to the House. My understanding from the reports is that that was ongoing. And maybe some of the materials that they see prompt them to ask additional questions.
But that's part of providing it to them. It's an ongoing review. And what we want is for them to see these materials and come to conclusions, or need more information to come to conclusions. But this is part of that review process.
Q: Are they allowed to -- the type of briefing, with their ranking and who they are -- no matter if they may be head of the Intel Committee, are some of these other members allowed to see the same things that he sees? Even though they are not head of -- I mean, are they allowed to see that?
MR. SPICER: My understanding would be that they would.
Q: Okay. And lastly, Sean, do you know who allowed him to come in?
MR. SPICER: No.
Q: You don't know?
MR. SPICER: No.
Q: I have two questions for you. One is did anyone in the White House ever raise the possibility of a Cabinet position or a top intelligence post later on in the administration for Devin Nunes?
MR. SPICER: Not that I'm aware.
Q: And secondly, will the President hold a press conference so he can answer questions on the surveillance claims and all these intelligence revelations himself?
MR. SPICER: I'm not good enough?
Q: Not that you're not good enough, but he's the one who made the claims. You didn't make the claims, he made the claims.
MR. SPICER: I will convey your request to him. I know that as I've said before, we'll see. I'm sure that at some point -- he enjoyed the last one so much --
MR. SPICER: Is that what you'd like, tomorrow?
Q: That works.
MR. SPICER: Does that work for you? (Laughter.) Okay, well, let me see what I can come up with.
Q: I just want to clarify, do you believe -- from what you know about these materials, do they validate the President's wiretapped claim?
MR. SPICER: I don't know. I have not seen the materials. It is members of the National Security Committee who have come across these documents that want to make them available to the members who are leading the review.
Q: And why not just be more forthcoming about this entire process of who let Nunes in? If this was enough -- if the President of the United States could tweet this claim about wiretapping, doesn't the American public have a right to know more?
MR. SPICER: Yes, they do. And I think that's why we're going through a process. And I say this respectfully -- I understand that you want all the process answers -- what day did they come in, what were they wearing, what door did they come in. The relevant questions are about the substance of this. And it's interesting -- I don't get the same thing when I see these unpublished stories with anonymous sources. You don't ever tell me who your sources were, who --
Q: Because you're --
MR. SPICER: Glenn, I'm actually asking Cecilia's question -- if you could be as polite as not to interrupt her.
Q: I'm sorry.
MR. SPICER: Thank you.
Do you accept his apology?
Q: One hundred percent. (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: That's very --
Q: In fact, I will cede the floor to Glenn.
MR. SPICER: Thank you. That's not how it works, though.
But I would argue that you guys have -- when you write a story, and you call and say, I have four anonymous sources that say whatever, and I say, okay, well, who are the sources and where are they coming -- you go, sorry, I'm not revealing anything to you, but the substance that I'm asking you to respond to -- well, when the shoe is on the other foot you're all about the process.
The bottom line is that there are two congressional committees that are conducting reviews of this situation, and those committees are looking at the relevant information and talking to the relevant people.
To your point about the process, we have made individuals available and encouraged individuals to testify or to meet with or to discuss that have been approached. So I think that what we are doing is frankly -- and I know you probably disagree, but I think we are doing the responsible thing by making sure that documents and materials are shown to people with the appropriate classifications in the appropriate settings, and that the people that the different committees would like to discuss these matters with are made available to them. I think that's the responsible way of handling this.
Q: Sean, thank you very much. I have two questions, one on Venezuela and another one on climate policy. With respect to Venezuela, because today the Supreme Court of Venezuela said they would take -- try to take over the Congress powers and the opposition said a coup is underway. Do you consider there is a coup underway in Venezuela, and what can we expect the United States to do?
And the other question is on climate change, because President Obama signed also the bilateral climate deals with Brazil, China and India. And what do you have to those?
MR. SPICER: Well, on the first one, respectfully, I would send you to the -- I would refer you to the State Department. The only Supreme Court I'm really focused on right now is ours and getting Judge Neil Gorsuch confirmed by the Senate. So I'd be glad -- I think the State Department is more of an appropriate venue to discuss the activities over there.
And second, I think when it comes to things like the Paris treaty, as I mentioned at the outset, that is being --
Q: Those are separate --
MR. SPICER: I understand, but I think that there are things that we will have updates for on all of these things as we move forward. Right now, I've got nothing on that subject.
Q: Thank you, Sean. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the Trump administration is proposing more modest changes to NAFTA. Like, for example, they're leaving the arbitration panel that deals with trade disputes in place, et cetera, et cetera. Is the White House backing away from some of the more sweeping changes to NAFTA that the President proposed during the campaign?
MR. SPICER: I would just argue that Robert Lighthizer isn't even nominated yet. That is not a statement of administration policy at this point. There is nothing in those documents that we are confirming -- or in that report, rather, that we are confirming. That is not a statement of administration policy. That is not an accurate assessment of where we are at this time.
And I think our goal is to get Robert Lighthizer appointed as the next ambassador and U.S. Trade Representative, and then when we have that we will have plenty of updates on where we go with respect to NAFTA and the rest of our trade agreement.
With that, I'm going to say goodbye. I will see you tomorrow. Thank you -- oh, I'm sorry, I promised two days in a row.
Q: Thank you. I've got one on foreign policy and one on domestic policy. First one is, many Republicans were very critical about how President Obama had handled the Iranian Green Revolution about six years ago. So my question is, if mass protests across Russia develop into a movement, is this something that -- what does the administration feel its role should be regarding that?
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to -- that's a hypothetical question to talk about what would happen and if --
Q: No, it's not --
MR. SPICER: I know, but when it comes to protests we obviously encourage, as we did last Sunday, the peaceful protest -- the government of Russia to allow the peaceful protest of individuals throughout their country. We obviously support the people to have a voice in every government throughout the world.
Q: And on the subject of partisanship and obstructionism, whose responsibility does the President feel it is to put an end to partisanship? And who needs to be reaching out to whom collectively?
MR. SPICER: I think it's a two-way street. I think part of it is that we -- the President and the First Lady extended an invitation the other night for everyone to come. I think we were excited to see a third of Senate Democrats come. I wish we had seen more. There's an opportunity I think to engage in a discussion about some of the issues and come together.
But I would argue that when you look at this fight on Gorsuch, there are -- I don't disagree with the fact that if you're a Democrat you probably don't necessarily agree with some of the rulings and some of the philosophies of Judge Gorsuch. I get that. But at the end of the day, they have always agreed -- in fact, in most cases, the filibuster has never been the norm. It hasn't. And it is odd to see that these individuals who have -- it's one thing to vote no; it's one thing to say that we don't agree. But to now turn to filibustering or threatening to filibuster Senate -- unbelievably qualified people, and there is nobody that I'm aware of, even on the left, that is suggesting that Judge Gorsuch isn't qualified to serve as a Supreme Court justice.
Republicans in the past have allowed Democrat Presidents to have their nominees voted on up or down, and for the most part, when you go back to President Obama, President Clinton, they have been -- Republicans have joined with Democrats to allow people who are qualified to go onto the Court. And to see this new precedent be formed by Leader Schumer is disappointing because this is a huge, huge crack. I think there was a column -- one of the papers today I think -- you are really fundamentally changing how the Senate is going to operate by doing this.
And I think that's an important -- they can disagree with him philosophically, I get that. But when you have an election you can assume that a Republican President is going to choose Republicans for appointments and for federal judgeships, and the Democrats will do the same with their time in office.
But it was Obama's nominees that got through, all with Republican support. And it's difficult to understand why when you've got someone as eminently qualified as Gorsuch, that this is the state that they want to drive. And I think it further sets a partisan divide in our country when we can't allow people who are qualified and universally so to get on the bench.
Q: Should it not be done from the President's side to try to --
MR. SPICER: I think so, sure. But I think it's a two-way street. I would ask you what is -- I remember a few years ago there was all this talk about, from the get-go, of Obama -- Democrats [sic] made hay about how they wanted to see him as a one-term President. I've seen a similar tactic from Democrats now about how they want to defeat him, they want to stop his agenda, and there's no sense of them wanting to work with this President.
So at some point, I think we have shown a willingness to bring them together. It's amazing how many senators, when you talk to them over the course of the last almost 70 days, have said, you know, I've been to the White House more in the last 70 days of a Trump administration than I was during eight years of an Obama administration. And I think that that speaks to the President's desire to bring people together and to find common ground on areas of mutual agreement where we can move the country forward.
Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow.
END 2:37 P.M. EDT