James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:14 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope those who celebrated had a great Easter holiday and have had a chance to go out and check out the activity on the South Lawn. We've got a few waves still to go.
The President and the First Lady welcomed thousands of families here to the White House this morning for the 139th Annual Easter Egg Roll. When it's all said and done, we will have had thousands of guests, including many active-duty military, veterans, families, children from local schools, patients from local children's hospitals, all here to share in this historic event.
Right about now, the President is finishing up his regular meeting with the Secretary of State. The Vice President, of course, is currently on a 10-day trip visiting South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia. While in South Korea, the Vice President participated in an Easter church service with both American and South Korean servicemembers and their families, and has been holding bilateral meetings with representatives of the South Korean government.
The Vice President is delivering a message to the people of the Republic of Korea on behalf of the President that even in these troubled times, the United States stands with them for a free and secure future. Under President Trump, our ironclad alliance will be even stronger, our nations will be safer, and the Asia Pacific region will be more secure.
From South Korea, the Vice President will head to Japan. I'll continue to provide updates as they warrant during the Vice President's trip throughout the rest of the week.
Looking ahead, tomorrow the President heads to Wisconsin, where he'll talk about his "Buy America, Hire America" agenda at Snap-on Tools in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For those of you who aren't aware, Snap-on is a prime example of a company that builds American-made tools with American workers for U.S. taxpayers. We'll be having a background briefing here in this room, later this afternoon, with senior administration officials regarding the details of the trip. Further guidance should be coming out in your inboxes momentarily.
On Wednesday, the President will sign the Veterans Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act. The President is proud to sign this legislation, which passed unanimously by the Senate earlier this month. The bill ensures that veterans have certainty and continuity of care while this administration works with Congress to develop a plan that reforms the VA system and gives our nation's heroes the care that they deserve.
He'll also host the New England Patriots this Wednesday to congratulate them on their fifth Super Bowl win.
And, on Thursday, the Prime Minister of Italy will be here for an official visit.
And with that, I'll kick it off to the birthday boy, Mr. Jim Acosta.
Q: I'll take it. Thank you, Sean. Does the President have a red line when it comes to North Korea that, if they cross it, they will bring about some kind of military response from the U.S.?
MR. SPICER: I think when we talked about the use of red lines in the past with respect to Syria -- the President's red line -- that drawing red lines hasn't really worked in the past. He holds his cards close to the vest, and you're not going to see him telegraphing how he's going to respond to any military or other situation going forward. That's just something that he believes has not served us well in the past. We did this with Mosul, where we started to talk about what the action will be months in advance. And it really gives the intended recipient of action a heads-up as to what's going on.
So I don't think that you're going to see the President drawing red lines in the sand, but I think that the action that he took in Syria shows that, when appropriate, this President will take decisive action.
Q: Just to follow up on that, Syria is one thing and North Korea is quite another, when they have nuclear ambitions the way that they do. When you talk about, "Well, we did this to Syria and we did this to Afghanistan," is that being a little too loose with bombastic rhetoric?
MR. SPICER: No, no, no. And again, please don't read too much into that in terms of trying to make an analogy on the action; I think it's quite the opposite. But I think with respect to North Korea in particular, the President had a really good meeting with President Xi down in Mar-a-Lago where I think he's spoken extensively about the relationship that they made down there and that they continue to work to improve. And the results of that are paying off.
I think you see China playing a much more active role with respect to North Korea both politically and economically, that they can continue to apply pressure to achieve results. And I think we're going to continue to urge China to exhibit its influence in the region to get better results.
Q: But North Korea did launch that missile. They did launch it.
MR. SPICER: I understand that. And it failed. We're well aware of what's going on. We monitored that situation. The President was kept up to date, as you know. But I think that we're going to continue to work with China in particular to help find a way forward on this.
Q: Thanks a lot, Sean. The President, as you just mentioned, has spoken about this relationship that he's developed with President Xi, where President Xi would be leaning on the North Korean government to prevent the kind of attempted missile launches, like we saw over the weekend. It seems as if that effort in terms of leaning on North Korea did not work. In addition to that, the Vice Foreign Minister of North Korea said to the BBC today that North Korea will test its missiles on a weekly, a monthly, and a yearly basis. So my question is, what kind of pressure is China putting on North Korea?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, I think this goes back to the nut of what Jim was asking, which is, I think for us to telegraph what we're going to do or what we're going to ask others to do would not be a smart strategy to lay it all out in public. But I think that if you realize -- for example, on the economic side of things, China is the number-one importer of North Korean coal. I think to see them curtail some of that has a real economic impact on the region. There's a lot of economic and political pressure points that I think China can utilize, and we've been very encouraged with the direction in which they're going.
Q: But North Korea is essentially, just based upon what they tried to do over the weekend, thumbing its nose at even China because of what they attempted to do.
MR. SPICER: And I understand that question. I think we're just not there yet. We've got a lot of tools left and a lot of conversations that are ongoing. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I think we've had a very productive direction that we've seen China move in, and I think there's an agreement, I think by everyone so far, that a nuclear capable North Korea is not in anybody's best interest. And I think we're going to continue to work with the Chinese in particular on this case.
Q: Thanks, Sean. What was their view of the White House visitor logs? What's the extent of that review?
MR. SPICER: I'm sorry, what was --
Q: What was the extent of their view of the White House visitor logs? What made you change your mind to not continue releasing them?
MR. SPICER: I think as was noted on Friday, we're following the same policy that every administration from the beginning of time has used with respect to visitor logs. We will comply with both the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act as stated by law.
Q: So why does the President object to people knowing who is coming in the White House?
MR. SPICER: It's not a question of objecting. It's about following the law. We're following the law as both the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records act prescribe it. So it's the same policy that every administration had up until the Obama administration, and, frankly, the faux attempt that the Obama administration put out, where they would scrub what they didn't want put out, didn't serve anyone well.
The President wants to make sure that people can come in the same way that they can go into a member of Congress's office, provide information and details. And there's people who want to be able to come have that conversation with members of the administration, the same way that they would do with members of Congress -- go into their office --
Q: But why didn't he take this opportunity to one-up the transparency game? If Obama was so bad at it --
MR. SPICER: Because -- I think I'm trying to explain that to you -- I think that we recognize that there's a privacy aspect to allowing citizens to come express their views. And that's why we maintain the same policy that every other administration did coming up here prior to the last one. And the last one, frankly, was a faux level of doing that, because when you go through and you scrub everyone's name out that you don't want everyone to know, that really is not an honest attempt at doing it.
We are going to follow the law the way that every administration has followed up until the last one.
Q: Thanks, Sean. Following on Kaitlan's question, the rationale given Friday for the visitor logs reversal was for national security and privacy concerns. Both of those were clear exemptions in the Obama administration's policy which led to that scrubbing that you described. So why exactly the reversal? You seem to be describing maybe a third rationale that you're giving.
MR. SPICER: No, I think I just touched on privacy, that people have a right --
Q: The Obama administration had that exception to their visitor logs.
MR. SPICER: But I think the problem, Zeke, is that we don't know what the -- I mean, they said what it was, but you don't know who got left off and who didn't. They chose to not put people out for whatever reason, and they gave an excuse and no one questioned it.
So the question is -- but I think the bottom line is, as I said to Kaitlan, is that we're going to have the same policy that every President has had through time and comply with the law on both fronts.
But again, you remember -- it's interesting that we're following basically the same thing that members of Congress follow. You go in and you meet with a member of Congress right now, that there's an option for people to go in and express their opinion. If they want to make it public, who's meeting with them -- and in a lot of cases we do, we bring in you guys to probably a greater extent than has happened before in terms of the pool spray. We list participant lists.
But I think there's an opportunity sometimes for American people who want to come in and have a conversation and not become -- and be able to share their view.
So again -- but remember, this is the same policy that every President and every administration has followed.
Q: I'll grant you that --
MR. SPICER: Thank you.
Q: -- but this President entered office running a campaign saying he was going to "drain the swamp." So under this existing policy, a lobbyist -- the President has decried on the campaign trail -- Washington insider, members of the swamp can walk into the White House and there is no recourse for the public to hold the President to account --
MR. SPICER: I think you guys -- but the visitor logs to all the White House components -- OMB, the Council of Economic Equality, U.S. Trade Representative, Office of Science and Technology --
MR. SPICER: Huh? What I'm saying is all those are subject to the Federal Records Act. We're complying with all that and we're complying with the Presidential Record Act.
My point is, that, look, this is the policy that's existed from the beginning of time since they were kept through the last one. And the last one was a faux attempt at that. Again, it's not really being transparent when you scrub out the names of the people that you don't want anyone to know were here.
And so I think that we've made a decision to stay in line with the law and follow the same procedures that everyone else has maintained.
Q: Thank you, Sean. On North Korea, is the President prepared to act alone, or does he feel that Congress should be somehow involved in the process if any decision that includes the use of force is made?
MR. SPICER: I think he's going to utilize the powers under Article II of the Constitution. I think what you saw with respect to the action that he had with Syria, he made sure that members of Congress were notified of his action in a very, very short amount of time. We're going to continue to seek their input on the policy overall and then make sure that they're notified. We'll do that.
But I think the bigger consultation issue is what we do with the larger world community and have that dialogue, as I mentioned earlier, to make sure that every country that can is putting the appropriate level of economic and political pressure on North Korea to act in a way that helps us.
Q: Thanks, Sean. With tax filing day coming up, is the President going to release his 2016 tax returns, given that we can assume, maybe, that those are not themselves under audit, which is the --
MR. SPICER: No, you can't. They are. I think it's been covered before. It's the same thing that was discussed during the campaign trail. The President is under audit. It's a routine one that continues. And I think that the American public know clearly where he stands. This was something that he made very clear during the election cycle.
Q: And to --
MR. SPICER: Hold on. And then so -- and the one time that it was done I think the people understand how successful the President has been and how much he's paid in taxes. But we're under the same audit that existed, and so nothing has changed.
Q: And as you know, the IRS never comments on individual taxpayer information. This obviously is an extraordinary case involving the President of the United States. The President could authorize the IRS, presumably, to go ahead and confirm that he's under audit and to give us some details about that audit -- what years, how long is this expected to take, et cetera. Will the President authorize the IRS to confirm that he is indeed under audit?
MR. SPICER: I think the President's view on this has been very clear from the campaign, and the American people understood it when they elected him in November.
Q: You got a fly on your head.
MR. SPICER: Thank you. Always looking out for me, John Roberts.
Q: Political leaders in Hawaii are reviewing plans -- emergency plans in case they are attacked. Does the President believe that the level of tension between the United States and North Korea is at the point where we should start reviewing emergency attack plans?
MR. SPICER: So just to be clear -- and again, I'm not going to get into -- I would just tell you that there are military contingency plans for almost every scenario, in numerous aspects around the world, here at home -- everything from humanitarian relief to refugee crises, to attacks. That is standard military procedure to have those kinds of things. So to make that in any way, shape or form sound new would be a mistake. It is a standard operating procedure of the military to plan for contingencies in a number of operations, in a number of hotspots throughout the world on a regular basis.
And with respect to Korea, in particular, that's been going on for decades.
Q: Sean, how high does the President view the threat level from North Korea?
MR. SPICER: Again, I think the President has made clear we're aware of the activities that they've engaged in, and we're monitoring them. And the national security team continues to keep him up to date.
Q: Just one more on that topic. One of the reasons why successive administrations have chosen to negotiate with the leaders of North Korea is because it's believed that there are no good military options to deal with it. Does this President believe that there are viable military options for dealing with North Korea?
MR. SPICER: Again --
Q: Without telegraphing what --
MR. SPICER: I understand. But I think taking anything on or off the table is in itself limiting your options to some degree. And so I'm not going to even discuss that.
Q: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the situation in Turkey. Is the President concerned at all about the reports from international monitors that this referendum that gives President Erdogan these sweeping powers have irregularities in it?
MR. SPICER: My understanding is there's an international commission that is reviewing this and issues a report in 10 to 12 days. And so we'll wait and let them do their job. There were international monitors throughout Turkey and we'll let --
Q: And what would he like to see Erdogan do? Would he like to see a hold right now while that review happens?
MR. SPICER: I think at this point -- I don't think -- I think we'd rather not get ahead of that report and start to make decisions without knowing. There were observers there, as there routinely are, and I'd rather wait and see.
Q: And just beyond the irregularities, just the act that Erdogan is going through to try to accumulate these powers, what does the President make of that?
MR. SPICER: Again, I'm not going to -- they have a right to elections and their people participate in that. Before we start getting into their governing system, let this commission get through its work.
Q: Sean, when Vice President Pence says, regarding North Korea, that strategic patience is over, what does that man exactly?
MR. SPICER: The era of strategic patience was a policy that the Obama administration enacted to basically wait and see. I think we have now understood that that policy is not one that is prudent for the United States. And I think that's why you've seen stepped-up efforts, particularly with respect to China, and that's why I think the relationship that the President really is building on from the time that he spent down in Mar-a-Lago with President Xi is hopefully going to produce results.
And so part of it is to actively engage with world partners like China, in particular, that have economic and political influence that they can utilize.
Q: What would it take to restart some sort of talks with North Korea?
MR. SPICER: Well, let's see -- again, I'm not going to get ahead of the policies right now. I think we're seeing some active engagement with China, and that's helpful. So let's see how that goes.
Q: I have two for you on North Korea. You're doing it today and you've done it before -- you've stood at the podium and said you don't want to telegraph moves that the President will make to preserve that element of surprise. A Kremlin spokesperson said that President Trump is more impulsive and unpredictable than Kim Jong-un. At what point does this strategy of unpredictability become a liability?
MR. SPICER: Well, I respectfully would disagree. I think that the rest of the world, when he acted in Syria, in particular, the world community -- not just the world community but here at home, on a bipartisan basis, applauded the President's actions.
Q: So you see unpredictability as an asset?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think -- absolutely. But it's not -- I think that you have to look at the flip. I mean, I talked about it a minute ago -- when you look at some of the actions that we've taken in the past, Mosul being a good example, where we leaned in and started to explain what we were going to do and when we were going to do it, that takes a huge element off the table of not only surprise but achieving the effect that you're trying to do.
So the world community, and especially the more that he meets with world leaders and developing relationships, repairing relationships, and reasserting the U.S. place around the globe, should be reassuring to not just us here at home, but around the globe. People are excited that the President is taking action, and decisively so.
Q: You've made it clear that you're not taking options off the table, including military options. Defense officials have estimated for a long time that war on the Korean Peninsula would cost thousands of lives, it could economically devastate South Korea. Is this to be read then as an acceptance of that risk by the Trump administration?
MR. SPICER: No. Again, I think the point is, is that when you get into a series of hypotheticals about what you will take on or off the table, will we do this or not that -- at some point, you really start to narrow your options. And I think the President has long held a strategy that doing that begins to give the enemy, the opponent, whatever it is in any particular case, whoever it is, even if it's just a negotiation, the options of knowing where to go or where not to go. And so the President has been very clear that not taking options off the table gives us a stronger hand.
Q: So do you accept the risk of war?
MR. SPICER: I didn't -- no. Because, again, by what you're trying to do is to get us take something off. I think at the end of the day, we'll always act in America's best interest to ensure that our national interests are protected. And so if we were to say that we're taking something off the table in any way, shape or form, that would limit what we have to do. We are going to make sure that we do what we have to do to protect our national interests.
And obviously, with respect to South Korea, we've been very clear -- the Vice President spoke very clearly about the need to strengthen and cement the alliance that we have with South Korea during his visit.
Q: I just want to be clear, because I want to flip the coin, right -- which is something you've talked to us about -- if you're not taking options off the table, if you flip it then, that can be read is you're accepting the fact that that crisis could escalate.
MR. SPICER: No, I think that's a stretch. I think -- that's the point. I'm not --
Q: So you don't accept that risk?
MR. SPICER: No, it's not a question of taking the risk or not taking the risk. Again, you can start to go down a very dangerous path of "will you use this, will you not use that." The President is very clear, and I think everybody who's been briefed on it, and I think when you look at the quality of the national security team that's surrounding him -- by all accounts probably the best in our nation's history in terms of all across the board -- you know that the President is getting unbelievably sound and strategic advice on how to protect our national interests.
MR. SPICER: Last week you dismissed -- I think it was when Hallie asked a question -- you dismissed North Korea and said it isn't a threat if you can't go through with it. So what changed? What's our goal in North Korea? What's the strategy? And what's your response to the critics who say that this is just blue smoke and mirrors to hide some of the problems on the White House staff that this is a failing domestic social agenda?
MR. SPICER: I don't think there's anybody in the world who would not believe that North Korea's actions are both provocative and a concern. So the actions that we're taking are extremely --
Q: But you said that it was --
MR. SPICER: -- they're appropriate and justified. What we're doing is working with the world community. And as I mentioned multiple times today, especially China, which is really acting in an historic way to ensure that our national interests and the safety of the Peninsula is protected.
Q: So what about the -- well, the follow-up there is what about the criticism from people on the Hill who say you're just hiding a domestic agenda that isn't working?
MR. SPICER: I don't -- I've never heard that -- I haven't heard that criticism --
Q: Actually, I have.
MR. SPICER: Okay. Well, then we travel in different circles. Look, I don't think that there's anybody who honestly believes that after seeing the launches that they're taking and the work that they're undertaking, that any attempt to protect our country and our national interests is anything other than the right and justified thing to do.
Q: Thank you, Sean. This morning in an interview, you referred to the missile launch as an unsuccessful military attack. That contradicts what other White House officials have said.
MR. SPICER: It was an unsuccessful launch.
Q: Okay, so you just misspoke in the "Fox and Friends" interview? There's no specific evidence that this was some sort of attack?
MR. SPICER: No. It was an unsuccessful missile launch.
Q: Okay. Thank you.
MR. SPICER: You're welcome.
Q: Sean, you talked about the end of strategic patience -- two questions -- in the context of attempting to expand China's role in pressuring North Korea. Do you believe China has the power to change North Korea's behavior if they choose to do so? And then a follow-up.
MR. SPICER: That's a good question. I think they can definitely try. There is economic and political points that they could be pushing. Whether or not they achieve that outcome is yet to be seen. But I think that there's a lot of influence that they could exhibit in both of those areas, and we'll have to see. But it's clearly the prudent thing for the President to do to try to build that relationship with President Xi and see if we could achieve an outcome that's in all of our best interests.
Q: How concerned are you that the uptick in the language, the bellicosity, tweets, could potentially provoke unintentionally military action? I mean, is there a concern that a lot of the words that are being thrown around could have an unforeseen impact? Just explain to me what the President is thinking, how concerned he is of the risk of an unintentional conflict.
MR. SPICER: I don't think that that's there. I think we're taking all the appropriate and prudent steps.
Q: I've got a question on North Korea and China, but first to follow up on the tax question. You've been asked about this obviously a thousand times. You always talk about under audit -- the President is still under audit. Is it time to say once and for all the President is never going to release his tax returns?
MR. SPICER: We'll have to get back to you on that.
Q: I mean, is he -- I mean, really?
MR. SPICER: Really.
Q: He may?
MR. SPICER: No, I said I'd have to get back to you on that. I think that he's still under audit; the statement still stands.
Q: And on North Korea, you said that China is playing an active role -- you even said a historic role -- right now in pressuring the North Koreans. What are they doing?
MR. SPICER: Again, I think when you look at the economic front -- coal, in particular -- that that is North Korea's number-one export --
Q: That the Chinese cut off the coal?
MR. SPICER: I think that they have taken some very helpful economic actions and exhibited positive signs on the diplomatic front as well. But again, this is something that is an ongoing conversation both on the relationship that the President established with President Xi. And I think that we'll -- as the President has noted before, we'll have to see, but it is encouraging, the signs that China is showing.
Q: And the President suggested there was a quid pro quo in terms of not declaring China a currency manipulator because they were helping or going to help with North Korea. So if China does not adequately put pressure on North Korea, is he going to go back and declare them a currency manipulator?
MR. SPICER: There's a couple things on that. Number one, they haven't been manipulating their currencies since he's been in office. That's a fact. Number two is, I think the President's tweet said clearly that to do so at this time would not be prudent. It's not a quid pro quo. It's just saying that in the middle of them taking very positive signs to help us address the situation in North Korea, that to label them a currency manipulator I don't think would be very productive in achieving a very, very important national strategic objective.
Q: Sean, on both the taxes and the visitor logs, there are now ethics experts on both sides of the aisle who say this is the least transparent administration in decades. How do you respond?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think that we've taken several steps to allow people access to this White House in terms of -- in particular the press. We hold regular pool sprays. We bring people in. We release participant lists. We give press the opportunity to come into the room, see everybody who's there. You're part of the discussion. So I would respectfully disagree with that.
Q: Sean, there's a new Gallup poll out today showing that 45 percent of Americans don't believe that the President will keep -- only 45 percent believe he will keep his promises. That's down 17 percent since early February. Given some of his reversals, especially in the last week, does he risk being seen as a flip-flopper?
MR. SPICER: I don't think so. I mentioned it on the currency, on NATO -- we talked about this last week. The question in my mind is looking at the issue and seeing -- and I mentioned NATO, and I think Matt asked it last week -- where there are certain things -- and again, on NATO, if you go back to, I think it was September 29th of last year, he was talking very specifically about some of the moves that he was seeing NATO make in a positive direction, and, already at that point, encouraging them.
In the case of China, they aren't, since he's been in office, manipulating their currency. The Treasury did issue a report on Friday that put them on a watch list with a number of other countries.
So I know that it's easy to just take an issue and say, well, he's not -- make it seem very black and white. But on these particular issues, you can see that there's movement to the President's position. I would argue that he's achieving a lot of results on the issues that he talked to the American people about. I think when you talk about the big issues that he promised the American people in terms of immigration, we see immigration is down 60 percent at the border; on jobs, jobs are coming back over and over again, you're seeing companies talk about new job creation here, new manufacturing here. The executive orders that he's signing are all consistent with the promises that he made to the American people on the campaign trail.
And I think on issue after issue -- whether it's immigration, job creation, national security -- the President made very clear promises to the American people that on -- over and over again, he's achieving great success on. And so I would argue that we're going to continue to see the President not only keep his word but be rewarded by the American people on that front.
Q: On a separate issue, about the President's continued travel to Mar-a-Lago or any other place where he's conducting official business. Does the White House believe that those other locations should be treated like this building in the sense that you guys will be transparent about who he's meeting with and what kind of official business he's conducting while he's there? Is that a commitment that you all are willing to make?
MR. SPICER: I think we've been fairly consistent with reading out who he's meeting with and what he's done, providing the pool access to his whereabouts and what he's doing. I think we generally do. Obviously, the President has time to spend with family and he makes phone calls. We generally provide readouts of those phone calls with foreign leaders, whether he's here or in Florida.
So I think we've done a fairly good job of making sure that people know who he's meeting with, who he's speaking to, and when appropriate, the contents of those calls.
Q: But, Sean, long stretches of time go by and we get pool reports from the pooler saying, we've been asking the White House for information about what the President is doing and we don't get that information. We can't even get an answer to whether he's golfing or not these days.
MR. SPICER: I understand that there are some days you don't get it as quick as you want, but --
Q: Some days we never get it.
MR. SPICER: Okay, but with all due respect, Julie, he's entitled to have moments with his family and private time. So I think, respectfully, I would disagree. I think we do a very good job of getting you information, of bringing you along to events, whether he's here or at a location or even going out to dinner. We've lived up to that. I think the President is entitled to have some times with his family and friends to just catch up.
Q: But then that's the difference then to what you're saying to Abby, which is that you are providing that information.
MR. SPICER: No, but what I'm saying is, her question was about official business. And when he does have a call and when he does meet with advisors, we generally put it out. But when he's meeting internally, in the same way that when he's meeting here with his staff, we don't read out every staff meeting that's going on. And so when he's down, traveling, and he's having meetings -- whether it's on Air Force One or wherever -- that's what his staff does, is they provide him updates and policy briefings and give him an opportunity to make key decisions with their insight into a particular issue. That's what all Presidents do.
And I think that I would respectfully suggest that we have done a really good job of making sure that the pool in particular is provided information in terms of his whereabouts, and then we've provided background briefings on issues that are coming up -- where we're going, why we're going, what we intend to do.
So I get that there's always going to be this back-and-forth, you guys are going to always want more. And I think that we've tried to do what we can to get you that information.
Thank you guys very much. We look forward to seeing you in Wisconsin tomorrow, if you can. Thank you.
END 2:44 P.M. EDT