Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:20 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: How's my pin, John?
Q: It looks good.
MR. SPICER: Good
Q: The tie is good, the pin is good.
MR. SPICER: All right, then we're ready to go.
Q: Ready to go.
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you all had a great weekend. The President spent his weekend in a series of meetings with White House staff and advisors planning for a full and productive week.
On Saturday, as many of you saw, the President had a working lunch with several members of his team, including Homeland Security Kelly, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Ross, Veterans Secretary Shulkin, and members of his White House staff, during which they discussed immigration reform and their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Over the weekend, the Vice President went down to Louisville, Kentucky. He was joined by Governor Matt Bevin for a listening session with over a dozen small-business owners from Kentucky to discuss the burdens that Obamacare has inflicted on their businesses. The Kentucky business owners shared in detail how Obamacare is negatively affecting their businesses, and reiterated their support for repealing our current healthcare system and replacing with one that actually works.
This morning, after receiving his intelligence briefing, the President led another listening session on healthcare with Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Tom Price. The President and Secretary Price heard from nine concerned Americans from across the country who have been failed by the broken promises of Obamacare, as well as two doctors who have seen their patients suffer from the law's misguided rules and requirements.
This listening session was another important step in the process of crafting and implementing an effective patient-centered healthcare. Americans have been watching their healthcare costs skyrocket while their choices of providers and insurers have dwindled for years.
They've received those cancellations in the mail as many as three times. They've seen urgent care and emergency rooms filled with people who can't afford their high deductibles and resorted to enduring the pain or sickness until they had no choice but to go to a hospital. They've had family members with chronic preexisting conditions whose cost of healthcare has more than doubled. And they've been forced to let go of valued employees or, frankly, unable to hire more due to staggering workers' compensation increases.
The President campaigned on a pledge to repeal and replace this unraveling system. The American Health Care Act is one part of fulfilling this pledge; it's far from the only one. He's using administrative action to provide essential regulatory relief to insurers, increasing coverage choices, and providing lower-premium options to individuals and families.
He will continue to work with Congress on the additional legislation, part of this three-prong strategy to increase choice while decreasing prices, including allowing health insurance to be sold across state lines, adding to the list of healthcare-related costs patients conduct with their health savings accounts, streamlining the process at the FDA so that lower-priced generic medicine gets to the market faster, inviting small business to band together to negotiate for lower health insurance for all their employees, and reforming the medical malpractice lawsuit system so that doctors are not forced to perform unnecessary and costly procedures and tests out of fear of future litigation.
Our healthcare system is large, complex, and critically important not only to the health of our citizens, but to the health of our economy. Through commonsense, patient-focused reforms, the President will work with Congress to create a new system that doesn't impose a one-size-fits-all, government-knows-best vision on the American people. We will empower the American people to make their own choices about healthcare that make them best work for themselves and their family, that will bring costs for everyone down.
After the listening session, the President had lunch with Vice President Pence and Secretary of Transportation Chao. Later this afternoon, the President will welcome all of his confirmed Cabinet members to the White House for their first Cabinet meeting. This meeting is an important opportunity for the President to share his vision with the country with his Cabinet members, providing direction for them to bring back to their agencies and departments, to ensure that the entire administration is working towards the same goals.
Unfortunately, this afternoon, you'll see some empty chairs around the table representing the President's four nominees who have yet to be confirmed by the Senate -- Secretary of Agriculture-designee Governor Perdue, Secretary of Labor-designee Alex Acosta; Director of National Intelligence-designee, former Senator Coats, and United States Trade Representative-designee, Robert Lighthizer.
Senate Democrats have drawn out this entire process for way too long, and these key agencies and departments will not be represented at the President's first Cabinet meeting. The President is confident in these unquestionable abilities of the confirmed Cabinet members that will be in attendance. He is just as confident in the demonstrated quality of the four individuals who will not be able to attend. Their absence will clearly be felt as this administration comes together for the first time to receive guidance from, and provide counsel to, the President on these unique areas of jurisdiction.
Following the Cabinet meeting, the President will sign an executive order to reorganize the federal government. This order requires a thorough examination of every executive department and agency to identify money -- where money is being wasted and how services can be improved, and whether or not the programs are truly serving the American people.
This is the beginning of a long-overdue reorganization of the federal government and another significant step towards the President's often-stated goal of making it more efficient, effective and accountable to the American people.
This evening, the President will have dinner with Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Advisor McMaster. Also, he hopes to see Seema Verma confirmed as the administrator of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, another unquestionably qualified nominee who's been shamelessly prevented from taking her position at a critical post.
Let me just kind of touch on the week ahead. Tomorrow, based on the current forecast, we are currently in conversations -- in contact with officials in the Chancellor's office in Germany regarding the visit. We'll have an update regarding that visit later today.
On Wednesday, the President will visit Detroit for a trip focusing on job creation and automobile manufacturing. He will meet with auto executives and workers and manufacturing suppliers highlighting the need to eliminate burdensome regulations that needlessly hinder meaningful job growth. Also on Wednesday, the President will visit Nashville, where he will lay a wreath at President Andrew Jackson's tomb at the Hermitage.
And as I told you last week, on Thursday the President will welcome the Taoiseach of Ireland for the traditional St. Patrick's Day visit. I can also confirm that the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, will have a meeting with the President on Thursday of this week. I will have further details on that visit for you soon.
And on Friday, the President will travel to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend.
Finally, the President is aware of the forecast for the storm that's currently threatening the Northeast. The President has been briefed by his Homeland Security Advisor and the acting FEMA administrator on storm preparations. He has directed his Intergovernmental Affairs staff to remain in contact with governors and mayors in the path of the storm. He has directed his acting FEMA administrator to lean forward and be prepared to help states should they require federal assistance.
We urge everyone to listen to state and local leaders and public safety officials to follow their warning and closure notice. They are the best source of information during that storm.
With that, I'd be glad to take your questions.
Q: Sean, if I could come back to the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Preet Bharara, who was asked to resign along with 45 other U.S. attorneys. The President seemed to indicate not too long ago that he wanted Mr. Bharara to stay on in that job, and he was asked to resign like the other attorneys. And then he says he was fired on Saturday when he refused to resign. Did the President change his mind about keeping him on? Or was it only supposed to be for a finite period of time? Can you just fill us in?
MR. SPICER: I'm going to refer you to the Department of Justice on that. This is a standard operating procedure for a new administration around this time to ask for the resignation of all the U.S. attorneys. We had most of them -- or a good chunk of them had already submitted their resignation letter. This is just the final swath of individuals who had not at this time. But this is common practice of most administrations.
Q: I understand that this happened at the DOJ and the request was from the DOJ, but there seems to a White House connection vis-à-vis the fact that the President had actually asked him to stay on, and then the President apparently called him a couple of days before he was allegedly fired. Can you tell us what that was all about? And did the President change his mind?
MR. SPICER: No, the President was calling to thank him for his service. This is, as I said, a standard action that takes place at most administrations. Then-Attorney General Reno sent out an almost identical letter in 1993. The Bush administration sent out a similar one, as well. So this is a very common practice for all political appointees -- not just in the Department of Justice -- but throughout government when there's a turnover administration to ask for all individuals to do that.
Q: Sean, yesterday John McCain said the President should either provide information about the allegation he put on Twitter a week ago Saturday, about his phones being tapped at Trump Tower, or retract his statement. Today is the deadline. What's the President going to do?
MR. SPICER: Well, let's be clear -- the Department of Justice was asked to send information down to Congress. It wasn't the White House that was asked to do that. Just so we're clear as far as what the request was.
Q: But the tweet came from the President of the United States.
MR. SPICER: I understand that. And with the tweet --
Q: Does he have an obligation, as Senator McCain said, to clear this up?
MR. SPICER: And I think if you look at the President's tweet, he said very clearly "wiretapping" in quotes. There's been substantial discussion in several reports that Bret Baier from Fox on March 3rd talked about evidence of wiretapping. There's been reports in The New York Times and the BBC and other outlets about other aspects of surveillance that have occurred.
The President was very clear in his tweet that it was wiretapping, that that spans a whole host of surveillance types of options. The House and the Senate intelligence committees will now look into that and provide a report back. But I think that there has been numerous reports from a variety of outlets over the last couple months that seem to indicate that there has been different types of surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election.
Q: And so what you're saying is the President doesn't have an obligation to provide any evidence?
MR. SPICER: No, I'm not saying that at all. Not at all. What I'm saying is the request that was made from the House was to the Department of Justice. I think that that's an appropriate question to ask them.
What I'm telling you is, from a White House perspective, there's no question that there have been an abundance of reports regarding surveillance and other type of activities that occurred during the 2016 election.
Q: And that leads us to believe that the President's only evidence are these reports?
MR. SPICER: No, no, that leads you to believe that. I'm saying to you --
Q: I'm trying to --
MR. SPICER: And I'm saying to you is that what we made clear on that Sunday was that the House and Senate intelligence committees have the means, the process, and the access to go in and look at the entirety of the evidence that's being presented to them and make a determination that they can report back to us.
Q: Thanks, Sean. Following up on Major's question, does the President feel he has an obligation, once the investigation is over, to release some sort of statement in response to whatever the findings are? That's my first question. I have a second one for you.
MR. SPICER: Well, let's get there first. I think to start to presume what the outcome is going to be before the House and the Senate look at all of the evidence and information and reports that are presented to them would be a bit presumptuous. So I think -- let's slow down a little, let them look at everything, and then let them make some determinations.
Q: And then my second question for you: Has President Trump donated his paycheck from the month of February, like he promised to do during the campaign?
MR. SPICER: The President's intention right now is to donate his salary at the end of the year, and he has kindly asked that you all help determine where that goes. The way that we can avoid scrutiny is to let the press corps determine where it should go. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, we have a few ideas.
MR. SPICER: In all seriousness, I think his view is he made a pledge to the American people, he wants to donate it to charity. And he'd love your help to determine where it should go.
Q: May I suggest the Correspondents Association --
MR. SPICER: That will be a great way --
Q: Journalism scholarship.
MR. SPICER: That would be a great way to do it.
Q: Thanks a lot, Sean. I wanted to follow up with you on questions regarding Michael Flynn, who's no longer in the administration. There's a five-year lobbying ban that's been imposed upon all Trump administration employees. Does that also apply to Michael Flynn? Would he not be permitted to lobby now for five years because of the agreement that he signed when he became the national security advisor?
MR. SPICER: That would be correct. I'd have to check and actually figure out when he signed or if he signed the form. But yes, all administration officials who come in are required to sign that ethics pledge banning them from lobbying for five years and then a lifetime ban on lobbying on behalf of any foreign government.
Q: And then related to that, what are the repercussions if an employee of this administration lobbies within five years? Where's the teeth, what's the penalty, what's the punishment that would be imposed on that particular Trump administration employee?
MR. SPICER: I'd have to get back to you, John. I don't know whether that's a Department of Justice aspect or not, but I will get back.
Q: I was wondering, did the President ask Preet Bharara to stay on during their conversation during the transition or not?
MR. SPICER: I was not privy to that conversation. Again, I'm not really sure how it's relevant at the end of the day. The Department of Justice asked all remaining 46 at this time, that they asked for all of them to submit their letters of resignation based on the same kind of precedent that was set during both the Clinton and then the Bush administrations in terms of the timeline and format.
Q: I just wanted to ask about the reports about President Xi Jinping visiting Mar-a-Lago April 6th and 7th. Can you confirm that visit and talk about what you want to accomplish with that type of less formal visit? And secondly, with respect to that visit, you still don't have a confirmed ambassador, you don't have an assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Affairs. House ow does that affect your planning and ability to really properly brief the President and make sure he has a strong position?
MR. SPICER: Planning is ongoing for a visit between President Trump and President Xi at a date to be determined. We're not ready to confirm that, and we will have more details. It's the purpose of this meeting, of that kind of a meeting, to help defuse tensions over North Korea and the recent deployment of a THAAD military battery to South Korea. Any meeting between the President of the United States and the People's Republic of China would necessarily cover a broad range of topics of mutual concern.
Secretary Tillerson is traveling to the region now. So I think as we go forward we will have additional details on both the timing and the location of that when we go forward.
Q: Is the implication of you saying Tillerson is traveling that he's setting up the visit, Sean?
MR. SPICER: I'm sorry?
Q: Is the implication of you talking about Tillerson's visit that he's going to be laying the groundwork for --
MR. SPICER: Well, he's in the region. I'm sure that in his visit to Japan, South Korea and then China that preparations will come up as well as areas of mutual concern.
Q: Sean, there's been a rash of --
MR. SPICER: What's that?
Q: Is it me?
MR. SPICER: Sure. Let's go one at a time.
Q: There's been a rash of attacks on LGBT community centers throughout the nation. Over the weekend, the community center here in D.C., Casa Ruby, was attacked and a transgender staffer was assaulted. This follows similar attacks that have taken place in recent days in Orlando, Florida, New Jersey and Oklahoma. This is not unlike the anti-Semitism that the President has already denounced. Will the President also denounce these attacks?
MR. SPICER: Sure. I mean, I think that -- I think one of the points that we've made in previous statements on this is that this is not the way that we as Americans solve our differences. We don't attack each other. We don't engage in this kind of behavior. I think we have a First Amendment that allows us to express ourselves, and that's the appropriate way. But doing it when you're threatening violence or destruction or vandalism is inappropriate in all of its forms.
Q: Is it connected to the withdrawal of the transgender guidance, do you think?
MR. SPICER: Is it what?
Q: Is it at all connected --
MR. SPICER: I don't believe there is any connection between -- I think that that would be a stretch, to say the least.
Q: Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask about North Korea. You mentioned North Korea. Can you tell us a little bit about the review of North Korea right now and what direction you think the administration is going in terms of the relationship -- trying to manage the threat from North Korea?
MR. SPICER: As I mentioned, Secretary Tillerson is heading to the region. He'll meet with his counterparts in South Korea, Japan, and then ultimately in Beijing. That's obviously going to be a major subject. And as I mentioned, when we ultimately meet with President Xi and others, that will be a discussion; it's something that's he's talked about prior to the resignation of the last South Korean President, and was something that has been part of an ongoing discussion.
So there's an internal review that we continue to have, but then there's obviously a geopolitical conversation we're having with partners in the region as we look to contain North Korea's military threat.
Q: Thank you, Sean. Can you confirm that any cooperation with Russia with regard to Syria is off the table? And if not, is it fair to say that the forthcoming anti-ISIS plan does include some sort of cooperation with Russia?
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to get into what the plan -- I mean, the plan is not done yet. As I mentioned a couple days ago, Secretary Mattis was briefing the principals, and that plan is continuing to evolve. So I'm not going to start to rule out one country. But I think the President has been very clear in the past that if a country shares our commitment to defeating ISIS and we can work with them in an area of shared, mutual concern, then we will do so.
Q: Second question. A Kremlin spokesperson said that Russian President Putin and President Trump will meet at the G-20. Can you confirm that? And would the White House move on a possibility of a meeting before that?
MR. SPICER: I will follow up on that. I don't have a date. I know that the team is working very actively with respect to bilateral meetings at the G20. I don't have anything for you on that.
Q: Director Mulvaney said yesterday that he felt that the Obama administration had been manipulating the unemployment rate. I'm wondering if that's a view that the President shares. And what evidence is there of --
MR. SPICER: I think he was clearly referring to Obamacare, the number of people. But I would refer you back to him and his comments with respect to how he characterized that. I think he can discuss the precise nature of what he meant on that.
Q: Does the President feel that the Obama administration had been manipulating --
MR. SPICER: I think you know what the President's view is. He's made very clear in the past what his comments were on how those numbers were articulated in the past. And I think there's a question between the total number of people that are employed, and the President's comments in the past have reflected that his big concern was getting to the bottom of how many people are working in this country, and that the denominator -- meaning the percentage rate of the total number of people -- is not the most accurate reflection of how many people are employed in this country. How many jobs are created, how many people are getting back to work, how many companies are committing to hiring more people is a much more accurate assessment of where we're headed as our country -- where our employment is, where our economy is headed.
But to look at a number and say we have 4.7 or 4.8 or 5.9 percent unemployment is not necessarily an accurate reflection of how many people are actually working, seeking work, or want to work. And if you know how they conduct those surveys, there's a lot of times when people, whether they're older or younger, or because of how long they've been searching for work, are not considered statistically viable anymore and they're washed away.
So I think how you look at the percentage of people working can sometimes be a manipulated number. The number of people that are added to the roll every year -- every month, rather -- is a much more accurate understanding of what's happening in the economy.
Q: I just want to clarify your answer to Major's question. So will the DOJ and/or the administration comply with the deadline to supply information today?
MR. SPICER: Remember, it's the -- again, it's not -- the request was made of the DOJ, and so the proper venue to ask that question of is the Department of Justice.
Q: But surely, the White House knows whether there is or there is not evidence.
MR. SPICER: You can't -- because, it's interesting, in the past whenever we've had these conversations with another agency, the accusation from the press corps is that we're interfering in something. So you can't have it both ways. You can't say that we're interfering with someone when we talk to them; when we don't talk to them, it's "surely you must know." So --
Q: So if the President tweets something --
MR. SPICER: Hold on, Cecilia is asking a question.
Q: -- and then say it's the Department Justice's obligation --
Q: This is to follow up on --
MR. SPICER: I understand that. I saw the tick-tock. I understand it. That doesn't mean you get to jump in.
Q: So to follow up on Major's point, though, this is a tweet from the President. Doesn't the President have an obligation --
MR. SPICER: And he does, and I think we've made it very --
Q: -- to make the evidence clear?
MR. SPICER: Right, and we've made it very clear that we expect the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees to do their job. I think there's a preponderance of reports that continues to come out about surveillance and actions that have occurred during the 2016 election. Once they come up with their report -- and it was asked earlier today -- I think we can talk about the conclusions of that report. But at this time, you can't say that we're going to shift it off to the House and Senate and then comment every day. That was the entire goal of asking them to look into this further.
Q: But will DOJ comply with this deadline today? The clock is ticking.
Q: The President instructed them --
MR. SPICER: I understand. My understanding is that they will. But again, I would ask them what their intention is, and I believe there are certain things that they can and can't do in terms of classification and stuff. But I would leave it up to the Department of Justice to answer for the Department of Justice.
Q: How is the press making Obamacare look good?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think when you see some of these comparisons that occur in the -- talk about who's going to win and who's going to lose, it misses a lot of the competition that's going to take place. It doesn't talk about the increased choice.
Right now, as the President has noted, as Secretary Price has noted, in a third of all counties in five states you have one choice. Those analyses that are very -- trying to look at how much you'll pay and how much you won't, A, don't take into consideration the competition that's going to occur, the choice that's going to occur.
I mean, right now, you have one choice in a lot of places. You have no decision about how much you're going to pay and what you're going to get. Choice allows you to determine what scale of healthcare you need, what kind of package is good for you, your family or for your business. And when you look at a lot of these analyses when you open up various major papers, they make it seem so simple: it's how much are you going to pay for on this plan, how much are you going to pay for under the current plan. It misses an entirety of the whole process, which is that you don't have competition, number one.
Number two, and the bigger point that I think the President and a lot of others are getting to, is that the system is failing on its own. It makes it seem like it's all rainbows and puppies. At the end of the day, if you have a card and you're getting a subsidy but you're not getting care, you have nothing.
And so walking into a doctor's office where you can hand them a card and say, I've got a $5,000 tax subsidy -- if that doctor doesn't take the care or the deductible is so high, then you really don't have anything. And so to do an apples-to-apples comparison is hardly an accurate analysis of what the current situation is.
Q: Just going back to the counter-ISIS plan you mentioned earlier, the plan isn't don't yet. The President during the campaign said multiple times that within 30 days he wanted that plan presented to him. Obviously it's undergoing comments at the National Security Council principals level. But is the President upset that he hasn't received it yet? And does that point to a difference between campaigning and governing, that things take longer than he thought?
MR. SPICER: No, I think there's a difference. The plan has been received, right. The issue, as you correctly point out in your question, is that now that it becomes an aspect of the principals all discussing different priorities, different staffing levels, different funding levels. But the plan is here, as we noted a few weeks ago. It's being reviewed, and they're providing input from different members of the principals and different members of his national security apparatus to make sure that the plan continues to evolve and is able to attack ISIS in a way that --
Q: When is it actually going to take effect?
MR. SPICER: Some pieces of it are, in the sense of -- he has talked to commanders on the ground. We've noted before some of the military action that's been taken, some of the authority that's been given to some of the commanders on the ground. That is actually taking the fight to ISIS on a daily basis. I think the more holistic approach that he asked for will continue to evolve through the national security process. But make no mistake, we're on it right now.
Q: Thanks, Sean. On the executive order this afternoon, do you have a numeric goal for either reducing the size of government or saving a certain amount of money through the review of agencies?
MR. SPICER: I don't know that Director Mulvaney has a target, per se. I think that's part of the issue, is that you go through each one of these and you evaluate them on the merit of what they do or don't do, or whether or not they've become bloated or duplicative, or, frankly, just outdated or in need of technological advances.
But there's a lot of -- there's no set number that we're driving down to as we review government. Sometimes you just walk into an agency and you realize that agency's mission is no longer relevant, or that it's duplicative in three other agencies, or that there are too many people performing a function that no longer exists for a variety of reasons. But that's why the mission is critical that Director Mulvaney was given the mandate to go out and get all of these different agencies and departments to review themselves and to provide feedback for him as to where we could go.
Q: Thanks, Sean. You had said previously that the Republican healthcare plan wouldn't be a one-size-fits-all approach, but the current plan preserves Obamacare's health benefits requirements, which literally defines insurance at the federal level. So how do you reconcile those two things?
MR. SPICER: What's missing right now is choice. That's the number-one issue. We tried to solve a problem -- when I say "we," the government -- with respect to Obamacare back in 2008, 2009. And the issue was, is that in order to solve a problem for several million people being without healthcare insurance, we upended the system for everybody -- so if you had employer-based healthcare, if you had TRICARE, Medicare or Medicaid. And it was exactly the opposite approach. We went in to solve a problem that a small fraction of Americans had, and we upended the entire system, forcing premiums to go up and choice to go down for everybody.
And I think that when you can institute choice and competition back in the system, that's something that's going to benefit everybody. And that's exactly the opposite of what's happening.
Q: Would phase two or three of this eliminate those requirements?
MR. SPICER: I think phase two, the administrative phase, will look at a lot of those requirements, and then phase three -- and again, they're not necessarily -- they can run concurrently, and I think the House is looking at starting a lot of that legislation.
And so -- and Dr. Price is already starting to look through a lot of that administration -- a lot of administrative aspects of it as well at HHS and figure out how do we start to achieve some of this, unravel some of these pieces that are there, but instilling choice and competition, allowing people to buy their insurance over state lines, allowing small businesses to pool, allowing the expansion of health savings accounts -- all of those kind of factors that are going to drive down costs, but also having the insurance companies, frankly, be able to offer additional choices and options for people is in itself going to be a huge bonus.
Q: A lot of conservatives are complaining that -- or suggesting that the President doesn't fully back the Paul Ryan healthcare plan. Has the President spoken with Paul Ryan about the plan? And have they had any conversations about its future in Congress?
MR. SPICER: They have spoken, yes. I don't know when the last time they have. But the President is fully committed to this plan. I think you saw Secretary Price and Director Mulvaney out discussing that this weekend. They're committed to the plan.
And, look, Director Mulvaney made it very clear this weekend as well that if through the process we can find some ideas that make this a stronger, more patient-centered piece of legislation that will ultimately benefit Americans, then we're going to do it. We're not saying this is the only way forward. As it works its way through the House and then ultimately through the Senate, if there are ways that we can enhance the bill through the legislative process, we're willing to do that.
Q: You want to read us another -- quickly -- if there's any details of the --
MR. SPICER: Would you like to know? (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: Okay, thank you. The President spoke to the Chancellor of Germany. They agreed, due to the current weather, that the meeting should be postponed. The meeting has been rescheduled to March 17th, this Friday. Same schedule of events on March 17th.
Q: All right, I'll ask my question if I can very quickly then.
MR. SPICER: Thank you for your assistance with the --
Q: That's news. You spoke on behalf of the President, quoting him on the jobs report on Friday. You said they "may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now."
MR. SPICER: They are very real now.
Q: "They are very real now."
MR. SPICER: Just want to make sure you get it right.
Q: The question I wanted -- when should Americans trust the President? Should they trust the President -- is it phony or real when he says that President Obama was wiretapping him?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, let's get back. I think there's two things that are important about what he said. I think recognizing that it's -- he doesn't really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally.
Q: What does he think?
MR. SPICER: But I think there's no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election. That is a widely reported activity that occurred back then. The President used the word "wiretap" to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities during that. And that is, again, something -- it is interesting how many news outlets reported that this activity was taking place during the 2016 election cycle, and now we're wondering where the proof is. It is many of the same outlets in this room that talked about the activities that were going on back then.
Q: So on the same topic, on the CBO report, did the President think it was real then, and is phony now?
MR. SPICER: What CBO report?
Q: On the expectation -- the CBO report is coming out, about which you said, "If you're looking at the CBO for accuracy, you're looking in the wrong place." Three years ago, you said of the CBO report, that it confirms Obamacare is bad for the economy. So the question is --
MR. SPICER: Well, it was bad for the economy.
Q: Okay, so the bottom line of the question is, was it real then, and now is now phony? As you have said, it's not the place to find accuracy?
MR. SPICER: Okay, so let's look at the CBO's projection. It said their projection on Obamacare was that, in 2016, it would have 24 million people on it. The actual figure is 10.4 million people -- less than half the number of people that it predicted would be insured were on it, and it's declining.
So the only point, Peter, is to make sure that people understand -- if you're looking to get a bullseye accurate prediction as to where it's going, the CBO was off by more than half last time. So it's not -- this is not about what my understanding or my belief of the CBO is. The last time they did this they were wildly off, and the number keeps declining.
And so the question that needs to get asked right now, or, frankly, the awareness that needs to be brought up right now is that if you were going to look at a number tonight, I think you have to look through the scope of whether or not that number is.
Now, it was bad for the economy. That was right. You can glean that in terms of the direction what the impact that it had. But as far as their numbers go -- on the number of people that they predicted back then would be covered now -- they were off by more than half.
Q: I guess the question is, when can we trust the President when he says something is phony and when he says it's real?
MR. SPICER: Hold on, hold on. You asked a question about CBO, and now you're conflating it with the question of the President. The question is --
Q: No, I asked a question about wiretapping first. And then we went on to CBO. So the question, in simple terms is, when he says something, can we trust that it's real --
MR. SPICER: Yes.
Q: -- or should we assume that it's phony? Well, no, no --
MR. SPICER: You suggest that it's real, absolutely.
Q: How can we believe that it's real when you just told us that it was phony then, but now it's real?
MR. SPICER: I did not tell you that, Peter. And you're trying --
Q: You told us on Friday that the President said -- the President, you didn't -- the President said the numbers were phony then but they're very real now. So how can we take anything he says that he won't later say, "actually it was the opposite"?
MR. SPICER: Hold on, hold on. I think the difference is, the President was talking then and now about job creation -- the number of jobs. The issue that he brought up in the quote that you're talking about was the percentage of people who are unemployed. And there is no question that no matter how you look at this, whether you talk about 4.7 or 4.8 or whatever the number is, that number fluctuates by how people calculate who is in the workforce.
Q: He said it was in the twenties or more.
MR. SPICER: Okay, Peter, let me answer the question.
Q: I'm listening.
MR. SPICER: You're not. Let me answer it. The bottom line is, the percentage of people who are unemployed varies widely by who you're asking and the way you do the analysis of who is actually in the workforce. The number of people who are working and receiving a paycheck is a number that we can look at.
Secondly, when you're asking about the validity of the CBO report, again, I would refer you to the CBO itself. The number that they issued that would be insured in 2016 was 26 million people. The actual number is 10 -- excuse me, 24 million. The actual number is 10.4. That's not a question of our credibility. It's a question of theirs.
Do you have anything more? (Laughter.)
Q: The bottom line is, the question that you still have not answered is --
MR. SPICER: I have answered it.
Q: -- can you say affirmatively that whenever the President says something, we can trust it to be real?
MR. SPICER: If he's not joking, of course. But in that case --
Q: So let's start over again with joking.
MR. SPICER: But you're asking -- hold on -- okay, no, no. But your point is -- I mean, every time that he speaks authoritatively -- that he speaks -- that he is speaking as President of the United States. Like it's --
Q: Three to five -- more than 3 million Americans voted illegally -- was that, when he was speaking --
MR. SPICER: Yes. And he still believes that.
Q: -- was he joking or does he believe it?
MR. SPICER: He does believe it. Thank you.
Q: Thanks, Sean. I have a healthcare question. But first, can we just get an answer one way or the other about whether the President directed the Department of Justice to respond to this?
MR. SPICER: No, he did not.
Q: And does he plan to?
MR. SPICER: I answered the question.
Q: Okay, so on healthcare, Secretary Price said on Sunday that nobody will be worse off financially and more people will be covered than are currently with the plan that you guys are pushing. Paul Ryan acknowledged that people are going to lose coverage. So what is the goal here? You just said you're open to modifications to the plan if you find that there's a better way to do it. Is the goal that people not lose coverage? Or is the goal that --
MR. SPICER: Well, again -- but there's a false argument there which is that they have coverage. People have cards, they've been told they have things, but they can't -- they keep walking in -- the President met with nine individuals this morning that they were told they're going to get coverage for something, they are told that they're going to have all these subsidies. They walk in, and they don't get covered. They don't have the care that they need. There is a difference between walking around with someone and saying, hey, I've got a card, than I have care. And that is a big, big difference.
Right now, when you have a third of the counties in this country that have one choice and going down, and number of insurers leaving markets, then the system is collapsing. So the question has to be, to everybody who is not with us on this, is what is your alternative? Because right now, the current system of Obamacare is failing every American who has Obamacare. And frankly, for those who don't have Obamacare, for those who have employer-based insurance, for those who have TRICARE or Medicare, it's driving up the costs. And in the cases, especially for those who have Medicaid, Medicare, or TRICEARE, they're going into doctors' offices more and more who are telling them, we don't accept that.
Q: But you're talking about quality and about cost. I'm asking about coverage.
MR. SPICER: Yeah, but that's the point, is that you're missing the point. If you keep talking about coverage -- care is what matters. If you can't walk in and get seen, if you can't get a doctor to see you, then you don't have coverage. I mean, that's what this is all about. Being told you have coverage but you can't go see a doctor, or you can't afford to see a doctor is not coverage.
MR. SPICER: Thank you, Sean. I have two questions. First, Democratic Leader Pelosi said on Friday that every single Democrat would vote against the American healthcare plan -- the plan backed by Republican members of Congress and the administration. The Freedom Caucus in the House has come out for Senator Paul's plan. When one simply does the arithmetic of Democratic members and Freedom Caucus members, that's a majority against the plan. How does the administration plan to overcome the arithmetic?
MR. SPICER: We're going to continue to work with members of the House and then eventually the Senate. I feel very good, as the President continues to engage with members, that we will have the votes necessary. I think Speaker Ryan agrees with that as well. We're going to have the votes, this thing will pass, and we'll move on to the Senate.
Q: The other question is this: In recent weeks there's been considerable attention on the upcoming elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday, and in France in a few weeks. Candidate Geert Wilders of the Netherlands was here for the CPAC conference. Representatives of Marine Le Pen of France were here. Many analogies were made between these candidates and President Trump, and they offered words of praise for him or did so through their representatives. Is he aware of these candidates in Europe who invoke his name and image? And if so, what does he think of these would-be Trumps and Trumpettes?
MR. SPICER: I don't know the answer to that. I think most of these are -- we'll allow sovereign nations to have their own elections without interference.
Q: Sean, can I follow up on Peter and Julie's questions?
MR. SPICER: Sure.
Q: Two issues, again. Whether the President and Director Mulvaney put a lot of faith in the Congressional Budget Office, members of the Senate will, when they get -- if they get legislation from the House. So my question is, what does the President or the administration intend to do to establish to senators' satisfaction that the numbers coming out of the Congressional Budget Office, which the President will question, are not substantial and can be countered by other information? In other words, is OMB doing its own kind of score? Is the President relying on a think tank to counter the messaging? Because senators are already indicating that they will put weight in the CBO's score.
MR. SPICER: And again, I think this is part of an ongoing discussion with members as far as philosophical, what do they believe, and a lot of these aspects of this plan in keeping with what they have supported in the past.
Obviously, they're going to look at the score -- I get it. That's part of it. And there are pieces of it that may historically have more weighted than others. But I think this is going to be -- as I mentioned to John, I mean, it's an ongoing conversation with members of the House and ultimately the Senate with respect to whatever comes out.
But in the same way that members relied on the score last time, they were way off. And I think that we have to remind them that if this is what you're basing your vote on, you have to look at the historical context in which that information was provided. I think that's an important aspect to how they do it. But I think there's going to be a ton of factors that people rely on as they do this.
Q: Can I follow -- I have one follow-up.
MR. SPICER: Of course.
Q: I may be confused about the wiretapping, your answers, in terms of the President's response. The President was the one who tweeted this, right, and said that he learned something. So can you just establish for me, because I'm confused, the President did discuss what it is that he had in mind, what he tweeted, with the Department of Justice before the Department 00
MR. SPICER: No, I'm not going to get into what the President knew or didn't know prior to it. I think we've already commented on this multiple times.
Q: But how would the Department of Justice have any idea --
MR. SPICER: I don't know. This was a request made of the House Intelligence Committee, not to us. So I don't want to get into starting to parse what we knew or what we didn't. That request did not come to us, it went to the Department of Justice.
Q: Congressman Steve King (inaudible) a tweet he put up, saying that, "We can't restore civilization with somebody else's babies." Does the White House have any reaction to that?
MR. SPICER: I will definitely touch base with the President on that and get back to you on that.
Q: Sean, two for you. I just want to go back to something. You just said a minute ago that "what the President meant when he tweeted about the wiretapping was" -- and you sort of explained it. But you've also stood at that podium and said the tweet speaks for itself. When do you decide when a President's tweets, when his words are open to interpretation and when those words stand on their own?
MR. SPICER: I'm sorry, can you further explain what you're asking? I mean, his tweets do speak for themselves.
Q: You just sort of interpreted it for Peter, saying, well, he didn't mean that President Obama had --
MR. SPICER: That's not what I said. No, no, actually --
Q: You said when he meant wiretapping -- said it -- he meant surveillance. That's not what he said.
MR. SPICER: He literally had it in quotes.
Q: So you're interpreting the tweet for us, it sounds like.
MR. SPICER: No, in some cases I'll ask him, what did the quotes mean, and he'll say --
Q: Did you ask about this tweet?
MR. SPICER: I did.
Q: And what did he say?
MR. SPICER: He said they were in quotes, I was referring to surveillance overall. It's something that had been referred to in other reports.
Q: So he cited other reports in his conversation with you?
MR. SPICER: He did, yes.
Q: So was that what he was basing that tweet on?
MR. SPICER: As I just mentioned -- it was a good try, but I've already been clear on that.
Q: I have a second for you, Sean. I want to go back to this healthcare idea. Just yes or no: Are CBO numbers legitimate, or not?
MR. SPICER: That's not my determination to make. I'm telling --
Q: Does the President think those numbers are legitimate?
MR. SPICER: Hallie, it depends. There are a lot of things at -- hold on, Hallie. You guys have like an NBC thing. Let me answer the question. I think when you look at whatever that number is, whether it's budget projections or whatever, I think there's a track record that goes along a lot of times with whether or not the projections in certain areas -- whether it's unemployment, budgetary numbers, whatever -- what the track record is.
All I'm suggesting to you is very clearly that the numbers that they gave the last time they did health care were off by more than 50 percent when it came to the number of people insured. That's not my interpretation, that's a fact. And I think it's important for people to understand the differences.
Q: Sean, on Preet Bharara, I guess there are two possibilities here. One is the President made a commitment to keep him back in November, and the other one is that he didn't. Preet Bharara came down to the lobby of Trump Tower and said that the President had made that commitment. Did the President, in fact, make that commitment to Preet Bharara?
MR. SPICER: I don't think it really matters. At the end of the day, the Attorney General followed a practice that existed for the last several administrations and asked every attorney general in the last administration to submit their resignation. So, I mean, it is --
Q: It matters in ongoing investigations, and it also matters in the sense that the President made a commitment. If he made a commitment, why did he change his mind? Why did he go back on it?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, as I mentioned earlier, he called him to thank him for his service last week. He followed in the past practice of last several administration and asked everybody to step down. And I think that's the appropriate thing.
Q: Sean, but what's changed from November to now?
MR. SPICER: I called on someone.
Q: Sean, thank you. Ronica Cleary from Fox 5, thank you. I have two questions. The first, I think especially in light of what has happened in the room here today, the President tweeted this morning that much of the media is being rude and that we should be nice. So my question is, is it our job to be nice? And do you think we're nice? (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: Thank you, Ronica. I will just leave it at this. I think that I've been asked for my personal opinion several times. That's not my job. I don't get up here to speak for myself. I speak for the President. I think that he has been very clear that he doesn't believe some of the behavior and the reporting has been appropriate. And to Hallie's point, I will let the tweet speak for itself.
Ronica, number two.
Q: Second question. But this is about you. The interaction you had at the Apple store this weekend -- what would be, I guess, your message to individuals who want to maybe -- I see that woman was, you could argue, very aggressive. If somebody doesn't want to be aggressive and has a question for you, what would you be your kind of message to a regular citizen that has an issue?
MR. SPICER: Ask it. I interact with individuals all day long. Ninety-nine percent of them are pleasant, even with people who may not agree with our philosophy or programs or whatever. But it's a free country, and the beauty of it is that people can act how they want, no matter how that's interpreted. And as long as they stay on the right side of the First Amendment, we're good.
Q: Thank you, Sean. You said that when the President said wiretapping in that tweet he meant a whole host of surveillance types. So that we can be crystal clear, what surveillance types was he referring to then? What would you consider part of that range?
MR. SPICER: Well, I mean, I think there's a whole host of tactics that can be used to monitor somebody -- either through wiretap or other ways in which you can surveil somebody.
Q: We took that to mean monitoring his calls, specifically. So what else would you include in that range?
MR. SPICER: I think there's a whole host of things that fall into that category. So I'm not sure how you took it, but there is a wide range of ways in which somebody can be monitored or followed up on. And I think that if you contacted one of the law enforcement agencies, they will provide you with a whole host of ways.
Thank you, all. Be safe tomorrow with the snow. Thank you very much. Take care. Stay safe.
END 2:06 P.M. EDT
Sean Spicer, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/326387