James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:38 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon, everybody. I want to start by acknowledging, as the President did a little while ago, that a great American, Kurt Cochran, was killed in the terror attack in London yesterday.
Our prayers are with his family and friends. We’re aware of reports that another American citizen was injured, as well as the potential as this story continues to develop — we stand ready to provide consular assistance, but considering some privacy concerns, I’m not going to further discuss the current state of any of those individuals at this time.
As I said yesterday, the President spoke with UK Prime Minister May to offer his condolences and pledge the full cooperation and support of the United States government in responding to this attack and bringing those responsible to justice.
Now, a little bit on today’s schedule. This morning, after receiving his daily intelligence briefing, the President met with over 30 members of the House Freedom Caucus to discuss building momentum towards replacing and repealing Obamacare with the American Health Care Act.
The members of the Freedom Caucus thanked the President for engaging with them throughout their negotiations, and the President, likewise, thanked the group for their willingness to work closely with the White House and their colleagues to craft the strongest possible bill. The group agreed that their ultimate goal is to implement a system that will drive down costs and increase access to healthcare for millions of Americans, and this meeting was, I think, a very positive step towards achieving that goal.
This was just the latest in a series of discussions, in-person and on the phone, that the President, the Vice President and his team have had, holding with Republican House members on the American Health Care Act. This afternoon, we expect the President to continue those meetings with members of the Tuesday Group from the House, coming up here later today.
Since the law was introduced, the legislative affairs team has been in constant contact with members the American people will be counting on to fulfill their promise of repealing and replacing Obamacare by supporting this bill later tonight.
In the past few days, the President has been on the phone with scores of Republican members, in addition to the in-persons meetings you’ve seen with the Republican Study Committee, the House Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group. This bill has truly been a collaborative effort from the beginning. Through an open and deliberative process, the President and his team have helped to negotiate a very, very strong bill. He was on the phone last night well into the 11 o’clock hour with members on an individual basis, discussing their support for the bill.
The amendments that have been incorporated add important aspects to the bill, like removing costly “essential health benefit” insurance regulations; repealing Obamacare taxes immediately, starting in 2017; reforming Medicaid by allowing states to accept funding as a block grant to implement able-bodied work requirements; and blocking states from receiving enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentages if they expanded during the transition.
We’ve already seen the results, with many members coming out and saying they’re going to be a “yes” tonight. As I’ve noted before, today is actually the 7th — and we hope, the last — anniversary of the day that President Obama signed Obamacare.
The President is looking forward to seeing Republicans fulfill the pledge tonight that they’ve been making to their constituents for years that, with a Republican in the White House and with them in Congress, they would once and for all see the end of Obamacare.
The President — I assume that President Obama must be feeling this time is up for his signature law, since today he came out with a rather lengthy statement about it. But he can’t change the facts about where it stands. President Obama stated that Americans received an “upgrade” in insurance. But the mandates Obamacare placed on insurance forced millions off their insurance and away from their doctor, which broke the promise that they were given.
President Obama attempted to move the goal posts on costs, downplaying the skyrocketing premiums, some in the case of over 100 percent in some places, and unaffordable deductibles. Americans — he seems to have forgotten that he pushed Obamacare on the promise of reducing costs, not making health care unaffordable.
President Obama said Obamacare isn’t — quote — in a “death spiral.” But enrollment is nowhere near expectations, and this year it’s actually declining. Insurers are fleeing the exchanges and one in three counties in America only has one insurer.
President Obama may not believe the Obamacare is a “job-killer” but the new law, including its job-killing taxes, mandates and regulations, speaks for itself. With the passage of the American Health Care Act, we will begin the process of rolling back Obamacare’s many disastrous policies.
And, of course, it’s not just a big day on the House side. Over on the Senate, we begin the final and fourth day of Judge Gorsuch’s Senate Judiciary hearings. Earlier today, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer announced that Senate Democrats would be mounting a filibuster against his nomination.
From day one, we’ve said that the President made an inspired choice with the nomination of Judge Gorsuch. The American Bar Association has given them their highest rating of “well qualified.” This week, though, through all four days, he has showcased his sterling credentials and a brilliant legal mind.
We find Senator Schumer’s announcement truly disappointing, because it breaks with the tradition of how the Senate has handled Supreme Court confirmation votes in modern time — and represents the type of partisanship that Americans have grown tired of.
In the last half-century, only three Supreme Court justices have ever faced a filibuster. The most recent — Justice Alito — was opposed by then-Senator Obama who voted to uphold his filibuster, and later admitted that his vote was a politically motivated act that he regretted. In fact, Senate Republicans didn’t filibuster his Supreme Court nominees, Kagan and Sotomayor.
We call on Senator Schumer to follow Democrats to abandon this attempt to block Judge Gorsuch from receiving a fair up or down vote that he and the American people have voted for.
Back to the rest of the President’s schedule. This afternoon, the President, as I mentioned, will meet with members of the Tuesday Group. He had lunch with Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin and Nelson Peltz.
At 3 o’clock today we hope you’ll come out and join the President to welcome the truck drivers and truck company CEOs who he will be meeting with on the American Health Care Act as they arrive to the White House alongside two rather large big-rigs. One in every 16 Americans work for the trucking industry. It’s the backbone of our country’s domestic freight transportation and it moves over 70 percent of domestic freight tonnage.
But the trucking industry has suffered greatly under Obamacare. Many truckers were forced to buy healthcare plans that weren’t necessarily right for them on the exchanges. Like millions of Americans across the country, they saw their premiums rise and their options plummet. And trucking companies, classified as large employers under the law, are mandated to provide insurance that we already know doesn’t work.
Instead of imposing senseless restrictions from Washington, the President’s three-pronged healthcare reform plan will lower premiums and increase choice by increasing competition. The President looks forward to discussing how these policies, combined with forthcoming tax, regulatory and trade reforms, will provide much needed relief for the trucking industry.
Also today, the Vice President met with President Hernandez of Honduras. A readout on that meeting is available from the Vice President’s office.
And a few notes before I get to your questions. As the President noted during his first Cabinet meeting earlier this month, while many of his spectacularly qualified choices to lead his departments and agencies are already in place and taking action to fulfill the President’s ambitious agenda, there are still some important positions that have not been filled, in large part to to Senate Democrats’ obstruction. I wanted to give you a quick update on still some of the outstanding confirmations.
Secretary of Labor-designate Alex Acosta had a very successful hearing yesterday, and we expect markup next week.
Secretary of Agriculture-designate, former governor Sonny Perdue is currently appearing before the Senate Ag Committee. We expect Governor Perdue to continue to show why he’s the best choice to lead the USDA, and hopefully his markup to be scheduled in the coming days.
We also announced earlier this afternoon that Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark will be visiting the White House on March 30th. We’ll have further details on the visit in the upcoming days.
Tomorrow, the President will hose Medal of Honor recipients and their guests in celebration of Medal of Honor Day, which falls on Saturday of this year. We’ll have some more details on that event coming forward.
The President intends to be here this weekend, so as we have updates on the President’s weekend plans we will let you know as well. I’ll also note that we’ve got — coming up on a deadline related to the Keystone pipeline. We’ll have an update on that for you tomorrow.
And finally, I’m proud to announce that on April 19th, the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the New England Patriots will be visiting the White House to celebrate their latest — and what will probably be a continuation of many more to come — Super Bowl win.
And with that, I will take your questions.
Q Sean —
Q This is a Patriot question. (Laughter.)
Q No, it’s not. (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: Do you know anything about Tom Brady’s jersey? Is this —
Q I’ve got nothing on that. But I have a healthcare question for you. First, do you expect there to be a vote tonight?
MR. SPICER: That’s what I understand the House has scheduled, yes.
Q Any chance that that’s going to be pushed back?
MR. SPICER: That would be obviously up to Speaker Ryan and Leader McCarthy, but I have been — nothing leads me to believe that that’s the case.
Q Is the President concerned at all that as he draws support for the bill from the Freedom Caucus that he may lose support from more moderate groups of the House?
MR. SPICER: He’s meeting with members of the Tuesday Group today. Obviously this is something that he understands — there’s a little bit of a balancing act that goes on as you try to get 216 in this case. But I think we continue to make progress every day. We walked out with more members in support of the American Health Care Act today than we started the day with, and I continue to see that number climb hour by hour. And I anticipate that we will get there.
Q Sean, Patrick McHenry said “we have an offer that” — speaking of the House Freedom Caucus — “can accept it or reject it.” Is that the way that you see it at this moment? Are you just waiting on the House Freedom Caucus to come to your side? Are you at their whims at this point? What’s their status as far as you know?
MR. SPICER: I think there are some members who, in the meeting, stood up and told the President, I’m with you now. And I think member by member, that’s how they’re going to vote. I think we’ve continued to see that number rise. And the same thing with the Tuesday Group. There are members that had not been with us that are expressing their willingness to want to be part of this.
The President went over several commitments and changes that had been made to assuage different folks that have continued to evolve, and I think that we continue to see the number rise. But I think that we continue to see the number go up not down, and that’s a very positive sign.
Q Do you know how many came across and what it was that brought them across in that meeting?
MR. SPICER: It depends. Again, I don’t think there’s any singular issue in a lot of cases. There’s a lot — I think we talked a little bit about sections of the bill that there was an issue with. And so I think there’s a couple areas that there is some common ground on. But there was over 30 members there today, and some of them had specific aspects that they wanted to see improved, and some of them, frankly, came to say, hey, thank you, I think that what you guys have done already has been an improvement.
Q With them is it essential health benefits? Is that their main sticking point as far as you know?
MR. SPICER: In a lot of cases — there were some members that that was their number-one thing. But, again, it wasn’t universal across the board. But, again, I think some of the measures that have been taken along the way have really — and again, there’s also, beyond that, there’s a lot of discussion about phase two and phase three, and I think the President and the Vice President both committed to continuing working and improving and making commitments on the totality and the comprehensive nature of how we’re going to do this.
For a lot of these guys it really comes down to premium increases. They’re very concerned about what they’re seeing their constituents face. And I think the President and the Vice President, Secretary Price, Director Mulvaney, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, the legislative affairs team — we’re all continuing to work with them to talk about certain measures that have been put in place to drive down cost.
And I think when you realize what we continue to talk about, that costs are too high, premiums are spiking, deductibles are going up, choices are going down — these are real concerns for constituents of these members. And I think that as they see an overall and total commitment of this, it’s making them feel a lot better about not just this bill, but phases two and three.
Q Two questions, both on healthcare. First one — is the President open to removing protections for preexisting conditions from the bill?
MR. SPICER: I think that’s been something that he’s been very clear needs to stay in there.
Q Okay. Secondly, about this essential benefits protection. Obviously among those is maternity leave. So how would removing that jive with the President’s promise during the campaign to expand maternity leave? Obviously this would take it out and insurers would no longer have to provide that.
MR. SPICER: Yeah, and again, I don’t want to get into a benefit-by-benefit discussion here, but I think that there’s a lot of concerns, as I just said to Blake, that part of the reason that premiums have spiked out of control is because under Obamacare there were these mandated services that had to be included. And what happened was is that older men, older women who had gone past maternity age were buying benefits that weren’t necessary for them. People who were at the younger end of the age scale were buying end-of-life benefits.
And I think this goes back to the nut of this discussion, Matt, which is we have now gone down to a system where in one-third of all counties there’s one choice, and it’s this potpourri of mandated benefits that everyone has to have. We’ve lost consumer choice. And so people are paying for benefits that neither they, their spouse, their family needs, which is driving up costs for everybody.
And so part of it isn’t about necessarily a benefit. It’s about a series of benefits being mandated for everybody. And so what has happened is that the costs of healthcare for every individual has gone up and the choice has gone down. And I think there is a philosophical discussion that is going on about what we can do to make sure that people have actual coverage — something that we’ve talked about before — but doing so in a way that doesn’t drive up the cost for everybody.
Q So one follow-up on that then. Is the President concerned that without having those essential benefits in there, he’ll have a situation where women are just de factor paying higher for health insurance? Obviously they’d be paying for maternity leave.
MR. SPICER: No, you could have a family plan. In other words, the point is, is that it’s not — again, you’re picking one benefit and trying to extrapolate it. It’s also saying should young people have to pay for end-of-life care.
The idea is to instill choice back into the market so that it’s not just about one particular benefit, it’s allowing people to tailor a plan and a cost point that’s good for them or their family or them and their spouse. But it’s not just about one particular benefit, it’s about looking at this and figuring out what are the cost drivers and how do we give people the choice that they need.
Q Thanks, Sean. The White House and House leadership initially defended the way this bill was written by saying it needed to be structured a certain way and exclude certain things to be able to proceed through the Senate through budget reconciliation. So what’s changed to put now these pretty substantive policy changes on the table? What’s given the White House and Republicans confidence that now it can survive through that same process in the Senate?
MR. SPICER: I think there’s a lot of discussion that goes on. Without getting too into it, the issue at hand is the Byrd Rule and whether or not it affects the budgetary — you can’t have policymaking things that don’t have a budgetary impact. There are certain things that are being phrased in certain ways and crafted in accordance with the rule. But there’s a lot of smart people that are very familiar with the rules and are trying to do things in a way to make this bill conform in those ways.
Q Thanks, Sean. Two questions for you. One on the healthcare bill first. A question about the way this bill is now being modified to basically pick up votes. On Monday night the amendment included that special carve-out for upstate New York — had a bunch of good nicknames that I can’t do justice for — but they also announced these latest (inaudible.) Is the President concerned that this bill now looks a lot like — procedurally, it looks a lot like what Obamacare looked like seven years ago that Republicans have spent seven years criticizing the way that bill was brought to the floor, and here they are seven years later on the same day about to do the exact same thing?
MR. SPICER: No, not at all. In fact, it’s doing exactly what we intended to do. I mean, the exchange that we had with Matt, it’s actually going — the two goals that it set out to do it’s actually doing — driving costs down, find ways to lower premiums, keep deductibles within reason, or at least giving people the option to choose a plan that fits their budget, and then, secondly, is doing things that instill competition, choice.
So the things that are being done actually achieve the goals that have been set forth.
Q Sean, just one for you on a different question. Yesterday, Secretary Mattis and Chairman Dunford testified on Capitol Hill that they were willing to, before Congress, have a public debate around a new AUMF. Is that something that — traditionally, those have started in the executive branch. Is the White House willing to put one forward and willing to begin that round of discussions?
MR. SPICER: I’d refer you back to Secretary Mattis. I think that that is one that’s the Department of Defense is —
Q So is that statement operative for the White House, that the White House now is calling —
MR. SPICER: No, I think that that was brought up in the context of a conversation that he is willing to have with respect to overseas contingencies that are existing right now in the battle, especially with respect to ISIS, and the current tools that we have to combat them. But I think that was a discussion about whether or not we should have a discussion on authorized use of force or not, and how to have that.
Q Now that Chuck Schumer has announced a definite filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch, do you think it’s time for the White House to take a stand on eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees?
MR. SPICER: I am not going to — I’ll let — Senator McConnell is a much more apt user and understanding of the Senate rules. I’m not going to start to tell Senator McConnell what he should be doing from here.
Q He’s your nominee, and —
MR. SPICER: I understand that. And it’s his rules and his chamber that he leads. So I’m going to let that —
Q Sean, thank you. Has anybody from the national security team or the homeland security folks been in touch with their counterparts in London in the last 24 hours or so?
MR. SPICER: Yes.
Q Can you expound on that at all?
MR. SPICER: Only to the extent to say that they’ve been in touch to evaluate, offer assistance. And again, I’m not going to get into a classified discussion about what we may or may not be discussing.
Q A supportive effort needless to say.
MR. SPICER: Yes.
Q Thanks, Sean. Chairman Nunes today refused to definitively rule out that he received the information he announced yesterday on surveillance, that he got that from the White House. So will you rule out that the White House or anyone in the Trump administration gave Chairman Nunes that information?
MR. SPICER: I don’t know what he actually briefed the President on, but I don’t know why he would come up to brief the President on something that we gave him.
Q Well, that’s why it was confusing to many of us, so I was wondering —
MR. SPICER: I don’t know that that makes sense. I did not sit in on that briefing. I’m not — it just doesn’t — so I don’t know why he would brief the Speaker and then come down here to brief us on something that we would have briefed him on. It doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense. So I’m not aware of it, but it doesn’t really pass the smell test.
Q Thanks, Sean. On healthcare, a couple for you. Mark Meadows says — came out of a meeting and said there is no deal. Does the President acknowledge that this bill appears to be in trouble right now?
MR. SPICER: No, I think that we’re going to continue — I mean, it’s not a question of trouble. There was no deal. We weren’t asking for a deal. The President —
Q You wouldn’t call the essential health benefits package a deal?
MR. SPICER: No, I think for a lot of members it was. And I think some of them stood up and said, Mr. President, we’re with you. I think a lot of them said, we’re going to go back and think about it. But there was no — the meeting didn’t conclude by saying, “do we have a deal?” That’s not why we had it. I think for some members this has been —
Q No final offer before it is —
MR. SPICER: No, I think this was a discussion that the President continues to have. I think we have been very, very pleased with the direction it’s going in and the number of members who have expressed their support for it. We’ll continue that discussion with the Tuesday Group. But the number is growing, the number of members who have shared concerns, and I think that we have been very responsive, as well as Speaker Ryan, to the concerns and ideas that members have expressed from across the spectrum.
Q Two quick clarifications. You said that there’s only plan A. At this point, is there an acknowledgement that perhaps there does need to be a plan B if this vote doesn’t happen tonight?
MR. SPICER: No. Plan A.
Q Okay, then the next follow-up is just, has the President asked Speaker Ryan to delay this vote while he works with some of these members to try to convince them to come on board.
MR. SPICER: I’m sorry, what’s that?
Q Did the President asked Speaker Ryan —
MR. SPICER: No.
Q — to delay the vote?
MR. SPICER: Steven.
Q I was going to offer you the opportunity to respond to what Leader Pelosi said today. She said that it’s a “rookie mistake” to set a date for a bill before there’s consensus from the Republican caucus. What’s your response to that?
MR. SPICER: Thank you. I appreciate that. I think we have a pretty strong record on the Republican side of getting bills passed, getting things done. And so — I know that they have a pretty strong record of passing things and telling people that they can read the bill afterwards. I think we have done this the right way, and I think — we know that we’ve done it with the support that voters told members and the President that they wanted.
Q And related, if I might.
MR. SPICER: Yeah, of course.
Q There are some former White House lawyers who served in the prior administration who say that by tweeting from his official POTUS account this morning a video that was put out on official social media channels, that the President and the White House have violated the anti-lobbying law because they’re using money that was appropriated by Congress. Is that a concern you guys appreciate? Is that something that’s been talked about here?
MR. SPICER: It is not. The President — that is not applicable to the President, no. So there is no — I believe you’re referring to 18 U.S. Code 1913, if I’m correct. (Laughter.) I think we’re pretty good on it.
Q Thanks, Sean. The President wrote a book called “The Art of the Deal.” He’s considered the ultimate closer when it comes to negotiations. If this deal falls through, if this bill does not pass, would he accept the blame for its failure? And if not, who would?
MR. SPICER: Let’s get to the vote tonight. I’m not going to start — I think the President has done a phenomenal job, there’s no question. And I think when you look at the effort that he’s put in, the number of meetings that he’s had, and the changes that have been made to the bill, there’s no question how hard the President and his team, the Vice President have worked to get this done. And it’s in response — at the end of the day we can’t force somebody to vote, but I think, as I mentioned to Hallie and several other folks, I like the direction that this thing is going. I think that we continue to see support go with us.
We’re not seeing people fall off, we’re seeing people come on board. That’s a great trajectory to have, and so I like where we’re headed.
Q Two very quick clarifications on previous answers and then I have a third question. I think the issue was not what the President had done but what White House staffers were doing with their official Twitter accounts. So while the law does not apply to the President it was a question about White House staff.
MR. SPICER: Okay, so you want me to answer that one?
MR. SPICER: Let me read for you from 18 U.S. Code 1913. “The Department of Justice consistently has construed that the Anti-Lobbying Act as limiting the lobbying activities personally undertaken by the President, his aides and assistants with the Executive Office of the President, the Vice President, Cabinet members within their areas of responsibilities, and others confirmed officials appointed by the President responsibility.”
So there’s clearly a carve-out for that. Next.
Q When you were talking about the Byrd Rule earlier, can we read from your answer that Vice President Pence does not at any point intend to overrule the Senate parliamentarian?
MR. SPICER: It’s not a question of overrule. You don’t overrule. The Senate parliamentarian makes interpretations. It’s up to the presiding officer.
Q — right?
MR. SPICER: I do, but I also understand how the Senate works. And the presiding officer determines — the Senate parliamentarian has asked for guidance.
Q Sure, and if the guidance from the Senate parliamentarian is that something would violate the Byrd Rule, would Vice President Pence —
MR. SPICER: I’m not going to answer hypotheticals about what he may do, not on this bill or any other.
Q Just finally, CNN reported yesterday that U.S. officials believe that — are investigating that associates of President Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I’m wondering if you can respond to that or say definitely that they did not do so.
MR. SPICER: So let’s actually look at what CNN reported. They reported that anonymous U.S. officials have told them that information indicates that association of the campaign and suspected operatives coordinated, which they admit is not conclusive of anything, is bordering on collusion. The last line of the thing said, “The FBI cannot yet prove that collusion took place.”
I think there’s probably more evidence that CNN colluded with the Clinton campaign to give her debate questions than the Trump campaign gave any kind of collusion. So I think when it comes down to that reporting, it is filled with a bunch of subjective terms about this person may have done this, possibly could have done that. And at the end of the story, if you wade to the very bottom it says, “The FBI cannot yet prove that collusion took place.”
So I’ve addressed this type of reporting in the past, and this fits right in.
Q Without getting too deep in the weeds on exactly what this strategy is in the Senate to get this bill through the Byrd Rule, is the President confident that the strategy that’s being developed in the Senate will result in a bill that can pass muster?
MR. SPICER: Yes.
Q And the President told us several weeks ago that if it looked like the Democrats were going to filibuster Judge Gorsuch, he would encourage Mitch McConnell to invoke the nuclear option. Has the President’s position on that changed at all?
MR. SPICER: The President has not spoken to Senator McConnell yet. I think Senator Schumer, as you know, within the last hour or so came out with his position. I’m sure that after we get through tonight the President will have some kind of conversation with Senator McConnell and discuss Senate strategy. We’re not there yet.
Q Thanks, Sean. Following up on Jordan’s question and then I have a follow-up on Hallie’s question. How did Chairman Nunes end up at the White House yesterday? This morning he said he invited himself here, but that’s sort of an uncommon way to end up here. Can you take us through sort of the tick-tock of what happened?
MR. SPICER: No. I don’t know how he got here. I assume in a car. (Laughter.) But I also don’t track him. I don’t keep his schedule either.
Q You know who he spoke with at the White House?
MR. SPICER: No, I don’t. He literally gave a press conference as we were starting and saying I’m going to go down to the White House after we brief the press.
Q Was this the first time that the White House was made aware of the surveillance that he brought to the President yesterday?
MR. SPICER: I believe that the information that he shared with the President was new.
Q And then the follow-up on healthcare. Is there any sort of plan if the bill does not pass tonight?
MR. SPICER: No.
Q What is the plan B?
MR. SPICER: No, it’s going to pass. So that’s it.
Q Now that you’ve been briefed — I know yesterday you hadn’t been on everything had just happened — can you say if the information that Nunes had is the same information that the President said he had that would be revealed this week?
MR. SPICER: We’re not going to — my understanding, because I was not briefed on the contents of that, was that he spoke generally about what he had seen in these reports that he had been made privy to, but that there was further details he wanted the President to know what he had seen and that it wasn’t related to Russia. But he’s continuing, as, again — all of his public comments are that he is going to continue to pursue this and that he’ll have further updates later. But I’m not aware of the specific nature of it.
Q Wait, one more question. What will the President’s reaction be to Republicans who vote against the healthcare bill tonight? And are they being encouraged the vote their conscience?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think I’ve addressed this before, but I think the President has made very clear that Republicans in particular have made a commitment to constituents and to the American people that if given the opportunity to have a Republican President, a Republican Senate and a Republican House, that they would enact a repeal-and-replace and put into it a patient-centered healthcare.
He believes, as he mentioned during –when he met with the House conference, as he mentioned with the members of the Freedom Caucus today, and I think in several meetings, that this is something that we’ve talked about. You’ve taken a bunch of these free votes when it didn’t matter because you didn’t have a Republican President. And you got to vote for repeal and go back and tell your constituents something like 50 times — well, this is a live ball now. And this is for real, and we’re going to do what we pledged to the American people and keep our word.
And he’s made it very clear that part of the reason that he got elected is because he went out and made a series of bold pledges to the American people about what he would do if he were President, and he’s acting on those. And he’s acting swiftly and boldly with respect to this in particular — and that he believes that not just him, but that members of the House and the Senate have an obligation to fulfill the promise and the pledge that they made to the American people.
Q Regardless of what happens tonight, will we hear from the President? Will he come out and make a statement?
MR. SPICER: I think it’s going to depend on what time the vote is. So I don’t want to commit — I’m sure in some way, shape or form we’ll have some kind of comment.
Q And similar to the question you were asked here, but is the President, no matter what happens, prepared to take responsibility for the outcome of this bill?
MR. SPICER: In what way?
Q Whether it succeeds or fails? His name is on it. A lot of people think so.
MR. SPICER: Well, I think that in the sense that we’ve been very clear about this is a priority of ours and we’ve worked with him. But again, I go back to — at the end of the day, we can’t make people vote. We’ve done everything we can to listen to them, to incorporate their thoughts, to incorporate their ideas to make the bill as best we can. But it’s a balancing act, make no mistake about it, that there’s a full spectrum of folks in the House that have disparate desires.
But I think we can all commit that this is the one vehicle that’s going to repeal something that almost every single Republican that I’m aware of has pledged to do if they were reelected or elected. And I think that there’s a desire that — we understand that not every member is going to find this perfect. That’s what happens when you need to get, in this case, 216 votes.
But it’s the best bill that takes into consideration all of the concerns and all of the goals and all the values — and I understand that in a lot of cases, some of it isn’t a question of the policy, it’s a question of the timing and some of the things that people want that are happening in phase three and phase one.
But as we’ve addressed, the Byrd Rule, which is — to most people, this arcane thing probably even in the House that don’t have to deal with it — in the Senate that deals with whether or not — and if there is a — if it is loaded up with things that are stricken, then it doesn’t serve us any good.
I think that we have put together a very comprehensive approach to addressing how to actually repeal and how to actually replace. I think the President walked through with the House Freedom Caucus today several of the administrative acts that Secretary Price would be taking in accordance with the authority that was granted to him by the Obamacare legislation and by some of the actions that Secretary Sebelius took back in 2009.
There’s a lot of concern among members about some of the sequencing on things, and I think that we have continued to not — so this isn’t just about policy. Some of it’s about sequencing and timing. And I think the President and the Vice President and the rest of the team have done a lot to reassure them on the sequencing and how this thing is going to act. So that discussion I think has continued to be very productive to reassure members how this thing is going to happen and take place.
Q Thanks, Sean. A moment ago you said that there was some members of the House Freedom Caucus in the meeting today who were “no’s” who stood up and said, Mr. President, I’m with you. Can you tell us how many of those there were and what their names were?
MR. SPICER: Not yet. And I’m not trying to be cute about this. I think as we do this — as we do the whip count, I think as you can imagine, that we’ve got to make sure that we don’t — that this balancing act — and you’ve got to now make sure that certain people don’t fall off the end as you pick up certain people. And so we’re keeping that vote total rather tight right now. But I feel very buoyed by the direction that we’re headed in.
Q And can you give us a sense of what specific offer was made? There’s been reporting that the final offer was put on the table for these guys. What specific changes did the President offer them today that were new that we haven’t seen before?
MR. SPICER: It’s not just changes. As I mentioned to Cecilia, part of this is some of the administrative stuff and making sure that they have reassurances that certain things that Secretary Sebelius enacted when she enrolled the bill — or, excuse me, enacted the bill that will be acted upon immediately.
And so there was an enumeration of some of those things and a commitment on some of the other aspects of support that would be given for the phase three bill about buying across state lines, increasing HHS — HSAs. There was a lot of talk about that. And that’s where I think a lot of this comes down to right now, especially among those members. They feel very good about the changes that have been made in the manager’s amendment and they feel very good. There is some question about the commitment and changes that might take place in the Senate, and so that — there was a lot of can we count on this when this happens. So I just want to — some of this is working that way.
Q Thank you very much, Sean. Two questions please. One, as far as 68 countries representing against terrorism or against ISIS at the State Department under the leadership of Secretary of State Tillerson — there was an advisor to the President of Afghanistan coming here speaking at CSIS. And also, the day before yesterday, at the (inaudible) he was addressing Mr. Rabbani, who is the foreign minister of Afghanistan. What both were saying or addressing to the audience at these two think tanks that unless we control two countries who are financing and training — Saudi Arabia is financing in the name of charities, and Pakistan is training. So what is the presidential message to this group?
At the same time, there is a Mr. Abdel Said, who is wanted by the U.S., $10 million — there’s a bounty on him. And he’s openly spewing hatred against the U.S. and India and Pakistan. So where do we go from here?
MR. SPICER: So, look, Secretary Tillerson is the meeting of — have been going through this meeting with 68 of those members that are committed to addressing Syria and ISIS. I’m not going to get ahead of the internal discussions that Secretary Tillerson is having related to the administration’s review of Syria’s policy in particular. But I would stay in touch with the State Department on that.
Q The second part of my question please.
MR. SPICER: Okay.
Q As far as President’s relation with the Indian American community is concerned, that 40 years it was 1976 when a spiritual leader came from — all the way from India to New York City, and he wanted to have a parade, Festival of India in New York, but they didn’t have any resources or sources, but Mr. Trump that time, Donald Trump, came out and helped the group to go on this festival. But now, candidate Trump was also among the Indian American community celebrating Diwali in New Jersey — same group who has been now at the White House this weekend, a peaceful prayer and vigil. They’re asking the President to come out or meet the Indian American community against hate crimes or somebody from the White House.
MR. SPICER: Well, I think we’ve discussed the nature of hate crimes in the past and we’ve condemned the act that happened in Kansas earlier this year. Obviously I’m sure that this is a very important issue for them. The President is right now focused in particular on getting Obamacare repealed and replaced, the issue in London — there’s a lot that’s occupying his time. And I’m sure that we will continue to monitor that situation as well.
Q Will he come —
MR. SPICER: Maybe someday. We’ll see.
Q I have a question about essential health benefits. The President said to Tucker Carlson that he wasn’t going to — if his people weren’t taken care of, he wasn’t going to sign anything. And I’m wondering what he says to people who voted for him who relied on the provisions for opioid addiction — things that were included in those essential health benefits, if they go away.
MR. SPICER: But — yeah, I — respectfully, I think that’s a false choice. Again, the problem with Obamacare is it took all of these benefits, mandated that they had to be offered, and what happened is it spiked insurance rates, it spiked deductibles, and choices went away. And the point isn’t making a benefit go away or not. And that’s why I think it’s, respectfully, a false choice. It’s actually offering options to people. It’s literally like any other service or product that we have here in this country where you can buy what you want. Sometimes it’s at a lower price point because that’s what you can afford. Sometimes you buy features on a product because you want those features. Sometimes you determine that you don’t need — but people should have choice in the healthcare market just the same way that they do in almost every other industry.
I mean, that’s the point. It’s not about giving or taking, it’s about the point that they are being mandated in a way — and that’s the point, is that people should buy what they want, and what is appropriate for themselves or their family. I mean that —
Q Right now, where do the essential health benefits stand? That they’re going to be part of this bill, or still —
MR. SPICER: I think my understanding is they’re part of the House bill.
Q They’re going to be part of this bill?
MR. SPICER: Yeah.
Q Sean, just to follow up on Mara’s question. I think part of the inherent question is, a lot of people buy insurance not knowing what they’re going to need.
MR. SPICER: Well, I think if you’re an older man, you can generally say that you’re not going to need maternity care.
Q That’s possible. But here is the question Mara was suggesting: Opioi0d and drug addiction — you don’t buy your insurance and say, I really need that back-up coverage because I think I’m going to get addicted to painkillers or opioid drugs. So the question is, is the President confident that the kind of choice he has ambitions for would be offered by insurance companies on their own volition?
MR. SPICER: I think several plans, I’m sure — I mean, again, you’re asking — I think there’s a market for things, but like anything else, I don’t think you buy insurance for anything, Alexis, guessing saying, hey, I assume that if my house burns down, I’m going to need to replace all these things. You buy insurance — that’s the whole point of insurance. And I think when people look at it, they’re going to buy what they may not need. But they’re going to evaluate it, and that’s the same thing when you look at a retirement plan, or a car insurance, or any else. You evaluate what your needs are, and then make the decision what’s best for you and your family.
Q Sean, can you say unequivocally that associates of President Trump did not collude with suspected Russian operatives and coordinate on the release —
MR. SPICER: So say the first part of it again.
Q Can you say unequivocally that associates of Donald Trump —
MR. SPICER: See, I think this is — with all due — and this is — the way that the term “associates” is flown around, I don’t understand what that means. If you’re talking about employees of the campaign, employees of the transition or in the White House, that’s one thing. But the way that this term “associates” gets thrown out — and again, we talked about this yesterday — you pull out a gentleman who was employed by someone for five months and talk about a client that he had 10 years ago? No, I can’t unequivocally say that nobody ever in his past, who may or not have come in contact with him, sat next to him in a plane, who grew up with him in grade school — because that’s, a lot of times, this —
Q This gentleman, Paul Manafort, you’re referring to was a campaign chairman —
MR. SPICER: No, I get it. And you’re — I understand who he is. Thank you. I’m well aware of Paul, I read it out yesterday. But the point that I’m making is, when you use a term like “associate,” and you use all of these subjective terms, there’s a reason that you’re doing it, which is because you don’t have anything concrete. If you do, come back to me and ask, “does anyone in the White House,” “is anyone in the transition.” But when you throw out a vague term like that, it’s a catch-all. Can you be certain that no one who works for Time Life Turner has ever done anything illegal? I think that’s a pretty broad way of casting a net — or who has visited the building. I mean, that’s what you’re equivocally saying.
Q And also on the question of anonymous sources. I mean, you clearly have an issue with the way that they have been used among the intelligence officials. But people in this White House are often on background, they are often appearing as anonymous sources. Devin Nunes has used an anonymous source to present his intelligence. So why is it acceptable in that case but not in this case?
MR. SPICER: First of all, there’s two issues here. Number one is, what I have a problem with, and specific with the reporting that your networks did yesterday, is it was one subjective term after another. It was associates that may or may not be there. One subjective term after another, with no concrete proof that anything happened. When you use a term like “associates,” you don’t even put a time frame around it. It’s a little bit nebulous at best to suggest that somebody over and over again, making a claim the way you do and the narrative continues without any substantiation. When you’re talking about Nunes, there’s a reason that someone who’s dealing with classified information can’t go out into public and reveal certain things, because —
Q He said the information wasn’t classified.
MR. SPICER: No, that’s not what he said. I don’t think he ever said that anything wasn’t classified. But there are certain things that the methods —
Q He said he was able to talk about it because it was not classified.
MR. SPICER: No, no. He’s able to talk about the subject; he cannot talk about the specifics, would be my suggestion — that you can’t talk about specifics of a case in terms of the sources and methods and the individuals. Because part of what’s happened is a lot of the individuals who have been masked or unmasked are supposed to be classified. So just because something has gone into the public domain doesn’t make it any less unclassified. That’s the problem.
Q Sean, the nuclear posture review is commencing with this administration. Can you assure us that everything is on the table, including a lifting of a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, and also developing new nuclear warheads?
MR. SPICER: I don’t have a full readout on that at this point. I’ll either get back to you or have someone from the NSC get back to you.
Q Sean, you keep saying that there’s not a plan B for healthcare. President Trump has repeatedly said that Republicans should just allow Obamacare to collapse because Democrats will own that, and therefore maybe we shouldn’t do anything about it, but it’s not fair to the American people to do that. Is the reason there’s not a plan B is because the President’s plan is to allow Obamacare to collapse?
MR. SPICER: No. The President’s plan is to pass the bill tonight, get it on to the Senate, and then sign a bill once it goes through conference. That’s the President’s plan, and that’s why the President has been fighting for it. That’s why the President has been trying to make it stronger and stronger every day.
But I think he states a very clear reality, which is, if it doesn’t do this, then it is a false choice to compare what we’re doing with Obamacare because Obamacare is collapsing — the premiums are skyrocketing, the choices are going down, the deductibles are going up. There is no equivalency. Something is failing, and we’re actually trying to get rid of it to help the American people.
And the point the President is making is, the politically expedient answer is to do nothing, but I think for the sake of the American people and the needs that they have in terms of healthcare, I think we owe it to them to do the right thing.
Q So a follow-up question: Who is the President holding accountable for a split in the Republican Party not being able to get this bill done, the struggle that it’s taking to get the bill to the last minute? Is he holding Republican leadership, Paul Ryan, accountable for bringing a bill to the table without having consensus from the Freedom Caucus? Or is he holding the Freedom Caucus accountable for opposing it?
MR. SPICER: I think right now we’re not focused on blaming, we’re focused on getting it done and winning.
Q Sean, you’ve criticized President Obama for the way he sold Obamacare, and there may be some validity to that.
MR. SPICER: Thank you.
Q But candidate Trump, President-elect Trump, and now President Trump have been selling this legislation as coverage for everybody, lower premiums, lower deductibles, and better healthcare. Hasn’t he put Republicans on the spot with this legislation by selling it that way?
MR. SPICER: But it is. So, yes, thank you for the advertisement, I appreciate it. I think —
Q Can it do that?
MR. SPICER: Of course, it can. I will do that. And that’s what the point is. But I think that there has been — A, I think there is some concern, as I mentioned earlier, about the timing. And I think we have continued to allay a lot of those concerns because of the rule that they are. And again, one of the things that is tough to explain to a lot — or not tough to explain, but just the reality, is that if we don’t do it the way that we’re going to do it, we need 60 votes. And we’re not going to get 60 votes in the Senate for this bill. The Democrats are united in stopping any progress being made on this.
And so I think the point that we’ve had to make over and over again is, I get it. In a perfect world, if we had 60 votes, we could do this in a very, very different way and have a much more comprehensive legislative strategy, but in the same way that the Democrats use reconciliation, as do we, to undo it. And the reason that it is a three-pronged, three-phase approach is because of the nature that it has to get dealt with.
And I think for a lot of folks, many of them are new to the process, many of them want to see it done in a different way. And I think we are trying to do it in the most responsible way, so that when it gets sent over the Senate, we don’t have to have a huge parliamentary fight about what’s “Byrd-able” or not.
And that’s — while most people don’t want to fully appreciate the nuances of that, it’s a reality that we have to face if we actually want to get it done. And I think that makes a big, big difference.
Q Sean, yesterday when Chairman Nunes was here, we heard his comments. Today, behind closed doors, he apologized to the committee for not coming to them before he came to the press. And then he expressed regret for the way he handled this — going public and going to the President before speaking to the members of his own committee. So I guess my question is, why was it appropriate? Why does the White House believe it was appropriate for Chairman Nunes to come and give this information to the President regarding an investigation about the President’s own associates during the campaign?
MR. SPICER: Well, two things. One is, it wasn’t — as has been asked before, to ask me why he did something — he made a decision, he briefed — hold on, you’re getting there. I’ve seen enough of you, Peter. I know where you were going. (Laughter.)
But the reality is, is that he made a decision. He briefed the press first. No one had a problem, by the way, in the press corps getting briefed before anybody else. He went down and he briefed your colleagues before he briefed anybody else. I don’t hear too much crying about that. The reality is — and then he made a statement and said, I’m going to come down to the White House and share this information with the President, as has just been noted. He didn’t give us a heads-up. He told us he made an announcement, he said I’m coming down to the White House, asked for time to share this with the President.
And I think part of the reason, to be clear and to your question, is specifically to say that there’s a big difference between any discussion about what’s going on in Russia and why this intelligence was picked up. His comments yesterday were very clear the intelligence and the information that he picked up had nothing to do with Russia. And I think he felt as though, according to his own words, that he had an obligation to make sure the President knew what he had discovered. That’s it, plain and simple.
Q So to be clear, though, just because appearances matter on this, doesn’t the White House have a concern that it creates the appearance that there was potentially interference by the President that he was included in conversations about the investigation because it was completed?
MR. SPICER: My concern, to be perfectly blunt with you, is that it’s always — you seem to have an obsession with the process and not the substance. At some point, isn’t —
Q Isn’t the President —
MR. SPICER: No, no, hold on, hold on.
Q The President is the one who wants the conclusion. He asked for it.
MR. SPICER: I understand that.
Q So I’m asking, why didn’t he ask for details before it was completed?
MR. SPICER: Because as Chairman Nunes said — and again, I’m just going to make it clear — because he said that he wanted to make it very clear that the discussion and the revelations that he had were not — did not regard anything to do with Russia, and he wanted the President to understand that.
But there seems to be this obsession with the process: how did he get here, when did he go, what was the reaction. At some point, there should be a concern about the substance. That’s a very serious revelation that he’s made about what happened during the 2016 election with respect to our side and some of the things that happened.
And at some point, I would implore, urge, beg some of you to use some of your investigative skills to look into what actually did happen, why did it happen, what was going on back there, who knew what when. But I think that there should be a similar concern, as opposed to figuring out whether he took a skateboard or a car here to exactly what happened and why it happened. And the reality is, is that whether he briefed us first or he briefed the Democratic members — and that’s up to him to decide — the substance of what he shared should be troubling to everybody. And that’s what I think is the important thing.
Q To follow on this thought, I want to ask you — at CPAC, President Trump said, people “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use someone’s name.” He said, it does “tremendous disservice.” This is following up on the conversation you started with Sarah earlier. So, I guess, the simple question is — Chairman Nunes came out; he noted sources that he couldn’t create and provide publicly. So why, when it’s politically advantageous, is that use of sourcing okay, but when it’s politically damaging, it’s not okay?
MR. SPICER: No, I think there’s a difference — he came out and briefed people on what he knew at the time, and said he was literally going to get further briefs and would have further updates. That’s a big difference than reporting and making a serious allegation. In fact, he was doing quite the opposite. He was vindicating the President and saying there is something that you need to know about the substance of the allegations that are being made against you. And while that may or may not be the case, because some of what I’ve seen —
Q But if he had not been vindicating him, wouldn’t it have been just as important for the President to learn?
MR. SPICER: Sure. And I think maybe he would have, and then you probably wouldn’t have any concern with that, would you?
Q My question is to you.
MR. SPICER: Margaret.
Q Following on that, two questions. You said again, the word “vindicated.” The President said he felt somewhat vindicated. Did he feel that having Chairman Nunes come down here helped his own credibility?
MR. SPICER: I think it’s reassuring to know that what he discussed — while, again, the Chairman made it very clear that he’s not final in any of his processes, that what he had seen so far gave him grave concern — or whatever the exact phrase before I get — but to use the phrase that Chairman Nunes needed to say — that he said. That it gave him concern and pause for what he had seen, and wanted the President to be aware of the activity that he had seen that occurred during the transition period.
I think that’s an important — so I think, yes, the President did — it was helpful for the President to know that the investigation, as he had asked for, was starting to bear fruit. And again, I think the equally important thing to note about yesterday was that part of what Chairman Nunes said was that it had nothing to do with these allegations and narrative about Russia. And I think that is a very, very important narrative to be clear on.
Q And are they going to meet again? And after conversations, since they spoke directly, did the President accept Chairman Nunes’s finding that there was no wiretapping at Trump Tower, which he said yesterday?
MR. SPICER: Well, one, I don’t think that — the first one wasn’t planned. There’s nothing planned for the Chairman to come down again. But second of all, I think I have and the President has very clearly explained that the tweet wasn’t to be taken literally in the sense of the word “wiretap” — that he was talking about surveillance in general. And yes, I think that when — yes, once what Chairman Nunes said is that there was evidence of surveillance that occurred during the election. And I think that is important to note.
Again, I think the obsession is with the process of how he got here, and what time he left, and who he briefed first, as opposed to the substance of this issue. But I’m not going to — all I’ll tell you is the public comments that he made to you and your colleagues both here and up on Capitol Hill was that he was very concerned with the surveillance that he had seen and reports of surveillance and individuals who had been masked and unmasked during especially the transition period. I think that should express concern for a lot of individuals.
Q Sot the President is confident that Chairman Nunes can continue to lead this investigation, and, in his view, be impartial?
MR. SPICER: Absolutely.
Q Because there have been some questions about that, including from Republicans.
MR. SPICER: Yes.
Thank you guys very much. Have a great one.
2:35 P.M. EDT