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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT

MR. SPICER:  Good afternoon.  It’s a little bit of different room than this morning.  I’m sure you all know that I was up here earlier this morning, off camera, with some of your kids.  It was a pleasure to be able to share a little bit of the White House experience with them, and I hope they enjoyed it.  I think some of you have trained them very well.  I hope they enjoyed their visit, and I’m glad they got an opportunity to visit with the President and the Vice President today.
We have a bunch to talk about today about what the President has been doing, and he’s got an executive order coming up, so I’m going to try to get through it all.

This morning, the President welcomed the President and Mrs. Macri of Argentina for an official visit.  As you know, the President and First Lady of Argentina just left, so we will have a readout for you very shortly on that.  At 2:00 p.m., the President will be signing a memorandum on aluminum imports and threats to national security, so we’ll try to keep this briefing on time.
I know Secretary Ross spoke about the memo that the President signed yesterday, but I want to reiterate that the American aluminum industry is in trouble, having declined down to the lowest levels of aluminum that we’ve produced since 1952.  It is critical for our national defenses — the Army ground vehicles and the Air Force jets, the Navy warships.  But American companies are producing less aluminum than before, especially in the high-purity aluminum that’s used to build things like the F-35, the F-18, and the C-17s.

The Secretary of Commerce has initiated an investigation to determine what effect our reliance on imported aluminum has on both national and economic security.  The memo the President will sign today, similar to the memo he signed on steel, elevates this investigation and directs the Secretary to prioritize its completion.  This memo, combined with similar action on steel, is an important step towards fulfilling the President’s promise to “put American steel and aluminum back into the backbone of our country.”

The President has been speaking about revitalizing the American manufacturing industry for quite a long time.  Another one of the President’s most significant pledges has been to ensure that the men and women who have served this nation in our military have the care, treatment, and support they so greatly deserve.  So, later this afternoon, the President will go to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he will sign an executive order that will take serious action to fix the broken VA system through the establishment of the new VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which will remove and discipline federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust, while protecting employees that speak out about wrongdoing.

The President will be joined at the VA by several veterans and their spouses who have experienced or witnessed firsthand the poor quality of treatment that, unfortunately, too many of these heroes have received at VA facilities — including Sergeant Michael Verardo, who lost his leg and arm when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in 2010, and his devoted wife and caregiver, Sarah.  The President is making it clear that the delays and improper care experienced by these veterans is unacceptable.

The President’s action today comes on top of the signing of the Veterans Choice Improvement Act last week, which gives more veterans the option of seeing the doctor of their choice without traveling long distance or waiting for VA care.  These actions, which are only the beginning of his plans to modernize the VA, the President is making it clear that the Trump administration will not accept anything but the best for those who have served our nation.

Today, as with every day this week, as we approach the 100th day in office for this President, he is continuing to follow through on some of the biggest promises that he made to the American people.  On Monday, he hosted a working lunch with members of the United Nations Security Council, reiterating his dedication to making America a leader in the world.  On Tuesday, he prioritized the protection of the farmers and ranchers of America’s heartland by establishing the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.  Today, he took several important steps to review massive federal land grab by the previous administration under the Antiquities Act, an egregious federal overreach.  That was yesterday, actually.  And today, as I mentioned, he’s taking action on trade and veterans.

As we speak of trade, I know last night you saw a readout of the President’s call with President Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau.  As the President just said, the President and the Prime Minister called him and asked him to renegotiate NAFTA rather than terminate it.  The President has a great deal of respect for these two countries and their leaders, and he said that he would hold on the termination while we negotiate a better and fairer deal for America and its workers.  But the President also made it clear that if the parties are unable to agree on a deal that is fair for American workers and companies, after renegotiation — giving renegotiation a good shot, he will move forward with termination.

And with that, I’ll take some questions.

Q    Sean, what changes in NAFTA does the President hope to achieve through renegotiation?
MR. SPICER:  I think when you look at the various sectors — it’s obviously being a multilateral agreement — there are areas in Canada, sectors where there’s agriculture, manufacturing, services — that we look on both of them, where I think there’s both a modernization, recognizing the world has changed, and also some trade imbalances and issues that have come up, and also, frankly, some areas that fall outside the scope of NAFTA as it was negotiated at the beginning that I think we want to look at it.

Obviously, the issue of dairy came up.  So that’s an area that we want to look at, as well.  And so part of this is to look at not just the existing agreement, but areas and sectors and industries that have fallen outside, or because over the last couple decades have not kept up with the promises and the commitments that were made.  But that’s — we’ve got a ways to go.


Q    Thanks, Sean.  As you know, under both the Reagan and Bush administrations, concerns about tax cuts-fueled deficits were dismissed with promises of growth, and we’re hearing that same sort of rhetoric now.  The deficit increased a great deal under both those administrations after the tax cuts.  What’s different about the President’s plan that won’t lead to the same sort of ballooning of the deficit?

MR. SPICER:  There’s a few things.  Number one, we outlined those principles yesterday.  We’ve got a lot of work to do with Congress, and I think it’s moving in a very positive direction.  There’s a lot of pay-fors, as they call them, in this proposal that will continue to be refined as we move forward in negotiating with Congress.  So there’s a lot of things.

But I think the President laid out a plan that achieves — or seeks to achieve three basic things.  One is economic growth and job creation.  Two is a simplification so that the American people can actually file their taxes in a rather normal process that doesn’t require a ton of money and time.  And three is to do stuff that makes — create a better business climate that makes sure that manufacturing and job creation, people want to hire here and that we help the middle class.  Those are the three guiding principles that the President has.

As we do that, one of the things that you recognize through a lot of the models here is you’re going to achieve greater economic growth.  It’s something that we saw both following the tax cuts in the Kennedy administration and the Reagan administration.  I think that we can achieve greater growth, economic prosperity and job creation under the plan that the President laid out.
Q    Thanks a lot, Sean.  You may have seen the news about the Office of the Inspector General announcing that it’s launched an investigation into the payment that the former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn received prior to becoming the National Security Advisor from RT — Russia Today — which is an entity of the Russian government.  What’s your reaction to that, first of all?

MR. SPICER:  I think that’s appropriate.  If they think that there’s wrongdoing then the department’s Inspector General should look into that.

Q    Are you satisfied with the vetting that was done of General Flynn by the transition team before he came on board as the National Security Advisor?
MR. SPICER:  So that’s a great question.  I appreciate you bringing it up.  Let’s walk through that for a second.  General Flynn was a career military officer who maintained a high-level security clearance throughout his career in the military.  His clearance was last reissued by the Obama administration in 2016 with full knowledge of his activities that occurred in 2015, as you point out.  So the issue is — he was issued a security clearance under the Obama administration in the spring of 2016.  The trip and transactions that you’re referring to occurred in December of 2015, from what I understand.

So obviously there’s an issue that, as you point out, the Department of Defense Inspector General is looking into.  We welcome that.  But all of that clearance was made by the — during the Obama administration and, apparently, with knowledge of the trip that he took.  So that’s how the process works.  And I welcome the Department of Defense’s IG’s review.

Q    If he wasn’t fired by the President for lying to the Vice President, would he still have a job today, right here at the White House?

MR. SPICER:  I will just say that I think the President made the right call at the right time, and it’s clearly paid off.


Q    Given the progress that congressional Republicans have made on the healthcare talks, does the President want a vote on that bill this week?

MR. SPICER:  He wants a vote when they have 216 votes.  And I feel very good about the progress that’s being made to get to that number.  And I think Speaker Ryan’s comments this morning indicate that it’s moving in the right direction, and that should be good news for everyone in America as we move towards a system that creates a healthcare system that serves us, and that makes sure that premiums don’t skyrocket like they are now, and that we’re able to see the doctors that we want to see and have plans that have competition in them.


Q    If there’s no vote, does that mean the President won’t be disappointed?

MR. SPICER:  I think the President wants a vote and wants a healthcare system as soon as possible.  But that’s going to be dictated by the Speaker and the Majority Leader and the Majority Whip in the House when they feel they have the votes.  That being said, as we’ve now maintained for the last several days, we feel very positive about the work that’s being done to get to that and the reaction that we’re having.  As you recall, there was a lot of members that initially had some problems, and we’re very pleased with the reaction — the public reaction that they are having to what is currently been negotiated.  And I think it’s only getting bigger, and that’s welcome news.


Q    Thanks, Sean.  The President’s tax plan, we’re getting a little bit of mixed signals here on exactly what his vision is in terms of retirement savings.  Can you lay out what the President’s vision is for 401{k}s, and particularly tax deductions surrounding those?  Does the President imagine removing those deductions entirely along with the other deductions, or is he going to protect those?

MR. SPICER:  So the Secretary of the Treasury and Director Cohn yesterday both talked about that the current plan right now both protects charitable giving and mortgage interest, and that’s it.  As we move forward with negotiations in the House and Senate, that plan will continue to flesh out.

But one of the benefits of the tax plan on the individual side, in particular, is by expanding the standard deduction to $24,000 for a married couple.  The really effectively creates a bracket of zero taxes for many, many Americans.  And that’s good news.  We’re going to see more and more Americans get some relief that they so desperately need.

Q    These tax deductions, though, of course, comes with its own group, its own lobby, its own interest group.


Q    They fight very hard for these things.  Are you guys prepared for a battle on all those tax deductions, eliminating all of those?  I mean, politically, that’s a big lift.

MR. SPICER:  Well, I think the one interest that the President is going to fight for are the American people and the American worker.  That’s what he made his entire campaign about, is putting America first, and he’s going to fight hard.  His special interest is the American people, and making sure that whether it’s putting more money in their pocket, or making sure that they economic growth leads to more jobs and greater manufacturing, that’s the one interest that he’s fighting for every day.

So we’ll do battle with whoever we have to, to achieve a greater outcome for Americans and American workers.


Q    Just one more.  Gary Cohn told us the retirement savings was protected.

Q    Two on General Flynn.  First, you said the Obama administration had reissued his clearance last year?


Q    So is the implication there that should be taken that if the Trump administration was the one adjudicating his clearance, this year he would not have been issued that clearance, now that the White House knows everything that there is about General Flynn?

MR. SPICER:  No, I think I’m just making sure people understand the process and how it works.  And the way a process works is that if you have a top security clearance, you fill out a form.  There’s an investigation done.  You are reinvestigated every five years if you are able to maintain that clearance.  And then whoever owns that clearance, whether it’s the FBI or the Department of Defense, goes out, does the investigation.  In between that period, you’re responsible for updating the information that you provided in accordance with the agency that issued that.
My only point is, is that when General Flynn came into the White House, he had an active security clearance that was issued during the Obama administration with all of the information that’s being discussed that occurred in 2015.  So I’m just — I guess my only point is to explain how the process works and who adjudicated that.

Q    You’re not implying wrongdoing in the part of —

MR. SPICER:  No, that’s why the Department of Defense Inspector General is looking into this to see how that process works.  But I think it’s important for folks to understand that when someone applies for a clearance, they get that clearance; it’s issued at the top security clearance level for five years; and that the person who has been issued it then has a legal obligation to update the issuing agency any variances in what they supplied as information.

Q    Finally, when you were here on February 14th, the morning after General Flynn was fired by the President, you said that the President asked him to leave the White House — the situation regarding the phone call with the Russian ambassador and the Vice President.

MR. SPICER:  Right.

Q    But also “a series of other questionable instances.”  I was hoping now you can provide some more information now that more — some of his financial dealings, in particular, now have come to light.  Is that what led to his termination at the White House?

MR. SPICER:  Look, I think we addressed it at the time, and I think as —

Q    Not this —

MR. SPICER:  No, no, but — that’s right.  And I don’t — I think the President made the right decision at the right time, and he continues to stand by it.


Q    To follow on a couple of things that have been brought up to you today.  John’s question — not the process, but your own vet, meaning the transition — are you satisfied that that met the standard that should have been met with Michael Flynn?  And then if there are any regrets that this White House has about bringing him in, knowing what you know about him now and seeing a behavior that would be plainly inconsistent with the standard that candidate Trump set during the campaign?

MR. SPICER:  Well, with respect, you’re saying “our process.”  The process is every government employee who is eligible for a clearance goes through the same process.  So it’s not — we don’t have a unique process.

Q    But that’s not the only question you asked Michael Flynn — it couldn’t possibly be the only you asked him.

MR. SPICER:  When someone comes in, the question is do they have a clearance.  If not, they apply for one.  And if they have one, then the clearance is made available from the issuing agency.  That’s — you can’t — the whole reason you have a clearance is so that someone is found whether or not they’re —

Q    As you just said to Zeke, it was not just the episode with the Russian ambassador, it was other instances.  Those things have come to light.  Any regret about bringing him in —
MR. SPICER:  Look, I’ll just say the President —

Q    — to have this done and knowing what you know now did you miss something and you regret Michael Flynn in?

MR. SPICER:  I think the President made the right decision at the right time, and it’s been pretty clear that —

Q    He regrets bringing him in?

MR. SPICER:  No, I’m just saying he made the right decision. And I think we’ve moved forward from that decision, and the decision stands.

Q    On the question about — Gary Cohn and the Treasury Secretary left us with the implication yesterday when asked about retirement savings that they were protected.  What you just said has indicated they might not be.  Can you help us understand?

MR. SPICER:  I can’t.  Let me get back to you on that.  I was not clear on that distinction.  I will have the Treasury folks read that out for you.

Q    So General Flynn came in with just the Obama administration vetting, is that right, Sean?
MR. SPICER:  That’s how everyone — okay —

Q    Because that’s the impression you’re giving.

MR. SPICER:  It is.

Q    General Flynn came in and he walked through the door with just the clearance that was conducted by the Obama administration?  That doesn’t make any sense.

MR. SPICER:  Sure it does.  The same way that when you applied for a credential to the White House Press Briefing Room, when you were here —

Q    I’m not the National Security Advisor.

MR. SPICER:  Hold on.  Just let — hold on.  Let me explain the answer to you, Jim.  Calm down.  The kids have gone —

Q    That’s a serious question.

MR. SPICER:  And I’m trying to answer it, Major.  This is the answer.  When you apply — hold on, listen — when you applied to come here to this briefing room as a member of the press, you apply and you fill out certain forms with the Secret Service to have your background run.  When I came in here in January 20th, the people that had been cleared the day before were cleared on the 20th and 21st, et cetera.  We didn’t rerun your background.  We trust that when you were cleared the first time, if you were cleared on December 15th or January 20th, that you were still — that your background check still cleared.

Every individual who came into this White House either applied for a security clearance or had one.  Everyone in the government goes through the same SF-86 process — every single person.  And so why would you re-run a background check on someone who was the head of the department — the Defense Intelligence Agency that had and did maintain a high-level security clearance?  That’s it.

There’s no difference between administrations — when you come in from one, they rerun it.  The reason they grant them for five years is that it’s a very extensive background where they check your contacts, your places of residence, your employment.  They go out into the field, they do a lot of that work, and then you’re required to maintain updates to that clearance.  They re-adjudicate it every five years.  That occurred in this case.  And now the Department of Defense’s Inspector General is looking into it.  That’s how —

Q    And when Congressman Cummings accuses this White House of a cover-up, you say what?
MR. SPICER:  I say that’s — I was, frankly, taken back by his comments todays because they’re, frankly, not true.  The Department of Defense was the issuing agency for General Flynn’s SF-86.  We referred them to the Department of Defense, who owns and issued his security clearance, and they got a copy of it.  That’s how the system works.  The documents that he requested he received.

So with all due respect, he got the documents that he requested.  Our job — they sent a form letter to multiple agencies asking for a copy of this.  What we did was properly refer him to the issuing agency and department, and said, this is where you got.  And he got it.

Q    Are there no other documents that you have at this point that could be turned over to this committee that would be relevant to this investigation?

MR. SPICER:  Not that I’m aware of at this point.  What they sent to us — they asked for the SF-86.  That, we referred them to the Department of Defense — that’s great.  Two, is they asked for a contract — all copies of his speaking engagements from the Speakers Bureau.  I believe he was referred to the Speakers Bureau for those contracts.  And three is they asked for all foreign contacts that he may or may not have had.

Since the incident occurred that they’re questioning before his employment to the White House, I think we’ve complied with every document that they’ve looked for.


Q    Thank you.  Two questions.  One, does the President still feel that Mike Flynn should seek immunity?

MR. SPICER:  I think Mike Flynn should do what his counsel advises him best to do.

Q    But does the President?

MR. SPICER:  I don’t — I have not asked him.  But I believe that General Flynn should do what his counsel advises him to do.

Q    And secondly, the President said he wants to start renegotiating NAFTA as soon as today.  Has he notified Congress about that yet?

MR. SPICER:  We’ve been in communication with Congress for a while on this.

Yes, Adam.

Q    The President tweeted this morning about Puerto Rico — begin to default on their debt May 1st, pending some kind of solution.  There are millions of investors in the United States
— senior citizens — who may not be aware that they hold funds within munibond mutual funds that expose them to a default in Puerto Rico.  Is there anything the White House should do or the administration can do, one, to safeguard those senior citizens and their investments; and two, to prevent an increase in cost to states and municipalities that may have to pay more to borrow when they access the munibond market if Puerto Rico defaults?

MR. SPICER:  I think the issue itself is extremely complicated in the sense that the President’s tweet and the President’s discussion revolves around the continuing resolution to fund our government.  Our government needs to get — there needs to be a continuing resolution effective this Friday.  The President has done everything possible, worked extremely hard to with Congress to ensure that we maintain the government — keep the government open.

The Democrats at the last minute have come in and thrown a lot of monkey wrenches into the ability for this to get done, despite the President doing everything that he can to show good faith to keep this going.

So it’s not just a question of — they keep moving the goal post.  And the issue right now is to make sure that we do what’s in the best interest of this country and our people by keeping the government open.  That’s the issue at hand right now; not a question of whether or not that can be dealt with.  There are ways that that issue can be dealt with.  But throwing it in in the last minute, and trying to gum up keeping the government open is probably not the most effective way.

Q    I understand that the CR is different.  But if Puerto Rico defaults with or without the CR — is the administration working with Puerto Rico?

MR. SPICER:  Again — and I think that that is a separate issue that needs to be addressed by Congress in terms of how it gets done.  I think that the method right now is to make sure that we do everything in our power to keep the government open effective Friday.


Q    As the tax plan evolves and we start to get details, do you believe it is a fair question for anyone to ask how that plan personally affects the President and his family?

MR. SPICER:  I think the President’s plan right now is something that every American should worry, hopefully, about how it affects them.  And I think when you look at the ways that this is going to benefit middle-class Americans, middle-income, working Americans grow businesses, that should be — and I think, frankly, that is the concern of most Americans out there.  They’re worried about their job.  They’re worried about whether their company is growing and expanding.  They’re worried about whether or not they’re saving enough money and how much they’re paying in taxes.  And I think what the President’s number-one goal right now is, is to provide middle-income and lower-income tax relief to Americans.  And that’s what his goal is, and I think that’s, frankly, what most Americans’ goal is.

Q    But is it a fair question to ask?

MR. SPICER:  That’s up to every individual to ask.  But I would guess that most Americans would applaud what the President is doing to spur economic growth and job creation in this country.

Q    — if middle-income Americans should feel empowered to ask how this plan affects them, why is it that Secretary Mnuchin today could not guarantee that no one in the middle class would pay more under this proposal?

MR. SPICER:  I think everyone in the middle class should know that this President’s plan is going to make sure that they have more in their pocket.

Q    So there is a guarantee from the White House?  That’s the position of the White House right now — that middle-class American should not —

MR. SPICER:  The position of the White House is that the goal of this President’s tax plan is to provide them and lower-income people with more money in their pocket and a tax cut, yes.
Thank you, guys, very much.  I look forward to seeing you at the signing.

1:54 P.M. EDT