James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:24 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon. As many of you are aware, there’s currently some news breaking out of Afghanistan, so I just want to give you a quick update.
At around 7:00 p.m. local time in Afghanistan last night, the United States military used a GBU-43 weapon in Afghanistan. The GBU-43 is a large, powerful and accurately delivered weapon. We targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters used to move around freely, making it easier for them to target U.S. military advisors and Afghan forces in the area.
The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously. And in order to defeat the group, we must deny them operational space, which we did. The United States took all precautions necessary to prevent civilian casualties and collateral damage as a result of the operation. Any further details, I would refer you to the Department of Defense on that.
Moving on, as you may know from the schedule, the President has a 2:00 p.m. event, so I’m going to try to keep this rather tight so the pool has an opportunity to get in and set up appropriately.
Earlier today, the President signed H.J. Res. 43, bringing the total number of Congressional Review Act legislation pieces that he has signed now to 13. This resolution that he signed today overturns a regulation that was put in place by the previous administration on their way out the door that would have taken away the right of states to set their own policies and priorities for Title 10 family-planning programs.
Our federal system was set up to allow states to address the unique needs of their own populations when possible, especially
— comes to programs as important and sensitive as family planning. With the bill signing, the President has restored respect to states’ rights on this particular issue.
As I mentioned at the top, there’s an event at 2:00 p.m. where the President will be meeting with the brave first responders who were involved in the I-85 Bridge collapse and thank them — that occurred in Atlanta to thank them for their work and dedication in addressing this horrible situation. The bridge collapse during rush hour on March 30th — but due to the heroic efforts of Atlanta’s first responders, some of whom will be here today, no lives were lost. The President is proud to hose these brave individuals and honor their commitment to protecting their community.
Later this afternoon, the President will head to Florida for the Easter holiday. He will be departing Joint Base Andrews via motorcade, as the preparations for the Easter Egg Roll are well underway on the South Lawn, preventing a Marine One departure.
And while we’re on the topic — I know it was brought up the other day, so just to give you quick notes on what to expect this coming Monday. We expect more than 21,000 people to attend the Easter Egg Roll. The allocations of tickets have been given to schools, children’s hospitals, and military and law enforcement families. Commemorative eggs will be handed out to the children who attend. Nearly 18,000 eggs were ordered, which is in line with past years. The event will start at 7:30 a.m., with different groups of guests arriving every two hours to ensure that all the children have an opportunity to participate in more than a dozen activities that will be available. Further logistics and guidance will be provided over the weekend.
Also today, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, OFAC, designed — designated one entity and one individual connected to human rights abuses against Iranian political prisoners in Iran’s prisons. The individual who was designated for his role in abuses in Iran’s prison is the brother of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force, who was himself previously designated under terrorism, counter-proliferation, and human rights authorities.
The sanctions against human rights abusers in Iran’s prisons come at a time when Iran continues to unjustly detain in its prison various foreigners, including U.S. citizens Siamuk Namazi and Baquer Namazi. We join recent calls by international organizations and U.N. human rights experts for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained or missing in Iran so that they can return to their families.
OFAC also designated two ISIS financial facilitators and ISIS supporter in North Africa, continuing our ongoing effort to disrupt key leadership nodes for the group.
Moving on, over the past few days, the President and members of the Cabinet have held many meetings and discussions with their international counterparts about the significant foreign policy challenges facing our world. Yesterday you heard from the President himself, alongside NATO Secretary General, about the need for a strong-funded Alliance to combat terrorism, the humanitarian crisis ongoing in Syria, and many other serious threats to our collective safety and security.
Also yesterday, Ambassador Nikki Haley, along with her counterparts from nine other nations, voted in favor of a draft resolution to denounce the heinous chemical attack carried out by the Assad regime last week. Unfortunately, but not surprising, Russia stood in the way of this resolution. However, I’d like to point out the abstention of China, on the heels of President Xi’s recent successful visit, and Kazakhstan, a longtime Russian ally and former member of the Soviet Union. Both of these abstentions are notable and signify that the United States is persuading the world that the use of weapons of mass destruction cannot go unanswered.
Secretary Tillerson, as you know, was in Russia yesterday to meet with his counterpart and ensure that they are made fully aware of the United States’ position in both areas of practical cooperation, such as defeating ISIS, and areas where Russia does not share our interest and values.
As you know, the Vice President will be departing for his 10-day trip to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia on Saturday morning. His office will be providing more information later today.
Finally, I’m glad to announce the President will host the Prime Minister of Italy for an official working visit to the White House next Thursday, April 20th. The leaders will discuss the upcoming G7, which will be hosted in Italy and Sicily, and a range of issues of mutual concern.
With that, I’d be glad to take some of your questions.
Q Sean, where is the administration on cost-sharing subsidies for insurance companies?
MR. SPICER: That is an area that is being internally discussed at this time.
Q So, undecided?
MR. SPICER: It’s not — there is an ongoing discussion on that matter.
Q Thanks, Sean. The last few days we’ve seen a number of policy shifts by the President on China is a currency manipulator, the Ex-Im Bank, the order (inaudible) healthcare taxes. There’s more, but I won’t belabor the point. What should the American people make of these shifts? And are there any policy areas that are nonnegotiable?
MR. SPICER: I think — respectfully, I think you can look at what you’re referring to as a shift in a lot of ways. By that I mean I saw a couple instances with respect to NATO being one of those shifts yesterday, and if you look at what’s happened, those entities, or individuals in some cases, are issues evolving towards the President’s position. And NATO, in particular, he talked about the need of countries to pay their fair share, to live up to their commitments of 2 percent of GDP. He talked about the need for NATO to focus more on terrorism. NATO has done just that.
And it’s something that he pointed out in the debate — the first debate in September of last year. He talked about the fact that NATO is moving towards what he has been calling for. And I think in some cases, the issues evolve — that it’s not just a clear and fast statement that this is — the entity itself is moving towards his — or the issue is evolving towards the position that he articulated. And that can’t be proven more true in the case of NATO, where he laid out two very clear positions that he had an issue with NATO, and as far back as September of last year, started to recognize that that institution was moving much more towards his position. The Secretary General noted that as well yesterday.
Q A quick follow-up, if I may. The Ex-Im Bank is another one. That’s an institution that hasn’t changed at all. So I’m wondering, on some of these other policy shifts where you haven’t seen the type of change you’re talking about with NATO, what should we make of those kinds of shifts? And again, are there any policy areas that are nonnegotiable, that are off limits?
MR. SPICER: Well, there’s always going to be — I think that there’s going to be areas where I think, again, it depends on the outcome. In the case of NATO, in particular, as I pointed out, it’s the most illustrative. I think you look at the President’s position, where he wanted to see NATO, in particular, evolve to, and it’s moving exactly in the direction that he said it was in terms of its goals of increasing the amount of participation from other member countries, and, two, as having a greater focus on terrorism — something that was reinforced by the Secretary General himself when he was here.
I think when you look at these issues and you recognize the direction in which they’re moving, they’re moving in a direction that the President stated very clearly.
MR. SPICER: Thank you, Sean. On the GBU-43 bomb — the first time it’s ever been used. Why did you choose this particular location? And would you say that this bomb won’t be used again in another flashpoint around the world, like Syria? Like North Korea, for instance?
MR. SPICER: As I noted at the beginning, John, I would refer you to the Department of Defense on the specifics.
Q On a separate matter — you mentioned what you see as a win at the U.N. Security Council. I’m curious as to why you believe this is a win. After all, this particular resolution did not pass — what happened at the U.N. Security Council in the past, for instance, a Security Council resolution which gave the green light for the Persian Gulf War, you actually had all five permanent members in the U.N. Security Council voted yes. So why are you saying this is a win when not all five permanent members of the Security Council actually voted yes? You had one — Russia — blocking it.
MR. SPICER: Well, I think it’s very significant, China’s abstention, in particular. I think Kazakhstan is another one, in terms of that one — in terms of its proximate location in history with Russia — you see a breakaway of Russia, aligning itself with a position that is not only shared with the U.S. but the rest of the world. So that would be a natural position that they might have taken in the past.
But secondly, I think China’s abstention is a significant win for the President, who went down and had discussions with President Xi — many of you all saw that, heard his remarks about how he walked through that. And I think it really shows the success of the trip, first and foremost, but secondly, it continues to show how Russia is isolated on this particular matter. That’s important.
So I think on a variety of fronts it really was a huge win for the United States and for the persuasiveness of the President.
Q Thank you, Sean. In his remarks to us off-camera, OMB Director Mulvaney talked about the vision of the federal government being reorganized as, in some cases, more agencies. And he said also that the final plan will come not just from right-wing think tanks — I believe that was his phrase. Coupled with the President’s statement on the Ex-Im Bank, is he already receiving any criticism or voices of disappointment from small government conservatives who backed him strongly? I refer to groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, or the Cato Institute.
MR. SPICER: Well, I can’t say that I’ve scanned every group’s statements about this particular subject, but I can tell you that he’s gotten a lot of very positive feedback, as well as Director Mulvaney, for their effort.
As the Director noted, you have a government that, in large part, has never been reorganized, it’s just been added to. And when you look at the different number of agencies and programs that flow throughout the government to do, in some cases, the very same thing, and are housed in a variety of agencies throughout the government, the question that you have to ask yourself is not only is the taxpayer getting the best bang for their buck, but are the people that those services are intended to be providing for getting the best services.
So Director Mulvaney’s effort, at the President’s direction, to really look at how government is organized and operating I think is a very significant step. And I think one of the points that he noted is that this is something that should unite conservatives and liberals, and Republicans and Democrats — good government and effective, efficient government is something that really doesn’t have an ideological home. I think it’s something that we all can agree on, that the more that we can effectively deliver for the American citizen and deliver for the American taxpayer effective and efficient government is something that we should all probably be in line with.
Q Thank you, Sean. The U.S. ambassador at the Europe Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says that Syria, he says, uses chemical weapons, embedded — Syria uses the weapon embedded by Russia’s continuing efforts to bury the truth. Was the President offered proof of such truth-burying efforts by Russia?
MR. SPICER: Was he offered —
Q Truths of this — evidence that this is happening by Russia?
MR. SPICER: No.
Q I would like to know also — you’ve been putting in the same sentence Syria, Iraq and North Korea as failed states, Russia being not a failed state but part of this. Has it become the — to use an old expression — the axis of evil of this administration?
MR. SPICER: I think it’s important to know who Russia is on the side with right now and where they stand. I think it draws a huge contrast to show who’s on what side of this argument and this crisis. And I think it’s important to note the difference, that — who they’re with. And that’s I think a very notable thing. I’m not going to go any further than to say that.
Q Very quick, last question. With the National Hockey League playoffs just started, will the President cheer for the Rangers or the Caps? (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: Respectfully, that’s really not been a subject that’s come up too often in the White House. (Laughter.)
So I’m going to keep with our Richards and go to Richard Elliot from WSB TV in Atlanta, Georgia.
Q Obviously, our concern is the reconstruction of 85. We understand that the President is meeting with the first responders this afternoon — in just a few minutes, actually. We wanted to ask about the federal commitment to getting I-85 rebuilt as far as federal dollars and easing some federal regulations to get the job done quickly.
MR. SPICER: So a couple things on that front. Immediately following the tragedy that ensued in Atlanta, the President directed the Federal Highway Administration to release $10 million, and then we have begun to work with the appropriate agencies to expedite that process.
I know that there are critical repairs that have to get made, and I think that — not only that the initial funding will help with that for the roads and the bridges and the emergency access that needs to get handled. But under emergency relief efforts, there are ways to expedite some of that funding. And I would — the Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are probably the best way to get a better answer on that. But there are ways that some of that funding can be expedited beyond the initial commitment that the federal government has made.
Q Thank you, Sean. Back on some of these shifts. On China, in particular, the President did not mince words during the campaign. Now he says he and President Xi have been bonding, Xi means well. He says China is not a currency manipulator. What message does this send to the President’s supporters who sent him to the White House thinking he’d be following through on his tough talk against China?
MR. SPICER: I think the President’s tough talk was on a variety of subjects — was to gets results for the American people. That’s what he has pledged to do, to get more jobs here, to grow more manufacturing, to keep our country safe.
The President and President Xi had a great meeting. The President likes President Xi and got to know him really well in Mar-a-Lago and I think has established a really good relationship moving forward. But at the end of the day, this is always about developing a better situation for the American people, and I think he’s done that.
Q And a follow-up, if I may. The President told the Wall Street Journal that President Xi helped him realize that North Korea is not so easy. Did the President underestimate the complexities of this? Did he underestimate how difficult this was going to be?
MR. SPICER: No, I don’t think so at all. And I think if China is able to help get a deal with China* [North Korea] the President would appreciate that. I think this would be great for China as well. And as the President noted this morning, if China can help us do that, it will be great. And if not, we’ll go and handle that ourselves with our allies.
Q Sean, on currency manipulation, why specifically did he decide to abandon this? And what other tools does he have in his toolbox to try to modify China’s trade —
MR. SPICER: I think that’s a very, very complex issue and I think the President — I’m going to leave it to the President to specifically answer that.
Q Has he given up on trying to modify China’s trade behavior?
MR. SPICER: I think the President is going to continue to make significant progress when it comes to that issue and to how our relationship is with China. He showed already what a great relationship he has with President Xi, and the results are starting to pour in. And I think that that is an issue in particular that the President is best to address.
Q Two questions, Sean. You were very forthcoming about the tick-tock leading up to the missile launch into Syria, so can you give us any background on the MOAB in Afghanistan? Was there a Situation Room scenario? Was the President — was this several days in the making?
And my second question is, the President has been very critical of the intelligence community leading up to his inauguration. He’s obviously been working very closely with the intel community on these — at least on these situations in Syria and Afghanistan. Has his opinion changed toward the IC?
MR. SPICER: In the first question, again, I think General Nicholson at United States Forces Afghanistan is best to address the tick-tock on the situation over there.
Q But as far as the President’s consultation.
MR. SPICER: I understand. I think that the U.S. Forces Afghanistan as well as the Department of Defense are best to walk through the military operations that are ongoing there.
I think with respect to the intelligence community and the national security team, as you know, the President has put together a world-class Cabinet of top-notch national security experts, from General Mattis to General Kelly, General McMaster and others, that continue to provide him the best advice to make the best decisions for this country. And he continues to rely on them — and Director Pompeo, Director Coats at the DNI. They continue to give him sage advice about how to best position the United States.
Q Thanks, Sean. Following up on that question, did the President specifically order — authorize the use of this piece of ordnance?
MR. SPICER: Again, I’m not going to get into details right now. As I mentioned, I’ll let the Department of Defense handle the lead on this one.
Q And to follow up on a question earlier, you didn’t answer specifically what has changed about the Ex-Im Bank that has led the President to re-evaluate his previous —
MR. SPICER: Let me get back to you on the Ex-Im Bank specifically. I think it’s a very complex issue and I would like to get back.
Q Two questions about the budget. Are you all prepared to hold things up? We’ve got a couple weeks left here. How serious are you about getting money for the wall? Would you hold up the spending plan for that? And I have one other question.
Q So the government is currently funded through April 28th under a continuing resolution. We’ve made very clear to Congress that the President’s priorities are increasing military spending and security of our border. We’re going to continue to have conversations with Congress, and we feel confident that they’ll do their job. But those conversations are ongoing.
Q So you can’t say whether you would have to have money in this budget or —
MR. SPICER: I will leave it to our team to continue the negotiations that they’re having.
Q Okay. And then the second question on the budget was, there’s a proposal now to punish members of Congress who do not pass this spending plan, in a variety of ways — withhold salary, even arrest. Do you support that Congress should be punished —
MR. SPICER: Let’s see. I think we’re making significant progress. I feel very good about the momentum and so I don’t want to start getting into whether — who’s going to be naughty and nice.
Q Thank you, Sean. Historically, sitting Presidents have refrained from stating preferences on — free-market economy goes. Yesterday President Trump said he wants low interest rates and he wants a weaker dollar, and then the market followed his preferences. So given his criticism of other economies and their intervention, how do you characterize that response?
MR. SPICER: I think the President has made it very clear from the beginning that he’s going to do what he can to fight on behalf of American consumers and American businesses to make sure that we can help create a environment here in America where businesses grow and industries continue to hire, jobs can come back and middle-income Americans can get some tax relief and keep more of their money and their hard-earned dollars.
Q But, traditionally, you have low interest rates when the economy is weak and needs help, and then they recover when the economy strengthens. So what was he trying to get —
MR. SPICER: I understand. I think what he is trying to do, as you know, through a lot of the coverage and a lot of the meetings that you guys have covered and seen here at the White House, the President is continuing to meet with business leaders and people who are creating jobs, union leaders, to find out what we can do. And the President has heard a lot — gotten a lot of feedback and already taken great steps to make sure that we can create a regulatory and tax environment that’s going to help grow America’s economy and put people back to work. That’s plain and simple. And I think what he’ll continue to do is fight on behalf of the American people.
I hate to cut this short but we literally have 10 minutes before the President is supposed to speak. Thank you very much.
1:48 P.M. EDT