James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:45 A.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: I know the President is leaving shortly, so I’m going to keep this relatively short.
A couple things from yesterday. The President signed four bills: S.J. Res. 34 which disapproves of the FCC regulations that would have imposed new privacy standards on Internet service providers, allowing bureaucrats in Washington to pick winners and losers in the industry — we’ve discussed that before; H.J Resolution 83, which disapproves of a Department of Labor regulation extending the statute of limitation for claims against employers failing to maintain records of employee injuries; H.J. Res. 69, the disapproval of the Bureau of Land Management regulations that would limit Alaska’s ability to manage hunting of predators on national wildlife refuges in Alaska; and H.R. 1228 which makes technical amendments to the appointment procedures of members to the Board of Congressional Compliance.
One quick note, I mentioned this before, but the number gets higher — we’ve now — the President has signed 12 congressional review acts. In the past, all Presidents combined had signed one. So I think we have a vastly different attempt to roll back regulatory reforms that are standing in the way of freedom as well as business development.
Also yesterday, the President spoke with the President of Peru and the President of Colombia to express his condolences for the devastation and loss of life by recent mudslides in the country. He offered the assistance of the United States government during this tragedy. And the President also spoke with President Putin of the Russian Federation to condemn yesterday’s attack in St. Petersburg. He offered the full support of the United States government in responding to the attack and bringing those to justice. We had readouts of both of those yesterday.
With respect to today, this morning the President hosted a CEO town hall. I think some of you had the opportunity to go over there. The town hall was broken into four separate discussions — infrastructure, modernizing government services, workforce development, and the pro-business climate. A report released by the Pew Research Center yesterday showed an historic rise in public opinion about the economy. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say that the current economic situation in the United States is good, which is a 14 percent jump from last year, the largest one-year improvement in the survey’s history. It’s also the most positive Americans have been about the economy since before the recession.
The American economy is already showing improvements under the President’s pro-job, pro-business policies. The President was glad for the opportunity to speak to the CEOs from many industries about what his administration is doing moving forward to make it even easier to create jobs in America and making it even easier to do business in the country.
This afternoon — in fact, literally momentarily — the President will be taking off from the White House to go speak at the 2017 North America Building Trades Unions national legislative conference. I’m not going to get ahead of the speech, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that he looks forward to speaking to the men and women who are building so much around our nation, and the issues that matter most to them — bringing back well-paying jobs, jumpstarting American energy, rebuilding our infrastructure and trade.
Later this afternoon, the President will have several meetings, including EPA Administrator Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Governor Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands. And this afternoon, we will have a background briefing here in this room at 4:30 p.m. on the upcoming visit with President Xi.
And then tomorrow, I know we had mentioned earlier in the week that there will be a Wounded Warriors soldier ride. We’re obviously tracking the weather on that, but this is really a great opportunity, and I know that this team is working with several media outlets who want to cover this to really pay tribute to the men and women who have fought and served for this country and some of the efforts that are being made now to really go out and show how they’ve recovered so well and compete. So while it may look like we’re going to have some rain, I’ll make sure that we share any updates with you.
Last, before I get on to your questions, I just want to — we have a quick update on Syria. So I’m going to read the statement for you, and obviously, as I conclude, we will put it out:
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act.
Q Thank you, Sean. I wanted to pick up on that statement. As you know, with this chemical attack on this rebel-held Syrian town, at least 100 deaths have been reported, at least 400 injuries. And I hope you could give some clarity in terms of the administration’s position on Syria. Secretary of State Tillerson just days ago said that the Syrian people themselves should decide the future of the country. And at the same time, the U.N. Ambassador — the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, has said that Assad is a war criminal. So you just criticized President Obama’s policy on Syria and the red line. What will the administration do in response to what we saw take place there over the past 24 hours?
MR. SPICER: Thanks. I think the statement speaks for itself. I think a couple of things. One is, statements by both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley speak to the political realities of the situation in Syria in terms of — I think we had opportunities in the past, several years, to look at regime change. I think those are fundamentally — the landscape is fundamentally different than it is today.
That being said, I think the President has made it clear in the past, and will reiterate that today, that he is not here to telegraph what we’re going to do. But rest assured that I think he has been speaking with his national security team this morning, and we will continue to have that discussion both internally with our national security team, as well as with our allies around the globe. But I think the statement pretty much speaks for itself — what we believe, that is — and then we’ll go from there.
Q Do you think there is any confusion with those two statements that I read earlier — one from Secretary of State Tillerson and the other from the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley?
MR. SPICER: No. As I said, one of them is just a statement of — or both of their statements with respect to Assad speak to the political reality of — it’s great to say that — there is almost an acknowledgement of the reality of the situation, politically speaking, in terms of his standing within — where we stand. There is not a fundamental option of regime change as there has been in the past. I think we would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria, and that what we need to do is fundamentally do what we can to empower the people of Syria to find a different way.
Right now, both statements stand very squarely with what we will do today. I think that the comments and the statement are unequivocal when it comes to how we believe we view this attack on innocent people, the heinous nature of it. But I don’t want to get ahead of where we’re going from here.
Q Just real quick, Sean. Are you —
MR. SPICER: Hold on. Hans, I know —
Q I didn’t know if the point was to me or —
MR. SPICER: No, no, it wasn’t. Hunter is Hunter; Hans is Hans.
Q Thank you, Sean.
MR. SPICER: I’ll come back to you.
Q Thank you. I’m wondering if you’re at all concerned to see these reports of the chemical attacks coming right on the heels of the administration suggesting it’s open to Assad staying in power. Are you worried there’s any correlation between the attacks and the change in posture?
MR. SPICER: Again — and I don’t think — I would hardly characterize it as — I forgot the way that you phrased it — but there’s not a comfort level with Assad. I think it’s a political reality. That being said, I think the idea that someone would use chemical weapons on their own people, including women and children, is not something that any civilized nation should sit back and accept or tolerate. And I think that is what we are making very clear today.
Q Right. But in addition to you describing Assad as the
“political reality,” Ambassador Haley said the priority “is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” That’s a direct quote. So this is clearly a change in posture. Do you think there’s any correlation between sort of an almost increased brazenness on his part and those statements?
MR. SPICER: I don’t. And I think that — like I said, I’m not going to get into it, but I think the President is extremely alarmed at these revelations. He continues to meet with his national security team, and I think there will be further discussions around the globe with our allies as far as the appropriate action.
Q Thanks, Sean. Are you certain it was the Assad regime? Is it possible that Russia was involved? Do you know the air platform? And then one final — do you know if any Russian forces were with Assad regime forces that launched the chemical attack?
MR. SPICER: I’m not going to get into — I know that the President was briefed on this extensively this morning by his national security team, and I’m going to let the statement speak for itself, because we feel very confident in the statement that we’re making.
Q So that means no Russian involvement?
MR. SPICER: That means that the statement is very clear as far as who we believe is to blame and how we believe we’re reacting to it.
Q Thanks, Sean. In the statement, you were sharply critical of the past administration with regards to Syria. I was hoping you could clarify, when does the President believe that he takes ownership of foreign policy when obviously — every President always blames the predecessor — the need to put that criticism in this statement, now condemning the use of chemical weapons, a war crime overseas, why take the potshot at his predecessor? And when does the President truly own his own foreign policy?
MR. SPICER: I think it is very clear. I mean, we drew — what’s the point of red lines? America’s credibility was at stake, and I think the President wants to point out that there was a red line and they did cross it. We did talk about — we did have alternatives to regime change, and they weren’t taken. And I think that’s a very, very different — it’s important to acknowledge the difference in the change in our posture and how we will go out from here. So I think it is a big difference.
Q And what is that change in posture?
MR. SPICER: I understand. The statement speaks for itself. I think I’m not going to get into what actions we’re taking. Obviously, I get you want to do that. Those are decisions that the national security team continues to make recommendations to the President. But until we do anything, I’d rather not get ahead of it.
Q So the next crisis — maybe it’s not Syria — is the President going to criticize President Obama for trade policies when he meets with President Xi later this week? Is it every foreign policy statement —
MR. SPICER: It’s going to depend — I mean, I don’t want to say yes or no. I mean, I think that’s going to depend on what our posture was towards that country or regime or policy.
MR. SPICER: I don’t — I mean, I don’t know. Did you ask that same question of President Obama when they literally spent a year or two years blaming the Bush administration for everything that was wrong?
Q Yes. Yes, we did. (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: But I mean, I think that — look, right now we’re 70-something days into it. I think there’s no question what their position was with respect to Syria in terms of red lines and regime change and the lack of action that they did take. I think we want to make sure that we’re very clear that there is a different posture.
Q Sean, is President Trump willing to draw a second red line to discourage the Assad regime from using chemical weapons on his own people?
MR. SPICER: I think the statement is pretty clear on this, Trey. The United States stands with our allies to condemn this intolerable attack. And I think going forward we will have more on this, but I’m not — I think we want to be very clear where we stand. I know countries throughout Europe are reaching out, making it clear what their position is. There’s been some calls for action, the U.N. Security Council. I think, at this point, as things develop, I’m not ready to talk about our next step, but we’ll get there soon.
Q Does the White House agree with Rand Paul that Susan Rice should testify?
MR. SPICER: I think that’s — again, I’m not going to start getting into who should testify. But I do think that it is — I know that she’s about to make comments to a host of — to minimize this. But it is interesting, she was the one who went out and said she “had nothing to do” with this on a program a few weeks ago, and now I continue to see more and more reports.
So I think it’s not for me to decide who should testify or how they should do it, but I do think that there is a sharp contrast between a few weeks ago when she was very public in saying she “didn’t have any clue what Chairman Nunes was talking about,” and yet now we’re finding out that she’s trying to figure out how she can go to some kind of friendly way of discussing this.
But all yesterday there was an opportunity — my understanding — of several people to reach out. I didn’t hear anything except for a quote; one network described it as a “person close to her,” which I think is rather interesting that — you would assume that if you stood by the comments that you made several weeks ago, that you wouldn’t need someone who just was close to you to defend it.
Q What do you think about networks like CNN saying that it’s a diversion, that the Susan Rice story is a diversion?
MR. SPICER: I think I’ll let CNN speak for themselves. I find it interesting that you — I don’t know how many reports that — I get that at some point they have an invested angle and narrative in this, but the reality is — and again, I’m not going to keep going into every turn and twist about this, but I think that, as I noted yesterday, the more we find out about this the more we learn that there was clearly something there and that there was a lot of activity. We’ve seen people both on the record and in comments talk about their activities.
I think it’s interesting, as I noted yesterday, and I read some of the comments afterwards, but the default from at least some media outlets seems to be to rush to the defense of the Obama administration and the activities there instead of so-called want to get to the bottom of this. But there is an immediate attempt to defend certain actions like that on one side of the aisle and an immediate rush to judgment on the other side, which I get that people don’t like to hear that, but that is the reality.
If you look at the two situations that occurred, there is no question the way that some networks are handling one set of circumstances versus another. It is clearly an attempt to preserve a narrative and to defend one side of the aisle versus another.
Q Sean, generally speaking, would you like to see Assad step down or out of power somehow in Syria?
MR. SPICER: I think it’s in the best interest of the Syrian people to not have anybody who would do the kind of heinous acts — any leader that treats their people with this kind of activity and death and destruction — I mean, it’s just — yeah, I don’t think that anybody would wish this upon anybody.
Q And are you confident that the United States will respond to this attack in some way?
MR. SPICER: I would not want to get ahead of the President at this point. I do think that the statement is fairly strongly worded for a certain reason.
Q And lastly, has he specifically talked to any allies about this this morning?
MR. SPICER: I’m not sure that he’s spoken to any leaders specifically. I know the team has been in contact. He’s spent an extensive amount of [time with] team this morning getting briefed by the intelligence community as well as his national security team.
Q Sean, I want to follow on that and then I have two other topics for you. You said — I know you don’t want to get ahead of the President and you’re letting the statement speak for itself. You also said that you want to empower the people of Syria to find a different way. How will the United States help them out with that?
MR. SPICER: I don’t think — again, we need to look at options at this point, and I’m not going to get ahead of the President and the team. I think right now our concern is for the people of Syria and the victims of this attack. We have plenty of time to chart a way forward.
Q Okay, so let me just ask you this. On the Susan Rice story, you said yesterday you believed that it was moving in a “troubling direction.” What do you find troubling about that story?
MR. SPICER: Well, I find it troubling that someone would go out and talk about the fact that they had — and again, I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the exact quote in front of me — but I believe she made something to the comments, I have no idea what Chairman Nunes is talking about, and then threw a person apparently that’s close to her — continuing a narrative, but yet more and more news outlets are reporting that there was something there.
And there’s a question — I’ve seen enough — you saw Secretary — I mean, former director Brennan talk about that if people were leaking this information, it’s treasonous. You have questions about what was the motive behind if it didn’t have intelligence value, it wasn’t part of an ongoing investigation, what was the reason that somebody would have — the extent to which it goes.
I think those are all very — I mean, there is a civil liberties component to this that should be very troubling in terms of the revelations that keep coming up.
Q But so to pick up on that, do you believe it is improper for a national security advisor to request the unmasking of names?
MR. SPICER: It would depend on the purpose of that. Again, it depends on the purpose of why they were asking and what they were trying to accomplish.
Q But it sounds like you believe this purpose was politically motivated. (Inaudible.)
MR. SPICER: No, no, I’m not — please don’t —
Q I’m not putting words in your mouth, I’m just trying to understand —
MR. SPICER: Well, you are. You said “you believe.”
Q I’m asking you.
MR. SPICER: Okay, and I think the answer is that I think why I’m saying that we’re going in a troubling path is I think that what we continue to see is that there is a lot coming out that says there was no value in this intelligence. And so the question is, why was somebody unmasked if that was the case, what was the purpose of requesting it, and the extent of which it occurred.
If there is no intelligence or criminal value in it, why was somebody requesting it? How far did they do it? Who did they share it with? But I believe that there are more questions than answers at this point.
Q My last question about healthcare. There’s been a lot of discussion in the last 18 hours or so on the revival, potentially, of this healthcare bill. Speaker Paul Ryan said today it’s in the concept stages, if you will. Can you talk about the White House’s role in this and specifics? Are community ratings now on the table? Preexisting conditions, will those be protected? Has the President made that —
MR. SPICER: I think, yesterday, Chief of Staff Priebus and some others hosted a group — Tuesday Group folks here in the morning. I know the Vice President and Mr. Priebus went up to Capitol Hill later in the afternoon. I know they’ve got some additional meetings today I believe back on Capitol Hill. They’re having some folks here. The President had a discussion with a couple members in the House and the Senate over the weekend.
I think that our goal is — and I know Chairman Walden of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has been talking to his members in particular and members of the different caucuses and groups up there, and I think has some ideas that he thinks could be very helpful. He’s talked to leadership. I think if we can — the same narrative that we’ve been talking about for a while — if we can get that group to get to 216, then I think that we’ll move forward.
I think the talks have been very productive.
Q So it’s back live, would you say?
MR. SPICER: I think the President — look, the President would like to see this done. If we can get a deal and it gets to those votes — which, again, I’m not going to raise expectations. But I think that there are more and more people coming to the table with more and more ideas about to grow that vote. And I think on both — not just in the House, but we’ve had some discussions as well in the Senate. But I think both the Chief of Staff and the Vice President feel very optimistic with the tone of the conversation and the ideas that are coming out and the willingness of folks to find common ground.
Q Can you talk about this Erik Prince business — this idea that he was trying to create a back channel between the President and Russia? I mean, his closeness to this administration — his sister being the Education Secretary — certainly creates an appearance, but it could also be problematic for the White House from the standpoint of, well, this is what the Obama administration might have been looking into (inaudible) intelligence reports.
MR. SPICER: The thing that’s interesting about the story is, when you look at it, it’s — respectfully, I would call it flimsy. I mean, they use — the meeting took place around January 11th. He had no “formal role with the campaign or transition team,” although he apparently presented himself. He “has ties to people” — that’s plural. When you go through the story, the tie that they have is that he appeared on Steve Bannon’s radio show. When you look at the radio show, it says that he appeared on Steve Bannon’s radio show in November. Steve Bannon gave up the radio show in August.
I think that this idea that somebody who admittedly, on both sides — we say that he had no role in the transition, he says he has no role in the transition. But apparently, he knows somebody who knew somebody, who knew a guy in the UAE, who also knew a guy in Russia and they had to fly to the Seychelles on or around January 11th, of which the government of the Seychelles says, “They have no record of them being there.” Government officials in the Seychelles, “they were not aware of any meetings.”
But it is a bunch of flimsy pieces of information all tied together to create a sensational feel. But just so we’re clear, there is no — they can’t identify the other individuals. They claim that Erik Prince, who went, admittedly by himself, by us, by others, has no role in the transition, and that his connection is “ties to people” — is, one, he’s related to what would become the Secretary of Education’s sister, and two, is he appeared on someone’s radio show. That doesn’t seem to pass muster with a great deal of strength to me.
Q But would you acknowledge that this could be potentially problematic from the standpoint of —
MR. SPICER: No.
Q — this could give Susan Rice an out to say, well, this was the sort of thing that we were looking at, and this is why we were conducting to unmask —
MR. SPICER: Well, I think if you are looking at — I mean, you would hope that if that’s what you were looking at, you would get a lot more information than that. That, to me — I don’t — they don’t know the date, who they met with, how they actually came into contact, what the exact ties were, or what supposedly happened as a consequence to this, because they can’t meet. There was no, apparently — nothing came of it.
So, again, I guess someone may have visited an island, but there is no proof they actually ever met with an individual, nor that they had any ties, nor that they actually know the exact date, nor any consequence of the so-called meeting. I think that it is flimsy at best.
Q The President said earlier at that CEO town hall, as it relates to infrastructure, that the package would be a trillion dollars and “maybe even more.” Given a trillion dollars is a massive number to begin with, what might “and maybe even more” mean?
MR. SPICER: Again, I think that’s part of what the team is working on. It’s a number that’s very consistent with what he has said since the beginning. So I don’t know why this should be any different than — I mean, it’s consistent with the numbers that he’s used.
Q And then let me ask you about Dodd-Frank. He also said that he wants to take a haircut to it. Dodd-Frank is a law that the President can’t unilaterally change. He can’t sign executive orders. So is he hoping to work with Capitol Hill for this major haircut? Is it solely through executive orders? How does that relationship —
MR. SPICER: I think we’ll have an update further on that. Obviously, there’s clearly, as you know, a legislative component to this, and we’ll have more on that.
Q Thanks, Sean. I want to follow up on Hallie’s question about healthcare. The proposed changes to the essential health benefits and the community ratings — is there a concern that that would roll back protections for preexisting conditions? That’s obviously something that President Trump said he wanted to keep in place during the campaign. So wouldn’t these changes that health policy experts were saying would get rid of those protections, wouldn’t that violate what President Trump —
MR. SPICER: Again, I would note, to Hallie’s question, that we’re not there yet. We’re having discussions. As I said, the Chief of Staff hosted the Tuesday Group yesterday morning, and then he and the Vice President went up yesterday to talk to the Freedom Caucus. I think part of this is — I get that there are disparate interests that are trying to pull this to one side or another, but I think that we understand the core principles of this and we’ve got to make sure that we do — whatever we do continues to get an outcome that grows the vote, not decreases the vote. And so I don’t want to start prejudging where this thing is going to head at this point.
So, with that, I know the President is on his way, he’s going to start speaking. So I’ll catch you later. Enjoy. Thank you.
12:11 P.M. EDT