Tideline Ocean Resort and Spa
Palm Beach, Florida
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: We’ll talk about individual stuff afterwards, but right now I want to make sure that the President has an opportunity to — his words and his audio.
Q It’s off camera?
MR. SPICER: It’s off. Off. Everything is off.
Q Turn it off.
MR. SPICER: I’ve got a Michael Anton here from the National Security Committee. I think with respect to President X’s visit, we intend to have a readout later. Hopefully we can — we’ll gather with the pool at the very least. We’ll see what the rest of the day looks like — trying to get back over here as well. But we’ll continue to update that.
I just wanted to provide a little bit of a tick-tock on the President’s action. I know there’s been a lot of interest in this. And then we can take a few questions. But with respect to the actions the President took in Syria and the questions regarding the timeline, let me just kind of walk you through it.
On Tuesday, at about 10:30 a.m. in the morning, the President was informed during the course of his Daily Presidential Briefing about the actions in Syria. He, at that time, asked the team for additional information and updates. The interagency team spent the day developing an initial range of options for the President. At about 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday night, there was a restricted deputy committee meeting on the situation. Preliminary options were presented and refined.
Q Sean, can you talk louder, please?
MR. SPICER: I’m sorry. On Tuesday night, there was additional — there was a deputies meeting at the White House where options were presented and refined and interagency guidance was developed.
Wednesday morning, a restricted principals meeting was conducted with interagency options and gave further guidance to refine. Around 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, a National Security meeting was convened where the President was briefed on options. He reviewed the options in detail, asked a series of questions to his team, requested further information, and the decision to reconvene on Thursday was made.
At about 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, en route to Florida, the President convened the national security team that was aboard Air Force One, and others via secure videoconference on Air Force One. Later that day, at approximately 4:00 p.m., the President, the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor and other members of the national security team met in a secure room down here where they were piped in with the rest of the team via secure video-teleconference. The President gave the okay to move ahead.
At approximately 7:40:59 p.m., Tomahawk missiles were launched from Navy destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean —
Q What time was that?
MR. SPICER: 7:40 p.m. — 1940 Eastern, from Navy destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean. All 59 hit their target. At 8:30 p.m., notification of foreign leaders and congressional leadership began. The Vice President called several congressional leaders and began calling some foreign leaders. The Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor and others were also involved in making some of those phone calls to both heads of government, defense ministers, and congressional leaders.
Around 8:30-8:40 p.m., the first impacts began on the ground. The President informed President Xi that strikes were occurring as their dinner concluded. All along, the national security team continued to monitor the event and the situations.
After dinner, the President went back down to the secure room where he was briefed by the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and others were present via secure video-teleconference. In the Situation Room, the Secretary of Defense was on a secure line, video-teleconference, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — several other members were convened in the Situation Room in Washington, D.C.
The President was updated on the effectiveness, was informed that battle damage assessment would take a few hours, but that initial results were extremely positive. He asked about reaction from the world community as well as congressional leaders and was informed that there was fairly unanimous praise for the decision and the actions the President took.
That’s pretty much the tick-tock. Pentagon and National Security team continue to provide the President with updates this morning, and as soon as his visit with President Xi — I expect a further update to the President.
Q Sean, (inaudible) in Syria — is this a one-off? Is it a change from the administration’s policy moving forward? What happens —
MR. SPICER: I’m not going to get — you’ve heard the President talk — he spoke — he said something in the Rose Garden the other day with King Abdullah there that he’s not going to telegraph his next move. But I think that this action was very decisive, justified and proportional to the actions that he felt needed taken. I think it sends a very strong signal not just to Syria but throughout the world.
Q How does this fit with America First foreign policy? Is that still his stated position?
MR. SPICER: Absolutely. I think that his actions were very clear under Article 2 in our nation’s national security –there’s very important national security interests in the region, stability, and obviously there’s a huge humanitarian component to this.
Q General McMaster was briefing last night that the President — the three options. Can you give us —
MR. SPICER: No.
Q — what the three options were?
MR. SPICER: I can’t.
Q Can you talk about the process that the President went through when he got the three options, who he consulted with, and then what his recommendation to go forward —
MR. SPICER: Again, I’m not going to get into specifics. There’s obviously both in terms of what could have been done, but obviously that would telegraph potential future action that I don’t want to get into. And a lot of that remains classified. I will say, however, that as I mentioned, both Secretary of Defense Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director McMaster and the rest of the National Security team — the Vice President and others — were consulted. And that occurred over — starting on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. when the President was made aware of this. He continued to ask questions and ask for options. So this was a very evolving process in which the President was given updates, asked additional questions, given additional options, refined those options, until an ultimate decision was made yesterday.
Q Can you just clarify — I think you said that the President informed Xi after the strikes had concluded. Is that accurate?
MR. SPICER: The exact timeline — the President, as you know, yesterday was having dinner. I think after the dinner concluded, I believe that the impact had been made. I’d have to check the exact timeline. But the impact occurred at around 8:30 p.m. last night, Eastern Time. The President informed President Xi as dinner concluded and he was on his way back to his temporary quarters. So where the exact timeline is, I don’t know, but my understanding is, is that everything had made impact by the time he was informed — he informed President Xi.
Q — because clearly, the President has said that North Korea is of deep concern.
MR. SPICER: That’s right.
Q This is a military action that was taken unilaterally. How did he explain this to Xi Jinping? Was it put that in that context? Was there any broader message that, look, if you don’t help us crack down on North Korea, we are willing to go ahead with similar action?
MR. SPICER: I’m going to let — there will be a readout later today about all the areas and issues that were discussed. And I think we’ll try to get some further — some individuals to actually talk about specifics on the topics that were talked — I believe that what the President stated last night was just simply that action had been taken, what he was doing, what had happened, and that he was going to be briefed. I don’t think there was any immediate nexus. But I was not present for that conversation.
Q Sean, just to clarify and follow up. H.R. McMaster said last night, I believe, that there were two NSC meetings. I believe you described more meetings than that. How many meetings was the President personally involved in throughout this process?
MR. SPICER: Four that we’re — four.
Q Four, okay.
MR. SPICER: Well, again, you remember it started with the PDB. I mean, it depends —
Q So five.
MR. SPICER: Then five, yeah, if you count the initial PDB, that was at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
Q Okay. And secondly, I know you say the President says he’s not going to outline what he’s going to do next, he wants to remain flexible. But members on the Hill say that they want to be brought into the process. So how does that match the President keeping his desire of not announcing things, but folks on the Hill saying, hey, we need to be brought in?
MR. SPICER: I would just say, Blake — I mean, as I mentioned, the key congressional leaders and committee heads and ranking members were all informed of the decision. I think now that action has been taken, I believe that they’ll be — they’ve started to have those conversations. Both the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, others, have been in constant with contact with congressional leaders.
And I understand your desire to understand what’s going on, but I think those are conversations that are going to be held fairly privately in terms of preserving any future action.
Q There’s some reports out there that there are concerns among U.S. officials that the Russians were involved in the chemical weapons attack that occurred in Syria. What’s the latest on that? What can you tell us about that?
MR. SPICER: The actions that were taken were clearly against the Assad regime, and I’m not going to say anything further than that. As I mentioned — I know Secretary Tillerson noted last night with respect to Russia that there was a military de-confliction with respect to the area of operation to make sure that — because we’re both operating. But beyond that, there was no political contact made with Moscow. But I think last night sent a very clear signal.
Q Sean, you talk about this as evolution over these last 72 hours. Can you give a little bit of insight into the President’s thinking and how that evolved? We saw publicly the statements that he made where he sort of seemed to become more taken aback by the imagery or what have you by the time he gave that press conference. Did you talk to him privately about what his reaction was in the beginning and then how that evolved and how he got from point A to point B, to launch the strike?
MR. SPICER: Well, only to say — I mean, number one, I think the President’s comments that he made in the Rose Garden with King Abdullah pretty much speak for themselves with respect to the disgust that he had for the imagery that he was seeing, and the assessments that his team was providing with respect to the innocent lives, especially the children and babies, that have been killed.
Obviously, chemicals have been used by Assad in the past. In his first 70 days, the President was very taken by this. But also, I think this was — as you mentioned correctly, this was a 72-hour evolution of receiving updates and options and refinement through additional questions that the President made to come to a final decision.
But once he was presented with these at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, he began to ask a series of questions, began to get additional updates and assessment as far as what happened, why it happened, and then obviously options that were available and to act.
Q But the question is, was there a sense of the skepticism at the beginning, where he said, look, are you sure that —
MR. SPICER: No. No. I spoke with him. I had an opportunity to see him initially, right after that PDB, and he was very moved and found the event extremely tragic. So I think, from the get-go, it was very, very disturbing and tragic and moving to him.
Q So you had a sense that he was there in terms of military strength —
MR. SPICER: No, I wouldn’t say — no, again, I wouldn’t — just before we get too far, the answer is that he had a very deliberative process of asking his national security team to develop options. And as you may know, I mean, those options usually start with zero and go all the way to 100. And so there was a level of assessment, further probing and questions that the President had, and then, ultimately, after days of refinement, a decision was made. But that — I wouldn’t want to suggest that there was any sense of immediate decision. That’s why it evolved over time and he took the length of time that he did. It was through a series of updates, questions, and further information.
Q How did he seem, Sean?
MR. SPICER: I’m sorry?
Q What did he see? What did he seem in that PDB? Did he see printed-out images, did he see video?
MR. SPICER: Obviously, I can’t go into what he sees in a PBD.
Q Okay, but how did he take in —
MR. SPICER: Obviously, there’s — beyond the information that he gets in his PBD, there were very clear images that were available online, in newspapers, and on television that everyone in the world could see.
Q And was he seeing those pictures?
MR. SPICER: I’m sorry?
Q He was seeing those, too, the public images that were out there?
MR. SPICER: Oh, absolutely.
Q As far as this 72-hour evolution, does the President now believe Assad needs to leave power?
MR. SPICER: I think that the President’s actions were very decisive last night and I think are very clear about what he thinks needs to get done. I think, first and foremost, the President believes that the Syrian government, the Assad regime should, at the minimum, agree to abide by the agreements that they made not to use chemical weapons. I think that should be a minimum standard throughout the world.
So I think that’s where we start. I think a very, very clear message was sent last night, one that was backed up and echoed by not only our own leaders here in this country but throughout the world.
Q Sean, the President, during the campaign, warned that action against the Assad regime could result or devolve into World War III. He talked about the risks of drawing in Russia and Iran into a broader conflict. Is the President at all concerned about that happening, or the fact that as U.S. planes fly over the Syrian skies that they could run into interference from either Russian or Syrian defense systems?
MR. SPICER: I think if you’ve seen the response from the world community, including some of the countries that you’ve mentioned, I think that they understand that the U.S. acted appropriately and, in most cases, there is widespread praise from around the globe for the President’s actions.
Q But is that not something that he’s concerned about anymore?
MR. SPICER: I think the President — as I said, the team last night — Secretary of Defense Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor was on the phone not just with members of Congress but with foreign heads of government as well as defense ministers, and almost universally were praised for the President’s decisive action.
Q To follow on that, Sean, also on the campaign trail the President expressed a desire to work with Russia to defeat ISIS. But this clearly puts a setback on that.
MR. SPICER: I don’t know that I agree with that. I think that there can be a shared commitment to defeat ISIS and also agree that you can’t gas your own people. I don’t think that — there is a mutual level of human decency that I think we can expect out of everybody, and I don’t think that that goes hand in hand with also augmenting that with our national security interests.
Q Sean, can you give us a sense of what foreign ministers and defense ministers were spoken to last night? And will the President — (inaudible.)
MR. SPICER: The President has been continuing in meetings with President Xi. I’ll see on both of those whether or not —
Q One more thing. The Russian foreign ministry statement this morning called this a “clear act of aggression,” suggested that the United States had been planning this strike even before the chemical attack. Can you respond specifically?
MR. SPICER: I think I just gave you a very clear tick-tock of what — the President’s notification, how he arrived at the action he did. So that pretty much speaks for itself. And I’m sorry, the other —
Q That this is a “clear act of aggression.”
MR. SPICER: I think this was a clear response on humanitarian purposes that has been widely praised throughout the globe.
Q Are there any specific outcomes that you see from President Xi visit?
MR. SPICER: As I mentioned at the outset, we’ll have a readout of that visit. I just wanted to give you guys a quick update. We’ll have further information throughout the day. Stay in touch with us. I want to get back. Obviously our focus is continuing to have a phenomenal — a great — I’m sorry, Politico — (laughter) — I think we’re in the midst of a very terrific visit, and I want to make sure that we conclude that.
Thank you guys very much.
1:26 P.M. EDT