Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 4/11/2017, #36
James Brady S. Briefing Room
1:42 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: I want to start off this afternoon by a quick comment on the tragic and heartbreaking events that unfolded at a San Bernardino school yesterday. The events occurred after the briefing, so I just want to make sure I acknowledge that our thoughts and prayers go out to all the families of the three victims. We hope for a speedy and full recovery of those who were wounded in the events that occurred.
Moving on to today, the President this morning led a discussion with some of the world’s top job creators on how private sector thinking could help the government modernize and provide a better, more efficient services to the American people.
Together, the companies that were represented in the room this morning employ nearly 4 million people worldwide and at least 1.78 million Americans here in our nation.
Starting in small, interactive groups, the Cabinet members shared their strategic visions for their departments and listened as business leaders offered their unique perspectives on how they might achieve those goals. The groups then came together and shared their discussions and outcomes with the President.
The meeting was hosted by the American office — the Office of American Innovation and was another opportunity for the administration to engage with the private sector and harness its knowledge to develop innovative solutions to some of our country’s biggest problems, like the crumbling infrastructure and broken system at the Veterans Administration.
Also this morning, the President completed several procedural steps to ratify the protocol for Montenegro’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following the Senate’s overwhelming and bipartisan vote of advice and consent in support of this ratification. The United States looks forward to formally welcoming Montenegro as the 29th member of the NATO Alliance.
And later today, the President will have a series of meetings with his national and economic security team. Later, the Attorney General is also at the southwest border to announce specific new actions the Trump administration is taking to secure our borders and keep the country safe.
The administration is committed to ending the practice of smuggling gangs and cartels across the border that flood our country with drugs and violence. These actions, which include a strengthening of the laws applying to those who are caught attempting to illegally return to the United States after prior removal and those who profit off smuggling people across the border will once again make it clear to the brave men and women of law enforcement that the Trump administration has their back.
And Secretary Tillerson finished the G7 foreign ministers meeting today and is now in Moscow for meetings with his Russian counterpart. The visit is part of our effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure that the United States’ views on the situation in Syria, counterterrorism efforts, North Korea, and other matters are clearly conveyed. We’re open to strategic cooperation with Russia when we can achieve a shared goal such as defeating ISIS. But we’ll stand up for interests and values when we do not see eye to eye.
Russia must fully honor the commitments it made on Syria, Ukraine, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and other topics of international concern. And Secretary Tillerson is going to make that clear during his visit.
I also want to make it known that Secretary Mattis and General Votel, who is the COCOM* [SOCOM] commander of Central Command, will be giving a full briefing on the strike in Syria that occurred today, at the Department of Defense at 3:30 p.m. Then at 4 o’clock, I’ll be back up here for an off-camera briefing with Director Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget and OMB Senior Advisor Linda Springer regarding the President’s executive order on reorganizing the executive branch.
So that gives us three briefings, plus this today. Not to get you real excited, but we’ll have another one tomorrow morning in advance of the NATO meeting with the Secretary General. This afternoon’s briefing will be discussing the plan on reforming the federal government and reducing the size of the federal civilian workforce that OMB was directed to produce by executive order. So we’ll be spending a lot of quality time together over the next 48, 24 hours.
And with that, I’d be glad to take a few questions.
Q: Sean, on Russia to start. Does the administration believe that Russia had any advance knowledge of this chemical attack in Syria? And does the administration believe that Russia may have been complicit in this attack?
MR. SPICER: I believe there was a background briefing earlier today where that was discussed. At this time, there is no consensus in the intelligence community that that’s the case.
Q: Is there any thought within the intelligence community, or are there some strands of the international community that —
MR. SPICER: Again, at this point, the only thing I’m going to say is that there’s no consensus within the intelligence community that there was involvement.
Q: Today, in the background briefing, top officials accused Russia of helping Syria cover up Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In the past, Trump had praised Putin, calling him very smart and expressing general admiration. Does he still think Putin is very smart? And does this change the relationship between the two leaders?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think a couple of things. Number one, I think the President has made it clear from the beginning that he entered office thinking that if he can get a deal with Russia in our national interest, which we discussed during the opening remarks as part of Secretary Tillerson’s conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov then we’re going to do it. But if we can’t get a deal and if we can’t find an area of national interest, then we won’t.
And in this particular case, it’s no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran. That’s not exactly a group of countries that you’re looking to hang out with. With the exception of Russia, they are all failed states.
There is clearly a — Russia is on an island when it comes to its support of Syria or its lack of, frankly, acknowledgment of what happened. The facts are on our side. The actions of Syria are reprehensible. And I think that Russia has been party to several international agreements that Syria is not holding up to — in fact, that Russia needs to hold themselves up to.
So I think the President has been very clear with his stance on Russia. And in this particular case we’re going to be very forceful, as will Secretary Tillerson during his visit, to make sure that we let Russia know that they need to live up to the obligations that it has made.
Q: The administration has said sanctions against Syria are forthcoming. What will those look like, and when can we expect them?
MR. SPICER: Great question. I think you know well enough at this point that we’re not going to announce any of that kind of action until it’s ready to go. I think the President has made it clear that additional action with respect to Syria in terms of its failure to stop engaging in actions that harm its people will result in action.
And so I’m not going to get ahead of what he’s planning to announce or when, but as he has made clear on a variety of circumstances, he’s not one to telegraph his actions until he’s ready to make those announcements.
Q: Secondly, has the administration identified an opposition party that could come to power in Syria if there is a regime change?
MR. SPICER: I think first and foremost — and I stated this yesterday and will state it again — that our number-one goal is to defeat ISIS. That is unequivocally the number-one thing.
I think, secondly, the political conditions that exist in Syria right now are such that what we need Russia and others to do is to help create a political environment in which the Syrian people can choose a leader that is more suited to them. I think getting into who that should be — I think what we’re trying to do right now is shape the environment to allow the Syrian people to determine their outcome.
Q: Thanks, Sean. I’m going to change the topic. Mark Meadows said earlier this morning that he thinks “we’re very close” as it relates to healthcare, and that two options were given to the House Speaker. Does the White House believe that you’re “very close” on healthcare? And have you signed off on those two options?
MR. SPICER: Well, two things. One, I think we’re getting closer and closer every day. This has been a process that, as you know, the Chief of Staff, the Vice President and others have been extremely engaged in behind the scenes. We clearly are getting closer. More votes are moving in our direction. And these ideas I think are very helpful and the conversations are getting closer.
I don’t want to prejudge the outcome at this point, but I would say that we feel very buoyed by the direction that this is going and some of the outcomes. I know that with respect to a couple of the proposals that Congressman Meadows is suggesting — part of those has to be, again, figuring out whether or not those attract additional votes and gain additional support and don’t detract. And I know it sounds very simple, but that’s what this entire process has been about.
So he is reviewing a couple of the provisions that he wants to make in amendment — or to the ongoing amendment.
Q: Have you signed off to those?
MR. SPICER: It’s not a question of us signing off. I think we’re good with the direction that this is going as long as it continues to grow the vote. A lot of these provisions that are being discussed give states the flexibility to enact certain provisions, which is consistent with our general philosophy of giving more competition and more choice to the people in the states.
Q: And secondly, a video that’s being played across television — United Airlines. Do you think the government should investigate them, the industry as a whole, as it relates to passenger treatment?
MR. SPICER: I would just say that I think there have been clearly — law enforcement is reviewing that situation. I think there’s plenty of law enforcement to review a situation like that, and I know United Airlines has stated that they are currently reviewing their own policies.
Let’s not get ahead of where that review goes. It was an unfortunate incident, clearly, when you watch the video. It is troubling to see how that was handled. But I’m not going to — they have clearly stated their desire to review the situation. Law enforcement is reviewing it. And I think for us to start to get in front of what should be a local matter, not necessarily needing a federal response.
Q: Sean, two questions. Just to follow up on Blake, just very briefly. Has the President seen that video?
MR. SPICER: I’m sure he has.
Q: And what’s his reaction?
MR. SPICER: I don’t think anyone looks at that video and isn’t a little disturbed that another human being is treated that way. But again, I think one of the things that people have to understand is that when there is a potential law enforcement matter, for the President to weigh in pro or con would prejudice a potential outcome.
So I don’t want to get in — but I think clearly, watching another human being dragged down an aisle, watching blood come from their face after hitting an armrest and whatever, I don’t think there’s a circumstance that you can sit back and say, this probably could have been handled a little bit better when you’re talking about another human being.
But again, I don’t think that it is my place to get in the middle of judging how a company dealt with this. I think there’s clearly going to be enough review, both on a corporate side and then on a law enforcement side, on how this was handled. But I think from a human-to-human standpoint, to watch a human being get dragged down an aisle with their head banging off armrests and not think that it could have been handled better, I would assume that we could probably all agree on that.
Q: I have two questions, though. That was actually just the clarification. First, on — both foreign policy. One on Syria. This administration is continuing to fight for its travel ban that would in part limit refugees coming in from Syria. The President spoke very starkly about how affected he was by some of the images that he’s seen of these youngest victims. There have also been images of refugees like, for example, Alan Kurdi, that have also been heart-wrenching for people. Is the President giving any thought to reconsidering that aspect of his travel ban?
MR. SPICER: In terms of letting them in?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think you’ve heard a lot of these refugees in particular talk about the fact they’re not looking to flee. They want —
Q: (Inaudible) changing the ban.
MR. SPICER: Right. And I think the number-one goal of this President is to make sure that we protect our people, our country, and to keep those people from having to flee. They have family there. And so that’s our number-one goal, is creating a safer environment, deescalating the conflict there. It is not to figure out how many people we can fly out.
I think the U.S. has been extremely supportive when it comes to the financial piece to this, and looking for ways to work in a diplomatic fashion. But the goal isn’t to figure out how many people we can just import to this country. I think there’s clearly a security concern that we have to be —
Q: But don’t the images touch him also?
MR. SPICER: They have touched him, and I think that’s what he made very clear. That’s why, with the consent and guidance of his national security team, it was very extreme — it was moving. I don’t think — going back, I don’t mean to make two examples of this, but I don’t think you can watch those things. Not that you should have — any human being — but when you see in particular young children and babies being gassed, it should move any human being that has a heart.
So I think — but that partially dealt with why he acted so decisively, is to see an individual, in Assad, in that regime, act in a way that reacted to — we can’t condemn every act, but I think to literally see someone use gas. And it was pointed out — you think about that, it is in the same category as nuclear weapons for a reason. It is that lethal. It is that deadly. It is that horrific that — when you recognize the use of chemical weapons is put in the same category of weapons of mass destruction as so many other things because of what it does to an individual and the nature of an attack like that, that even first responders — if you saw some of the tape we’re getting — grossly affected by this. It moved him tremendously. And that’s part of the reason he acted the way he did.
Q: On North Korea, Sean, I also know that you’ve seen the latest provocations from Pyongyang. The President tweeted this morning that if China will help, the U.S. will solve the problem.
MR. SPICER: That’s right.
Q: What does he mean by that, “solve the problem”?
MR. SPICER: I think he has been very clear that he will not tolerate some of this action by North Korea. But to answer your question, I think I’ve said this before on a variety of topics, the President is not one who is going to out there and telegraph his response. I think he keeps all options on the table. He keeps his cards close to the vest. And as he showed last week with respect to Syria, when the President is willing to act, it’s going to be decisive and proportional to make it very clear what the position of the United States is.
Q: So there will be airstrikes?
MR. SPICER: That’s not what I said. I just said that, as you know, when the President is ready to act, he makes it very clear. And I think there is no question that when the President is ready to make a statement, he will do that.
But I think he has made it clear with respect to North Korea that their behavior and their actions with respect to the missile launches is not tolerable. The last thing we want to see is a nuclear North Korea that threatens the coast of the United States, or, for that matter, any other country and any other set of human beings. So we need stability in that region, and I think he has put them clearly on notice.
Q: Thanks a lot, Sean. The alliance between Russia and Syria is a strong one; it goes back decades. President Putin has supplied personnel, he’s supplied military equipment to the Assad government. What makes you think that at this point he’s going to pull back in his support for President Assad and for the Syrian government right now?
MR. SPICER: I think a couple things. You look — we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself is this a country that you and a regime that you want to align yourself with? You have previously signed on to international agreements rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country. To not stand up to not only Assad, but your own word, should be troubling.
Russia put their name on the line. So it’s not a question of how long that alliance has lasted, but at what point do they recognize that they are now getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way really quickly.
And again, look at the countries that are standing with them: Iran, Syria, North Korea. This is not a team you want to be on. And I think that Russia has to recognize that while they may have had an alliance with them, that the lines that have been crossed are ones that no country should ever want to see another country cross.
Q: First one, coming up on Tax Day, when does the White House plan on releasing President Trump’s 2016 returns? And are there any concerns about possible conflicts of interest reflecting on the tax debate that could be cleared up with this release?
Second, how many people are you expecting at the Easter Egg Roll? And will you practicing your previous role as the bunny?
MR. SPICER: Those are two tough ones. (Laughter.) So on the first one, I think we’ve asked and answered that several times, and the President has been under audit. I think when you look at — we filed our financial disclosure forms the other day in a way that allows everyone to understand. And for those listening at home, a tax return clearly lists how much money you made, how much tax you paid. When you look at a financial disclosure form, it lists every asset, every debt you owe, where you’re getting your money from, where your income is derived from. It is a much more comprehensive understanding.
I think the President — this question has been asked and answered over and over again. I think the American people are — frankly, the middle class, in particular, and companies that are trying to grow here in the United States are much more concerned about tax reform and allowing our economy to grow and their bottom line to grow.
With respect to the Easter Egg Roll, it’s a huge topic. I appreciate that. (Laughter.) I think we’re going to have an egg-cellent time. (Laughter.) Oh, come on. You can’t ask the question and not get the answer. (Laughter.)
But we have worked really well. I think we’re going to have a very, very enjoyable day on Monday. Tickets have been sent out to all the schools in the area. There will be a large military contingent that will be participating, as well. And I think there’s five waves over two-hour periods in which children and their families will be able to come to the White House. We’ve done extensive community outreach to really bring a lot of the school children and from the area in, and it’s going to be a great day.
Q: How many are you expecting?
MR. SPICER: I don’t have the number. I think the East Wing could probably get you an answer, and I’ll make sure I put out that number. I think they’re working on the final numbers. They’re starting ticket distribution, so I should be able to get you a number on that.
Q: Thank you, Sean. You said last month that the White House was reviewing the policy on visitor logs.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q: Will the White House voluntarily release those visitor logs?
MR. SPICER: I think we should have an answer on our policy very shortly on that.
Q: Okay. And then a question on Syria. Secretary Tillerson said this morning that it was the United States’ hope that Bashar al-Assad will not be a part of Syria’s future but it’s up to the people of Syria to make that determination.
At the same time, the question is now whether it’s the White House’s position that Assad is a bad actor and it would be ideal if he would go, or whether the White House thinks that the atrocities that he’s committed are absolutely unacceptable and he must go, period.
MR. SPICER: As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t see a peaceful, stable Syria in the future that has Assad in charge.
Q: So he absolutely has to go?
MR. SPICER: There’s no question that you can’t have a peaceful Syria with Assad in charge. I don’t see how that ever works. So, no, I don’t see a future Syria that has Bashar al-Assad as the leader of that government.
Q: Thanks, Sean. I want to ask you about some comments that Eric Trump said, speaking of Ivanka Trump: “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I’m sure she said, ‘listen, this is horrible stuff. My father will act in times like that.'” Did Ivanka Trump play a role in President Trump deciding to strike Syria? And if so, what was that role?
MR. SPICER: Well, the President — I think we released last Friday a very comprehensive tick-tock of when the President was informed by his national security team and how his thinking evolved. At 10:30 a.m. last Tuesday, his national security team was giving him his presidential daily briefing. They went over what had gone on in Syria in detail. He began to ask a series of questions. They came back to him later that day. There was a deputy principals meeting later on Tuesday. On Wednesday, there was a principals meeting. They continued to bring with him a series of questions and responses to his thing.
And his evolving — his decision-making process continued aboard Air Force One on the way down to Florida. At 4 o’clock when he arrived at Mar-a-Lago, he had a national security team meeting both in Mar-a-Lago and secure VTC back to different elements that were gathered in secure locations. That’s when he gave the order.
That being said, there’s no question that Ivanka and others weighed into him as — it was asked earlier, Hallie asked it — that when he himself saw images, he was very, very moved. And I think Ivanka and others, frankly, I don’t think that there’s many humans that came into contact with the President during that window of time that said, “did you see those images on television?” So I don’t — I think there was a widespread acknowledgement that the images and the actions that had been taken were horrific and required action.
Q: And just to be clear, she was among those who supported taking action?
MR. SPICER: I have not asked her. But I think — and again, I saw the reports that Eric gave. But again, I don’t think Ivanka stands any different than anyone else when it comes to the response that we got.
Q: Do you know if they discussed the attack, or if she responded and gave her personal reaction to it?
MR. SPICER: I don’t know. But again, I don’t think it’s that dissimilar to what any human being probably would have asked.
Q: And just a couple of others. He also said if there was anything that the strike on Syria did, it was to validate the fact that that there is no Russia tie, which raises the question that there was some type of political component to this. Can you respond to that?
MR. SPICER: Well, in the sense that — well, I guess my point — or I think his point would be, after 80-plus days of constantly being asked what the involvement is, I think clearly with us acting, not having a conversation with Moscow in the political sense, prior to that I think for all of the discussion about how many ties and back channels and this and that, it was a pretty clear show of resolve and force that the United States was acting and not with anyone else’s —
Q: He wasn’t suggesting that was a factor in the decision —
MR. SPICER: No, I think he — no, but I think that, respectfully, almost every single day we’ve been asked about these so-called ties and back channels and whatever. And I think there is an acknowledgement at some point that if that was true, you would have seen some kind of action that clearly didn’t happen.
Q: And just to follow up on the North Korea question — Hallie read the President’s tweet — North Korea seemed to threaten the possibility of taking some type of nuclear action if the U.S. launches what they see as another provocation. What is the specific reaction to that? Is the President considering —
MR. SPICER: I don’t think — I think that there’s no evidence that North Korea has that capability at this time, so I don’t know that that could happen.
Q: What’s your reaction to them making that threat?
MR. SPICER: Well, I don’t think that threatening something that you don’t have the capability of — isn’t really a threat.
Q: Thank you, Sean. I want to sort of follow up on that. The President in his tweet noted that China could certainly help on the North Korean issue. And when you unpack it through that lens and the fact that the USS Carl Vinson is sort of steaming out toward the Sea of Japan, that may be an additional pressure to maybe get China to come to the table. Is that an accurate read of what the President would like to see them to do to really apply the pressure on Pyongyang?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think the President and President Xi discussed this last week in Florida. China has had a very economic and political influence on North Korea over the years, and I think that when it comes to a shared national interest of ensuring that Korea doesn’t obtain the nuclear capabilities to threaten any people, that is something that we should all agree upon and is something that he talked about with President Xi as an area shared national interest.
And I think that North Korea clearly understands where the United States stands on this, and I think he would welcome President Xi weighing on this a little bit more. So I think that’s — obviously wants to make it very clear to them and the rest of the country and the rest of the world what our position is.
Q: Putting that strike carrier group in the Sea of Japan, in that region, is that also a messaging circumstance? Or is that simply protective for our allies in Japan and Korea?
MR. SPICER: A carrier group is several things. The forward deployment is deterrence, presence. It’s prudent. But it does a lot of things. It ensures our — we have the strategic capabilities, and it gives the President options in the region.
But I think when you see a carrier group steaming into an area like that, the forward presence of that is clearly, through almost every instance, a huge deterrence. So I think it serves multiple capabilities.
Q: Last point, if I might, on infrastructure and taxes. The CBO is obviously very interested in trying to get something done as quickly as possible — A, shovel-ready opportunities for people to get to work, and obviously a lowering of the taxes to enhance business expansion and perhaps even lower for middle-class Americans. But I’m wondering if there isn’t a healthcare component that needs to happen before you can move forward on that.
MR. SPICER: So there’s a few things. Obviously, getting healthcare, the repeal and replace done, would open the amount of money that we can use through the reconciliation process to have available tax reform. That’s why we made it very clear from the beginning that we thought healthcare should go first. It gives us a greater amount of resources to dedicate to tax reform.
That being said, under every circumstance you’re talking months of getting tax reform done. That’s one area that they discussed today. But one of the more important areas, and where I think you’re seeing the President act continuously and decisively, is on the regulatory front. And that’s one of the largest burdens that manufacturers, unions, entrepreneurs talk to the President about over and over again, is these stifling regulations of a variety of sort that prevent them — the coal industry, the manufacturing sector, the auto sector over and over again are talking about the regulatory. And the President’s ability to take immediate action — I’ve mentioned it here before, but, I mean, so far, under the Congressional Review Act, this President signed 12 pieces of legislation that caters to one that was signed in every administration prior to this year, total.
And I think that that shows the President’s commitment to creating not just a better tax climate, which is going to take a few months, but an immediate regulatory impact that can help businesses break down the barriers, compete more, bring more jobs back to the United States.
Q: Sean, thanks. I just want to give you an opportunity to clarify something you said that seems to be gaining some traction right now. “Hitler didn’t even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.” What did you mean by that?
MR. SPICER: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing, I mean, there was clearly — I understand your point, thank you.
Q: I’m just getting —
MR. SPICER: Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns. It was brought — so the use of it — I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.
Q: Okay. Did the President speak with Secretary Tillerson before he went on this trip to Russia? And is this stern message that the Secretary delivered today a direct message from the President to Vladimir Putin?
MR. SPICER: Yeah. I mean, they spoke — he was in Florida with him before he left, and they met — Tillerson and the President — after his meeting with President Xi concluded. And they’ve talked I think since then as well.
Q: So this message that these — it’s pretty stark, harsh words from Secretary Tillerson this morning about Russia. Is that — can that be interpreted as a message from the President to Russia?
MR. SPICER: I don’t know the nature of their final conversation. I know there’s been some evolution of the intelligence that we have and the actions that have been taken since Friday. So I don’t know where the conversations have laid off, but I think Secretary Tillerson clearly speaks on behalf of the United States and the President’s position.
Q: Thank you, Sean. Two foreign policy-related questions. You’re speaking about Secretary Tillerson’s trip, and I’d like to do a follow-up on the question I asked two weeks ago. Is he scheduled to meet with Mr. Navalny or Mr. Khodorkovsky or any of the civil society representatives outside of government?
MR. SPICER: I’ll refer you back to the State Department the same way I did two weeks ago. I think they are in charge of his schedule, so I think it’s best to look at the State Department.
Q: And has the President or anyone in the administration been in touch with President Erdogan on all of the actions in Syria?
MR. SPICER: I do believe that someone — either the Vice President or the Secretary of Defense spoke with him last week, but I’d have to check. I know there was a series of foreign leader and head-of-government calls to both defense minister and heads of state, but I’d have to check. I thought he was on that list, but off the top of my head I cannot recall.
Q: You said at the top that you hope that Secretary Tillerson will be able to clearly convey to the Russians the sentiments of the U.S. government. Is that enhanced by a meeting directly with the Secretary and President Putin? And if there is no meeting like that, would the President of the United States consider his Secretary of State snubbed by the Russian President?
MR. SPICER: Well, obviously, he’s going to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov; that’s his counterpart. I think that’s the job of a foreign minister and a Secretary of State, to meet with each other. They’re the counterparts. And I think that if he didn’t meet with President Putin, that he can convey his sentiments and thoughts of the United States to the foreign minister.
Q: Would the history of Putin meeting with Kerry and with previous secretaries of state influence the President’s judgment on that?
MR. SPICER: We’ll have to see. I’m not going to — I mean, we’re not there yet. So I think to prejudge the outcome of the visit —
Q: (Inaudible) the President — in other words, for Tillerson to see Putin on this visit even though there are very specific things you want to convey to the Russian government.
MR. SPICER: No, but I would say that there’s a bit of irony that for all of these talks that have been perpetuated about back channels and direct links, that now it’s, well, they won’t meet with you, and does that undermine the relationship that I’ve heard time and time again.
Q: I’m just asking if the President considers it important.
MR. SPICER: No, I understand that. But I think it’s interesting that we went from all of these direct links to Russia, to now, are we disappointed that we can’t even get a meeting with them. There’s a bit of irony in your question.
Q: I don’t even understand your point. I’m asking you, at a time after the United States has called out Russia for a disinformation campaign in Syria for collusion with a government it regards as carrying out a war crime, meeting with the Russian President, is it or is it not a priority for this President to have his Secretary of State convey that directly with the head of the Russian government?
MR. SPICER: He is conveying that message, and that’s what he doing.
Q: The head of the Russian government — that’s all I’m asking.
MR. SPICER: But if the head of the Russian government won’t meet with him, then he’s going to convey it to his counterpart.
Q: And I’m asking you if that —
MR. SPICER: And I just said we’re not there yet, but I think right now —
Q: You would not consider that a snub?
MR. SPICER: No, I think the answer is, is that he’s meeting with his counterpart and that’s the appropriate person for him to convey that with, and we’ll have to wait and see how the meeting goes.
Q: The Russian President today said that all this talk in the White House about weapons of mass destruction reminds him of what he heard from the White House in 2003. This White House is expressing confidence that sarin gas was used. What do you say to skeptics in Moscow and maybe in other countries, perhaps here at home, who doubt that level of confidence?
MR. SPICER: I think you had a — there was a 45-minute briefing with members of the national security team prior to this which they walked through all of that level of confidence that they have. I think that anybody who doubts that in terms of the pictures that were shown and the media that was there wouldn’t just be doubting the intelligence but it would be doubting the entire international reporting crew that was there to document all of this.
There have been doctors, intelligence communities, media. I mean, I don’t think it takes mere eyeballs to recognize what’s happening and happened throughout there. So it’s not a question of doubting us, it’s doubting everybody but Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia.
Q: And one other historical villain who used chemical weapons against his own people was Saddam Hussein. It was the policy of the United States government that there should be regime change in Iraq as a result of that and other things. Why shouldn’t it be the same policy towards Bashar al-Assad?
MR. SPICER: I think that you’re — you’re trying to act as if — or the premise of the question suggests that we don’t want a new leader. I think I’ve stated now, two days in a row, that we don’t see a peaceful or stable Syria in the future that has Assad as the head of it. Their number-one priority right now for us as a government is to make sure that we stop the threat of ISIS and bring stability to that region.
But make no question about it, there is no peaceful and stable Syria in the future that Assad is the head of. That’s it, point blank.
Q: So I just want to clarify, is the U.S. position as far as cooperation with Russia that Russia must admit or agree that Syria was behind the chemical attack, and then also that Russia must disown Assad? Like, can cooperation happen if Russia maintains its position that Syria was not behind that chemical attack?
MR. SPICER: It’s not just behind it. I think that Russia has joined an international agreement regarding not just the use, but possession of. It was Susan Rice who went out and said that Syria no longer had access to chemical weapons. We know that’s not true.
I think that the United States, Russia, and others signed an international agreement that Syria was part of that said that they would not, not only use, but possess chemical weapons. The first thing that we need to do is make sure that we enforce the existing agreement that Russia is a partner to. That’s first and foremost.
And I think we need to make sure that we do that because it is in the national interests of the United States to make sure that the proliferation of chemical weapons spreads no further. And that is something that we’ve got to be very careful of. It’s not just the deterrence of future use within those — but also the proliferation of them throughout the world.
Q: But at this point, Russia is not even agreeing with the U.S. contention that the Syrian government carried out the attacks.
MR. SPICER: I understand that, and I think that Secretary Tillerson has just landed a few hours ago, and I think we’ll have an opportunity to talk to them.
But again, this is not — I don’t — you know, as I just mentioned to Steve a second ago, I mean, you realize that Russia isn’t an island on this. They are not — this is not some big split as to how this actually happened. The only countries that aren’t supporting the U.S.’s position are Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Russia. This is not exactly a happy-time cocktail party of people that you want to be associated with. They are failed states with the exception of Russia.
So these individual states — when Russia is saying that they don’t agree with us, they are not siding with other nations of stature. They’re agreeing with failed states, and a small number of those as it stands. I think they are staring in the defiance — or they are defiant in the worldview that doctors, intelligence agencies, reporters, civilians, international experts have all looked at and come to the same conclusion except for them. I don’t think there’s any other outcome than that.
With that, guys, I’ll see you back in a little bit. I know we’re going to have one more out of our three. Thank you.
2:19 P.M. EDT