White House Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 5/12/2017, #47
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:24 P.M. EDT
SEAN SPICER: Wow, we got a full house today. Good afternoon. It’s good to be back with you. Apparently I was a little missed.
We’re one week out from the President’s first foreign trip, so I wanted to make sure, as we prepare for that trip, that I bring out National Security Advisor, General McMaster, to give you a preview of what the team has been doing to prepare for the President’s trip. Our goal is to kind of start that process now, and then next week bring the General back and give you a more detailed update as to what the President is going to be doing in each of the areas, and some of the highlights from the trip. We’ll, obviously, additionally, have background briefings for you as well to give the team that’s going to be traveling, the press corps, some logistical updates.
So without further ado, General McMaster.
Q: Will you take questions after?
SEAN SPICER: Yes, Jeff, I will be glad to take your question. In fact, if you’d like, you get to go first today.
GENERAL MCMASTER: Thank you, Sean. Good afternoon, and Happy Mother’s Day weekend, everybody. As you all know, in exactly one week the President will embark on his first trip abroad since taking office. Today I’d like to explain the President’s objectives for his visits to the Middle East and to Europe, and also preview a bit of the schedule.
The trip has three core purposes. First, to reaffirm America’s global leadership. Second, to continue building key relationships with world leaders. And, third, to broadcast a message of unity to America’s friends and to the faithful of three of the world’s greatest religions.
The President prioritizes building strong relationships, as you see here, every day with world leaders as a way to strengthen our alliances. And he’s been successful. You can see that in his diplomacy with a range of leaders, from Prime Minister May to President Xi.
President Trump understands that America First does not mean American alone — to the contrary. Prioritizing American interests means strengthening alliances and partnerships that help us extend our influence and improve the security of the American people.
This trip is truly historic. No President has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip. And what President Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity. He will bring a message of tolerance and of hope to billions, including to millions of Americans who profess these faiths. The President will focus on what unites us.
The President’s trip will begin in Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites in Islam. He will encourage our Arab and Muslim partners to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to al Qaeda to Iran to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos and violence that has inflicted so much suffering throughout the Muslim world and beyond.
He will lead the first steps toward a stronger, more capable, and more robust security partnership with our Gulf, Arab, and Muslim partners. And he will develop a strong, respectful message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology, an ideology that uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crimes against all humanity. He will call for Muslim leaders to promote a peaceful vision of Islam.
The President will then travel to Israel. With President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu, he will reaffirm America’s unshakeable bond to the Jewish state. With President Abbas, he will express his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians. And so to leaders and peoples alike, across the entire trip, he will demonstrate his hopes for a just and lasting peace.
In Rome, the President will be honored to accept an audience with Pope Francis. He looks forward to paying his respects and to discussing religious freedom, ways to combat religious persecution, human trafficking, and cooperating on humanitarian missions across the globe.
He will also pay his respects to the Italian people by meeting with President Mattarella, the head of state and one of America’s most important treaty allies and trading partners. He will also see again Prime Minister Gentiloni, who is hosting the G7 conference in Sicily.
From Rome, the President will continue to Brussels for the NATO Leaders meeting. There, he will reaffirm America’s commitment to the Alliance while stressing the need for members to pay their fair share, to shoulder responsibility, to share burdens, and for the institution to continue on the path of strengthening the Alliance.
President Trump will end his trip in Sicily for the G7 meeting in Taormina, where he will promote American economic leadership and also address unfair trade practices. He will remind our friends and partners that we are eager to explore further ways to address threats to our mutual security, from North Korea to Afghanistan to the broader Middle East.
Before leaving, the President will visit Naval Air Station Sigonella, where he will thank our wonderful and courageous servicemen and women, ally personnel and family members for their sacrifices to keep us safe.
And across the trip, he will meet our diplomats, the staff at our embassies who represent us so well across the world.
Lastly, just a few words on how this all came together. The impetus for this trip came from the President himself, and he has been fully engaged from the beginning — setting objectives, overseeing the planning. The President is receiving regular briefings from his Cabinet and from our senior staff here on the national security side and on the economic side as well.
Most of the leaders the President will meet on this trip, as you know, he’s already met in person or certainly by phone. These relationships are off to a very strong start. And the trip is an opportunity to broaden and deepen those relationships. The administration continues to be in close contact and consultation with Congress, and we’re drawing on the expertise across the Senate and the House in preparation for the trip, as well.
And finally, this really is a team effort. The White House and National Security Council staff, the National Economic Council continue to work closely with our Departments of State, Treasury, Defense and others to fulfill the President’s objectives and ensure smooth execution. On behalf of the President, I express the whole administration’s thanks for all the hard work it takes to organize a trip of this scope and of this importance.
So the President and all of us are looking forward to the journey. And with that, I’ll take a couple questions.
Q: General McMaster, how is this President viewed among our Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, UAE and others — compared to his predecessor?
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, I’ll just say, the President’s leadership has been welcomed — welcomed enthusiastically. There was a perception that America had largely disengaged from the Middle East in particular, and that disengagement coincided with this humanitarian and political catastrophe in the region. And so now there’s a broad recognition among all of our partners in the region that American leadership is necessary to help address this catastrophe and to begin to move the region toward the peace, security, and stability that the people there so deserve.
And so what you’re seeing, I think, is a galvanizing effect of the President’s leadership in bringing those leaders together across the region, and bringing them together for a positive agenda — who’s against ending this catastrophe; who’s against confronting these terrorists or the enemies of all civilized people; confronting Iran, who’s participating in this cycle of violence; and to bring prosperity and peace to the region and the people who so richly deserve it.
Q: You’re somebody who is crucial, obviously, in the intelligence community, somebody who’s leading the National Security Council. So I have to ask you: This week in particular there have been a lot of reports, including from our network, that intelligence officials are extremely concerned about how James Comey was fired. Do you believe that that threatens national security right now?
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, I told Sean that I would pass all those questions to him, and he’ll be happy to answer that after this —
Q: But this is a national security question, sir.
GENERAL MCMASTER: What I’d like to do is focus on the trip, and I’ll come back next week with more details of the trip, as well.
Q: You said the President was — the impetus for the trip came from the President himself. Was it the President himself who decided to begin this trip in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam? And is there symbolic significance to that? And how many of our Muslim allies, how many countries, how many Muslim-majority countries will be represented at the meetings in Saudi Arabia?
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, this was the President’s initiative, to begin the trip in the Middle East, hosted by King Salman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And the King is going to bring together partners from across the region to meet with the President. So the answer to your question is — and I can answer in more detail next week, because it’s still coming in, the sort of final attendees, but he’ll meet with a broad range of leaders in the Middle East, of course, many of whom — most of whom he’s met already here, or by phone certainly. And we have the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed is coming, for example, on Monday as well.
Q: General McMaster, at the beginning of this very long week, we were hearing speculation that the President was considering thousands more troops for Afghanistan. When he goes to Brussels on Thursday of next week, what is the message to the NATO partners with respect to their commitment in this long fight?
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, the key is that all of us have to be committed to achieving our fundamental objectives in Afghanistan. Americans know really better than anybody because the mass murder against our own country on September 11, 2001 originated with a terrorist safe haven and support base in Afghanistan. Recently, we have been engaged against ISIS or ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan with highly successful operations there that you’ll hear more about in a press conference at the Department of Defense here in the near future.
But what has happened in Afghanistan is the Afghan army is taking the brunt of the fight against these transnational terrorists and the Taliban. And so we are working with our allies to figure out what more we can do to have a more effective strategy in Afghanistan, what are options we can bring to the President to be more effective in meeting our objectives in Afghanistan, and what more can we ask our allies to do which we’re asking them now.
So this is going to be, really, consistent with the President’s guidance to us.
Q: Has the President decided that there should thousands more troops?
GENERAL MCMASTER: The President has not made a decision yet on a course of action. What we have done, which is what we have done in many cases on the North Korea problem set, for example, is we’ve consulted broadly across our government and with allies. The President wants to hear from our allies, as well. This is a President who listens to his allies and partners. He’ll have an opportunity to do so at the NATO Summit. He’ll have an opportunity to do so at the G7. And so what we’ll have at the end of the next few weeks here is an opportunity for a much more effective strategy for the problem set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region broadly.
Q: General, if you could talk first about the evolution from the way the President campaigned, which was a more unilateral foreign policy, to this multilateral engagement that you’re emphasizing and the way that you’re rolling out this trip to explain that. And then, secondly, if you could also talk about the decision to send a delegation to the One Belt, One Road Forum in China, and what you hope to get out of that.
GENERAL MCMASTER: So America First didn’t mean America alone ever, I don’t know. And so what we have done is advanced the President’s agenda in national security by strengthening alliances by burden-sharing. Americans don’t have to do everything, don’t have to bankroll everything. And our allies and partners are grateful for, I think, the President’s leadership in asking them to do more.
So it’s an alliance in which each of the members are doing their fair share, who are shouldering the burden. Is it stronger or weaker? It’s stronger. So the President has done a great deal to strengthen our alliances. And America First didn’t mean America not leading. So for America to secure and advance its interests, that requires American leadership. And so the President’s leadership has been welcomed in all the places that he’ll be visiting on this trip, and his agenda I think that he laid out in the campaign is being operationalized and implemented by his Cabinet, primarily, with the assistance of our team here in the White House.
Q: Two questions. First, there were reports out of Israel that President Trump may try to get Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in the same room together while he’s there. Is that, in fact, the case? And also, to NBC News yesterday, the President said that General Mattis and his other generals would be announcing something on ISIS next week. And so as one of the generals on his administration, can you talk to that? Is there an announcement coming next week?
GENERAL MCMASTER: On the first part, it will be whatever the President wants to do. A lot of what we do in the National Security Council is try to keep up with the President. So you may have — no, I think —
Q: Are the plans — have they tried to reach out to both of them to try to get them together?
GENERAL MCMASTER: The final plans aren’t set yet. We can comment maybe more about that next week. But it will obviously be up to the President and those leaders about how he wants to engage with them. But he’ll engage with both those leaders there as part of the trip.
In terms of the campaign against transnational terrorist organizations and ISIS in particular, the President has asked us to do everything we can to defeat ISIS and, in particular, to ensure that we defeat ISIS in this so-called caliphate in the terrain that they’re endeavoring to hold on to in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas.
And what the President has also told us is he doesn’t want to telegraph what he’s doing tactically day to day. He wants the Department of Defense and our military commanders to be able to execute those campaigns consistent with his guidance, the policy and the strategy that he’s approved.
And so what we next will do will be an opportunity for our military leadership to lay out how they are executing the President’s guidance, the progress they’ve made in the campaign, and what remains to be done. And so that’s really the emphasis of the press conference next week.
SEAN SPICER: Thank you, General.
Q: Can we hear about Russia and the agreements that were made this week with Russia’s top diplomat? I mean, you’re going to the region to speak with Arab allies. How are you going to explain agreements you’ve made with Russia, allied with Iran, in Syria, a place that the President has said is now a priority for him?
GENERAL MCMASTER: I would characterize the engagements with Russian leadership by our Secretary of State, the brief meeting that the President had with Foreign Minister Lavrov, the phone conversations that we’ve had with Russian leadership as engagements, not decisions or specific approaches.
I think what the President has made clear is that he will confront Russian disruptive behavior, such as its support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and its enabling of Iran and its very destructive policy and strategy that it’s executing across the Middle East, what it’s done and continue to do in Ukraine. He will confront that disruptive behavior.
But the President is looking for areas of cooperation. There are a lot of very significant security problem sets across the world. All of them would get easier, right, if Russia were to come to the conclusion that it could best advance its interests through cooperating with the United States and others to resolve those conflicts, rather than perpetuate them.
Q: But aren’t they party to those conflicts and causing them in Syria? I mean, the President said at the end of his meeting with Lavrov that it was really good, that there was — he spoke in very positive terms that there was progress made. Are you saying there were no agreements?
GENERAL MCMASTER: The President spoke in positive, affirmative, strong terms in his engagements with Russian leaders.
SEAN SPICER: Thank you very much.
Q: A follow on —
GENERAL MCMASTER: I’ll take one more.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the America First policy, about how it changed over time? It’s not been very clear what it means and how other people would want to sign up for it.
GENERAL MCMASTER: Well, what it means is that the President is prioritizing the security and interests of the American people. You can see that with what Secretary Ross has done in the economic relationship with China to look for ways to advance American prosperity.
Every theme of this trip is wholly consistent with the President’s approach to prioritize the American people, American security, American jobs, American prosperity. And so you’ll see that with I think almost a refreshing, I would say, integration of what we’re doing in terms of security partnerships along with economic relationships, and the diplomatic engagement that the President’s Cabinet has been engaged with since he’s taken over as President. And this trip is going to be a tremendous way to solidify the gains already made and advance them further.
SEAN SPICER: All right. Thank you, General McMaster.
I’m going to go through a couple updates and — schedule before I get to your questions. And Jeff will get the first one.
First off, Secretary Ross, I know, was up here last night to tell you about the developments — and General McMaster just noted the developments that have happened and advances that have happened in trade. The 10 commitments that Secretary Ross announced yesterday are the initial results of the 100-day action plan of the United States-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, which began with President Trump and President Xi’s meeting in Mar-a-Lago.
Under the leadership of Secretaries Ross, Mnuchin, and their Chinese counterparts, the United States has negotiated intensively to reach consensus in areas including agricultural trade, financial services, investment, and energy. One of the actions I want to point out in particular sets the stage for China to allow imports of American beef beginning no later than July 16th of this year.
It’s been 13 years since our cattle producers have been able — have been effectively locked out of the Chinese market. China is now second-largest beef importer in the world, buying roughly $2.6 billion dollars of beef every year. In a statement last night, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association –- the nation’s largest association of cattle farmers -– said, and I quote, “It’s impossible to overstate how beneficial this will be for America’s cattle producers, and [how] the Trump administration deserves a lot of credit for getting this achieved.”
This announcement came on the same day that Secretary Perdue visited a large — a barge loading facility in the Ohio River and announced that he will appoint an Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is further proof of the seriousness of which the administration is approaching the promotion of U.S. agricultural products abroad.
And that’s just one part of the deal that was reached. Here are some of the other highlights that we have worked with China. Eight pending biotech patents from the United States firms will be evaluated at a meeting of China’s National Biosafety Committee by the end of May. We welcome China to receive imported liquefied natural gas, with companies allowed to proceed at any time to negotiate contracts.
China will allow foreign-owned financial services firms in China to provide credit rating services and credit investigations. By July 16th, China will issue further guidance to allow American-owned suppliers of electronic payment services to operate in China. And China will allow two American financial institutions to issue underwriting and settlement licenses no later than July 16th, as we continue to make progress within the 100-day framework, including discussion of a one-year plan to solidify action that will benefit both of our countries.
Moving on, this morning, Attorney General Sessions issued a memo that restores flexibility to prosecutors so that they can most effectively combat the crisis of illegal drug trafficking that is polluting our cities and destroying our communities and families. This policy was formulated after extensive consultation with the prosecutors that handle these cases each and every day around the country. With these additional options available to them, they now have the leverage they need to get at the root of drug trafficking and the violent crime that surrounds it.
As the Attorney General said this morning, this will take the handcuffs off our nation’s prosecutors, and, if I can add, it, frankly, puts the handcuffs on the drug traffickers who threaten the safety of our families and communities. The Trump administration is signaling to the worst of the worst -– the drug traffickers who violate our drug laws to move these dangerous substances around our border and into our communities — that the United States Department of Justice will no longer look the other way.
This week, the administration has also been busy engaging with senators and their staff now that the American Health Care Act and the relief it promises for the American people is in the Senate’s hands. I know Sarah talked to you yesterday about how Aetna has pulled out of Obamacare exchanges completely, leaving only one insurer in some of the markets. Another report out yesterday from eHealth showed that the average premiums for individual plans has spiked 39 percent since 2014. In some cases, insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses have become families’ most significant expenses.
With each new report, it becomes clearer and clearer that we can’t wait any longer to repeal and replace this failing system. Until we enact serious reforms of the healthcare system, the American people will continue to suffer under the consequences.
Tomorrow, the President will deliver his first commencement address in Lynchburg, Virginia at Liberty. He is greatly looking forward to visiting with Liberty’s students and faculty who gave him such a warm welcome last year. He can be expected to note to the graduates his own change in status since they were last together.
As many of you know, Liberty is the largest Christian school in the nation and has, in recent years, made many remarkable strides in its — strides forward in its academic, extracurricular, and athletic endeavors. Besides taking note of these achievements, the president will be congratulating the graduates on their accomplishments and encouraging them to be a force for good in the world by standing up for the values that Liberty has taught them. He will be offering congratulations, thanks and praise, and encouragement on a day of optimism and new beginnings for the graduates as well as the nation.
In terms of the rundown for next week, the President has a very packed schedule before we depart on his first foreign trip. On Monday, he’s hosting the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates. On Tuesday, he will welcome the President of Turkey. On Wednesday, the President will travel to New London, Connecticut to deliver the commencement address at the United States Coast Guard Academy.
On Thursday, the President of Colombia will be at the White House for an official visit. And on Friday, we set off on the trip with the first stop being Saudi Arabia. And finally, in honor of Mother’s Day, this afternoon the First Lady will host a reception in honor of military mothers in the residence, followed by a performance by the Army Chorus and Marine Band. The White House will issue a Mother’s Day Proclamation later as well.
And beyond all of the activity here, this is the official reminder to everyone to get your flowers and cards before it’s too late.
And with that, Jeff Mason.
Q: Thank you for that reminder, Sean.
SEAN SPICER: You’re welcome.
Q: Moving on to the news of the week, really, and the day, did President Trump record his conversations with former FBI Director Comey?
SEAN SPICER: I assume you’re referring to the tweet.
Q: His tweet.
SEAN SPICER: And I’ve talked to the President. The President has nothing further to add on that.
Q: Why did he say that? Why did he tweet that? What should we interpret from that?
SEAN SPICER: As I mentioned, the President has nothing further to add on that.
Q: Are there recording devices in the Oval Office or in the residence?
SEAN SPICER: As I’ve said for the third time, there is nothing further to add on that.
Q: Does he think it’s appropriate to threaten someone like Mr. Comey not to speak?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t think — that’s not a threat. He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself. I’m moving on.
Q: If I could quote another one of the President’s tweets this morning, he said “Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat excuse for losing the election.” What did the President mean by that? How specifically is the U.S. tearing itself apart over all of this?
SEAN SPICER: I think the President’s comments about Russia and collusion have been very clear with respect to some of the charges that have been made. He’s been very clear that it’s one thing that he believes that the — that the notion that there’s collusion is a hoax. It’s been reaffirmed by several people, including Senator Grassley and others who have spoken to him, and — that he wants to make sure that he’s focused every day on doing what’s best for the American people.
Q: I understand all that, but — you’ve said that many times. But how is the U.S. “tearing itself apart” over this?
SEAN SPICER: Well, I think, obviously, this has been a subject that comes up over and over again when it’s been very clearly stated on multiple occasions that there’s no collusion that occurred, and yet this narrative continues to be perpetuated.
Q: Do you think this is what the Russians wanted all along in interfering with the election?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t. I have no idea. But what I’m just telling you is I think we have made it clear at this podium several times, and I think the President made it clear, that — what his feelings are on this.
Q: Sean, in the dinner that the President had with James Comey earlier in January, did the President implore him to pledge his loyalty to the President? Is that true?
SEAN SPICER: No.
Q: Did that happen? That did not happen?
SEAN SPICER: No.
Q: How important is it that the FBI director be loyal to the President? Is that a quality the President wants to see in anyone, particularly his FBI director?
SEAN SPICER: I think the President wants loyalty to this country and to the rule of law.
Q: Thanks, Sean. On the dinner with James Comey, does anyone in this White House have an audio recording of what unfolded during the January 27th dinner between the former FBI director and the President of the United States?
SEAN SPICER: I’m not aware of that.
Q: I have one follow-up question for you. What can the administration do better when it comes to communication? Today the President tweeted out that he felt from behind that podium it’s not always possible to present the information with “perfect accuracy.”
SEAN SPICER: So look, I think we come out here every day and try to do the best job we can communicating what the President has done and the accomplishments he’s making on the American people. We get here early, we work beyond being here at this podium. As many of you know, we get here early, we work pretty late. We do what we can.
But the President is an active President. He keeps a very robust schedule, as many of you are very well aware and as you can tell by the activities of next week alone. And I think sometimes we don’t have an opportunity to get in to see him to get his full thinking. In those cases, we do our best to follow up with you. But I think that there are times when you, more than not, read a story where someone is trying pin — trying to pull apart one word, one sentence and say, aha, and make it a “gotcha” thing.
We work very hard to get you the most accurate and up-to-date information throughout the day. We don’t always have the opportunity to get in to see the President, and in those cases, I think we do a pretty good job of following up and getting you the information after the briefing, in a subsequent — so that’s exactly what he meant.
Q: Is the President considering cancelling the daily press briefings?
SEAN SPICER: I think he’s a little dismayed, as well as a lot of people, that we come out here and try to do everything we can to provide you and the American people with what he’s doing on their behalf, what he’s doing to keep the nation safe, what he’s doing to grow jobs, and yet, we see time and time again an attempt to parse every little word and make it more of a game of “gotcha” as opposed to really figure out what the policies are, why something is being pursued or what the update is on this.
And I think that’s where there’s a lot of dismay, and I don’t think it’s something that just alone the President feels.
Q: Can I ask you one final logistical question?
SEAN SPICER: Sure, one final. It’s Friday.
Q: On the original question I had about the dinner on January 27th with James Comey, the President wasn’t clear during the NBC interview who invited the FBI director to the White House at that time. How many invitations did the White House send to Director James Comey after January 20th and before the director was fired?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t know. I’ll try to get back to you.
Q: Thanks, Sean. I have a question about the Turkish President’s visit next week. He recently called — President Erdogan called for Muslims to rush the Temple Mount. Considering the President has said he’s a mediator for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, what is his response to that? And then I have another question.
SEAN SPICER: So I think what you’ve seen with the President’s meeting with these leaders is he engages privately in a lot of these things. And I think to a degree, a large degree, he’s been able to achieve great success, whether Aya Hijazi in that particular case; working behind the scenes, whether it’s the progress that he’s made with China.
The President’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy is paying dividends for the United States, and that’s how he’s going to continue to operate. And as General McMaster noted, it’s that kind of diplomacy that’s reasserting our position in the world and that trust, and those relationships continue to be built.
Q: Are those comments helpful from the Turkish President?
SEAN SPICER: I think there’s a difference, Katie. If we can get out here and — I think what the President believes is that behind-the-scenes diplomacy pays dividends in terms of affecting behavior and outcomes and furthering the goals of the United States. So that’s as much as I want to say there.
Q: My other question is, is the discussion about the refugee crisis, which is fueling problems in Europe — the President has talked about refugees being a problem in the United States and terrorists hiding refugees — or refugees hiding in the — terrorists hiding in the refugee stream, excuse me. Is he going to talk about that with Arab leaders specifically when he visits Saudi Arabia? Or is that not something that he’s willing to bring up to those leaders?
SEAN SPICER: I mean, he’s talked about safe zones. He talked about it yesterday with the Foreign Minister — or earlier this week, rather. He’s brought it up on the calls.
Q: But in Saudi Arabia specifically?
SEAN SPICER: I’m not going to get ahead of his conversations that he’s going to have, but I think the President has been very publicly clear about his desire to address that situation and some of the solutions that exist. But he’s — in a lot of the readouts, we’ve had that as part of it because he believes that that has to be part of a solution.
Q: Thanks a lot, Sean. In that interview that the President conducted yesterday with NBC, he indicated and confirmed that on three separate occasions he asked the director of the FBI, and received assurances from the FBI, that he was not under investigation by the FBI. Why was the President seemingly so consumed by this that he would ask that question on three separate occasions?
SEAN SPICER: I think because the narrative continues to be perpetuated, and he wanted clarity to make sure. But again, I haven’t spoken to him on it about the reason, but I think he answered it yesterday very clearly. And so I can get back to you, but that’s the answer.
Q: I would appreciate you getting back to me. And as far as asking that question, did the President ask the White House Counsel whether it would be appropriate to ask such a question, given that it was against, generally, Justice Department guidelines to indicate whether or not investigations are ongoing against any individual, let alone one at the White House?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t know. I will tell you that I know several legal scholars, including Alan Dershowitz and others, have said there was nothing inappropriate about that.
Q: Did the White House Counsel —
SEAN SPICER: I don’t know the answer.
Q: Okay. Thank you.
SEAN SPICER: Dave.
Q: General McMaster mentioned that, on the trip, the President is going to be raising the issue of religious persecution with the Pope. And I wanted to ask you about a case in the last week, in Indonesia, where a Christian governor in the state of Jakarta was imprisoned for two years for blaspheming the Quran. Does the President find that case troubling? Does he plan to say anything —
SEAN SPICER: Did John Gizzi give you this question?
Q: I’m sorry. (Laughter.)
SEAN SPICER: I don’t have any updates on that particular case. I would ask you to check with the State Department.
Q: Thanks, Sean. I just want to clear up a point on Jeff’s question. I’m hoping you can answer this in a yes-or-no fashion. Is the President of the United States currently recording conversations taking place in the Oval Office?
SEAN SPICER: I think the point that I made with respect to the tweet is the President has no further comment on this.
Q: And I wanted to follow up. Since you were involved in this on Tuesday night as well, giving a blanket answer and saying at the time that it was all him regarding Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, why did you come out with information that was later contradicted by the President two days later? Can you explain the tick-tock? When were you brought in? Who else was involved? Why were the American people given incorrect information that night?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t necessarily believe that that’s true, Zeke. There was a decision-making process; the President explained it in the interview process.
The bottom line is that the director of the FBI serves at the pleasure of the President. The President made a decision to replace him, as he has stated very clearly now publicly. The President is now focused on making sure that he finds a replacement that has the leadership qualities to lead the FBI. That’s it, plain and simple.
Q: Sean, I wanted to follow up on that real briefly. What you said Tuesday doesn’t match what the President was laying out yesterday, in the interview yesterday. Can you walk through why the discrepancy in terms of whose decision this was?
SEAN SPICER: Well, it’s always the President’s decision. That’s it. Final.
Q: Okay, well, did he —
SEAN SPICER: As I mentioned to Zeke, this is ultimately the President’s — always going to be the President’s decision. Everyone who serves at the pleasure of the President, it’s ultimately going to be his decision to hire someone, to fire someone. He made a decision in part based on the recommendation, and he’s now focused on making sure that we have a replacement at the FBI to instill the proper leadership they need.
Q: Sean, let me ask you about the way forward as it relates to who the President might nominate to be the FBI director. Where does that process stand right now? How many people have been interviewed? Does the President hope to wrap this up before he goes overseas?
SEAN SPICER: On the timing, I think as soon as he finds a candidate that fits the qualities that he feels are necessary to lead the FBI, that’s the timeline of that. I know that the Department of Justice has begun to create that list, and I believe they’re going to, if they haven’t already — are going to be starting the process of interviewing people either today or through the weekend.
But, I mean, the President obviously wants to make sure that we’ve got the right person. And that process is being headed by the Department of Justice.
Q: Sean, Sarah was talking the other day about how somebody, not necessarily being political in that role — if somebody has been a member of Congress, past or present, does that count as an automatic disqualifier as somebody who might be —
SEAN SPICER: I have not asked the President, but I don’t believe that he has stated any sort of in and out. The Department of Justice is screening candidates, and I’m sure that as they feel as though they’ve got a list of finalists, they’ll share that with the President and he’ll make a decision.
Q: And lastly, does the President still have — the other day someone asked, does the President have confidence in Andrew McCabe. After the testimony on Capitol Hill the other day, is that still the case? He is the acting director at this moment.
SEAN SPICER: I have not asked him about the deputy. I have not asked him about — generally, I don’t go through the list of government employees and ask him. So I have not asked him specifically about that.
Q: Yesterday, Sarah told us that the President expects that the FBI investigation will be wrapped up with integrity — that’s what the White House wants. Today, the President tweeted and called it a “witch hunt.” How does tweeting and calling it a “witch hunt” help wrap that investigation up with integrity?
SEAN SPICER: The President — no one wants this done — he wants to know very clearly — there’s two pieces to this, right, which is what was Russia’s involvement. And the President is obviously very concerned about any entities’ attempts to influence the United States election. And that’s one investigation.
I think the second, this false narrative that we continue to fight every day that has been debunked by intelligence individuals, members of Congress who have been briefed over and over again — that’s where I think he’s growingly concerned, as well as a number of American people who are growingly concerned that there is this perpetuated false narrative out there. That’s, I think, the nut of this.
Q: And secondly, I talked to a former FBI official today who said that the President’s tweet, the implicit threat to former FBI Director James Comey, indicates that the President, in his words, is simply “out of control.” I’d like to get you to respond to that. Is he?
SEAN SPICER: That’s, frankly, offensive.
Q: Thank you, Sean. Two questions about the FBI director selection process. You said the names are coming from the Justice Department right now. Is the President consulting with Democratic congressional leaders, as well, or Republican congressional leaders on this? Or is he just getting names out of DOJ?
SEAN SPICER: That’s a good question. I know that he was — obviously he’s going to take input from them. I don’t know what specific conversations he’s had, so I’d be glad to check on who he’s spoken to or may be speaking to.
Q: I had a —
SEAN SPICER: Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you had two.
Q: — follow-up question.
SEAN SPICER: I got confused that Dave stole one.
Q: Now, I know that you said you’re not disqualifying anyone on this. You also know there has been considerable mention in the last 24 hours of former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers as the new FBI director. Does the President have a meeting planned this weekend with Congressman Rogers?
SEAN SPICER: I am not aware of anything of that nature on his schedule, but we’ll obviously — as you know, we’ll put out — if there’s a meeting, we’ll put it out for you. Right now there is nothing that I’m aware of on the schedule, but generally we put out the next-day schedule later in the evening. And we will do that as well.
Q: You already called on me.
SEAN SPICER: I’m sorry.
Q: I had a couple questions about the President’s remarks to NBC about General Flynn. He said that it wasn’t an emergency, or he didn’t think it was an emergency and that’s why the firing, dismissal didn’t happen right away. So I had a couple questions about that. Why didn’t he think it was an emergency? And was it because of the messenger? Was it because information came from Sally Yates, who you called an opponent — I think a political opponent of the President? Or is because Don McGahn downplayed the situation? Can you explain what he meant by that? And I have a follow-up.
SEAN SPICER: I can’t specifically say what he meant by that, but what I can tell you is — I mean, again, look at the timeline that happened. We went over this the other day, and this has been asked and answered multiple times. The former acting attorney general came and said, I want to give you a heads up on something. Don McGahn of the Counsel’s Office informed the President. They asked for the documents or materials that she had referred to. It took, I forgot now, five or six days to get those. They reviewed them, and he was asked to resign shortly thereafter.
But I think that there is a difference. There wasn’t a review process; that was the review process in this case. As the President noted yesterday during his interview, he had been thinking about this for a long time. The Justice Department had done a review.
But again, I’m not really sure — in both cases —
Q: (Inaudible) Comey? So then since you just —
SEAN SPICER: No, no, you just asked me what’s —
Q: I didn’t ask about Justice, though. Is that what you’re talking about?
SEAN SPICER: No, what I’m saying is you’re asking why it wasn’t an emergency. I think — but it’s not a question of is it an emergency. He took the time to do due process. If someone comes to you with an allegation, I think everyone deserves due process to make sure that that allegation — someone coming in and giving you a heads up — we did exactly what was necessary, and the President made the right decision. And he continues to stand by it.
Q: Okay, so then two follow-ups. One, I’m still unclear, and you’ve mentioned this several times, why did it take so long for the White House to get those documents?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t know. I think we’ve —
Q: Is the White House asking? You couldn’t go get the documents?
SEAN SPICER: Making it sound that is rather — with all due respect, it’s not how it works. They’re the ones who possess the documents. They had them in their possession. I believe they asked for them, and it took a while.
Q: Is it because she was fired, though, in between?
SEAN SPICER: No. I think part of it is just some of these things don’t happen as easily in terms of where they’re — I don’t know the answer. But I think that in the course of action, if you look at the intervening days, that’s a question that you should ask the Department of Justice.
Q: Okay, and then I just had a follow-up.
SEAN SPICER: Sure.
Q: Just explain to us then a little bit, when you compare these two situations with General Flynn and Director Comey, the memo came one day and he was fired that day. That was the review process. And General Flynn was 18 days. That’s a huge difference. Why was one so fast when one was 18 days?
SEAN SPICER: Well, I think to — first of all, they both had a review. They both came and the President looked at the information in the reviews and made a decision. Ultimately, as I mentioned, that’s his job. He’s the decider. He felt as though he had the information necessary in both cases to act, and he did.
Q: Sean, in the tweet about Director Comey, he said — the President says that he “better be careful before he goes leaking to the press.” Yesterday, on NBC News, the President called him a showboat and a grandstander. Does the White House acknowledge that Director Comey has a First Amendment right to speak to the press if he so chooses to set the record straight about any of this, instead of just leaking? It may not be leaking, it may just be his First Amendment right to speak to the press.
SEAN SPICER: Well, of course, everyone in this country has a First Amendment right. I think the difference — and you’ve heard the President echo this multiple times — is that sharing information that’s not meant to be or is not authorized to be in the public domain in terms of the classification of it is concerning. And I think the President has been very clear over and over again of his concern with respect to information that gets put in the public domain that’s not meant to be.
But I don’t think that those are — everyone in this country has every right to speak their mind and express themselves in accordance with the Constitution.
Q: Okay, and a follow-up. Just in terms of the FBI being in disarray, also the President’s comments, is he concerned that if he continues like this it could jeopardize morale at the FBI instead of actually kind of correcting a problem that he obviously observes there?
SEAN SPICER: I think that one of the reasons that he wants to go through the process of finding an individual who can lead the FBI and the men and women who serve there so bravely and ably is to make sure that morale and the focus is as it’s supposed to be, and that you have a leader that can do that.
And as he’s mentioned, it’s the crown jewel of law enforcement. And I think the reason that he wants to go through this process and choose a leader that can restore leadership, ensure that morale stays where it needs to be, and that there’s a focus. That’s why he’s conducting the process that he has.
Q: Can I give my question to Kristen, and then take the question back?
SEAN SPICER: What’s that?
Q: You called on her first, so I just wanted to give her the question that you had promised her before, and then I’ll pick up from there.
Q: Thank you. And I’ll owe you a question. Thank you. I just want to ask —
SEAN SPICER: Courtesy exchange back there with questions.
Q: I want to ask you — President Trump seemed to rely on James Clapper this morning when he tweeted that virtually he and everyone else with knowledge of the “witch hunt” says there’s no collusion. James Clapper himself today told Andrea Mitchell, “I don’t know if there was collusion or not. I don’t know if there’s evidence of collusion or not, nor should I.” On March 5th on “Meet the Press,” when he was asked a similar question, he said, “Not to my knowledge.” So can you describe the discrepancy and explain it?
SEAN SPICER: No. I actually think that that’s a great question that you should ask Director Clapper. I think —
Q: No, between Director Clapper’s comments and President Trump — why is he leaning on Clapper when he said “I have no knowledge” of whether there was collusion?
SEAN SPICER: No, I think on several occasions Director Clapper has said that he has no knowledge of any collusion. That’s it. I mean, that’s the point that —
Q: He said he hasn’t been briefed. He said he wouldn’t know because he hasn’t been briefed on the investigation.
SEAN SPICER: He was DNI up until January 20th.
Q: He was very clear today that — he said, “Nor should I have in this particular context.” He made the case that he’s not briefed on an FBI investigation, that that’s not his purview.
SEAN SPICER: Fair enough. He’s the Director of National Intelligence. On multiple occasions prior to today, he made it very clear that he was unaware of any collusion.
Q: But at one point was — he wouldn’t know, right? That there has been no final conclusion. And the President seemed to indicate that there was —
SEAN SPICER: I understand that, but then — so the question that I would ask then, Kristen, is then why did he say what he said before? It seems — his testimony and comments on multiple occasions prior to today was, I have no evidence that there was any collusion, right? So to suddenly today shift his story, I believe that the question should be asked to him: You were the Director of National Intelligence, you said multiple times, including in testimony in front of Congress, under oath, that there was no collusion.
I believe that that’s a question for him.
Q: The President doesn’t believe that there’s been a final conclusion made about this investigation, right? There’s an ongoing investigation. He’s not making that argument, is he?
SEAN SPICER: But my point is, is that all we’re able to do at this point is that the people who are aware of the former Director of National Intelligence, the head of the nation’s agencies — intelligence agencies — makes multiple statements, as others — Senator Grassley and others — talking about the involvement and making it very clear that there was none. We took them at their word then and we continue to believe —
Q: His argument is he wants to move forward with the investigation. But I want to move on to just one other question.
SEAN SPICER: Well, then, that — again, I think that — but the question, Kristen, before you move on, is, then why did he make the statements that he did when he did? To turn around now months later and say, well, even though I made those comments on multiple occasions, I wasn’t briefed?
Q: But the comments are not mutually exclusive, Sean. He’s saying he wasn’t — (inaudible) — it’s not surprising or abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation or the context of the investigation.
SEAN SPICER: It sounds like the story is changing. Right, okay. Well, ultimately, there’s been several —
Q: Let’s talk very quickly about the accuracy tweet.
SEAN SPICER: Well, do you mind if I — I think in this case it is interesting how the story has changed. He made those comments several times over several courses of action. And to say that the Director of National Intelligence, who stated unequivocally what his position was on multiple occasions before today, and now suddenly is saying, I wasn’t sure about it — the burden seems to be on him, not us.
Q: He wasn’t saying he wasn’t sure. He said he wasn’t briefed. But moving on to the accuracy tweet.
SEAN SPICER: You should apply for, like, a Clapper spokesman job or something.
Q: No, but I just am interested in the discrepancy and drawing a final conclusion on the part of the President.
SEAN SPICER: I think that that’s a great thing to ask him.
Q: No, on the part of the President, drawing a final conclusion about the investigation. In terms of the accuracy tweet, should we take that tweet to mean that you don’t have the full picture when you stand at that podium?
SEAN SPICER: As I said, we come up here every day, not just to the podium, but we are here first thing in the morning until late at night every day answering your questions on a variety of subjects and throughout issues that are happening in the government.
We, as most of you can attest, work day and night to make sure that we get you the most up-to-date, accurate information at all times. With respect to the President, as I mentioned, he’s an active President. He keeps an unbelievably busy and robust schedule. And there are times when we give you the information that we have at the time and we seek to get an update. And I believe that you and others will attest to, when we don’t have an answer, we try really hard to either update you after the fact or to get you the facts that we didn’t have at the time.
But we work really hard every day to do that. And I think the President’s point that I pointed out earlier is that there are times when we’re asked a question, we do our best to give you the answer, and every word is picked apart to try to figure out how to make an issue out of it as opposed to allowing us to talk to the President, get his current thinking and updates if we hadn’t had an opportunity to do that at this time.
Q: Can I — Sean, can I actually pick up there if you don’t mind?
SEAN SPICER: I’m sorry, Jessica then — so we’ll do the Js.
Q: So I wanted to ask you about the One Belt, One Road Summit that starts on Sunday in China. You announced yesterday, or Secretary Ross did, that you’re going to send a delegation to that summit. Can you talk about how you came to that conclusion, why it’s important for the U.S. to be represented at what’s ostensibly a major trade initiative by a foreign country?
SEAN SPICER: As you point, it’s a major trade initiative. There’s a lot of ports and infrastructure that they’re looking to do through those discussions — that Secretary Ross and Secretary Mnuchin and others had at Mar-a-Lago. And part of this is that that is something they’ve done. We’re going to continue to work with them. Obviously, trade is a major issue for us. And what they’re looking to do is of great importance to our economic and national security. And they’ve asked us to send people to that. And we have them attend things that we’re doing as well.
And I think that’s — as the President has shown in terms of the relationship that he’s built with President Xi and the rest of the team built with their delegation, those relationships are clearly paying dividends, both on the national security front and on the economic front.
Q: Is the intended signal that the U.S. is going to participate in the One Belt, One Road initiative?
SEAN SPICER: I think we’ll have a readout. At this point, that’s all we have on One Belt, One Road.
Q: Two questions — the first on loyalty and the next one on the visit to the FBI headquarters. So this President does value loyalty. Was there any sort of — before you were hired, any sort of request or hint that you pledge personal loyalty to him at all before you were hired?
SEAN SPICER: No. I’ve pledged my loyalty to the Constitution and to the American people, as has everyone who serves in our government and this administration, and we stand by that.
Q: Is it true that the President was warned that he might not be well-received at the FBI headquarters if he were to visit it?
SEAN SPICER: I don’t, not that I’m aware of. Thank you guys. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you on Monday. Thank you.
2:14 P.M. EDT