Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 4/19/2017
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:08 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us a little earlier than normal today. I want to make sure that the pool has plenty of time to set up for this afternoon’s major event.
I'm excited to announce that next Monday, April 24th at 10:00 a.m. Eastern time, the President will speak via videoconference with the commander of the International Space Station, Peggy Whitson, and her fellow astronaut, Jack Fischer. In 2008, Dr. Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station. And on Monday, she will break the record for the most time spent in space of any American astronaut.
The President, joined by his daughter, Ivanka, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, will congratulate Dr. Whitson on this incredible accomplishment and discuss the importance of encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math.
As you're all aware, in addition to signing the NASA Transition Authorization Act, the President also recently signed the Inspire Women Act, which ensures that NASA continues recruiting women for important STEM-related jobs in aerospace, an effort that’s particularly important to this President.
We're working closely with NASA and the Department of Education to make this conversation available to classrooms throughout the country. The Department of Education will also be providing tools for teachers to build lessons around this conversation between the President and these two outstanding Americans who are orbiting 220 miles above their heads. The call will air live on NASA TV and stream on NASA’s website and Facebook page.
While we're on the topic of upcoming events, I'd like to note the President will welcome Palestinian President Abbas for a visit to Washington on May 3. They will use the visit to reaffirm the commitment of both the United States and Palestinian leadership to pursuing and ultimately concluding a conflict-ending settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.
We'll have further guidance on that visit as we get closer to the date.
In terms of additional announcements, the President will be giving the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, on May 17th. As we grow closer to that date we will continue to provide updates.
Moving along to current events, this morning the President signed an important piece of legislation for our nation’s veterans. The Veterans Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act eliminates the original sunset date on the Veterans Choice Program, which gives veterans who are unable to schedule an appointment at a VA facility in a timely or convenient manner the ability to receive care from an eligible non-VA healthcare provider. Using funds that have already been appropriated for this program, this gives our nation’s heroes the peace of mind they deserve while this administration works with Congress to enact comprehensive reform and modernization at the VA.
The Vice President is continuing on his international tour today. On Tuesday, he spoke to 2,500 servicemen and women on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan, thanking them for their service and discussing the President’s plan to rebuild our military. He then met with and delivered remarks to Japanese business leaders and stopped by a youth baseball clinic before leaving Japan. He is scheduled to land in Jakarta, Indonesia right about now. We'll have further updates on his travels the rest of the week.
This week is also National Park Week, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is currently in California meeting with rangers at five national parks. On Monday and Tuesday, he was at Channel Islands National Park, where he led a class of junior park rangers. And today, he'll visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Since being sworn in on March 1st, Secretary Zinke has met with rangers at nine national parks. He'll make that 10 when he visits Shenandoah National Park outside Charlottesville, Virginia, next week.
Every American has had the opportunity to participate in the celebration of our nation’s parks. They’re free of charge this Saturday and Sunday. Anyone who is interested in finding a local park or information can go to nps.gov.
And finally, I note just moments ago the President announced that he will be holding a press conference next Thursday to discuss the progress that's being made on behalf of our nation’s veterans. We'll have further updates and guidance next week.
With that, I'll be glad to take a few of your questions.
Q A couple on unrelated topics. First of all, Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District -- the fact that Jon Ossoff pulled in five or six points more than most Republicans thought that he would have, and Lindsey Graham said this is a wakeup call to the Republican Party, that there’s a lot of moderates that need to emerge in the South to a greater degree that the Republican Party needs to pay attention to. I don't imagine that the outcome of the runoff is in that much question, but does Senator Graham have something there, that the Republican Party needs to pay attention to changing demographics, particularly in the South?
MR. SPICER: I think you know that, based on my former position, we talked about changing demographics throughout the country and made significant headway in doing that. I think in large part, that's why we won. We've been talking about how the Republican Party had won in so many different levels of our country, but the presidency had eluded us. This President won, got 306 electoral votes, won 30 of 50 states, over 2,600 counties. I think we did pretty well in November, and we continue to pick up seats around the country at different levels. So I feel very confident about the state of the party.
Q The fact that Ossoff came so close to 50 percent, is that a concern?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, I would -- just looking at the facts, there was one candidate on the Democratic side. They spent over $8 million --
Q There was five.
MR. SPICER: One that they backed. And I think when you look at the total Republican vote, it was over that. This is a district that was very close on the presidential level last cycle, and the Democrats went all in on this. They were clear going into this election -- they said that their goal was to get over 50 percent. They came up short. And if you look at what -- his percentage of what it was presidentially, it pretty much tracks. I think this was a big loss for them. The bottom line is they went all in on it; they said that their goal was to get over 50 percent. They came up short.
Q On an unrelated issue, Tillerson’s letter to Paul Ryan on the JCPOA in Iran -- is the United States basically saying there’s no evidence that Iran is cheating on the JCPOA?
MR. SPICER: No. I think what the letter says is that the President is directing an interagency review of the deal as -- to review that, and we have 90 days before the next one comes up. We'll have more. But right now we're undergoing a 90-day review. And I think the President’s statement that the Secretary of State made to Congress clearly stated that the President is directing the National Security Council to lead an interagency review of the plan and evaluate whether suspension sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA are in the vital interests of our national security. The letter clearly lays out what the President is going to do to make sure that they’re living up to their agreement.
Q Is the President concerned that Iran may be cheating on the JCPOA --
MR. SPICER: Well, I think --
Q -- David Albright, the noted U.N. weapons inspector, says they’re developing a new centrifuge which he thinks could be a violation.
MR. SPICER: And I think that’s why he’s asking for this review. I think that there’s -- if he didn’t, if he thought that everything was fine, he would have allowed this to move forward. I think he’s doing the prudent thing by asking for a review of the current deal --
Q And, Sean, on the USS Carl Vinson, what happened? Can you take us through the events from the perspective of the White House that led to the miscommunication -- this administration thinking that this vessel was thousands of miles away from its actual location?
MR. SPICER: I'm sorry, can you repeat the last part?
Q Can you take us through the events that led people within this administration to believe the vessel was thousands of miles away from its actual location?
MR. SPICER: Well, I mean, PACOM put out a release talking about the group ultimately ending up in the Korean Peninsula. That's what it will do. I think we were asked very clearly about the use of a carrier group in terms of deterrence and foreign presence and what that meant, and we were -- that's what we discussed. I'd refer you back to any other issues with that to the Department of Defense.
MR. SPICER: Does the President believe that he might have spoken too quickly on this location of the vessel before it was actually --
MR. SPICER: The President said that we have an armada going towards the peninsula. That's a fact; it happened -- it is happening, rather.
Q Sean, I just want to follow up on that. Obviously, when the President of the United States says there is military hardware going to a region in the middle of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the allies of the United States are encouraged. When that happens to not be the case, they can interpret that as a false encouragement. So how is this White House explaining to South Korea and Japan that, in fact, during the buildup and the actual DPRK missile launch, there was no USS Carl Vinson off the coast of the Korean Peninsula?
MR. SPICER: Well, respectfully, Jessica, I would ask you to either touch base with PACOM or the Department of Defense. The statement that was put out was that the Carl Vinson Group was headed to the Korean Peninsula. It is headed to the Korean Peninsula. And it will arrive there --
Q It's headed there now, though.
MR. SPICER: What's that?
Q It's headed there now. It wasn’t headed there last week.
MR. SPICER: Sure. No, no, no -- but that's not what we ever said. We said that it was heading there, and it was heading there -- it is heading there. So that remains --
Q -- the impression that allies have --
MR. SPICER: But if there is an impression, then that's not -- then there should have been clarification from people who were seeking it.
But, I mean, PACOM put out a release talking about what its ultimate destination was going to be, and that's where it ended up.
Q But why did the administration never clarify? Because it definitely -- the intent and media reports was that it was headed there now, and now it's going to be there two weeks later.
MR. SPICER: With all due respect, that's not my -- we were asked a question --
Q You yourself commented on it, though.
MR. SPICER: I know -- no, no, that's not true. What I was asked was, what signal did it send that it was going there. And I answered that question correctly at the time that it signaled foreign presence, strength, and a reassurance to our allies. That a true statement.
You're asking me why you didn’t know better. I don’t know; that's a question that should have been followed up with either PACOM or the Department of Defense. But the only question that we were asked was what signal it sent, and I think we answered that very correctly at the time.
Q Don’t you think it was a little misleading? No one found out about it until a picture was posted on --
MR. SPICER: What do you mean? What part is misleading? I'm trying to figure that out. We were asked a question about what signal it sent. We answered the question on what signal it sent. I'm not the one who commented on timing.
Q But what's misleading is that people thought it was headed there now, and now it's going to be there weeks later. They thought it was already headed there, but it wasn't -- it was going an exercise before it was going there.
MR. SPICER: I understand the question. But what I'm getting at is it was announced that it was going, it will be there. We were asked simply a question on that, and I think all other questions should be asked of the Department of Defense.
Q Thanks a lot, Sean. Earlier today, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea. And North Korea -- you may have seen it -- put out a simulated video over the past 24 hours which shows its missiles attacking and destroying an American city. What's the American -- White House reaction to that video, and also to the comments by China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson?
MR. SPICER: Well, on the first part, this isn’t the first that North Korea has put out propaganda tools. And I don’t think we're going to comment on every time they're put out a piece of propaganda.
Second, I think it's encouraging to see China continue to move forward and join us in this effort to control North Korea. I've commented before. I think that the relationship that the President started building with President Xi down in Mar-a-Lago is clearly showing some positive signs. China continues to have both economic and political influence over China. And so I think it's important to see them heading in this direction. I think it's a very positive sign to see them play a larger and larger role. I think it is in everybody's interest to contain North Korea's actions.
Q How strong is that influence, though, if the Foreign Ministry spokesman for China, which the President is depending on for this particular incursion, is saying that he himself -- that China itself is frustrated, increasingly frustrated, with the North Koreans?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, I think, from an overall diplomatic sense, I think it's positive to see China continue to take positive signs aligning with the position that we have on this. That's a positive thing. I think that time will tell. But I think seeing a unified effort to contain North Korea's threat is a positive step to protect not only our national security interests but those in the region.
Q Thank you, Sean. A few weeks ago, I asked you about the President's upcoming visit to Rome and whether or not he would have an audience with the Pope. And I pointed out that this is something that's part of modern history, going back to 1959, when President Eisenhower had an audience with Pope John XXIII. You said it was something you would definitely be in favor of. A few days ago, the Financial Times reported that sources within the administration said this was very unlikely to happen, and that for the first time since nearly 60 years ago, the President would not have an audience with the Pope. Why?
MR. SPICER: So, right now, at this time, obviously we're headed to both Brussels and Sicily. If we have updates on the schedule -- and we're still plenty far away -- I'm sure that we will let you know about any additional stops.
Q Are you in touch with the Holy See about --
MR. SPICER: I appreciate the effort, but I think until we have an update, I'm not going to go there.
Q Thank you, Sean. Back on Iran and the State Department's letter to Congress. There's been some talk about stricter sanctions on Iran for the ballistic missiles test that it's been conducting and state finance of terror. Are you concerned that tougher sanctions on Iran are motivated to violate the nuclear deal?
MR. SPICER: Well, obviously, any action that we would take, if we did, is something that gets vetted through the interagency process, and all of those kinds of considerations are taken in terms of trying to achieve the effect that we want. So sanctions have been an effective tool in many cases -- and I think that as we've mentioned a lot of times, the President doesn’t telegraph what action he's going to take. But as we conduct review of options of available in this situation, we'll go through the interagency process and have different entities weigh in.
Q Sure, but in consideration of those potential sanctions --
MR. SPICER: Right, obviously -- but we’re well aware of any potential negative impacts that an action could have. And so, regardless of whether it’s an economic, a political, or a military action, you always weigh all those kind of options.
Q Sorry, one small follow-up on that. The President has said, though, that he would like to see the nuclear deal renegotiated with Iran. How specifically does he plan to get a new deal? Is that something that he still wants to do?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, that’s why we’re undergoing this interagency review. Part of this is to get the entire team to look at it as part of the next 90-days review that is required under the deal. So we will have recommendations that will be presented to the President on where the deal stands and how to act further.
Q Thanks, Sean. Looking ahead to the 100-day mark, and setting aside executive orders, can you say what the single piece of legislation that you are proudest that you got through Congress that was on the President’s agenda?
MR. SPICER: Well, a few things on that. Number one, we’re not done. We’ve got a little ways before we hit the 100-day mark. So I think what you’ve seen out of this White House is a very robust agenda of activity. There’s a lot of executive orders that I think the President has been pleased with -- not only what they’ve done and what will do, but what they’ve done. I think when you look at immigration, in particular, we see a very significant drop at the border. I think on jobs there’s been a lot of activity that we’ve been very proud to see America manufacturing and job creation.
But then there’s pieces like what we did today, that I think if you’re a veteran who’s served our country, to know that you have additional options to get health care in a timely manner, or not just -- but a geographically-friendly manner, so you’re not driving hours -- is very helpful and a strong symbol of how we treat our veterans. There’s a lot of things that I think the President has done on veterans, on immigration, on regulatory reform.
As I’ve mentioned here, we’re now at a dozen Congressional Review Act pieces of legislation that have been signed that have had, I think, a very positive impact and will have a very positive impact on job creation. When you -- and I’ve noted before to you that only one had ever been signed in history before -- that’s a pretty significant achievement for this President. And obviously, when you look at the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, it’s another significant one.
But there’s a lot. And again, we’ll obviously spend some time talking about this next week. But I think we’re very pleased with what the President has accomplished. And as he noted yesterday in Wisconsin, the amount that he’s done overall has been significant.
Q Thank you, Sean. Two for you on two separate topics. First, on the potential for a government shutdown next week on the CR, is the President -- the budget supplemental that the White House requested about a month or so ago included a defense spending cut and other discretionary spending -- nondefense, included funding for the wall. Is the President going to insist that the CR that will be necessary to keep the government open after next weekend will include all of those priorities? Or would he accept a flat CR that would just continue the status quo through --
MR. SPICER: We’re having -- those discussions have been ongoing with House and Senate leaders as we approach this deadline. But as you correctly point out, the President’s priorities are very well-known -- what he wants to do in terms of both military and homeland security.
MR. SPICER: But I think that to start negotiating in public would probably not be a very prudent thing to do as we get closer to that deadline. So I -- respectfully, we’re days away. You’ll have plenty of time to see what’s in there.
Q Second question on another topic -- sorry. Late last night, the Presidential Inaugural Committee released its list of donors at the end of the filing period. It included -- (inaudible) -- records of funding, obviously. It included lots of money from corporate donors, many of them who had business before the administration. Is the President, who ran on the “drain the swamp: slogan, concerned about the perception, certainly, but also the -- or the potential for any real conflict of interest between some of those donations supporting his inauguration?
MR. SPICER: No, I think that this is just like a campaign in the sense that there’s disclosure on this for a reason so that you know what’s happening. I think funding the Inaugural Committee has pretty much been a nonpartisan activity that is going back every administration going back through administrations.
So this is a time-honored tradition, and I think a lot of Americans and companies and entities are proud to support the inaugural. And I think that you’ve seen that over time, the people who have been -- there are a lot of people who really take pride in helping us show the world a peaceful transformation of power.
Q Thank you, Sean. I just want to go back to Wisconsin yesterday.
MR. SPICER: You want to go back, huh?
Q It was nice there.
Q The President said about the issue with the local dairy farmers that the White House was going to work on that very hard -- admittedly, actually, starting today -- that’s what he said -- calling Canada and asking for solution. Has the White House been in contact with anybody in Canada, in Ottawa?
MR. SPICER: I’ll have an update for you, hopefully, at some point on that. But I’m well aware of the President’s comments on that. I think it’s a very important issue for people in Wisconsin, and the President looks forward to following up on that.
Q -- on this point?
MR. SPICER: I think, I just -- all I will say is that the President is going to make sure that we follow up on that.
Q Very quickly, he said that, on NAFTA, he wants very big changes. Are we going to get rid of it once and for all? Are we at that point, like, very big changes, or --
MR. SPICER: I think we’ll see what pans out in the negotiation. But I think there’s an opportunity that -- can I just --
MR. GRONKOWSKI: Need some help? (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: I think I got this, but thank you.
MR. GRONKOWSKI: Are you sure?
MR. SPICER: Maybe. (Laughter.)
MR. GRONKOWSKI: (Inaudible) -- I'm here.
MR. SPICER: All right, thanks, man. I’ll see you in a minute. (Laughter.)
Q Hey, Sean, can I follow on that?
MR. SPICER: Hold on, one -- (laughter) -- all right, that was cool. (Laughter.) Real quick -- how do you follow that?
Just to John Gizzi’s point, I just want to make sure I note that we will be reaching out to the Vatican to see if a meeting, an audience with the Pope can be accommodated. We’ll have further details on that. Obviously, we’d be honored to have an audience with His Holiness.
David. I’m sorry, I called on David first.
Q Thanks, Sean. What’s the White House reaction to the deportation of Juan Montes? He’s a DREAMer from California and the first one to be sent back.
MR. SPICER: I think that situation is evolving right now. There’s a lot of things that are being looked at in terms of the circumstances surrounding that, and I would ask you to stay in contact with the Department of Homeland Security.
Q Didn’t President Trump say he didn’t want the --
MR. SPICER: Again, I think that -- I don’t want to comment right now in the sense that there are some circumstances regarding that I think that need to come out or be further looked into. And I think getting ahead of that could be an issue.
So, respectfully, I would say that I don’t want to rush to judgment. I think there’s a lot of additional details that are coming out about that issue, and I think the Department of Homeland Security is probably the best place to get updates.
Q Sean, just to follow up --
MR. SPICER: Okay, Hallie. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you. Two topics, and one of those is a follow-up. But I wanted to ask about GA -- Georgia 6 here. Two quick ones on that. Is the President planning to campaign for the Republican challenger there? Will he go to Georgia to get out the vote?
MR. SPICER: I don’t know. If needed, I think the President is going to make sure that he does everything he can to maintain majorities and further the party, but we’ll see if we’re needed.
Q Is he expending too much political capital on a race that Republicans should be winning easily?
MR. SPICER: Well, it’s interesting, I thought that some of the coverage was a little intriguing as I watched it. The Democrats went all in on this race. They spent over $8.3 million. They said on the record that their goal was to win this race. They lost. And the reaction has somewhat been that they almost won. No, they lost. They made very clear what their goal was in this race. They spent $8.3 million and threw everything, including the kitchen sink at it, and lost. And so --
Q Technically, there’s still two months left, though, right?
MR. SPICER: No, not in terms of what their stated goal was. They said that their goal last night was to win the race with over 50 percent. They spent $8.3 million. They didn’t run for a runoff, they ran to win last night. And they lost.
And so anything short of describing that as a loss is sort of inconceivable to me in the sense that that’s literally what they said their goal was to do. And they said, we want to win Tuesday night with over 50 percent. They came up short of their goal. They put all the money that they had in there, they put all their firepower, and they came up short. So it’s a loss. And there’s no other --
Q Let me just follow up. I just had a second topic for you on deportations. And I’m not speaking specifically about this case because I understand that you’re referring over to DHS. But there seems to be a little confusion, so if you can clarify: What is this President’s position on undocumented immigrants living in this country who have not committed serious crimes?
MR. SPICER: I think the President’s priorities on immigration have been very clearly laid out. First and foremost, he wants to make sure that people who have committed a crime or pose a threat to public safety are dealt with first and foremost, and that we would continue to address immigration going forward.
Q So what is the -- I guess my question is, those who have not posed a threat or are not perceived as posing a threat?
MR. SPICER: Right, and I think that -- as I said, I mean, the goal and the focus has been on people who pose a threat to national security or in some other way in violation.
Q But these cases have come up for people who have not posed a threat. So I guess there’s some confusion --
MR. SPICER: But that’s -- again, and I would --
Q Even Jeff Sessions said it was confusing today.
MR. SPICER: I would respectfully suggest that in this particular case the facts are not completely out yet, so I’d rather not jump to judgment on what’s happening.
Q But there’s also a case in Ohio. I'm not trying to belabor the point, but there were other instances.
MR. SPICER: I understand. Thank you. Mara.
Q Thank you. I just wanted to get a little more clarity on Iran. Is the President determined to pull out of this agreement, as he promised during the campaign, or will that decision be determined by this review?
MR. SPICER: I think part of the review -- the interagency process -- is to determine where Iran is in compliance with the deal and to make recommendations to the President on the path forward.
Q So he might or might not decide to pull out.
MR. SPICER: I think that’s why you undertake a --
Q This decision has yet to be made?
MR. SPICER: That’s why he’s doing a review.
Q Okay, because that was a campaign promise.
MR. SPICER: Right, and I understand that. And the point that I’m making is that he asked the interagency team to conduct a review as the Secretary laid out in the letter last night.
Q Sean, two questions on one issue. My colleague, who’s currently in Colombia, has learned that the President met with two former presidents of Colombia last weekend in Mar-a-Lago, and I think it was set up by Senator Rubio’s office. And so I had two questions. One -- well, first, some people there are saying that it’s to undermine the current president’s visit next month before he comes here next month.
So two questions. One, why was that not released publicly, to the press, to the pool at the time? And secondly, can you talk a little bit about the point of that visit? And do you all stand by the Colombian peace pact?
MR. SPICER: Yeah, I’ll be glad to look into the circumstances. I don’t have anything for you at this time, so I will get something and then read it out.
Q But are you saying that didn’t happen?
MR. SPICER: No, I’m just saying I’m unaware of the circumstances of that.
Q So can you get back to me on the policy issue?
MR. SPICER: I can.
Q But why not release that if that’s the case?
MR. SPICER: Because, again, I don’t know that it’s the case. And so until I know, I think it would be tough to answer the second question.
Thank you guys very much. We’ll have an event for you tomorrow. Take care, have a good one.
12:40 P.M. EDT