James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EST
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon. Happy Valentine’s Day. I can sense the love in the room. (Laughter.)
First off, last night, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control — OFAC — labeled the Venezuelan Vice President as a specially designated narcotics trafficker under the Kingpin Act.
Before I continue with the briefing and look forward to your questions, I want to turn it over for a short time to newly minted Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, to issue a brief statement on this and deliver a few questions.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Pleasure to be here on my first busy day in office. Yesterday, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, known as OFAC, designated Venezuelan national Tareck El Aissami as a specially designated narcotics trafficker pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. El Aissami’s primary frontman, Venezuelan national Samark Lopez Bellow was also designated.
These designations follow a multi-year investigation into El Aissami’s criminal activities. And President Trump appreciates the hard work put into this case by the Department of Treasury, the Department of State, as well as the National Security Council and many people throughout law enforcement.
Following the signing of the executive order last week designing to break the back of criminal drug cartels, this action demonstrates the President’s seriousness about fighting the scourge of drugs in the United States. In addition, he wants to send a clear message to the people of Venezuela that America stands with them.
And with that, I’m happy to take two or three questions specifically about this.
Q Secretary Mnuchin, since sanctions are directly relevant, obviously, to the Treasury Department, which is an agency that you now oversee, can you talk a little bit about plans to sanction Russia and if you’ll keep Obama-era sanctions against Russia?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Our current sanctions programs are in place, and I would say sanctions are an important tool that we will continue to look at for various different countries. But it’s a very important program within the Treasury Department.
Q And for Russia specifically?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: The existing policies are in place.
Q Mr. Secretary, are you contemplating any additional sanctions against Iran? And can you tell us what you think the bottom line will be at these particular sanctions you announced yesterday and are referring to today with the Venezuelan Vice President? What’s it going to mean?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, first, let me just comment — again, this is as a result of a very long effort —
Q Did you (inaudible) the implication, by the way?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yes, this was underway. This was a very long effort. But the implication is quite significant. We expect that there will be frozen tens of millions of dollars and, again, that sanctions are a very important way of us sending a message that we will not stand for illicit activities, whether they’re drug trafficking or terrorism.
Q On Iran, sir?
Q Secretary, including sanctions, what other tools are you looking at?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I can’t comment on all the tools, but, again, let me just reinforce that sanctions are a very important tool within the department and we will use them as appropriate.
Q What about freezing assets?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: In this case, we did freeze assets — again, as I mentioned, tens of millions of dollars of assets. And that will have a very big impact on this.
So I’ll take one more question please. Yes, in the back.
Q During the campaign, the President had made comments about Janet Yellen and whether — basically inferring that she was being too political and that she should be ashamed of herself. Do the folks at the Treasury Department and within the administration feel confident with Mrs. Yellen at the helm and to be able to set monetary policy going forward?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, let me just comment. I’m really here today, again, to talk about the Venezuelan situation. But let me just say that there is a tradition of the Secretary of Treasury having ongoing meetings with the head of the Federal Reserve, and I look forward to that now that I’m in office doing that and spending time with her.
Thank you very much, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here on my first day.
MR. SPICER: All right, let’s get back to the fun. We’ve been reviewing — and I want to address the events of last night, first and foremost. We’ve been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth. We got to a point not based on a legal issue, but based on a trust issue, where a level of trust between the President and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change.
The President was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the Vice President and others. He was also very concerned in light of sensitive subjects dealt with by that position of national security advisors — like China, North Korea and the Middle East — that the President must have complete and unwavering trust for the person in that position.
The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances is what led the President to ask for General Flynn’s resignation. Immediately after the Department of Justice notified the White House Counsel of the situation, the White House Counsel briefed the President and a small group of senior advisors. The White House Counsel reviewed and determined that there is not a legal issue, but rather a trust issue.
During this process it’s important to note that the President did not have his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who he trusts immensely, approved by the Senate. When the President heard the information as presented by White House Counsel, he instinctively thought that General Flynn did not do anything wrong, and the White House Counsel’s review corroborated that.
It is not ordinary* [unordinary] for an incoming National Security Advisor to speak with his counterparts about the issues of concern to them. In fact, he spoke with over 30 of his counterparts throughout the transition. As Charles Krauthammer said last night, it is “perfectly reasonable for him to do so.” The issue here was that the President got to the point where General Flynn’s relationship — misleading the Vice President and others, or the possibility that he had forgotten critical details of this important conversation had created a critical mass and an unsustainable situation.
That’s why the President decided to ask for his resignation, and he got it. The irony of this entire situation is that the President has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration had allowed to be seized by Russia. His Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stood before the U.N. Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea. As Ambassador Haley said at the time, the “dire situation in Eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.”
President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea. At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to be able to get along with Russia, unlike previous administrations, so that we can solve many problems together facing the world, such as the threat of ISIS and terrorism.
The President is currently evaluating a group of very strong candidates that will be considered to fill the National Security Advisor position permanently, and is confident in the ability of General Kellogg, a decorated and distinguished veteran of the United States Army, until that person is ultimately chosen.
Before I get into the President’s schedule for today, a quick recap of the President’s activity over the last few days, since we haven’t had the honor of spending so much time together.
The President has been keeping a close eye on the Oroville Dam situation in California. We’ve worked closely with Doug LaMalfa, who represents California’s First District, where the dam is located, and other state officials to help people who have been impacted. The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress. Dams, bridges, roads, and all ports around the county have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the President’s vision for an overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
We hope everyone remains safe as the evacuations continue, and we’ll be working alongside with FEMA and appropriate government entities to make sure that we are doing everything we can to attend to this matter.
The President was honored also to welcome the Prime Minister of Japan last week from their first official meeting at the White House to their joint press conference at Mar-a-Lago — excuse me, their joint press conference and their time together at Mar-a-Lago. The President and the Prime Minister had a productive visit that reaffirmed their determination to further strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance and economic relationship.
At Mar-a-Lago, the President was proud to stand behind Prime Minister Abe on Saturday to convey the United States’ unwavering support for our Japanese allies in the face of North Korea’s most recent missile launch. On Sunday, the President met with now-Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin and Mr. Steve Wynn before returning to Washington.
Yesterday, the President had an incredibly productive set of meetings and discussions with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, focusing on our shared commitment to close cooperation in addressing both the challenges facing our two countries and the problems throughout the world. Our countries share a profound economic interest with more than $2 billion in two-way trade flowing across our border every day.
The President was pleased to launch the Canada-United States Council for the Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders by holding a roundtable discussion here at the White House. Together with Prime Minister Trudeau, his daughter Ivanka, the President discussed the unique challenges that women face in the workplace with an incredible group of successful and respected female business executives from both countries. A full list of the participants is available through the pool.
In addition to his in-person meetings with the prime ministers of Japan and Canada, the President also recently had phone calls with the presidents of Tunisia, Peru, Nigeria, Colombia and South Africa. Readouts are available on all of those calls.
Finally, following the Prime Minister’s visit yesterday, the President met with Chairwoman McDaniel and Co-Chairman Paduchik of the Republican National Committee. In the afternoon, the President participated in a pinning ceremony for Major Ricardo Turner, one of his military aides. The aides to the President are mid-grade officers, one from of each of the services. They provide direct support to the President in his role as Commander-in-Chief, and their primary responsibilities are to serve as an emergency action officer, aide-de-camp, and ceremonial aide. It’s a longstanding tradition that when the President’s military aide is promoted to the next higher grade, the President conducts that promotion. Major Ricardo Turner, the President’s military aide, was recently promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and the promotion was held in the Oval Office.
The President also spoke yesterday with Maureen Scalia on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s passing. The President and Mrs. Scalia discussed her late husband’s incredible legacy, and how the President is making every effort to carry it on by nominating Judge Gorsuch, who shares the love of the Constitution, to succeed him on the bench.
Last night, the President obviously hosted the swearing-in of Secretary Mnuchin in the Oval Office. Secretary Mnuchin is a world-class financier whose decades of experience with financial and monetary matters make him the ideal person to spearhead the President’s plan to develop a dynamic, booming economy that works for all Americans. We’re glad to officially have him on board.
Now, moving on to the schedule for today — this morning, the President and newly confirmed Secretary of Education DeVos held a parent-teacher conference meeting with parents and educators from public, private, charter, and home schools this morning. The President opened the meeting by congratulating Secretary DeVos for her toughness and staying the course throughout her confirmation process. He then discussed his vision for all Americans to have an opportunity to climb the ladder of success, starting with making quality education available to every child no matter their zip code.
Under the current system, the President believes too many of our children are trapped in failing schools, especially in the African American community. The President told the group to begin addressing this problem, which he views as a civil rights issue. He wants parents to be able to decide what educational options are best for their children. The group launched into a wide-ranging discussion that included public and charter schools, home-schooling, dropout prevention, and the BASIS Schools Program, states’ responsibilities, and the current state of the U.S. Department of Education.
The President’s ultimate goal is to create safe communities, great schools, and well-paying jobs. He believes that each of these goals is linked to the others, and the Trump administration is taking concrete steps to achieve them all.
The President also spoke on the phone earlier today with Prime Minister May of the United Kingdom, continuing the productive conversation they started during her visit earlier this year. A readout on that call should be coming soon. The President then had lunch with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his wife regarding combatting drug use.
At 2:00, the President will sign House Joint Resolution 41 in the Oval Office. The resolution is a start of rolling back harmful Obama-era regulations, which have cost the American business consumers a staggering $890 billion, making our companies less competitive and even driving some of them out of business. The American free enterprise system is the greatest engine for economic prosperity in the world, but for too many, to reach its maximum potential, we must remove the barriers to productivity that are holding back our great workers and businesses.
Misguided federal regulations, such as the SEC rule addressed by HJR 41, inflict real cost on the American people and put our businesses, especially small businesses, at a significant disadvantage. It’s a priority for the Trump administration to fix our broken regulatory system so that it enhances American productivity and wellbeing without imposing unnecessary costs and burdens. Signing this joint resolution is one more step towards achieving this goal.
Later this evening, the President will meet with Secretary Kelly and Attorney General Sessions to continue discussions on potential options for addressing the very clear national security threats we’re facing in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Tomorrow, the President is pleased to be welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House. They will discuss ways to advance and strengthen the special relationship between our two countries and stability in the Middle East. They will consult on a range of issues — regional issues — including addressing the threats posed by Iran and its proxies, the crisis in Syria, and countering ISIS and other terrorist groups.
As the President has made clear, his administration will work to achieve comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security. The way forward toward that goal will also be discussed between the President and the Prime Minister. They will hold a joint press conference tomorrow, as well, and further guidance will be coming on the time and location.
Looking ahead to Friday, the President will travel to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend the rollout of the first Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. This visit will give the President an opportunity to celebrate a huge milestone for thousands of workers at Boeing, America’s number-one exporter and the millions of American workers involved in aerospace. This trip has been months in the making, and we’re thrilled to celebrate the rollout of this amazing plane.
With that, I’d be glad to take some of your questions.
Q Back in January, the President said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?
MR. SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period — well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did speak with the ambassador —
Q I’m talking about during the campaign.
MR. SPICER: I don’t have any — there’s nothing that would conclude me — that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.
Q And why would the President — if he was notified 17 days ago that Flynn had misled the Vice President, other officials here, and that he was a potential threat to blackmail by the Russians, why would he be kept on for almost three weeks?
MR. SPICER: Well, that’s not — that assumes a lot of things that are not true. The President was informed of this. He asked the White House Counsel to review the situation. The first matter was whether there was a legal issue. We had to review whether there was a legal issue, which the White House Counsel concluded there was not, as I stated in my comments. This was an act of trust. Whether or not he actually misled the Vice President was the issue, and that was ultimately what led to the President asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn. That’s it, pure and simple. It was a matter of trust.
We went through a very deliberative process, a very thorough review. The first part of it was clearly to understand the legal aspect of this, and that was simply concluded there was no legal aspect. And then what happened is the President evaluated the trust aspect of it.
Q When the President was asked on Air Force One yesterday — I mean, on Friday, rather, traveling down to Mar-a-Lago, about reports about conversations with the Russians about sanctions, he said, “I don’t know about it. I’ll look into that.” Was he being truthful?
MR. SPICER: What he was asked specifically is was he aware of a Washington Post story. He hadn’t seen that at the time. Of course, he was involved; I just said that he was aware of the situation right after the White House Counsel informed him back in January.
Q And his inquiry to the White House Counsel was strictly about the legalities involved, not the propriety of the conversations between General Flynn and the Russian ambassador?
MR. SPICER: Well, initially, just to be —
Q Do you have any criticism of the merits of those conversations about sanctions before the Trump administration had been inaugurated?
MR. SPICER: So just to be clear, the acting Attorney General informed the White House Counsel that they wanted to give a “heads up” to us on some comments that may have seemed in conflict with what he had sent the Vice President out in particular. The White House Counsel informed the President immediately. The President asked him to conduct a review of whether there was a legal situation there. That was immediately determined that there wasn’t. That was what the President believed at the time, from what he had been told, and he was proved to be correct.
The issue, pure and simple, came down to a matter of trust. And the President concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security advisor over —
Q But was it proper for the incoming national security advisor, not part of an administration, to be discussing an issue as sensitive as sanctions with the Russian ambassador?
MR. SPICER: His job is to discuss issues with his counterparts. I mean, Charles Krauthammer put it perfectly last night — that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. I mean, that’s his job. We would constantly read out throughout the transition who he was speaking to, how he was getting ready. The President was receiving congratulatory calls from around the world. We would read out the world leader calls.
The job of the incoming NSA is to sit down with the counterparts and start that dialogue, and that’s exactly what he did. So the question wasn’t did he do anything improper or legal, it’s a question of could he be trusted further. And that trust, or the erosion of that trust, was, frankly, the issue.
Q Did the President instruct him to talk about sanctions with the Russian ambassador?
MR. SPICER: No, absolutely not. No, no, no. But that — no. And there’s no — that’s never —
Q So would he have preferred he had not done that?
MR. SPICER: Look, I think the President had no problem with the fact that he acted in accord with what his job was supposed to be doing. He had an ability to talk about issues that were important, whether it was that or the 30 other countries that he spoke to. That was part of his job, as has been noted by many people. That’s what the national security advisor and, frankly, other positions do — they begin the process of preparing their incoming job by talking to counterparts, people who have previously held the job, et cetera. If he had not done that, there would be questions as to whether he’s properly prepared on day one.
Q So he (inaudible) one conversation about sanctions.
MR. SPICER: No, the issue isn’t whether or not — what he discussed. There’s been a complete legal review of that, and there’s no issue with that. The issue is whether or not he failed to properly inform the Vice President — or not be honest with him, or not remember it.
But that’s the plain and simple issue. And when he lost trust with the President, that’s when the President asked for and received his resignation.
Q Thanks a lot, Sean. Yesterday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, said that the President continued to have trust in General Flynn.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q What happened between yesterday morning and yesterday evening that led the President to lose confidence in General Flynn?
MR. SPICER: Well, I’m not going to get into the specifics of what the President’s thinking was, but I will just say, as I noted in the opening statement, that it was an evolving and eroding process.
And so at the end of the day, the President made a decision, as he does on all subjects, and asked for and received the national security advisor’s — but he is one of those people that we’ve noted before — when he is ready to make a decision, he makes it, whether it’s hiring somebody or asking for someone’s resignation. Once he has determined that he’s made a decision on any subject, that’s when he informs his staff.
So going into the day, it was an evolving situation. He made a determination late in the day, and he executed on it.
Q He’s an extremely loyal person, General Flynn. Was it a difficult decision for the President to let General Flynn go?
MR. SPICER: Well, sure. I mean, General Flynn is a dedicated public servant. He’s headed the DIA, he has been an outstanding member of the Army, both as an officer and then as a flag officer. He’s served this country admirably. And I think the President appreciated his service to his nation, his commitment to his campaign, and his service to this country so far.
But at some point, the decision came down on whether or not that that trust had eroded. The important matters, as I mentioned, that are before the President when he’s dealing with issues of world matters, of all of the issues — friends and allies, foes, hot spots — he needs to rely on a national security advisor to give him sage advice. And I think at a certain point, that guidance, that trust, eroded. And the President, as he does on all matters, ultimately decides that when he’s ready to make a decision, he executes.
Q Sean, two questions. Does the President believe that anything that he discussed with General Flynn during the transition might have been construed by the General as a request or an encouragement to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador? That’s question number one.
MR. SPICER: So — oh, we’re going to pause. So, on the first, again, as I made clear, there’s nothing that the General did that was a violation of any sort. He was well within his duties to discuss issues of common concern between the two countries. I will say it again: What this came down to is a matter of trust. The President was glad that he was out there conducting his job, preparing for his job, going back and forth with his counterparts throughout the world, much as the President had done with all of these world leaders calling the President, congratulating him, looking to set up calls for him once he was inaugurated.
Similarly, General Flynn was beginning that process with his counterparts throughout the world. That was never of a concern to the President, from day one that he was briefed from the White House Counsel. The issue, plain and simple, came down to a matter of trust. And once that occurred, it was over.
Q On question number one, just to clarify, the President does not believe that any discussion that might have taken place — and we know from intel, it did, on sanctions — creates a problem for the President in any way — that that is not a problem, that General Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russians?
MR. SPICER: No, there is — I can’t say it clearly enough. There was nothing in what General Flynn did, in terms of conducting himself, that was an issue. What it came down to, plain and simple, was him misleading the Vice President and others, and not having a firm grasp on his recollection of that. That’s it.
Q Question number two. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle would like to investigate or probe or ask more questions about this. Does the President hope to cooperate with those investigations? Would he instruct members of his staff who worked for him here and in the administration to cooperate with those investigations?
MR. SPICER: Well, we’re going to comply with the law. I think the President feels very confident the review that was conducted by White House Counsel was very thorough and concluded very conclusively, as he had first come to — instinctively come to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong. So people are free to do what they wish, but I think that they will find exactly what the President first believed and what the White House Counsel concluded. And, frankly, I believe a couple publications even reported that there was no investigation for a reason — because there was not an issue of law, it was an issue of trust.
Q When do you expect to have a replacement in place? And secondly, on another topic, there was a report yesterday that one of your colleagues said the White House is keeping dossiers on reporters. Can you say if that’s true or not?
MR. SPICER: That is absolutely not true. There are no dossiers being kept. It’s just a binder that I put right here, that’s about it. That was a joke. Hold on one second. And then, I’m sorry, George, the first part?
Q Timetable on a replacement.
MR. SPICER: Just like the way he handled this situation, the President will meet with individuals, and when he’s ready to make a decision and he feels as though the person is qualified and can properly advise him on the issue, he’ll make that decision. But that, as all decisions, rests with him.
I’m just going to go to my first Skype seat. John Huck of WKVVU out of Las Vegas.
Q Thank you so much on behalf of our viewers here in Southern Nevada for the opportunity to join you today. As you know, Sean, Las Vegas has suffered terribly in the last recession — more so than perhaps any other city in the country. As the administration moves forward with repealing financial regulations and possibly rolling back Dodd-Frank, what guarantees can you make to Nevadans that those actions won’t lead banks and investments banks to re-engage with the risky financial behaviors that tanked our economy the last time and left taxpayers here on the hook to bail those banks out?
MR. SPICER: Thanks, John. I think one of the things — if you look at the intent of Dodd-Frank, it was to make sure that we didn’t have institutions that were too big to fail. And frankly, it has actually created institutions that are now too big to fail. Dodd-Frank actually did exactly the opposite of what it intended to do. And I think when you look at the regulation HJR 41 that the President is signing today, this is another example of the President taking decisive action to roll back regulations that are, frankly, creating more of a burden on our nation’s banks and businesses than helping them.
I think the President is going to be very clear with making sure that we do things that build up the goal of what Dodd-Frank actually intended to do. But right now, we actually, through Dodd-Frank, put taxpayers more on the hook than we let them off. We’ve created more institutions and created more guarantees for the federal government to bail out some of these institutions if they exceed their authority.
Q Let me go back to what you said at the beginning. You said the White House Counsel’s Office reviewed this and determined that there was nothing illegal. What evidence did they look at in making this determination? And secondly, Democrats up on the Hill say that they want an investigation of this. They’re looking into what did the President know and when did he know it. So can you tell us what evidence you looked at the White House Counsel’s Office, and what did the President know about all of this and when was he aware of it?
MR. SPICER: Well, as I mentioned, the first day that the Department of Justice made White House Counsel available — or sought to notify White House Counsel was January 26th. The President was immediately informed of the situation. As I said, based on the information that was provided at the time, the view was that this was not a violation. He was proved instinctively correct. And White House Counsel at that time undertook an extensive review both of materials and questioning —
Q Did they —
MR. SPICER: I’m not going to get into the specifics. What I will tell you is, on multiple occasions they had an exhaustive and extensive questioning of General Flynn on several occasions based on information that was provided to them, or materials that were provided to them to review. I’m not going to get into the details of that, but I will just say that there was an exhaustive review.
And again, the thing that’s important to note is the Vice President and myself — in fact, I think the first time I brought this issue up was January 13 — the Department of Justice didn’t notify the White House or the White House Counsel at that time in the transition phase until 13 days later.
So I think it’s important to understand something very, very important: This idea of why did it take so long — I think the first question should be, where was the Department of Justice in this. They were aware of this. We were making statements based on what General Flynn was telling us, starting on January 13th. The Vice President went out on the 15th, right? They didn’t notify the White House Counsel’s Office until January 26th. At that time, there was an immediate — the President was immediately informed of that and then asked the White House Counsel to conduct a very, very thorough review. The first part of that review was focused on whether or not there was any legal issue — that’s it. Once that became the issue, then there was a — it shifted into phase two, which is whether or not there was trust still maintained. Then that became a separate set of issues that were —
Q I understand. I’m speaking to the actual evidence, that the FBI has transcripts of these intercepts, which I assume were done by the NSA via a FISA Court order. Was there any communication between the White House Counsel’s Office and the FBI? Did those transcripts ever enter —
MR. SPICER: I will say that obviously — there was obviously communication between the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel’s Office. I’m not going to get into the specific nature of that. I think it would be inappropriate because of the nature of the information that was being discussed.
Q Why not dismiss the General on January 27th? Why, if the question was of trust, and immediately you have on the 15th, he’s on “Face the Nation” saying that — the Vice President on “Face the Nation” saying that this is what General Flynn told me, and then January 26th you hear the opposite — why not immediately act? Why wait another two and a half weeks?
MR. SPICER: I don’t understand how that’s a due process. Because what the — the Attorney General didn’t come — the Acting Attorney General — come in and say that there was an issue. She said, we wanted to give you a head’s up that there may be information, okay? She could not confirm there was an investigation. And so it would be unbelievably short-sighted and wrong to go in and dismiss someone immediately. In fact, what the President did was take decisive action to make sure that the White House Counsel thoroughly reviewed and vetted the situation. He took immediate, decisive action. And if you look at the timeline in terms of what he did and how that expanded, the White House Counsel’s first and foremost goal was to make sure that there was not a legal issue at hand. Once that was concluded, then it became a phase of determining whether or not the General’s action on this and a whole host of other issues undermined his trust in the President. But the President, from day one, from minute one, was unbelievably decisive in asking for and demanding that his White House Counsel and their team review the situation, first and foremost, to question whether it’s a legal issue. And what they immediately determined — not immediately, but within several days, was that, after review, that there was not a legal issue, and then it moved into a second phase.
Q So wait — because the President tweeted this morning that the real story is leaks — illegal leaks.
MR. SPICER: It is leaks. But if you think about this — understand that all of this information was leaked. I mean, I got to — and again, I know we’ve got me lecturing you about what the story should be, but I think that there’s a real story here. The idea that not just in this administration, but the Obama administration going back to the Bush administration and back, that we have an issue where classified information, of which this would be, is handled in such a way that it is being given out.
And I know in some cases it’s a good story, and I understand that, and that’s to some degree your responsibility to write that. But I think there’s also a story here, with the amount of leaks that are coming out of people that are entrusted with national security secrets and classified information are leaking it out. That’s a real concern for this President; that when he’s talking on the phone with a world leader, that when he’s making key decisions that are in the interest of protecting this country, that we have to wonder whether or not people who work for our government, who are entrusted with classified information and decision-based materials are leaking that information out. That, I do believe, is a big story that should be reported. I also believe that the President is, rightly so, very, very concerned about this, because it’s not just something that is plaguing the current situation, but it goes back through the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. When we have government employees that are entrusted with this and then leak it out, that undermines our national security, frankly.
Q Hold on —
MR. SPICER: Sorry, I apologize, Mara.
Q I know you just forgot. I have a question, but I want you to clarify something you just said to John. Are you saying that no one has read the transcripts of the calls, or you just don’t want to tell us whether they —
MR. SPICER: I said that I’m not going to comment on it.
Q Okay. So my question is about sanctions. You were very specific in talking about the sanctions against Crimea and that he doesn’t want to lift them until Crimea is returned. But the sanctions that Flynn was discussing were the sanctions for the election hacking.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q That’s something the President could remove on his own if he wanted to. Is he committed to keeping those?
MR. SPICER: I think Secretary Mnuchin commented on that. There’s no change in our current sanctions strategy with Russia, and I’ve got nothing for you on that.
Q Given that the current story is leaks, what is the President willing to do to investigate further to determine where these leaks are coming from?
MR. SPICER: Yeah, again, I think this goes back to the same way he negotiates. Telling people what we’re going to do to cover up additional leaks wouldn’t be a very sound strategy when it comes to making sure that that doesn’t happen again. The President has been very clear, whether he’s negotiating or dealing with an issue like this, you don’t telegraph to people how you’re going to handle it.
Q Sean —
MR. SPICER: Hold on, Trey gets a follow-up. Everyone else got one.
Q So he is going to take some sort of steps to investigate these leaks that the administration —
MR. SPICER: I would just say that the President, as I said, is clearly upset about this. He understands the threat that they pose to our national security, and he’s going to make sure that he continues to take action to make sure that that stops.
Q Thank you. So you’ve mentioned time and time again that this is an issue of trust. You also said that it was an evolving issue, and that the issue of the trust that the President had for Flynn came down to this deception that happened with the Vice President but also a host of whole other — of other issues. What were the other issues? And was the Vice President the only person that was misled by Flynn? Were other people misled?
MR. SPICER: I mean, I think I’ve stood before you before and explained what General Flynn had conveyed to me. I think there were some others that he had similarly expressed that to, as well. So that’s why it’s others, because it wasn’t just people who went out and made public pronouncements and a series of questioning that was rather exhaustive over a long period of time. He continued to maintain that that had not occurred, and I think that’s where the President continued to — and that’s why the President was very clear that it was an eroding issue. Because it was after a series of issues and a series of statements and pronouncements that the President came to that conclusion.
Q Were there other issues outside of this call and the deception over that that led to the mistrust with Flynn?
MR. SPICER: I think the statement is very clear that it was this and a series of issues.
With that, let me go to Jason Stevens of the Federalist Paper in Ashland, Ohio.
Q Thank you. What our readers at the Federalist Papers Project are most interested in is returning the country to the first principles of republican government as understood by the American Founders. One of those principles, in the Declaration of Independence, is the consent of the governed. So my question is this: What are the President’s future plans for rolling back the expensive and burdensome regulations of the administrative state, most of which are the product of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who never received the consent of the governed to do anything, let alone make law?
MR. SPICER: Thanks, Jason. I think, as I mentioned today, the President, in just a few minutes, is going to be signing HJR 41, which is one of those attempts to roll back some onerous Dodd-Frank regulations with respect to the SEC in particular.
He is going to continue — last week we rolled out another one of those executive orders that ensures that for every new regulation, two must be gotten rid of. The President’s commitment to rolling back regulation and the overreach of government, I think, is unwavering and unquestionable. So you’re going to continue to see this President undo a lot of that government overreach.
Q Yeah, just a quick question. You said earlier in your comments that the President has been incredibly tough on Russia. How is that possible? He has made comment after comment over the course of the campaign, the transition, where he defended Vladimir Putin. He had an interview with Bill O’Reilly where he, when he was asked if Vladimir Putin is a killer, he said, well, America hasn’t been that much better in this regard also.
To me it seems, and I think to a lot of Americans it seems that this President has not been tough on Russia. How can you say that?
MR. SPICER: Because I just walked through it. I think there’s a difference between the President wanting to have an understanding of how a good relationship with Russia can help us defeat ISIS and terrorism throughout the world.
Look, the Obama administration tried to have a reset with Russia. They failed. They tried to tell Russia not to invade Crimea. They failed. This President understands that it’s in America’s national and economic interests to have a healthy relationship. If he has a great relationship with Putin in Russia, great. If he doesn’t, then he’ll continue on. But he’s not going to just assume that because it wasn’t able to happen in the past — I think you’ve seen, with Prime Minister Abe in particular and others, that the reset that Prime Minister Netanyahu talked about tomorrow — so many of these countries from around the globe are looking forward to resetting the relationships that this country has with them; that they feel as though they were abandoned over the last eight years, and that they are excited about the prospect of a new U.S. relationship under a Trump administration.
But with respect to Russia, I think the comments that Ambassador Haley made at the U.N. were extremely forceful and very clear that until —
Q That was an announcement from Haley, not the President.
MR. SPICER: She speaks for the President. I speak for the President. All of us in this administration. And so all of the actions and all of the words in this administration are on behalf and at the direction of this President. So I don’t think we could be any clearer on the President’s commitment.
Q Quick little follow-up, because I haven’t had any follow-ups or questions in a while. But anyway —
MR. SPICER: Really?
Q No — the other question is, just getting back to what was asked a few moments ago about trust and being misled. Are you saying that the national security advisor was intentionally misleading the President, the Vice President, yourself when he made these comments to you about that conversation?
MR. SPICER: No, look, the trust is given by the President. It’s a relationship between he and any individual. And so, as I mentioned in the comments, maybe it was because — I don’t know that it was intentional, he may have just forgotten, but I think at some point trust isn’t just —
Q Isn’t that kind of a weird thing to forget, though, in a conversation where you talk about —
MR. SPICER: But that’s the point, Jim, is that at some point that trust eroded to a point where the President did not feel comfortable with him serving in that position, and asked for and received his resignation.
Q Sean, on the trust issue and the eroding of trust, last night, in General Flynn’s resignation letter, he said he inadvertently briefed the Vice President-elect and others with incomplete information.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q Considering his role in advising the President on national security matters, is the White House concerned that he maybe briefed the President-elect, Vice President-elect with incomplete information on other matters of national security in addition to his phone calls with the Russian ambassador?
MR. SPICER: Well, when you look at the team, it’s not one person in isolation, Katie. It’s several. You’ve got General Kelly on the homeland security front, General Mattis on the DOD front — he’s got an entire national security staff and apparatus that briefs him — you know, Director Pompeo at the CIA, and others from the DNI’s office that come in and brief him on a whole host of issues. So it’s not a single position.
Q So was his situation an isolated incident of giving incomplete —
MR. SPICER: Well, yeah. Regardless of whether it’s a single situation, it’s not as though there’s one person briefing him. And the President synthesizes a lot of information, both written and stuff that is briefed to him, and ultimately it is he who makes that decision based a lot on what he already knows, what he is presented with. So the President gets information from a lot of people — generals, admirals, people in the military community, ambassadors, people in the State Department, an exhaustive team at the National Security Council, and then makes an ultimate decision based on that and what he already knows to be the case.
Q Sean, you’ve been asked a couple times about these transcripts of calls. Will the White House declassify those and release them?
MR. SPICER: Looks, it is inappropriate for me to comment on those at this time. Right now, the focus is on some of the evolving issues that were going around the globe, as you know.
Q Will you be open to it?
MR. SPICER: Let me answer the question. It is not an issue that has come up. I think the President right now is focused on replacing his national security advisor, making sure that he’s presented with the best possible information to make these key decisions.
But at this time, we also have got to be careful that we were not involving ourselves in a matter of national security. And the review, as I mentioned, was done and then immediately last night when the President felt as though it was time for a decision, made it. That’s where we are in this iteration of the process. If we have anything further for you, we will update you.
I want to go to Joyce Kaufman of WFTL Talk News in Palm Beach, Florida.
Q Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m approximately six miles away from Mar-a-Lago right now, and the President met with Prime Minister Abe from Japan at Mar-a-Lago this weekend. And besides giving us traffic and security nightmares, there were apparently conversations that took place by telephone and with the Prime Minister that were in a relatively insecure dining area. There is already video of this surfacing. Will there be a SCIF put in place in these dining areas, these public places? And one last question. When he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow, will they be discussing moving the embassy, and settlements?
MR. SPICER: On the second one, I’m not going to get ahead of the Prime Minister’s discussion with the President. We’ll have a readout. After that, there will be a press conference.
With respect to the first, there is a SCIF at Mar-a-Lago. And just to be clear, the briefing — the President was briefed in a SCIF ahead of dinner. He went with his national security team. They briefed him on the situation in North Korea. Subsequently, he had a dinner, of which was attended exclusively by U.S. and Japanese delegation members. At that time, apparently there was a photo taken, which everyone jumped to nefarious conclusions about what may or may not be discussed. There was simply a discussion about press logistics, where to host the event. And then after the dinner, the President went back into the SCIF to get a further update from his team.
So I’m not really sure where people jumped to conclusions. There is a SCIF there. It was utilized on two occasions that evening to convey to the President by his national security team the situation in North Korea. And then the President subsequently stood shoulder to shoulder with the Japanese President to make sure that our commitment to their security and stand against North Korea was fully made aware.
Q Sean, can you just clarify, because I got a little turned around — did President Trump, or President-elect Trump at the time, know of General Flynn’s discussion of the sanctions while he was NSC-designate? And if not, when did he finally learn about them? And if so, why was he okay with that?
MR. SPICER: So, no, he was not aware, as he’s not back-briefed on every conversation that his national security team has or other staffers. They were performing their duties, as other people were in terms of getting up to speed, conveying with counterparts and previous members of their team.
That being said, when he was made aware of it, once the White House Counsel briefed him on concerns the Department of Justice had — and at that point, as I mentioned, what he asked and what he believed at the time and was confirmed by White House Counsel was that there was no legal issue here. Discussing the issue didn’t violate anything; it was appropriate in the normal course of action to discuss that. And he immediately asked the White House Counsel to further confirm what his instincts were at the time.
Thank you, guys. Have a great one. We’ve got everybody for a bill signing. We’ve got a bill signing.
Q I didn’t get my —
MR. SPICER: Oh, he’s got — Margaret gets a follow-up, but he’s got —
Q Are you — is the administration undertaking any sort of effort, either Cabinet-wide or, like, inside the shop to make sure that everyone comes forward who had any communications with the Russians about sanctions or otherwise?
MR. SPICER: There’s no other information. I mean, as far as we are aware, that is an isolated incident that occurred. And again, the key point in this isn’t that there were discussions. There was nothing wrong or inappropriate about those discussions. It purely came down to a matter of trust. That’s it.
Thank you, guys. See you tomorrow. Happy Valentine’s Day.
2:00 P.M. EST