James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:07 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Good afternoon. I’d like to start off today by having the Secretary of Commerce discuss an action that the Commerce Department took last night with respect to Canadian softwood lumber. It’s an action that talks about what we’re doing to make sure that we’re fighting for our industries here at home.
So without further ado, I want to bring up Secretary Wilbur Ross.
SECRETARY ROSS: Thank you, Sean.
The action we took last night is actually the culmination of a couple of decades of disputes between the United States and Canada. What’s provoked the disputes is the following. In Canada, the forests are owned by the individual provinces, and each of the provinces sets a charge for the loggers to use when they’re taking trees down. In the U.S., it’s all open market, it’s all market-based prices.
So the provinces subsidize the cutting down of lumber — the technical term being stumpage — and then that lets them charge a subsidized low price when the product hits the U.S. border. We have determined preliminarily that those problems, while they vary from one province to another, in some cases are as high as roughly 25 percent, and on average are around 20 percent. So they’re quite material items.
So the preliminary decision that was put out yesterday imposes those countervailing duties on softwood lumber from Canada. Those duties will be collected starting today and they will be collected on a retroactive basis, going back 90 days, because it is 90 days ago that the Canadians were put on notice about this being an inappropriate process. What it amounts to is the following.
There is roughly $15 billion worth of softwood lumber used in houses in this country, and about 31.5 percent of that comes from the Canadians. So that’s roughly $5 billion a year. A 20 percent tariff on that is essentially a billion dollars a year. And the retrospective 90-day feature adds another $250 million to that on a one-time basis.
Softwood lumber, as I say, is fundamentally used in single-family houses. We do not think that the price of lumber will go up by anything like the 20 percent, but there may be some small increase in the price of lumber for the house.
Q Will housing prices be increased in the United States due to that action?
SECRETARY ROSS: Not necessarily, because you’re talking such a small amount. And the biggest part of most home prices in any event is the land value, not the lumber value. Lumber is a pretty small percentage of the total cost of the house.
Q Mr. Secretary, what provoked this? As you mentioned, this has been a long-running dispute, subject of conversations between U.S. and the Canadian governments, the Bush administration and the Obama administration. Is this part of the milk dispute and is this a lever or a bargaining chip with the Canadian government over that dispute that’s going on as we’ll?
SECRETARY ROSS: This investigation had been underway before anything came up about milk. And on a statutory basis, the last day we could have released the findings would have been today, so the only thing that we did do was accelerate it one day.
Q If this is not related at all to the milk dispute, do you see it as factoring in the Canadian judgments about how to respond or how to resolve some of these other trade disputes?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, everything relates to everything else when you’re trying to negotiate, so I can’t say there’s no impact. But what we have tried to do was to clear the air and get this dispute out of the way before the big NAFTA talks went on. That was not possible to achieve, and that’s why we went ahead and released the findings.
Q Mr. Secretary, Canada is an extremely close ally and a neighbor. Are you comfortable with how this has worked out in terms of what it means for the overall relationship between our two countries?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, they are a close ally. They’re an important ally. They’re generally a good neighbor. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to play by the rules.
Q What do you mean by “generally” a good neighbor?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, things like this I don’t regard as being a good neighbor — dumping lumber. And there’s a feeling in the dairy industry that they’re a little bit abrupt in the action that they took the week before.
Q The Canadian government said that those are unfair tariffs. And each time the case was brought to an international court, Canada won its case. What do you answer to this?
SECRETARY ROSS: I had nothing to do with the prior cases. I’m confident that this case is a good case.
Q Going to put tariffs on dairy, too?
SECRETARY ROSS: The problem with dairy isn’t that they’re dumping dairy products in the U.S. The problem is the reverse
— they’re prohibiting U.S. dairy producers from selling their products in Canada, as a practical matter, and we’re looking into whether there are measures we can do to try to correct that.
Q Mr. Secretary, have you heard from anybody in the Canadian government, or has the Prime Minister reached out to President Trump to try to convince you to change your policy or change the approach or work with you in any way?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I haven’t heard of anybody trying to ask us to change the approach. You’ve seen the public statements that the Canadians put out. As far as I know, that is their position.
Q Mr. Secretary, I’m curious whether this softwood lumber dispute or the milk dispute points to the need to revisit, to renegotiate NAFTA sooner rather than later.
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I think it does, because if you think about it, if NAFTA were functioning properly you wouldn’t having these kinds of very prickly, very unfortunate developments back-to-back. So in that sense it shows that NAFTA has not worked as well as it should.
Q Milk is not covered by — this particular dispute is not covered by NAFTA.
SECRETARY ROSS: That’s one of the problems.
Q Mr. Secretary, in other words, why not try to resolve this in not-so-public fashion? You’re coming in the Briefing Room. You’re obviously trying to flex the muscles of this administration. What would you say to the layman out there who says, why is President Trump messing with the Canadians now?
SECRETARY ROSS: It’s not a question of President Trump messing with the Canadians. We believe the Canadians violated legitimate practice. And to the degree we’re correcting that, it should be corrected, just like steel dumping from China or any other trade infraction.
Q You’re trying to make a point, publicly.
SECRETARY ROSS: We make it publicly all the time. It’s just that there has been so much general public interest engendered by the two things — the dairy and the lumber — that we thought it was good to clarify.
Q Secretary Ross, during the presidential campaign, people following then-candidate Trump would have assumed his singular focus would be on Mexico in terms of trade. All of a sudden now we’re hearing all these items related to Canada. Can you tell us why the focus seems to have shifted up north?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, we had no way to know that the Canadian diary people would take the action that they did; nor did we have any way to know that the lumber dispute wouldn’t have been resolved by negotiations. We tried. It didn’t work, and so we went ahead with the statutory proceeding.
Q — any additional trade against Canada?
SECRETARY ROSS: I’m sorry?
Q Is the administration contemplating additional trade actions against Canada at this point?
SECRETARY ROSS: As far as I know, there’s nothing immediate contemplated.
Q Secretary Ross, when I talk to trade experts about this, they say the substance of what you did is very routine, like this has been done before, these preliminary countervailing duties. But they said what was really irregular was the way that you communicated it. Is this something that you’re trying to sort of do as a bit of a PR thing to put NAFTA on notice? How should we read your very aggressive statement?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, it’s not routine — it’s not routine in that a $1 billion of countervailing duties does not happen every single day. This is a quite large —
Q It happened in the early 2000s. It’s happened before. It’s not unprecedented.
SECRETARY ROSS: No. We made the release the way that we made the release.
Q But why did you make it that way?
SECRETARY ROSS: It seemed appropriate under the circumstances.
Q Mr. Secretary, thank you, sir. Sir, India and America both were — America was the largest trading partner of India — or India was largest trading partner under Prime Minister Modi. And now we have a new administration with a new TP, and a revisionist administration — same thing in India. Prime Minister has the same thinking. So what is the future of the trade between U.S. and India, sir?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, the U.S. does not have a free-trade agreement with India at this point, so the trade relations between the U.S. and India are governed by the WTO rules. There’s nothing in the actions we’ve taken that changes that.
Q Mr. Secretary, following up on what Jim said, though, if housing prices do increase due to this, what do you tell the average consumer in the United States if the prices are going up? They didn’t bargain for that.
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I don’t know what they bargained for, but I’m sure what nobody in the United States bargained for is people dumping product. It’s no different whether you dump steel or aluminum or cars or lumber or anything else. Nobody has —
Q You used the term “countervailing duty” and “anti-dumping” interchangeably, and they’re two different things. Which is it — dumping or countervailing duties?
SECRETARY ROSS: This is countervailing duties.
Q Mr. Secretary, do you have a specific timeline for when the President is going to announce his intention to renegotiate NAFTA? And could this move actually complicate his efforts to get a deal?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, we’ve put the Congress on notice quite a few weeks ago of our intention to renegotiate NAFTA. What’s been stalled is getting the Trade Promotion Authority, the so-called fast track authority, approved by the Congress. Now, Bob Lighthizer, having been confirmed out of committee today, and hopefully coming to the Senate for a full vote very shortly, that should cure one of the objections that some of the senators had. Namely, they were concerned about formerly reopening NAFTA when you have the U.S. Trade Rep being confirmed.
Now, the Catch-22 to that was they were also slow-walking the confirmation, so it was a little bit of a circular thing. But in any event, that appears to be in the process of being corrected.
Q Will this move complicate your efforts to get the deal?
SECRETARY ROSS: Everything affects everything else. But this trade issue over lumber, as has been pointed out, is not a brand-new issue. It’s been around for quite a while.
Q Mr. Secretary, the next upcoming meeting of the G7 is about a month away, and the U.S. is in the middle of negotiations with — or talks with China about how to address North Korea. Are you comfortable that the North Korea calculus has not hamstrung your ability to be as direct with China on matters like that? And is the action with Canada meant also to signal to our other Western economic allies and partners that if they mess with the U.S., they could face something like this?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, as to Canada — as you know, at the Mar-a-Lago meetings, we agreed on a kind of 100-day program, and we’re going back and forth with the Chinese over the 100-day program. So we shall see what comes from that. As to the action with lumber or, for that matter, with dairy with Canada, it really has no bearing on the Chinese relationship at all.
Q It seems to me that the object of the 25 percent tariff on soft lumber coming out of Canada is not to raise wood prices, it’s to save and create American forestry jobs and loggers who are losing their jobs right now as a result of the dumping. Has the administration done a study? Do you know how many American jobs are going to be saved by this tariff?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, it’s quite a lot of board feet of lumber. Lumber sells for about 38 cents per foot. So if you take all these large amounts — there’s about 47 billion board feet of lumber consumed in the U.S. market in a given year. And part of the reason I don’t see that there be a huge price differential coming in is this only affects 31.5 percent of that output. The competition among the American producers remains the same. So this is not like suddenly house prices are going to go up 10 to 15 percent. That’s silly.
Q How many new jobs will be created or jobs will be saved as a result of stopping the dumping?
SECRETARY ROSS: I don’t have an exact total, but I can tell you it’s in quite a few states — so along the northern perimeter, going all the way down into Louisiana. So this affects quite a number of people and quite a number of businesses.
Q Mr. Secretary, you’re getting bipartisan support, at the very least, for your actions on softwood lumber, and I expect there will be bipartisan support on whatever action you take on behalf of the dairy industry as well. I mean, you appear to be laying the groundwork here for your notification to Congress that you would like to renegotiate NAFTA. Are we correct in reading it that way, that you’re kind of paving the pathway here, or at least greasing the skids?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, the President announced a couple of months ago that he wanted renegotiate NAFTA. And as I say, it’s been stalled in the Congress, because to do it effectively you really need to use the Trade Promotion Authority. I think you’re aware of the benefit that gives, which is when it comes to the floor of the vote, it’s an up or down vote; they can’t amend the deal. So it makes it much more probable of getting a deal approved. That’s the practical significance of it.
Q So there’s these very public actions that you’re taking in being here in the briefing. Is that sort of paving the way for promoting that authority?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, we hope to get as soon as possible the Trade Promotion Authority granted. Only Congress can do that. And so we’ve been consulting with the staff. I’ve met I don’t know how many times — quite a lot of times, both with Ways and Means and with the Senate Finance Committee. And we hope that with the Lightheizer confirmation, that will remove that impediment.
Q Mr. Secretary, on India? A follow-up on Goyal’s question?
SECRETARY ROSS: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear.
Q Do you favor a free trade agreement with India? As you said earlier, there isn’t one between the two countries right now. Do you favor a free trade agreement with India?
SECRETARY ROSS: Oh, any pending trade events with India? Is that the question?
Q Free trade agreement.
Q Free trade.
SECRETARY ROSS: I don’t believe that there have been any serious discussions with India of late on the topic of a free trade agreement, but there’s no inherent negative attitude on our part relating to that.
Q Mr. Secretary, you’re going to have an announcement on Thursday that you’ll do something similar with aluminum that you did with steel last week in terms of initiating investigations into potential aluminum dumping into the country. Could you talk a little bit about that?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I think the right time to talk about executive orders is once they’ve been issued.
Q Mr. Secretary, this is a high-profile action, in keeping with — there’s a precedent for similar action in the past. Is there a risk that this could provoke retaliation on the part of the Canadians and we could see a trade war between the United States and Canada?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I know that that would be a stimulatory thing for all your readership, but we don’t think that’s going to happen.
Q So you think this is isolated, this is dairy and softwood?
SECRETARY ROSS: We think so, and we certainly hope so. And we look forward to constructive discussions with the Canadians as we get into NAFTA.
Q You don’t anticipate any retaliatory action on the part of Canada?
SECRETARY ROSS: It’s totally Canada’s decision what they’ll do. I’m not aware of anything that we’ve violated, so I don’t know what it is that they could do that would be a legitimate action.
Q What if we passed a border adjustment tax? What if that were part of the tax reform package?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, as I understand it, there will be some word on the tax reform package from the people who are working on it, so it would be better to address that question to them.
Q While we have you, Mr. Secretary — (laughter) — of 3 percent GDP growth, is that a fair assessment? Is that something that is realistic? Do you believe it’s realistic?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I would hope that the growth could, over time, get to be better than that. President Obama is the only President in many, many, many, many that didn’t have at least one year of 3 percent growth. And with all the initiatives that we’re doing — the regulatory reform, the trade reform, the tax reform hopefully — and unleashing energy, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able at least to have that if not beat it.
Q Mr. Secretary, you mentioned cars. Who is dumping cars to the United States? Which countries —
SECRETARY ROSS: No, I just used that as a figure of speech.
Q Mr. Secretary, finally —
Q Who’s dumping cars to the United States?
Q He said it was a figure of speech.
SECRETARY ROSS: I just said, it was a figure of speech.
Q Mr. Secretary, what happened between the press conference with Prime Minister Trudeau, when the President said he would only be “tweaking” the relationship, and this decision on softwood lumber? What changed?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, first of all, this is not a presidential decision to do the softwood lumber. This was a decision that arose from a trade case that was underway. So it was a normal decision. So I don’t think it has anything to do with the personal relationship between Mr. Trudeau and the President.
Q Mr. Secretary, finally, if you or the President have any faith or trust in WTO?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, WTO is a whole different subject matter. We do have some questions and some concerns about it. There will be a WTO meeting coming up in the next several weeks, and what will come out of that will come out of that.
Q Mr. Secretary, thank you. In your view, should the U.S. stay in the Paris climate agreement or withdraw from it?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, now you’re really getting outside my area. (Laughter.)
Q You’re a participant in those discussions.
SECRETARY ROSS: It’s really outside my area. I’m having enough difficulty dealing with the trade issues rather than poaching on other people’s territory.
Q Are you concerned about the negotiations of FTA with South Korea?
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, the fifth anniversary of the South Korean arrangement, the so-called KORUS, comes up I believe on May 4th or May 5th, something like that. So that would be a logical time to think through whether there was something to be done or not.
Q And do you think softwood lumber might get Michael Flynn’s name off the front pages?
SECRETARY ROSS: Is Michael Flynn now a trade issue? I wasn’t aware that he was. (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Q Mr. Secretary, here’s one more way out of the box for you.
SECRETARY ROSS: Oh, well, thank you for that.
Q If, in fact, the next president elected is Marine Le Pen in France, who is not at all for continuing the EU, how would that affect the relationship with France and the EU?
SECRETARY ROSS: That’s such a hypothetical question that I find it very difficult —
Q Well, it’s either she or Monsieur Macron.
SECRETARY ROSS: Well, I think let’s wait for the French run-off election. Let’s see who’s elected. Let’s see what actions they take. And then we’ll be in a position to make a reasoned response to the question.
MR. SPICER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Q Come back any time.
Q You’re always welcome.
MR. SPICER: That doesn’t make me feel too good.
SECRETARY ROSS: What did they say?
MR. SPICER: They said come back anytime.
Q You’re always welcome, Mr. Secretary.
MR. SPICER: He is always welcome.
Q It was a pleasure.
SECRETARY ROSS: I’m glad you’re out of questions because I’m out of answers. (Laughter.)
MR. SPICER: Now that the Secretary has exhausted you all. (Laughter.) So up on the screens — I know we had a little bit of discussion about this yesterday — this is the landing page for the content of the website that we launched late last night on the President’s busy first 100 days. I know that many of you have noted the robust pace that the President has kept during these first 100 days, so it’s just a glimpse of some of the action that he’s taken and some of the key priorities that he made to the American people.
Despite the historic obstruction by Senate Democrats, he’s worked with Congress to pass more legislation in his first 100 days than any President since Truman. And these bills deliver on some of his most significant promises to the American people.
He signed a historic 13 Congressional Review Acts to clear unnecessary regulations and keep government out of the way of the American people. He’s extended the Veteran’s Choice program, giving our nation’s heroes the peace of mind they deserve while this administration continues to work with Congress to enact comprehensive reform and modernization at the VA. He’s refocused NASA’s mission to dream big for American space exploration again, and promoted programs dedicated to encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM fields.
All told, he has signed 28 pieces of legislation. And it’s not just through legislation that the President has made serious progress on his top priorities. The President promised to enforce our nation’s borders. His Attorney General, Homeland Security, and their staffs have been working around the clock to fulfill that promise. He has directed a halt of federal funding to jurisdictions that do not comply with federal immigration laws.
He has ordered the hiring of 10,000 immigration and customs enforcement officers and agents, and 5,000 Custom and Border Patrol agents. And it’s working. Illegal alien border crossings have plummeted more than 61 percent since January of this year.
The world is responding to the leadership that the President is bringing under this — bringing to Washington. In all, during his first 100 days, the President has made 68 calls with 38 different world leaders, and hosted a total of 16 bilateral meetings. The President has rebuilt America’s standing in the world. And these meetings and calls have led to real action. NATO Secretary General was here a few weeks ago, and he directly credited the President for his tough talk that was fair but tough as a candidate, and now as a President, for helping to put pressure on the counties — excuse me, on the countries that are not contributing their fair share to the Alliance.
Just last week, Aya Hijazi finally came home after the President personally addressed her situation with
President el-Sisi. And China continues to take positive steps, both at the U.N. and in other arenas to help us combat the threat posed by North Korea.
The President has also turned his words into action here at home. For too many years, the hardworking men and women of this country were poorly served and with a government that wasn’t working for them, but itself and special interests. As the President said during his inaugural speech, those forgotten men and women are not going to be forgotten by a Trump administration.
From the moment he took office, the President has been taking action and putting America back to work by putting the people back into the government. Unleashing the American economy by slashing overly burdensome and unnecessary federal regulations, welcoming union representatives, top business leaders and small-business owners into the White House to personally hear directly from them about the policies that prevent them from creating and maintaining well-paying jobs.
He’s reinvigorating our domestic energy sector, reviving private infrastructure investment that helps us become more energy independent. And today, he’s signing an executive order setting up a task force that will produce a 180-day review of the regulations, policy and legislation that unnecessarily hinders economic growth in the agriculture sector. That task force will be led by our newly sworn-in Secretary of Agriculture, former Governor Sonny Perdue. Secretary Perdue, who was sworn in earlier this morning, along with many other Cabinet members, will be traveling outside Washington this entire week to share these tremendous achievements with the American people.
Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon is in Orlando for multiple events, including a roundtable with Hispanic small business owners. Tomorrow, Secretary Carson will be in Columbus, Ohio, for the fourth stop of his listening tour where he’ll speak to the Ohio Housing Council and meet with local leaders and residents of public housing developments. And Secretary Perdue is getting right to work, traveling to Kansas City, Missouri, Thursday and Friday to visit agricultural facilities and meet with Governor Greitens.
The President and his extraordinary, qualified Cabinet have made incredible progress in just these first 100 days, but this is just the beginning. We look forward to even more prosperity as consumer and CEO confidence continues to rise in the wake of these pro-growth policies; an even safer world from destroying ISIS and other forms of radical Islamic terrorism that threaten our entire globe; to keeping our smallest communities safe for American families; and a government that serves the people, not the special interests or personal political alliances.
Finally before I take your questions, I just want to proudly announce that on May 4th, the President will speak aboard the USS Intrepid in New York City to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Coral Sea, a major naval battle during World War II in which the United States joined with Australia to halt the advance of enemy forces.
That same day, at the museum, the President will hold a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia. The President looks forward to meeting the Prime Minister and to showcasing the enduring bonds, deep friendship, and close alliance the United States has with Australia.
And with that, let’s go. John Roberts.
Q Sean, does the White House believe that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn broke any laws in filling out his Standard Form-86 disclosure? And furthermore, why is the White House apparently stonewalling the committee on oversight and government reform on its request for some of the documents that should be in the White House’s possession on Mr. Flynn?
MR. SPICER: I will correct you on that. The committee sent a form letter to several agencies, including the White House, asking to find those documents. The documents in question the Department of Defense possessed and sent over to them. The documents that occurred before he worked here would be up to him to turn over. So my understanding is the committee has the documents that they were looking for.
Q Well, in the letter that Marc Short — and I know that SF-86 was referred to the DIA, and apparently —
MR. SPICER: It wasn’t just referred to them. That’s where it —
Q Well, I know — but they were referred to the DIA for the SF-86, and apparently they have gained access to that document. But there were other documents that should be in the White House’s possession that Marc Short, in the letter to the committee, said the White House can’t provide because of its sensitive nature. It also said that there were no documents that were available prior to the 20th.
MR. SPICER: Right.
Q But I also ask the question: Does the White House believe that Lieutenant General Flynn might have broken the law when he filled out the SF-86?
MR. SPICER: I don’t — that would be a question for him and a law enforcement agency whether or not he filled — I don’t know what he filled out and what he did or did not do. That all happened — he filled that form out prior to coming here, and so it would be up to the committee and other authorities to look at that. I don’t know.
But with respect to the letter, they asked for three things — the SF-86, which you properly point out was in the possession of the DIA. My understanding through reports is that they have obtained that, then they ask for documents prior to January 20th. As you know through the Constitution, we didn’t assume the White House until January 20th at noon, so we don’t have the documents prior to assuming the White House. And then the third would be they listed for every call and contact made, which is an extraordinary number that — that’s a very unwieldy request.
Q So was it the sheer volume of it, or —
MR. SPICER: Well, to say we want the National Security Advisor, whose job it is to talk with foreign counterparts on a daily basis, to document every call that he may or may not have made is not exactly a request that will be filled. But every document that they asked for my understanding is that they’ve gotten.
Q Sean, is it your position that during the transition, the Trump transition has no custodial possession of any of these documents that Flynn filled out as part of a process to become the President’s National Security Advisor? I mean, what you seem to be suggesting is an arms’ length relationship.
MR. SPICER: There’s two issues. He had an SF86, which is a security clearance form that was filled out during the Obama administration. He had a reinvestigation in 2016. That was done under the last administration. And again, those are not documents that the White House would ever possess on any employee. They would come from the requesting authority.
Q Okay. So —
MR. SPICER: So, in that case — again, remember, they sent out a form letter to I think five or six agencies requesting the same documents. The place for the documents that they had questioned did fulfill that request.
Q Right. I’m just trying to find out from your perspective, is there no obligation either from the transition or the White House to do anything more than you have done or has been done in this matter?
MR. SPICER: Everything that the White House has been asked to do we have — the only documents that were made available to them that they asked for were the ones that the Department of Defense had.
Q How about these calls made when he was working during the transition on behalf of a future President Trump? Aren’t those things that you should have some either responsibility or obligation to provide if you can?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think again, it’s a question of if you can. When you ask for every call —
Q — that you can —
MR. SPICER: No, but I think that’s a pretty — there is — to ask for every call or contact that the a National Security Advisor made is pretty outlandish, if you will — to say that we want to have a list of every — there is no —
Q Those calls were made on behalf of the Trump transition, were they not?
MR. SPICER: When?
Q When he was in the — I mean —
MR. SPICER: He did not — we started this administration on January 20th. All the information that they are talking about occurred prior to him being at the White House.
Q Yes, but he was working for the transition. And I’m saying, is there any obligation you have —
MR. SPICER: Not at the White House. Everything that is being questioned occurred prior to January 20th.
Q — the delivery of those documents?
Q But you’re acting as if you had no custodial responsibility of your own transition. That’s all I’m trying to —
MR. SPICER: And I guess the question is, is that what —
Q He wasn’t making calls as a private citizen. He was making them as a future National Security Advisor.
MR. SPICER: I understand that. And right now, to ask the White House for these documents that were not in possession of the White House is ridiculous.
Q Two weeks ago, when General Flynn’s attorney wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee suggesting some sort of immunity deal for General Flynn, I asked you a question about whether the White House would be invoking executive privilege, and your response at that time was, no, we have no problem with General Flynn testifying, he’s free to do so, we won’t be invoking any type of privilege. Does that also apply to any documents that the White House may have related to General Flynn’s service, the short service as the National Security Advisor to the President, and the time in which he served in the transition period as an advisor to the President-elect?
MR. SPICER: I think, look, when you asked — I know that when Chaffetz was asked whether or not what he is looking into here at the White House, my understanding is he was very clear that had to do with his time prior to that. So talking about what his role was at the White House seems not germane to any of the questions that are being asked.
Q What about prior to his service at the White House?
MR. SPICER: For that, again, it would have to go to General Flynn. There’s nothing that is being asked for with respect to his service here at the White House. The documents that Major was referring to rest within the Department of Defense. My understanding is that they were provided.
Q And the overall issue of privilege, would you be open to —
MR. SPICER: I’m not at this time — to answer that question, I don’t know the answer. There’s nothing that I’m responding to on that particular matter.
Q Sean, generally speaking, within the Trump administration, how important is it for the President that everyone working for this administration is honest on their security clearance forms?
MR. SPICER: Very. And so — and if they don’t, then they’re going to be investigated. But you assume — look, everybody fills out forms all the time. All of us in some point we sign our name and swear under oath that everything is in there. So I think each and every one of us in different ways signs our names and agrees to abide by the information that we provide.
Q Do you know if the President is aware of the comments that were made by the House Oversight Chairman today? And does he agree at all with the assertion that it seems as though General Flynn was not in compliance with the law?
MR. SPICER: I’m not — and again, that’s not — that would be a matter for them to look into, not for us.
Q Does the White House consider Mike Flynn’s payment from Russia today to be a payment from a foreign government?
MR. SPICER: I don’t know. That was — again, all of that occurred prior to his service —
Q Your White House, does this White House consider a payment from Russia today to be a payment from a foreign government?
MR. SPICER: I understand, but what I’m saying is everything that he did was prior to coming to this White House. So for us to determine someone else’s thing as a consultant —
Q If it was to happen today, do you consider that to be a payment from a foreign government?
MR. SPICER: I’m sorry, if what?
Q If someone took money from Russia today — today —
MR. SPICER: If they were an employee of the White House, absolutely. But, I mean, again, I don’t know the exact circumstances. Everything that’s being discussed occurred prior to his employment at the White House, occurred as a consultant. So whatever he did, as long as he did it in compliance with the law, as every one of us as a citizen has the right to do — that’s up to an individual to do — and then comply with the law.
Q To follow up on that, why didn’t he — why wasn’t he more closely vetted during the transition period?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, you fill out forms and —
Q — the White House and the Trump transition team should have known about this before they were having him come to the White House.
MR. SPICER: Well, again, you fill out the forms, you do an investigation, and you do a background check. Every employee gets that background check done, and they have a security clearance and they fill it out, and that’s how — everyone operates under the same guise.
Q I have two questions, but I want to follow up on that. So you’re saying that it’s a problem with the process of vetting — the vetting process, and not —
MR. SPICER: I’m not saying it’s a problem with the vetting. I’m saying that every single person who comes to work in here at a certain level is required to fill out the same form, an SF-86. And that background check is adjudicated. You rely on that person when they sign their name, and then investigators pick it up. But there’s always going to be, in the case of people who had a prior clearance, that between the time that they filled it out and had it adjudicated they could have engaged in something. And whether or not they updated that or not is always the onus is on the individual.
Q I do want ask you really quickly about the wall. Yesterday, President Trump reportedly said that he’s going to delay pushing the wall through. And so can you just clarify what the status of that is — what’s happening, when?
MR. SPICER: The President made it very clear — I think he tweeted about this earlier — his priorities have not changed. There will be a wall built. It’s important to prevent human trafficking, gangs like MS-13 from coming into the country, the flow of illegal drugs, illegal immigration. There is a national economic and safety issue by having a wall that ensures our country’s safety, and there’s plenty of planning that can be done in FY17. We’re going to continue — our priorities are clear going into FY17, the remainder of budgeting for that. And we’ll continue to ask for more in FY18.
Q So it’s delayed for now?
MR. SPICER: No, no. I never — no one said delayed. No, no — there’s two budget processes. Right now we’re going to end FY17 this week. We hope to continue to get funding in that, as the President laid out, for both border security and homeland security and national defense, as we’ve always maintained. And then when we come to FY18, that starts at the beginning of October, the end of September, and that next budget will go for the next group of money.
Q So use that partial funding —
MR. SPICER: We’ve made our priorities very clear as we continue to negotiate, and I think nothing has changed on the President’s priorities.
Q Can I ask a follow-up on healthcare? The President has threatened to withhold cost-sharing payments from insurance companies. So is that still the case?
MR. SPICER: I think we’ve made it very clear that we want to repeal and replace Obamacare. And I think we continue to see — there’s a prop-up right now, and that’s why we need to act as soon as possible to get an insurance plan in place — a new insurance plan — system in place that will protect people’s insurance and not have these skyrocketing costs. But we have an artificially propped-up insurance system right now because of these payments. And I think that we’ve got to make sure that we do everything we can, as quick as we can, to put a system in place that will solve that.
Q So just to follow up on the two, three topics — the wall and on — first, on the wall, I just want to be clear — so is the President no longer insisting that there is money for the wall in this current appropriations bill?
MR. SPICER: The President’s priorities are clear for FY17. There’s a lot of things that we can do in the remaining months, up until the end of September, for planning and making sure that we get everything that we need, funding that we need for that aspect of things. And then as we go into FY18, we’ll continue to ask for more. I don’t think anything has changed.
Q So the President is not insisting that he has money for actual construction of the wall in this current bill?
MR. SPICER: We are still in discussions with the House and Senate leadership, but I think the President has been very clear that he wants a wall; he wants it done as soon as we can do it. There are things that we need to do to protect our country — like human trafficking, the flow of illegal drugs and gangs — that are going to make sure that while we’ve achieved a significant drop in illegal alien border crossings — down 61 percent since January — that this is something that’s in our country’s long-term national security interest.
Q And the actual construction can wait until the fall?
MR. SPICER: No, it’s not a question of wait until the fall. I think there’s a lot of things that have to happen. It’s like any construction.
Q Before you start construction.
MR. SPICER: Well, you got to start doing some planning and things. And so we will take the first steps now and then we will continue to seek funding through the FY18 and further budget to make sure that the actual — that it is completed.
Q And on Michael Flynn, does the President feel that he was misled by General Flynn?
MR. SPICER: I think the President made a decision a while ago because General Flynn was not straight with the Vice President at the time and let him go. I think he stands by that decision, and it’s up to others to review all this information that’s coming out.
Q But does he now feel that he also wasn’t straight with him in the beginning during —
MR. SPICER: I don’t — a lot of the facts are still coming out, Jonathan. I know the President made a decision a couple months ago. It was the right decision, and we’ve moved on. And we continue to stay focused on —
Q At the time he made that decision, he said he was the victim of a media witch hunt and said he was a good man that had been a victim of —
MR. SPICER: Right, so let’s —
Q — a witch hunt. Does he still feel that? Or is —
MR. SPICER: I think all the facts are still coming out on that. Let’s see where they come. I think he made a decision a few months ago. He stands by the decision.
Q Thank you, Sean. Two questions: Last night the President said — and some have reported it — some pretty sensational charges about the Iran treaty. We know he’s called it the worst agreement in history, and the worst he ever saw himself. But he also said that at the time of the treaty, the government in Iran was on the verge of collapsing. And that is something I don’t believe that has ever been reported before. He also said that the unfrozen assets — the billions were not used to fund terrorists, but they were in Swiss bank accounts. Is this based on intelligence reports he’s received or other information?
MR. SPICER: I’m not going to get into what the President knows, but there is a reason that we are undergoing an interagency process right now to look at the deal.
Q I had a second question.
MR. SPICER: Sure.
Q Okay. On General Flynn, anyone who is at his level and some levels below undergoes an investigation by the FBI with a final report. Was the President ever given a final security report by the FBI on General Flynn?
MR. SPICER: I don’t know. He had — he was the head of the Department — of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He had an existing clearance.
Q If you could just talk a little bit more about the overall efforts that the administration is making. We note the United Nations meetings yesterday. Now you’ve got an upcoming meeting with Congress. Are you as an administration trying to get a coalition together to build a stronger diplomatic case around actions against Pyongyang?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think you saw Ambassador Haley yesterday in the discussion that — the other ambassadors who visited the White House engaged in a very robust discussion with respect to North Korea, both as a group, and then with the President. So obviously, the more that we can solve this diplomatically and continue to apply pressure on China and other countries to use the political and economic tools that they have to achieve a goal in stabilization in the region, but also to tamp down the threat that North Korea faces, I think that is something that we all share.
Q How would you characterize the administration’s overall strategy on the DPRK?
MR. SPICER: I think we’re — it’s ongoing. And I think — but I think we’ve seen very positive signs with respect to a nation like China. The relationship the President built with President Xi down in Mar-a-Lago is definitely paying off dividends. And this President’s relationships that he’s building with heads of government is clearly reestablishing America’s place in the world and getting results for this country.
Q — strategy on Wednesday when you have the meeting with the senators?
MR. SPICER: I’m sorry?
Q Will you be able to articulate that strategy and put a finer point on it for the senators?
MR. SPICER: Just to be clear, that meeting is a Senate meeting led by Leader McConnell just utilizing our space. So that is their meeting, so we’re not there to talk strategy. There are going to be briefed by the —
Q Well, you —
MR. SPICER: Can I answer her question? Major, I —
Q — it’s your administration —
MR. SPICER: Do you want to come on up? (Laughter.) I mean I’ll — I understand there around four — hold on —
Q — characterize it as you presenting your strategy to the U.S. Senate?
MR. SPICER: There are four briefers that are coming up to talk about the situation in North Korea. They will be briefed by — this is a Senate-led meeting that they are getting; those four briefers will share to them the current situation in North Korea.
Q — the strategy will be articulated then?
MR. SPICER: What?
Q So the senators should not expect —
MR. SPICER: Well, no, obviously the Secretary of State and others are going to talk about our posture and the activities that we’re undergoing. And Chairman Dunford will lay out some of the military actions and the way that they see the lay of the land. They’re going to answer questions, as they routinely do on a situation like this.
Q Thanks, Sean. How long would you reasonably expect the government to take to be fully staffed with essential personnel to draft, negotiate, and implement complicated policies like tax reform, and put forward something that’s a little bit more meaty than just broad principles?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think we’re going to — we’ll have something to share with you tomorrow. And then we’re going to continue to work with allies and individuals who want to be part of this process. That conversation has really kicked off in earnest with members of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee, the leadership. And so we will continue to engage in that discussion and outside stakeholders to try to get a plan really put together and details laid out in the next several weeks once me make the announcement tomorrow.
Q But what progress have agencies been able to make in carrying out the executive orders that the President has put forward? Because today is actually the deadline for the regulatory reform offices to be in place. How many of those are there?
MR. SPICER: I don’t have a number on that. I can look at — talk to our personnel office and get back to you. But I think we have been able to work with, in many cases — and I think I went over this early on in the process — but we installed what we called beachhead teams during the transition process. We put 400-plus individuals into these departments that, in most cases, transformed into Schedule C employees. So we have been able to be up and running in almost every one of these in a very, very early process when you look at the totality of how we handled the transition of government.
Q Thanks, Sean. Staying on taxes for a minute, can you give us a sense — the President said he’s going to present this plan tomorrow. Can you give us a sense of what we’re going to see and when we’re going to see it?
MR. SPICER: No. I’m going to wait until tomorrow. I think we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that tomorrow.
Q Just a bit of color. The President, on Friday, when he announced that it was going to happen on Wednesday, aides here at the White House and over at Treasury seemed a little bit surprised to find out that this was coming as early as Wednesday. Can you tell us who inside the White House and at Treasury the President told he was going to announce this on Wednesday before he made the announcement?
MR. SPICER: I think tomorrow, we’ll have a great plan for you to see.
Q The Secretary of Treasury actually said that the goal on tax reform is to spur growth of 3 percent of more, but already people are worried about deficits and that’s — Taxpayers For Common Sense put out a statement saying that growth — “Hogwash. Growth is the magic pixie dust policymakers throw on economic plans to make them appear fiscally sound when they are not.” What would you say to Republicans on Capitol Hill who are worried about this being a tax reform that would blow a hole in the deficit and the debt?
MR. SPICER: I will wait until tomorrow. You can see the plan. But I think, obviously, we’ve got to do everything we can to get economic growth going and job creation going. The President has made tremendous headway on the regulatory front, and he’s going to do everything he can on the tax front.
But we’ve talked about this before. I mean, if you look at the corporate side in particular, we have become largely uncompetitive because of our rates. And I think the more we can do to make our country, our businesses, our manufacturers in particular, more competitive, that’s good for American workers, it’s good for our economy, it’s good for economic growth.
And I think the President — as I noted, I mean, when you look at the regulatory side of what he has done, it has really helped a lot of industries start to see light. And that why I think you see the confidence levels in so many surveys so strong under this President, because he’s achieved real results already.
So I will see you guys tomorrow. We’ll talk about the tax plan. Thanks.
2:55 P.M. EDT