Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Spicer
The White House
May 16, 2017
[excerpts on leaks, classified information]
With that, Hallie.
Q I just have a few. If you don't mind, if I just tick through quickly since it's an off-camera briefing. Number one, can you explain the transcripts? Will you share these transcripts that some lawmakers are calling for, or more information regarding the context and content of this meeting with those on Capitol Hill that are asking for this information?
MR. SPICER: I think there's three individuals who were in the room -- Secretary of State Tillerson, the National Security Director and the Deputy National Security Director who were all in that and all have put out statements regarding that.
Q But given that, they want a lot more. They want to see quotes. They want to see transcripts. What do you --
MR. SPICER: Well, I don't -- I haven't seen anything. But what I'm telling you is that I think there were three individuals in that meeting that said -- what has occurred today, over the last little while, in terms of these leaks is, frankly, dangerous. The idea that someone who has been given access to information is pushing that information on to the media is -- undermines our national security. I don't think there's any other way to say it than it is, frankly, dangerous.
Q Two more questions for you, Sean, just on that. Number one, Israel as the ally here who provided information that the President then shared with the Russians. It's our reporting and others that that is the case. Can you speak to that?
MR. SPICER: I cannot comment specifically on that. I'm obviously pleased to see Ambassador Dermer's comment. We appreciate the relationship that we have with Israel and appreciate the exchange of information that we have with them. That being said, I'm not going to comment any further on that.
Q And my last one question for you just gets to the question of credibility that a lot of folks over on Capitol Hill have been asking over the last maybe 18 hours or so. The President himself tweeted just last week, Sean, that his surrogates can't stand at this podium with perfect accuracy. Are you concerned when you have yourself, when you have General McMaster here, that people perhaps don't trust or find the statements that are being made credible?
MR. SPICER: I think I addressed this last week, Hallie, that we do everything we can to provide you the most up-to-date information at the time. With respect to the events of last night, I think General McMaster stood at this podium just a few hours ago and made it very clear that he stands by what he said. So I'm not entirely sure -- I think he put out a statement, Secretary Tillerson put out one, and the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy put one out, as well.
Q So you're not concerned about eroding credibility in this administration?
MR. SPICER: Of course. Obviously, I would never -- no one would ever want that. But I suggest to you that the statements put out last night -- completely consistent and the people who put them out, stand by them.
Q -- in the room is my last question -- that Dina Powell, Secretary Tillerson --
MR. SPICER: I'm not sure that -- I don't know the answer to that --
Q Can you provide us a readout of who was in that room with him?
MR. SPICER: I'll follow up with -- I mean, I'm not going to necessarily provide you with information that they're not comfortable providing in terms of who was or wasn't in the room. That is something that is up to the President.
Q Sean, do you believe that this is a case of the intelligence community or elements in the intelligence community actively seeking to undermine the President and his foreign policy as he seeks to build a closer relationship with Russia?
MR. SPICER: I don't think it is appropriate for me to -- but I will tell you, when you look at that story, it would be impossible for the President to reveal the source of the information because, as General McMaster made very clear as he was leaving this podium, the President wasn't briefed on the information and wasn't aware of the source. So the President wasn't aware of this. This wasn't part of his briefing. So, therefore, to suggest that, therefore, he revealed it, is impossible.
Q But you did say undermining -- it's, frankly, dangerous.
MR. SPICER: It is.
Q What's the President going to do about it?
MR. SPICER: Well, again, that in itself is a whole process, and I'm not at liberty to get into that. And it's, frankly, something that I wouldn't even be aware of.
Q If I could ask just one more question. Is it the President's position that he can at any time declassify anything he chooses? He tweeted this morning he has the absolute right to talk to the Russians about whatever he wants to. Is that what he's saying there, that he can declassify anything?
MR. SPICER: Well, there's several issues. One is he can obviously -- there is information that is shared with countries all the time on common threats or common areas of interest. Then there is a second question that you're asking, which is classification authority. My understanding is the President, of course, has classification authority. They're not synonymous though, right?
So the President can always discuss common threats or common issues with host nations -- excuse me -- with other heads of government or other government officials as he deems appropriate to tackle the threats our country faces. But that's -- just so you're clear, there are two separate issues. But, yes, he does on the second -- because that's not a question of what he thinks, that's just sort of like a fact.
Q Just to clarify the last thing that General McMaster said, what you just said -- so the President wasn't aware -- this wasn't a part of his briefing, so to suggest he revealed it is impossible. Are you saying that the President didn't say what is being --
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to get into -- again, I'm not going to get into the contents of conversation. What I will just say is, as I mentioned, it wasn't part of his briefing. So if that wasn't part of it, to suggest that, therefore, he released something would not -- it just defies logic.
Q So if it wasn't part of his briefing, in a way, was there a failure --
MR. SPICER: Again, I'm not -- look, again, I'm not --
Q -- the people underneath him, was there a failure that it didn't rise to the level --
MR. SPICER: No. I'm sorry. That's a good point. It is not routine. Again, I'm not going to say it doesn't happen. But generally speaking, when the President is briefed -- and it's not just this President -- when Presidents are briefed, they're presented with outcomes. Here's threats that we face. Here's whatever. And it's not like there's always -- and it's not always common that, therefore, they would get into all the sources and methods that undermines it. That's just not always how it happens.
And so they are presented with, here are the threats that we face; here's the circumstances; here's the issues that are in front of you.
Q I guess what I'm asking -- he was fully prepared going into this meeting by the --
MR. SPICER: Of course.
Q Thanks, Sean. Just two for you. Can you say whether or not there's an active investigation of these leaks, either formal or informal?
MR. SPICER: I cannot.
Q Wait, can I just get one more? Something that General McMaster declined to answer on two occasions from behind that podium that's causing some unhappiness on the Hill, the refusal to say whether the Western Wall is in Israel or not. Can you explain why you guys can't answer that question?
MR. SPICER: The Western Wall is obviously one of the holiest sites in Jewish faith. It's clearly in Jerusalem. But there's been -- it's an issues that's had serious consideration. It will be a topic that's going to be discussed during the President's trip between the parties that he meets with.
But obviously I think this stems from a comment that was made yesterday and which was not the policy of the United States. And so I think just because -- so just to be clear about what was said yesterday.
Q Can you talk briefly about the ripple of information and how it came out of the meeting that occurred last week in the Oval Office with the representatives of the Russian government? I'm trying to better understand where and how this information could have leaked.
MR. SPICER: I don't -- if I knew -- I mean, I don't know.
Q In talking about it as a national security threat, you've spoken with the President obviously about this. What's his thinking on the information that leaked? And if there were
-- and what does he think about the article that was released by The Washington Post?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think consistent with what he has said for a long time -- that the leaks of classified information, or sensitive information present -- there's a reason that they're classified. And the disclosure of them, the non-authorized disclosure of them, present a threat to national security.
Q Thanks, Sean. There's been reporting that suggests Israel is the country that provided that intelligence to the U.S. Whether it was Israel or not, has the administration had contact with that ally to potentially smooth over any complications that might have arisen from this being shared with the Russians?
MR. SPICER: Have we -- I'm sorry --
Q Have you reached out to the country that provided that intelligence?
MR. SPICER: Obviously, I'm not going to get into that kind of discussion. What I will say is, as I mentioned earlier, that we appreciate the strong relationship that we have with Israel with respect to intelligence-sharing, and hope to continue to grow that bond. But I'm not going to comment on specifically where it came from.
Q Sean, can we get a White House reaction or the President's reaction to the report that said Rich was emailing WikiLeaks before his murder?
MR. SPICER: I don't -- I'm not aware of -- generally, I don't get updates on DNC -- former DNC staffers. I'm not aware of that.
Q It would certainly have a great influence on where the leaks came from, if they could potentially -- I mean, there's a lot of implications in this story, of course. But --
MR. SPICER: I understand that. But for me to comment from here about an ongoing investigation -- I believe it's still ongoing; I don't even know the status of it in terms of D.C. -- but it would be highly inappropriate to do that.
Q Thank you, Sean. Two questions. First, the nature of the information that the President is alleged to have shared are the kinds of things that the Five Eyes allies share among each other. Is this a sign that that list could be expanded or that the President is considering expanding the Five Eyes, the allies we share intelligence with on a regular basis?
MR. SPICER: I would just go back to the point that I think -- whether it's this particular country or any other, it is quite commonplace for us to share information on common threats that our countries face, or two countries face, or a variety of other information. It is a very commonplace thing to occur.
Q And the other thing is, what's lost in all of this was that they -- the President met with Dr. Kissinger. What advice did Dr. Kissinger give him on anything? Was there any readout of their conversation?
MR. SPICER: I don't have -- I didn't get one at the time. Generally speaking, we don't get readouts of that.
Q Thanks, Sean. You had these Comey headlines last week that you didn't want. You've got this story that landed in your lap today. I'm sure you heard Senator Corker say that this White House is in a "downward spiral." How do you view the current state of things right now? Is a "downward spiral" fair, unfair? Is "chaotic" fair, unfair? And does this White House need a reset?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think we're doing -- the President is committed to enacting his agenda. He feels very strongly about what he's doing and why he's doing it. The leaks that occurred today are not helpful, first and foremost, to national security, beyond any other issue. But obviously the President is very proud of the work and the accomplishments that he's had in these first few months, and looking forward to this trip around the world that I think is really going to continue to grow the relationships that he's already started to build.
Q Is there any soul-searching that's being done? Any reflection that -- or any blame even being placed for sort of the current state of chaos, if you will, inside the West Wing or in your colleagues, the President himself?
MR. SPICER: I guess the way I'd answer that is, when you look at what appears to be somebody intentionally leaking classified information, and you're asking where the blame should be placed, I think it's pretty clear. I mean, it is -- to realize that somebody has intentionally gone out, once again -- if you start to go back over the last couple months how many times there has been an unauthorized disclosure of national security, that should be -- I've said it from this podium before, but it's extremely troubling.
And I think that when you ask how we feel about it, when you are committed to doing -- whether it's economic policy or foreign policy that is in the best interest of the country, and people are going out intentionally leaking classified information that threatens national security, as I said, it's dangerous.
Q Sean, could you tell us how the President gets his intelligence briefings? Because we understand that each President has them differently, they ask for them differently. How does this President receive his intelligence briefings?
MR. SPICER: That's an interesting question. I don't sit in on the briefing. I know every day a team comes over and -- I should probably follow up on it before I get too far ahead, but they come in person and present him with information, and it's classified.
Q Okay. But does he read any part of it, or is he given the information verbally?
MR. SPICER: I don't sit in on it, so I don't know.
Q All right, to follow up on that, a couple questions. The question -- well, the statement from McMaster begs the question as to -- the statement about not having parts of the intelligence that the President talked about to Russia begs a couple questions. Why was that not included? And some are asking, in the intelligence community, does this go to the fact that the President may not be trusted with this information? And also, it goes into, again, how does he get his information and why it was it --
MR. SPICER: So I know you stepped out for a while. We actually went over this.
Q I'm sorry, I was coughing.
MR. SPICER: No, no, but we went over this. I hope you feel better. Basically, the answer that I gave -- I think it was either Blake or Trey -- was that, generally speaking, the President is presented with the end result of the intelligence -- here are the threats, here are the issues that are facing us. Generally speaking, they don't go into the sources and methods.
Q But has there ever been a concern that this President was not able to handle the intelligence information and they've kind of crafted it to a piece where he would not get in trouble if it were to slip out?
MR. SPICER: No.
Q Okay, wait, I'm not finished.
MR. SPICER: No, you are. I mean, this is -- everyone gets a turn. This isn't --
Q Well, a couple people had more, and I want to ask something about Secret Service, okay? I understand that David Garrett -- Dave Garrett (ph) is being eyed as the head of the Uniformed Division of Secret Service. And Dave Garrett, during the Clinton administration, was reprimanded for saying the "N" word to a female pass-holder here at the White House. What do you say to that?
MR. SPICER: You have to believe me that I don't get into the different divisions of employment of the Secret Service. I think that --
Q But it is under the administration's purview.
MR. SPICER: Sure, as is all the federal government. But I think specifically a division of the Secret Service, Kathy of the Secret Service is probably -- in the Public Affairs Office -- is probably your best bet.
Q A trip question. There's been a lot of reporting --
MR. SPICER: We had big news -- it would have been perfect for this --
Q There's been a lot of reporting in Israel that the President was going to go to Masada. That's something that General McMaster didn't mention. Has that been scrubbed? If he is going, what's the message you're trying to send?
MR. SPICER: So, if I can, it is our goal to have an off-the-record briefing tomorrow, probably sometime later in the day, on the logistics of the trip. Once we can lock down that time -- and the goal would be late tomorrow, but it may slip. And we can kind of walk through the logistics of the trip with you. But obviously there's a lot of things that either aren't finalized for security reasons. But I don't want to get into anything beyond what General McMaster said today. And our goal is to -- we'll have notice out to you guys at some point on what the details of the trip are.
Q Sean, it may seem like a small matter, but the President mispronounced President Erdogan's name a couple of times at the event today. We had a report yesterday from Politico about the President reading and embracing a report that was pushed in front of him from a fake 1970s Time Magazine story. We've had numerous things about the way that the President consumes information, including and not exclusive to the events of the last few days.
Two questions. Is the President doing his homework? And are you satisfied, or can you tell the American people that the President is getting the best quality information possible to make decisions?
MR. SPICER: Yes on both.
Q Senator Cornyn pulled out of the FBI search. Does the President still think it's possible to name a new director before he goes on the trip? Or is that likely to drag?
MR. SPICER: I think it's obviously likely, but that's up to both DOJ and then obviously to the President in terms of who he can get.
Q Where does it stand at this point, the search?
MR. SPICER: DOJ is still interviewing candidates. And if we have an update on the process --
Q So it probably will drag until after the trip?
MR. SPICER: I don't -- I literally don't have an update, because part of it is DOJ will notify us when they believe they have candidates that the President wants to meet with, or the President will ask them who they have. But we're not at that point in the process.
Q Can you explain -- you're saying that the leaks, that there's a problem obviously that there's leaks. Other people say that the President said something inappropriate. Regardless of what happened, how can you assure allies that have expressed concern about leaks in the United States that their information is safe with the United States? How can you assure them? Are people calling them? And I don't mean the particular ally; I just mean in general.
MR. SPICER: Right. I think we take -- look, there is no one who is more outraged about this than the President. And he has been very clear in his statements over the last couple of months that this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated, and that this action undermines our national security.
I don't know -- I mean, he's taking -- again, and it would be inappropriate for me to discuss anything beyond that.
Q Are calls being made?
MR. SPICER: Again, I'm not going to get into anything.
Q Three quick questions for you. One, President Reagan said -- and they will be quick, I promise -- said of the former Soviet Union that they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, lie, or cheat to attain global revolution.
That was their long-term goal.
MR. SPICER: I'm sorry, what was the beginning part?
Q President Reagan has said that the Soviet Union reserves unto itself the right to commit any crime, lie, or cheat to obtain its long-term goals.
So what do you think? What does this President think the long-term goals of Russia are? That's the first question.
The second is: Do you think a public official has a right at any time to lie to the American public under any circumstance?
And third, I guess going back to our question earlier, but to be more pointed, what do you say to the critics who say this administration in one word, in the last few weeks, has been inept?
MR. SPICER: I think that --
Q I know I nailed you with three.
MR. SPICER: I don't -- as far as Russia goes, the question is, what do we think their goals are?
Q What do you think their long-term goals are?
MR. SPICER: I don't know -- I'll get -- we'll have to get back to you. I'm not prepared to go over what Russia's strategic goals are at this time.
So what was --
Q And the second one was, do you think under any circumstance it's all right for a public official to lie to the American public?
MR. SPICER: The reason I'm hedging on this is that I'm just thinking mentally, going through every position of the United States government. So, in theory, if you were an operative of some sort, or if there was -- I mean, there are cases in which --
Q Public officials.
MR. SPICER: I understand. Yes, if it's a public official, then no.
Q And a third one, as far as the last week, the actions from this administration being inept?
MR. SPICER: Like I said, I think what this is -- when you have people that are leaking information, the President is going to do everything he can, I can tell you that.
Q But that's not unique.
MR. SPICER: I think that the level and number of quotes and the damage, I don't -- I can't say I'm an expert on this, but I would say it's pretty -- it seems like a lot to me.
Q A number of Republican lawmakers this morning said they were troubled by what they read in The Washington Post, the story that came out late yesterday afternoon. Senator Lindsey Graham, in an interview that he did today, said, "The only thing I can say when it comes to Russia is they are an unreliable partner." Does the administration share that point of view that Russia is an unreliable partner?
MR. SPICER: I think, first and foremost, as you saw by the comments of the three individuals, they were troubled by the report in The Washington Post. And so that's the first thing I would say.
The second thing is -- because again, look, when you go back and realize that three people who were in a very small meeting come out -- the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and the Deputy National Security Advisor -- and dispute the account, and yet, on the other hand, you have a bunch of anonymous sources using leaked information that is disputed from what was actually briefed and not briefed, you realize that that -- you have to question the intention of why that was done.
So that is something that we're equally concerned with in terms of the report itself, that a leak that came out does this kind of damage. And it was -- and it clearly -- you've got wonder why it was done and who did it.
Q But to Lindsey Graham's point that he was making in that comment that I just read to you, does the President share his belief that Russia is an unreliable partner?
MR. SPICER: I think all I'll say is that on areas like combating ISIS, in particular, we have a shared interest. In Syria, there are areas where we can have a shared interest. And I think in areas where -- whatever country it is, we can find a shared interest to further a goal, whether it's our national interest or our economic interest. That is something that we would have to consider. But to rule out any country on its face is something that is sort of well above -- is something that only the President can decide.
Q Sean, why did the President's Counterterrorism Advisor feel the need to reach out to the CIA and the NSA after the meeting with the Foreign Minister?
MR. SPICER: I'm not going to get into calls that any staff member may or may not make, but I will say that to suggest that someone who is the Homeland Security Advisor wouldn't be making calls would somewhat be a little odd that, in the routine part of their job, that they wouldn't be calling around to different agencies.
That being said, in terms of what I think you're intending to ask with respect to the article, again, I would go back to the fact that there were three prominent individuals in the meeting that dispute the account.
Q Is the White House doing anything to reach out to members of Congress to explain what happened in the meeting with the Russian officials? And Senator Burr, on the Intelligence Committee, said just before you came out that he's still waiting to hear from someone at the White House.
MR. SPICER: I do believe that there are some folks that people have asked that have walked them through, shared the statements, et cetera, et cetera.
Q Are there any plans for the President to reach out himself to any members to explain or reassure?
MR. SPICER: I don't -- not that I'm aware of.
Q Thanks, Sean. So you've referenced a few times these statements from McMaster, Tillerson, and Powell. And one thing none of them address is sort of the key point of the article, which is that the President divulged classified information. None of their statements addressed that. So can you clarify for us whether or not the President divulged classified information? Number one. And number two, if so, who gave the okay on that? Was that preapproved by State or by any of these agencies?
MR. SPICER: So, number one, going back to another question, there is, in the normal course of conversations with different countries -- whether it's threats or information -- information is routinely shared. Secondly, as was mentioned, if the President wanted to share information, that would be within his decision. That all being said, I'm not going to discuss what -- go down a road of parsing what would be and what wouldn't be.
Q So you won't clarify whether or not the information he shared was classified?
MR. SPICER: No, I think that the -- as you pointed out, the three statements that were made, they are very clear of what was not addressed. And again, getting into starting to have a discussion about what is and what isn't -- what isn't classified -- is a very dangerous road.
Q So, two questions. First, in this meeting with the Russians at the White House, why was the President's first inclination to want to share sensitive information rather than, for instance, to press them on meddling in the U.S. election, which we saw all these intelligence officials agree just last week was something that Russia certainly did?
MR. SPICER: Well, I think to presume that -- I mean, that conversation is still private. And to just assume what was and wasn't discussed would not be accurate. I'm not going to get into the contents of that.
But I also think that, again, we're missing what was shared and the purpose. There was a discussion about a shared aviation threat. As General McMaster pointed out, they had an airplane that was taken down in some way in October of 2015, which over 200 lives were lost. They shared and discussed a shared threat that our two countries have and a concern that we have. I think that is extremely appropriate.
Q And secondly, one of the knocks against this administration has basically been that you guys do things in a sloppy manner and that makes stories like this worse. So when you look at the way this played out -- yes, we routinely share information, but we routinely share information that is sensitive with our allies. We don't routinely share sensitive information with the Russians.
So I guess, did you guys take the proper procedures to let intelligence agencies know ahead of time that you wanted to share this information -- that the President did -- with Russian officials? Or did he just make the call on the spot, and was that the reason that Bossert made these calls afterward to the CIA and to the NSA? And was this a learning experience in any way for this administration about following protocols to ensure you guys don't get the kind of headlines next time that you did this time?
MR. SPICER: Well, number one, to make any assumptions about what was shared, what wasn't shared, and what processes were or were not followed would be highly speculative.
Number two, as I've said repeatedly, the information that was shared was on a common threat and one that we both have a shared goal in eradicating. So to suggest that -- which I think is the nut of the question -- why wouldn't we want to share a common threat and the efforts that both countries are taking to eradicate a threat that we both feel?
Q But there's no indication that you guys went through the proper protocols.
MR. SPICER: Hold on, with all due respect, you have no understanding of that. For you -- and I'm not -- but to sit back and say, because it hasn't been leaked out -- I mean, that's the nature of the leak. Somebody is selectively leaking information and facts. And there's a reason it's selective; it's because they're trying to create -- you know, and again, for me to guess why -- but at least it appears as though somebody is trying to create a narrative or a problem.
But to further suggest that somehow because you get one piece of a puzzle, that you know what the entire puzzle looks like -- even to suggest that that piece is accurate, which, in this case, you've heard our position on that. But this is clearly a pattern of people releasing sensitive information to further what appears to be someone's agenda.
And I think that, again, the President has raised this. Several people in the administration have raised this. But the idea that there is no concern or seemingly no concern over something like this being put out in the open I think is, frankly, concerning. And it should be to every American that we have information of a sensitive and classified nature that is being sent out into the open.
Q But it can be --
MR. SPICER: Hey, Brian, Brian, brain.
MR. SPICER: That's not how it works. Thank you.
Q Sean, if I could follow up on Jon Decker's question, a couple of questions about the fight against ISIL in this context. That was what the President talked about was the source of the conversation, or, I should say, framework of the conversation that he had with the Russians last week. So is the President actively looking for new partners in the fight against ISIL? And is it his intent to look to partners that have previously been unconsidered because they were not part of traditional alliances and partnerships with the United States?
MR. SPICER: I think it's safe to say that the President is going to look to anybody who wants to share our goal of eradicating radical Islamic terrorism, ISIL, and other threats from around the globe.
Thank you guys very much. Have a great day. We'll talk to you tomorrow in Connecticut.
2:40 P.M. EDT