White House press secretary Sean Spicer met the press for his first official briefing Monday, engaging in a wide-ranging give-and-take for well over an hour.
The briefing was rife with news: Spicer did not rule out joint military activity with Russia in Syria, said the United States would challenge China in the South China Sea in an effort to defend the interests of the United States and discussed the current state of the left over Obama administration immigration actions.
China and the South China Sea
Spicer notably said Monday that the United States would defend its interests in the South China Sea, where China is building islands in international waters in an attempt to push its control of the key shipping lanes.
“I think the US is going to make sure we protect our interests there,” Spicer said. “If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country.”
At a regular press conference Tuesday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing’s position “hasn’t changed.”
“China will firmly protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea,” she said.
“We urge the US side to respect facts as well as exercise caution in its remarks and actions to avoid harming peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
US, Russia to combat ISIS?
Spicer said Monday that Trump is open to working “with any country” when it comes to defeating ISIS.
“I think if there’s a way that we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure we’ll take it,” Spicer said.
Trump campaigned on a platform that included defeating ISIS and regularly blamed former President Barack Obama and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for the rise of the terrorist group.
Asked directly whether the Trump administration would work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat ISIS, Spicer said: “Let’s not take that too far.”
“We are going to smartly do this,” Spicer said. “We’re not going to get together with people under guise of defeating ISIS if that’s not truly their guise.”
Moving the US Embassy in Israel
Spicer said there are “no decisions” about when and whether the United States will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The move would be sure to anger the United States’ Arab allies in the region, because both the Israelis and the Palestinian lay claim to Jerusalem.
“We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process,” Spicer said, despite some reports to the contrary.
Spicer later said that the Trump administration is going to “continue to consult with stakeholders as we get there.”
Trump told CNN in March that moving the embassy would happen “very quickly.”
Trump advisers and Russia
Spicer said that Trump has not talked to “anyone specifically about” about US investigators scrutinizing late December calls between campaign officials and Russian officials.
But Trump “has not made any indication he would stop an investigation of any sort,” he said.
The investigations, law enforcement and intelligence officials tell CNN, are part of a broader counterintelligence probe of Russian activities in the US.
Immigration, possibly more than any other issue, animated much of Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s campaign plan for immigration including detaining anyone who illegally crosses the border, moving undocumented immigrants with criminal records out “Day 1” and “immediately” terminating Obama’s two executive actions on immigration – namely Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Spicer was less committal on Monday, suggesting that actions like repealing DACA and DAPA were going to happen later.
“First and foremost, the President’s been very, very clear that we need to direct agencies to focus on those who are in this country illegally and have a record – a criminal record or poses a threat to the American people,” Spicer said. “That’s where the priorities going to be and then we’re going to continue to work through the entire number of folks that are here illegally. But right now the clear focus is on that.”
Spicer later said that the administration’s focus is “people who’ve overstayed their visas, people who have committed crime.”
Trump speaks with Sisi
In a move the highlights the importance of the Middle East and the Arab world, Spicer said Monday that Trump spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Monday.
“They discussed ways to deepen the bilateral relationship and support Egypt’s fight against terrorists and bolster Egypt’s home- grown historic economic reform program,” Spicer said. “President Trump underscored the United States remains strongly committed to the bilateral relationship, which has helped both countries overcome challenges in the region for decades.”
Spicer also said “the two leaders discussed a visit to the United States in the future.”
Spicer on lying
After offering a slew of falsehoods regarding the size of crowds at Trump’s inauguration in a statement on Saturday, Spicer was pushed on Monday about his truthfulness from the podium.
Spicer said it was his intention to tell the truth from the podium but that sometimes he will disagree with reporters about facts.
“There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out. But our intention’s never to lie to you,” he said. “I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them. And if we make a mistake, we’ll do our best to correct it.”
Spicer, however, did not apologize or back away from some of the incorrect claims he made on Saturday.
Spicer stuck by the defensive stance the administration has taken regarding the size of crowds at the President’s inauguration by arguing that the way Trump is covering is “demoralizing.”
“It’s a little demoralizing to turn on the TV day after day and hear, (he) can’t do this, this guy’s not going to get confirmed, not way they’re going to go through,” Spicer said.
Spicer repeatedly used the word “demoralizing” to describe the coverage of Trump.
“Whether it’s the President himself, the vice president, the senior team, the volunteers or the people who are out there just in America that voted for him or walked the streets or put up a sign, that to constantly be told ‘no, no, no’ and watch him go ‘yes, yes, yes’ every time and to come up to the next hurdle and see someone put a block up gets a little frustrating,” Spicer said.
He added: “The default narrative is always negative and it’s demoralizing.”
Supreme Court nominee
After Republicans refused to give President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court a hearing or a vote, Trump entered office with an opening to fill on the highest court in the land.
“I think we will have a nomination within the next couple weeks. He continues to make that a priority of his,” Spicer said.