Return to Transcripts main page


White House Daily Briefing; EPA Chief Replaces Half of Science Advisory Board. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 9, 2017 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00:] SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No. Again, I guess my point is somebody who is not -- who clearly showed by the fact that career DOJ attorneys told her the president's lawful order -- that she should sign the president's lawful order and then chose not to do it --



SPICER: I get it. That vindicates the president's point. This was not somebody looking t for -- my point is we were correct in the assumptions we made at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: My next topic is just on health care. Is the White House asking Senate leadership to put more women on the working group?

SPICER: I'm not aware of that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would the White House like to see that?

SPICER: The more voices we can put on a panel to help get this done, the better. To the extent I'm not going to tell Leader McConnell or the White House is not going to tell him how to conduct a panel, but at the same time, I think any voices that can be constructive in getting a more patient-centric health care system put together would be welcome. But that's not our call to make.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There's been a number of conversations in Washington this week about the relationship between H.R. McMaster and the president. How does President Trump characterize his relationship with his national security adviser?

SPICER: Excellent.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Another follow-up question very quickly on Flynn. You have spoken from the podium before about the president asking Michael Flynn to resign as a result of him misleading the vice president. We learned a lot about Michael Flynn this week and potential investigations, and we know actual investigations into his actions before coming here to the White House. Was this at all considered in the president's decision to ask him to resign?

SPICER: I think you can only -- you can only accept someone's resignation once. He asked for it, he got it. So to go back and relitigate isn't really something that makes a ton of sense. He got it, he asked for it, he got it the first time. I don't think you go back and continue to say would I have asked for it here, here and here. De what he did the first time. He was right and he got it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you just be clear on the 18 days? The White House put any security restrictions on Mike Flynn at all during that period of time? Was he limited in terms of access to classified information, national secrets or decision making in any way?

SPICER: I'm not aware of any. It doesn't -- the decision that we made was the right one. The president made a decision, he stands by it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You have Yates coming to the White House on January 26th and 27th. You then have McGahn going to the DOJ on February 2nd to see those documents. But it's not until February 13th that Flynn actually resigns. Tell us what happened between -- you got this warning, you then saw documents that backed up that warning, then you have 11 days that passed. What was happening in those 11 days?

SPICER: I think if you go back in time and look at what we talked about at the time, there were several conversations that occurred with General Flynn between the chief of staff, the general counsel, the vice president, it all occurred then. Look, when you think about the scope of time that actually occurred, those 11 days, to make sure that we did the right thing is important. And we ultimately did. That's what's important when you think of this. When you look at this compared to other instances, the idea that in 11 days, a review was conducted, the president acted decisively. I think that actually shows the system worked properly. John?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) -- at all how Yates describes those conversations on the 26th and 27th? She's saying she came here with great urgency, that she made clear that he had been compromised, that she had evidence he had been compromised, that this was something she felt like the White House was going to take action on?

SPICER: Well, look, I'm not going to -- I don't think there's 100 percent agreement about how she describes everything. But I think generally as far as the timeline goes, we are fine with it. But again, I'm not going to net-pick the fact, what her tone was like. I would suggest that the reason she was asked to come back the second day was because it wasn't -- it clearly wasn't that clear on the first day. So I think logic dictates you don't ask someone to come back and explain themselves a second time if they have done an effective job the first time. But again, I'm not going to get into needling every little point about what happened. John?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thank you, Sean. I have two questions. First, a citizens group known as united against nuclear Iran released a list of 16 American companies a few days ago, among them Volvo, Honeywell and Schlumberger, all of which are cutting back on jobs involving Americans but all of which expressed a desire to do business in Iran under the terms of the deal that was made with Tehran. My question is this. What is the administration's response to businesses who say they want to do business in Iran under a deal the president described as the worst ever?

[14:35:17] SPICER: I think that speaks for itself. The president is very clear on what he thinks of the Iran deal and companies need to abide by the law.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Two weeks ago Monday, the president met with some of us, he said, it was on the record, he would have an answer on the administration's policy toward the international monetary fund in a few days. It's been two weeks. Can we expect any time an announcement on what the administration will do regarding the IMF?

SPICER: I would be glad to follow up on that one.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The governor of Texas on Sunday signed a law that essentially outlaws sanctuary cities in the state of Texas. Do you view this as a positive step and would you encourage other states to do the same?

SPICER: You know, obviously, it's a positive step. I think it shows that as we have discussed here from an economic and security standpoint, that makes sense for the citizens of our country. Each governor, each mayor will have to make their own decisions but I think the president's position is very clear when it comes to sanctuary cities and how we are going to try to address them going forward. Because it's not just an economic issue, not just a jobs issue, but it's a security issue for our country. So I think ultimately, every elected official from the local level all the way up to president needs to feel comfortable with the laws they are passing to make sure they are protecting the people. Ultimately that's what every government first and foremost responsibility is to its people.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) -- the administration's position sanctuary cities should not be existing nationally, will you still take action that denies funding to cities nationwide?

SPICER: Again, I think it's a positive sign. I hope more follow the governor's lead. But we are going to do exactly what the president said and follow through on the executive orders he's made.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So, Sean, you mentioned Director Clapper's testimony yesterday. You said no evidence of collusion. He was also asked if he was aware of the FBI counter intelligence investigation, he said he was not. Therefore, he left the impression before the panel he could not give a definitive answer about the question of collusion. Do you accept that as a valid representation of his knowledge and the fact this remains an open question?

SPICER: Sure. I mean, in the sense I'm not going to question but I think the interesting thing is on all the other issues that he testifies about, everybody takes it as whole cloth that if he says anything -- he was the DNI. So when you guys want him to speak for the entire 17 agencies, you sort of assume that that's what he's doing. In this case, when he's been asked similar questions before, and said well, I can't speak to this case generally speaking, I see nothing, the presumption is therefore he has to be -- in this case he's saying I have not and continue to not see anything that shows an effort of collusion. As the DNI, I would ask you the same question, which is at some point, given all that he was seeing and all that he was given access to, when at some point are you guys going to accept this idea that there was no collusion?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I'm asking you if you accept what he testified to.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That they have equal weight. That, yes, the time the agency said they found no evidence, this representative fact you take as valid. And it's also representative fact you take as valid he was not aware of an FBI counter intelligence investigation and therefore, at this time, cannot say conclusively there was no collusion. You give them equal weight, correct?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Fine. On Afghanistan, because I think it's important what the president's thinking about here. You have been implying that ISIS is a part of the Afghanistan equation and what I want to ask you about is as the president looks in Afghanistan, as the team presents him options, are those options primarily about whatever ISIS component is in Afghanistan or the larger, more malignant issue in Afghanistan which has always been the Taliban?

SPICER: Right. As you know, there are multiple missions going on to confront those multiple things. The U.S. Currently has about 8400 forces in Afghanistan doing a counter terrorism operation which is operation freedom sentinel and then the NATO mission which is to train, advise and assist under operation resolute support. The main objective of us being in Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorists who attack the United States and our allies, that's the major objective. We remain very focused on the defeat of al Qaeda, its associates as well as the defeat of ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan. But that's simply put what the mission is going forward.

[14:39:52] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When you suggest it's a Washington question to ask if 15,000 can do a better job than 100,000, are you suggesting the ideas theme president is being presented with are so original, so outside the box that 15,000 troops can achieve what 100,000 deployed shortly after 9/11 cannot achieve?

SPICER: I'm suggesting fully defining the mission, what is the exact objective, how far away are we doing it, what's the time level we have to have, can we grow the Afghan force. There are several things that go into a strategy. I think the idea of just saying can we throw X number at it is not the way the president is looking at these options. He's trying to figure out, walk back from a goal of eliminating this threat and then tell me how we get there as opposed to tell me how many troops we need and what you're going to do with them. I think there's been in the past some instances of just figuring, OK, if we add more troops that will help solve the problem. The president is asking to re-look at the entire strategy and then figure out what the footprint is in a variety of ways to get there. That is a different look at what the strategy is versus what it had been.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: One last thing. You suggested that when Sally Yates refused to enforce the executive order, that vindicated the assumption you had that she might not have been a purely well motivated government servant bringing over this evidence about Michael Flynn. On the other side of that, after Don McGahn looked at the evidence on February 2nd, was in fact Sally Yates' warning vindicated?

SPICER: I don't know. I don't know what Don saw. I'm not privy to that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You told us that led to his firing. So it had to have some legitimacy, right?

SPICER: What led to his firing was he misled the vice president.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Wasn't that information a part of the conversation?

SPICER: I cannot get into and I don't know, frankly, what was in those materials.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you not assume --


SPICER: I don't think they should assume anything. Facts should guide it. The bottom line is the president fired him for misleading the vice president. I just said to you, multiple times, and I said at the time, so at the time that it happened, and right now, we continue to say the vice president was misled by General Flynn and the president asked for his resignation. Full stop.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If I can come back to Paris.

SPICER: You can. Let's all go.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's my understanding the president's initial inclination was to pull out of the Paris agreement. He suggested as much on the campaign trail. But the situation has become a little more complicated. The knock against the Paris agreement is that it would have a detrimental effect on the U.S. economy fully implemented. Does the president believe there's a way to stay in the Paris agreement, maybe renegotiate the standards? He's under a tremendous amount of pressure from many of his own advisers, other countries, to stay in this agreement to some degree. Does he think he can make changes and still stay in it?

SPICER: I think the reason he's seeking the advice of his team is to get options and then he will pursue the best one. I'm not going to tell you which one that he's going to do. That's why he's continuing to meet with the team and to get advice. That's it. Plain and simple.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Also, in the omnibus spending bill the president signed was a provision to extend the EB-5 visa program. It's been pointed out the company Jared Kushner was recently in charge of has been aggressively reaching out to people in China to say invest in our property in Jersey City, remember the EB-5 program, the people that invest a certain amount of money in this country get the sort of golden visa program. Does the president see any potential conflict of interest there?

SPICER: I think Jared has no affiliation with that company anymore. He recused himself from it, sold his interest in it. That's a question more for the company itself.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president doesn't see potential conflicts here?

SPICER: Jared did everything that was required to make sure he recused himself. Took all the steps necessary.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You put out a statement that congratulates --


SPICER: Thank you for bringing that up. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- who ran in South Korea. He had actively campaigned suggesting the president's idea that South Korea pay its fair share of the THAAD missile system was a bad idea. He wants warmer relations with the north. Do you hope to convince him to change his mind?

SPICER: I think the president looks forward to meeting with him and talking about our shared interests. I will wait for that conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Second question. You did say the president has an excellent relationship with his national security adviser but there's been a widely circulating column that quotes the president, two sources, saying his national security adviser is the general undermining my policy. Did the president say that?

SPICER: No. I don't believe he has. I haven't seen him. I mean, I think when you look at the president's schedule this week, as I just noted to Sara a little while ago, there is probably no one aside from family members that are spending more time with the president this week than general McMaster. He values his counsel. He continues to be extremely pleased with his pick and his performance as national security adviser and he has the utmost confidence in him.

[14:45:06] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just a couple more questions on General Flynn. You keep saying the White House was given a heads-up by Sally Yates about what General Flynn had said to the Russians. She described it differently, saying she told the White House that General Flynn had been compromised by the Russians and was subject to blackmail by the Russians. Is that the position of the White House now after seeing all the same evidence Sally Yates saw? That General Flynn was compromised and potentially --


SPICER: Look, we have commented on this. We made a decision based on actions that he took. The president asked for and accepted his resignation. We are not looking to relitigate this.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Don't the American people deserve to know --


SPICER: They need to know the president took decisive action in this country's best interests and back to Steve's question, made an excellent choice for national security adviser.


SPICER: I don't know that --


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sally Yates came to that conclusion.

SPICER: I don't know that that's -- for her to come to that conclusion without any investigation seems premature, don't you think?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The White House investigate whether or not their national security adviser was compromised by Russia?

SPICER: We looked into the situation. The president made a decision and it was the right decision.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sean, follow-up on that but first I want to ask about director, FBI Director James Comey's testimony before the Senate which now, apparently, it looks like the FBI director gave inaccurate testimony to the Senate. Is the White House concerned that he greatly exaggerated or misstated what kind of contact Huma Abedin had in terms of her e-mails and sending them to Anthony Weiner?

SPICER: I have not asked the president or the staff about that. The one issue is I don't think there's any question by any account there was classified information inappropriately shared on an unclassified system to an un-cleared person. To me I think that's what continues to be the take-away.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is there concern the FBI director apparently gave inaccurate testimony? SPICER: At this point, I have not asked and I'm not fully aware --

I'm aware of the testimony that occurred and the inquiries but I have yet to follow up on that. I would be glad to follow up.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does the president still have confidence, full confidence, in FBI Director James Comey?

SPICER: I have no reason to believe -- I haven't asked him. I have not asked the president since last time we spoke about this.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The last time you spoke about it, you said he did have confidence but you are not sure enough to say that again now?

SPICER: In light of what you are telling me, I don't want to start speaking on behalf of the president without speaking to him first.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: One follow-up on Flynn. The president of course said Flynn should ask for immunity before agreeing to testify. Does he still believe that?

SPICER: I think General Flynn should seek the advice of counsel and take their advice with respect to his investigation and the inquiries into his background but that's a decision for him and his counsel.

Thank you, guys, very much. Have a great day.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. There you heard it. Really the crux of a lot of the questions pertaining to the testimony we all watched yesterday, the former acting A.G. Sally Yates, who was fired just early on in the Trump presidency.

David Chalian, let me start with you, our political director there.

I think we noted the same thing. The fact from the Sally Yates' testimony was that she told the White House that General Flynn, NSA, at that time was a Russian blackmail risk, and Sean Spicer kept referring to that warning as a simple heads-up. What did you make of that?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITIAL DIRECTOR: Yeah. That heads-up expression is what he had said back at the time. So he's trying not to change the characterization I think he used heads-up four or five times in the briefing today. It just is remarkably different than the tone and tenor we heard from Sally Yates yesterday who was discussing a sense of urgency to get over to the White House counsel, to say your national security adviser here at the White House is likely compromised by the Russians. That may be interpreted, it sounds like if you listen to Sean Spicer, from the White House, as a political opponent or some partisan opponent who came over to give a casual heads-up about Michael Flynn. From Sally Yates' side, here's this career-long justice official who went over with urgency to say your national security adviser is compromised. Those two things are not the same thing. No doubt that the White House wants to paint it one way, but to me, it suggests as you heard in the briefing, these questions aren't going away because what that triggered from Sally Yates was 18 days of inaction and so now, the White House which, clearly, he did not want to answer at all is still going to be peppered with questions about well, what was done in those 18 days once you knew your national security adviser was compromised.

[14:50:06] BALDWIN: That's the question.

Dana, let me follow up on it.

To hear Sean Spicer today call Sally Yates, quote, "a political opponent of Trump," you know, history is important. Context is important. Sally Yates, once upon a time, was appointed during the Bush H.W. years.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, here's the thing. You are exactly right. Sally Yates was a career Justice Department employee. She is somebody who prosecuted many very important cases, Eric Rudolph, for example, and others. She also went after Democratic politicians in your hometown of Atlanta. And she got a lot of Democrats upset with her, even and including John Lewis, who Evan Perez, our now colleague, who back then was working in 2009 for "Wall Street Journal," did a story he showed me yesterday, that that story said John Lewis was trying to block her appointment because he was afraid she was a Republican. Yes, she was working for the Obama administration but Obama was the guy who was the president. She had also worked for other administrations technically because of her job as a career Justice Department official. The other thing about the heads-up. To me, heads-up is, hey, mom, put on CNN, I'm going to be on Brooke's show. Not, oh, my gosh, there's a matter of national security and your national security adviser could be compromised by the Russians. You need to know this. To me, they are very different. I totally agree with David that Sean was trying to use the same language he used way back when, when we first learned about this, but still, now that we heard the testimony from Sally Yates, it just seems -- it doesn't seem to fit.



BORGER: -- just to echo what my friends here have said, it's sort of the difference between saying, hey, it's going to rain this afternoon versus you have a category 5 hurricane that is aimed directly at your House and you better do something about it and you better figure out what you're going to do. And that's what Sally Yates was saying. And I think that the notion that she was this partisan was spoken very bluntly by Sean today when he said that Yates was someone who you have to wonder why they are telling you something. So clearly, they were questioning her motives as a partisan and you know, sometimes in government, you get to a point where people come to you and you just have to believe that they are doing it because they are doing their job and they are giving you a warning because it is their job to do this. And that Sally Yates wasn't coming to them out of any partisan irk but she was coming to them to say, look, you have a problem here.

BALDWIN: And she came to them, to use your metaphor of the category 5 hurricane, three times after President Obama warned of said hurricane to the incoming president himself. Let me move on to -- Dana, let me ask you. You covered -- you all

really have, covered Capitol Hill for years and years -- on this whole question about you have essentially these 13 older white gentlemen, essentially -- you know where I'm going with this. Essentially, tasked to come up with the Senate's version of this health care bill which I don't know how much these men know about menopause or maternity issues or obstetrics or you name it but when Sean Spicer was asked about this, he almost acted like he wasn't even aware.

BASH: Well, we first reported this last week and it was -- actually, it was our male colleague, Ted Barrett, who, when I got the list of members of this working group, said, where's the women," and Is said --

BALDWIN: We talked about it Friday.

BASH: Yes. We talked about it Friday. Now, I will say that some of the women who are in the Senate and are very involved in this health care legislation and trying to make it right, Susan Collins among them, is saying you know what, I'm not worried about that. I'm still working and she is. Other officials at the White House besides Sean Spicer have said that they do see this as an optic problem. I think I would say it's also a substance problem. I think as we were talking, I saw some e-mails going back and forth that Manu Raju said that Mitch McConnell was asked about it and also didn't seem to think this was a problem.

Now, I will also say that when we reported on this late last week, an aide to one of those male Senators who are part of the working group said, I should say this was a female aide, said they weren't going to play identity politics, they felt they had a diverse group working in terms of geography, in terms of political spectrum, and they felt they were doing just fine. We'll see if that changes as this becomes more and more sort of in the zeitgeist.

[14:55:08] BALDWIN: Let me wrap this up by saying a senior White House official said today, quote, "You'll see those optics addressed." We will see.

We've got to go.

Thank you all so much.

I want to move on to talk about this EPA news. Just in, President Trump is delaying his decision on whether to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord for at least a couple more weeks. He now wants to wait until after his trip to the G-7 summit in Italy this month. Originally, the White House had planned to announce its decision by the meeting. Even the president's own advisers are deeply divided over whether to ditch the deal.

While the president is pondering what exactly to do, his predecessor is definitely defending the landmark climate pact.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's indisputable that the planet is getting warmer and the only real controversy is how much warmer will it get.

The current administration has differences with my administration in terms of energy policy. And that's part of what happens in democracy.

So there will be a useful debate that takes place in America.


BALDWIN: So, off of that, some changes also to tell you about regarding the EPA, or the Environmental Protection Agency, as the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, has decided to replace half of the members on its key science advisory board.

With me now, one of the nine scientists dismissed. He is Robert Richardson, an ecological economist at Michigan State University.

Robert, thank you for being on with me.

ROBERT RICHARDSON, ECOLOGICAL ECONOMIST, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: Let me read your tweet for everyone else. This is from you from this weekend. Quote, "Today I was Trumped. I have had the pleasure of serving on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors and my appointment was terminated today."

What happened?

RICHARDSON: I received notification late Friday evening via e-mail that my appointment would not be renewed. It was unexpected because we have been led to believe that those who had completed their first three-year term would be reappointed to a second three-year term. So the news that I received on Friday afternoon was surprising, and I did react with some disappointment to that with the tweet you referred to.

BALDWIN: You were in your first term. You presumed you would be re- upped. The EPA says you all weren't fired, you can reapply.

Let me read what the EPA spokesperson told "The Washington Post," "This approach is what was always intended for the board and we are making a clean break with the last administration's approach."

That said, a lot of your colleagues, Mr. Richardson, have said this is entirely political. How do you see it?

RICHARDSON: I also see it as a political action insofar as when this board met in its executive committee in January, before the inauguration, we were informed that it's typical that members who have completed a first three-year term are reappointed to a second three- year term, which would then be the maximum, and paperwork was being prepared for submission to request our renewal. So we were going on with the assumption that this was all in order and we would be renewed at the end of our expiration date. So the news --

(CROSSTALK) BALDWIN: Why do you see it as political, then?

RICHARDSON: In part, because of the rhetoric that has been -- surfaced since then. The quotes I have seen from the EPA spokesperson have said they didn't want to renew these appointments, they wanted to fill this board with representatives from industry. One quote was that this board should reflect an understanding of the impact of regulations on the regulated community. This is a board that advises on science and we have no -- the board had no role in reviewing or approving regulations so that was a completely separate function of the agency. So I believe the decision was political because that rationale is not accurate in terms of what this board's authority is.

BALDWIN: We have seen recently a number of scientists speaking up against the administration, the marches in Washington and beyond, activists rushing to save government science data, even before this new administration came in. What are your thoughts among your peers about how the Trump White House is simply approaching science?

RICHARDSON: Well, I certainly share some of the concerns that you have highlighted. And to be fair, the appointment of my role and the eight other members who were not renewed were expiring, and certainly, any new administration would have the authority and the right to appoint its own advisers, so --

BALDWIN: Will you re-apply, Robert?

RICHARDSON: -- this is --