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Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney Aboard Air Force One En Route Oso, Washington, 4/22/2014

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Oso, Washington

11:21 A.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY:  Good morning.  Welcome aboard Air Force One.  As you know, we’re headed to the great state of Washington, where the President will be viewing the devastation from the recent mudslide and meeting with the families affected by the disaster there, as well as with first responders and recovery workers.  What they’ve been through has been devastating, and the President looks forward to spending some time with families, with first responders, and also, obviously, looking at what happened in the aftermath of the mudslide.

After that, we head to Tokyo, Japan to begin our four-nation, multi-day Asian tour. 

That’s all I have at the top.  Any questions?  Or should we just get back to movies and food?  (Laughter.) 

Q    Jay, the South Korean military has reported increased activity around the site of a North Korean nuclear area.  Is North Korea preparing for a nuclear test of some sort?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Mark, as I said yesterday, we closely monitor actions such as that.  North Korea has a history of taking provocative actions, and we are always mindful of the possibility that such an action could be taken.  Depending on what it is and what they do, if they do anything, it would most likely be in violation of numerous commitments that the DPRK is bound by.  But of course, that is something that they have, unfortunately, done many times.

Q    Do you have any evidence to support the concerns of the South Koreans?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not in a position to discuss the information we have and how we evaluate what’s happening in North Korea.  We’ve certainly seen the public reports and the press reports.  And again, I would note that there is a kind of cyclical nature to the provocative actions that North Korea tends to take, and we’ll be watching it very closely.

Q    Can I ask also, in reference to Japan, the Prime Minister sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which is controversial and has raised concerns among Japan’s Asian neighbors and U.S. allies such as South Korea.  Does that action cause any difficulties ahead of the President’s trip to the region where, after all, one of his goals is to sort of repair relations?

MR. CARNEY:  We have an enormously important alliance with Japan, and the President is looking forward to his visit there.  I believe there’s been several briefings, including at the State Department, in advance of the trip so I don’t have anything specific in reaction to that, but I would refer you to the State Department and to others.  And we’ll be talking to you guys, obviously, once we get to Japan.

Q    Jay, on North Korea, but a slightly different front, obviously.  The U.N. published a report relatively recently about the human rights violations they’ve committed, and there was a discussion about how much, for example, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. would take in terms of pressing for establishing some sort of structure on the idea that eventually people could be held accountable for that.  Could you give us any sense of where that stands or whether that’s one of the topics that will be on the President’s agenda as he meets with both the Prime Minister of Japan and the President in South Korea?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, there’s no question that North Korea is a nation that violates human rights -- the human rights of its own citizens.  It’s one of the most oppressive nations in the region and on the planet.  It’s also one of the most closed societies and opaque societies.  It’s the kind of subject that is frequently discussed in meetings between government officials of the United States and South Korea, and I would expect that would be one of the topics of discussion when we’re in Seoul. 

Q    Jay, is it the expectation that if sanctions are ramped up that the Japanese would be on board and remain unified?  Or is there work that the administration is going to have to do on this trip to try and ensure that?

MR. CARNEY:  You refer to sanctions on Russia with --

Q    Sectoral sanctions.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, let me first make clear that under the three executive orders, the administration, the President have a great deal of flexibility and capacity to impose additional sanctions in a way that responds to escalation by Russia with escalated costs for Russia.  And that would be up to and including, potentially, sectoral sanctions -- what are described as sectoral sanctions.  But there are other kinds of sanctions that can be imposed to individuals and entities.  And the importance of the executive orders is that they, taken together, allow for that flexibility. 

We’ve said that Russia needs to comply with the commitments it made in the agreement signed in Geneva -- an agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU -- and we are calling on all parties to comply with the commitments they’ve made.  And we would note that the Ukrainian government is doing its part to deescalate the situation there by making clear that it intends to offer amnesty to those who have taken up weapons and occupied buildings if they lay down their arms and vacate the buildings, and to pursue constitutional reform, and to take very seriously the concerns of those in some of the regions outside of Kyiv and eastern and southern Ukraine in terms of their relative -- their relationship with the center.

So the Ukrainian government has acted responsibly and seriously, and we commend them for that.  And we call on Russia to use the influence that Russia has on the armed militants who have seized buildings and blockaded roads and stockpiled weapons to pressure them to give up their weapons and to vacate the buildings.  And we will watch very closely in the coming days to see if those commitments are honored, and then will take action as necessary, if necessary, when it comes to imposing further costs.

Q    How much longer is the U.S. prepared to wait before it decides whether or not to go ahead and impose additional sanctions?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have a specific deadline to provide to you.  As I said yesterday and again today, we’re going to evaluate this in coming days.  As you know, the Vice President visited Ukraine, was in Kyiv, and announced additional assistance that we’re providing to Ukraine, made clear our support for the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian government in this challenging time.  And meanwhile, we, with our European and G7 partners, are closely monitoring the situation on the ground.

Q    Has the U.S. made any sort of timeline to Russia in expectation of when you would want to see progress of deescalating tensions?  Does Russia know when you expect to see things change?

MR. CARNEY:  I think Russia understands that the United States, the EU and our G7 partners are serious about the need for all parties to the agreement to take steps to deescalate the situation in Ukraine and that, should Russia continue to engage in provocative actions, continue to support the separatists -- the so-called separatists, or the armed irregular militias in portions of Ukraine who have seized buildings, that there will be further costs imposed on Russia. 

And we’ve discussed many times what Russia needs to do, which is use their influence to help deescalate the situation.  That includes their influence directly on those who have seized buildings, also to remove their troops from their position on the border in a manner that is consistent with their disposition prior to this crisis, and to take other steps to engage with Ukraine together with international partners in a dialogue building on Geneva so that we can move forward, and that the -- so the Ukrainian people can move forward with stabilizing their economy, participating in presidential elections on May 25th, and getting about the business that the Ukrainian government has committed itself to of instituting reforms and dealing with corruption and all the other challenges that Ukraine faces.

Q    Can we go back to North Korea for a second?  If there is any sort of a nuclear test, is there any talk of changing the President’s itinerary at all?

MR. CARNEY:  We’re monitoring events closely and mindful of Pyongyang’s propensity to take provocative actions, but I’m not going to speculate about that. 

Q    On the mudslide, obviously the President is expressing his sympathy and appreciation for the first responders and for the families there.  Is there any policy that he’s going to discuss, or specific, concrete actions the federal government is going to take in response to the accident?

MR. CARNEY:  The administration remains focused on supporting the state and local efforts, and first responders.  Earlier this month, as you know, the President declared a major disaster in the state of Washington and ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts.  This assistance is in addition to the support provided under the presidential emergency declaration granted on March 24th, 2014.  And we -- the President has, rather, directed his team to stay in close touch with our federal partners as well as state and local officials leading the response.

So I think the purpose of the visit, which will include remarks delivered at the Oso firehouse, is to view firsthand the aftermath of the terrible mudslide there, and to meet directly with those who lost loved ones and have suffered so much in this terrible tragedy.

Q    Has the President and Vice President spoken since the Vice President went to Kyiv?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t know that they have spoken directly; they may have.  I think the Vice President was in Kyiv until very recently; I’m not sure of the timing of his departure.  But the President is obviously well-briefed on and focused on developments there and on the assistance that the Vice President announced in Kyiv, and the support that we’re giving to the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government.

Q    Jay, there’s an economic forum I think in St. Petersburg in a couple of weeks.  There’s a number of major U.S. CEOs slated to attend -- Boeing, Citi, Goldman.  Is that a concern at all for the administration?  And what’s kind of the outreach to private business when it comes to Russia?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not aware of that conference so I’ll have to direct you to the Treasury Department.  But I think that the administration has engaged with companies that have sought information about the steps that we’ve taken.  Treasury might have more for you on that. 

Obviously, how severe the sanctions will be will depend on how much Russia wants to continue to engage in activity that supports the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  So it’s hard to speculate or to know all the costs that will be imposed on Russia because, obviously, Russia does have the opportunity to avoid further costs if it participates in a positive way in deescalating the situation there. 

Q    How does the White House view today’s Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on -- Michigan’s ban on affirmative action at universities?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, we’re still reviewing the ruling, which just came down.  So I don’t have a specific reaction.  Generally speaking, as you know, the President believes that diversity in the classroom is important for students, campuses and schools.  In an increasingly multicultural society and global economy, it is more important than ever that America’s students be exposed to a wide array of ideas and perspectives to prepare them for success.

As you know, the President has said that while he opposes quotas and thinks an emphasis on universal and not race-specific programs is good policy, considering race, along with other factors, can be appropriate in certain circumstances.  But we don’t have a specific reaction to the ruling.

11:37 A.M. EDT

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