The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route New York, New York, 5/4/2015

Aboard Air Force One
En Route New York, New York 

11:36 A.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  I'll just do a short thing at the top and then we'll go to questions.  Welcome aboard Air Force One for what promises to be an interesting day in New York today.  The first event will be the unveiling of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. This is the business community responding to the President’s call to action to expand opportunity for all and ensure that we're taking steps to address the unique challenges facing many young men of color across the country. 

We've mobilized important federal policy responses including early childhood education, mentoring and job training programs.  But as the President said last week in the Rose Garden, we'll all need to do some soul-searching to meet these challenges, and this alliance from the private sector is a good step in the right direction.  We're pleased to have them engaged and working to mobilize the business community as the Obama administration continues to take important steps and do important work in this area.

After the first event, the President will head over to the Ed Sullivan Theater to do an interview with David Letterman.  Letterman, of course, is nearing retirement.  I understand from the Letterman people -- I think this is the President’s eighth appearance on the Letterman program.  So the President is really looking forward to this conversation.  It's yielded interesting an entertaining conversations in the past, so hopefully they will again.

And then this evening, the President has a couple of events that he’s doing in support of the Democratic National Committee. And my colleagues at the DNC can get you the metrics about the number of participants, the amount of money raised.  And there will be press access for the first event where you’ll hear the President’s opening remarks at that event.  The second event is a a much smaller roundtable discussion where the President will not be making formal remarks.  So we'll get you information about the number of attendees and the amount of money raised, but there will be no press access to that one.

So, with that, let me go to your questions.

Q    Can you say a bit about this alliance and the parameters of how it's being set up, and if there’s any concerns about influence on the President while he’s in office with donations, things like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nedra, as I mentioned at the top, this is the business community responding to the President’s challenge for all of us to do some soul-searching about what we can do to try to help expand opportunity for all Americans.  It's also important and worthy of some additional time and attention for us to be focusing on the unique challenges that are facing young men of color in this country.  And this is essentially a private sector -- this is a private sector alliance where the business community is getting together.

They’re just forming the organization today, and I think they’ll have their first board meeting in conjunction with today’s announcement.  So I think a lot of the work to set up the alliance is still to be done.  But we're obviously pleased to see the business community mobilizing in this way. 

And we talked a lot over the last couple of years about the different way that the President of the United States can wield his authority, and some of that is using his pen to sign executive orders and sign legislation into law.  But the President also has a pretty substantial platform to advocate for the kind of change that he’d like to see in the country.  And this is one example of essentially the President using his phone to mobilize the business community in support of national priorities.

So we're obviously gratified by this robust response and look forward to the alliance supporting in the private sector the important work that we’re doing across the administration on this.

Q    Are there any lessons learned from some of the controversy lately with the Clinton Foundation?  I know you talked about the business community.  Like could foreign governments, for instance, make donations to this work, anything like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the Obama administration will have no role in deciding how donations are screened and what criteria they’ll set at the alliance for donor policies because it’s an entirely separate entity.  But obviously they’re in support of a priority that the President has identified.  And, again, we’re pleased that they’re going to do this important work.

This is not a unique arrangement, though.  There are a range of other ways in which the business community has responded to priorities that the Obama administration has identified.  Whether that’s the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative or some of the other job-training kinds of things that the President is trying to advance, we’ve seen the business community respond in meaningful ways, and we’re certainly pleased by that. 

As it relates to the specific policies and guidelines for the fundraising priorities, this is something -- or the fundraising policies of the alliance -- this is something that board members of the alliance will have to determine.  But I’m confident that the members of the board are well aware of the President’s commitment to transparency.

Q    Can you just talk about this being a special time?  Did you mean because of what’s been going on in Baltimore, this work could relate to that?

MR. EARNEST:  This is a timely conversation.  I mean, I’ll make clear that this is an event that’s been on the books for the President for a couple of weeks now and predated the latest news that we’ve seen out of Baltimore over the last couple of weeks.  But I think this is an indication of the President’s ongoing commitment to these kinds of issues, that even when it’s not on the front pages of the country’s newspapers, this has been an issue that has been a priority for the President.

Q    Can I ask you about the shooting in Texas?  Does the White House condemn the contest, and do they hold the organizers responsible for inciting violence?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me start by saying that the President was informed last night of the violence outside Dallas.  There is an ongoing local investigation, so I won’t have a whole lot to say about the specific incident.  I will repeat a principle that you’ve heard from me before, which is specifically that there’s no act of expression, even if it’s offensive, that justifies an act of violence.  And, again, there have been -- we have seen extremists try to use expressions that they consider to be offensive as a way to justify violence, not just in this country but around the world. And in the mind of the President, there’s no form of expression that would justify an act of violence.

Let me also say that based on the initial reports about what happened in Texas last night, we saw a pretty important and notable display of bravery on the part of first responders who responded promptly to the situation.  And because of their courage, the only person that was injured by the two gunmen was a security officer who sustained what I understand to be a relatively minor gunshot wound.  And so I think for that, our gratitude goes out to those first responders who acted so bravely and courageously to prevent further bloodshed.

Q    Did the organizers at the event incite violence by having that event?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, there’s no act of expression, even if some people might find it offensive, that could justify an act of violence.

Q    Did the President find it offensive to have a contest drawing the prophet?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t spoken to the President about it.  I’ll tell you that I was unaware of the event prior to some of the news breaking about the violence that occurred there last night.

Q    Back to the alliance, Josh.  What do you envision the President’s role to be during the rest of his administration and then potentially afterwards?  And then, you mentioned his commitment to transparency.  What does he want to see as their guidelines and rules are being written in terms of disclosure of donations and limits or parameters on who can give?  Nedra mentioned foreign governments.  I also want to ask about registered lobbyists.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is an outside group so that is to say the President will not be involved in the work of the alliance.  This is a private sector organization that is mobilizing leaders in the business community to take action.  And so they will be responsible for determining their fundraising policies and the like.  But we’re obviously gratified that they are seeking to coordinate their efforts in support of the important work that the administration is doing on these issues.

That means that the White House will not be involved in determining what their fundraising policies should be.  And so I don’t have a specific challenge to lay out for you, but many of the people who are participating and taking a leadership role in creating the alliance are well aware of the priority that the President has placed on transparency.

That said, I mean, I guess the other thing I’ll say is I am confident that organizations that are seeking to support the work of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance are going to be proud of that work, and they’re going to be proud of their association with that organization, proud of their association of this broader effort.  But, ultimately, those decisions will be made by the members of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. 

Q    The President’s name will be associated with it whether he wants to or not.  My Brother’s Keeper is his initiative.  He’s been working on it for many years.  There will be a link at least somewhere, right?

MR. EARNEST:  That could be used to describe hundreds of different organizations.  So we're pleased about the opportunity that the business community is seizing here to be an active participant in this broader effort.  And we certainly are pleased that they're taking these steps to create this alliance.  There’s important work to be done, and we're pleased to have their support.  And I’m confident that there will be some effort to coordinate their activities in support of the important work that's ongoing in the federal government and by the Obama administration.

Q    Can I go back to Baltimore for a second?


Q    So there was a Wall Street Journal survey out today that found that 96 percent of Americans are worried that there’s going to be a riot over the summer.  I was wondering if the President has any specific policies that he’s going to be promoting that will address the kind of violence that we saw in Baltimore last week, and what kind of role this event or organization today can play in that?  If there are specific policies that you can speak to, that would be great.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as we discussed at the briefing last week, these are issues that the President has been focused on for quite some time.  Even in those rare situations in which the media hasn’t necessarily been focused on them.  And I cited the experience of the President traveling to Baltimore nearly two years ago to some of these same communities that have been the source of so much news in the last couple of weeks.  And I think the President’s commitment to these issues is a longstanding one.

And so the President has talked about how important it is for our kids to be in good learning environments, whether that's high-quality -- all kids having access to high-quality, early childhood education programs.  Moving through the Congress right now is a compromise proposal to put in place some broader reforms of our public education system.  The President has talked about how important it is for us to ensure that every middle-class family and every family that's trying to get into the middle class can afford a college education -- that never before has a college education been more important to reaching the middle class than it is right now.

So there are a broad range of policies that we know would make a difference to addressing some of the concerns that have been on display over the last couple of weeks.  That also includes the implementation of the 21st century task force on policing.  And there’s important implementation work that needs to be done there.  The federal government is supporting a wide range of local law enforcement organizations and local governments as they seek to implement some of those reforms that could seek to strengthen the bonds of trust between local law enforcement organizations and the communities that they're sworn to serve and protect.

So there’s a lot of important work that needs to get done.  And that's obviously why we're gratified to see the strong support and engagement of the business community when it comes to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.  But this is going to be a subject of ongoing discussion. 

And there’s obviously an important role for the Department of Justice to play.  There are senior Department of Justice officials that have an expertise in this area, so we talked about Ron Davis, who’s a senior official at the Department of Justice, spending significant time in Baltimore.  He previously spent time in Ferguson, Missouri to try to work with law enforcement officials as they seek to strengthen the bonds between them and the communities that they serve. 

So there’s a lot of important activity that needs to get done.  But I also think the President is mindful of the fact, as he expressed in the Rose Garden last week, that these are challenges that our society has faced for a long time.  And that's why I think the President has both made clear that this is not just a law enforcement problem, but this is a challenge that we all need to do some soul-searching as we seek to confront it. And this is going to require a sustained commitment, and not just paying attention on those moments when it is the focus of attention of the national media.

Q    On the 21st Century Policing Task Force recommendations, when will see which pieces of that the administration will put forward?  Is that review still ongoing? And can you give us an update on when we might see something roll out?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we can get you the details.  But we rolled out a couple of months ago the specific recommendations that we were seeking for local law enforcement to implement in their communities.  Are you asking about something different?

Q    Sure.  So those are recommendations that were then going to be reviewed before they were officially rolled out, correct?  Or is there no more -- are they reviewing the recommendations, or have they taken those recommendations as they are?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what these are, these were recommendations that we were making to local law enforcement agencies.  And we’ve already begun the work of working with law enforcement agencies to help them implement them in their communities.  The other part of this was making sure that federal law enforcement agencies were reviewing the recommendations that were applicable to their work and making sure that they're implemented.  And I can tell you that federal law enforcement agencies have already begun to do that. 

Q    Okay.  And actually, I wanted to follow up on Angela’s first question about the extent of the President’s involvement with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.  After today, what will his involvement look like in this particular part of My Brother’s Keeper?  Is he (inaudible) after the speech, or will he get updated on donations, on board meetings?  What will his involvement look like?

MR. EARNEST:  The President won't be involved with the alliance in that way, so he’s not involved in the day-to-day activities of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.  This is a private sector initiative that's being organized and run by important leaders in the business community.  And we're gratified that they’re engaged so deeply in this effort.

I think what principally the outside organization, the alliance will be seeking to do is to support the ongoing efforts of the administration to implement many of these policies and to mobilize private sector support for these priorities.

Q    And one follow-up.  Does he see it as a vehicle potentially for his post-presidency work?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn't make that commitment at this point. The President -- I do think you can expect the President will continue to be involved in these issues, but at this point, I would not commit to any sort of involvement by the former President directly in the day-to-day activities of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. 

Q    Also, on Texas, you said that the President was informed last night after the gunmen -- that incident.  Has he also been informed that today they have identified Elton Simpson to be one of the gunmen and that he was actually dismissed by a judge in 2010 for making false statements to the FBI on plans that he traveled -- wanted to travel to Somalia to prepare for jihad.  Is that something that the President is aware of?  And is he in touch with the intelligence community about who this person may have been and any affiliations they may have to overseas organizations?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me just say as a general matter, when the President was informed of this incident last night, the President asked to be kept up to date on the latest details of the investigation.  So I'm not in a position to confirm any of the details that have been reported today, but the President is in touch with his team about the ongoing investigation into this incident.

Q    Can I ask about the Morell book?  There are some reports that he says that the White House embellished some of the CIA talking points on Benghazi.  Can you respond to that?  And also his discussion of al Qaeda and how they underestimated the threat, rebounding after the Arab Spring?

MR. EARNEST:  I've seen some of the reporting of the book; I haven't read it.  I am told by people who have read the book that Mr. Morell is pretty definitive about there being no evidence of any sort of political interference in the Benghazi situation.  And that's what we have said publicly for a long time, and based on what I know of his book, what he reports in there is consistent with what we've said publicly.

I did notice that what got most of the attention was sort of his observation or his view that he probably -- that he certainly would know better than I about the way in which the intelligence community has analyzed and even predicted the fallout of the Arab Spring.  And the President has been very mindful since the first day of coming into office that his top priority as President of the United States is keeping the American people safe, and the President has been very mindful of the threat that is posed by al Qaeda. 

And because of steps taken by the administration and because of the good work by our intelligence community, we have made significant progress in decimating core al Qaeda.  But there continues to be a significant and persistent threat from some of the widely distributed al Qaeda networks across the globe, and we have seen evidence that some of those al Qaeda networks have sought to capitalize on the chaotic situation in the Middle East and in some countries in the Middle East to try to gain a foothold. 

And we're mindful of that threat and it's one that we watch very closely.  And it's because of the hard and important work of our intelligence professionals that we have been so impactful in mitigating the threat from those al Qaeda networks.  And that's work that continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q    We're about to land, but can you give us a quick outlook on TPA for this week?   The President worked hard last week pushing Democrats on that.  What’s next?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would anticipate that the administration, including the President, will continue to be engaged in making the case to members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- about the potential that exists for trade promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership to benefit our broader economy and to benefit middle-class families all across the country.  And he’ll continue to make that case in public later this week.  But I’m confident there will be additional conversations where he’ll make that case in private, as well.

Q    Thank you.

11:56 A.M. EDT

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