The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest -- Owings Mills, Maryland

Private Residence
Owings Mills, Maryland

12:38 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  I actually don’t think I have anything off the top.  We obviously have a series of fundraisers, many of which you will cover over the course of the day today.  And I don’t have any announcements.  If you want to -- so you can go ahead and get started.

Q    What’s the update on Secretary Bryson?  Do we have any better idea of what happened to him and what’s the prognosis?

MR. EARNEST:  As you saw last night, Secretary Bryson had a statement indicating that he ended up taking a medical leave of absence.  Before leaving the White House this morning, the President had an opportunity to speak to Commerce Secretary Bryson on the telephone, where they had a short conversation. 

The President encouraged Secretary Bryson to focus his thoughts on his own health and on his own family.  And the President indicated his confidence in Dr. Blank, who is somebody who could lead the Commerce Department in Secretary Bryson’s absence.

Q    I’m sorry, you said he did express confidence in him?

Q    In Dr. Blank.

MR. EARNEST:  In Dr. Blank -- as somebody who could lead the Commerce Department in Secretary Bryson’s absence.  And the President encouraged him to focus -- I’ll speak up a little bit, I apologize.  And the President encouraged Secretary Bryson to focus on his own health and getting that care and medical treatment that he needs.

Q    Josh, is there any update as far as exactly what the Secretary’s condition is or what type of seizure he had?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any updates on those factual details about what happened over the weekend.  But obviously, the medical tests that Secretary Bryson will undergo are related to that.

Q    Was this the first time they had an opportunity to speak, the President and --

MR. EARNEST:  Since the weekend?

Q    Yes, since the weekend.

MR. EARNEST:  Since the weekend, yes.

Q    Josh, can you go over a little bit more of the tick-tock beginning with when was the White House first informed of the incident?  And the President wasn’t informed until Monday morning.  How come the gap in time?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a whole lot -- I mean, you have the details right, that the White House was informed late in the day on Sunday and the President was briefed on Monday morning.  But in terms of more details, I don’t have a whole lot more light to shed on those details at this point.

Q    Was it -- Jack Lew talked to him when?  Sunday or Monday?

MR. EARNEST:  I believe that Mr. Lew spoke to him on Monday.

Q    Monday morning.

Q    To Bryson?


Q    To Bryson, Monday morning.  And so it was -- and the President wasn’t informed until Monday morning.  So it was
Lew --

MR. EARNEST:  The President was briefed on Monday.

Q    So Lew had decided it wasn’t -- well, he didn’t speak to him until Monday morning, so the President wasn’t informed until Monday morning.

MR. EARNEST:  The President was briefed on Monday morning.

Q    So we don’t know why there was a lag on why Bryson didn’t report in or what happened?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any more details for you on that.

Q    Do we know who -- I’m sorry.

Q    Do you know if Mr. Lew called him later in the day to --

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have the minute-by-minute tick-tock. 
What we -- what Jay broadly discussed yesterday in terms of the tick-tock is -- continues -- is an accurate portrayal of the events over the last 72 hours or so.  I don’t have any more details to add to that beyond the President's phone call to Secretary Bryson this morning.

Q    Josh, a medical leave of absence is unusual.  Why didn’t Secretary Bryson decide to step down, fully resign?  And do you have a timetable for his return?  Does the President expect him to return?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a timetable for his return, primarily because I don’t want to pre-judge what the results of a medical examination that was referred to in the statement last night might reveal. 

But what the President -- I can reiterate to you what the President reiterated to the Secretary this morning, which is that his -- that the Secretary's attention and interest and priority at this point should be his own health. 

Q    But can you say why he chose to take a medical leave versus just agree to resign?

MR. EARNEST:  I can't speak to that at this point. 

Q    Was it suggested to him by anyone that he take a medical leave?

MR. EARNEST:  You have to refer to -- you have to check with the Commerce Department on what went into his decision, in terms of --

Q    But do you know if Lew or anyone else in the White House suggested to him that it would be a good thing to do?

MR. EARNEST:  Even if I were privy to the conversations that took place, I probably wouldn’t have much to share about them.

Q    So it's sort of open-ended for when he can return as far as the President is concerned.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s true, primarily because the time that he's taking here will be devoted to his -- an examination of his health and some medical tests.  And he's going to take the time that he needs to focus on those priorities, those things that should be his priority, those things along with his family.

Q    So it wasn't Bryson himself that informed the White House on Sunday night?  Or was it someone else?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe we've gotten into the details about who was on either end of the phone during those conversations, and I don’t have any more on that.

Q    So it sounds like his return hinges on the results of his medical exam. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t want to pre-judge into all of that.

Q    And who notified the White House initially, Sunday?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I just said, I don’t have any more details on who participated in those phone calls. 

Q    Can you give us an idea of today, like what will happen today?  And will the President -- what is the tone that he'll take today?  He's had a rocky -- some might say a rocky time lately.  Will he sort of be redefining his message a bit?  Will he be able -- can you talk about what he plans to do?

MR. EARNEST:  I think much of what you'll hear the President talk about today over the course of the fundraisers, both in Baltimore and in Philadelphia, is the President laying out what he views as a very important debate for us to have in this country about what kinds of economic policies should be put in place.

There is, as we've discussed extensively, a pretty stark difference between the vision that’s being articulated by the President's Republican opponent.  That is a vision that is characterized by the same kinds of policies that were put in place by the previous administration that led to a pretty significant economic downturn and a pretty significant spike in our federal budget deficit. 

The President has a different approach.  The President believes that we need to adopt a balanced approach in dealing with our deficit challenges, and that includes important and significant cuts in federal spending, including the largest -- including the cuts that he's already enacted, which have brought our discretionary spending down to the lowest levels since the Eisenhower administration as a percentage of GDP, but also making important investments in innovation, in infrastructure, in energy. 

The President believes that is the key to strengthening our economy, both in the short run, but also laying the kind of foundation that we need to ensure the economic strength of our country in future generations.

That represents a pretty stark difference in the approach that’s being advocated by the Republicans in Congress and by the President's Republican opponent.  And that’s a debate that we'll have over the course of the next five months.  I think you'll hear the President flesh out those themes in his remarks over the course of today.

Q    Will he revisit the private sector and the economy?

MR. EARNEST:  How so?

Q    By addressing his remark Friday.  Will he say anything about it at all?

MR. EARNEST:  I think you can certainly expect to hear the President talk about the proposals that he has forwarded to Congress.  This would include additional tax cuts to small businesses to encourage them -- to give them an incentive to hire new workers.  There are other proposals that the President has talked about in the American Jobs Act and the State of the Union about allowing small businesses to expense capital purchases and other kinds of tax benefits that would help small businesses grow and expand and hire more workers.

You can certainly hear the President talk -- again, expect to hear the President talk again about his proposals that were paid for, that would put construction workers back to work rebuilding our infrastructure, rebuilding our roadways and runways and bridges, and modernizing our schools.  You can certainly hear the President -- expect to hear the President talk about his proposals, again, fully paid for -- the kinds of things that have earned bipartisan support in the past, that would support state and local governments as they seek to rehire teachers, put police officers and firefighters back to work.

This grouping of ideas that the President described as the American Jobs Act were projected by economists to significantly strengthen our economy and add up to 1 million jobs to the -- to add 1 million jobs to our economy.  So these are the kinds of ideas that we believe that Congress should act on, and we believe it’s very difficult for Republicans in Congress to explain why they haven’t acted on them.  I think that certainly there are a lot of questions in the minds of the American people, middle-class families out there who are struggling, who bear a very significant burden in this difficult economy. 

For example, the President has put forward a plan that would allow responsible homeowners to refinance their homes.  Some of them are underwater, and because of red tape are prevented from refinancing their homes at these historically low interest rates.  If Republicans in Congress would act on the President’s proposal, it would allow these responsible homeowners to refinance their homes, which for the average homeowner would save them up to $3,000 over the course of this year.  That would certainly offer a significant boost to our economy. 

So there are a number of things that can be done, a number of things the President has proposed that have been sitting on the doorstep of Congress for months now.  And it’s time for them to act.  And I do think that you can expect to hear the President talk about that today as well.

Q    Josh, what did you -- what did the administration think of the Fed report on personal wealth?  It showed that a median family net worth in 2010 was no more than it had been in 1992.  Does that give the President’s critics ammunition --

MR. EARNEST:  What I think I would say about that is, is that this is obviously a pretty powerful illustration of something that the President has talked about extensively over the course of the last three years, which is that we went to a significant -- went through a significant and painful economic downturn, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. 

And this is an illustration also that that downturn had a significant impact on middle-class families, and it’s why so much of what the President has advocated are policies that would strengthen our economy, but also the ability of middle-class families to go out there and get a good job, to afford their mortgage, to save for retirement, to send their kids to college. 

All of these are the kinds of investments that the President is advocating.  All of these are the kinds of things that would lighten the burden of middle-class families.  And too many of these are policies that have been blocked by Republicans in Congress.  That is the nature of the debate that we’re having.  And to the extent that this -- it’s certainly possible, and I think that you could say that we’re hopeful that this colorful illustration would prompt Republicans in Congress to abandon their political tactic of obstructing everything that the President has proposed -- or at least the vast majority of the things the President has proposed -- and pass some policies that would bring some relief to middle-class families that is long overdue.

Q    Josh, any updates on phone calls or briefings that the President has had regarding Greece and what’s going on in Europe?  And then also, secondly, Holder and what’s going on in the Hill with the June 20th vote for the contempt -- any updates on phone calls and briefings on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any phone calls to read out to you.  As has been the case for quite some time now, administration officials have been in contact with their counterparts in Europe, and they continue to be, about the kinds of steps that members of the eurozone can take to strengthen their monetary union. 

In terms of the hearing that Attorney General Holder participated in today, I’ve been following some of the news reports as we’ve been traveling here for the last hour.  I don’t have any specific reaction to the contempt vote that you’re referring to other than to point out to you that I believe that today was Attorney General Holder’s ninth trip to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress; that there are more than 7,000 pages of documents -- 7,000 pages of documents have been released as a request of Congress, as a part of that investigation.

And my colleagues at the Department of Justice have also indicated their willingness to continue to cooperate with legitimate oversight efforts.  But it does -- all of this I think illustrates something that maybe you do -- would find newsworthy, which is that I do happen to agree with Congressman Steve King, which is, his observation that this is nothing more than politics.  And I think that there’s nothing in today’s news or in today’s hearing that will prove Congressman King wrong. 

Q    Is the President doing anything to support Ron Barber in the special election to -- for Gabby Gifford’s old seat?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have anything on that.  You might check with the President’s reelection campaign on that front.

Q    Can you respond to Mitt Romney’s -- he called “Forward” absurd.  Can you talk about that a little?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if you have specific questions about the campaign’s slogan, then I would encourage you to call the President’s reelection campaign.  However, I would say that there is no question that policies that the President’s opponent is advocating would take us back to the kinds of policies that led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and would lead to a giant hole being blown through our budget because of a $5 trillion tax cut that is weighted heavily toward those at the top of the income scale. 

That’s an approach that the President believes is wrong; that that approach to take us back is not the right one.  The President believes in something that is fundamentally different, that would take us forward, that would strengthen the middle class, in making certain investments in energy and infrastructure and education while adopting a balanced approach to dealing with our deficit challenges, including asking those at the top of the income scale to pay their fair share.

These are two starkly different approaches.  And the observation that what Mitt Romney wants to do is very similar to the approach that was adopted by the previous administration that that takes us back in a different direction than the forward-looking approach the President is advocating.

Anything else for this morning?

Q    This is kind of late breaking, but it looks like there was some action on Syria.  And this may have -- apologies, this may have just crossed.  Bulletin -- hang on one second -- the U.N. peacekeeping chief says Syria conflict is now a civil war.  The government has lost large chunks of territory in some cities.  So I guess anything on the civil war.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific reaction for those comments.  Our administration -- you’ve heard members of the administration come out and say that the Assad regime is being increasingly isolated, even within their own country -- that a lot of this is due to the international pressure that’s being applied by the United States and other -- our allies and partners across the globe and in the region.  And that these coordinative actions are continuing to squeeze the Assad regime financially, and making it harder for them to bankroll their brutality.

The U.S. and international sanctions have had a significant effect in taking a bite out of Assad’s reserves.  So meanwhile, the regime is unable to make any money, and Assad is spending all of Syria’s money to kill the Syrian people.  So it is apparent that that isolation is only increasing, and the pressure on the Assad regime is getting tighter. 

But in terms of the specific observation that you cited from the U.N. official, I don’t have a reaction to that.

Q    Josh, you said the size of reserves.  Are you talking oil reserves or currency reserves?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m talking about his -- about the financial resources of the country.  Right, that the international sanctions that are in place are taking a bite out of the resources that are at his disposal.  And currently, he’s spending those resources to fund his war machine that’s attacking and killing the Syrian people. 

John, you’ve been awful quiet -- anything on your end?

Q    I’m okay.

MR. EARNEST:  You good?  Okay.  All right guys, thanks for bearing with us in these --

Q    No update in the NBA finals pick?  I saw the --

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think it’s fair to say the President will be watching.

Thanks, guys.

12:57 P.M. EDT

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