The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials to Preview the President's Upcoming Trip to Mexico

Via Conference Call

3:50 P.M. EST

MS. HAYDEN:  Hi, guys.  Thanks, everyone, for joining us today.  We wanted to take a chance today before the long weekend to talk to you about the President’s trip to Toluca, Mexico, for the North American Leaders Summit on February 19th.  We’ve got senior administration officials here to talk to you.  I will tell you their names so that you know who you’re hearing from but, again, you must refer to them as senior administration officials.

Again, the call is on background, there’s no embargo and our speakers are to be referred to as senior administration officials from hereon.  So with that, I’ll turn it over to senior administration official number one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, everybody.  I’ll just go briefly through the program and some of the key elements.  And then, my colleague can get into a little more detail.  And then, we’ll take your questions.

The program is taking place entirely on Wednesday, February 19th.  It’s in Toluca, Mexico, which is the hometown of President Peña Nieto.  And this will be President Obama’s second visit to Mexico to see President Peña Nieto, who he has developed a good working relationship with.  And we’ve been encouraged by President Peña Nieto’s leadership in pursuing a very ambitious reform agenda in Mexico.  And it’s, of course, another opportunity for him to see Prime Minister Harper, who he’s worked with for the last five years as well.

On Wednesday, there will be an official arrival ceremony when we get to Toluca.  Then, the President will have a bilateral meeting with President Peña Nieto.  Following the bilateral meeting, there will be a working lunch with all three of the leaders, with Prime Minister Harper and President Peña Nieto and President Obama.  I’m sure that there will be an opportunity for the President to speak one on one bilaterally with Prime Minister Harper too while he’s there.

Then, the leaders will interact with some business leaders and academics who have been supportive of and focused on the North American relationship.  Then, they will proceed to the formal trilateral meeting of the North American Leaders Summit.  Following the conclusion of the session, the three of them will then conduct a joint press conference. 

In terms of how we look at the North American Leaders Summit, principally, I think this reflects the importance of the relationships with Canada and Mexico to our economy.  Just to put that in some perspective, a third of U.S. exports are to Canada and Mexico, and that trade supports roughly 14 million jobs here in the United States.  And so, we believe that we have a significant interest in strengthening North American competitiveness as a whole, because when North America is functioning well as a trading block it strengthens our position in the global economy. 

And NALS, the North American leadership summit -- North American Leaders Summit has a been a forum where we can address things like how we are reducing barriers to trade, improving the commercial environment and dealing with whatever trade concerns or irritants may emerge as well.  And so, we have an agenda that focuses, again, on lifting up North American competitiveness, reducing barriers to effective and efficient trade that supports jobs in all three countries.

Clearly, one of the focal points has been the negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  Both Canada and Mexico have joined those negotiations in the last two years.  And we are obviously at a critical point in working towards finalizing an ambitious trade agreement -- high-standards trade agreement that would encompass roughly 40 percent of the global economy in the TPP countries. 

We see, frankly, TPP as an opportunity to build on the work that was done in NAFTA by introducing additional standards, for instance, on issues like labor and the environment so that it is truly a 21st century high-standards trade agreement that, again, is both in the interest of our prosperity here at home and also will strengthen the position of North America as it relates to some of the fastest-growing emerging markets in the Pacific.

Beyond the trade and economic competitiveness issues, we’ll also be discussing issues related to security.  And that includes the security of our respective borders, our ongoing support for Mexico as it deals with significant challenges from narco-trafficking.  We’ll also be addressing Central America and the Caribbean.  And our three countries have close relationships with the countries of Central America and the Caribbean.  We work together to strengthen their economic competitiveness in connection to our markets, but also their security as they deal with similar challenges related to criminal activity and drug trafficking.

Beyond that, I would also highlight that energy cooperation and our efforts to combat climate change are a continued area of focus between our countries.  I’d also just note that in our bilateral meeting with Mexico, in addition to discussing these issues, we regularly discuss our ongoing efforts to promote comprehensive immigration reform here in the United States, again, which clearly deals with a significant population of Mexican American immigrants who have done very much to strengthen and enrich our own country.

With that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague and then we’ll take some of your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m just going to add a couple of points on this.  As my colleague mentioned, there’s a very good reason why we’re going to be focusing on streamlining trade among our countries, given the importance to the prosperity of all three countries.  But it’s more than about our commercial relationships, it’s about working together effectively in the world as partners and emphasizing our shared values and strategic interests.

It’s our home.  North America is our home.  It’s where we see the chance to secure the prosperity of the American people and keeping ourselves safe and prosperous for the next several decades.  This implies working with some of the challenges we face immediately related to transportation, border-area infrastructure and the like, regulatory cooperation and so forth, but also setting a course for future decades and building on what we’ve accomplished over the last few decades and turning it into something even greater as we look at an expansion of our relationships, our integration, our shared production platforms and the fact that we have one of the largest and most highly skilled workforces in the world and the region.

So specifically, the kinds of things that we’re going to be working on as part of this summit are going to be initiatives aimed at improving our inclusive and shared prosperity -- for example, by facilitating Trusted Traveler Programs among our three countries, working to harmonize trade information for importers and exporters, working where we can to collaborate more effectively on our transportation planning, reinvigorating our work on regulatory cooperation.  So those are some of the areas where we’re going to be focusing.

We’re also going to be looking at education cooperation.  As I said, we have highly-skilled workforces that we need to be working together -- since we build things together, we need to be looking at how we educate our populations as well.  We’ll be focusing as well on matters related to energy and climate change.  We’re energy powerhouses, all three countries.  But we also have a shared interest in improving our work on protecting the environment.

We’ll also, as my colleague mentioned, work on citizen security programs, for example, our coordination of emergency management communications and our work together to combat man-made and natural disasters.  We’ll also have, as my colleague mentioned, our work on Central America.  One of the areas that we’re going to be working on is on helping the region reduce its energy costs to become -- basically to increase its competitiveness in the global economy.  We’ll also be looking at working with the region on disaster -- natural disaster response and finding ways to work together to increase their own economic integration.

So, I think with that we’ll go ahead and start up with the questions.

Q    I want to first -- if you can just tell us why this needs to be on background?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We can take that back, Peter.  I think generally we often do these preview calls.  But if you want to register your interest in changing that, we can take that back and get back to you offline.

Q    Well, I ask almost on all these calls, because nothing you’ve said so far sounds like it’s greatly secret or sensitive or of particularly diplomatic sensitivity.  And this seems -- I’m sorry, my substantive question is, is there a conflict in going to talk to Mexico about trade when you’re telling -- certainly the Vice President was telling Democrats on the Hill that you’re not going to be making much of a push on TPA this year, that you recognize it’s not going anywhere?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Peter, and again, point taken on your process point.  We’ll consider that and let people know.

Look, on trade, we continue to be very focused on negotiating and completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  And the President has made this a priority.  As we’ve looked at our trade agenda in 2009, 2010, we understood that after the completion of the implementation of the South Korean, Panamanian and Colombian FTAs, we wanted to broaden our trade agenda.  We recognize also though that the Doha round was not progressing.

And so, what we determined to do is to pursue ambitious, multilateral trade agreements that could open up the most important markets in the world to high standards trade, so that U.S. businesses had access to those markets, but that we were dealing with issues like labor and environmental standards and intellectual property as we negotiated those agreements.  We decided to prioritize the Asia Pacific region because of its role as really a driver in the global economy. 

And I can tell you that TPP has been our priority for several years now.  We felt very strongly that in order to truly bring together the potential of the Asia Pacific region, this was not just an agreement we wanted to reach with Asian countries, but we wanted to bring along North America and some of the Pacific nations in the Americas.  And that’s what we’ve done with not just Chile and Peru, but with countries like Canada and Mexico coming into the negotiations in 2012.

It is still very much our goal to complete a TPP agreement this year.  And the President has put a lot of time and energy into the negotiation of TPP.  Similarly, Mike Froman has really made this a priority as the U.S. Trade Representative.  I can tell you that in the TPP negotiations, we have now progressed to the point that we are really dealing with some final sets of sensitive issues in each of the nations, which is normal as you get towards the end of a trade agreement you have some of the most difficult issues to nail down. 

But we believe very strongly that TPP is profoundly in the interest of the American people, because ultimately it will allow us to help establish rules of the road for trade in one of the most critically important regions in the global economy, that it will take into account our interest in addressing issues like intellectual property, state-owned enterprises, as well as the labor and environmental standard standards that have increasingly been a part of the trade negotiations that we’re pursuing around the world.

So I would not in any way suggest that we’re walking back from our commitment to TPP.  We very much want to get that done.  We’ve communicated that to Congress.  The President referenced both TPA and the desire to complete an Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement in the State of the Union.  So we are viewing this as a key priority not just for our foreign policy nation security agenda, but for our economic agenda as we seek to increase our exports. 

And I’d just say one other thing, Peter.  There’s been some criticism in the past around some of the issues that were not addressed in NAFTA.  Frankly, that’s all the more reason to do TPP, because what TPP does is it allows us to address some of the issues that were not a part of the NAFTA agreement on labor, on the environment so that we’re essentially bringing this agreement into the 21st century and broadening the group of countries that are in the trading block with North America.  So we would make the case, again, to people who maybe in the past have been critical of NAFTA that TPP provides us with the opportunity to modernize our trading relationships in North America while bringing in these other emerging markets.

Q    Right, but the question was about Congress not getting TPA this year, as the Vice President was saying today.  If I’m a partner negotiating with you, why would I bother to give up any concessions if you guys aren’t going to have the authority to actually make this happen?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, Peter, I wouldn’t suggest that the Vice President was saying we’re not going to pursue this agreement or TPA in conjunction with this agreement.

I mean, there’s a question as to how we work with Congress going forward to sequence our pursuit of TPA and the TPP agreement, and we’re committed to pursuing that.  And I think we’ve made clear to all of our partners in the TPP negotiation that President Obama is personally committed to achieving this agreement and then of course to working with Congress to have it approved.  We’ve done that in the past with South Korea, with Colombia, with Panama. 

So we’ve proven we can get high-standard trade agreements through Congress.  And I think when people have the ability to review what will be an agreement that is profoundly in our national interests, that we’ll be confident that we can gain the support of members of Congress.  But we understand that the onus is on us.  We don’t want people to take our word for it.  We’re going to have to continue to make the case that this agreement is in the interest of the United States and it’s fundamental to our competitiveness in the 21st century.

 SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would just add one more point.  As a practical matter, these are also our largest export destinations and so there’s a lot of business that can be accomplished between us just on the mechanics of trade among these countries.  As my colleague mentioned, Canada and Mexico buy more goods made in the United States than any other countries in the world.  And this is also about finding ways to make that trade and our joint producing more productive to make all three of us more competitive in the world in addition to the work that we’re concluding together on the TPP.  Thanks.

Q    I’m just curious -- do you have any idea what kind of message the President is going to bring to Prime Minister Harper when it comes to the Keystone pipeline and how that’s going?  What kind of update is he going to give him?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks for the question.  First of all, let me just say that as we’ve made clear, we are following the process that’s in place on Keystone.  We have the report from the State Department that was an important part of that process.  Again, Secretary Kerry is now going to be reviewing that and making his recommendation.  Other agencies will have their own opportunity to weigh in, and ultimately we’ll, at the end of that regular order, make our determination about whether or not to pursue Keystone.

Look, we understand the interest of the Canadian government on this issue.  They’ve been very clear with us as they have been publicly that they would like to see this issue resolved.  We understand that.  They are fully entitled to their opinion and their desire to see a conclusion to the process.

I think what President Obama will do is explain to him where we are in the review of the Keystone Pipeline, and indicate that we’ll of course let our Canadian friends know when we’ve arrived at a decision.  So I think, frankly, the message that he’ll be delivering is quite similar to the one you’ve heard from us publicly, which is we believe it’s important to allow this process to continue, to make this determination as to whether or not Keystone is in the national interest and doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.  And we would fully expect that Canada would continue to express its desire to see the process resolved, but it will run its course. 

The only other thing I’d say is that our energy cooperation is not limited to Keystone.  Canada is an important energy partner separate and apart from that with both the United States and Mexico.  We’ve also worked in North America to strengthen our commitment to clean energy, to cooperate on climate change, and also to bring in nations in areas like Central America and the Caribbean so that we are collectively more secure in terms of our energy and, again, less dependent on other regions of the world.

So the North American energy story is a good news story in its own right.  It contributes to America’s energy independence and our relations with some of our closest friends and allies, not just in terms of proximity but in terms of shared values.  But Keystone we expect to be consistent with the statements you’ve seen out of us and out of the Canadian government.

We’ll take the next question.

Q    I was wondering, since we’re on the topic of messages, and you’ve already outlined the main topics of the summit, what sort of message is the President going to give the Mexican President Peña Nieto with the ongoing violence in Michoacán and whether or not they’re going to talk about new initiatives or somehow renewing the -- or expanding the Merida initiative to combat drug traffickers down there.  So in other words, what sort of deliverables can we expect from this summit?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks for that question.  First of all, we have a very good and effective security relationship with Mexico and we have a for a number of years now, including with this administration.  Certainly our shared security interests are going to be a part of the conversation.  As President Obama made very clear in his initial meeting with President Peña Nieto, we stand by to help in any way we can and to cooperate as determined by the government of Mexico as it develops its security posture and deals with security concerns and judicial reform in Mexico.

You mentioned the Merida programs; those are continuing.  And there’s a process in place between our two governments to develop priorities for cooperation.  There’s a greater emphasis on the judicial cooperation now and finding ways to work together in that field.  With respect to Michoacán, certainly we’re following closely what is happening there and stand by the government of Mexico as it confronts challenges there and elsewhere.

Q    One thing, I just wanted to second Peter’s request to see if we can put this on the record.  And I also wanted to follow up on the TPP and fast-track issues.  Democrats have made it clear that this is not an issue on their agenda this year and trade deals are just as a rule tough sells during election years, so I’m wondering if the President is going to have a kind of dose of reality for his two partners as he discusses this issue and make it clear that they might simply have to wait perhaps until next year to have completion on TPP.  And similarly, in his bilat with President Peña Nieto, will that same kind of realism be part of his discussion on immigration given where House Republicans stand on that issue this year?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  First of all, I want to be very clear on the trade issue.  I mean, people are referring to secondhand accounts of what the Vice President may have said in a close-door session.  I’m confident and I have seen President Obama and Vice President Biden both make the case for TPP publicly and privately.  And we will indicate, frankly, to our partners in Mexico and Canada as we have to the American people that we believe TPP is in our interest and that we should try to complete an ambitious agreement this year. 

And I think the case that we’ll make to anybody is that this is a key part of our economic agenda because it has the potential to create an enormous amount of jobs in the United States.  When you look at the markets that are part of TPP in the Asia Pacific region, the largest, fastest-growing emerging economic region in the world, that if we are not getting in the game, negotiating trade agreements, helping to set the rules of the road so that we’re addressing issues like intellectual property, state-owned enterprises, labor and the environment and also making sure that there’s a level playing field for our businesses, that we are going to lose out in the global economy.

Look, there are other countries that would very much like to get into these markets.  We’ve seen, for instance, in the Asia Pacific, China pursue a range of different trade agreements.  It would not be in the interest of the United States to put this on the back burner.  So I think what you’ll see not just here but going forward is us continuing to make the case that TPP needs to be completed.  It needs to be completed though consistent with our interests, which is why these are very tough negotiations -- because we want to make sure that it is a trade agreement that sets the standards that we need to give certainty not just that our businesses will have access to markets but that these other issues are addressed -- like labor, like environment.  But we’re going to keep at this. 

And TPA is a part of that broader context and I think as we look at the different pieces of our trade agenda, TPA, TPP and the agreement that we’re pursuing with the European Union.  These are things that we’ll be taking as part of our agenda with Congress.  And in the past, I’d note have been able to get broad, bipartisan support for trade agreements.  So, for instance, the South Korean, Colombian and Panamanian agreements are ones that were able to pass Congress with broad, bipartisan majorities because when people took a look at what the opportunity was for the United States, they understood that these weren’t just in our foreign policy interests -- they were very much in our economic interests. 

So that’s the message I think the President will be addressing in North America as well as around the world, and it’s the message we’ll continue to discuss with Congress.  I wouldn’t suggest in any way that we are not committed to the goal of completing a TPP agreement this year that has the types of standards we want to see and provides the economic boost that we believe it will bring.

With respect to immigration, I think President Peña Nieto has a very good understanding, frankly, of the state of play in the United States.  Immigration is an issue that we work with in government very regularly.  I think that the President will indicate the same thing that he did when he met with President Peña Nieto in May of 2013, which is that we are going to remain committed to comprehensive immigration reform.  We’re going to be committed to immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers who are here. 

And we’re doing that, frankly, because once again, that is in our economic interests.  Part of what makes the United States’ economy competitive is our trade relationships and part of that is also having a dynamic workforce that welcomes (inadudible) our shores.  And we understand that there are significant family ties across the border that make this an issue of interest to people in Mexico.  And I think if you look at that, you will see that Mexican Americans, Hispanic Americans have made enormous contributions to our economy and our society.  That’s all the more reason to move forward on immigration. 

It’s not my particular area of focus, obviously, but I do know that this will always remain a key legislative priority for our administration.  And I know that President Peña Nieto appreciates that and is committed to doing what the Mexican government can do to help ensure that we have a secure border as as a part of a (inaudible).  My colleague may want to add something on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So just back on the trade issue, in terms of the conversations that we’re going to have there, the fact is we already have a highly integrated production chain, supply chain, and we founded the world together.  We build things together, and we sell it to the world together so there’s a clear understanding on the part of the Mexican and Canadian governments why TPP is to our benefit and why we should pursue this.  So they don’t need to be convinced in that sense.  What we do have is lots of examples of where our working with both Mexico and Canada makes us more competitive in the global economy and that’s where we’re going to be focusing on and there’s a clear understanding that TPP will make us ultimately more effective together.

Q    You mentioned something about some of the things that you were going to discuss related to the border.  You mentioned it was the traveler program and also from actions to expedite or to make more efficient the flow of goods through the rest of the border.  And my question basically is -- I mean, can we expect some sort of announcement in these two areas?  Especially I’m interested in the Trusted Traveler program.  I have no idea if we can expect some sort of agreement, but will stand this program to these three countries?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So I won’t get ahead of our partners in the discussions as we get ready to go, but I think you should expect that there will be some work related to the Trusted Traveler program.  As you know, we have worked with Canada and with Mexico in these programs.  We’re very pleased with the progress of our cooperation on these types of programs.  And we’d like to accelerate and deepen our work on a North American basis in the Trusted Traveler Program area.

Q    I think I heard you say that the Presidents will be meeting with business leaders and I think I heard you say academics who are supportive of the North American agenda or project.  And that sounds a little bit like singing to the choir.  And we know that there are groups or parts of a population that are skeptical or not supportive of NAFTA and any further kind of integration, maybe think that NAFTA has been a failure.  And I wonder if there’s any sense that there needs to be some reaching out to people to explain not just to the elites, but to the people in the three countries why this is important?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, let me address that and my colleague can get more in the specifics of who they’re engaging.  I think we’re well aware of the support for NAFTA as well as some of the opposition to NAFTA over the course of the last 20 years.  On the one hand, we know that NAFTA has helped facilitate a dramatic increase in trade that has supported jobs in all three countries.  On the other hand, we know that there are issues that were not a part of the NAFTA agreement that we would like to address.  President Obama himself has spoken over the years about some of the types of issues that we would like to see introduced into trade agreements. 

And, again, the point I’d make is that TPP is in part intended to plug those holes, that if you look at what is missing from NAFTA in terms of the labor standards, environmental standards and in terms of dealing with 21st century commerce that has different requirements from the types of manufacturing and other trade of the 20th century, that TPP is an opportunity to take the foundation of NAFTA, but then introduce elevated standards across the board and actually deal with some of the issues that have been raised.

So I think President Obama is certainly well aware of some of the voices that have spoken out in opposition to NAFTA over the years.  He himself has raised concerns.  But we’re seeking to address those concerns in part through our relations with Canada and Mexico directly in forums just like this where we can address trade and commercial issues, and also through the TPP negotiations. 

But I’ll turn it over to my colleague to give a little more context.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So I think there’s a very clear understanding on the part of all three governments that this is something that we need to message more effectively, that the reality is that the three countries benefit significantly from the association we’ve developed.  And we would have to have something along these lines anyway, even if NAFTA didn’t exist.  These are our largest trading partners, in addition to being our neighbors.

Plus, we have much closer communities that we’ve been developing over the last several decades.  So one of the areas that we’ve been focusing on in preparation for this upcoming summit is what we can do together to create a mechanism that’s going to allow us to really collect more information from stakeholders in not just particular sectors, but all the broad range of stakeholders, including those who might be skeptical of some of the programs that we’re undertaking together or the relationships that exist the way they do right now.  So that is definitely going to be one of the items that we’re going to be dealing with in this upcoming summit and trying to establish a mechanism to collect those views in a more structured way going forward.

Q    You had mentioned in the call earlier that the President will go into the summit and inform the Prime Minister about the process regarding Keystone.  A lot of Canadians know about the process already, the State Department report was big news up here.  Will the President be going into this meeting with any firmer sense or indication of a timeline regarding a decision?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks for the question.  No, I don’t think that we will be introducing any new element or timeline to the decision.  Again, we have been very transparent about how the process works.  The State Department has issued their report, Secretary Kerry is reviewing that for a period of time.  He will then arrive at a recommendation.  Then there’s the opportunity of course for agencies that are involved to make their own comment, and then we’ll make a decision.

So again, I think there’s nothing that we could say privately that we’re not already saying publicly about how we are working to resolve the issues associated with Keystone.  Like I said, we understand and appreciate that the Canadians are eager to get a decision.  Ultimately, though, we do need to make sure this runs through our regular order and that the process is very thorough.

So with that, the Canadians I think fully understand where we currently are and appreciate that, even though they would like to move to a decision.  Of course, it also takes place in the backdrop of the Winter Olympics.  And while we always wish our Canadian friends well, we’re quite confident in the American hockey team this year and their prospects to bring home a gold medal.  So I’m sure the President will have an opportunity to underscore the success we’ve seen from some of our athletes and our belief that the USA can bring home the gold in hockey this time because we’re still smarting a little bit from how things turned out last time.

Q    The friendly rivalry continues.  Is the bilat scheduled, or has that yet to be scheduled?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It’s yet to be scheduled.  President Peña Nieto is hosting so we have the formal bilat with him.  I think in the past, often at these summits the President and Prime Minister Harper have been able to find time to spend together.  I’m certain that they will find time to have a one-on-one discussion whether or not it’s formal or not.

And we should add that even as we’re addressing all these North American issues, even as we know these interests that the Canadians have in Keystone, there are broader foreign policy issues in the region and the world where we’d like to check in with Canada.  That runs the gamut from issues that are taking place with respect to Iran and the Middle East, to issues in the Hemisphere more broadly.

So I’m sure that he’ll have a chance to check in on those issues with Prime Minister Harper as well.

Q    Thanks.  Appreciate your time.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, everybody, for joining the call.  And we, again, will note your requests process-wise and let you know if that changes.  And we look forward to seeing everybody on the way to Toluca.

END                                             4:28 P.M. EST


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