Press Gaggle by Jay Carney and Ben Rhodes aboard AF1 en route Johannesburg, South Africa
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Johannesburg, South Africa
10:06 A.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us onboard this pretty remarkable flight to South Africa. As you know, in addition to the President and the First Lady, we have former President Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush onboard. We also have former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In addition, from the President’s administration, we have National Security Advisor Susan Rice and the Attorney General, Eric Holder.
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications is with us today, and he can give you some information about a bunch of (inaudible) when we get to the Johannesburg. And we will obviously keep you updated as developments require along the way.
With that, I turn it over to Ben.
MR. RHODES: I won’t add much to what Jay said other than we’ll let the South African government speak to the details of the program. We do expect President Obama to speak as part of the program. So again, they’ll have the full run of show. But in terms of the President’s participation, we do expect him to deliver remarks.
And with that, we’ll take questions.
Q But do you guys have any plans for Obama to meet with members of the Mandela family or any of the other world leaders who might be there?
MR. RHODES: We’ve been in touch with the Mandela family and are seeking to see if there is time for them to meet. Unfortunately, we don’t know for certain because things are so fluid on the ground. But we would certainly like the opportunity for the President to pay his respects to Graça Machel and the broader Mandela family. Beyond that, we don’t expect any bilateral meetings of any sort. I presume that he will certainly see President Zuma, have a chance to speak to him, but not in any kind of formal way.
Q Is there any possibility the President might meet with the Iranian President while there? Apparently, they were trying to work out Rouhani’s visit.
MR. RHODES: I wouldn’t expect any -- first of all, any bilateral meetings. I’m not even so sure who’s going for the Iranians. But we’re not anticipating any meeting.
Q Can talk with us a little bit about whether what the U.S. delegation is for this part of the memorial service, and also whether there will be a formal U.S. delegation on the 15th, and who some of those people will be? Normally, there would be a bigger delegation on this flight; I know it’s size-limited.
MR. RHODES: Yes, well, look, we’ve really been driven in our decision-making by the wishes of the South African government. Obviously, there are enormous amounts of people in the United States who would like to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela. So again, at the same time, they have very strict space requirements. I think they are certainly accommodating to heads of state, former heads of state, which is what compromises principally our delegation. But I think their indication is that they wanted this to be an opportunity for the people of South Africa really to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela, and we’re very respectful of that.
So obviously, under different circumstances we could have brought any number of people as part of a delegation. That was not possible given the logistics of this particular event. However, I do expect that there will be representatives for the President in the delegation at the event in Qunu. We'll keep you updated as to who will compromise that delegation. There's also going to be an event in Washington at the National Cathedral that people will be able to participate in.
And then, in terms of this event, I believe there's also a congressional delegation that we've sought to coordinate with so we can provide them with support. So for us it's the President and the First Lady, the Attorney General, Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett, former President Bush and Laura Bush, President Clinton, Secretary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. I know President Carter is going with The Elders group that he is a part of that of course Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel have been affiliated with as well. And then there will be the members of Congress who are going as a part of their congressional delegation. And then we'll keep you updated about Qunu.
Q Did you guys have any thought about going to the Qunu ceremony, or was that just logistically not possible?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I think, first of all, our understanding from the South African government was many heads of state who are attending this event at the stadium. And, secondly, when we had looked at this, Qunu does present challenges. And, frankly, it’s always a balance; we don't want to be disruptive with the footprint that travels with the President. We want to be respectful of what will be a very profound laying to rest of Nelson Mandela. So this certainly was the right event for the President to attend, to speak at, and to pay his respects to Nelson Mandela.
Q Are there any concerns about security at this event?
MR. RHODES: We have not heard any concerns. I'd say, number one, the South Africans hosted the World Cup, so they have experience hosting significant crowds and managing events like this. Although, this is obviously a very unique event really in world history, given the number of leaders coming to pay their respects, as well as the people of South Africa.
But we’re in good touch with the South African government at a logistical level, and we’re confident in their ability to make sure that this is an appropriate sendoff for one of the truly extraordinary statesmen of the last century or of any time.
Q In general, what’s the President going to say, and how long will he speak?
MR. RHODES: I’d anticipate -- I don’t put an exact time on it, but in the 10-15 minute range. And I think, for the President, he’ll reflect on what Nelson Mandela meant to the people of South Africa, to him personally as well.
You’ve heard him speak in the past about Nelson Mandela and the impact he had on the President. I think also, though, remembering the various different roles that Nelson Mandela played over the years. He obviously is cemented in our memory as an icon, but he was an extraordinary political leader, an extraordinary leader of a movement to bring about change. Under very difficult circumstances he was an extraordinary example to the world when he was in prison. And then, of course, even in his post-presidency he was a figure of reconciliation not just in South Africa, but around the world.
I think remembering him as a truly multifaceted figure with a wide array of different skills and abilities reminds us that his success wasn’t preordained -- it had to be earned over a lifetime. Sometimes when you look back, when the story has a happy ending, it all seems as if it was meant to be. I think one of the points the President will make is that it took decades of persistence and talent and a wide range of very unique skills to make Nelson Mandela the figure that he was and make him capable of bringing about that change.
Q But had he been working on this speech before? I mean, this is kind of something we knew was coming. Or is this something he’s put together just in the past couple of days?
MR. RHODES: No, we actually have not. We had not done any work on this particular speech before the passing of Nelson Mandela. At the same time, he has reflected on him many times. He wrote a forward for his book, "Conversations with Myself." On our last trip to South Africa, he obviously spoke frequently about Mandela over the course of that trip. He was able to go to Robben Island, which was a very powerful experience for him to stand in that cell again.
But in terms of this particular set of remarks, we waited until we had an indication from the South African government that he may speak, and then he has been working on it over the weekend. And I'm sure he'll continue to work on it on the plane.
Q Ben, can you detail the most recent contacts between the Presidents -- between Mandela and President Obama -- and how substantive they were?
MR. RHODES: I'd have to check on the absolutely most recent one. I recall him speaking to Nelson Mandela after the death of his grandson, around the time of the World Cup. But I'll have to check if there were any calls since then.
I think that, generally, when they did speak, since the President took office, they didn't delve deeply into substantive -- more dealt with how each of them were doing, asking after Nelson Mandela's health and family. And I'd also note that the President was grateful that the First Lady and his daughters were able to see Nelson Mandela, even very late in his life. So I'll check the most recent contact, but I think in addition to the occasional phone call, I know that visit was meaningful for the First Lady and the Obama family.
Q What was his most recent contact with anybody from the Mandela family? Can you describe that?
MR. RHODES: Yes, he spoke to Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela's wife, the other day -- I believe the day after Nelson Mandela passed -- and just said that his prayers were with her, that he hoped to see her at this event or any time she is in Washington. And, frankly, she is an extraordinary figure in her own right, and so he thanked her for all that she did to make the last years of Nelson Mandela's life a time of comfort.
On our last trip here to South Africa, the President was able to meet with a broader number of members of the family, including some of the daughters and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela at the Foundation. So I would anticipate similarly, if he has time with the family on this trip, he'd want to see both Graça Machel and of course some of the other members of the family.
Q Can either of you guys give us any kind of color or kind of paint a picture about what's going on back there with the former President and former First Lady, the former Secretary of State?
MR. RHODES: I'll just say that I know that the President has been able already to spend time with the Bushes. The President and the First Lady have been able to spend time with the Bushes and with Secretary Clinton. And so I think it's a unique experience obviously. And I think they all are remembering their different interactions with Nelson Mandela and his family, because again, he is a leader that intersected with so many different American political leaders of both parties over the years, and so each of them has their own experience with Mandela.
MR. CARNEY: I would just add that that in the conference room, which I think most of you have seen, the Secretary, President and Mrs. Bush, the First Lady, and President Obama, as he comes and goes -- because he’s also in this office doing some work -- there have been very good conversations in that room. Attorney General Holder as well, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice.
Q So they’re all in the conference room?
MR. CARNEY: That’s not where they’re all sitting for the flight, but people have kind of congregated there. And I think it's just -- it's a very I think enjoyable experience certainly for the President and First Lady. And they're both grateful to be able to have former President and First Lady, former Secretary of State on board.
Q Ben, can I ask you a quick question on another subject? Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments to that same conference where President Obama spoke, talking about the need to press forward with new sanctions on Iran -- were you disappointed in those remarks? And do you feel that if those remarks are directed at the U.S. Congress, that that’s him trying to inject himself into the American political system?
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, as a general matter, I thought Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated that the U.S. and Israel could work through the differences we’ve had on the Iranian nuclear negotiations as friends, and focus on the final agreement and what we are seeking to achieve in that agreement. So I thought there were certainly constructive elements of his remarks that sought to reinforce that there’s far more that unites the United States and Israel on this and other issues than whatever tactical differences we may have had.
With respect to sanctions, we have repeatedly said that we would move to sanctions if the Iranians violate the terms of the agreement or if we’re not able to reach a comprehensive resolution. At the same time, sanctions during the course of the negotiations would be seriously counterproductive. It could unravel the unity of the P5-plus-1 partners that is so necessary to trying to achieve the deal that we want. It could complicate Iran’s participation in those negotiations by reinforcing some of the more hardline elements of their system. And frankly, it could ultimately undermine the sanctions regime itself, because the purpose of sanctions was to reinforce a negotiation. We’re in that negotiation now. We have an opportunity to resolve this issue peacefully.
If the U.S. is seen as not pursuing that negotiation in concert with our partners, ultimately the participation that we need from other countries in the sanctions regime to continue reducing their purchases of Iranian oil and continue to work with us to apply this pressure could be put at risk. And I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just unilateral U.S. sanctions that have had the impact on the Iranians; it’s the ability of the entire world to come with us in imposing this pressure.
And I think it’s also -- the last point I’d make is we are going to continue enforcing sanctions throughout the course of the negotiation. So Iran will be denied far more revenue over the course of six months than they are going to achieve through the limited relief that we’re talking about. So we don’t think there’s a need to move to new sanctions now. We’ll pivot to new sanctions if the negotiations don’t succeed, but now is the time to test whether a peaceful diplomatic solution is possible.
Q And just to follow up, is your position the same with respect to triggered sanctions that either would kick in at a date certain or kick in if there was some abrogation of the six-month agreement?
MR. RHODES: Yes, we are confident in Congress’s ability to move quickly to pass a sanctions bill should the Iranians violate the terms of the agreement or should we not get an agreement at the end of the day. So therefore, I think we want to coordinate with them to move to sanctions at that point.
The other thing I’d say about that is we will have more leverage on the Iranians with the international community to move to sanctions if the Iranians violate the agreement or if they can’t get to yes at the end of six months. So at that point, not only could we work with Congress to get a new sanctions product passed, but we could do so in a way that’s coordinated with the international community, which would ultimately be more effective.
So tailoring that sanctions strategy around the negotiation both gives diplomacy a chance to succeed, or it could allow for a more effective application of sanctions.
And the last thing I’d say about this is, this is the venue for diplomacy. There’s not another alternative course of action at some point where we’re going to pursue a diplomatic resolution with the Iranians. This P5-plus-1 process is a negotiation. It’s more serious than it’s ever been, and we have to be I think serious about testing whether we can resolve this issue peacefully. And that’s what the sanctions have put us in a position to do, but at the same time we don’t want to do anything that would foreclose our opportunity to resolve this peacefully through diplomacy.
Q Ben, on that same conference, the President and John Kerry spoke about the security guarantees that Israel could expect under any final deal. The Palestinians today have said that the kind of things that are being talked about would be a dead end and could kill the process. How concerned are you that the stringent measures that Israel would expect would be impossible for the Palestinians to accept in any kind of meaningful state?
MR. RHODES: I think, first of all, we’ve always been very clear that any agreement is going to have to take into account Israel’s security concerns. And so that’s why General Allen worked in a very methodical way to lay out planning that could be associated with any agreement. I think as a general matter, ultimately an agreement is going to have to address the concerns of both sides, and both parties are going to have to agree amongst themselves. I think dealing with it comprehensively, however, if the Palestinians feel like they are having a legitimate state of their own with the type of territory and contiguity that they’re interested in, seeing security as part of that package is different than security independent of that package.
And so that’s why we want both parties to get to all the final status issues as part of a discussion of an agreement. But ultimately, there’s no agreement that is going to be successful and that is going to be reached unless Israel knows its security concerns are met, and that’s why we initiated the process with General Allen.
Q Jay, do you want to comment on the status of budget negotiations in Congress? Any thoughts about not repealing the sequester?
MR. CARNEY: Any thoughts on what?
Q Them not fully repealing the sequester, with what’s being leaked out over the weekend?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get ahead of the negotiations or comment on reports about what that status is, except to say that it is certainly the President’s position that Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to come together through regular order to reach a budget agreement to make sure that we’re making the necessary investments to help our economy grow, that we’re dealing with some of the across-the-board cuts that have done harm to our economy and harm to the functioning of our government, and to avoid the kind of scenario that led to a shutdown of government in October and to the threat to default for the first time in history.
But we remain hopeful that these discussions, these negotiations will be productive and bear fruit.
Q Any thought of rescheduling the congressional and White House holiday balls, since the President won’t be there?
MR. CARNEY: No, my understanding is that in consultation with congressional leadership, the decision was for the congressional balls -- or congressional parties to go forward and as well as the other events, including some White House staff -- or at least one White House staff event without the President and First Lady. And so that’s going to happen.
10:27 A.M. EST