Press Gaggle with Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Florida
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Florida
12:17 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: This afternoon, the President and First Lady are headed to Coral Reef High School to talk about ensuring that as many students as possible fill out the financial aid forms that open the door to a college education. Never before has a college education been as important as it is now in expanding opportunity and ensuring economic stability in this global economy.
The First Lady has previously talked about efforts the administration has taken to simplify the financial aid form. Today, the President will talk about an executive action that he'll take to better track which students have completed the form, which will assist efforts to encourage the families of students to do so.
And I'll also point out that any time you're going to a school whose mascot is the barracuda you know it's going to be an interesting afternoon. So it should be kind of fun.
With that, why don't we take some questions?
Q Quick question -- the readout this morning on the President’s call to the Japanese Prime Minister, he talked about they agreed to work with other G7 countries to put pressure on Russia. Does that reference signal the U.S. no longer views the group as the G8? And if that's the case, what’s the latest on the President going to the previously scheduled so-called G8 summit in Sochi?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, as you know, what we have done is we've suspended our participation in meetings to prepare for the G8 meeting in Sochi. The reference to the G7 is simply an indication of how united those seven countries are in our resolve to stand up for principles relating to territorial integrity and individual state sovereignty. You’ve heard these seven countries speak with one voice on this issue and you’ve seen these seven countries demonstrate their resolve in considering a range of options to demonstrate that there will be costs associated with violating principles like this.
So you saw the readout from the call that the President had with Prime Minister Abe, and Prime Minister Abe was of one mind with the President and the other members of the international community and the other members of the G7 on this issue.
Q So Sochi, on or off? If it continues, will the President go?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any announcements to make about the President’s travel in June. But I can tell you that there had been meetings, as there always is, in advance of the big meeting in June among the countries to prepare for meetings like that. Our participation in those meetings has been suspended, and I think it would be logical for anybody to conclude that it raises significant questions about whether or not we’d participate in the meeting in June.
Q I wanted to ask you about Senator Gillibrand’s sexual assault bill -- military sexual assault bill. I don't remember the President ever coming out and saying where he stood on that bill. Did he have a position on it? And was it getting blocked in the Senate, was that something that the White House thought was okay or --
MR. EARNEST: I'm going to have to pull some additional information for you, which I could get this afternoon, related to this. It has been the administration’s position and you’ve heard the President speak very forcefully as the Commander-in-Chief about taking the kinds of steps necessary to address what is a persistent problem in our armed forces. But in terms of our position on specific proposals to reform that system, let me get back to you on that.
Q A quick one on Ukraine again. Republicans have been pushing this plan to increase exports of natural gas. Does the administration see that as some type of realistic option when it comes to helping overseas?
MR. EARNEST: Let me start by saying this: There are six licenses that have been approved by the Department of Energy related to the export of about 8.5 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas to a range of countries around the world. What’s important for you to understand about those licenses that have already been issued is that the projects for delivering the product would not be completed until the end of next year. So proposals to try to respond to the situation in Ukraine that are related to our policy on exporting natural gas would not have an immediate effect.
The other factor that’s important to understand about the situation is the current inventories of liquefied natural gas in Europe and in Ukraine are actually above traditional levels or above normal levels. The reason for that is, unlike North America, they’ve had a relatively mild winter in Europe and the region. So there is no indication currently that there’s much risk of a natural gas shortage in the region.
The other dynamic that factors into all this is that Russia prides itself on being a reliable supplier of natural gas to countries around the world -- I would say natural gas and other sources of energy to countries around the world. Shutting off the natural gas would threaten that reputation -- it certainly would undermine it, not just in the eyes of Ukraine and Europe but in countries around the world.
Finally, it’s also important to recognize that Russia relies on revenue from exporting natural gas and other sources of energy. Russia currently yields about $50 billion a year in revenue from exporting natural gas, so ending that kind of relationship with Europe would have significant financial consequences for Russia as well.
So this is a complicated situation. For a more detailed explanation of this complicated dynamic, I’d refer you to the Department of Energy. But in terms of the top lines, the United States has a long relationship with Ukraine and has actually been talking about these energy issues for some time. Vice President Biden traveled to Ukraine in 2009, and one of the items at the top of the agenda was efforts by the United States to work with Ukraine to help them reduce their dependence on Russian sources of energy, to help them reform their energy sector, to improve efficiency, to improve energy security in Ukraine. So this is a complicated issue, one that we’ve been coordinating with the Ukrainians on for quite some time.
So I think that mostly answers your question, but for a more detailed answer, I’d refer you to the Department of Energy.
Q Just related to that, did this come up in the call last night with the Prime Minister? Because I know that it’s been really important for Japan to build a strong relationship with Russia for natural gas. Was the President able to give any assurances to the Prime Minister about this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to get into a more detailed readout beyond what we issued last night and early this morning. But I will say that the executive order that the President issued yesterday put in place a structure where sanctions could be implemented. As Jay discussed during the briefing, no specific organizations have been targeted at this point, but that process is underway. So there’s no immediate impact from the sanctions that the President has considered in terms of interrupting anybody’s access to Russian sources of energy.
What sanctions we’ll be focused on are individuals and entities that have interfered with or played a prominent role in interfering with the sovereignty of Ukraine. And those are the individuals and entities that will be targeted. And when we have additional announcements on that, we will. Let me just end this answer by saying that, as I mentioned in my previous answer, that Prime Minister Abe is committed, or voiced to the President his commitment to closely coordinating with the international community and with the other countries in the G7 in standing up for the principle of respecting state sovereignty and the territorial integrity of independent nations.
Q Josh, I’m wondering why the White House made the decision or the President made the decision to stick to the plan of spending the weekend in Key Largo, given obviously the pace of events overseas and the fact that the Vice President is also going to be out of the country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, as you’ve been covering the President this week, you know that he has had a very robust schedule of consulting with President Putin a couple of times this week, that he has had a number of conversations with Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Merkel, and other foreign leaders -- Prime Minister Abe just last night. He has been able to do all of that without interrupting what has otherwise been a pretty busy schedule for him this week -- during a snow day in Washington, D.C., during the rollout of the President’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget. Our ongoing efforts to monitor ongoing events in Ukraine and to stay in close contact with world leaders has not affected the other aspects of the President’s schedule.
That’s true of the President’s schedule today. The President and First Lady, as I mentioned at the top, are traveling to a high school to talk about this core component of the President’s domestic agenda. Meanwhile, the President has been able to get updates from his national security team and I would anticipate that later today, the President will have at least one phone call to make with a world leader around the globe. I do anticipate we’ll be able to get you a readout of that call, so we’ll keep you posted.
I think the point is that the President over the course of a very busy week has maintained his schedule and his ability to monitor ongoing events in Ukraine. I would anticipate that he’ll do the same thing this weekend. And the fact of the matter is what the President is doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the President will be doing if he stayed back at the White House. It’s just that the weather will be a little warmer.
Q Well, what else will he be doing besides monitoring world events? What else will he be planning to do on his vacation, if you can give us a little flavor?
MR. EARNEST: The President is looking forward to spending some time with his wife and daughters, who are traveling down to Florida as well. There are some recreational amenities on the property, including workout facilities, tennis courts, a couple of golf courses, as you’ve seen.
So there is a -- many of the people that the people that the President has been talking to in terms of our allies in Europe and other world leaders -- there’s a six-hour time difference between here and there. So if there is an opportunity for the President to enjoy some of those amenities, then he’ll do that. But we’ll have to see. What he will do and what he is looking forward to doing is getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters.
Q Can I ask you was any of the President’s or the First Lady’s personal acquaintances or friends traveling on Air Force One who are not administration officials, do you know? We saw someone boarding who happened to be well dressed with like a cowboy hat -- wasn’t sure who that was -- earlier before the President got there. And I didn’t know if any other friends or acquaintances --
MR. EARNEST: There are a couple members of the Florida congressional delegation onboard. I saw Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Congressman Joe Garcia is on board as well. It may have been one of the two of them that you saw.
Q You don’t know if any other, like, friends?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any other friends of the President or the First Lady that’s on board.
Q Is there still a chance that he could go back to the White House tonight? Or is the weekend here set pretty much?
MR. EARNEST: There’s always a chance that the schedule could change, but I don’t anticipate any changes at this point.
Q Josh, one more question on this. You’ve obviously got the Vice President out of town, the Secretary of State is still out of town, the National Security Advisor is in the Persian Gulf, and the President is heading to Florida. I’m just wondering that’s four senior national security officials not in Washington, including the President. Is that an unusual set of circumstances? And does that pose any issues in terms of how the government would respond should something sudden happen in Ukraine or Crimea?
MR. EARNEST: It’s hard for me to speak to the travel habits of all of those officials. Most of the people you described have as a part of their job description traveling overseas to represent the interest of the United States overseas. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a fairly regular occurrence. I mean, it’s not uncommon when the President is traveling overseas for the National Security Advisor or for the Secretary of State to be with him. So it’s not uncommon.
I will say this: The President is traveling this weekend with his Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, who has played a very important role in handling this situation in Ukraine. The President is traveling with the regular assortment of communications tools that will allow him to convene in a secure fashion meetings with his national security team, if necessary. He, of course, has a telephone, so if he needs to make calls to world leaders, whether it’s President Putin or our allies, or other international leaders that are involved in this effort, he can stay in regular touch with them. So we have complete confidence that the President can handle all the responsibilities that he has, based on the resources that we have with us on the flight.
Q That said, you were quoted earlier this week I think by Politico saying that it was still up in the air, there was some debate or some internal deliberations about whether he would maintain a weekend schedule of staying down there. The decision seems that he’s going to. What was the debate about then if he can do that, and you know that? Are you saying that the situation in the Ukraine is sort of calm enough that you can go reliably? In other words, what was the debate or why did it come down on this side?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t characterize it as a debate. I was quoted in Politico talking about the fact that the President’s schedule would be a little more fluid than usual because international events were a little more fluid than usual.
I do think that what we have seen over the course of the last several days is the President has marshalled our allies to put in place a structure for responding to the situation that we’re seeing on the ground in Ukraine. The President has had, again, multiple conversations with President Putin where he highlighted that there is an off-ramp here, that there is an opportunity for the Russians to sit down with the Ukrainians, facilitated by the international community, if necessary, to try to broker an agreement, to allow international inspectors into every corner of the nation of Ukraine to ensure that the rights of everybody, including the rights of ethnic Russians, are being protected.
We’ve described before that that is a legitimate interest of Russia and, frankly, it’s a legitimate interest of the international community to ensure that the rights of all the citizens of Ukraine are being respected.
There’s an opportunity for the Russians to live up to their basing agreement in Crimea, to return their soldiers and their troops to their bases, and for the international community to come together in support of the elections that are planned for May. So there is a path to deescalate the situation. And that is a path that has been set up by -- under the President’s leadership. We have marshalled the international community behind -- or in support of this potential off-ramp. And I think over the course of the next few days, we’ll get a better indication about whether or not the Russians are open to that off-ramp.
And one of the conclusions of the call that the President had with President Putin yesterday was that Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, should be in touch to talk about steps forward on that.
So I think -- the President is hopeful that we’ll get a little greater clarity on the situation over the course of the next few days. And if additional steps need to be taken next week, then we can take those steps.
Q Can you characterize the tone of these lengthy conversations that the two leaders have had? I mean, you said that next few days will tell the story, but it doesn't seem that so far that something has come out of it, that --
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to set up a deadline over the next few days. I think we’re hopeful that in the next few days, we’ll get greater clarity about whether or not the Russians are willing to take some concrete steps toward this off-ramp here.
But in terms of characterizing the calls, we have issued readouts and I wouldn’t want to get in front of those. But I do think that it’s fair for you to -- fair for people to take away from these readouts that at least as it relates to the view of the situation -- the U.S. view of the situation versus the Russian view of the situation in Ukraine, and in Crimea in particular, there’s a pretty strong difference of opinion; that there is a disagreement about the facts related to what’s actually happening on the ground there.
The best example of this is you saw in the news conference that President Putin convened earlier this week that he basically denied that there were Russian troops on the ground in Crimea outside their bases. All of the available evidence indicates that's not true.
So we’re having robust, direct, candid conversations between President Obama and President Putin. That means acknowledging that there are basic differences over what’s actually happening on the ground in Crimea.
So the real test is whether or not the Russians are going to take advantage of this off-ramp that is available here. And we’re hopeful that the Russians will take the steps necessary to deescalate the situation -- by observing the basing agreements, by supporting elections, by entering into talks, facilitated by the international community, if necessary, with the Ukrainians to try to resolve all this. And again, that could also include putting international monitors all throughout Ukraine to ensure that the rights of everybody, including ethnic Russians, are being respected.
President Putin has indicated that that's part of Russia’s interest in the region, and it’s part of the U.S. and the international community’s interest in the region. So there is some common ground here. But I don't want to paper over the differences that exist on some very basic facts on the ground.
Q It sounds like you’re saying the White House is in kind of a wait-and-see mode for a few days on this?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t use those words, only because the President and senior members of our team remain very actively engaged in the situation. The President will continue to consult very closely with our allies around the globe, particularly the G7 nations that Jeff mentioned. Secretary Kerry will be in touch with his counterpart, having specific discussions about the way forward here. So there’s still a lot of activity going on here even as we watch carefully to see what the Russian reaction might be.
Q Will the President have a message today for voters in next week’s special congressional election?
MR. EARNEST: The White House is obviously aware that there is a special congressional election on the other side of the state of Florida. I know that that race has gotten a lot of national attention, but I don’t anticipate that in his event today that the President will be talking about it. He’ll be pretty focused today on this one core component of his domestic agenda, which is expanding the door -- expanding college education.
Q Is it a coincidence that he’s there a few days ahead of the election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s in a different part of the state, so, yes, it is a coincidence.
Q Do you have a week ahead?
MR. EARNEST: I do have a very bare-bones week ahead. At this point, we anticipate that the President and the First Family will return to Washington on Sunday.
On Monday, the President is really looking forward to welcoming the 2012 and 2013 Division I Men’s and Women’s NCAA National Champions at the White House. As you know, the President traditionally welcomes the NCAA champion football and basketball teams. This will be an opportunity for the President to welcome the NCAA champions in some sports that don’t get quite as much attention as those other more high-profile events. So we’re looking forward to that.
On Tuesday, the President is planning to travel to New York City to participate in events to benefit the DNC and the DSCC. At this point, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I don’t have any additional events to announce. I anticipate the President will be at the White House and participating in meetings on those days.
Q Thank you.
Q I have one more -- sorry -- closer question to ask about this beer bet. My editors asked me to ask specifically -- Prime Minister Harper said he hasn’t gotten his beer yet from the Olympic hockey bet. What’s with the delay?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. I’m not privy to the details of the international beer delivery, but I can tell you that the President is somebody who makes good on his bets. So I’m confident that Prime Minister Harper and members of his team will soon be enjoying some delicious White House beer.
All right. Thanks.
12:42 P.M. EST