Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Little Rock, AR
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Little Rock, Arkansas
12:06 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: I do have a few things at the top that I just wanted to make you aware of. So I want to start with mentioning the President’s last trip to California. It included a stop at a farm in the Central Valley, where the President talked about efforts underway by the federal government, in coordination with state and local officials, to help local residents deal with the drought. So there’s a couple of statistics I want to read off about this.
Over the last few months, the United States Department of Agriculture has declared 57 countries in California as primary natural disaster areas due to drought, making farmers and ranchers in those communities eligible for assistance through emergency loans. The USDA has announced $15 million in funding to help farmers and ranchers in the most extreme and exceptional drought areas implement conservation practices that conserves scarce water resources, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields, and improve livestock access to water; $100 million in the livestock disaster assistance for California producers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also making $3 million in grants available to help rural communities that are experiencing a significant decline in the quality or quantity of drinking water due to the drought. $60 million has been made available to food banks in the state of California to help families that may be negatively affected by the drought.
In addition to all of that, the White House, the governor’s office, federal agencies and California state agencies are coordinating in real time with weekly meetings on water operations and the economic impacts of the drought. In addition to that, the Bureau of Reclamation is coordinating daily with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fishery Service, the California Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife, federal and state water contractors, and the California State Water Resources Board to manage scarce water resources through the remainder of 2014.
I only mention all of this to underscore to you that the federal government and the Obama administration in particular remains committed to working closely with state and local officials in California to help them deal with the drought.
You saw the President talk yesterday about the National Climate Assessment that warned that incidents like the drought that is currently being experienced by communities throughout the West, that droughts like this are likely to be longer and more severe as carbon pollution increases and the impact of climate change is felt all across the globe.
So I wanted to make sure that you guys were aware of all that was ongoing on this. For those of you that are interested in more details -- about three weeks ago, the Department of Agriculture put out -- or through their Economic Research Service provided a report on the potential implications of the drought for California farms, crop and livestock production, and consumer food prices. So there’s some more details available for you to assess firsthand what kind of impact the drought is having on the economy and on communities throughout California.
Now, separately, I also want to mention -- give you a little preview of what we’re looking at for our first stop today. As you know, that first stop is in central Arkansas where the President will visit just one of several Arkansas communities that was hit by a series of severe storms, including one that spawned an EF-4 tornado last month. The President will view some of the damage from Marine One as we travel to the area from Little Rock.
He’ll then meet with first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to rescue their fellow citizens. He’ll also meet with the families of those who lost loved ones in the storm. Then, the President will visit firsthand one of the communities -- or one of the neighborhoods that sustained severe damage from the tornado. At that point, you’ll have the opportunity to hear directly from the President and get a better sense of his reaction to what he observed in this community. He’ll be joined on the tour by Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, United States Senator Mark Pryor, and United States Congressman Tim Griffin.
Strong coordination between federal, state and local officials is critical to the recovery of communities that have been struck by devastating disasters like this one. That’s why the President declared a major disaster shortly after the storm hit to streamline federal assistance to affected communities.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate visited the area within a couple of days of the storm, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited the area a week or so ago. All told, there are more than 400 FEMA staff on the ground throughout the mid-south and the southeast regions of the country where these damaging storms occurred late last month.
I also want to mention that there are about 150 AmeriCorps volunteers throughout the southeast who are assisting with the recovery effort. Many of you saw AmeriCorps volunteers in Oso, Washington when the President visited that community that was devastated by a mudslide. These AmeriCorps volunteers play a critical role in helping communities like this one recover. They can do a range of important tasks, including debris removal, facilitating client casework, and helping people apply for disaster assistance. They can also play an important role in just managing volunteers who are working to rebuild their communities.
Now, I mention all of this because, today, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that’s responsible for service and volunteering, is announcing more than $205 million in AmeriCorps grants to over 280 organizations across the country, including Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, Catholic charities and many others. These grants will support more than 43,000 AmeriCorps members, tackling critical issues in their communities like education, health, economic opportunity, disaster recovery and other things. You can get more details about that grant announcement at NationalService.gov.
That was a long windup, but I have one last thing that I want to point out to you. Shortly after we took off, the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, who is traveling in Israel, announced that Israeli President Shimon Peres would be visiting the White House the last week of June. So I wanted to make sure that all of you were aware of that announcement. That was an announcement that was put out broadly from Israel, but I believe it was right as we were taking off, so I want to make sure you’d seen it.
Q Do you have a date for that?
MR. EARNEST: I believe it’s June 25th.
Q Has that been announced back home?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q Is he just -- for logistical purposes, is this an EF-4 neighborhood that he’s visiting today, do you know?
MR. EARNEST: Let’s see if we can get you some more information about the neighborhood. I believe that that’s the case. But we’ll see if we can get you some more information from the folks on the ground who are dealing with this a little bit more closely than I am.
Q Do you have any details on the families he’s meeting with? Obviously there have been some that have gotten a fair amount of attention.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if we will have more information about the families or not. This will be an opportunity for the President to meet with them privately and offer his sympathies on behalf of the country to those who have lost so much in these terrible storms.
Q Are these families, though, that have lost family members as well?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q And on Friday, the energy speech, is that tied into the climate at all?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. This will be related to some of our ongoing efforts to coordinate with the private sector to boost efficiency efforts.
Q There’s a solar component?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll save the details for Friday. But there is an ongoing effort in the private sector to make the buildings that they inhabit more energy efficient. That’s good for our climate; it reduces carbon pollution. It also makes good economic sense for these companies that see a benefit to their bottom line when they’re putting in place measures that will make the buildings they inhabit more energy efficient. But we’ll have more on that on Friday.
Q Jay, on -- Josh, on others -- sorry. (Laughter.) Putin today is saying that he’s pulling troops away from the Ukrainian border and also calling on Ukrainians to delay the May 11th referendum on autonomy. And I wondered if there's a White House reaction.
MR. EARNEST: I do have a reaction to that. You’ve heard the United States and other leaders from the international community expressing our concern for some time now that Russian forces had been deployed to a newly constructed forward deployment area along the Ukrainian border. This deployment was not for a typical training exercise, but rather was intended to foment instability in the region, and in Ukraine specifically, I should say.
We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal of military -- of Russian military forces from the border. That’s something that we have sought for quite some time. I will say that, to date, there’s been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.
In terms of President Putin’s comments about the May 11th referendum, we’ve said repeatedly that this referendum is illegitimate, illegal. Secretary of State Kerry yesterday referred to this referendum as “bogus.” So we don’t believe that this referendum should just be postponed, we believe it should be cancelled.
What we would also like to see is greater support for the ongoing effort by the Ukrainian government to hold free and fair elections on May 25th. We would like to see the Russians contribute to the effort to encourage all Ukrainians to participate in that election. That is the best way for the people of Ukraine to determine the future of their country.
What we would also like to see is the Russian government live up to the commitments that they made in Geneva to use their influence with pro-Russian separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine to encourage them to lay down their arms and vacate the buildings that they have taken over; that there is an opportunity for Russia to contribute positively to the environment in Ukraine. Thus far, they have not done that. But we’ll see.
Q So Putin says he’s withdrawn the troops; you have absolutely no evidence that they’ve moved any troops at all. What evidence do you have?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that there is no evidence to date that there has been a meaningful and transparent withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border. Previously, the Russian government has suggested that these Russian troops are deployed for a training exercise.
But the fact of the matter is this is a forward deployment area that was newly constructed right near the border with Ukraine that served only to promote instability and to agitate the communities in that region along the border -- that the destabilizing impact was a bad one. And that is why we have urged for a few months now for the Russians to withdraw their forces from that region. But at this point, there has been no -- there’s no evidence that that withdrawal has taken place.
Q Are you guys detecting at least a change in tone in how Putin is discussing Ukraine right now when he says these kinds of things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say, Jim, that what we’re focused on most right now are actions. And President Putin committed to a few important actions in Geneva. So these actions included withdrawing troops from the border. These actions included strong support for the election that’s planned in Ukraine for May 25th. And this included the Russians using their influence in eastern and southern Ukraine to encourage separatists to lay down their arms and to put an end to the violence in that region.
We have not seen the Russians take those actions yet. Their refusal to take some of those actions has caused them to sustain some costs that have been imposed by the international community. We would like to see the Russians play a constructive role in deescalating the situation in Ukraine. So what we’re focused on are not their words related to that effort, but concrete, tangible, transparent steps that they can take to contribute to a deescalation of tensions in Ukraine. That’s what we’re looking for.
Q Josh, on Nigeria, do you have any more details on the announcement yesterday that the President, Goodluck Jonathan, has agreed to have U.S. support be sent to the country? Are there teams on the ground now or do you have any timing on when teams will be on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Let me try to provide you some more details. Here’s what I have for you. The first is to remind you that the assistance that we’re -- that President Obama has committed to provide are military assistance, law enforcement assistance and information-sharing assistance. The President has said -- and you heard him say in his interviews with a couple of television networks yesterday -- that he is committed to doing all that we can here in the United States to support the effort of the Nigerian government to find these girls that have been kidnapped and return them home safely, as soon as possible.
So part of that effort will include this assistance that we’re providing. And further into that assistance, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria today is meeting with the Nigerian national security advisor to talk about coordinating the assistance that will be provided by the U.S. The legal attaché at the embassy is meeting with his counterparts in Nigerian law enforcement. The Department of Justice and the FBI stand ready to provide a range of technical assistance to include help with pursuing an investigation, including some forensics assistance and expertise that they can bring to this effort. They also have some expertise and knowledge in hostage negotiations that we can bring to bear to assist the Nigerian government.
USAID is preparing assistance for the families of those who have had girls kidnapped, and stand ready to provide assistance to those girls when they return home. So there are a whole range of things that we can do and are doing. I also know that AFRICOM, the Africa command of our military structure, is conducting a review to see what kind of supplies they could offer up, again, in support of a Nigerian effort to find the girls who have been kidnapped.
Q You’re talking mostly in future tense than about the capabilities that we can lend. Is Nigeria accepting those offers right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- I was speaking in the present tense when I was talking about the ongoing efforts related to coordination between -- with the discussions that the Ambassador is having, discussions that the attaché is conducting as well. There is a team on the ground at the embassy right now that can provide the kind of support and assistance that we’re talking about. So I guess I was using multiple tenses in talking, some of which was current tense in terms of what we’re actively doing to support this effort. But if there is additional assistance that can be provided, we will provide it.
Q On the Arkansas trip, it seems like the President keeps having to do these things where he meets families and it’s very sad. I guess that’s part of the job. How does he feel about that part of the job?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as the elected leader of the country, it is the responsibility of the President to convey a couple of important messages to the people of Arkansas and to people in communities throughout the southeast that have been affected by these terrible storms. On the one hand, the President is traveling to the area to see firsthand the damage and to demonstrate a commitment not just on behalf of his administration, but on behalf of the American people, to stand with the people of Arkansas and other communities throughout the southeast as they recover and rebuild from these storms. You’ll hear an expression of that commitment from the President today.
There’s also a responsibility of the President to offer his condolences to people in these communities who have lost so much. In some cases, there are individuals who have lost -- families who have lost all of their worldly possessions in this storm. In other cases, the losses that families have sustained have been even worse -- they’ve lost loved ones in these storms. It’s an important job of any United States President to offer condolences to these families on behalf of the country.
So the President will certainly be carrying his sympathies and condolences on behalf of the Obama family, but also on behalf of the entire country. And this is something that previous Presidents have had to do, and tragically this is something that President Obama has had to do all too frequently as well.
Q Do you have any other details about the security breach yesterday? The car that followed the daughter’s motorcade into the -- the Secret Service said it was a Treasury employee, and I didn’t know if the administration is taking any administrative or punitive actions against the employee.
MR. EARNEST: I saw those reports, Adam, but I don’t have any additional information for you at this point. You might check -- I think what I would do is recommend that you touch base with Secret Service to see if they have additional details that they can provide.
I saw that that individual was in custody for a while. I don’t know if they are right now, but Secret Service should be able to provide you some additional information about that.
Q So no sort of formal administrative response in the fact that it might have been an employee who was responsible for that?
MR. EARNEST: I saw some reports that the individual that you’re talking about may have been a Treasury employee. I’m not in a position to confirm that. You may be able to check with the Treasury Department to see if they can.
Q Josh, rebels are leaving from the city of Homs in Syria; it was kind of their last big stronghold. What does it say about what the situation is in Syria? Does Assad clearly have the upper hand right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not in a position to offer that assessment. I think I would just say that we continue to be concerned about the terrible violence that has racked Syria for a few years now. It has divided that country. It has caused a huge flow of refugees into other countries in that region. That’s had a terribly destabilizing effect on a region that was already pretty volatile.
We continue to be concerned with the ongoing violence there. It is a terrible tragedy that the leader of a country is using the armed forces of that country to exact a terrible toll on the citizens of that country. We have said for quite some time that there is a not a military solution to this problem; that this is going to require all of the parties to come to the table and try to resolve this diplomatically and usher in the kind of political transition that’s required to ensure that the people of Syria have a government that reflects their will, and that will, at a bare minimum, put an end to the terrible violence that we’ve seen there over the last few years.
Q On Benghazi and the special panel -- Democrats are insisting on parity representation on the panel; it doesn’t look like they would get that. Would that be the kind of situation that the White House would consider illegitimizes the panel and therefore would make it one that you would not cooperate with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question this way, Jim. As you know, we have cooperated with a number of inquiries related to Benghazi. Some of those have been rather partisan in nature, but have still enjoyed remarkable cooperation from the administration. I have some new statistics here: Five different congressional reports have been issues on this topic. Seven different congressional investigations have been conducted. Eight different subpoenas have been issued. Thirteen hearings have been held. Twenty-five transcribed interviews have been conducted. Fifty different briefings for staff and members; 25,000 pages of documents have been produced by the administration. There has been remarkable cooperation from the administration, with Congress, who have been looking into this.
I do think that we have some new evidence today about the way that this panel can be judged. Relatively early this morning we saw one of the Republican campaign committees issue a fundraising email encouraging their donors to contribute to the party in support of the Benghazi investigation. I think that tells you just about all you need to know when it comes to assessing the political motivations of those who are leading the effort to form this committee.
Q So you’re saying you’ve cooperated enough, then, over Benghazi.
MR. EARNEST: I think I’m saying that there has been -- I think the adjective that I used was a “remarkable” amount of cooperation. And if you look at the statistics, there’s been a remarkable expenditure of resources from Congress related to this investigation, and a remarkable level of cooperation that you’ve seen in terms of witnesses participating in hearings, and transcribed interviews, and in terms of documents that have been provided to members of Congress on this issue.
So the other thing I’ll say about this is the President’s concern as it relates to this issue has been has been bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible act. There is an active, ongoing FBI investigation on that right now.
The President is also concerned with making sure that the recommendations forwarded by the Accountability Review Board -- an impartial panel that was chaired by Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen -- those recommendations are being implemented. And just as importantly, the President is committed to making sure that we’re doing every single thing that we can to beef up diplomatic security at U.S. facilities all across the world. We have not seen cooperation from Republicans in Congress on that effort. And it’s unfortunate that they seem more interested in these kinds of investigations than working with the administration to actually make sure that we’re doing all that we can to keep our diplomats safe.
I mean, the fact of the matter is we have diplomats all around the world right now, as we speak, who are putting themselves in harm’s way to represent our country’s interests in remote corners of the globe. And they deserve to have a government that is devoting all the necessary resources to allow them to do their jobs as safely and effectively and efficiently as possible. The President is determined in pursuit of that effort. And, frankly, we’d like to see a little bit more of Republican cooperation when it comes to that.
Q So how do you determine whether this investigation is legitimate? Is there like a way of determining that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. I think that the fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee is raising money off the creation of this committee is a pretty good indication of the political motivation that’s at work here. That said, the panel has not yet been created. The members have not yet been appointed. And the investigatory tactics that they are planning to employ have not yet been disclosed. So I’m going to reserve judgment on that. But I’m reserving judgment knowing that we have already produced extensive materials to support a wide range of other investigations that have already been conducted, and noting the political motivation that seems rather obvious at this point.
Q So are you saying that when a party raises money off an event, committee, policy for political purposes, it’s politically motivated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’m saying that I’ll let you be the judge of that. And I’ll be interested to hear what you conclude.
Q On the climate report that was released yesterday, it’s being criticized by opponents, saying that if the policies that are expected to come out of the data do, it will cost U.S. jobs. Obviously, the White House has been focused on job creation. So how do you respond to critics on that charge?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll respond to it in this way. There are serious challenges that we face as a result of climate change caused by carbon pollution. One thing we can do is try to reduce our contribution to that carbon pollution. There are a couple of ways we can do that.
One that we’ll talk about a little bit more on Friday is making buildings a little bit more efficient. Retrofitting buildings and modernizing them is one way to create jobs. It saves companies money in terms of their energy costs, but it also creates jobs in terms of people who are installing updated lighting, modern heating and cooling systems, and other things that make buildings more efficient. The President has put in place a range of efficiency measures that govern the manufacturing of appliances and automobiles and trucks. All of that saves consumers money in terms of energy costs, but it also creates good manufacturing jobs here in this country.
This is a leading trend that we’re going to see all across the world that other countries and other markets are going to turn to more energy-efficient products to try to deal with carbon pollution. So there is an opportunity that exists for American businesses right now to get ahead of the curve; that if we can develop an expertise in manufacturing energy-efficient appliances and energy-efficient cars, that will open up export markets all around the globe. This is also true when it comes to manufacturing for wind turbines and solar panels, that there’s an opportunity for the United States to assert dominance in this market.
We’re seeing other countries that are mobilizing their resources to try to get a toehold on all this. But there is an opportunity for us, for this country, to do the right thing when it comes to the economy -- I mean, when it comes to the environment and climate change, and also do the right thing when it comes to job creation and economic growth.
And that’s what we’re focused on, and that’s why you hear the President talk so frequently about how important investments in clean energy like wind and solar are to his list of economic priorities. But, again, we’ll hear the President talk about this a little bit more on Friday.
12:36 P.M. EDT