Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route JBA, 6/16/2014
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Joint Base Andrews
2:00 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Can we assume the position here? I’ll do a quick thing at the top and then we’ll get to your questions.
As part of the President’s economic agenda to expand opportunity for all Americans, this week he’ll focus on additional ways we can create good jobs by continuing to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and manufacturing.
Tomorrow, the President will travel to Pittsburgh, where he’ll meet with workers at TechShop, a company that helps American investors make affordable prototypes.
Then, on Wednesday, the President will host the first-ever White House Maker Faire, where he will meet Americans who are taking the challenge of innovation into their own hands. I’m told there will be 3-D printed pancakes at the event.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. So there are a lot of reasons to eagerly anticipate Wednesday’s event.
Nationwide, the maker movement opens access to new tools for democratized production, and is boosting innovation and entrepreneurship in manufacturing in the same way that the Internet and cloud computing have lowered the barriers to entry for digital startups and assisted in the revitalization of American manufacturing. In advance of these events, I expect we’ll have some new announcements to make about additional steps the public and private sectors will take to further expand this kind of manufacturing innovation.
So with that, I’ll get to your questions.
Q Is the President considering President Rouhani’s offer to help in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about this. The first is there are ongoing conversations in Vienna -- or conversations in Vienna that are about to start among the P5-plus-1 members and senior Iranian officials about their nuclear program.
Those conversations and resolving the international community’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program remains a top priority of this administration’s foreign policy. You’ve heard some State Department officials acknowledge today that it’s possible that there could be some conversations on the margins of that meeting among the P5-plus-1 members. But I want to make very clear that any of those conversations that may occur on the margins are entirely separate from the conversations about Iran’s nuclear program. So it’s important to understand that.
The second thing that’s important for you to understand is that any conversations with the Iranian regime will not include military coordination. We will not be -- we’re not interested in any effort to coordinate military activities with Iran.
The third thing I’d say about this also relates to something we will not discuss, and that specifically is the future of Iraq. So Iraq is an independent, sovereign country and decisions about the future of Iraq should be made by an Iraqi political leadership that reflects the best interests of Iraq’s diverse population. Decisions about Iraqis’ futures should be made solely in that venue and not by outside actors.
Q So what might be coordinated with Iran, given what will not be coordinated with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: I think what’s been made clear -- and I think even according to published reports, it’s clear that the Iranians feel a stake in resolving the deteriorating security situation that we’ve seen in Iraq. Frankly, it’s in the interest of all of the countries in the region that the kind of violence at the hands of extremists that we’ve seen in Iraq come to an end. It’s also in the interest of countries throughout the region to see the Iraq leadership pursue the governing of that country in a non-sectarian way; that there’s a way for countries in the region to support the efforts of the Iraqi political leadership to invest in a political agenda and in security forces that are not sort of riven by sectarian differences.
Q Does President Obama want the U.S. and Iran to both apply pressure on Maliki to behave a certain way? Does President Obama want the U.S. and Iran to work together to find regional efforts with other countries? Can you tell me affirmatively what he is comfortable with partnering with Iran to do? And would he speak with Rouhani himself, or is it not going to happen at that level?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to make any predictions about what kinds of conversations may occur other than to say that conversations may occur on the margins of the P5-plus-1 meeting in the context of conversations that are entirely separate from ongoing nuclear talks.
Here’s what I think the administration would like to see: We would like to see the Iranian regime and the leaders of other countries in the region play a constructive role in encouraging Iraq’s political leadership to pursue an inclusive diplomatic agenda. That means that -- it’s the view of the United States that it’s in the interest of all of these countries, including Iran, to see an Iraq that’s governed in a non-sectarian way, and that investments in building up an inclusive political agenda and strengthening security forces, which are obviously in need of strengthening, that all of that is done in the context of a non-sectarian, inclusive effort.
Q Josh, you keep mentioning that both talks would be separate from the P5-plus-1. Is the United States concerned that Iran might use this as leverage in the P5-plus-1? Clearly, they have something right now that the United States wants.
MR. EARNEST: No, we’re not concerned about that because, as I mentioned, the conversations that are ongoing with the P5-plus-1 members and Iran about their nuclear security program -- about their nuclear program is something that continues to be a high priority of this administration’s foreign policy. And we’re going to continue to pursue the opportunity for a resolution to those differences that exist between the Iranian regime and the international community. There is a deadline, a July 20th deadline that’s been set for resolving those differences of opinion.
It’s our view that significant gaps remain between the international community’s position for resolving these differences and what the Iranians have stated a willingness to do. So we’re going to spend some time over the course of the next month in advance of the July 20th deadline trying to bridge the significant gaps that still remain.
But all of that is very important work and entirely separate from the common interest that is shared by countries in the region who would like to see the peaceful resolution of the security situation in Iraq.
Q Do you see any ironies in the fact that Washington is asking for Tehran’s assistance on this?
MR. EARNEST: I think those are your words. I didn’t quite say that. I think it is merely an observation by many people in the international community that there is a shared interest among the variety of countries in the region around Iraq to see this kind of extremism, violent extremism stopped in its tracks. And it is not in anybody’s interest for the nation of Iraq to be torn apart along sectarian lines in a way that’s driven by extremists.
Q Josh, there’s nothing in Iran’s track record on Iraq that suggests that it’s really interested in a multi-sectarian government. In previous episodes where the sectarian stuff has blown up, the Iranians have typically sent in their own agents, sent in Quds force, played a disruptive role. So what I’m wondering is whether, if this conversation were to happen this week, you’d be laying down some pretty strong markers to the Iranians saying, look, we know what you’ve done before in cases like this; don’t plan on doing it this time. Would that be a fair characterization?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of characterizing those conversations before they occur. But you can --
Q What about Iran’s record on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you can assume that the message that we are sending publicly about the need for all of Iraq’s political leadership to pursue an inclusive political agenda is a position that will be conveyed candidly to the Iranian leadership if those kinds of conversations actually occur. But there is no -- I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Our position on this is really, really clear. We do think that there is some common ground, because we do think it’s in the interest of Iran and other countries that neighbor Iraq for this kind of violent sectarian strife to come to an end because it’s in everybody’s interest.
The kind of violence and sectarian strife that we’ve seen in Syria has spilled over into Iraq, and it has had a destabilizing impact on that regime and on that country. So, presumably, the leaders of other countries wouldn’t want to see that destabilizing activity continue to occur and propagate.
Q One more question on this. There’s a reasonable concern on Iran’s part that if the United States is contemplating military action that’s potentially destabilizing on its own border, would there be any thought to also offering the Iranians assurances that were the U.S. to consider military action it would be strictly limited, it would only be aimed at sort of fending off this insurgency as opposed to something bigger, which obviously Iran has had occasion to see in the past from the United States.
MR. EARNEST: Well, even outside the context of Iran, we’ve been pretty clear about what kind of -- what the goals of any contemplated military action would be. Specifically, they would be to bolster efforts by the Iraqi leadership to pursue a more inclusive political agenda. And that’s true whether Iran is involved or not.
And I guess the other thing that I want to do here is reiterate something that the President said on Friday, which is that any of the military options that the President might consider, they would not include an open-ended military commitment. They would not include combat boots on the grounds. And they would be predicated on commitments from the Iraqi political leadership to pursue an inclusive political agenda that takes into account the legitimate grievances of the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni populations in that country.
Q Can I ask about the executive order? A couple things. Has he signed it yet? And do you have any fact sheet, or are you releasing anything about how many people are affected, any economic impact?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, Steve, the only thing I can confirm is that the President, following on his pledge for this to be a year of action to expand opportunity for all Americans, has directed his staff to prepare for his signature, an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The specific details of that order have not been finalized, so I can’t give you the kinds of details that you’re seeking.
Q Electronically or by --
MR. EARNEST: He has not signed it yet.
Q When he lands today?
MR. EARNEST: No -- I don’t. The details are still being formalized. What the President has asked is for his staff to put together an executive order like this. So it’s not something that’s ready to be signed yet. He’s asked them to put together an executive order that can be signed in the future.
Q No numbers on how many people would be affected?
MR. EARNEST: That’s something that we may have more information on once we have the details of what this executive order says.
Q Also, the community has been asking for this since 2008. Why did it take so long?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve said, Steve, what we have sought is congressional legislation on this. The action that the -- an executive order along these lines would not be a substitute for robust congressional action. Last year we did see the Senate pass the so-called ENDA legislation. We have for several months now been encouraging the House to take up and pass that legislation. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of Republicans blocking progress on the kind of issue that has pretty strong support all across the country.
So we’re disappointed that the House hasn’t taken action. The President was really clear at the beginning of the year that once we want to work with Congress in bipartisan fashion to make progress on behalf of the American people. But the President is not going to give up his ability to act unilaterally in pursuit of that kind of agenda. And I think an executive order like this is a pretty good example of that strategy on the President’s part, which is to work with Congress where we can but also act unilaterally where necessary to advance expanded opportunity for the American people.
Q Can I ask one more on Iraq? On Friday, the president said he would have a better sense by the end of the weekend what international partners might be willing to do to aid in any U.S. action in Iraq. I’m wondering if you could describe the outreach that happened over the weekend and the reception that you might be getting from other foreign leaders.
MR. EARNEST: I do have some information about it. Secretary Kerry placed a number of calls over the weekend to some of his counterparts in the region. He called the foreign ministers of Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
You recall that on Friday the President directed his national security team to spend some time working over the weekend assembling a range of options for him. You received emails from me over the weekend a couple of times a day letting you know that the President was in pretty close touch with his National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, who regularly updated him on a few things.
The first -- she obviously updated him on the security situation in Iraq. She also updated him on the diplomatic discussions that have been ongoing at a variety of levels, both with the Iraqi political leadership, the political leadership of other countries in the region, and countries around the world that have a legitimate concern similar to the concern we’ve expressed about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
She also kept him updated on the conversations that were ongoing among members of his national security team. She provided the President another update along these lines this morning before we left Palm Springs. The President said that he wanted to meet with his national security team when he returns to Washington this evening. And the purpose of that meeting would be to hear from members of his national security team directly about their ongoing efforts to present him with a range of options.
So that’s a process that’s still ongoing, and this will be an opportunity for him to talk directly with members of his national security team about those ongoing efforts.
Q Do you have any updates about what that thinking is? And do you have any sense of what a timetable might be for an announcement of U.S. action?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update on those conversations other than to say that they’re ongoing. This obviously is serious work, and it’s something that the President’s national security team takes very seriously. It’s a collaborative effort among the diplomatic members of his team. There’s also an important role here for the military and the intelligence teams to present the President with a range of options, and that’s something that they’re still working on.
Q -- happens tonight, it will be military, plus the NSC formally presenting the -- is it right to say that he will be presented with the range of options tonight?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to get ahead of that meeting. I think what I can say confidently now is the President will be updated on their ongoing efforts. I’m not in a position right now to say whether or not he’ll be presented with a range of options in the context of that meeting. But the goal of this meeting is for the President to get an update on the thinking of individual members of his team as they’ve been working over the weekend to prepare --
Q Dempsey, as well?
MR. EARNEST: I will see if we can get you a manifest of those who participate in the meeting. I don’t have it with me right now, though.
Q Can we expect a readout as well, afterwards?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see if we can get you something.
Q What do we think of you moving people out of the embassy in Baghdad? Do you expect Baghdad to be under great threat or do you expect some recriminations if you take military action?
MR. EARNEST: I think the actions right now are precipitated on doing everything we can to protect the security of Americans who are representing our interests in Iraq. So there have been some movements that you’ve heard about of relocating some staff members to some consulates in Iraq.
But the embassy is open and is conducting official business. But it’s something that we, the President always is concerned about is doing everything that we can to preserve the safety and security of Americans who are serving abroad.
Q Josh, back to the ENDA question. White House officials have been saying for ages that the President did not want to do this executive order because you wanted to leave open room for the legislative solution to happen. What led to you deciding to do it this week? And do you have any sense of a timetable as to when that order will be ready for him to sign?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do want to be crystal clear about something, which is that the door for legislative action remains open. There is nothing in an executive order that they’re still working to put together that would preclude Congress from taking an important but commonsense step to pass legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
As you know, an executive order that the President would sign along these lines would apply to federal contractors. And Congress would have the power to pass legislation, and it’s passed the Senate already, to ensure -- to ban this discrimination across the country. So there’s something much more widespread that Congress can do. It has passed through the Senate; it should pass through the House.
Q But the question was, why are you doing it now?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, quite simply, we’ve been waiting for quite a few months now for the House to take action, and unfortunately there aren’t particularly strong indications that Congress is prepared to act on this. So like I said, we stand ready to continue to work with Congress to advance the cause of expanding opportunity for all Americans all across the country. This is one way in which Congress could act to do that, and we stand ready to work with them to get that done. But the President is not just going to sit around and wait for Congress to take action. This has not been a particularly prolific Congress when it comes to passing legislation, even legislation that has strong support all across the country like this.
So the President is going to do what he can -- in this case, consider an executive order that would ban discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
Q When do you think that will be ready for him to sign?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timetable at this point, but we’ll keep you updated. If I can get you better guidance about that timetable, we’ll do that. But there’s still some work that needs to be done to prepare an executive order for his signature.
Q Can I ask you a quick Russia question? Some indications that Russia has been limiting through Gazprom the supplies to Ukraine, and that is affecting Ukrainians and also prices in Europe. Do you think that -- is it the White House’s concern that Russia is taking advantage of the situation with Iraq to kind of make a move? Or maybe completely disconnected from that, do you have concerns about what’s happening now with Russia and oil supplies to Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ve heard us say before that access to energy supplies should not be used to inappropriately influence the government of another country. It shouldn’t be used to coerce another nation’s political leadership. So that’s something that we’re concerned about and we’re following very closely. There is an opportunity for us to act with our partners around the world to protect the interests of a sovereign Ukraine.
The EU has been actively engaged in trying to negotiate a settlement to this dispute between the Russians and the Ukrainians, and we’re supportive of that effort and we’re hopeful it will continue.
Q Can I ask about the situation on the border? The Vice President is heading down to Guatemala, and part of the reason officials said he was going was to dispel a misperception there that the President’s delayed deportation -- deferred deportation policy would affect them and that they would be able to take advantage of it. And I’m wondering what led the White House to believe that’s become an issue -- because just last week you were sort of writing that off as a political talking point for Republicans.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the suggestion from Republicans was a little bit less honest than the assessment that you presented. Let me just leave it at that.
The efforts of the Vice President are to go and cooperate with our partners in Central America because we have a shared interest in the safety of children, and that what we have seen is an influx of unaccompanied minors at the border between the United States and Mexico, and that’s something that we’re concerned about. And there have been a number of steps that have been ramped up to try to meet the humanitarian needs of children who show up on the border and are apprehended by the
Border Patrol. So there’s a whole effort that’s been stood up by FEMA, including good work from HHS to try to meet this growing need.
But what the Vice President will be engaged in is talking to the leaders of these other countries, because the leaders of these other countries are obviously concerned about the safety and security of kids in their country, and the United States remains concerned too.
So went to -- if there are steps that these countries can take to ensure the safety of their children and to dissuade parents from entrusting them in the hands of strangers to try to deliver them to the United States, we’d like to shut that off as quickly as we can. And some of that is making sure that those parents understand exactly what the law is, and the law says that these unaccompanied minors when they show up at the border would not qualify for deferred action, like the administration announced a couple years ago.
Q Just to clarify -- you do believe the misperceptions of the deferred action is part of what’s leading to this wave of immigrant kids on the border? The White House now is certain that that’s part of what is leading to all of these kids coming over here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t think I want to put myself in a position of being able to understand exactly what’s happening, but to the extent that we can clarify what the law is, we’re going to do that. And that will be part of the Vice President’s mission.
Q Just as we were taking off I saw a report that Malia Obama is working as a production assistant on a Steven Spielberg film. Can you say anything about that, and confirm whether that’s true? And she’s not on this flight. Is she living in California temporarily to do that? Or what is the situation there?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports as well, Nedra. As you know, what we have done to protect the privacy of the President and First Lady’s two daughters is to talk about the daughters’ activities when they’re appearing in public with their parents, and conversely to not talk about their activities when they’re not appearing in public with their parents. So I’m going to try and live up to that principle in the context of this gaggle and not comment on those reports.
Q -- it rises to the level of like a public official and sort of a public event? It’s not like an internship with no one you’ve ever heard of. It’s Steven Spielberg.
Q -- photos of her going in and off the job site, too, right? So --
MR. EARNEST: Like I said, I’ve seen the reports. And, again, the line that we draw is related to the two daughters being involved in public activities with their parents; that when they are traveling with them -- that’s one of the reasons that I try to -- that we worked over the weekend to provide you some greater clarity about whether or not they were in California with the President and First Lady.
Again, this was a public trip of the President and First Lady to California, and so there are potential -- the involvement of the First Daughters in that trip was a legitimate question, and that’s why we were able to determine for you that Malia did spend the weekend with her parents and Sasha did not.
But in terms of what Malia and Sasha are up to when their parents aren’t around is not something I’m just going to be in a position to get into.
Q I would just add that I think we’ve been pretty respectful of that as well, but if she is living in another state, that’s significant, I would say. And maybe she’s not, I don’t know, but I just want to put it -- make that on the record.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I will stipulate to the fact that the President and First Lady are genuinely appreciative of the respect that the White House Press Corps has shown to their daughters and the privacy that’s been afforded to them, even in a pretty competitive media environment. So I am appreciative of that. I’m not suggesting that questions along these lines, based on public reports, are somehow illegitimate or unfair. I’m just saying that I’m not going to talk about them.
Q Just one thing about the IRS. The IRS said that a computer crash led to an untold number of Lois Lerner’s emails being -- they just disappeared apparently. Do you think that’s a reasonable explanation? I think a lot of technical experts say, well, you know, e-mails aren’t stored on a computer, they’re stored on a cloud somewhere. Does that seem like a reasonable thing for the IRS to be telling congressional investigators who are outraged that these e-mails have gone missing?
MR. EARNEST: You’ve never heard of a computer crashing before?
Q I think e-mails generally are not stored on a computer; they’re stored on a server somewhere. And the IRS’s explanation for these e-mails going missing was that her computer crashed. So a lot of people are skeptical of, one, that that’s a truthful answer, and two, that they’re not trying to mislead Congress or trying to hide something in these e-mails. So I’m wondering if you think that’s reasonable.
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s entirely reasonable, because it’s the truth and it’s a fact, and speculation otherwise I think is indicative of the kinds of conspiracies that are propagated around this story. And they’re propagated in a way that has left people with a very mistaken impression about what exactly occurred.
The fact of the matter is, 67,000 e-mails either sent by or received by Lois Lerner have been provided to Congress. So if we are trying to hide Lois Lerner’s e-mails from congressional oversight, there’s a pretty large loophole. Thousands of those e-mails actually relate to the time period covered by the hard drive crash that you referred to. So we have -- or IRS, I should say, has been engaged in an effort to track down e-mails that she may have sent or may have received. And tens of thousands of those have also been provided to Congress.
So there is ample evidence to indicate that a good-faith effort has been made by the IRS to cooperate with congressional oversight. And the far-fetched skepticism expressed by some Republican members of Congress I think is not at all surprising and not particularly believable.
2:31 P.M. EDT