Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Atlanta, Georgia, 9/16/14
En Route Atlanta, Georgia
1:26 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon and welcome aboard Air Force One as we embark on a 24-hour trip to Atlanta and Tampa, where the President will be engaged on two significant national security priorities. The first is stepping up our whole-of-government approach to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And the second is leading an international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
First, in Atlanta, the President will meet with doctors, nurses, scientists and other leading medical experts at the CDC who have, at the President’s direction, been focused on responding to the Ebola outbreak since it was first reported back in March. Many of you saw the reports this morning that the President has directed the Department of Defense to deploy significant logistical engineering and training support to expand the capacity of the ongoing response. This order from the President is consistent with his view that responding to the Ebola outbreak is a top national security priority.
Many of you may be interested to know that this morning, before departing the White House, the President met briefly in the Oval Office with Dr. Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber. Dr. Brantly serves as the Medical Director for the Samaritan’s Purse Ebola Consolidated Case Management Center in Monrovia, Libya -- Liberia. And as was reported, he tested positive for the Ebola virus back in July. Dr. Brantly was transported back to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on August 2nd. He was treated and released on August 21st, free of Ebola. Dr. Brantly is in Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress today regarding the Ebola outbreak.
Second, tomorrow, in Tampa, the President will visit MacDill Air Force Base -- it’s the headquarters of Central Command -- to discuss the plan for building an international coalition to degrade and destroy ISIL. After announcing his decision to broaden our efforts against ISIL in his address to the nation, the President asked his team to arrange for him to travel to Central Command to get an in-person briefing from General Austin and other CENTCOM personnel about some of the operational details of the military effort that the President has ordered.
General Austin has returned from the region to lead the briefing. Secretary Hagel will participate as well. However, this is just one aspect of the President’s activities at MacDill. He’ll also meet with senior national representatives from those nations located within Central Command’s scope of responsibility. Many of these nations will be an important part of the international coalition that the President will be leading against ISIL.
In addition, the Commander-in-Chief is also looking forward to spending time with the servicemen and women of MacDill Air Force Base and share with them the gratitude of the nation for their service and sacrifice to our country and to our security.
Now, you also know -- sorry about that -- you also know that prior to departing the White House today, the President met with General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Brett McGurk, who is the Deputy Special Presidential Envoy.
The President underscored the importance of maximizing coordination with allies and partners to build a strong coalition with broad international participation. The President stressed that the comprehensive approach to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL requires a wide range of political, diplomatic, military, economic and other efforts. He also expressed his deep appreciation for the work and sacrifice of U.S. servicemen and women, as well as the diplomats engaged in the struggle to counter ISIL. The President thanked General Allen for his many years of service in uniform and for continuing since his retirement to serve his country in a civilian capacity.
So with all of that, thank you for indulging me. Let me go to your questions.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about General Dempsey’s testimony today. He said that under certain circumstances he could see himself asking the President to allow advisers on the ground to participate in combat operations. I wonder if the President is open to that, if that recommendation would come from General Dempsey.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I think, as was clear from General Dempsey’s remarks, that he was referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation in which he might make a tactical recommendation to the President as it relates to the use of ground troops.
It’s the responsibility of the President’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies. It’s also the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to set out a clear policy. And the President has been clear about what that policy is. He reiterated it on a number of occasions; most recently, I believe in his address to the nation on Wednesday night, which is that the President does not believe that it would be in the best interest of our national security to deploy American ground troops in a combat role in Iraq and Syria. That policy has not changed.
Q So under no circumstances would there be boots on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Well, precision is important here. And what the President has been very clear about is the role of American forces in Iraq. The President has deployed American servicemen and women -- a limited number of them -- to serve in an advise-and-assist capacity, to staff joint operation centers, to defend the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil. So there are American service personnel in Iraq.
There are also, obviously, American servicemen and women who are engaged in some of the air combat operations, right? There are more than 150 strikes, I believe, that have been announced by Central Command that have taken place at the direction of the President.
But what he’s been very specific and precise about is that he will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria.
Q -- he would say no to General Dempsey under that, the hypothetical that General Dempsey laid out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s also clear from General Dempsey’s remarks that he has confidence in the strategy that's already been put in place. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he has confidence in that strategy because he has advised the President over the course of the last few months that they’ve been working on this -- on the strategy. So the strategy that is in place is one that has the confidence of General Dempsey. At least the military aspect of the strategy that has been deployed so far has resulted in some important benefits.
We’ve talked about how the use of American military air power has been successful in backing up Iraqi security forces as they blunted an advance on Erbil a few months ago, or at least earlier this summer. American airstrikes were instrumental in supporting Iraqi security forces as they retook the Mosul Dam. We’ve also seen the precise deployment of American military air power to prevent humanitarian disasters in Sinjar Mountain and Amerli, where ISIL fighters were poised to carry out a genocide against religious or ethnic minorities in Iraq.
So this is a strategy that's been deployed with successful results so far. But as we broaden out this campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, the President and his team are insistent on working with the support of an international coalition to succeed in this mission. And the President is confident that this mission can be successfully executed without deploying American servicemen and women in a combat role on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
Q Josh, can you further characterize the President’s visit to MacDill tomorrow? Is it a decision meeting? Is it a tactical meeting? Both? What does he expect to accomplish -- hope to accomplish?
MR. EARNEST: You’ll hear from the President himself after he does all the things that he’s doing at MacDill with CENTCOM personnel. It's important to remember that in addition to the briefing that he'll receive from General Austin and other senior officials at CENTCOM, that he’ll spend some time with those who are working to build this broader international coalition and spend some time with our servicemen and women who have made so many sacrifices for our country. So it's important to remember that this is a visit where he’s got a lot on the agenda.
Q Back to the President’s -- back to General Dempsey’s comments. You laid out the President’s policy and said it hasn’t changed. But did his remarks today indicate that maybe the Pentagon is not on the same page with the White House on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm confident that if you asked General Dempsey if he’s on the same page as the Commander-in-Chief that he would say that he is. But I will let him speak for himself.
Q Josh, on Ebola. Can you shed some light on the 3,000 troops that will be sent? What will they be doing? And most specifically, will any of them be handling victims, either alive or dead, and themselves put at risk for contracting it?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. For very specific details, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. There’s also a factsheet that I can share with you. But as a general matter, let me say that the Department of Defense has significant logistical capabilities. And those who are trying to respond to this outbreak in West Africa are operating in a very difficult environment. And the use of Department of Defense personnel and assets to strengthen the logistical network in place that's supporting that effort will significantly expand the capacity of that effort.
We also anticipate that the commitment of DOD personnel and resources will galvanize the international community; that people around the world, knowing that the Department of Defense is involved in this effort, can have some more confidence that the effort is well run, that it will be well executed, and that they can contribute to the effort knowing that they’ll have the necessary resources to succeed.
As it relates to your specific question, Department of Defense personnel will not be responsible for providing direct patient care. What they’re doing is they will be serving in a function that will allow them to capitalize on their unique capabilities to enhance logistical support, to provide some training and also some engineering support as well.
Q Josh, can you explain where those 3,000 troops will be? Is it primarily in Liberia or will they be spread out among all of the countries that are most affected by this?
MR. EARNEST: Again, for a detailed answer to this question I refer you to the Department of Defense. But I know that there is an Intermediate Staging Base, I believe it's called, that will be stood up in Senegal. Senegal, you’ll note, is not one of the countries that currently is affected by Ebola -- or it's not a country in which anyone has contracted Ebola at this point. So there will be a substantial contingent of these 3,000 Department of Defense personnel that will be at this Intermediate Staging Base. There will be some other locations in Liberia where American military personnel will also be located.
But, again, they will be providing some logistical support, some training, even some construction or engineering assistance that they can provide, but they will not be providing direct patient care.
Q And in terms of the funding, the factsheet and your colleagues on the call last night said that the DOD would be requesting a reprogramming of $500 million. The word “request” indicates that maybe that's not a done deal. Is that true, or is that money definitely going towards that?
MR. EARNEST: Let me take a crack at answering your question. There is a request that has been made by the administration for supporting this effort, and we're confident we’ll have the resources that we need to carry out this specific mission.
Let me say one other thing. This is a bit of a tangent, but this is also an important thing I wanted to convey today. The other thing that the House of Representatives is currently debating is whether or not to give the President or this administration Title 10 authority that would allow the Department of Defense to play an active role in training Syrian opposition fighters. We are pleased with the bipartisan support that we’ve received so far for that authority, and we know -- we’re pleased with the progress that that legislation that would give this authority is making through the House.
There’s been some discussion about language that is included in this proposal by the Chairman of the House Arms Services Committee, Buck McKeon. It’s important for people to understand that the language that the Chairman has inserted is something that is the result of bipartisan efforts to advance this proposal. It’s primarily related to some oversight in reporting functions. The President and his administration across a wide range of areas has demonstrated a willingness and even a desire to work with Congress as they conduct their proper oversight.
So as a general matter, let me just say that the language suggested by Chairman McKeon is one that has bipartisan support, and is one that is supported by this administration. And we’re hopeful that Congress will act quickly to pass this measure and give the administration the authority that is needed to begin the effort to train Syrian opposition fighters. We have secured commitments from the Saudis to host this training operation, and we’d like to move quickly to set up this operation. And we’re hopeful that Congress will act quickly to give the administration the authority that’s necessary to do it.
Q And one last one on Ebola. Why did it take so long to get this big effort underway? And is it a sign that the United States and the President see this threat as growing and being a bigger national security item than even he said a few weeks ago?
MR. EARNEST: You’ll hear more from the President and from some of the experts at the CDC today on this. The fact is, the CDC has responded aggressively to the situation since the initial reports of an Ebola outbreak became public back in March. So this has been a sustained effort that has been underway for some time. I mentioned during the briefing yesterday that in response to this Ebola outbreak, the CDC executed the largest ever deployment of CDC personnel to try to respond to it.
But there’s no question that what we’re seeing now is the largest ever outbreak of Ebola. And because it is a top national security priority, the President has directed the Department of Defense to significantly ramp up the kind of assistance they’re providing to those who are trying to respond to this effort.
Q But couldn’t a ramp-up two weeks ago have maybe prevented a lot more deaths?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, what we’re seeing is -- and what we have seen from the United States is an aggressive response to this situation that started all the way back in March. And the reason for that is simply -- well, I think there are two reasons for that. The first is the President has identified it as a top national security priority.
The second thing it illustrates, however, is that the United States is the world’s indispensable nation. And the United States, and our military in particular, has unique capabilities and a capacity to offer assistance in very remote parts of the world. And we do anticipate that it will galvanize the global health community and nations around the world as they consider how and whether to contribute to this Ebola response effort.
So the President is pleased to lead this country as we play a leading role in the global response to this Ebola outbreak.
Q Josh, in terms of timing, do you know when those 17 treatment facilities will be up and running? And also, do you have a sense of how long those 3,000 military personnel might be deployed to this region?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have that information, but the Department of Defense may be able to offer up some more details on that.
Q Josh, quickly, just a quick question. Do you expect to have anything for us tonight more on the meeting tomorrow? Any conference call, statement, or anything further?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t anticipate that.
Q On Russia. The ruble is falling to record lows. Is this a goal of U.S. sanctions policy and do you see this building any political pressure on Putin? You spoke last week about striking at his inner circle.
MR. EARNEST: Our goal from the beginning has been to impose economic costs and to isolate Russia for their actions in Ukraine. These reports of the declining value of their currency is consistent with the impact that we’ve seen thus far of the sanctions regime that’s been put in place by the United States in close coordination with our allies in Europe. And it is evidence that Russia is paying a price for their destabilizing actions in Ukraine.
Thanks, everybody. Buckle up for landing.
1:44 P.M. EDT