Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Portland, ME, 10/30/2014
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Portland, Maine
3:05 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to beautiful Portland, Maine. The President will participate in a couple of campaign events, as you know. One thing that you should be on the lookout for in the President’s remarks today in Portland is the reference that he will make to the latest indications of our strengthening economy.
As you probably noticed, the latest GDP numbers came out. They indicated that the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter. Over the course of the last six months, the U.S. economy has grown by just over 4 percent, which is actually the fastest rate of economic growth as measured by GDP in the American economy in more than 10 years.
This comes on top of recent labor indicators that show that the U.S. economy is very resilient and continues to be the envy of the world. Thanks to the policies that were put in place by this administration that have been strongly supported by Democrats all across the country, and which supported the by grit and determination of America’s workforce and the innovation and entrepreneurialism of America’s business owners large and small, the American economy continues to gain momentum.
And the President is eager for partners in Congress and in state houses all across the country who are willing to work to advance policies that we know will benefit middle-class families all across the country. The President believes this is good for middle-class families, obviously, but it’s also good for our broader economy. It’s the best way for us to capitalize on the momentum that we’re now seeing -- because the President believes that our economy grows best when it’s growing from the middle out. And there are a whole range of policies that you’ll hear the President discuss later today that he believes would allow us to capitalize on this momentum.
And so he’ll say it better than I just did, but I’d encourage you to listen carefully to that aspect of the remarks the President will deliver today and the remarks that he’ll deliver in Rhode Island tomorrow.
So with that, let me get to your questions. Steve.
Q Josh, the nurse in Maine who went out on a bike ride, or what have you, would the President like her to go into quarantine, or is he planning to meet her today? I suspect not. And when he made his remarks last night -- “We can’t hermetically seal ourselves” -- was he referring to Governor Christie and Governor Cuomo? Or who was he referring to?
MR. EARNEST: The President does not have any plans to see Ms. Hickox while he is in her home state today.
When the CDC released guidelines for how state and local officials can monitor the health of individuals who have recently returned from West Africa, it signaled a continuation of this administration’s commitment to allowing science to guide our policies. And in this case, the regimen that we have put in place is to organize, or I guess to -- organize is not the right word. What the policies indicate is that as individuals return from West Africa, we should assess on a personal basis what sort of risk they pose to the broader international -- or broader American community based on what sort of interaction they had with people who are at risk of Ebola in West Africa.
So people who have had -- health care workers, for example, who have had direct contact with Ebola patients are assessed to be at a different level or risk than individuals who merely happen to be traveling in the region. And so what the CDC has indicated is that these risk assessments should be performed to determine what sort of risk individuals pose to others in the community. And then that also should guide the degree to which the health of that individual is monitored upon their return for three weeks.
That guidance has been shared by the CDC to state and local officials who ultimately are responsible for putting in place policies that they believe are in the best interest of protecting their citizens. And, again, we believe that those decisions should be driven by science, but ultimately it's state and local officials that have the authority for implementing these policies.
So what I can tell you about the situation as it relates to Ms. Hickox is that officials at the CDC who are experts in this field have been in regular touch with public health officials in Maine who are responsible for setting the policies in the state of Maine. That is at it should be. And the President believes that the scientific expertise that has been amassed at the CDC should be freely shared with state and local officials in Maine. He also believes that those officials in Maine should be guided by the science as they implement the policy that they believe is in the best interest of the people of their state.
Q So then -- sorry, did you have more?
MR. EARNEST: No, that’s it.
Q So then does he support the nurse defying Maine’s requirement that she self-isolate for 21 days?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President -- what I would say is that the President believes that the state can and should be responsible for setting this policy. The President believes those policies should be guided by science, but ultimately it is their decision. And because of his belief that these policies should be guided by science, he’s directed the CDC to be in close touch with public health officials in all the states across the country, but in this case in the state of Maine. But the President also recognizes that it's state officials’ responsibility to implement these policies.
Q Does that mean Maine’s policies aren’t guided by science?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to render a judgment on that. Ultimately, public health officials in Maine will have to decide what they believe is in the best interest of the people of their state. They’ll do that in consultation with the experts at the CDC. But ultimately that's something for them to decide, not for me to decide.
Q Now, you said the President has no plans to see Ms. Hickox while he’s in the same state. Has he or Ron Klain or anybody else in the administration talked with her? Are there any plans to do by phone?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any conversations from anybody at the White House with Ms. Hickox, and I don't know of any plans at this point to place any calls.
Q Have there been any conversations between the White House and the Governor of Maine? And does the President intend to speak to the Governor of Maine about this personally?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of; certainly not between the President and the Governor. I don't know if there have been any conversations between officials at the White House and state officials in Maine. But I know that the principal communication has been between public health officials in Maine and public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control.
Q Do you think that will be something he would discuss with Congressman Michaud when they see each other later?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. I don't think the President is planning to bring it up, but I don't know exactly what they’ll discuss.
Q Can I ask a campaign question? Over the next few days, is the President disappointed that he’s not going to be able to campaign in more competitive Senate races? I mean, does he share the view that that would be counterproductive?
MR. EARNEST: The view that is shared I think by everybody at the White House is that we want to do everything that we can to support candidates up and down the ballot who are interested in advancing economic policies that are in the best interest of middle-class families. And there are a variety of ways in which the President himself and his broader campaign team, including those outside the White House, can assist other candidates as they -- in the run-up to Election Day.
Q Is he disappointed not to be in the thick of it?
MR. EARNEST: I think the people of Maine think that they’ve got a pretty competitive governor’s race here, and the President is pleased about the opportunity that he'll have to weigh in in support of somebody like Congressman Michaud, who has a strong track record of fighting for middle-class families. He himself is somebody who has his own track record. He’s not a career politician. He’s somebody who has his own track record of making ends meet and working in a blue-collar job in Maine. And those are the kinds of values that he took with him to Washington and I'm confident those are the kinds of values that he'll take with him to the statehouse as the next governor of the great state of Maine.
Q Josh, turning to ISIS, if we can -- I’m sure you saw the Times story today. Does the President agree with his Chief of Staff that the White House should have -- or that the U.S. should have engaged ISIS sooner?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's interesting that you ask that question. Prior to our departure I was speaking to the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, and he spent a lot of time yesterday -- I guess he appeared at this Washington Ideas Forum where he discussed in great detail the focus that the administration had on the strengthening elements of al Qaeda in Iraq; that we know it's those elements of al Qaeda in Iraq that eventually turned into ISIL.
And there was a significant high-level conversation between U.S. officials and Iraqi officials, as far back as a year ago, encouraging the Iraqi government to take the necessary steps to unite that country and take very seriously the threat that was posed by these al Qaeda-affiliated extremists that were operating in this region of the world. This was even something that was discussed by the President with Prime Minister Maliki when he was at the White House last fall.
So this is a threat that the administration and the President’s national security team has been closely following. We've articulated on many occasions our disappointment that the Iraqi government did not more effectively lead that country and unite that country to face down this threat from extremists.
And in the last several months, you've seen the United States and other allies of ours, or at least other partners of ours in the region go to great lengths to support the Iraqi people and Iraq’s political leaders as they put in place a government that was truly representative of Iraq’s diverse population so that that government and its political leaders could succeed in uniting that country to face the threat from ISIL that has emerged on a much greater and more public scale in the last few months.
So our efforts to do that continue to this day. Mr. Blinken himself just traveled to Iraq earlier this month to continue these conversations and to talk about what more the United States and the broader international community could do to support the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government as they face down the threat from ISIL.
Q It seemed that Denis was saying that if the comprehensive strategy that you just described had started not in June -- or May or June -- had started months earlier once ISIS started its offensive, as opposed to sort of as it started threatening Baghdad, that the situation on the ground now would be markedly different.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- our strategy all along, Zeke, has been predicated on the idea that it was critically important for Iraq’s political leaders to unite that country so that they can take the fight to ISIL in their own country; that our strategy has never revolved around a significant commitment of American ground troops in Iraq in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL. That strategy is not something that we support now and it certainly is not a strategy that the President would have endorsed a year ago.
What we have said, again, for quite some time is that the first step in this process was building political support in Iraq so that that country could take responsibility for its own security situation. And the President was very clear that if they took those steps to unite the country, that the United States and the rest of the international community, or at least a large chunk of the international community, would be there to support them in that endeavor in a variety of ways -- diplomatically, economically and, yes, militarily -- to counter the threat from ISIL.
Q What did you make of that story in general? It seemed to make a case that Kerry and Hagel might leave after the election.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any insight into those decisions. I can tell you -- and I think this was evident from the story, too -- that the President and his senior team at the White House is proud of the work that the senior members of the President’s Cabinet are performing to represent our interests around the globe. This is a very tumultuous time.
And I think Secretary Kerry in particular is somebody who has worked very hard to advance U.S. interests around the globe. I saw that there was a reference in the story to the Sandra Bullock movie, “Gravity.” It’s the first time that I’d heard Secretary Kerry’s name associated with that film. But I can tell you that it seems to me that the one thing that Secretary Kerry has with Sandra Bullock’s character is that he himself has circled the globe many times to advance U.S. interests.
And from working very hard to ensure the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in the history of Afghanistan, to ridding Syria of their declared chemical weapons stockpile, to effectuating and supporting Iraq’s political leaders as they took the very important political steps that I referred to earlier to unite that country, that Secretary Kerry hasn’t just been busy, he’s been effective in representing and advancing American interests around the globe. I think that’s a testament to his skill. It’s also a testament to the confidence that the President has in his abilities as the nation’s chief diplomat.
Q This morning, Kerry said he thought that the peace process with Israel was still doable. Yesterday you sounded a bit more gloomy in the briefing. To what extent do you think the White House relationship with Israel is now part of the problem rather than a symptom of the problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see the entirety of Secretary Kerry’s remarks. He is somebody who has -- that would sort of be the other example that I would cite, is somebody who has worked very effectively to push both Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table. They have not yet reached an agreement, and they haven't been engaged in negotiations recently. The reason for that is simple; it’s simply that there are very difficult decisions that will be required by leaders of both sides to reach an agreement.
The United States, for all of our efforts and support for the process, cannot ultimately be responsible for making those decisions. Those decisions are only going to stick if you have the leaders from both sides willing to make them. And those decisions in the short term may not be politically popular, but those decisions over the long term are clearly in the best interest of the people that they represent.
Secretary Kerry is somebody who has significant credibility with leaders on both sides, and he’s used that credibility to bring them along and at least encourage them to confront those decisions. And that has been helpful to this broader process. He’s somebody who continues to be very optimistic about the opportunity that exists there, and I’m sure that’s something that he’ll continue to work on.
Let me just say one other thing about that, which is -- you raised the issue of what impact the U.S. relationship with Israel might have on that broader process -- it continues to be the view of the President and other members of the White House team that the bonds between the United States and Israel are unshakeable, and the kind of security cooperation that you see between the United States and Israel at this point in our relationship is unprecedented. And the President’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, convened a meeting at the White House just today with her counterpart and senior Israeli defense, counterterrorism and intelligence officials. It’s indicative of the kind of ongoing cooperation that exists that’s so critical to American interests in the region and to Israeli national security.
Go ahead, Lisa.
Q I was going to say this is the second time in a week that unnamed White House sources have given embarrassing quotes with regard to Secretary Kerry, with regard to Prime Minister Netanyahu. What does the White House feel about these leaks? And is it productive in a time when you’re facing so many crises, like Ebola and ISIS and even Ukraine and Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Look, all of you work very hard on pretty much a daily if not hourly basis to cultivate your sources and encourage them to say colorful things that might get attention. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. All I can try to do is to try to help you understand what the administration’s view is of all these issues. Sometimes the view that I’ll articulate will be consistent with the view that you hear from some of your anonymous sources, and sometimes there might be a little daylight between the view that’s expressed by your sources anonymously and the official, accurate position of the administration. That’s just part of the process.
And I can tell you that those of us who are working on these issues every day at the White House aren’t distracted by the sometimes colorful, sometimes problematic, and in the case of Sandra Bullock, sometimes amusing, comments that are published in the newspaper.
But the fact is, the President, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, Mr. McDonough and others have very important responsibilities. They take those responsibilities seriously, and they’re not distracted by anonymous quotes or other things that don’t have a genuine impact on our policies.
Q There’s another story today that John Podesta was in a meeting with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as the President’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe, plotting out potentially former Secretary of State Clinton’s future presidential run. Is it appropriate for a President’s senior advisor, somebody on the taxpayers’ payroll to be moonlighting as a presidential strategist for another candidate?
MR. EARNEST: I saw the story. I’m not aware of the specific meeting. However, if it did occur, I’m confident that Mr. Podesta participated in that meeting on his personal time and in his capacity as a private citizen of the United States of America. So, no, I don’t think that it raises any questions or concerns.
Q And does it indicate that the President is taking sides, with the Vice President talking -- he’s saying he wants to make up his mind next year.
MR. EARNEST: No, it does not. What it indicates is that Mr. Podesta has two things. One is a reputation of -- as one of the sharpest political minds in Washington, D.C. It’s also an indication that Mr. Podesta has a very long and close, personal relationship with the President and Mrs. Clinton.
Again, I don’t know whether or not the meeting occurred, so I don’t mean to implicitly confirm its existence. But whether the meeting occurred or not, those two things about Mr. Podesta are true.
Q Back to foreign policy --
MR. EARNEST: I think Darlene had the next question.
Q An update on immigration. A decision was supposed to be coming after the election. The election is next Tuesday. So I’m just wondering what is the thinking on when something would be announced. Would it have to wait until after the President returns from Asia?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update on timing. But if I can get you some more detailed guidance about the timing next week I will try to do that, but I won’t promise to do that.
Q NATO today said that they intercepted two Russian military planes in the Baltics. The President, when he spoke in Estonia a few weeks back, was very clear that the U.S. and NATO wouldn’t stand for Russia incursion into the Baltics. And this appears to be that. What’s the reaction to that development today?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a specific reaction. I’ll refer you to my colleagues at the NSC. I will just say as a factual matter that the President I think was unambiguous when he delivered that speech in Estonia earlier this fall in reiterating the United States’ firm commitment to the alliance that the United States has with Estonia and the other Baltic republics.
Q Do you have any update on the hacking situation?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t have any update. I assume you’re referring to the activity of concern on the White House network that we discussed?
Q -- cyber activity?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates. Our efforts are ongoing as related to our effort to evaluate that activity and to mitigate against the risk that it may pose.
Q If you find out -- assuming you find out who is responsible, will you release that information?
MR. EARNEST: I think as we learn more information about what’s happened, we’ll try to share that information. I suspect some of the anonymous sources that we were referring to earlier in this gaggle may have something to say to you all about that in the days ahead. I don’t know. I’m sure that’s something you guys are all hard at work on. At this point, I can tell you that our team that’s been focused on this continues to be engaged in an effort to evaluate this activity and mitigate the risk that it poses to the network.
Q Is there anything you can tell us about Ron Klain’s visit to CDC today?
MR. EARNEST: I do have a couple of things on that. As you point out, Mr. Klain did travel to the CDC. He was there to meet with Dr. Frieden and other senior officials at the CDC. Ron has met with Dr. Frieden once in person, but the two men have spoken every day since Ron started in the job a little over a week ago.
While he’s there, I would anticipate that he’ll raise -- they’ll be focused on three different issues. The first is some incident management issues. The second is hospital preparedness all across the country. And third are the ongoing and tenacious efforts by CDC officials in West Africa to stop this outbreak at the source.
Q Incident management? Do you mean how things have been managed, or how things should be managed and will be managed going forward?
MR. EARNEST: I think mostly the latter.
Q It seems Tim Cook of Apple was discussing his sexuality, and the President is going to be campaigning with a man who would be the first gay governor -- openly gay governor this evening. I just wondered if you had any comment on why men in such senior levels in their careers are only now -- or only recently, in the case of Michaud, coming out and feeling they can talk openly in this way.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s an interesting question. I think the way that the Michaud campaign describes the situation is that he would be the first openly gay governor who’s elected to office. I don’t know if there has been an openly gay serving governor, but I think the way that they describe it is he would be the first one elected.
I think all of this is evidence of the broader social change that is sweeping the country, that there is much greater acceptance and tolerance of those who are openly gay. I think that is -- the President certainly believes -- well, the President’s views on this topic have obviously -- on this issue have changed over the years. And I think the changes that the President has discussed in his own views and feelings are very similar to the kinds of changes and opinion that we’ve seen from people all across the country.
Q Mrs. Obama is in Rhode Island today and the President is going there tonight. Is there any chance they would meet or have dinner or anything like that later on?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I believe that she is going to -- will have already appeared in Rhode Island and left by the time that we get there. But if that’s not the case, I’ll come back and let you know.
Q -- any more events -- any more campaign events Monday and Tuesday before the election?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that we have to announce right now. We’ll keep you posted, though.
Q Josh, would you have sent him home?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Would you have sent him home?
MR. EARNEST: Would I have -- that’s a good question. I did note that -- I think it was Nate Silver that tweeted had he been waved home, and whether he had made it safely or been thrown out at home, it would have gone down as one of the five most exciting plays in the history of baseball. (Laughter.) Quite a way to end a one-run game seven World Series game to have somebody thrown out at the plate, or to score the game-tying run, inside-the-park homerun.
I think, more broadly, the Royals had a tremendous season. I know that all my fellow Kansas Cityians are exceedingly proud of the hometown baseball team. They really electrified that city in a way that I think even the Mayor himself would say we haven't seen in a long time in Kansas City.
So I think the people of Kansas City are really three things. One is disappointment in the outcome of last night’s game. The second is a lot of satisfaction in a thrilling playoff run. And the third thing I think that people are doing in Kansas City -- the people of Kansas City are doing today is already counting down the days to the start of spring training.
3:37 P.M. EDT