Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route to Detroit, MI, 01/07/15
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Detroit, Michigan
2:14 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s already been obviously a busy Wednesday. A couple of things. You heard from the President in the Oval Office about his personal reaction to the terror attacks that we saw in Paris very early this morning East Coast time. The President does intend to try to get in touch with President Hollande at some point today. Obviously President Hollande is very busy dealing with the immediate response to this crisis. If there’s an opportunity for the President to speak to him today we'll try and take advantage of that, and we'll let you know once that call has occurred.
You also, prior to takeoff, have just been in a conference call about the announcement that the President intends to make tomorrow related to assistance that we can offer to responsible middle-class homeowners across the country. The President will have more to say about that tomorrow. There is a factsheet that our office back in Washington should be distributing here shortly.
But today, the President is traveling to Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant just outside Detroit. We're going to have some more background on this facility. It sounds, actually, like a pretty interesting place. It’s the world’s first flexible manufacturing facility that's building gasoline-powered, hybrid and plug-in vehicles all on the same production line. And this is pretty good evidence of the kind of innovation that is driving the success of the American auto industry right now.
This innovation and this new opportunity would not have been possible without the very difficult and, in some cases, legitimately politically unpopular decisions that the President made very early in his tenure in office to give the auto industry the space that it needed to make these kinds of -- to implement these kinds of innovations and rebuild their business.
And they have come back stronger than ever. And that is thanks in no small part to the very hard work of men and women in the American auto industry who have used their skill and determination to build the finest automobiles on the planet. And that is something the President is very proud of. The President has had a number of occasions -- many of you have covered them -- to visit American autoworkers working on the assembly line. And the President is looking forward to that visit today, primarily because it highlights some of the resilience that we're seeing in the American economy. And the President has a lot of other ideas for what we can do to build on that momentum to make sure that middle-class families are benefiting from the American economic recovery that's underway and that is the envy of the world.
So the President will talk about that recovery today and talk about some of the ideas on Thursday and Friday that he has to build on that momentum. You got a sense of what the President is going to talk about on Thursday in terms of what we can do to build on the momentum that we're seeing in the housing market. But we'll have obviously a lot more on that tomorrow.
With that, let me go to your questions.
Q With respect to the situation in Paris, does the U.S. have an assessment or have the French shared their assessment with the U.S. on who these gunmen were and whether they have any links to a larger terror group?
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned earlier, the senior members of the President’s national security team have been in touch with their French counterparts since very early this morning. In those conversations, the President’s team, at the President’s direction, offered any needed assistance that the French have in trying to figure out exactly what happened, trying to determine who was responsible, bringing them to justice, and also determining exactly what their motivation was. So we've offered all of the assistance that we can offer.
We are still in the early stages of tracking down those details, and the French are obviously very interested in finding this out, and this government is as well. And we're going to provide them all the assistance that we can to try to get answers to some of these questions.
Q So at this point, you can't say whether these gunmen were linked to any terror organization?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I cannot say that. I can't rule it out either. It's something we're still trying to determine.
Q On the U.S. response to the attack in France, is the U.S. concerned about any risk here from this group or similar groups, and is there any plan to raise threat levels or anything like that in response to the attacks in France?
MR. EARNEST: I'll say a couple things about that. The first is as it relates to the threat level. This is a decision that's made by the Secretary of Homeland Security, that he makes a decision about raising or lowering the terror threat level based on available intelligence. I don't know of any plans to make a change to the terror threat level, but I would encourage you to check with the Department of Homeland Security to verify that.
What I can tell you is that today’s events in Paris that are so tragic are a reminder of how important it is for everybody to be vigilant about the threats that we face. I don't say that to hint that somehow the French fell short of needed vigilance, only that today’s tragic terror attack is an indication of just how serious a threat we face. And there are men and women in the U.S. national security infrastructure that are working around the clock to try to protect the American people and American interests both here at home and around the world.
The threat that we face is serious, but what we have is strong international cooperation with our partners around the globe to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by foreign fighters. We are working very closely with leaders in the Muslim community both at home and around the world to try to counter the violent extremist messaging that ISIL and other extremist organizations are using to try to radicalize individuals around the globe.
There are some individuals that are using a peaceful religion and grossly distorting it, and trying to use its tenets to inspire people around the globe to carry out acts of violence. And we have enjoyed significant success in enlisting leaders in the Muslim community, like I said, both in the United States and around the world to condemn that kind of messaging, to condemn those efforts to radicalize individuals, and to be clear about what the tenets of Islam actually are. And we’re going to redouble those efforts in the days and weeks ahead.
And obviously, we’re still trying to figure out exactly, like I said, who’s responsible for this attack in Paris, what their motivations are. But as a general matter, we’re very mindful of the threat from foreign fighters and the threat -- and the need to try to counter some of the extremist ideology that ISIL is propagating, using some pretty sophisticated social media strategies.
Q -- the President briefed about it?
MR. EARNEST: The President did have a Presidential Daily Briefing in the Oval Office this morning. That was the first opportunity that he had to meet in person with his national security team. And as you would expect, there was extensive discussion of this issue then.
Q Were there any specific threats to news organizations or other groups in the United States that you guys are looking at?
MR. EARNEST: There are no specific pieces of credible information that I’m aware of that we are paying particular attention to now. That said, as I mentioned in answer to Angela’s question, we do continue to be very vigilant about this and there is a very active effort to monitor communications from ISIL that are made in public forums, to use our network of tools and our links to other countries that have a sophisticated intelligence infrastructure to try to monitor exactly what threats are emerging.
So this is something that we’re carefully watching. And this is obviously something that our intelligence community watches closely and something that the Department of Homeland Security is obviously on top of.
So for an up-to-date assessment of the threat picture, I’d encourage you to check with the intelligence community and with DHS. But I’m not aware of anything right now that is the source of undue concern. We’re obviously concerned about a lot of things, but nothing that stands out at this point.
Q This obviously isn’t the first news organization that has published something that’s been deemed offensive to Muslims. I’m wondering what the President thinks -- whether he thinks that new organizations have any responsibility to not publish similar cartoons or articles, or whether that should be a decision that news organizations can (inaudible) regardless of threats.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that there is no legitimate act of journalism, however offensive some people might find it, that justifies an act of violence, particularly an act of violence on the scale that we saw today. None.
That said, it is up to media organizations to make their own decisions about what they choose to publish, about what stories they choose to pursue, and what sort of commentary they want to broadcast about the world and about their government.
And we believe very deeply in the importance of a free and independent media. It’s hard to imagine the President putting himself into a position where he’s offering advice or even direction about what should or should not be published by legitimate, independent journalists. That’s up to journalists to decide. It doesn’t mean that the President, as we’ve discussed, likes every single thing that’s published. But there is no piece of responsible journalism that, again, no matter how offensive some people may find it, that legitimizes an act of violence.
Q Does he find it different from what happened with the situation with North Korea and “The Interview” movie, where he said that he thought that the movie should be released? He was putting himself in that position. You’re saying that he wouldn’t put himself in that position over journalism?
MR. EARNEST: I do think I would draw a bit of a distinction between entertainment -- an entertainment company and something that would be more clearly branded as journalism. There are probably graduate-level courses in trying to draw these kinds of lines, so I'm going to hesitate to do that. But I do think there’s a difference between those two things. I think that even in the case of the decision that Sony had to make about “The Interview” the President indicated that he disagreed with the decision that they had made, but the President made no bones about the fact that that was a decision that can and should be exercised by the leader of that company. And I don't think the President, despite his outward criticism of the decision they made, wanted to leave anybody with the impression that he was trying to suggest that he’s the one who should have made that decision instead.
Q On Detroit, is the President taking a victory lap here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think that's the way I would describe it, no. I think what I would say, though, is two things. One is that we do want to take advantage of the opportunity to talk about the results of the very difficult policy decisions that the President made early on in his presidency.
One of the things that’s been pointed out in recent days to me is that it's not just that the President’s decision to rescue the auto industry was politically unpopular across the country. It was essentially politically unpopular in Michigan for the President to take these steps to try to save the auto industry. And that was a difficult thing for a newly elected President to do. At the same time, I think that any sort of fair look-back at the last five years would indicate that the President made the right decision. And I do think that that's worthy of some discussion.
But nobody is -- the reason that the auto industry is experiencing the kind of success that they have now is because we see highly skilled, highly motivated workers showing up to work every day and doing really good work. And they are implementing the innovative vision of executives in the American auto industry, and designers and scientists at those companies. And because of that innovation and that entrepreneurialism and that commitment to hard work, we're seeing the success of the American auto industry.
And one of the things that the President wants to do is, as we make policy decisions moving forward, he wants to figure out what other policies can we put in place that will allow those middle-class workers to continue to succeed. And it's his view that that's not just good for those middle-class families, it's also good for our broader economy. And the auto industry serves as a useful illustration of that fact. And so I think that's what we're trying to convey here.
There are obviously some other very important events happening in the world, but I do hope that this is a useful opportunity for us to highlight the momentum of the American economy, to remind people that some of that is thanks in part to difficult decisions that the President made early on, but that should give us some confidence in the fact that the President’s ideas for further strengthening the middle class and further supporting middle-class workers are worthy of advancement.
And I just think that we'll have the opportunity to debate this quite a bit in the weeks and months ahead, but that's a debate that we're looking forward to.
Q What do you say to the Democrats in Congress and elsewhere in the base who feel like the trade agreement talk is undercutting that kind of industrial approach that you're talking about and will hurt the Michigan economy and other parts of the economy long term?
MR. EARNEST: This is a concern that was raised by some as the President was seeking to finalize the Korea Free Trade Agreement. And the President vowed in hammering out that agreement to make sure that we would reach an agreement that was in the best interests of American workers and the best interests of American businesses and in the best interests of American industry, including the American auto industry.
And again, that free trade agreement was ratified in 2011, I believe. And so over the course of the three years we've seen that the auto industry has only gotten stronger over the course the course of that time. So I think it's a pretty good indication that the President’s track record is strong when it comes to reaching the kinds of trade agreements that are in the best interests of American businesses, including the American auto industry.
As the President seeks to open up additional markets overseas to American businesses, we’re going to use the same guiding principle, and we’re going to make sure that whatever trade agreement that the President is able to reach is in the best interests of the American auto industry and in the best interests of American businesses. And here’s the thing: If presented with an agreement that doesn’t do that, then we won’t have a deal and the President won’t agree to it.
So that's the only way we're going to get an agreement, is if we have terms that the President clearly believes are in the best interests of American businesses and American workers. That’s the starting point. That was true of the Korea Free Trade Agreement. I think that is borne out and any additional trade agreements will be predicated on the same starting point.
Q People in the auto industry argue that the Korea Trade Agreement has helped the Korean auto industry significantly more than the U.S. auto industry. Is that something he’ll address?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think so. I think the concern that a lot of people have, or at least that we’ve heard from the auto industry, is that additional -- by some in the auto industry -- is that trade deals with other countries are bad for American businesses. And at least looking at the three years since that Korea Free Trade Agreement went into effect, it certainly hasn’t been true for the American auto industry because it’s only gotten stronger and more workers have been hired in that industry since that free trade agreement went into effect.
So I guess it’s difficult for me to analyze what impact the trade agreement had on the Korean auto industry, but I can say that, based on a pretty cursory review of the economic evidence, the impact on the American auto industry of the Korea Free Trade Agreement certainly wasn’t bad and there’s some evidence indicating it probably was pretty good.
Q In terms of tomorrow’s announcement, the President’s change with FHA will of course result in less revenue for FHA from insurance premiums. Why did he decide to do this now when the insurance fund there is still below its mandatory cushion?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding -- and we can check with HUD on this -- this is a fairly technical issue -- but my understanding of the issue is this -- is that in recent years, because of the recovering health of the housing sector that that cash reserve has been tapped a lot less, which means that in the last couple of years they’ve actually been able to make significant progress in building back up those cash reserves. And because of the current trajectory of those reserves, the President believes that now is an appropriate time for us to reduce the contributions to those reserves.
And what that will do is that will give a break to middle class -- responsible middle-class homeowners while we continue to make progress in building up those reserves. So now is an appropriate time to make that change in the mind of the President in a way that will be really good for middle-class families and good for the housing sector -- that we’ve got some momentum built up finally in the housing sector.
That was one of the lagging markets. We saw the economy strengthen and make some pretty strong steps to strengthen over the last several years, but it’s more recently that we're starting to see similar signs of strengthening in the housing sector. And so we can build on that momentum, the President hopes, by taking this step.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
Q Is there any chatter that you guys picked up ahead of time for the threat assessment or anything like that on the Paris attack? Was there anything that -- I mean, we noticed Lisa Monaco was at the White House yesterday. Defense Secretary Hagel was there yesterday. Was there any indication that there was any sort of threat that you guys were worried about?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that -- well, I think what I’d do is I’d refer you to the intelligence community on that. They can give you the best sense of the threat assessment both leading up to today’s tragic terrorist attack but also in the aftermath as well.
Q Just going back to the auto industry for a second. One of the things the President said was, that ship has sailed, I believe were his words, on the TPP and moving forward with trade. I didn’t quite hear your answer on that. Could you just one more time go over sort of -- will he be saying anything about the TPP to the autoworkers today? Will he be discussing that?
MR. EARNEST: I'll give you the short version, which is that the President has been very clear that any sort of trade agreement he reaches will be one that he believes is in the best interests of American businesses and American workers.
This was a commitment that he made in advance of the Korea Free Trade Agreement. And since the Korea Free Trade Agreement was announced, we’ve only seen the American auto industry continue to strengthen. And so any sort of future agreement that the President reaches on trade would be predicated on the same core principle that we’re only going to cut a deal that is clearly in the best interests of American workers, American businesses, and American farmers.
And if presented with an agreement that the President does not believe is in the best interest of the American auto industry and other important American manufacturing -- the American manufacturing sector or other core sectors of the American economy, the President simply won’t make the deal, that we’re only going to have an agreement that the President believes is clearly in the best interests of American workers and American businesses.
Q Thanks, Josh. Appreciate it.
2:34 P.M. EST