Press Gaggle aboard Air Force One en route Andrews AFB, 01/08/15
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base
12:38 P.M. MST
MR. EARNEST: Ready to get started? I've got a few things at the top. The first is, as we speak, the President has convened a call with his national security team back in Washington, D.C. They’re going to do a couple things on the call. The first is the President is going to get an update on the latest on the investigation that the French are conducting into the terror attacks that happened yesterday. The second is the President is going to get a review of terror threat information -- this is something the President does periodically and he convened a meeting shortly before the holidays to get an update on the terror threat, and he’s going to get a brief update on that today.
I would point out in that context, however, that the Department of Homeland Security has said there’s no indication of a specific threat related to yesterday’s attack. So it's important to keep that in mind even as the President gets this kind of update.
Q -- in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I'm sorry if I didn’t say that. So thank you for helping to clarify.
The third thing is they’re going to discuss the security posture that is in place to protect Americans both at home and around the world. And this is the thing that's always foremost on the President’s mind. When we see terrible incidents like this that strike in other countries we want to make sure that we're doing every single thing that we can at U.S. facilities, military and diplomatic, around the globe to protect Americans there.
Participants on that call will include senior officials from the FBI, the Department of Justice, the CIA, the DNI, NCTC, and of course, the Department of Homeland Security.
The second thing is, prior to that call, the President had the opportunity to telephone United States Senator Barbara Boxer from California. A little bit earlier today, she announced her intention to retire at the end of this session of Congress. She serves the people of California with distinction in the United States Congress, and the President wanted to take the opportunity to call her and congratulate her on her retirement and to thank her for her many years of service.
Finally -- and this is a little different from those previous two things -- I also want to make note of the fact that it's been almost two months now that the President nominated U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as the next Attorney General of the United States. Despite the fact that she was nominated nearly two months ago, a date for her hearing has not yet been set by the United States Senate.
Now, you’ll recall that we had a little bit of a conversation shortly after her nomination -- I think even before her nomination -- that there was a pretty clear precedent for a prompt consideration of national security officials who have been nominated to important positions -- for them to be considered promptly and confirmed promptly by the Senate. We even talked about the fact that there’s a precedent for the prompt consideration of those individuals in a lame duck session. But because of the President’s desire to work with the incoming Republican majority, we held off on insisting that she be confirmed in the lame duck and said that we would allow her to be considered by the incoming Congress.
Now, this is a very important job, obviously, and she is somebody who was previously confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate for the federal prosecutor job that she currently holds. I guess the point is she deserves a lot better treatment than she’s currently receiving. We would like for the United States Senate to set a date for her hearing as soon as possible in the month of January -- certainly no later than the end of January -- because we believe it's important for the Senate to act promptly on her nomination and we would like to see her confirmed before the Congress goes on their mid-February recess.
So we believe that her nomination can and should be considered during this work period. We believe strongly that she deserves careful consideration and strong bipartisan support. That's what she got when she was nominated just a couple of years ago to be the federal prosecutor in New York City. And we believe that she should get the same consideration, that she should be considered promptly, that she should be confirmed in bipartisan fashion before the end of this work period in Congress.
So with that long windup, let’s go to your questions.
Q Back to the situation in France and the President’s meeting today. Now that French authorities have put out the names of the suspects in this attack, there’s been some report that they were known to U.S. officials. Can you say whether that's the case and whether having the names has given the U.S. any more information about any links they may have to terror organizations?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to comment on any aspect of the ongoing French investigation at this point. I will say -- and I mentioned this a little bit yesterday -- that when the President spoke to President Hollande on the telephone, the President pledged to offer any needed assistance in their investigation. And the United States obviously has a very strong counterterrorism partnership that’s in place with France, and we share a lot of different information. And if we can be helpful in sharing any sort of intelligence that we’ve collected that will aid their investigation, then we’ll certainly do that.
Q Is that happening at this point? Have the French taken you up on that offer?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that there have been frequent conversations between a variety of American national security officials and their French counterparts, including conversations between members of our intelligence community. But I’m not in a position to talk about the details or the content of those conversations.
Q The speech today had a passing reference to Fannie and Freddie, and following the speech both of their stocks dropped nearly 10 percent based on the remarks that the President does still want to wind them down. Was it his intent to say something new on that? Or was that a market reaction that was not anticipated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would hesitate to try to decipher some sort of market reaction. But what the President did say in his remarks is consistent with our past comments on this issue. The President has articulated his concerns with the way that those programs are currently structured, and there is a proposal that we’ve put forward for putting in place some reforms that would be good for the housing sector, good for homeowners, and good for taxpayers. But the President was not hinting at any sort of new policy position with regard to those two entities.
Q Just to clarify that, there was no departure intended in any way in his remarks from what the current policy, standing policy on Fannie and Freddie has been?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. There was no change in our posture as it relates to our policy and our view of needed reforms for Fannie and Freddie.
Q Josh, what can you tell us about what the President will propose tomorrow for community colleges? And is he looking to emulate what Tennessee has done with their tuition programs?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a lot right now on tomorrow’s events. I can tell you that one of the reasons that we are going to Tennessee is that the state of Tennessee has worked hard to open up the doors to a college education to more middle-class students in Tennessee. That is a laudable goal. That is an effort that has already yielded important economic benefits for that state.
I’d also note that those kinds of reforms and some of those pretty innovative policies were put in place by a Republican governor, and are, I understand, supported by the Republicans senators from that state. So there’s no reason that these kinds of efforts to make a college education more affordable and make sure that middle-class students are getting access to a high-quality education and job training that’s needed to get a good middle-class job -- there’s no reason that that should be a partisan issue. And the President is hopeful that we’ll be able to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to make some progress in that area. But the President will have more to say on this tomorrow.
Q Is his announcement tomorrow going to be something that he can do executively? Or is it going to require congressional authorization?
MR. EARNEST: I think there will be an allusion to some executive actions that are possible, but what the President has in mind tomorrow will be some steps that we can take with Congress -- again, steps that have been embraced in bipartisan fashion in Tennessee and we believe should be embraced in bipartisan fashion on Capitol Hill.
Q Josh, on Lynch, Grassley’s office said yesterday to us that they had told you guys they were going to do hearings at the end of January or early February. Is that wrong? Did they not tell you guys that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of a conversation like that occurring. Now, I obviously was on the road yesterday. But based on some conversations that I’ve had with my White House colleagues today, I’m not aware that a specific date has been either --
Q Not a specific date, but --
MR. EARNEST: -- communicated to us or set. And that is what we’re focused on.
Again, she was nominated almost two months ago. And there would have been a very clear precedent for us to urge Congress -- urge the Senate to take up her nomination when there was a Democratic majority to fill this very important national security position. And we did not do that out of deference to the Republican -- the incoming Republican majority. And it seems appropriate that that incoming Republican majority would act quickly to schedule a specific date as soon as possible in January, but certainly no later than the end of the month, and then to vote on her nomination before the end of the work period. And we’re confident that if a vote is held and her nomination is carefully considered that she’ll get strong bipartisan support. She certainly deserves it.
Q Is there anything you guys can do to urge that along besides standing here and saying that? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: You mean beyond the very persuasive message that I’ve tried to send from here?
MR. EARNEST: If there is, we’ll let you know.
Q Anything on Ash Carter yet? Forgive my ignorance on that one.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that there’s one that’s been announced publicly. He obviously was announced -- nominated more recently. But we wouldn’t want the consideration of his nomination to be subjected to undue delay either. So we obviously -- both Ms. Lynch and Mr. Carter have important positions and important work ahead of them, and we hope that the Senate will carefully consider their nomination, do it promptly, and give them the bipartisan support they deserve.
Q And on the topic of nominations, what about Antonio Weiss? Any updates on timing?
MR. EARNEST: No updates on that.
Q Josh, the Gabby Giffords meeting today -- can you tell us any more about that meeting with the President, any more detail? And how did that meeting come about? Did the President initiate that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: The President did invite Ms. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, to come to the event in Phoenix. The President, over the last several years, has had an opportunity in a variety of settings to meet with the two of them. So the President is obviously very fond of Ms. Giffords and is, as I think you could tell from his public remarks today, remarkably impressed by the kind of courage that she has shown under unthinkably difficult circumstances. And the President is, like the rest of the country and certainly like the people of Arizona, incredibly proud of her. She is a genuine hero. And the President was pleased to have the opportunity to visit with her briefly backstage.
It was a pretty informal opportunity for them to catch up. There was no specific, serious business discussed, but rather an opportunity for the President just to see her again and to wish her well on a fateful anniversary.
Q Giffords and her husband have obviously been big advocates of gun control legislation. Did they bring this up with the President at all? Did he say anything to them about any plan that he might have to try to bring this back up before the end of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know, frankly, if they discussed that issue. That is something that they have talked about in the past. The President certainly appreciates their leadership on this issue. This is something that the President has been fighting for and something that they’ve been very vocal about, too. So he certainly appreciates their leadership. I don’t, frankly, know whether or not they discussed it today.
Q Did the White House give any consideration to having the President visit the VA hospital in Phoenix while he was here?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. The President traveled to Arizona because Arizona was one of the states that was most hardest-hit -- or at least the housing market in Arizona was the most-hardest hit or among the most hardest-hit states in the country in the midst of the housing downturn. And so this was an appropriate venue for the President to talk about some steps that he believes we can take, and the steps that he has taken, using his executive authority, to try to build on the momentum in the housing market. These are the kinds of -- these are common-sense steps that will save middle-class homeowners $900 a year and would benefit hundreds of thousands of homeowners over the next couple of years.
But I certainly do welcome what I perceive to be some renewed interest in the story about what’s happening at the VA facility in Phoenix. So if you’ll indulge me for just a minute, I will note --
Q You have some statistics?
MR. EARNEST: I do. Since June, more than 300 employees have started -- more than 300 new employees have started work at the VA facility in Phoenix. And it’s no coincidence that after those employees have taken office and some reforms have been put in place that there’s been a 19 percent increase in the number of appointments that have been scheduled and completed in the period between May and October. That’s a total of more than 300,000 appointments that have been conducted. Wait times at this facility have been reduced by 30 percent over that same period.
You’ll recall that the Phoenix facility was the first stop of both Sloan Gibson when he served as the Acting Director of the VA and the first stop of the relatively new VA Secretary, Bob McDonald. Some of the reforms that were put in place in Phoenix have been put in place at VA facilities across the country, and we’ve seen corresponding improvements in the operations of VA facilities across the country.
Some of those improvements are also the result of 19 executive actions that the President announced back in August to try to improve service delivery for our veterans at VA facilities across the country. And the President is certainly pleased that they’ve made these kinds of improvements. This is a priority for this administration. There’s obviously a lot more to do, and the President is going to continue to make sure that these issues are getting the focus that they need internally, that we can continue making important progress on these reforms.
Q Speaker Boehner indicated he was still waiting for a proposal from the President about reform. Do you see it that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would say is there are a number of reforms that have already been put in place -- that the President has put in place using his executive authority that are already showing substantial improvement. And if there are ideas that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have for further strengthening the operations at the VA we certainly would welcome the opportunity to work in bipartisan support to make sure that we’re living up to the commitment that we made to our veterans.
Q We drove by the facility on the way into the high school and on the way out. Was the feeling that if the President had stopped there, it would have been like a photo op and the kind of thing you guys have said you’re not interested in?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s just a simple matter of the President was there to talk about the housing market and the way that the state of Arizona is starting to show some building momentum in the housing market in a way that’s good for that sector of the economy and good for middle-class homeowners not just in Arizona but across the country. And so it seemed an appropriate venue for the President to talk about an executive action that he wants to take that’s actually going to save homeowners money. So he was just there to talk about a different topic.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Anybody else? Okay. Thanks, guys.
12:54 P.M. MST