Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Columbia, South Carolina, 3/6/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Columbia, South Carolina
**Please see below for a correction to the transcript, marked with an asterisk.
11:11 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One. You may be able to feel the nostalgia pulsing through Air Force One this morning. Today is the first opportunity that the President has traveled back to South Carolina since his victory in the South Carolina primary back in January of 2008 -- January 26th, to be precise.
And many of you know that I worked for the President in Iowa in his caucus campaign through all of -- or most of 2007, early 2008. Surely after the Iowa caucus, I had the chance to go to South Carolina and work for the last three weeks on the South Carolina primary. It was a tumultuous three weeks during the campaign. My first day in South Carolina, Barack Obama was endorsed by previous Democratic standard-bearer, Senator John Kerry. The day after that, of course Senator Obama was defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Clinton. And then just a couple weeks after that, obviously the President won a resounding victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary.
It was notable because it was the first chance that -- or at least one of the very first powerful expressions from the emerging Obama coalition in the Democratic primary. You had African American voters, you had young people and white Democratic voters all showing up to support his campaign. So it was a very powerful expression of the kind of campaign that President Obama set out to build early on. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that without that strong performance that January -- that Saturday in January in early 2008, that there would not be a President Barack Obama.
So, anyway, I’m feeling particularly nostalgic about this trip and about my three weeks during the South Carolina primary. I know the President is looking forward to his visit down here as well.
The other reason for the nostalgia today is this is obviously Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer’s last trip on Air Force One. Dan is somebody that many of us have worked with for a long time, going back to the campaign. And Dan is somebody who has inspired deep respect and loyalty among his colleagues at the White House. Obviously the President shares that respect for Dan as well. Dan’s intellect stands out, but despite the rough exterior that he often projects, often to many of you, those of you who have gotten to know him know that Dan is one of the most thoughtful and generous people. He’s certainly been a very thoughtful and generous colleague during the many years that I’ve worked with him. And we certainly wish Dan well as he enters civilian life, so to speak.
So the last thing I’ll point out before we get to your questions is we’ve got another jobs report today. As we say every time that there’s a jobs report -- this was true even in the early stages of the presidency when the jobs reports often brought a lot of bad news; this jobs report happens to bring a lot of good news -- but the thing that we are looking at in these reports are not just the monthly numbers but the broader trends. And so there are a couple of broader trends that I wanted to point out to you.
The first is, is that over the last six months, an average of 293,000 jobs have been created every month. That’s the strongest monthly average in a six-month period that we’ve seen since 2000. Over the course of the last year, 3.3 million * private sector jobs have been created. That, again, is the strongest job growth that we’ve seen in a year-long period also since 2000.
The other interesting statistic I saw was that over the last -- we’ve now had 12 consecutive months of more than 200,000 private sector jobs being created. That is the longest streak of consecutive months of 200,000 or more jobs since 1977, so in 37 years. So that’s another statistic.
The other trend I wanted to note was in the manufacturing sector. We’ve now had 19 straight months of positive job growth in the manufacturing sector. That is the longest stretch in quite some time. And over the last 60 months, 877,000 jobs have been created in the manufacturing sector. So we’re obviously very pleased with the job performance in that sector as well.
With that long windup, why don’t we get to your questions.
Q The President had his first remarks this morning in response to the Ferguson report that came out earlier this week. It was brief, so I wondered if you could expand on that a little bit, in particular what his reaction was to no charges against Officer Wilson. And also, there are some emails in there that actually made some racist comments about him in particular, and what his response to that was.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as the President pointed out, he was not surprised by the details that were included in the Ferguson report. He described I think what he saw -- or the report described what he saw as an environment that is not typical in law enforcement communities across the country, but it’s not isolated either. And it reflects the kind of work that does need to be done in law enforcement agencies and in communities across the country to inspire greater trust between law enforcement officers in the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.
The President, in reaction to this, has established a 21st Century Policing Task Force that just this week came forward with some very specific recommendations about what law enforcement agencies across the country can do to strengthen the bond of trust between their officers and leaders in their community. And the President believes very strongly -- and I think this is indicative of law enforcement leaders in the vast majority of agencies across the country -- that law enforcement officers have a responsibility to ensure that every single member of the communities they serve are properly protected; not just some of those members of the community, but all of the members of the community.
And what we will find -- and the President is confident in this, and law enforcement experts tell us this -- that as law enforcement agencies are better able to demonstrate some accountability and some trust with the communities that they protect, not only does that inspire greater trust in those communities, it also improves the ability of law enforcement officers to fight crime, and it also ensures that those law enforcement officers can do their job more safely. This is very dangerous work, and it is an honorable profession. And the vast majority of law enforcement officers are out there selflessly trying to serve their community, and that is worthy of our respect and praise.
We want to make sure that all of the agencies are doing everything that they can to ensure that they’re doing everything possible to apply best practices that other communities have learned about how to build trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve and protect.
Q Did he have a response in particular to those two things -- Officer Wilson not being charged, and also the mention of him in some of those racist emails?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard a specific reaction from him, but the President does have confidence in the investigations that were conducted by the Department of Justice, both into the individual case but also into some of the broader problems that were exposed in the Ferguson Police Department. So I think the results of that investigation speak for themselves.
Q Would he like to see any personnel changes, like the police chief stepping down? Some people have called for that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President would stand by the conclusions of the report and would stand by the recommendations that were made by the Department of Justice.
Q Josh, AP had a story yesterday about the White House Counsel’s Office and Secretary Clinton’s emails. Was the White House Counsel’s Office aware that Secretary Clinton was using a private email account and that her emails were not being retained in real time by the State Department? When did you learn it? What’s your reaction been? And did the White House approve of her use of private email during the start of her tenure?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a lot there, but not necessarily a series of questions that I haven’t answered a couple of different times this week. The truth is, I don’t have a whole lot new to shed on this.
The fact is, the administration has given guidance to all of our employees that they should use their official email address when they’re conducting official government work. And the administration takes seriously the responsibility that agencies have to comply with the Federal Records Act. That’s certainly why the State Department took the step of asking all former Secretaries of State to turn over any personal email that related to their official work at the State Department.
It’s my understanding, again, based on public comments that we’ve seen from Secretary Clinton’s team, that they’ve complied with that request, as they should. I understand that the State Department has also already, months ago, provided some of that documentation to Congress in response to a specific request from Congress. I haven’t, however, been in the situation where I’ve been asked about Secretary Clinton’s specific request that the State Department take the necessary steps to make those emails public. That certainly would go above and beyond the requirements of the Federal Records Act, obviously, and I do understand that the State Department has already started working to review those records to comply with that request.
Obviously, they have -- that’s complicated work. They want to make sure that they’re not revealing information that is sensitive, even if it’s not classified. But I would anticipate that they will go about the work of reviewing those emails to determine what can be released, and that they will comply with Secretary Clinton’s request to make that email public.
Q But did the Counsel’s Office know, yes or no, that she was using private email?
MR. EARNEST: The truth is, as I’ve said before, I don’t know the answer to that. Obviously, there were senior White House officials who were emailing with Secretary Clinton while she was in office, and I haven’t spoken to them. I didn’t receive one of those emails. I think it is reasonable to expect that they noticed that she was not using a “.gov” email address. But I think they also had the expectation, as they do for all employees of the administration, that they’re properly complying with the Federal Records Act.
And again, if Secretary Clinton’s team did what they said they did, which is reviewed her email and turned over all of the personal email relating to her official work as the Secretary of State, then they are in compliance with the Federal Records Act.
Q Josh, there are, though, a couple of -- several questions that you have not answered regarding the White House and Secretary Clinton’s emails, and maybe we can go through a couple of them and see if you can answer them today. And one is, when the President learned that Secretary Clinton was exclusively using a non-government email and had a server in her home in New York.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have no idea when the President first learned of that. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if he had learned about that by reading the newspaper.
Q So it’s fair to say that he learned about that this week? That he was not aware of that prior to the stories coming out? And that seems like an important -- given the attention that this has gotten, it seems like an important thing that maybe you could ask him the next time you see him, because you’ve gotten this question a number of times, including two days ago.
MR. EARNEST: The President obviously has a lot of things on his plate, and I’m not sure that sort of the details of an individual administration -- senior administration official’s email arrangement sort of lands on the President’s desk with any regularity. But we certainly do have the expectation that everybody who has served the administration, even at the highest levels, is in compliance with the Federal Records Act and at the White House with the Presidential Records Act.
And again, based on what Senator Clinton’s team has said about what they have done, they are in compliance with the Federal Records Act.
Q And then secondly, can you give us the President’s reaction to learning about this, particularly given his commitment to being the most transparent administration in history?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t have a specific reaction to relay to you. The President does have the expectation that everybody in his administration takes the steps that are necessary to be in compliance with the Federal Records Act and with the Presidential Records Act. And again, that means using, as often as possible, using your official government email when you’re conducting official government business. It also means that when you’re in a situation where a personal email has been used for government business, that that personal email is properly forward to agency officials so it can be maintained and preserved and used to respond to legitimate requests from the public and from Congress.
And again, based on the steps that Secretary Clinton’s team has taken, it seems that she is -- or it is clear that she is in compliance with the Federal Records Act.
Q Okay, so one more on this. It seems like, based on some of your responses to the questions that you’ve gotten this week on this, that you’re not interested or the White House is not interested in saying specifically or finding out for even yourselves who knew what when, in terms of someone as senior as the Secretary of State having this kind of an email arrangement. Is that a fair assessment of your guys’ view on this, given your responses so far?
MR. EARNEST: As I think I’ve said on a few occasions, and I think as is evidenced by the fact that I have done my best to provide an understanding of our approach to this situation that the President and his administration does take seriously a commitment to transparency and a commitment to compliance with both the Federal Records Act and with the Presidential Records Act.
But again, as we’ve said, it is the responsibility of individual agencies both to set up an email system that is used by agency employees. It’s the responsibility of agency officials to ensure that the way that they maintain and store records is consistent with the requirements of the Federal Records Act. That's not just true of the State Department, that's true of every agency. And we certainly would expect that they’ll continue to do that.
Over the course of the last few years, the President has taken steps to give agencies clearer and greater guidance, more specific guidance about how to ensure that they are following those rules properly. The President even signed into law legislation at the end of last year that offered even clearer guidance about how to ensure proper compliance with the Federal Records Act and proper coordination with the National Archives and Records Administration. And we're going to continue to hold everybody in the administration to a high standard for that level of compliance.
Q Did the Secretary talk to anyone, including the President, about this in the past few days? Anyone in the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific conversations to read out. I don't know of any conversations between the President and Secretary Clinton.
Q Has the Secretary spoken to anyone in the White House about this in the few days, she herself? And has she offered any explanation as to what happened?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that.
Q Let me ask you about the trip today. You said he’s going to talk about the importance of young people in movements, and then you've got the trip tomorrow to Selma about the civil rights anniversary. Does the President look at this trip to the college today as sort of a call to action to young people? Is that what he plans to do?
MR. EARNEST: I think throughout his career in public service, the President has noted how important of a role young people have played in shaping this country. And that is true throughout our nation’s history. It’s probably never been more true than at the historic events in Selma 50 years ago this week.
And there is a role to play for young people to shape this country and its future. And that was true 50 years ago, and it’s just as true today. The President certainly did inspire a lot of young people to become engaged in the political process over the course of his presidential campaign. But that says a whole lot more about the young people in this country than it does about the President.
And it certainly -- as we talk about all of the challenges that are facing this country, whether it is striving for greater equality for our citizens, or trying to take the difficult steps that are necessary to combat the causes of climate change, or even to shape an economy in this country that reflects our commitment to the middle class, and having an economy that grows from the middle out, that there is a role for young people to play in shaping that kind of future for our country. It’s only going to be possible, though, if we see young people take the steps not just to be committed to their country, but also be committed to preparing and equipping themselves by getting a good education, by getting the kinds of training that's necessary to succeed in this economy.
So the President is going to talk about how those kinds of issues are interrelated. And the President will make some comments at the top of this event, but he’s also looking forward to taking questions from some of the young people in the audience. Many of the young people who will be participating in the event today are young people who have demonstrated some engagement in their community -- whether it’s working in nonprofits, or even being politically active. The President wants to nurture and encourage that kind of involvement in their community. And the President wants to hear from them about the issues that they think are most important to sort of cultivate their continued involvement and engagement in shaping the future of this country.
Q One more thing on Clinton. Is the White House or anyone in the administration concerned that it was Clinton aides who decided what emails to hand over to the State Department for this thorough vetting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the responsibility is for individual members of the administration, if they’ve used personal email, to ensure that that email has been sent to agency officials so it can be properly preserved and maintained. Those are the rules, and those are the rules that Secretary Clinton and her team are following.
I haven’t -- the fact that -- I think there are couple of relevant facts. The first is a large number of the emails that they have sent over to the State Department were emails that were already maintained on the State Department system because the Secretary was emailing with State Department employees at their State.gov email addresses.
So that is why I think that so many of these -- so that's one thing. The second thing is that many of the -- that I know that there were hundreds of emails that Secretary Clinton’s team sent to the State Department that have already been turned over to Congress in response to a request from Congress for certain documentation. And that is an indication that Secretary Clinton and her team took seriously their responsibility to comply with the Federal Records Act by sending email related to her official government business that exists on her personal email system.
So there’s plenty of data to indicate that they took seriously this responsibility, and they should because the President takes seriously this responsibility and has asked everybody who serves in the administration to take seriously their responsibility to be in compliance with the Federal Records Act.
Q Josh, for six years they weren’t taking that responsibility seriously. So is there any concern that maybe this voluntary, individual responsibility should be changed to something more stringent to make sure that people are complying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the first thing I’ll say is that there has been greater, more specific guidance that has been provided to agency officials -- and this has been clarified in the law -- about how to ensure the use of private email, when it occurs in the course of government business, can be properly maintained and preserved.
So there has been clear guidance that has been given to agency employees since 2009. And again, the basic responsibility is ensuring that the use of personal email is -- or in those situations where personal email was used, that it’s properly maintained and preserved at the agency in coordination with the efforts of the National Archives and Records Administration.
And again, in this situation it’s apparent that that's exactly what’s occurred.
Q Josh, aside from compliance with the Federal Records Act, given that the President has wanted this administration to be the most transparent in history, aside from compliance with the letter of the law, does this practice using personal email meet the President’s standards for transparency for this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I guess one thing that goes above and beyond the Federal Records Act is the request that Secretary Clinton has made to publicize all of her email to the greatest extent possible. So I would say at least that one specific step would be consistent with the President’s aspiration to ensure that his government is much more compliant.
Q -- using personal e-mail in the first place?
MR. EARNEST: Right. Again, well, that’s why the specific guidance that the administration has given to agency employees or administration employees is that they should use their official email address when they’re conducting official government business.
In those situations where personal email is involved in the conduct of official government business, it's important for that email to be forwarded to the agency so that it can be properly preserved and maintained. And again, since 2009, more specific guidelines has been given to the agencies about how exactly to do that.
Q Can I ask you about the Iraqi offensive on Tikrit? I believe General Dempsey has been quoted as saying that if no ethnic cleansing happens, if there’s no sort of Shia-Sunni sectarian-motivated fighting, that this Iranian-supported offensive by the Iraqi army is not a bad thing. What’s the current White House thinking on this? Would you say that Iran’s involvement at this point is something you’re okay with, is it something you’d welcome? Are you watching closely what unfolds there? And if so, how are you monitoring that given that Iran is involved in this and not the United States?
Q Well, I’d say a couple things about that. The real priority that we have placed in all of our interactions with the Iraqi government -- and this goes back to the Iraqi government when it was led by Mr. Abadi’s predecessor -- is ensuring that Iraq’s political leaders are taking the necessary steps to unite that country to face the threat that they’ve posed by ISIL.
And that’s true not just in their governing philosophy and in their government actions, but it also needs to be true as they undertake security operations. And in this case, we have a multi-sectarian force that is being led by Iraqi security forces against ISIL forces in Tikrit.
We have seen that it doesn’t just involve Iraqi security forces, it does include Shia militia; it also includes Sunni tribal fighters from that area. It is not at all insignificant that we have seen Sunni leaders in the Iraqi government step up and articulate their support for this specific operation. That includes one of the Vice Presidents in Iraq, it includes the Minister of Defense, it includes the Speaker of the House. These are all prominent Sunni elected leaders in Iraq who are indicating their strong support for this mission.
And as we have said, it's important that as this mission is undertaken, that it is not used as cover to exact sectarian retribution or revenge, and that priority has not changed just because it's apparent that some elements of the Iranian military are involved.
Q But how do you then -- doesn’t that exacerbate the nerves among allies in the region, and Israel as well, that the nuclear talks with Iran are somehow just a gateway into this broader softening of relations? So what are you guys saying to them?
MR. EARNEST: Look, we have been clear that the United States will not coordinate militarily with the Iranians. And we have also been clear throughout our talks with the international community and Iran about their nuclear program that the successful completion of those diplomatic conversations doesn’t come anywhere close to resolving our long list of concerns about Iran’s behavior. And whether it's their support for terrorism, their destabilizing activities in the region, their repeated threats against Israel and their expressions of anti-Semitism, and even their continuing detention -- unjust detention -- of American citizens, are just some of the things on our long list of concerns with Iran.
The strategic decision that the President has made is that trying to resolve our concerns with Iran’s nuclear program only makes it easier for us to try to resolve those other concerns, and that failing to resolve the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program only exacerbates those other concerns we have with Iran’s behavior. So that’s why we have moved aggressively in a diplomatic setting with our international partners to try to resolve our concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.
But we’re going to continue to have those other concerns. And I think a similar dynamic could be articulated as it relates to Iran’s involvement in this specific operation, which is that it doesn’t change our clear refusal to coordinate with them militarily, it doesn’t ease any of the other concerns that we’ve expressed with Iran’s behavior in the region, and it does not any way absolve Iraq and those who are participating in this mission of their responsibility to ensure that this operation doesn’t devolve into an opportunity to exact sectarian revenge.
Q Can you talk about preparations for the Selma speech tomorrow? Is the President actually writing this speech himself? And what are some of the themes he really wants to get across at this historic time?
MR. EARNEST: The President is working on his speech; he spent some time during the snow day yesterday working on it. You’ll hear a little bit more from the President today I think in terms of his thinking about the message that he wants to deliver in Selma.
I think suffice it to say, what occurred in Selma 50 years ago is a seminal event in American history, and it does reflect one of things that’s so powerful about this country and about our ability to try to make our union more perfect. And the President will talk about this a little bit more today and certainly tomorrow in terms that are much more eloquent than what I’ve just said.
Q Josh, on that, there are a lot of people who say that the Voting Rights Act that passed 50 years ago has been gutted by the Supreme Court and there’s been retrogression that’s moving backwards instead of moving forward. Does the President hope to use this speech in Selma to move Congress to actually take action to restore some of the things that have been lost?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President mentioned this a little bit in his radio interviews -- that there’s no denying that we’ve made tremendous progress in the last 50 years. It may be a little bit of a cliché to suggest that we have more work to do, but it's true that we have more work to do. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ve made tremendous progress in this country even when it comes to voting rights.
But for the additional work that needs to get done, it's going to be the responsibility of the people of this country to mobilize and to make clear to our political leaders that there are additional changes that can be made to protect the right of every eligible American to cast a vote. That’s a lot of the history that was made in Selma 50 years ago. But there’s more history to be made on this.
Q Is he going to call for specific legislation in reaction to the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act?
MR. EARNEST: The President doesn’t view his speech in Selma as an opportunity to lay out additional policy proposals or to make specific prescriptions about the legislative process. This will be an opportunity for the President to look back on the events of 50 years ago, talk about how it shapes the identity of this country and how it should inspire the next generation of Americans to engage at the community level to bring about the kind of change they want to see in their country.
Q And lastly, on South Carolina, it's not very far away -- why has it taken so long for the President to get back here?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the specific answer to that question. I'll say that the President does have very fond memories of being here in 2008 and campaigning all across this state. And as I mentioned at the top, without the dramatic showing that we saw on Election Night -- January 26, 2008 -- in South Carolina, there would be no President Barack Obama.
And the President is looking forward to seeing some of the people who were involved in that campaign a little over seven years ago, and certainly will be -- the memories of those couple of weeks will be fresh in his mind as we spend a little time in Columbia today.
Q Josh, after the attack against the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, is the White House thinking about tightening any security for U.S. ambassadors abroad? And how broadly have the recommendations after the Benghazi consulate attack been applied? And should that have applied here?
MR. EARNEST: Let me first start by saying that our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Ambassador Lippert and his family over in South Korea. Many of us had the opportunity to work with him, again, not just on the campaign but also at the White House. And so it is clear that the events of a couple of days ago were, to put it bluntly, pretty scary.
But we are pleased to see that Ambassador Lippert is getting the medical attention that he needs. He seems to be in good spirits. If you follow his Twitter feed, you know that he’s in great spirits. But we're going to continue to think about him as he continues to recover from this attack. He’s only been in South Korea for a few months, but he’s done an extraordinary job of representing the United States and our interests in that country. And we're looking forward to his extraordinary service continuing over there.
As it relates to the security precautions in place around him, I know that this is something that the State Department is looking at and it's something they take seriously. And it's because, frankly, the President has made clear to the State Department that the safety and security of our diplomatic officers around the globe is something the President considers to be a very high priority. And so I know that this is something that the State Department will take very seriously. I know that they’ve already been in touch with officials in South Korea who also take seriously their responsibility to ensure that American diplomats are safe.
And so we look forward to working together with the Koreans to ensure that the proper precautions are in place to ensure that Ambassador Lippert, his family, and other U.S. officials who work at the U.S. embassy in Seoul are safe as well.
Q Has the President spoken to the Ambassador? I know they’re close.
MR. EARNEST: The President did have the opportunity to telephone Ambassador Lippert on Wednesday evening here in the U.S. And the President thanked him for his tremendous service so far and told him that he hoped that Ambassador Lippert would heal quickly and be back up on his feet soon. And Ambassador Lippert expressed a firm commitment to do exactly that.
Q But is he concerned, though, that security is not up to par if a knife-wielding attacker is able to get to him?
MR. EARNEST: Any time there’s an incident like this, it does raise concerns. But there’s no doubt that the State Department takes this very seriously, and we have confidence that they’re going to take the steps that are necessary to ensure that Ambassador Lippert can do his job of representing the United States as safely as possible.
Q What about all U.S. ambassadors abroad? Does this go that wide, the State Department review, or is it specifically focused on South Korea?
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to leave you with the impression that there’s a specific agency-wide review underway. I just want to leave you with the impression that any time that an incident like this occurs people take a look at what’s been happening to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. But I don't know of any sort of formal review that's underway other than making sure that the necessary coordination is in place between the State Department and officials in Korea to ensure Ambassador Lippert’s security.
Q We're going to a Historical Black College and University. Some people have been critical about the administration not expanding Pell grants. Why does the administration not want to expand Pell grants, or use some of the money for community colleges to expand Pell grants?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that one of the reasons we're going to Benedict College is because it is a Historically Black College and University that has succeeded in making sure their students are getting a good education. And I know that many of the students at Benedict College benefit from the Pell Grant program. And the President does believe firmly that we need to open up the door to a college education to every middle-class family and every family that's trying to get into the middle class. And that's simply because a college education has never been more important to getting a good-paying middle-class job. And the President will be talking about that when he’s at Benedict College today.
Q Any lawmakers on the plane?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know of any lawmakers on the plane. I saw that the Attorney General is on the plane with us today, and a number of senior White House officials, as well.
All right. See you on the ground.
11:45 A.M. EST