Press Gaggle by Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz En Route Atlanta, Georgia
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Atlanta, Georgia
11:03 A.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Good afternoon. Welcome aboard Air Force One. As you know, we are en route to Atlanta, where the President is going to talk about the rising challenge in this country of helping students afford a higher education and manage their debt.
Right before we left, the President did sign a memorandum directing the Department of Education and other federal agencies to work across the federal government to do more to help borrowers afford their monthly loan payments through 19 new executive actions. That memo requires a new single system for student complaints, contractors to respond when borrowers fall behind in their payments, and recommendations for other policy changes to protect borrowers.
The actions we’re announcing today will help reach our goal of providing an affordable, quality education for all Americans, underscored in the Student Aid Bill of Rights, based upon the fundamental principle that every student in this country deserves access to a quality, affordable education at an institution that’s cutting costs and increasing learning.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
Q Eric, the Admiral who joined the President this morning -- what can you tell us about him?
MR. SCHULTZ: The Admiral is a proud and active alum of Georgia Tech University, so he is joining us in that capacity.
Q And on a different topic, Hillary Clinton is going to give some remarks today publicly for the first time since the whole swirling email controversy. Is there anything specific you’re hoping to hear from her?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have anything for you on a press conference that hasn’t happened yet.
Q Can I ask some Hillary follow-ups? Is the expectation that in her disclosure of all the emails that she has asked the State Department to turn over that we’ll be seeing emails between her and the President?
MR. SCHULTZ: As Josh acknowledged yesterday, there are some emails that were sent and received between the Secretary of State and the President of the United States in that first term. Those emails, A, would have been preserved, as Josh has said, under the Presidential Records Act, based on the President’s email; and, two, have now been turned over to the State Department for review for release. So the State Department, by matter of course, goes through those documents and judges for a host of criteria what’s appropriate for release. So I’m going to let that process play out before I prejudge it.
Q But one of the criteria would be if the President exerts privilege over them in some way. Is that something that you guys plan to do, or do you think you’re happy with the State Department releasing any email between the President and Secretary Clinton?
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, I think you’re jumping about 10,000 steps ahead of where we are, so let’s just let the State Department review that process under their regular order and then we can make a determination from there.
Q Eric, the Democrats that are on the House Benghazi panel have asked -- there is some 800 or so pages of emails that have already been turned over to the Benghazi committee -- they want those emails to be prioritized and released -- reviewed for release first, before the other 55,000 pages. Is that a request that the White House supports?
MR. SCHULTZ: Josh, I hadn’t seen that. But, again, the review of that set of documents has to go through the State Department, so I’m going to defer to their folks and their team so they can evaluate it under the proper criteria before releasing those.
Q Does the President have his own private email, a nongovernmental email that he uses occasionally or at all? And has he used it to conduct government business? And if so, would he be subject to the policies that Josh outlined?
MR. SCHULTZ: Mike, both the President and my colleague, Josh Earnest, have addressed this in the past couple of days.
Q -- addressed it.
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, in engaging questions on the security and integrity of the President’s email, we have made clear that part of the security precautions we take around that email account is not talking about it much publicly. So I’m not going to be --
Q I’m not asking you to talk about the email account. I’m asking about whether he has a private email account. That’s a different question than asking about the secured -- and I’m not asking for what it is, although if you want to give it to me, I’m fine with that.
MR. SCHULTZ: Mike, again, I’m not going to be in a position to discuss the President’s email account. I will tell you that anything sent or received there is preserved for a couple of different reasons. One, nobody understands more the scholarly value of that material than the President of the United States. As you saw a few days ago, the President took his family to see President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. So we understand the scholarly value. We also understand the rules and guidelines that dictate this sort of material and we abide by them.
Q Yesterday the President -- Josh said that the President had, in fact, received those emails, as you mentioned today. When he is receiving emails from other members of government or other world leaders that are from .gov or other official accounts, was it not at all weird to him or questionable that his emails from Secretary Clinton were not as such?
MR. SCHULTZ: The President’s expectation when sending or receiving an email from any Cabinet Secretary is that’s going to be preserved, maintained, and archived in accordance with the Federal Records Act.
Q But given he knew it was a personal email, that didn't seem weird to him that someone was emailing the President of the United States from a Clintonmail server address?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, the President’s expectation in real time is that those emails are archived and preserved.
Q Eric, are you and your colleagues sick of answering questions about Hillary Clinton and what emails she did or didn't send?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, our view is that we take these guidelines seriously. We take compliance very seriously, so we are happy to engage you in questions on this today or tomorrow.
Q Can I ask about the college thing?
MR. SCHULTZ: You can.
Q Wait till you hear my question. Seems like small potatoes. I mean is this because Congress is in the hands of the Republicans and you can't really do much more than create a new complaint system? That doesn't seem to address in any sort of fundamental way the challenges of somebody paying back a $50,000 loan.
MR. SCHULTZ: I guess I would disagree with your characterization of this. I don't think the 1.4 million student loan borrowers in the state of Georgia, for example, who have accumulated more than $44 billion left in outstanding student loan debt would call these sorts of improvements small potatoes. I do agree with you there is lots more to be done in addition to what we're talking about specifically today. I think that's why the President has called on Congress to support his plan to allow for a free community college for two years for responsible Americans. That is why we’ve called for an expansion of the Pell program. That is why we're looking for increased investments in our first in the world expansion, where we seed innovation and scaling what works in higher education.
So I agree with you this is a priority. I agree with you there’s lots to be done. We think the steps being announced today are an important step. But surely -- hopefully those in Congress share your drive to do more.
Q Can I ask about Iran real quick? Foreign Minister Zarif today said that the letter sent by Republicans was evidence that the U.S. was unreliable in the negotiations. This was sort of a break from what we had heard from him yesterday where he had sort of dismissed the Republicans’ letter. So I’m wondering if you guys interpreted that as him sort of playing to the hard line audience that he was speaking to, or if you guys are worried that this letter has not tangibly damaged or jeopardized the negotiations?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think we feel like this was a blatant, flagrant, and partisan attempt to interfere with the negotiations. As my colleagues have said, we have one President at a time in the United States, and that President is charged with conducting our foreign policy. As the Vice President said quite eloquently last night, the letter that was released yesterday is without precedent from the past two centuries based on the role that the United States Senate has played. So we feel like that letter was reckless, was irresponsible, was misguided, was a partisan attempt to undermine the President’s ability to negotiate with a foreign government.
Q Has it been effective in that goal, though? Are you guys seeing tangible concerns being expressed through the negotiating?
MR. SCHULTZ: I haven’t seen any data on that. I don't have a real-time update on the actual negotiations, which, again, are sort of happening in real time. So I don't have any update for you on that.
Q Let me tackle that from a different direction. The President’s argument to Congress has been that if these talks are unsuccessful there shouldn’t be any excuse for Iran to say this is on the U.S. as opposed to on Iran. But between the Bibi speech and this letter and the sanctions legislation in Congress, if these talks now fail, doesn't Iran already have a pretty persuasive argument that it’s because of Congress that this deal fell apart, not because Iran walked away from the table?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I do think you’ve raised an important point, Josh, that the negotiations that the United States is a part of are not bilateral with just Iran. We are involved in a complicated, sensitive negotiation with Russia, with the United Kingdom, with France and Germany, the European Union, and China.
So you are right that these are sensitive and these are complicated. And so if there’s going to be 47 members of the same political party who attempt to inject themselves in an attempt to undermine the negotiation, we do feel like it’s misguided.
Q So what is the White House doing, particularly with its partners in these talks, to sort of address any concerns the White House has about what’s happened? Like are partners asking questions about what does this mean? What is the White House actively doing to sort of talk to people about this?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have any conversations or communications specifically with the P5-plus-1 group to read out to you. I can say that through the State Department, the negotiations to reach a deal continue, they continue in earnest, and they continue with an urgency as the deadline approaches.
Q It’s obvious there’s a real rift here now between Republicans in the Senate and the White House. What is the White House going to do for its part to try to address this rift or repair this rift, if anything?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think a couple of things. One is it’s important to realize that, historically, the President has the role of executing on our foreign policy. So whether that’s looking at basing agreements for troops around the world, whether that is the agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons -- a framework that we establish with Russia -- or whether that is a withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, those are agreements that the President of the United States, the executive branch, worked on and coordinated with foreign governments around the world. So I think that’s an important piece of history.
And then the second thing I’d say is that there is a robust role for Congress. There’s an oversight role, there’s a consultative role. The reason we have such severe sanctions right now on Iran that brought them to the negotiating table is because of those sanctions. So we are on constant communication with the Hill, but what we don’t think is a good idea is a partisan attempt to undermine the negotiations.
Q Can I ask about Senator Menendez really quickly? I know that -- I’ve heard Josh’s spiel about how you guys can’t comment on whether or not an indictment is coming, but we heard from Kathleen Sebelius last night that she had been interviewed by prosecutors about Senator Menendez and the donor in question. I’m wondering, do you know if anybody on the White House staff has been interviewed by federal prosecutors?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't.
Q Would the White House cooperate with such an investigation, or is that a situation where if a meeting between a donor and a White House staffer had come up that you guys would exert any sort of privilege?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think you are presupposing a lot of facts that aren’t necessarily been stipulated, so I’m not going to have anything to engage you on that hypothetical.
Q Eric, on the situation in Myanmar and the protestors that have been beaten by police while demonstrating against an educational law. This is the country that the President has repeatedly held up an as example of moving towards democratization, so is Myanmar still on the right track?
MR. SCHULTZ: I saw those reports. We, of course, deplore any violence. The values of human rights and fundamental freedoms are something that the President holds dear, something that this White House takes very seriously, and something that we work to spread around the world.
Q And I guess on one other foreign policy question, the President and his aides have said that there hasn’t been a decision on whether to send lethal aid to Ukraine. Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. told the AP yesterday that in the meeting with Merkel the President agreed to hold off and not to send lethal aid to Ukraine. So was the German ambassador incorrect in that statement?
MR. SCHULTZ: Josh, I saw the story from your colleague. The truth is we do not have an update from when the President addressed this with most of you in the room with Chancellor Merkel there.
The President believes, first and foremost, that this is a situation that is going to have to be resolved diplomatically. That’s for a couple of different reasons. First, increasing arms and lethal aid to the region would only increase bloodshed; two, nobody doubts Russia’s military capacity to expand its military presence in the region; and three, we don’t want to see increased bloodshed --
Q It sounds like you’re making the case against sending lethal aid, so is that a conclusion that’s been reached by this administration?
MR. SCHULTZ: I'm sorry, I didn’t get a chance to finish my answer. But the President has also said we are constantly reevaluating the situation there, constantly looking at new options. And so I don’t have an update for you on that at this time, but --
Q So when you said it remains where it was, where it was was he said that he hadn’t yet made a decision. Right? That is what he said during the Merkel thing. So it remains that he has not yet made a decision?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, the President has said a couple of different times why he believes this is a conflict that has to be resolved at the negotiating table. One, adding lethal aid only increases bloodshed; two, nobody doubts Russia’s ability to increase their military presence in the region.
So that’s why we’re trying to exhaust diplomatic agreements; that’s why we believe that Russia has to live up to its agreements in the Minsk agreements that were agreed to repeatedly, several times now.
Q Senator’s Menendez and Corker sent the President a letter yesterday asking for a report that under law was due on February 15th, and the report is supposed to spell out the President’s strategy on defensive lethal aid to Ukraine. And I'm wondering if you have any update about when that report might be delivered to Congress?
MR. SCHULTZ: Roberta, I will be honest with you, I haven’t seen that letter. Again, the President’s thinking on this I think is fairly well-known. There’s nothing different than when he addressed this with Chancellor Merkel. He also addressed this with CBS over the weekend. And I think I tried to just outline where the President’s head is on this.
Q May I ask real quickly about the statement on Scott Walker that came out last night? Irrespective of the merits, is this going to be something that we’re going to see the President do more, kind of dip his toe into 2016 and the Republican primary process by talking about issues that are coming up with some of their candidates?
MR. SCHULTZ: I'm not sure anything we’ve done is irrespective of the merits, so I sort of reject that framing of the question. I think that this is an issue that the President has spoken out on repeatedly, whether it's in Wisconsin, whether it's been in Michigan, or Ohio. The President believes that unions have been the backbone of our middle class and helped build our economy, our workforce, and that we should be doing everything possible to help workers join unions and build unions, not tear them apart.
Q But this is at least the third time that the President has spoken about one of the potential Republican 2016 contenders. Is this something that he’s going to continue to do, to sort of inject himself into the 2016 race?
MR. SCHULTZ: Roberta, I saw a lot of the political commentary speculating that that’s what we were doing, but our bottom line is this is an issue that we have spoken out whenever it rears its ugly head. And the President believes that unions have played a central role in building the middle class and raising workers’ wages. That’s why, instead of rolling back workers’ rights, states, including Wisconsin, should be expanding workers’ rights, like raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave.
Thank you, guys.
11:20 A.M. EDT