Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Los Angeles, CA, 3/12/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Los Angeles, California
2:40 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: If everyone is ready, I have a quick announcement and then I’m happy to take your questions.
Prior to leaving the White House, the President this afternoon spoke with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan by videoconference, along with Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The President encouraged to accelerate Afghan progress towards forming an inclusive national unity government, and expressed his expectation that their visit to Washington later this month will demonstrate our mutual commitment to a strengthened U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership.
The leaders discussed the ongoing efforts of the Afghan National Security Forces to improve security in Afghanistan, and the importance of countering extremist threats from groups like al Qaeda. The President commended President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah on their leadership in promoting an Afghan peace process to end the conflict in Afghanistan and their initiative to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
Q Eric, I wanted to ask you about the March 4th Secret Service episode that was making news. Does the President still have confidence in Director Clancy? And does it give him a second to pause about making a decision of hiring from within the Secret Service rather than outside, as recommended by an independent group?
MR. SCHULTZ: Not at all, Jim. When Director Clancy was asked to return to this agency, part of the reason the President selected him was because of his well-known leadership ability and his commitment to making sure that the agency that he spent so many years serving in was being run in the most effective manner and up to the highest standards.
As Acting Director, he took several important and bold steps to address some of those challenges the agency has been facing over the last little while, and continues to make reforms as the permanent director.
Q But does this meet those high standards?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Mike, obviously the incident you’re referencing is under investigation by the independent Department of Homeland Security inspector general, so I’m not going to be in a position to comment on those allegations. I will say that Director Clancy has shown a commitment to addressing the issues you’ve raised and that we’ve seen as part of the Secret Service over the last little while. And that includes implementing structural reforms, but also paying close attention to the issues that have been plaguing this agency.
Q Was the President briefed about this incident? And did he express any concern about it?
MR. SCHULTZ: The President was made aware earlier this week. He was disappointed to hear the allegations. But everyone at the White House supports the effort by Director Clancy to make sure that the Department of Homeland Security inspector general does a thorough and exhaustive review of this.
Q Could you just clarify -- do you know what date he was informed? And does he have the full confidence -- does Director Clancy have the full confidence of the President?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes. And I don’t have the exact date. It was earlier this week.
Q Eric, Ferguson is back in the news again. The last time we saw strikes hit that town, the administration got very closely involved. You sent top officials down there. Are we going to see that happen again now that Ferguson is going through another round of problems?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think you saw before we took off, the President did put out a short statement. The Attorney General also spoke to this earlier today. And I can tell you that the President has been briefed on the terrible shooting of two officers that took place in Ferguson. His thoughts and prayers are with the officers and their families. We are comforted by the reports that the injuries are not life-threatening. And we all wish the officers a full and speedy recovery.
As the President has repeatedly said, those who protect and serve our communities have an absolute right to go home safely to their families each night. And as the President just commemorated in Selma this past week, peaceful protests can lead to important change; violence is utterly unacceptable.
Q Are there any plans for any top aides or officials to go down to Ferguson?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have any travel announcements for you at this time. I know the Attorney General both released a written statement and I believe addressed this a little while ago.
Q Back to the Secret Service. One of the issues apparently was that uniformed officers wanted to provide a field sobriety test, and a supervisor intervened and sent the Secret Service officials home. What does that say about whether Director Clancy or anybody in the hierarchy of the Secret Service has addressed the culture that the President wanted to change?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jim, it's critically important to us to protect the integrity around the independent investigation looking into this. So I, for reasons I hope you can understand, am not going to be in a position to weigh in on any specifics of these allegations. So we're going to wait for that investigation to be completed, and then we might be in a better position to weigh in on the specifics of the allegation.
Q I remembered my question. If I could just -- and it sort of follows on that, which is part of what the Secret Service was criticized so much about in some of the previous incidents was not being forthcoming, was not -- kind of waiting for stuff to dribble out and not telling the full truth. Does the White House have concerns that once again this was a news organization breaking the news to both us and I guess maybe even to some of you guys that this had happened, and not being forthcoming when it happened last week and putting out a press release and saying, here it is, this happened, we're not happy about it? I mean, that seems to be part of what Jim was talking about with the culture, and is that still the same? I’m trying to get to the details of the incident.
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure. I will say again that the White House learned of this incident earlier this week. So I don't want anyone to take away from your question that we learned about this from news reports. That said, Director Clancy is in this position because the President -- because he does have the full confidence of the President to not only institute the structural reforms he believes are needed at the Secret Service, but also the cultural changes that both Director Clancy believes are necessary and the President has talked about.
Nobody has higher standards for the Secret Service than Director Clancy. And it's important to the President and the Director to make sure that everyone throughout the agency observes them.
Q You said the President was disappointed. Was he or the White House generally disappointed that you didn’t hear about it before earlier this week, if it happened March 4th?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have any reactions to give you in terms of our internal communications or conversations with senior staff.
Q Is it fair to say that the White House is tired of having to deal with Secret Service crises every few months?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, I never get tired of your questions.
Q That wasn’t my question. (Laughter.) But thank you.
MR. SCHULTZ: This is not a guy who is tired.
Q Can you help us understand whether the President, in fact, learned about what had happened preemptively either before news reports or before they were about to be news reports?
MR. SCHULTZ: It was absolutely before news reports. I will try and see if we can unpack more of a tick-tock here, but that's not something we generally get into.
Q Do you know where exactly the incident -- like how close to the White House it took place? Was it right off 15th, exactly where it was?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have those details.
Q The President is going to visit the Phoenix VA facility on Friday. And the VA still doesn’t have a permanent inspector general. Do you know if there’s going to be any announcement on that or any movement?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, thank you. Tomorrow the President will travel to Phoenix, Arizona, to discuss veterans issues. The President and Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, will visit the Phoenix VA Medical Center. During the course of this visit, the President will hear about progress made to improve the VA’s ability to serve veterans in a timely and effective manner, areas where more progress is needed and further steps that are planned.
I think we'll have more specifics about tomorrow’s visit for you tomorrow, or maybe later. I don't know of any specific announcement regarding an inspector general. I would say it's my understanding that the administration profoundly respects and admires the work of inspector generals across the administration and throughout various agencies, whether they are Senate-confirmed or not.
Q On that point, Eric, can you talk a little bit about concerns that not a lot of veterans are availing themselves of private health care centers, as provided for in the new law?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think tomorrow the President is going to have an opportunity to meet with veterans, VA employees, veterans groups, and elected officials to hear about both the progress made to improve the VA’s ability to serve veterans in a timely and effective manner, but also areas where more progress is needed and further steps are planned.
Q Is that one of those areas where more progress is needed?
MR. SCHULTZ: Without getting too specific on what conversations to preview for tomorrow, I think we’ll have more on this. But I would say that everything is on the table in terms of this discussion.
Q Eric, in the readout of your call that the President had with the leader of Afghanistan, did they discuss troop withdrawals or any potential plans to leave U.S. troops longer than previously said?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have any more specific detail to read out to you from that conversation, but I do know that that will be definitely a topic of their agenda for their visit in a few weeks.
Q As for the visit to the Phoenix VA, he didn’t go in January and caught a fair amount of flak. There were photos of the motorcade nearby and stuff. Can you talk about why the decision to go now and why he had decided, in part, not to go in January?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Margaret, you’ll hear directly from the President tomorrow on why he is visiting the Phoenix VA Medical Center. But this is part of the President’s ongoing efforts to improve care for veterans. Improving timely access to care for our veterans is an issue that the administration has been working on diligently.
Long after it fades from the headlines, this is something that a lot of people have been working on and that the President feels strongly about. So even though it might not be generating front page news every day, this is something that the President has been focused on. So I think you’ll hear more about his visit and the impetus for it tomorrow.
Q Eric, there’s a bill -- a trafficking bill -- stuck in the Senate right now. It's a bipartisan bill that there’s an issue over abortion language in it. If that language remains in it, would the President veto it? And what does the President believe should be done with the bill right now?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jim, I saw some public reports on this, that there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of conversations around that bill in both parties. So I'm going to not weigh in at this point.
Q Do you want a Hillary email question? (Laughter.)
MR. SCHULTZ: Have a good flight.
Q No, No. We’re not quite done.
MR. SCHULTZ: Okay, okay. Anything else?
Q Sorry, I thought you were just joking. So there is some legislation by Chuck Grassley that would prevent beneficiaries of the President’s executive actions from receiving certain benefits, and I'm just wondering if the administration has any initial reaction.
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have a particular direct comment for you on that piece of legislation. What I can tell you is that under the President’s executive actions, deferred action recipients can apply for a Social Security number, join the legal workforce, pay taxes, and come out of the shadows and be held accountable. But for more details on what you’re asking about, I’d refer you to the IRS.
Q Can I ask you one more question? We have the President’s schedule, or at least part of the President’s schedule for tonight and for tomorrow, and I just wanted to ask, does he have any plans while he is at his hotel or somewhere else in Los Angeles to meet with any other actors, celebrities, movie executives, or anyone else that we might be interested in, in an event that’s not currently on the schedule?
MR. SCHULTZ: Am I not good enough? You have the latest version of the President’s public schedule. If anything on that changes, I will let you know.
Q Eric, I’ll try one Hillary question. Sorry. Does the President have any concern about the fact that the field of Democrats who could be running to be his successor is pretty much narrowed down to one person, and that that person is a little weakened by this email issue?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, I assume there will be ample opportunity over the next 18 months to weigh in on the 2016 presidential race. This is not going to be one of those times.
Q All right. I'm not even going to follow up.
MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you all. Have a good flight.
2:54 P.M. EDT