Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Phoenix, AZ, 3/13/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Phoenix, Arizona
10:45 A.M. PDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Welcome aboard Air Force one en route to Phoenix, where the President later today will host a roundtable discussion with the Veterans Administration Secretary Bob McDonald, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, and veterans -- VA employees, veterans organizations, members of Congress and other elected officials to hear about the progress made to improve the VA’s ability to serve veterans, areas where more progress is needed, and further steps that we’ve been planning.
Secretary McDonald will announce the creation of a new MyVA Advisory Committee of private sector, nonprofit and government leaders focused on improving the VA’s ability to meet the needs of veterans. The committee will advise the VA on additional ways the VA can work to improve customer service delivery and veterans’ outcomes, and set the course for longer-term excellence and reform.
With that, I will take your questions.
Q So can you give us any information the United States has about President Putin’s whereabouts, whether our President has been briefed on questions about the fact that he hasn’t been seen in the last week and whether he may be ill or worse?
MR. SCHULTZ: Mike, thank you for the question. I have enough trouble keeping track of the whereabouts of one world leader. I would refer you to the Russians for questions on theirs. I’m sure they’ll be very responsive.
I would also tell you that the President has been briefed on world events on a regular basis. I don’t have any specific briefings to read out to you on this.
Q You can’t say whether or not the President has been briefed about these questions that have been swirling about the whereabouts of a world leader that’s probably one of the most important in the world?
MR. SCHULTZ: The President is briefed on world events as situations warrant, but I don’t have any specific conversations --
Q (Inaudible) that he’s been briefed about this?
MR. SCHULTZ: I would not assume anything beyond what I’m able to tell you.
Q So is the U.S. government operating under the assumption that Vladimir Putin is alive?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’d say so, yes.
Q Regarding the whereabouts of somebody else -- (laughter) -- yesterday, the First Lady taped a show of the Ellen DeGeneres Show in Burbank and I wondered, since it was around the same time that the President was here, why didn’t they save the taxpayers some money and fly out together?
MR. SCHULTZ: Thanks, Jim. I did see the tease of the First Lady’s appearance on Ellen. It looks great. I believe that on this occasion, the schedules were not in sync in order to travel together, so that’s why the First Lady is not joining us on this flight.
Q Did they even see each other at all yesterday?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t believe so.
Q Did the Ellen show pay for the First Lady’s trip?
MR. SCHULTZ: I am not sure. I believe -- I’m not even sure they overlapped while they were --
Q She may have been wheels up before he was wheels down?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes.
Q Okay. Thanks.
Q On the event today, there was a kind of a cutting editorial in the Arizona newspaper today that said just that the President wasn’t inviting people who may have different points of view on how to reform the VA, namely the concerned Veterans of America. Why weren’t they invited to participate in this roundtable? And is the President committed to hearing all points of view on how to fix this problem?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, he absolutely is. I would draw your attention to a meeting yesterday that Secretary McDonald had with specific whistleblowers at this facility in Phoenix, and I’d also make sure that you’re aware that that’s not the first meeting that Secretary McDonald has had.
So the President is absolutely committed to hearing from a wide array of voices on this. I think that’s why I gave you the rundown on who will be joining us today, including some Republicans in the state.
Q Why not that specific group?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I don’t have the backstory on how this particular sort of panel was put together, but I can tell you that the President is very much looking forward to a robust and candid discussion today.
Q Is this the first time, Eric, that the President has visited the Phoenix VA facility since that scandal broke?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes.
Q In summing up what the President is going to be doing, one of the things you pointed out is trying to figure out what else needs to be done. Does that suggest the President acknowledged that there are still problems that need to be resolved, and what might those be?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, Jim. There is still more work to remain. That is absolutely the case and that’s absolutely the President’s position. And that’s largely why the President is going today -- to make sure that while this issue might fade from the headlines from day to day, the President’s attention to it does not.
I will point out that the VA has made some significant progress since the episodes you’re referring to. That would include the VA medical centers have increased access to care inside and outside the VA, added more clinic hours and workdays, deployed additional mobile medical units, and shared their best practices from VA’s high-performing facilities throughout the organization so that the highest standards can be adopted nationwide.
Q Can I change topics real quick? It looks like the Iraqi military is poised for victory over ISIS in Tikrit. What kind of coordination has there been between the United States and Iraq on this? And are you in close communication with them?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, Evan, I’ve seen those reports as well. As you know, this is an Iraqi operation, and Prime Minster Abadi has rallied support from Sunni leaders within the government and at the tribal level, and called for the protection of civilian lives and property in this operation.
There is no question that the Tikrit operation is a major front in the fight against ISIL, and we are pleased to see the advancement the Iraqi forces have made. But this operation remains ongoing, and we understand Iraqi forces have now entered parts of Tikrit and that there are reports that some ISIL fighters are actually withdrawing from the area in the face of this offensive.
Q On a separate topic, Eric, can you say whether other government agencies have been checking in with the White House for additional guidance on email and archiving in the wake of the Hillary Clinton episode?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, as you know, we’ve released guidance -- updated guidance -- to each of the agencies throughout the past few years. I don’t know of any new developments on that. I assume that if agencies were unclear on the guidelines, they now know.
Q Just a follow-up. Just a quick one on the First Lady. When the two are in the same city and their schedules don’t align by a few hours, does the White House take any steps to try and adjust the schedules so that taxpayers aren’t billed for a second government flight? I mean, that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money. And if the schedules are only different by a few hours, why isn’t there a way to sort of adjust them so that they can come out together?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I'm not sure it's just a difference between a few hours. The First Lady is not joining us in Phoenix. So we are headed to Phoenix today, the First Lady is back in Washington.
Q On another subject. I don’t know if you’re aware of some comments that a former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, made, once again being critical of the President, suggesting that he was somehow setting the tone that led to the shootings in Ferguson.
MR. SCHULTZ: I have nothing for you on that.
Q Eric, the First Lady is going to be traveling to Asia next week to begin to promote more fully the Women and Girls Initiative that was announced by her and the President earlier this month. And I'm just wondering if you could talk about to what extent this is coordinated with the President and the NSC, how strongly the President feels about the initiative, and whether this is something that he will talk about at home when leaders like the Afghan leader and places where there really are significant problems with women and girls rights, like when he comes in the coming weeks.
MR. SCHULTZ: Absolutely, Margaret. Thank you for raising this. As you know, this is an issue that's important to the President. He raises this almost everywhere he travels I believe, especially in -- I think you mentioned Africa --
MR. SCHULTZ: Afghanistan -- I’m sorry. Hearing problems on Air Force One.
But yes, he does mention this frequently on his foreign travel. So it’s an important issue to the President, and the President does believe there’s no better voice for this than the First Lady, so he is pleased the First Lady will be doing this trip. And I think we’ll have more details on it in the coming days.
Q But would you say that this is a real policy initiative? Is the NSC involved? Is this something that there’s a full White House effort to engage in?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think we are closely coordinated. I don't know the extent of sort of resource allocation internally. But we can see what we can get you.
Q Did Malia and/or Sasha accompany the First Lady yesterday?
MR. SCHULTZ: I am not sure. You should check with the First Lady’s office.
All good? Okay, great, thank you.
Q Week ahead.
MR. SCHULTZ: Oh, yes, I do have a week ahead.
On Monday, the President will host a meeting with the Council of the Great City Schools Leadership to discuss efforts to strengthen educational opportunities for students in city schools.
On Tuesday, the President will welcome Prime Minister Kenny of Ireland to the White House. In the morning, the President and Vice President will meet with him in the Oval Office to discuss issues of mutual concern. In the evening, the President will host a reception to celebrate his seventh St. Patrick’s Day at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to Cleveland, Ohio to deliver remarks on the importance of middle-class economics at the City Club of Cleveland. We’ll have more information on that in the coming days.
On Thursday, the President will host their Royal Highnesses, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, for a meeting in the Oval Office. The Vice President will attend that session. The Prince and Duchess will visit the United States March 17th to the 20th to engage in activities to promote the United Kingdom’s partnership with the United States in such key areas as combatting climate change, creating opportunities for youth, encouraging corporate social responsibility, and preserving historical and cultural links.
And on Friday, the President will host the second annual White House Student Film Festival, highlighting the President’s call for mentorship, in particular mentorship in the arts and film industries. This year’s competition was an opportunity for K-12 students to produce short films on the idea of service and helping our community.
As part of the event, the President will deliver remarks on the goal of My Brother’s Keeper initiative to ensure all young Americans can reach their full potential.
Q Do you know any details about this Saturday? He does the Gridiron tomorrow, right?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes.
Q Okay. And it’s going to be --
MR. SCHULTZ: It will be very good.
Q And then is that -- and do you have anything for next weekend?
MR. SCHULTZ: The following weekend?
MR. SCHULTZ: No.
Q The week ahead usually --
MR. SCHULTZ: I’ll see if I can get that for you. Thank you, guys.
10:56 A.M. PDT