Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Cleveland, OH, 3/18/15
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Cleveland, Ohio
12:32 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Let me start by saying the President is looking forward to his trip to Cleveland today. Cleveland, as you know, is the home of the White House’s own Katie Beirne Fallon, so you can anticipate that there will be a vocal contingent of Beirne family residents in attendance at the event today.
The President is also looking forward to going to Cleveland because it is an appropriate venue for the President to draw a clear distinction in the top-down economic priorities of Republicans and the middle-class economic priorities that’s advocated by the President and Democrats in Congress.
One element of this approach that is worth highlighting because of how critically important it is to Cleveland’s economy is the manufacturing sector. Over the last five years, we've seen 877,000 private sector jobs be created in the manufacturing sector in the last five years. That is the strongest job growth we've seen in the manufacturing sector in nearly 30 years. And that is an indication that the President’s focus on manufacturing and investments in things like job training and a college education and research and development are paying off.
And the reason this is a useful thing to highlight is that if you take a look at the Republican budget, it actually takes away investments in manufacturing. One specific example -- prior to delivering his remarks at the City Club of Cleveland today, the President is going to visit a facility called Magnet. Magnet is essentially an incubator for small manufacturing entrepreneurs. And this is a program that has led to the support of thousands of manufacturing jobs in Northeast Ohio. Federal funding for this program, the Magnet program would be eliminated under the Republican budget proposal.
The President believes that's the wrong approach. We shouldn’t be eliminating funding for these kinds of programs. We should actually be looking to double down on these investments, because we know that they contribute substantially to success in the manufacturing sector and success for middle-class families all across the country.
So that will be on display. The other notable thing about the President’s activities today is, in addition to the remarks that the President will deliver at the City Club, there’s a tradition at the City Club that speakers will take questions from the audience, and the President will take questions from those in attendance today.
So we have a lot to look forward to in Cleveland, but before we do that, I'll take a few questions from you.
Q Did the President speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu after the election?
MR. EARNEST: The President at this point has not telephoned Prime Minister Netanyahu. I can tell you that earlier today that Secretary of State John Kerry did telephone Prime Minister Netanyahu to congratulate him on the Israeli elections. The President, in the days ahead, in the coming days, I anticipate will also call Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the same thing.
Just as a relevant piece of recent historical context is that there have been two Israeli elections during the Obama administration. In both situations, in the aftermath of both elections, the President did not telephone Prime Minister Netanyahu until he’d already been directed by the Israeli President to begin the process of forming a coalition government.
So I'm not suggesting that the President will wait until that direction has been handed down this time. I'm merely pointing out that in previous situations the President has not telephoned the Israeli Prime Minister on the day after the elections. But I do anticipate that the President will call Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming days.
Q -- talking about the Palestinian state issue over the last couple of days, citing the election. But now that the election is over and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been reelected, can you talk a little bit about what that means for the U.S. goals in the peace process and the hope for a two-state solution?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question, Justin. I've got a couple of things to say about that. The first is that the unprecedented security cooperation between the United States and Israel, including our strong military and intelligence relationships, will continue. And that relationship will continue because those relationships are essential to the security of the Israeli people, and the President is committed to continuing that important security cooperation.
The second thing I wanted to say is that it has been the policy of the United States for more than 20 years that a two-state solution is the goal of resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian people. And that two-state solution has been pursuit of a democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. That has been the policy of the United States under both Democratic and Republican Presidents.
In the context of the recent election, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated a change in his position. And based on those comments, the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward.
Q -- that you guys may no longer favor a two-state solution, or that you may reevaluate sort of your ability to cooperate with Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm suggesting is that it has been the longstanding policy of the United States that a two-state solution is the best way to address this conflict, primarily because it is in the security interest of the Israeli people -- again, in the view of the United States -- it is in the best interest of the Israeli people because it would be the best way to resolve the very legitimate security concerns that they have.
The United States also happens to believe, and the President also happens to believe that this would be the best way to resolve the situation, this conflict in a way that satisfies the concerns of the Palestinian people as well. They seek a sovereign, independent state. This solution also has the benefit of best addressing the stability of the region; that this ongoing conflict has contributed to instability throughout the region and that addressing this conflict by establishing a Jewish independent state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a sovereign, independent Palestinian state is the best way to defuse regional tensions as well.
Of course, it's not going to solve every problem, but we know that this ongoing conflict does serve to inflame tensions around the region and promote instability. And it has long been the policy of the United States and it continues to be the view of the President that a two-state solution is the best way to address those tensions and address that instability.
Q Netanyahu said that there would not be a Palestinian state for as long as he’s Prime Minister. So the U.S. position is that you favor a two-state solution. But he’s saying that he doesn’t want that as long as he’s in office. So does that mean the Mideast peace process is essentially dormant for the rest of the Obama administration?
MR. EARNEST: It means for today -- it means that for today that based on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments, the United States will reevaluate our position and the path forward in the situation.
Q Josh, is having his congratulating Prime Minister Netanyahu -- other world leaders, like Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended his congratulations. And given the sensitivity of this election with the Iranian nuclear negotiations, was there any thought give to changing the protocol that you guys have used in the past and maybe speeding up the timing of the President’s call to the Prime Minister?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a lot of the -- let me say it this way. I do anticipate that the President will telephone Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming days. In previous situations, the President has waited -- and in the previous situation, the President waited a week after the elections were held to telephone the Prime Minister. Now, the previous election, which was very early on in the President’s tenure, the President waited substantially longer before telephoning Prime Minister Netanyahu. In both situations, it was after he’d already been asked by the Israeli President to begin the process of forming a government.
That is the historical context. But what I would anticipate is that in the coming days, the President will make his own call to the Prime Minister.
Q Can I ask you on today’s event -- President Obama has called trade one of his most important priorities right now. He’s going into Cleveland, in a state that trade has been generally looked poorly on in a lot of heavy unionized workers. Will the President spend time today actively selling his trade deal, even though Sherrod Brown and other Democrats from the state seem opposed to it? And if not, why won't he spend time? Wouldn't it be the perfect place for him to do so?
MR. EARNEST: Well, David, what I would anticipate is that in his prepared remarks the President will focus on the economic priorities -- or the differing economic priorities between Democrats and Republicans, and that's the focus of today’s event. However, as I mentioned, the President will take questions from the audience and I would not be surprised if someone in the audience does want to ask the President about this, and the President would, I'm sure, be happy to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss why he believes that trade agreements along the lines of what he’s discussed is in the long-term best interests of the U.S. economy and of the economy -- or I guess in the best interest of middle-class families all across the country.
Q -- talking to Representative Kaptur about that?
MR. EARNEST: Also I should have mentioned that Senator Brown is onboard Air Force One today, as is Congresswoman Marcia Fudge and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. I don't know if they’ll talk about this specific issue, but I know that the President will spend some time with them on the flight.
Q Josh, a couple more on Bibi. Republicans have put out the most celebratory statements on the results. Some like Ted Cruz have pointed out that in their view, Netanyahu seems to have won despite the efforts of the Obama administration -- the Obama political machine, I think he put it. I wonder if you care to respond to that. And also, could you address what this does to efforts to prevent passage of either new sanctions without a veto-proof majority, also the Corker bill to require congressional --
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate that this will have a substantial impact on our ongoing efforts to resolve diplomatically the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. And the reason for that is, obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has had ample opportunity to make very clear what his views are about that situation, so I'm not sure that the events over the last 24 hours or so has a material impact on that.
As it relates to some of the comments from Republicans, I'll just point out that the administration, in very conspicuous fashion, avoided leaving anybody with even the appearance of an administration effort to influence the outcome of the elections one way or the other. The President pointedly avoided commenting on the political back-and-forth that took place in the context of the election. The President avoided meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he traveled to the United States only because it was two or three weeks before the election.
So this administration has gone to great lengths to avoid weighing in on one side or the other. And the reason for that is we believe that the interest between our two countries is well served by preventing this relationship from being subjected to a lot of aggressive partisan rhetoric. And the President has certainly done his part to ensure that we’re protecting the U.S.-Israeli relationship from that kind of political back-and-forth. And, again, that is consistent with the tradition that other U.S. Presidents have prioritized, which is avoiding sort of the kind of partisanship that is part of the U.S. democratic process from infecting the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Q And then, I don’t know if you’ve had much time to talk to the President -- do you know if he was monitoring the election returns closely, or was he briefed on sort of the progress as the night went on?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that he was getting minute-by-minute updates, but I do know that he has had an opportunity to talk with his team about the results of the election.
Q Can I ask about Caroline Kennedy? There were reports that she is receiving death threats in Tokyo. Is the President aware of those threats? And do you see any relationship to the attack against Ambassador Lippert in South Korea? Is this kind of a copycat attempt?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of whether or not the President has been briefed on this particular matter. I do know that the State Department, and the administration more broadly, takes very seriously the safety and security of our diplomats around the world. That, of course, applies to the safety and security of Ambassador Kennedy.
I know that the State Department is regularly reviewing its security posture when it comes to the precautions that are taken to protect our diplomats. I know that, in this case, the State Department values the working relationship that they have with the Japanese government to ensure the safety of the U.S. diplomats, and we’re going to continue to rely on that relationship to keep our diplomats safe.
Q On the Secret Service -- the letter that the Secret Service got at the White House that they tested positive for cyanide -- do you have any update on that?
MR. EARNEST: I know that this is a letter that was received at a mail screening facility that is not on the White House grounds, so I can confirm that this letter that contained an unusual substance did not arrive at the White House. It’s my understanding that the letter and its contents are still being tested. But for additional questions about that I’d refer you to the Secret Service.
Q Do you have any information on the attack in Tunisia? Was it terrorist-related? Are there any Americans among the at least 19 people that were killed?
MR. EARNEST: The United States strongly condemns an act of violence like this. The situation on the ground remains fluid, but certainly U.S. officials have been in touch with Tunisian officials about this matter. But obviously it’s a terrible act of violence and our thoughts and prayers are with all of those who are affected by this act.
Q -- a U.S. drone was shot down over a part of Syria.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. I would refer you specifically to the Department of Defense to comment on them.
Q Do you have comment on Representative Schock’s resignation?
MR. EARENST: I don’t.
Q Can we bounce back to trade then? I know Senator Hatch called the President earlier this week and asked him to sort of iron out differences with Senator Wyden, who is obviously leading the Democrats’ charge on this. Hatch has said that Wyden is trying to insert provisions that would allow Congress to kind of come back and reevaluate Trade Promotion Authority. So I’m wondering, is there going to be sort of an outreach from the President to Senator Wyden? And is he the sort of stumbling block that you guys see in the legislative process for this right now?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think stumbling block is a fair way to describe his role in this process. What we know to be true about advancing Trade Promotion Authority is that it is going to require bipartisan support; that because there is opposition in both the Republican conference and the Democratic caucus -- or at least concerns -- that we’re going to need both Democrats and Republicans to be supportive of this legislation. And that’s why it’s important that Democrats and Republicans work together from the beginning to try to advance this process.
And so the administration has been involved in talking to interested members of Congress about trying to advance legislation and we’re going to continue to do that. That’s true of both Democrats and Republicans who are working on this issue because we know that we’re going to need support from both sides to get this across the finish line.
Q Where does the President come down on the provisions that Senator Wyden has been offering?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this will be something that Senator Hatch and Senator Wyden will discuss and that they're going to have to work out. And obviously, we are working to facilitate those discussions. We're offering some technical assistance as they carry out those discussions. But this is ultimately something that they're going to need to resolve. And we are strongly encouraging them to try to resolve those differences in a way that will allow for this draft at least to have bipartisan support out of the gate.
Q And one last congressional one. Senator Durbin, shortly before we took off, described -- was talking about the Loretta Lynch nomination, said Republicans were putting her on the back of the bus. Is that sort of language that the President thinks is appropriate to describe what’s going on with the AG nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn't see the entirety of Senator Durbin’s comments. But what I have said about this certainly applies to the views of everybody in the administration, which is that the delay of her confirmation is unconscionable. She is an independent career prosecutor with a sterling reputation. She’s somebody with a strong track record of prosecuting terrorists to protect the American people. She’s somebody with a track record of cracking down on Wall Street in a way that has been in the best interests of middle-class families across the country. There is no doubt about her qualifications for this job, and there is no one who has raised a legitimate concern about her ability to do this job.
And that's why we believe that this delay that has now stretched beyond the delay that the five previous Attorney General nominees were subjected to, combined, is one that is unacceptable. And she should be confirmed right away.
Q But following up on that, the chair of the CBC suggested yesterday that part of Republicans’ opposition to Lynch may be her race. I think that's probably what Durbin was getting at in his comments. Does the White House believe that race is playing a factor in this confirmation battle?
MR. EARNEST: The White House believes that there is no question about her qualifications for this job and she should be confirmed immediately.
Q I’ve got a follow-up question to some of the FOIA back-and-forth from yesterday’s briefing. We have a story on the wire today where -- based on an analysis of those numbers, and it shows that the administration has been censoring government files, denying access to them more than ever, taking longer to turn over files, cutting the number of employees that work on FOIA, and there’s -- I could go on with a little bit more of it. But the bottom-line question is, given all of that, how do you square that with what we hear all the time from you and others in the administration that this is the most transparent administration in history?
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned yesterday, the United States -- this administration has a lot to brag about when it come to our commitment to the FOIA process. For six consecutive years, the administration has responded to 91 percent of the FOIA requests in a way that provided some or all of the requested documentation.
What’s also important is that there are numerous examples of the administration releasing information that didn't require anybody to ask for it. That's true of our WAVES records. That's true of the salary and title of everybody who works at the White House. That's true of more than 130,000 sets of data that this administration proactively releases. This is true of the release of the underlying budget information in machine-readable format. So when it comes to our record on transparency, we’ve got a lot to be proud of. And, frankly, it sets a standard that future administrations will have to have to live up to.
Q Can I ask one more? You mentioned Katie. You might have seen in David’s paper that her husband has a new job working for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. You might have also seen last night that she kind of had a tweet storm of talking points on the Republican budget that were very closely aligned to things that we’ve been hearing out of the White House, things that you just said that the President would be highlighting today in Cleveland. So I’m wondering, as we're kind of moving into 2016, the level of coordination between the White House and what is emerging as the Clinton campaign on messaging, on kind of legislative priorities for the President.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’ll say a couple things. I know Brian Fallon pretty well and I think he’s a remarkably talented guy. And I don't know if the speculation about his next job has officially been confirmed, but let me say that he’s done an excellent job serving the American people at the Department of Justice and I’m sure he will do a terrific job at whatever he chooses to do next.
Secretary Clinton did an outstanding job as Secretary of State. If she makes a decision to run for President, I’m confident that the kinds of values that she has fought for throughout her career will be the kinds of values that she will give voice to in the context of her campaign. And if that's the case, if all of that comes about, I’m confident that there will be a lot of agreement between the priorities that she articulates and the kinds of priorities this President has been fighting for the last six years.
Q Are there any communications in Hillary’s staff and you guys on legislative issues and priorities of the President?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any substantive conversations about legislative strategy. But obviously you all, over the course of the last couple of weeks, have been asking me a lot of detailed questions about Secretary Clinton’s emails, and in the context of my best efforts to try to answer your questions, I have on a couple of occasions been in touch with representatives of Secretary Clinton’s team.
There’s one other thing that I anticipated might come up that I just did want to mention as it relates to the Israeli elections. Specifically, there has been a lot of coverage in the media about some of the rhetoric that emerged yesterday that was propagated by the Likud Party to encourage turnout of their supporters that sought to, frankly, marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens. The United States and this administration is deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.
It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together. We’ve talked a lot about how our shared values are an important part of what binds our two countries together, and rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive. And I can tell you that these are views that the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.
Q So will the President speak about that directly with Prime Minster Netanyahu when he speaks with him?
MR. EARNEST: At this point I don’t want to preview any details about the call. But I can tell you that these are -- that there is deep concern about this divisive rhetoric and we will share those deep concerns directly with the Israelis.
Q Did Secretary Kerry bring that up when he spoke with the Prime Minster?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a detailed readout of Secretary Kerry’s call.
Okay. All right. Thank you, guys. I appreciate it.
12:56 P.M. EDT