Gaggle with Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Charlotte, NC, 4/15/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Charlotte, North Carolina
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Welcome aboard Air Force One en route to Charlotte, where the President will continue to highlight his budget proposals to help middle-class Americans.
Today he’ll be meeting with working women to discuss efforts to help those trying to support a family. I think, specifically, you’ll hear the President talk about his proposals to make college tuition more affordable for middle-class families, to make child care more affordable for especially those with young ones, and to expand paid and medical and sick leave at the workplace.
I think you’ll note that this stands in contrast to Republicans in Congress who believe in a different approach -- offering huge tax giveaways to the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the middle class. And as millions of Americans finish filing their tax returns today, the choices between these competing priorities could not be any starker -- for example, the Republican push to eliminate estate taxes for the wealthiest households, a tax cut that benefits only 5,400 households across the country and, if you’re guessing, only 120 households in North Carolina.
I also want to note before we get started that today is the solemn second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, and just relay to you that this morning, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, herself a Boston native, today placed a wreath at the finish line in Boston to mark the occasion. As the city of Boston once again prepares for the Marathon next week, we continue to be inspired by that city and its people who, day in and day out, personify “Boston Strong.”
With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
Q I have a question on Iran. The bill that cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday was bipartisan -- the vote was 19 to 0. Would you say that’s an example of Washington working?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, I do think it is worth noting that we’ve long acknowledged that Congress should and will have a roll in this process when it comes to voting on the sanctions that Congress has put in place. And I think that if we take a step back to where Republicans started out in this debate, they started out wanting, A, an affirmative vote to be required to approve the deal, and B, specific designation of this agreement as a treaty, which would require a two-thirds affirmative majority vote for the deal to go into effect.
Instead, what passed the committee yesterday is very different. What passed is a vote to vote later on the sanctions opposed by Congress, but not on the decision to enter into the agreement. This compromise is subject to a veto, which can be upheld with 34 votes in the Senate or 146 votes in the House. In addition, there’s explicit language in the bill affirmatively stating that a congressional vote is not required to enter the agreement and that any vote taken would be on statutory sanctions relief.
Beyond that, the compromise that passed out of committee yesterday -- as you point out, 19 to 0 -- also reflected significant steps taken to address the concerns we raised both publicly and privately with those leaders of the legislation. For examples, removing the terrorism link and shortening the review period. Those are examples that Josh mentioned yesterday and prior to that. But congressional leaders on this legislation were well aware of our core priorities, and we thank them for the significant steps they took in order to address our concerns.
So, overall, Darlene, we feel as though this bill as it currently stands would codify the legitimate congressional oversight of the deal in a way that gives our negotiators the time and space they need to finalize this agreement by the end of June.
Q Eric, can I ask you about that, though? You say that some members of Congress wanted an up or down vote or make it a treaty, but the original bill that the President said he would veto, that he said was a violation of prerogative, did the exact same thing. The difference was the terrorism revision and the number of days. But the procedure was exactly the same. Congress got to step in and stop the President from making any waivers while they decided if they could up-or-down vote it within 60 days instead of 30 days. I mean, the process is the same, so why does the President find this less of a prerogative even though the details have changed a little bit?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’m not sure I would characterize it as the same. We communicated both publicly and privately our core concerns, and I would tell you that significant steps were taken to address those by those leading the charge on the legislation. As we talked about, the bill originally had a requirement to certify that Iran does not back terrorism against Americans. That is no longer in the bill. Again, originally, as you point out, the bill envisioned a long, 60-day review period that would delay the implementation of the bill while awaiting action from a Congress that we’re not sure particularly has a strong record of moving fast. That has been changed in the bill.
The bill also didn’t clarify, as originally announced that we would veto, a future vote would be focused solely on congressional sanctions. That’s now affirmatively stated in the bill. And we’ve also seen throughout this process, particularly the last few days and weeks, some attempts to add some extraneous materials, extraneous provisions to the bill. What passed out of committee yesterday includes none of those.
Q I understand that. I guess it's a better bill from your perspective than the original one, but when the President talked about it originally, he wasn’t saying that the details weren’t great; he was saying as a matter of principle it was wrong. So is the principle any different?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I would tell you -- it’s a good question -- the principle that the foreign policy of the United States of America is the purview of the President of the United States is absolutely still intact. A lot of the details, as we discussed, that we found the most objectionable in the bill are ones that have been since removed.
Lastly, we have said all along that Congress has a role to play on this issue, especially when it comes to these sanctions that Congress themselves voted to approve. So it would then follow that they now have their role to play in terms of lifting those sanctions.
I’d also tell you that when I tell you that Congress has a role to play, that’s not just lip service. Part and parcel of that is 130 different conversations between administration officials. That includes the President; that includes the Vice President. That includes the Cabinet and senior members of the White House; that includes classified briefings from both the Secretary of State and Secretary of Energy that were made available to any member of the House or the Senate.
Q We’ve also gone from a point where there was a bill where the President was adamant that he would veto it to now a version of a bill where he is willing to accept it. So, I mean, again, to go back to my original question, is that not how Washington is supposed to work -- I mean, two sides kind of coming together and working on differences? I mean, all of this is to avoid him -- a veto-override vote, right?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, the answer to your question is we do believe this is a compromise that reflected the concerns and the priorities that the administration had expressed, and clearly it represents the goals of the Republicans who were pursuing given that Chairman Corker supported it.
Q And just broadly, off what Darlene was raising, we’ve had this, we’ve had the Medicare doc fix. It doesn't -- for weeks it hasn’t looked like that there’s much that Congress and the White House could agree on. Do you see this as part of a larger trend? And of the remaining items on both institutions’ agenda, are there ones where you see other glimmers for hope when it comes to a compromise?
MR. SCHULTZ: So optimistic today. I love it. Normally I get back here and it’s very cynical. (Laughter.)
Q I’m not saying --
MR. SCHULTZ: Okay, fair enough. Look, what passed last night on the doc fix is something that, again, was reflected in the President’s budget, calling for a permanent end to this issue. And it’s also something that the President has spoken to many times, which is we have this manufactured crisis deadline, and this is something that I think has been going on for about 13 years now. So the fact that Republicans and Democrats were able to come together in a bipartisan way is a good thing. And I believe it heartens this President that we were able to do that. The President spoke about this a few weeks ago that he was very anxious to sign a bipartisan bill that did exactly what passed last night. And so that remains the case.
Q But that said, is there anything else you can point to where you think there is a significant opportunity for the two sides to come together on in the near future?
MR. SCHULTZ: They could confirm our nominee for the Attorney General of the United States.
Q So that's being held up right now by this human trafficking bill. John Cornyn offered today an amendment that he said would kind of satisfy some of the concerns that have been raised by Democrats. That was shot down by Harry Reid. I’m wondering where the White House stands on that and if you guys see an opportunity for compromise here again.
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, I still do not understand for the life of me how and why Republicans are so insistent on turning a bipartisan bill supporting victims of human trafficking into a debate over ways to further restrict a woman’s reproductive freedoms. So I’m going to let those in Congress figure that out.
I will also tell you that today marks a new milestone for the delay in the Attorney General of the United States. Loretta Lynch has now waited twice as long on the Senate floor for a vote than the seven most recent Attorney Generals combined. So if you take Eric Holder’s five days and Mike Mukasey’s two days, Alberto Gonzales’ eight days, John Ashcroft’s two days, Janet Reno’s single day, William Barr’s five days, and Richard Thornburg’s one day, that totals 24 days of waiting on the Senate floor. Today is 48 for Ms. Lynch.
Q And another piece of legislation that's been offered by Republicans, kind of on today’s topic, Deb Fischer has offered a bill -- it’s an equal pay law that would essentially prohibit companies from retaliating on an open discussion of salaries. It mirrors what the President did on an executive order, but Democrats have opposed it because they're in favor of their broader bilateral,l which has failed three or four times now. Does the White House support Senator Fischer’s bill?
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, that's a totally fair question. I just haven’t -- I haven’t had a chance to see it or review it. So I’m happy to have our leg folks take a look at it.
Q -- talk Cuba?
MR. SCHULTZ: You can talk Cuba.
Q All right. Obviously the state sponsor of terror thing came out yesterday. I’m wondering what the assurances that you guys got from the Castro regime were that they were no longer going to be a sponsor of terror, and if that at all included the return of some of the political refugees that have been convicted here in the United States.
MR. SCHULTZ: Let me just say that the Cuban government has provided us with assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future, consistent with the requirements of the relevant statutes. So I’m not going to be in a position to read out to you private conversations or correspondence we got from the Cuban government. But I can tell you that it’s consistent with what they’ve said publicly. They’ve renounced terrorism -- most recently with the Paris attack and Charlie Hebdo. So we --
Q They're continuing to harbor certainly people who have been considered terrorists by --
MR. SCHULTZ: I’m well aware of the issue of the fugitives. I would tell you that lots of countries have fugitives that we would like to see returned to the United States. There’s countries in Europe that have fugitives that we're interested in returning. We don't put them on the state sponsor list of terrorism. So I understand that there’s a law enforcement dialogue that's going to be opening up to pursue those issues. But that's going to be separate and apart from their designation on this list.
Q And is there a timeline now for the embassy opening -- since that seemed to be the major stumbling block there?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have a new timeline. I’d refer you to the State Department. But obviously that's something that is important to the President and to the Secretary of State.
Q Is there a timeline for when the Iran negotiations will start up again to get towards this June 30th deadline?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think soon.
Q Who’s on board? I assume you want the President --
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, I believe we have a couple members of Congress.
Q Do you have names of the members of Congress?
Q The Greek finance minister thinks he’s going to meet the President. Is he?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’ve seen some reports about that. I don't have any meetings on the President’s schedule that reflect that.
Q And is there any kind of response from the White House on the EU’s accusation of Google for violating antitrust in their searches which provided favorable results for their shopping?
MR. SCHULTZ: I saw some public reports on that, but we're not going to have any comment on any specific cases.
Q And back on Iran. They said pretty definitely today that the sanctions must be lifted for any kind of a deal. Does the White House see prospects of a resolution dimming? Iraq’s Prime Minister -- yes.
MR. SCHULTZ: Iranian? Or Iraq?
Q I’m sorry. Iranian, yes.
MR. SCHULTZ: Look, we have said that our position is that sanctions will be phased in. And obviously, we’ve also said that this is going to be the hard work of the negotiators from now until the end of June. So that's our position. But I’m not going to be negotiating that from here, as much fun as that would be.
Q I did have a question on Iraq, and that is where that came from. So Abadi said earlier today before he met with Ash Carter that Iraq is seeking a sustainable flow of weaponry from the U.S. and he thinks he could work out an arrangement on a deferred payment. Is that anything that the White House would consider? I know Josh said yesterday there were no specific requests. But that sounds pretty specific.
MR. SCHULTZ: Julia, I will reaffirm what my colleague said yesterday, which is in the meeting that the two leaders had there were no specific requests presented.
To your broader question, though, I would tell you that the United States is committed to promoting stability in Iraq and the region through an enduring security partnership that supports our goal to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL; enhances Iraqi defense capabilities; reestablishes the security of Iraq’s borders; modernizes its forces; and supports Iraq’s contribution to regional security. Teams of United States and coalition personnel are supporting efforts to advise and assist Iraqi security forces, including Peshmerga forces, and planning military operations, intelligence sharing, integrating air support and land operations; managing logistics, command and control of forces, and communications.
So as the President has said, for us this is a long-term proposition which we’ve shown a commitment to, but it’s important to recognize that the Iraqis are in the lead.
Q So is the President considering supplying weaponry in a deferred payment program with Iraq?
MR. SCHULTZ: If you will indulge me, I’m happy to go through the weaponry that we have thus far provided.
Since the fall of 2014, the United States has delivered essential equipment to Iraq as a critical component of the coalition fight against ISIL, including over 100 million rounds of ammunition, 62,000 small arms systems, 1,700 Hellfire missiles, and six M1-A1 tanks.
In addition, the United States provided to the government of Iraq 250 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles -- known as MRAPs -- 25 of which are subsequently provided to Kurdish -- were subsequently provided to Kurdish forces in Erbil. As of this week, an additional 50 MRAPs with mine rollers will be on their way to Iraq. The United States continues to work with the government of Iraq to deliver their F-16 fighter aircraft to Iraq. And there are currently 30 Iraqi air force pilots in training in the pipeline.
Q There were reports out of there yesterday about a drone strike hit and killed an AQAP leader who was previously a Gitmo detainee. I was wondering if you could confirm that in any way and if the U.S. was involved.
MR. SCHULTZ: I am not in a position, Justin, to comment on those reports. But as we have said, when it comes to our counterterrorism strategy, we continue to actively monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen and we have capabilities postured in the area to address them. As we’ve said, we will continue to take action to disrupt any imminent threat to the United States and our citizens.
Q And kind of lost in the mix yesterday was you guys released new retirement rules out of the Labor Department. Critics are saying that the rules are going to make it too expensive for big firms to offer individual retirement advice to small and medium-size investors. Is that a concern that you guys have going forward?
MR. SCHULTZ: I do appreciate that this didn’t get lost in your mix, Justin. I will say that, yes, yesterday the Department of Labor took new action to protect the retirement savings of hardworking Americans, building on the President’s strong record of protecting consumers. As you know, the President called in February for a proposal to update the rules to crack down on these conflicts of interest in retirement advice that are costing working and middle-class families billions of dollars every year.
Q Can you answer the question? (Laughter.)
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, well, look, the President believes that there are current loopholes that allow Wall Street brokers and other financial advisors to benefit from backdoor payments and hidden fees if they talk responsible Americans into buying bad retirement investments. These investments often have high costs and low returns, and we prefer instead to be making sure that these middle-class Americans are being offered quality investments.
Q And Hank Paulsen said this morning that it was a mistake for the U.S. not to join the AIIB -- that’s the Asian Investment Bank -- because essentially would cut us out and we wouldn’t be able to shape or argue for better standards. I know that we still don’t plan to participate, but is that a concern that we’re sort of ceding our role on the global economic stage by not participating in this?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t think that’s a concern that I’ve heard expressed from within the administration. As you know, we have not taken any steps to join the AIIB and I don’t know of any to do so in the future.
Q And last, on Cuba. I forgot, sorry. The State Department prepared that recommendation. Are we actually going to see that report, or is that something that you guys are not going to release? Or is the President’s statement all we’re going to see out of you guys?
MR. SCHULTZ: That’s a good question and I think for now we’ve released what we released yesterday. But I’m happy to see if there’s any other documentation forthcoming.
1:33 P.M. EDT