Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Miami, FL | 4/22/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Miami, Florida
11:48 A.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Welcome aboard Air Force One, everyone. And Happy Earth Day. We are en route to the Florida Everglades, where rising seas and other climate change impacts are endangering one of the nation’s most iconic landscapes, and increasing risk to the state’s $82 billion tourism industry.
Following the President’s tour this afternoon, and during his remarks, the President will highlight the value of vulnerable iconic places like the Everglades, and announce new steps to protect people, places and local economies from climate change.
A few specifics that I would draw your attention to are the National Park Service released a new report today that shows that for every one dollar invested by American taxpayers in the National Park Service, it returns ten to the U.S. economy. The National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey released a new report showing that for the first time the value of national parks restoring carbon and mitigation climate change, the Service valued it at more than $580 million each year. And the National Park Service announced $26 million for restoration projects at national parks around the country. That actually includes $16 million from non-governmental partners.
I’d also tell you that it’s unfortunate that House Republicans today are observing Earth Day a little bit differently. They have a bill that slashes $1 billion for wind power, solar power and electric vehicles. Yesterday, our Budget Director, Shaun Donovan, sent a letter to the House Appropriations chair on this bill detailing our concerns.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
Q Do you have any update on whether Governor Scott plans to greet the President on the tarmac, or see him during the trip?
MR. SCHULTZ: Josh, I don’t have any scheduling updates for the Governor of Florida, but I can confirm for you that he was invited to meet us upon arrival in Miami.
Q Can I ask you about Saudi Arabia? You guys congratulated the Saudis this morning for completing their mission -- their military mission over Yemen, but it seems like airstrikes are continuing. So what is the White House’s understanding of where that mission stands?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, we believe and we noted that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners made clear in their announcement yesterday that as part of Operation Renewed Hope they might continue limited operations to counter certain ongoing Houthi military actions in Yemen.
But in terms of our view is -- our view is we must look forward now to a shift from military operations to the rapid, unconditional resumption of all-party negotiations that allow Yemen to resume an inclusive, political transition process. There’s going to be no military solution to this problem; only one that’s solved at the diplomatic table.
Q Great. But does the fact that these airstrikes are continuing hamper the work toward a negotiated settlement that you guys are looking for? I mean, you said that there’s no military solution, so does the fact they’re continuing to bomb sites in Yemen sort of forestall any work towards that settlement that you want to see?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, our view on that Saudi-led military campaign hasn’t changed. We support their capabilities in defending Saudi Arabia’s southern border and destroying heavy weaponry and missiles, which pose a threat to Saudi Arabia. And also, quite frankly, giving notice to the Houthis and their allies that their destabilizing military actions pose an unacceptable threat not only to Yemen but to the region, and should cease.
So given yesterday’s announcement, we do look forward to a shift from military operations to this resumption of all-party negotiations that allow Yemen to resume an inclusive political transition.
Q What role did the U.S. play specifically in bringing about an end to this military phase of the Saudi operations?
MR. SCHULTZ: Roberta, I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you. As you know, this was a military operation led by the Saudis. But with our support, we had set up a Joint Planning Cell to help with communications and intelligence and logistical support. And now that the Saudis have signaled that they will be transitioning their operation, we do believe that this is an opportunity for all parties to come together and resolve this at the negotiating table.
Q How did the U.S. government find out that the shift was taking place? What kind of notification were you given, and what kind of discussions has the President had with some of his counterparts?
MR. SCHULTZ: Roberta, I don’t have specific conversations to read out to you, but I can say to you that the President and his team, both senior members of the White House and the relevant agencies at the Cabinet level have been in touch with their counterparts in the region.
Q Going back to Rick Scott for a moment -- Josh took a couple of shots at him yesterday, saying that climate change was banned in the Scott administration as a term. Scott’s administration says that’s not true and that you guys are politicizing things with them. What do you guys say to that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, if it’s not true, we look forward to them contributing to the discussion on one of the greatest threats that we face. If the Scott administration is now joining the rest of us in confirming the impacts of climate change on both the environment, on the energy sectors and also, as I pointed out, in terms of the economy, we welcome that change of position on the governor’s part.
Q I’ll give you a scheduling update about Governor Scott. He’s not going to be there to greet the President. Is that disappointing to you guys that he won’t be there?
MR. SCHULTZ: No, I don’t think so. As custom, we invited the governor from the states in which we travel to meet the President. Sometimes their schedule allows them to do so, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Q I have two trade questions. The first one is, last night on TV the President made the case that these trade deals are good for the environment -- environmentally sound and strong. Yet today, right before we took off, under an Earth Day hashtag basically every environmental group came out opposing fast-track that the White House wants.
My question is, what are you doing to convince those groups that the President is right about what he says? And why hasn’t it worked so far?
MR. SCHULTZ: Evan, it’s a good question. As the President has made clear, he will be the first one to acknowledge that past trade agreements have not lived up to the hype; that includes agreements like NAFTA. But that is the reason the President has been dogged in his determination to make sure that any deal that is reached includes the strongest not only environmental protections, but labor protections and human rights protections we’ve ever seen.
So I take your point that this has been a difficult political issue for Democrats and sort of traditional allies in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to shy away from this conversation. And to answer your question more pointedly, on Thursday the President is going to continue making these points at his appearance in front of Organizing for Action, the grassroots summit in Washington, D.C. He’s going to speak to this next generation of progressive organizers from across the country and continue to make the case for Trade Promotion Authority that paves the way for new, high-standard trade agreements that put America’s workers first and helps American businesses expand.
Q Okay. And my second question is, yesterday -- or I guess over the past couple days, Secretary Clinton has been talking a little about trade. And she’s had some statements about being worried about how it protects workers and things like that, that have been characterized by some people as saying that they’re distancing themselves from you. To my read, they sound a lot like what you guys say. So my question is, do you consider Hillary Clinton an ally on this trade stuff?
MR. SCHULTZ: Evan, I'm going to side with you on this. I believe that the labor, environmental and human rights concerns that many Democrats have voiced, the President takes to heart. And he would not sign a deal unless those protections are in place.
If you look at the TPA agreement that was introduced in a bipartisan way in the Senate, we believe that’s the most progressive in history and that’s why the President is encouraged by it.
Q So Secretary Clinton and President Obama are on the same page with trade?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, look, I believe that if you look at the points that are being raised in terms of human rights, environmental protections, labor protections, that those are important priorities of this President. So I haven’t seen anything to suggest any distance.
Q Can I ask about -- real quick -- about funding? So as you’ve pointed out, Republicans are cutting funding for climate change activities. How important is it that the administration get the money it needs -- and as proposed -- for climate change activities this year?
MR. SCHULTZ: It’s critically important, Cheryl. As we both have mentioned now, our Budget Director, Shaun Donovan, sent letters to the Hill earlier this week voicing our concerns about slashing the $1 billion that would go for wind power, solar power, and electric vehicles.
The energy and water development bill also includes a wide range of highly problematic ideological riders, including some that threaten to undermine our ability to protect the clean water relied on by American families and businesses, and essential to our stewardship of the environment.
Q Eric, does the President feel that Michele Leonhart’s decision to step aside at the DEA is an appropriate one? And what is he looking for in a new head of the DEA?
MR. SCHULTZ: Josh, I haven’t had a direct conversation with the President about this. I saw that Director Leonhart tendered her resignation yesterday. She is obviously someone who served in the federal government for many, many years; was first appointed by President Bush, then reappointed by President Obama. So we absolutely appreciate her service to our country and we wish her the best.
I will say that as Josh and others have made clear, we voiced our concerns about the content of that pretty detailed inspector general report a few weeks ago. So the President, as a general matter, expects 100 percent professionalism from the entire federal workforce, and specifically law enforcement. So we’re troubled by the contents of that report that is both a subject of congressional oversight right now.
Q And as you’ll recall, the President, in 2008 when he was running, said that he would call what happened in Armenia a genocide. He said quote, “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.” So why has the President backtracked from that commitment to call it a genocide?
MR. SCHULTZ: Josh, the President and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as a historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
Q In a genocide?
MR. SCHULTZ: As we have said in previous years, a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all of our interests, including Turkey’s, Armenia’s and America’s. Now we do recognize the importance of historical remembrance, and for that reason we announced yesterday that a presidential delegation led by Treasury Secretary Lew will travel to Armenia to mark the terrible events that began in 1915, and stand in solidarity with the Armenian people.
Q What kind of role is pressure from Turkey playing in your decision not to use the word “genocide” in this instance?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I do think that Turkey does play an important role in frankly acknowledging the facts of 1915, which we will continue to encourage them to do, and in fostering a constructive relationship with modern day Armenia.
Turkey also does -- as I think you’re alluding to, Josh -- play a critical role as we confront the horrific atrocities that occur today in both Iraq and Syria. So we’re going to be having specific conversations about how we can strengthen that partnership.
Q Do you believe that the relationship with Turkey is so fragile that just to use the word “genocide” would create such problems for all the things you’ve just talked about?
MR. SCHULTZ: Isaac, I know there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year, and we understand their perspective even as we believe that the approach we’ve taken in previous years remains the right one, both for acknowledging the past and for our ability to work with these regional partners in the present.
Q I think people understand that there’s like a diplomatic back-and-forth with Turkey that prevents the U.S. from using the word “genocide.” But does the President personally believe that what happened was still a genocide, the way he expressed in 2008?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I think we can expect the President to issue a statement that marks the historical significance of this centennial, and in past years mourned the senseless loss of 1.5 million Armenian lives in these atrocities.
We will use this occasion to call attention to the horrors of 1955 -- 1915, sorry -- to urge the full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts that we believe is in the interest of all parties, and generate momentum for efforts to prevent atrocities in the here and now.
Q Can I go back to the DEA thing really quick?
MR. SCHULTZ: You can.
Q Do you see a chance here for any kind of drug policy debate? I mean, I know that the woman, she had to resign under circumstances that are not ideal, and there’s going to be discussion about how to run the agency itself. But I know the President has spoken a bit about having a different approach to some drug crime, different approach to some non-violent drug crime. And I wonder if, when searching for a new person to run the DEA, those kind of views would be important in a new DEA head.
MR. SCHULTZ: I think those views are important in the head of the Attorney General, who’s been waiting longer than it took to write the Constitution to be confirmed by the United States Senate for her role. So we’re going to go ahead and wait for her to be confirmed, which hopefully will happen soon. And then I think the policy conversations you’re talking about would probably be more at that level.
Q Are you confident at this point that she will be confirmed very shortly?
MR. SCHULTZ: Isaac, one of the great hazards of this job is forecasting what Congress will do, so I’m not going to take the bait on that today. But what we are confident is that she deserves a vote very quickly.
Q And is the President looking forward to signing the human trafficking bill in its current -- what seems to be its current form?
MR. SCHULTZ: Isaac, I did see that that bill has engendered broad bipartisan support, including by some of the most vocal supporters of women’s reproductive health. So that seems to be in line with legislation that he’s supported in the past.
Q So the President will sign it?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I haven’t had a chance to review the text, but that is something that the President has supported in the past.
Q I want to ask you about trade. Yesterday, on the MSNBC interview, the President singled out folks like Elizabeth Warren and said that she was wrong, and said that other Democrats have been -- are not averse to making political arguments that play to the fears of voters. That’s usually an argument he makes about Republicans. Is the President saying that Democrats are playing politics with the trade issue?
MR. SCHULTZ: Toluse, I think there’s no question that this is a difficult issue for Democrats, and the President will be the first one to admit that. But if you listen to the President, I think it’s pretty clear that, as he says, we have two choices: We can either deny that globalization is at our door, and we can put our head in the sand; or we can make sure that the global marketplace has a level playing field. Because the President believes that given a level playing field, our workforce can beat out anyone.
So either we’re going to have the opportunity for the Chinese to set the ground rules, or we can play a leadership role in that. And that’s what the President hopes to do.
Q And does he believe that the folks who disagree with him in his own party, does he believe that they’re agreeing -- they’re disagreeing with him based on their policy position, or because they’re trying to get political points out of it?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think we will leave it up to the critics of the plan -- of any potential agreement to speak for themselves. The President believes that 95 percent of the global marketplace for American goods and services are outside our borders. So to not take advantage of that and to not capitalize on that would be a mistake.
Q On this ongoing sort of protest situation in Baltimore, Jen Psaki said this morning on CNN that there was work going on at the White House behind the scenes on that and other incidents of police brutality or prison guard brutality. Can you describe that work?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have a detailed readout of our behind-the-scenes work on this, but I can tell you that this is an issue the President has spoken about frequently. And as you know, his 21st century task force -- well, his Task Force on 21st Century Policing has taken a real active role in diving into a lot of these issues. Those recommendations have been issued and have been -- they’re something we are working through. But I don’t have an update on that for you.
Q Can I ask you one more on Yemen? As part of the diplomatic process moving forward, does the U.S. want to see Hadi restored to power in Yemen, or is it time for a change?
MR. SCHULTZ: We believe that all parties need to come together on a diplomatic solution.
Q Eric, Europe seems to be really buckling under the pressure of this influx of migrants from Africa. I know we’ve talked in the past about U.S. counterterrorism and security operations to try and stem the flow, but is the White House doing anything to help Europe deal with this humanitarian situation that’s developed there?
MR. SCHULTZ: Josh, the images of the stories and the reports that you’re talking about are heartbreaking, and you can’t look at those without evoking a very emotional response. So we don’t take that lightly.
We are in touch with our European partners on this issue. I believe Prime Minister Renzi has spoken on this very recently. And I know that they are working together on this the best they can.
Q The President also said yesterday in the interview on MSNBC that weaknesses in Europe are to blame for slower growth in the second quarter, and he’s referred to Europe a number of times in recent stump speeches about the economy and the challenges that we face. Does he believe that that’s one of the main problems facing the U.S. economy? And is he doing anything specifically about that?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think that, Toluse, under this President we’ve seen unprecedented job growth. We’ve seen an economy recovery that has been strong and vibrant. We’ve seen the longest stretch of private sector job creation in our nation’s history.
But the President absolutely believes there’s more work to be done and that there are certain economic headwinds that we have to work through. So that’s not small in the President’s mind, and that’s why he believe there’s more things we ought to be doing for the next couple years. That includes making sure that we walk away from the sequester that has put real tightening, real unnecessary stranglehold on how we budget in this country. That includes more investments for infrastructure. And what it does not include is the Republican path here, which they want to cut taxes for the wealthy of the wealthy.
Q On the Patriot Act, Senator McConnell introduced a measure last night that would renew parts of the Patriot Act that are expiring in June, including the section 215 that deals with surveillance. Do you have an update on the White House’s thinking on that? Do you support a wholescale renewal of that particular portion, or are you more inclined to support something with reforms included in it?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’ll admit I did not see that report, and we’re happy to take a look at that legislation. So I don’t really have an update for you on our position. I do think it’s important to note that this is going to be something that requires bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans are going to have to work together on this. I believe there’s a deadline in May, so we look forward to some earnest legislating.
Q It’s Earth Day, so I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Keystone pipeline. Do you have any updates for us on that process? Is the President going to speak about it today in his speech?
MR. SCHULTZ: I have no update for you on that. As you know, this a process that’s housed at the State Department. I would not expect any significant news on that today in the President’s remarks.
Q Would you expect news on that before -- sort of as we’re gearing up for the 2016 campaign? I think Secretary Clinton was asked in a questionnaire about the Keystone pipeline, and she refused to answer that question and answered other Earth Day questions. Is this something that you hope will be solved before the 2016 campaign gears up?
MR. SCHULTZ: Toluse, I have no update on this process. As you know, it’s a process that far predates this administration that is housed at the State Department. And when that is terminated, it will come to the White House for a final determination.
Q But before the sun explodes probably. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHULTZ: Anything else?
Q I got one more question. Yesterday, Josh was asked a couple of times about discrepancies over Iran’s breakout timeline. Do you have an update on that? He said he’d look into it.
MR. SCHULTZ: I do. I think that report confused two different timelines, which I want to distill for you right now. There are separate assessments for the amount of time it would take for Iran to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon versus how long it would take Iran to weaponize that material -- that is, to make one nuclear weapon. So just because you have enough fissile material for one weapon does not mean you have an actual weapon.
So I believe the remarks in question from a 2013 interview with the Israeli television channel, Channel Two, the President spoke about the timeline for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and he made clear that that assessment is -- that it would take Iran more than a year. The assessment for how long it would take Iran to acquire enough fissile material is approximately two to three months.
Q Thanks, Eric.
MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you.
12:12 P.M. EDT