Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Joint Base Andrews, 5/28/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Joint Base Andrews
*Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
3:02 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome aboard Air Force One en route back to Washington, back from Miami where the President had a really worthwhile day touring the National Hurricane Center, discussing climate change, and then as you saw, spending a few minutes online, on Twitter, taking questions. The President very much enjoyed that activity this afternoon, and then stopping by the shrine on the way to the airport. But with that, I will take your questions.
Q On Cuba -- tomorrow is the day that Cuba is supposed to be released from the state sponsors of terrorism list. How close are the U.S. and Cuba to announcing that they’ll be opening -- or reopening embassies in each other’s countries?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, our two governments continue to discuss the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and opening embassies in Havana, including different matters that relate to how our embassies will operate.
As you know, there was a round of talks last week at the State Department, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson. The State Department released that those talks were productive. But we don’t have any definitive announcements for you at this time.
Q I know that one of the sticking points has been the issue of how freely U.S. diplomats can roam around Cuba and who they can talk to. Will the U.S. accept anything less than 100 percent for them to be able to go wherever they want and talk to whoever they want to?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, I'm not immersed in the details of those discussions, so I'm not going to be in a position to negotiate with you. Right now I will say that we feel like we’ve made significant progress in the last five months, and we’re much closer to reestablishing relations and reopening embassies. These are the first steps in the long process of normalizing the relationship that’s going to allow us to represent better U.S. interests and increased engagement with the Cuban people.
As you know, the President feels strongly that after 55 years of a policy that wasn’t working, reestablishing normal relations is not only in the interest of the American people, but also the Cuban people as well.
Q Eric, I want to follow up on the FIFA decision from yesterday; there’s been a little bit of time. Since that came out, does the President now have a reaction to it? And maybe more specifically, does he have -- or the White House have any feeling on whether or not the head of the organization should step down?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, I don’t have any more of a presidential reaction to readout to you, and the reason for that is pretty simple. This is an ongoing case, an ongoing investigation at Department of Justice. So we take great pains to not only make sure that we do not interfere with an ongoing investigation, or that our comments aren’t misinterpreted as appearing to interfere. So we’re not going to have much for you from the White House on this.
Q What about the President of Russia sort of suggesting that this prosecution of FIFA is somehow an attempt to take the World Cup away from Russia in 2018? Does the White House want to respond to that?
MR. SCHULTZ: I did see some press reports on that, Darlene. All I would say is that we have total and complete confidence in the prosecutors at the Department of Justice. Clearly, this was a complicated case that took quite a while to prepare, and so we’re going to leave it to them to prosecute it.
Q On the immigration decision, it looks like timing wise it's going to be the summer of next year before this situation is resolved. Does the President regret waiting so long to actually put in place the executive actions? You know he delayed the decision until after the elections, and now it looks like the situation is not going to be resolved until he’s almost out of office.
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think it’s important to take a few steps back on that. First, a lot of what the President has done on this front is already being implemented. So if you look at what the court ruled in that Fifth Circuit, we understand that the deferred action guidelines announced last November have been put on hold. But everyone should be aware that the existing 2012 policy that provides deferred action to certain DREAMers is still in place. Additionally, the administration’s enforcement priorities, including our focus on deporting felons and not families, and many other executive actions on immigration continue to move forward.
We do want the courts to move expeditiously through this. We feel strongly that we are on solid legal ground. We’ve explained that a multitude of times. And what guides our legal strategy is that -- unfortunately, the litigation has created a great deal of uncertainty for people who would have been able to seek relief under these new deferred action policies. And so with that in mind, we’re proceeding in a way that provides clarity for them, gives us the best chance of success, and puts on a sustainable path to implementing the President’s common-sense policies.
Q What do you say to people who would normally be applying for this program, but now they’re hearing from Republican candidates that as soon as they get into office they’re going to restrict this executive action, and right now it’s going to be in the courts until we’re really close to the next election? What do you say to people who are afraid of putting their names out there and potentially becoming targets for deportation?
MR. SCHULTZ: First, it would be a shame if an issue so critical like this became mired in a political dispute. But to your point, that is the reason why we want the courts to move expeditiously through this, and that’s why there’s an important hearing on July *10th 6th, where the government will make the case on the underlying merits.
Q On FIFA, I’m going to try again. Did the President follow up the investigation with the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch? Did he speak to her about it? Even if you cannot comment on the ongoing investigation, was he aware of what was going on?
MR. SCHULTZ: Laura, I don’t unfortunately have any conversations to read out to you between the President and the Attorney General on this. But suffice it to say he is aware of what was announced a few days ago.
Q And is he concerned about the allegations regarding Qatar?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I have not spoken with him about the details of the allegations contained in the suit that was brought.
Q Any updates on the Patriot Act and what’s going on with Congress? Any phone calls the President has been making while he’s been in Miami the last two days?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kimberly, as you know, this has been on the President’s mind not just in the past few days or weeks, or even months, but dating back to last January, where he made clear that he wanted to take into account the concerns of a lot of civil libertarians and privacy concerns, and make sure that our intelligence community had the tools they needed to investigate and prosecute terrorists, but while still protecting those concerns.
So that’s why his national security team worked closely on legislation called the USA Freedom Act, which passed the House of Representatives by 338 votes. That’s 338 Democrats and Republicans coming together to pass a significant and complicated piece of legislation. That’s the piece of legislation he feels should pass the Senate without delay.
Q Hey, Eric, without commenting on the investigation -- back to FIFA -- but does the President believe there’s a need for fresh faces at FIFA, or at least that the elections should be postponed for now given all the investigation going on?
MR. SCHULTZ: I have not spoken with him about the leadership at FIFA.
Q On NSA, just to go back, you said the President is engaged and is watching what’s happening, but what actually is he doing in terms of trying to get this passed before the deadline?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Toluse, one of the things he did was deploy our national security team to work with House and Senate Republican and Democratic leadership, and specifically the committee chairs tasked with this, to make sure they understood how valuable this program was to our intelligence community, and also how we could make changes and reforms to it to take into account the concerns raised by civil libertarians. So that’s number one.
Number two, I think everybody on the Hill is crystal clear on, A, how important this is to the intelligence community, and, B, what the deadline was. This wasn’t a deadline that should have snuck up on anyone. This is a deadline that’s been known for a very long time.
Q This morning, the President went to see the family of a journalist who was killed by ISIS. How was this meeting and how did it happen?
MR. SCHULTZ: Laura, thank you for the question. This was a private session at the hotel this morning before the President left for the National Hurricane Center. We put out a very brief readout, but I don’t have anything more to add.
Q Do you have any update on the actual review of the hostage policy? It’s been almost a year since that review was put underway, and there are still questions about what the U.S. government should be doing with hostages and their families.
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure. You are right that that review continues in earnest. We’ve been consulting with a number of folks, both sort of experts and scholars, national security experts and, yes, the families of previously held hostages.
I don’t have an update for you on that review. As you know, it’s principally focused on our communications with the families and how we can better streamline that process. I know that one of the ideas that’s been floated is what some are calling a fusion cell, to make sure that communications with the family is streamlined and they’re not getting any mixed messages from different entities within the federal government.
Q Since there were actually arguments in court today over the House lawsuit on the health care law, did you have anything to add on that? When we asked about it yesterday, there had been no arguments yet.
MR. SCHULTZ: I do.
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, yes, thank you for asking. Because this is the kind of litigation from House Republicans that does nothing to solve any of the problems facing the American people. I believe the last thing the American people want is to relive the political disputes over the Affordable Care Act that weren’t just from months -- weeks or months ago, but from literally years ago. And we are much more focused on actually implementing the law.
We’ve now made sure that over 16 million Americans are benefitting from the Affordable Care Act. We know that House Republicans have been engaged in a systematic repeal effort, voting to repeal the bill over 50 times, and, failing to do so, now resorting to the courts. We find that unfortunate and a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.
Q I have a question about Baghdad. There have been reports that Sunnis fleeing from Ramadi have been turned back or blocked as they’ve gone into Baghdad. Does the President have any concerns about that? You all have talked about the government of Iraq governing in a multi-sectarian way, but it seems like there’s some questions about that as Sunnis are being turned away as they head towards predominantly Shia Baghdad.
MR. SCHULTZ: Toluse, I hadn’t seen those reports. I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for any take on what’s going on on the ground in Baghdad.
As you point out, generally speaking, we are encouraged by the Iraqi military forces mobilizing at the order of the Prime Minister. This is, as they’ve said, an effort to push back to retake Ramadi and other parts of Anbar Province. They’re doing this in close coordination with the Popular Mobilization Forces and local the Sunni fighters. And we do believe it is critical that all of Iraqi security forces do so under the command and control of the Iraqi government.
Q All right. On a completely different topic -- Nebraska. The legislature there voted to end the death penalty, overriding the governor’s veto. Do you, does the President have a comment or reaction on that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Toluse, I saw those developments over the past few days. I know that it was unclear whether the Nebraska legislature had the votes to override the President’s veto; clearly, they did. I believe --
Q Governor’s veto.
MR. SCHULTZ: The governor’s veto, thank you. Clearly, they did. I don’t have any reaction from the White House for you. I know that in the past the President has expressed concern about the disparate application of the death penalty, but I don’t have any new position to read out on that right now.
Q Hillary Clinton was in Florida also today. Just wondering if the President was aware they were going to both be there around the same time. And have the two had any interactions lately?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t know of any new meetings they’ve had, and I don’t know if the President was aware of her visits today.
Great. Thank you, guys.
3:16 P.M. EDT