Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Charleston, WV, 10/21/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Charleston, West Virginia
1:25 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Welcome aboard Air Force One, everyone, en route to Charleston, West Virginia, where the President will host a community panel about local, state and federal efforts, as well as private sector initiatives to address the drug abuse epidemic. This event will be moderated by the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, and will include questions solicited from the Charleston Gazette-Mail readers, and read by their publisher.
I won’t spend too much time walking through the actions announced by the President. You all have the factsheets, and I know we did a conference call earlier, but I do want to just make clear that this is work that’s been built -- today’s announcement is the latest in steps that we’ve taken over the past six and a half years to stem the tide of drug addiction and overdose, starting with the release of the President’s national drug control strategy in 2010.
There’s also very important pieces of the Affordable Care Act that deal with substance abuse, and so I would urge you, when you’re joined by Republicans who want to roll back and repeal the Affordable Care Act, to ask what they would do to replace specifically the provisions that deal with a lot of the issues we’re going to be talking about today.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
Q Eric, can you go to the news of the day? Will you describe exactly when the President learned of the Vice President’s announcement, and in much detail as you can describe his reaction and whether or not he thought he made the right choice?
MR. SCHULTZ: Whether or not what?
Q He made the right choice.
MR. SCHULTZ: Kathleen, I’m not going to be in a position to unpack the private communications between the President and the Vice President, but I will say a couple of different things about the President’s reaction.
First, as you’ve heard him say I think most recently on 60 Minutes, the President believes Joe Biden has been one of the finest Vice Presidents this country has ever seen, and he is very glad to have him by his side for the next 15 months. As you heard the President say many times in the past year, we have a lot of work left to do, and that work is going to be made a lot easier having the Vice President as his partner.
As you know, the President and Vice President have a very close relationship. They have lunch every week. And over the last few months, the President has been there for his friend largely to serve as a sounding board. That’s not just as he copes with unspeakable loss, but also as he makes very personal decisions about his political future.
Q Will the President endorse someone in the Democratic primary? Does this change that calculus at all, now that the Vice President is out of the race?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t think it changes the calculus. I think the President said in the Rose Garden a few days ago that he will be casting a ballot in the Illinois primary, and it will be up to him whether he decides to share his vote with you or not.
Q Eric, to be clear, were you saying that the President advised the Vice President on this issue?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think the President served as a sounding board, much in the same way that the Vice President has served as a sounding board for the President as he grappled with issues over the past seven years.
Q Obama has talked about using drugs when he was in high school. Has that had any impact on how he’s come up with his policies?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think you’re going to hear from the President today share less about his experience but more listening to members of the audience, and at the panel talk, about what it’s like to deal with this issue in real time, right now, in one of the communities that’s being significantly impacted by it.
Q But the people who were there, a lot of them have been personally affected. Botticelli has been, a lot of the people in the room have been. So I’m wondering -- hasn’t that had an impact on how he sees drugs?
MR. SCHULTZ: I can tell you that Director Botticelli does have a very compelling personal story, and he has talked about that with the President. I wouldn’t be surprised if that comes up today.
Q What about drugs? Has he smoked pot at the White House?
MR. SCHULTZ: No.
Q Can we circle back to Joe Biden and the timing on this? Because I know the President and Vice President had lunch yesterday. Was the President aware that this announcement was going to come today? And obviously this happened in the Rose Garden, so there had to be some sort of planning involved from the White House perspective.
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure, Kristen. I’m not going to be able to be in a position to detail the private communications between the President and the Vice President. As you know, we’ve had a longstanding policy that that weekly lunch that the President and Vice President have been having regularly for the past seven years is sacrosanct, and we don’t read out those conversations.
I will say that the bottom line for the President was this was a personal decision that the Vice President had to make, and he had to make it on his own terms.
Q So is that something that the President learned about today, yesterday?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’m not going to read out the private communications the two of them have had.
Q Just to be clear, Eric, the Vice President wouldn’t have been allowed to announce that he was running in the Rose Garden of the White House, correct?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think that would have been a first if it were to happen.
Q Would that have been allowed? Would that have been ethical in the White House’s view?
MR. SCHULTZ: We have a lot of events in the Rose Garden, and I’ve never seen someone launch a presidential campaign there.
Q Is there a reason the President didn’t speak today, or say something about the Vice President?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think this was the Vice President’s day.
Q Eric, can you tell us the White House response to Bashar al-Assad’s trip to meet with President Putin, and the news that has been coming out of that about -- can you give us a response to that trip?
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure, Julia. We are aware of this travel. We view the red carpet welcome for Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, as at odds with the stated goal by the Russians for a political transition in Syria. But for us, this doesn’t change anything about the situation in Syria. We still believe that Russia propping up Assad after he’s turned his country into a civil war, after allowing extremists to flourish, and creating the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II is only exacerbated by welcoming President Assad to Moscow.
We urge Russia to use its influence with the Syrian regime to press for a political transition, because we know right now what they’re doing is counterproductive.
Q Has Russia hit a single ISIS target in Syria yet?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have an updated matrix for you on that. I would check with the Department of Defense. It is very clear that what they are hitting have generally not been ISIS targets. But you should refer -- you should check in with my colleagues at the Pentagon who can get you the latest assessment.
Q And also, on the fight against ISIS, the Canadian Prime Minister-elect yesterday in a press conference said that he told President Obama in their phone call that he’s going to withdraw air support for the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Does the White House have a further readout from that call?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kristen, as we did indicate in the readout we released yesterday of their brief telephone call last night, President Obama and Prime Minister-designate Trudeau committed in general terms to strengthening their countries’ joint efforts to combat terrorism. And that does include that threat posed by ISIL. We expect Canada will continue to be a valuable contributor to the 65-member global coalition whose mission is to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the leaders did not discuss the specifics of strategy and tactics in any detail whatsoever. Those conversations will likely take place in greater depth once the Prime Minister-designate takes office both at the head-of-state level and with our counterparts in the Canadian government.
Q It’s been more than five years since President Obama traveled to West Virginia, and the last time it was for the funeral of Senator Byrd. What does the President expect his response to be like in West Virginia? And is the reason why he stayed away because of his policies on coal and the response that he’s gotten from West Virginians on that?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t think so, Julia. This is a community -- I wouldn’t say this drug abuse epidemic is unique to this area, but it’s also an issue that has significantly impacted this area. So that’s why the President wanted to come to West Virginia.
As you know, the declining coal jobs in West Virginia began well before this President took office. Historically, and as economists will tell you, that job loss was the result of consolidation in the coal industry. But more important than the reasons behind that job loss, the President does care deeply about the impact of that on the community. And that’s why in his budget request this year to Congress he included a POWER Plus plan, which targets billions of dollars of strategic investments in economic development and resources for coal communities. And that’s why we started a POWER initiative earlier this year, using available funds, which actually just awarded investments last week to community-based partnership in this state that will sustain and create jobs in the industry sectors.
Q Senator McConnell, as well as Senator Manchin, was speaking to us just a minute ago. He mentioned legislative moves that could build upon the announcements that Obama is making today on heroin use. As you know, Senator McConnell from Kentucky, also Appalachia states, going through a lot of these same problems. Is there any coordination already underway between the White House and this bipartisan group to advance legislation that may address the heroin epidemic?
MR. SCHULTZ: Julia, a lot of -- unfortunately, a lot of what happens in Washington is done along party lines these days. This is one issue that crosses the aisle. And we are heartened by Republicans and Democrats coming together to work on this.
I know there’s a myriad of proposals in Congress that tackle this issue. This is definitely something that we are working hard on. We appreciate Senator Manchin’s leadership on the issue, and we’re going to continue to work closely with them. It is worth noting that the President’s budget included a request for $133 million in new investments to address this epidemic. This is money that would go towards programs that we know will make a difference, including state-based overdose prevention programs, medication-assisted treatment programs, and access to the overdose reversal drug for first responders.
Q And then just what she was saying about West Virginia -- like, people in West Virginia, they say they really hate Obama, probably because of the coal. So how is he prepared to talk to them? Has he thought about he’s going to approach this? It’s a pretty delicate --
MR. SCHULTZ: I think we’re looking forward to a thoughtful, careful, deliberative discussion today. I think the people you will see joining the President have been impacted firsthand by this problem. And I think that this epidemic is one that doesn’t just affect people as individuals, but it can affect them in the workplace, it can shatter families, communities, schools. So this is something that’s worthy of the President’s attention, and that’s why he’s making this trip.
Q Do you think he’s getting overshadowed by Biden’s announcement today?
MR. SCHULTZ: No.
Q Did President Obama and Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau discuss Keystone yesterday during their phone call?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have any details to read out of the call, other than what we shared earlier.
Q Now that the election is over, could we expect a wrap-up on Keystone sometime soon?
MR. SCHULTZ: That was like, what, question 13, 14? Madeleine, I’m happy to share with you that this is a process that’s under review at the State Department, so I’d refer you to that agency for where they are in their process. I would note that Secretary Kerry spoke, I believe yesterday morning, and said that both the timing of the Canadian election and the outcome would have no bearing on the State Department’s assessment.
Q Eric, would you offer us any preview of the meeting with Democrats tonight, what the President would like to accomplish, what the message might be?
MR. SCHULTZ: The President will be hosting a number of House and Senate Democrats who have played important roles on the issue of trade. These were individuals who helped pass the President’s Trade Promotion Authority earlier this year. So he’ll be discussing that issue amongst others at the White House.
Obviously, there’s a lot of interest in TPP. That text is not yet available, so it’s hard for us to say Congress should pass anything before that happens. But I’m sure those will be issues that are discussed tonight.
Q Will they be offered some sort of a preview of the text?
MR. SCHULTZ: No, I don’t think that. But I do think they’ll discuss a lot of the issues.
Q Will you release who’s coming exactly?
MR. SCHULTZ: I will see what I can do. Usually we leave that up to the members’ offices.
Q Has the White House reached out, or is planning to reach out to Paul Ryan? And anything they want to say about the race for Speaker, considering there’s a couple of big items, including TPP, but the debt ceiling coming up?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, Kristen. I don’t have any specific calls to read out to you. But as you know, Paul Ryan is a respected leader in the Republican caucus for several years now. He was obviously a member of the Republican ticket in 2012. He’s someone who the President believes has given considerable thought to the significant issues that must be worked through in Washington. On some, even, he’s worked with Democrats, like trade and on immigration. And there’s a lot of issues where we have vastly different approaches.
But I do think it’s worth observing that -- I know there’s been a lot of time and attention paid to uniting the fractious Republican conference in the House, and we hope that’s not a precursor for someone who wants to attempt to govern on a strictly partisan basis. There’s two reasons for that. One, we have a divided government in Washington right now, so success only happens when Democrats and Republicans work together. And second, we have seen the House Republican leadership try and only work amongst themselves, and we’ve seen that not end well. So we hope that whoever is the next Speaker assumes that role with a willingness to work with Democrats, and not just those in Congress, but also in the administration as well.
Q Eric, I know you don’t want to go too much into detail on conversations between the President and the Vice President, but could you just give us a sense of why this timeframe? And we’ve been hearing for months now what he’s considering, and the President has been involved in that. Can you give us a sense of what took so long for the Vice President to decide where he was at in this conversation? And how long was the President involved in those deliberations?
MR. SCHULTZ: Julia, for us it’s been a bedrock principle that -- and this comes from the President’s directive, which is the Vice President is going to make this decision on his own terms, giving him the time and space he needed by which to do so. I think -- although you all were on the plane, but hopefully you were able to catch it on television. In the Vice President’s remarks, he spoke very compellingly about his process and how he decided to come to this conclusion. But if you have questions about his timing or the sequencing of that decision, you should probably check with the Vice President’s office.
Q And the President and Vice President began these conversations when? July, June, this spring? When did the Vice President start seeking the President’s advice on this issue?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’m not going to be in a position to read out those private conversations, but if you have questions about when the Vice President commenced this process, you should probably check in with my colleagues in his office.
Q One more, I’m sorry. On the “clock kid,” so if you’ve seen, he is leaving the country and returning to the Middle East, to Qatar, presumably because he feels he has more opportunity there. Does the President know this? Does he have any response? Does the White House regret inviting him?
MR. SCHULTZ: No, we don’t. I haven't spoken to the President about this, but I did see those reports. I think Ahmed enjoyed his time at the White House in the Rose Garden for Astronomy Night. He was one of about 300 folks that we had in the Rose Garden. That included other students, scientists, astronomers, parents, educators. And I do know that they got to share a few brief words as the President worked the rope line at the conclusion of the event.
Q Anything else we should know about West Virginia? We’re going to go to the school. Will we see anything else? Or anything else we should keep in mind?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think you are in store for a thoughtful --
Q A coal mine? Are we going to go to a coal mine?
MR. SCHULTZ: No. We will just be at that school this afternoon.
1:43 P.M. EDT