Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Good afternoon. I have one piece of business to do up at the top, and then happy to take your questions.
I'd like to command to your attention that a short while ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a strong bipartisan basis, voted for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. This is a bill that would reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, reward prisoners with shorter sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense, and reinvest some of the savings to fund public safety programming, including additional resources for state and local law enforcement.
We do see similar legislative proposals in the House that have bipartisan support, and we urge Congress to continue to work together cooperatively to get a bill to the President’s desk before the end of the year. The President has called for criminal justice reform since before he took office, and we are pleased that so many different leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, are coming together to answer the President’s call.
Some of you joined us yesterday in Charleston, West Virginia, where he spoke about public and private efforts to address the prescription drug and heroin abuse epidemic. Later this afternoon, President Obama will be participating in a discussion with law enforcement leaders focused on how to make America’s law enforcement and correctional practices more just and more effective. In addition, on Tuesday of next week, the President will address the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and speak directly to thousands in law enforcement. These events are part of the President’s effort to reach many Americans who have a stake in reforming or criminal justice system, including the brave men and women in uniform from whom we ask so much to keep our communities safe.
With that, Kevin, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q Thank you. Is the President tuning into the Benghazi hearing today? And what does he make of the star witness’s performance so far? And what does the White House make of the tone and substance of the questions so far?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I don't believe that this hearing was on the President’s morning schedule to watch. I will say, I was -- I know we're only in about hour two or three, and if we take Republicans at their word, it's going to go on much longer. I was only able to catch a few of the exchanges since I was studying for this auspicious occasion. (Laughter.)
I will tell you that what struck me was that I was reminded of why President Obama chose Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State in the first place. This is someone who clearly cares deeply about the issues, someone who has worked tirelessly to strengthen our relationships with our partners around the world, someone who cares deeply about our men and women who serve overseas in stations across the globe, and someone who, when something goes wrong, takes responsibility and owns up to that mistake, and is happy to answer questions on however many occasions because she is being held accountable.
Q Republicans are characterizing today’s coming veto of the defense authorization bill as taking the military hostage until Congress increases spending on other nondefense priorities of the President. How would you respond to such an assessment?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, there’s no responsibility the President takes more seriously than keeping the American people safe. And as Commander-in-Chief, he strives to do what is necessary to defend our nation, provide for the best military the world has ever known. But this President is not going to accept a defense authorization bill that fails to fix the harmful spending cuts known as sequestration and shortchanges our troops. Even as Secretary Carter says, this bill fails to provide a stable, multiyear budget in which defense planning is based. I believe the Defense Secretary has called this bill managerially unsound and unfairly dispiriting to our force.
So the President believes that the men and women who serve in our armed forces deserve adequate and responsible funding -- not through a gimmick or not through a slush fund, but one that could withstand scrutiny.
Q And following up on a New York Times report today, what is the sale of the new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan intended to accomplish? And is the U.S. in talks to limit Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I did see that report in today’s New York Times. I believe the session in the Oval Office had just wrapped up when I was coming out here, so I’m not going to be able to detail a lot of those discussions. I think we’ll have a further readout for you shortly. I can tell you that the President did discuss with the Prime Minister how the United States and Pakistan can best continue their robust counterterrorism cooperation.
But in terms of any defense deals like those that might have been referenced in The New York Times, I don’t believe any announcement like that is coming today. But you should stay in touch with our friends at the Defense Department.
Q Can you explain at a practical level what happens when the President vetoes the bill? Do people stop getting paid? Or what happens after that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think at a practical level, we’ll gather all of you in a room adjacent here and you’ll be brought in, and the President will veto this bill because he feels that the men and women who serve in our armed forces deserve legitimate, responsible funding -- not something that shortchanges their service, and not something that Republicans themselves have called a slush fund.
Q But the people in the general public are wondering what this really means, what this veto really means. Can you explain -- do people stop getting paid? Or what actually happens?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think what’s going to happen is that House and Senate leaders are going to have to come together and figure out a way to responsibly fund the government and fund the defense sectors of our government. Hopefully they will also heed some of their own positions, which are shared by this President, of closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay -- that this is a commitment the President has made, and a pledge the President has taken, which is purportedly shared by many on Capitol Hill. But unfortunately, the provisions included in this bill don’t help facilitate that and, to the contrary, make it even harder.
Q How confident is the White House that the veto will be sustained?
MR. SCHULTZ: Very.
Q 100 percent? Like rock-solid confident?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes.
Q Okay. On the hostage rescue mission, briefly, I’m wondering whether you have any other details on what actually happened there, and whether it was common that this kind of operation goes on, and whether the incident that resulted in an American serviceperson being killed, will that change the way these operations are done in the future. Will there be consequences for that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Roberta, let me just say that on behalf of all the men and women here at the White House, including the President, we offer our sincerest condolences to the family of the U.S. servicemember who was killed in this operation. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family this afternoon.
As you noted, earlier today in Iraq, at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government, U.S. Special Operations forces supported an Iraqi Peshmerga operation to rescue hostages at an ISIL prison. That operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution. It was authorized consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces.
The U.S. -- and I believe the Defense Department can get into greater detail on this -- provided helicopter lift and accompanied Iraqi Peshmerga forces to the compound. Approximately 70 hostages were rescued, including more than 20 members of the Iraqi Security Forces. Five ISIL terrorists were detained by the Iraqis. And a number of ISIL terrorists were killed as well. In addition, as I believe the Defense Department has relayed, important intelligence was retrieved on ISIL in the midst of this operation.
I understand that after every operation like this, the Defense Department will do a look-back, but I don’t have anything beyond that to read out.
Q Thanks. Did the President himself sign off on this rescue attempt? And when did that happen?
MR. SCHULTZ: Michelle, I believe the Defense Department has said that the Secretary of Defense authorized this mission consistent with the appropriate legal authorities under Operation Inherent Resolve. Under that architecture is where the Secretary of Defense would authorize operations of this type.
Q Okay. So when does the President find out about it? So he didn't have to himself sign off on it, but what is his involvement exactly? And what’s the timeline of him knowing about it, or him at least giving some kind of approval?
MR. SCHULTZ: I’m not going to be in a position to read out sort of internal deliberations, but I can tell the President receives a Presidential Daily Briefing every morning where a lot of these issues are discussed. And I can also tell you that a lot of that discussion in the Presidential Daily Briefing is dedicated to our efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL. But that's not the only session where the President is briefed on these operations. He has meetings fairly regularly with his national security team.
Q Okay. What is -- we're hearing that the hostages themselves were not Kurdish. Can you shed any light on who these people were, where they came from, anything about their time in captivity? I don't know if there’s a timeframe, or -- basically whatever you can give us on that. And does the President approve of the way this was carried out based on what we know now?
MR. SCHULTZ: Michelle, I’m going to have to refer you to my colleagues at the Defense Department who I believe are still assessing the results of the operation. So they're going to be in the best position to give you those sorts of details. As you I think noted, this happened earlier today, so we're still in just a few hours since.
The President, as you know, has been clear that the men and women who serve in uniform have a narrow mission set in that part of the world, and that includes train, advise, and equip; that includes helping our Iraqi partners on the ground. But there’s still, nevertheless, inherent risk. And, unfortunately, last night we saw a very tragic example of how that still exists.
Q Okay. And on this veto today, why is the President doing it in this way, publicly? And some are -- some Republicans are saying that this is bragging. So can you give me a sense of why -- why the timing of it? It is happening on the same day that Secretary Clinton is testifying. And what do you think about it being called kind of boastfully vetoing this bill?
MR. SCHULTZ: I wouldn’t call it that. I believe this was a bill that passed Congress quite a few days ago. So the question on timing might be one better for Hill Republicans who waited quite a long time to send it over to us. So I don't have anything to unpack on the timing.
I will say the President does feel strongly about this, and that's why he wanted to make sure that everyone understood that this congressional Republican approach -- i.e. circumventing budget caps with gimmicks instead of fixing sequestration -- is just not a responsible way of budgeting. And that's why the President is going to veto it.
This is a bill that does nothing to assist in alleviating unacceptable funding cuts for national security activities at nondefense agencies like State, Homeland Security, and the Veterans Affairs. And our bottom line is this undermines national security by ignoring cuts to research, education, and other pro-growth investments.
Q Again -- sorry -- if I could just do one more, because today, obviously, Benghazi Committee is happening. The point was made that for this investigation there is substantially more information that is available and it can be looked at that wasn’t really able to be examined before. So the administration has made it very clear how politically motivated you see this being. But don't you see some value in at least examining this new information, including the emails? Isn’t there some sense of finality maybe in this look at things?
MR. SCHULTZ: I hope there’s some finality because this will be the eighth committee that's looked at this.
Q But you acknowledge that there is new information now to be looked at. And we just --
MR. SCHULTZ: Here’s what I acknowledge --
Q We just heard some coming out.
MR. SCHULTZ: If we go back to May of 2014, which is when House Republicans decided to stand up this committee, that -- I happened to take a look -- was 532 days ago. That is a longer timespan that the investigations of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, Iran Contra and Hurricane Katrina; $4.7 million has been spent on this investigation. That number does not include the previous seven House and Senate committees that have looked at this. That number doesn't also include the Accountability Review Board, which has looked at this. That number also does not include the amount of executive branch expenses that have gone into responding to these requests.
So our administration takes seriously the responsibility to cooperate with legitimate oversight, and even as Republicans concede this is a political exercise, you see Secretary Clinton and you see members of our administration cooperating.
Q Following on that, we have a poll that shows that more than half of Americans still aren't satisfied with Secretary Clinton’s answers on Benghazi. Does the President think she owes the American public more answers, or has there been some kind of a failure to communicate here?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I imagine some of those people are tuning in today, and what I think we've seen thus far is a Secretary of State who led a department with a very strong record of accomplishment, someone who cares deeply about her job and her responsibilities, and also someone who cares deeply about the men and women who serve overseas through different auspices of the State Department. I think if you look at her opening statement today, you saw someone who genuinely cares and is devoted to the safety and security of our men and women who serve in diplomatic posts. I'm not sure you heard that same level of commitment from Republicans who have been focused on every issue but.
Q And did the President speak at all with Secretary Clinton ahead of her testimony today?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't believe so.
Q Give us, if you can, a little bit of the President’s reaction to the Vice President’s announcement yesterday, and when he first became aware of it, when he decided to provide the Rose Garden for the Vice President --
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure. Well, I'm not going to be in a position to read out private conversations between the President and the Vice President. As you know, that's, for us, been sacrosanct here at the White House. But I will say I did have a chance to speak with the President about this yesterday as we were traveling to West Virginia, and he told me in private what he has told some of you in public, which is he believes that the Vice President will go down as 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 know, Major, the President and Vice President have a very close relationship. They’ve eaten lunch together almost every week for the past seven years. And I'd say, over the past few months, the President has been there for his friend, primarily serving as a sounding board -- and that's not just as he copes with unspeakable loss, but also as he makes weighty decisions about his political future. As the President has said generally about this time in the presidency, there’s a lot of work left to do, all of which will be made easier with Joe Biden as his partner. And as anyone who listened to the Vice President’s moving remarks yesterday can attest, he clearly has a lot of gas left in the tank and he’s going to be here making the most out of the next 15 months. And I think I speak for all of us here at the White House when I say that his energy and optimism inspire all of us.
Q Can you give us a sense, without going into the details of their conversation, when the President first heard about the finality of the decision and how it was that he decided to let him announce it here?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have those details to unpack for you. I will just tell you, in terms of the decision-making process, for the President, it was very simple, that he felt that the Vice President ought to be able to make this decision and make it on his own terms. And he feels comfortable that that process unfolded that way.
Q Does the President agree with the Vice President that Democrats should run on this record, and they would make a grievous error if they did not?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think the President is very proud of the record of the past seven years. This is something that he and the Vice President have worked on. You’ve seen an economy that has gone from crisis to recovery, that is, as the Vice President said, on the verge of resurgence. And that includes the longest stretch of private sector job growth in our nation’s history. So, yes, so we're pretty proud of our record. And I think if you look at the debate that's happening for the 2016 field, you see a lot of Democrats attesting to it.
Q When you describe, when the administration describes the overseas contingency operations fund as a slush fund, most Americans don't know what you mean by that. What you're essentially saying is Republicans ought not to use that to increase defense spending while they are not doing anything to adjust domestic spending. That's the essence of your argument, right?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I also think that using this -- this is a budgetary gimmick that has been employed previously. And it is not just me who thinks that this approach is irresponsible. Senator Mike --
Q The administration has counted overseas contingency operation funds as a deficit reduction mechanism also.
MR. SCHULTZ: But if you look at Senator Mike Crapo, he’s called this a gimmick. Senator Jeff Flake has called it a slush fund. Senator John McCain has called it a gimmick. So I wonder --
Q -- slightly different context from --
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, it's up to them to -- I'm sure they’ll be happy to provide the context in response to your questions. But our bottom line is the men and women who serve this country who would be funded through the Pentagon and through the Department of Defense deserve legitimate funding, not some slush fund and not some gimmick.
Q But the essence is you don't want to give up the leverage you might have in budget conversations dealing with lifting the CR until you hear resolutions on the domestic side of sequestration, correct?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I will say that this administration does believe that the harmful cuts known as sequestration should be lifted on both sides, domestic and the nondomestic. You're describing some cynical political motivations to the move here, and I'm not going to subscribe to those. I am going to tell you that the President believes on the merits that this bill is wrong for the Defense Department.
Q It's not simply cynical to say that if you sign the defense authorization bill that provides defense spending at an authorization level that Republicans can therefore use without simultaneously increasing domestic spending in the way you want to, you lose leverage. That's not cynical, that's just an application of legislative problem.
MR. SCHULTZ: There might be some who look at the political situation in Washington and how this budget negotiation is going to unfold and have that take. I will just tell you from our perspective that, on the merits, the President believes this is a bad bill, and on the merits, it's the Secretary of Defense who said it's short-sighted.
MR. SCHULTZ: Chris.
Q Thanks. Can I go back to the Iraq hostage rescue mission? And doesn’t this directly contradict what President Obama has said that there would be no boots on the ground in Iraq in the battle against ISIS?
MR. SCHULTZ: Chris, you are right that our mission in Iraq has focused and has narrowed, and the President has made the determination that our men and women over there will not be serving in a combat role. That said, it is a very dangerous place, and nobody here underestimates the risk that our men and women who serve with incredible bravery and distinction assume when they’re there. We have also delineated several types of operations that would be permitted under the President’s directive. That includes the train and advise and assist program. That includes Special Operations forces. That includes humanitarian rescues. And that includes counterterrorism missions.
So this is all authorized under Operation Inherent Resolve. But, yes, if the answer is, do we fully appreciate how dangerous it is and how these men and women put their lives at risk every day, we absolutely do.
Q But when an American servicemember dies in a gunshot wound suffered in battle, and the President says there will be no boots on the ground, isn’t that boots on the ground?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Chris, we’ve been very clear on the role that our men and women -- the roles that the men and women who have been deployed there are going to serve in. The President has had a bright line that he doesn’t want our men and women to serve in a combat role, but there are going to be roles that are authorized under Operation Inherent Resolve. This was a specific mission authorized by the Secretary of Defense, and it was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that hostages would face imminent mass execution.
And I so I believe that the U.S. and our coalition is going to continue to work with our Iraqi partners to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, and ultimately return Iraq to the full control of its people.
Q But you wouldn’t deny that this was an American who was killed in a combat operation?
MR. SCHULTZ: I know that some of the language here has very specific consequences. I would tell you that this was a Special Operations -- this was a Peshmerga operation supported by U.S. Special Operations forces.
Q Another topic. I understand that the inspector general that oversees the Secret Service has now at least given to some members of Congress their plans and report. And they’re sending a formal warning to the Secret Service about the security risks of overworking its employees. And specifically, there are charges that two of them were caught essentially sleeping on the job, including one of them who traveled to the President with Kenya. Can I get your reaction to that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Chris, I’m going to be honest with you, I just heard about this right before I stepped out here. If the report is not public, it’s hard for us to comment on it. But either way, I would refer you to the Secret Service. It’s my understanding they’ve taken some issue with some determinations in the reports, but they’re going to be in the best position to explain that to you.
Q Have there been any conversations that you know of recently, either with Joe Clancy or any of the President’s other advisors, updating him on what were the priorities of Joe Clancy when he came in as the new director, that his number-one priority was to improve staffing?
MR. SCHULTZ: I do think Joe Clancy has taken significant steps to improve staffing. Clearly, this was an agency that was in need of strong leadership, and the President believes that Joe Clancy has provided just that.
Q Is there any concern -- again, I understand that you just were coming out here, but it’s another thing, as you know, Eric, on top of another thing -- the accusations about what happened to Chairman Chaffetz and, of course, the fence-jumper. And I don’t need to go on and on; you know the laundry list. How does the Secret Service climb out of this when there does seem to be this drip, drip, drip of problems?
MR. SCHULTZ: You’ve mentioned several past episodes that we’ve all had the opportunity to discuss at some length some days. But that is why the President asked Joe Clancy to serve as his director -- because he believed that the agency needed new leadership, new strong leadership. The director has instituted some reforms that address some of the very issues you’ve talked about. But in terms of the very specific report that you’re referencing today, I don’t have a response because I don’t believe it’s public yet.
Q But if Secret Service agents are sleeping on the job, isn’t that a real serious problem?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, that would be a problem, but I believe that the Secret Service agents -- the Secret Service itself has taken some issue with some of the findings in the report.
Q If that’s the case, would there be some concern about the integrity of the inspector general?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think you should ask the Secret Service if they disagree with anything that the inspector general found. And again, once we have a little bit more time to review it, we can probably get you a better response.
Q Eric, based on your chat with President Obama, can you tell us whether the President agreed with Vice President Biden’s decision? Was he disappointed that he won’t be running for President?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think it’s fair to say the President supported the Vice President’s process in making this decision and obviously supports his final determination since he wanted this to be a decision that the Vice President made on his own terms.
Mark, the President has deemed this time of his presidency the “fourth quarter,” and I think it’s fair to say that there’s nobody more important to the team here than the Vice President.
Q Would you say President Obama is relieved that the decision has been made and they can now move forward?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I do think that we have a lot of work to do over the next 15 months, and so the President is thrilled to have Joe Biden as his partner to make sure we get as much out of this fourth quarter as we can.
Q Did the period of time while Vice President Biden was thinking about it, did it cast a heavy burden on the White House, a shadow over the White House?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't think so. As Josh said -- and I believe I fielded a question earlier -- the idea that somebody would enter the Democratic race and arguably be a frontrunner who would even want to run closer on the President’s record isn’t a burden, that's a luxury. And that's something that I think speaks to the President’s record but also the Vice President’s work over the past seven years.
Q And last question. You mentioned the length of the Benghazi investigation, over 500 days. Is it fair for you to point that out, the length of that when the Keystone decision-making process has gone for seven years?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I guess the analogy would be if there were seven other prior approval processes for Keystone.
Q Should there have been? (Laughter.)
Q You can answer that. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHULTZ: Go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q Switching topics to Puerto Rico.
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure.
Q Antonio Weiss at the Treasury said today that without congressional action on the situation in Puerto Rico that it could deteriorate into a humanitarian crisis. I’m wondering -- the administration put out a plan for what you think should happen there, but it does require congressional action. I’m wondering what you plan to do to actually rally support on the Hill since it’s been difficult to get bipartisan support on -- just on every other issue going back for the last couple of years.
MR. SCHULTZ: You have followed this closely, but let me just review for those who may not have. This is an issue that the administration has been working on for about a year and a half. And we’ve worked closely with Puerto Rican officials to find solutions to the Commonwealth’s fiscal crisis, bringing the full capabilities of the executive branch to bear and providing assistance to speed Puerto Rico’s recovery. This includes attracting job-creating investments, securing new funds to accelerate infrastructure projects and lower energy costs on the island.
We’ve really worked hard to leverage all the administration resources to come to bear on Puerto Rico to help. That includes attracting a significant investment from Lufthansa to build a facility in Puerto Rico that would have promised 600 jobs. We then worked with the Department of Labor to make sure that Puerto Ricans themselves had the skills and trainings they needed to fulfill those jobs.
It has also become clear while that process of leveraging federal -- existing federal resources continues, that this is a crisis that is severe and is not going to be solved by administration action alone. That's why, as you point out, we have presented a package to Congress of four legislative principles. I’m happy to lay those out.
First, Congress should provide Puerto Rico with an orderly restructuring regime to comprehensively address its financial liabilities by restructuring its debts. Second, Congress should provide an independent fiscal oversight mechanism so that we can ensure this process unfolds in a transparent and credible way. Third, Congress needs to reform the Commonwealth’s Medicaid program to ensure the program provides better access for health care services at a more affordable cost. And fourth, Congress should provide Puerto Rico with access to the earned income tax credit. This is a proven tool that enjoys bipartisan support, and for good reason, for rewarding work and supporting growth.
Q And that's a big package and a lot of asks for a Congress that you haven’t been able to get much out of. What do you actually plan to do to get them to support that? Specifically to get Republicans to support that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, you are right that this is going to -- that this is a serious issue, that this is complicated and it’s going to require Democrats and Republicans coming together. I believe that's why Treasury and White House officials have been on the Hill both yesterday and today briefing members of Congress. But you're absolutely right that this is going to require some legislative muscle in order to get done.
Q Do you have a price tag on that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, these were just the principles that have been laid out, so it’s going to be up to members of Congress to really roll up their sleeves and suss through the details of how they want to get this done.
Q And does the President himself plan to roll up his sleeves and actually pitch this as a top priority? Or is this something that he’s going to leave to deputies?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think the reason he directed his top officials yesterday to go up to the Hill is because he is acutely aware of the severity of the problem, and how urgent it is to get something done.
Q Okay. And also, sticking with Treasury, on another topic, the department said today that it was postponing the auction of two-year notes originally planned for next week basically because they are not sure that with the debt ceiling crisis that they’d be able to go forward with that auction. Given the fact that this is actually starting to affect the market and affect what we are able to sell in the markets -- the concern over the debt ceiling -- I’m wondering if the President feels an added urgency to actually tackle this. And what’s being done behind the scenes so that future sales aren’t affected?
MR. SCHULTZ: As you point out, the Treasury did announce that it’s going to postpone an upcoming two-year note auction due to debt-ceiling constraints.
But broadly speaking, the President does feel an urgency. And the President feels there should be an urgency on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue because it’s up to Congress to raise the debt limit. We're not asking for anything extraordinary here. We're asking for elementary responsibility of Congress to be fulfilled. If Republican members of Congress go out to dinner, say, Tortilla Coast, they get the bill, they have to pay the bill. And that's all we're asking here, too.
Q To name one.
Q Sorry, just one last one on the NDAA. You all had mentioned your reservations about the Guantanamo Bay provisions in that. About three months ago -- actually three month ago to the day, or to today -- your colleague, Josh Earnest, said that you all were in the final drafting stages of a plan to close Guantanamo. I’m wondering where things stand with that and why it has taken three months to get from final drafting stages to actually having a plan.
MR. SCHULTZ: Toluse, let me clarify, we do have a plan, and that involves principally three significant steps. One is making sure that we can prosecute all detainees who we legally can prosecute. Two, it is transferring any detainees out of the facility, the transfers of which are determined by the National Security Council as being in the interests of the national security of the United States. And three, it is safely and secure -- there will be a population that needs to be safely and securely transferred to the United States.
There are questions -- legitimate questions raised about where and how that will happen. And those are the site visits that we’ve been talking about, that you all have been asking about and the Defense Department has been talking about, so those details are still being worked out.
Q The mission that killed the American servicemember in Iraq, is that an anomaly, or is that the kind of mission that people should -- Americans should expect that their forces over there will be carrying out in the future? And in that same vein, should the expectation be that there are these increased risks that maybe the President didn't lay out in specific detail when he outlined his plan initially?
MR. SCHULTZ: Carol, for putting this operation in context for the greater U.S. coalition-led forces operations I think the Defense Department will be your best bet. I would say that I’m fairly certain that when the President did lay out this plan, he was very candid that Americans would not be serving in a combat role but they would be taking significant risk and they would be serving in a very dangerous place in the world.
He did, I believe, at that time, also lay out the types of operations that American soldiers would be participating in. Those included Special Forces operations, humanitarian rescues, counterterrorism missions, and this train, advise, and assist program.
Q And can I ask you, aren’t you at all concerned about the optics of the President vetoing the defense authorization act on the same day when the first American has been killed in Iraq since 2011?
MR. SCHULTZ: Carol, for us, the decision to veto the NDAA is driven by the fact that it’s a bad bill and that it shortchanges the men and women who serve in the armed forces because it employs an irresponsible spending gimmick to fund them that's also -- that's unreliable.
In terms of the timing, again, I believe there was a lot of fanfare on the Hill over this, so I can't attest to why it took so long for the bill to come over here.
Q Thanks, Eric. I wanted to ask about the President’s meeting that he had today with the Pakistani Prime Minister. How would you characterize the state of cooperation that exists between the U.S. and Pakistan in terms of counterterrorism activities?
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure, John. I’m not sure if you were here, but two years ago, the President met with Prime Minister Sharif in the Oval Office. That was just after Prime Minister Sharif took office. And at the time, the two of them committed to getting the U.S.-Pakistan relationship on more solid footing. And I think we now note today that that has happened, that the relationship has progressed since the last time Prime Minister was here two years ago. And we see this visit today as an opportunity to further advance a more sustainable, broad-based partnership.
I know, and for good reason, the counterterrorism linkage gets a lot of attention. But, for the President, our approach to deepening those relationships is broader than just the counterterrorism. We see opportunity in areas of mutual interest like economic growth, trade, investment, clean energy, global health, climate change, and nuclear security.
Q The Afghan government has often said that the Pakistanis continue to shelter Taliban leaders. How do you respond to that accusation?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, John, I think the people of Pakistan have suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists and violent extremists. And the United States stands in solidarity with the people of Pakistan and all who fight the menace of terrorism. Pakistan’s continuing significant military operations have had significant impact. They’ve targeted terrorist sanctuaries and have restored government-controlled parts of Pakistan that have previously been safe havens for terrorists.
We welcome Pakistan’s commitment as part of the National Action Plan not to discriminate amongst terrorist groups. We’ve been very clear with the Pakistani government that in implementing that commitment, Pakistan must take action against all military groups without discriminating.
Q And one final question. Is the significant amount of financial assistance that the U.S. provides to Pakistan annually money well spent?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, we believe that -- I think I have something specific -- was your question specifically on the counterterrorism funding or --
Q No, overall.
MR. SCHULTZ: Okay, just broadly. Aid, okay.
Q The amount of financial assistance that we provide to Pakistan, is it money well spent?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think it’s important to note -- put that in context, and that's because both of our countries’ economies stand to benefit from increased economic and commercial ties. And we have a joint interest in Pakistan’s economic growth. The United States is already Pakistan’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade currently at $5 billion a year. And the United States is a significant source of foreign direct investment into Pakistan.
So, following the 2013 visit a few years ago here at the White House, we’ve continued robust cooperation in trade and investment and energy and increasing business ties. You're going to see a few more announcements later this afternoon based on the sessions earlier today. So I’d encourage you to stay tuned.
Q Eric, thanks. Just to get a little bit more into the NDAA. Some, including Chairman Thornberry, have said that it should be appropriation, not authorization that the President takes objection to. What do you make of that argument? I know we're getting a little into the weeds there.
MR. SCHULTZ: We are. The President believes and shares the view of his Defense Secretary that this is a bill that does nothing to alleviate the unacceptable funding cuts for national security, and that, as the Commander-in-Chief, he is someone who always strives to do whatever is necessary to defend our nation and provide for the best military in the world.
So I want to be clear, though, that there are several provisions of the NDAA that the President does support and that includes codification of interrogation-related reforms that have been -- that were previously in executive orders, and positive changes to the military’s retirement system that would improve the economic security of our nation’s military retirees. So the President would ask that whatever subsequent bills move to fund our national security priorities include those provisions, as well.
Q But the objection from the Republicans and plenty of the Democrats who supported this basically said you can't get there from here, that the NDAA isn’t the right vehicle. You can't basically fix the problem with the other half of discretionary nondefense spending through this vehicle. What do you --
MR. SCHULTZ: We just respectfully disagree. We believe that rather than reversing sequestration, this is a bill that adopts a framework that includes unacceptable funding cuts for national security activities carried out by nondefense agencies and fails to make investments that are crucial for our long-term economic growth and our national security.
Q In your answer to Roberta, you got very specific about what would happen in about two hours -- we will be led up there, he’ll be in the Oval. Just because you made me think of it, will the President sign with more than one pen? Will he be handing out those pens after this momentous veto signing?
MR. SCHULTZ: That is a question I did not prepare for, so we’ll have to get back to you. You’ll actually be able to see for yourself.
Q Kensington Palace just announced that His Royal Highness Prince Harry will be visiting Washington and Virginia on the 28th of October to support the Invictus program that he works on -- wounded vets, et cetera. The last time he was here he had a very successful engagement, meeting with the First Lady, with children, and it was quite a stirring event. Might he be coming to visit this royal family on the 28th?
MR. SCHULTZ: JC, as you know, that was a great event. We have very warm relations with the Royal Family. I don't have any scheduling announcements, especially from the East Wing, at this time, but I’d encourage you to stay tuned.
Q Thank you.
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes. Jordan.
Q Thanks, Eric. There’s talk on Capitol Hill today about a one-year debt ceiling hike being discussed between House Republicans and the White House. And I’m wondering if you can tell us about if that's been talked about on the staff level here, with the President, and any other details on the debt limit talks with the House Republicans.
MR. SCHULTZ: The only detail I have to offer you is that our view is that raising the debt limit is something that's nonnegotiable. And this is something that is not about future investments or future bills; that's paying the tab for expenses you've already incurred. So our belief is the United States Congress needs to do this, and they need to do it without drama and without delay.
Q Has there been any talks with Speaker Boehner in the last 24 hours about what their plan is up there to get it done?
MR. SCHULTZ: To me, this isn’t something that needs an elaborate plan. It’s a very elementary responsibility of Congress. And they have raised this -- they’ve done this now in years past and we ask them to do it again.
Q Just one more on the Iraq raid. It’s been described to us as dozens of Americans in five helicopters -- military helicopters. And the President’s policy has always been described as no boots on the ground. Is that still a way that we can accurately say to the American people that the President’s policy there is no boots on the ground?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think it’s clear that U.S. servicemembers are serving in *Iraq both Iraq and Syria in an effort to -- in the President’s directive to ultimately -- to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL. So there’s clearly men and women serving in uniform over there. And they do so with incredible bravery and distinction. And there is nobody here who underestimates the risk that they assume when they take those roles, and there is nobody in here who isn’t in awe of the selfless sacrifice that they endure when they serve our country in those roles.
Q I just ask because it’s a common phrase that's out there, and you know the concern about mission creep and murkiness. And that's why I ask, again, in terms of conveying this to the American people -- it’s still accurate to say that policy is no boots on the ground?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think it’s accurate to say that the President has been steadfast in his belief that this is not going to be an effort that involves putting our men and women in a combat role over there. He’s been very clear in delineating what the nature of operations that our men and women would be serving under. That includes the train, advise, and assist operation. That includes Special Forces operations, humanitarian rescue operations, and also counterterrorism missions.
Q Secretary Kerry met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel. And you're aware of Mr. Netanyahu’s statement about the -- that suggests -- not exactly -- that the Palestinian religious leader, not Hitler, is responsible for the idea of the Holocaust. What was the President’s reaction to hearing about that?
MR. SCHULTZ: So I’ve seen and am aware of that comment, and I don't think there’s any doubt here at the White House who is responsible for the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews. We here continue to stress publicly and privately that the importance of preventing inflammatory rhetoric, accusations or actions on both sides that can feed the violence. And we believe that inflammatory rhetoric needs to stop.
I think as you mentioned, Secretary Kerry did have the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier today in Berlin. I think the Secretary described this as a constructive session. They discussed the security situation in Israel and the West Bank and the region, as well as, specifically, the situation at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. So I’m going to let Secretary Kerry and his team elaborate on the meeting any further.
Q Just one -- you said, about inflammatory language -- does the President consider the Prime Minister’s comment inflammatory language?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have any reaction from the President to read out to you, but I do think that, on the whole, both sides need to tamp down the rhetoric.
Q And one more thing. Secretary Kerry moves on to meetings with the Russian Foreign Minister. The image of President Assad meeting with President Putin in Russia was very striking, and it suggests that he feels very confident and that he feels like he’s in a much better position than he was a couple of weeks ago. And given that the United States’ position is that he must go, what is your reaction to that turn of events now? Do you accept that Mr. Assad is in a better position than he was a week or so ago.
MR. SCHULTZ: No. What we believe is that Russia rolling out the red carpet for Mr. Assad is completely at odds with their stated goal of a political transition in Syria. And we believe that that visit notwithstanding -- well, that visit does nothing to change the events on the ground. And so I wouldn’t read into it as you’re suggesting. I would tell you that, for us, the facts remain true yesterday as they are today, which is this is a leader who has used chemical weapons against his own people. This is someone who has lost the legitimacy to lead. This is someone who has driven his country into a sectarian civil war and allowed violent extremists like ISIL to flourish.
Q I was struck by the notion that you say the Russian objective is political transformation -- or political transition. I thought that they felt that Mr. Assad should remain where he is for the time being? Aren’t those two ideas or those two objectives contradictory?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, you should check in with Moscow for clarity. I’m sure they’ll be happy to answer your questions.
Q Thanks, Eric. October 29th, the highway funding runs out. And I know the House is working on a bill but they’re not there yet. Do you expect to have to sign another short-term gap?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think the President has made his position on this very clear. We are enjoying an economy that is growing, but that any unforced errors, again, committed by the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue would be counterproductive. And that’s why the President believes that we need a long-term infrastructure bill -- that our highways, our rail stations and our airports are fundamental to our economy, and that’s why it should be a long-term funding bill.
Q Then I’ll ask -- I know Paul Ryan was trying to work on that. Does the White House see Paul Ryan as someone that they could work with productively as Speaker?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Cheryl -- (laughter) -- I’m so glad you asked. Look, we’ve been reluctant to weigh in on previous speakers-in-waiting, and I think maybe for good reason.
Q You’re reluctant to weigh in on this? (Laughter.)
MR. SCHULTZ: But I will say that Chairman Ryan has been a member of the Republican conference for many years and he clearly commands the respect of many of his colleagues. He was a member of the Republican ticket in 2012. And the President believes that Congressman Ryan is someone who has given considerable thought to the significant issues that must be worked through in Congress.
On some of those issues, he has worked with the President and with Democrats -- like on trade and immigration -- but on others, we have vastly different approaches. But overall, I would just observe that there’s been a lot of time and attention being paid to uniting the fractious Republican caucus, and we hope that’s not a precursor of someone who wants to govern on a strictly partisan basis.
And I say that for two reasons. First, when we have divided government here in Washington, success only happens with Democrats and Republicans work together. And second, we’ve seen House Republican leadership try and work only amongst themselves and we’ve seen that not end well time and time again. So we hope that whoever is the next Speaker assumes that role with a willingness and an interest to work with Democrats not just in Congress but also within the administration.
Q Thanks, Eric. With troops on the ground all over the world, whether they are in a peaceful circumstance, relatively speaking, or if they are truly in a very hot theater, they’re going to hear about the President’s decision today and they may have misconceptions about why he would veto NDAA. Speaking specifically to the people who represent this country, what’s the message when they read or hear about this veto?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I think to the men and women who, like you said, put themselves on the line every day, the President believes there’s no more solemn responsibility and role that Americans can play than serving our country in the armed forces. And the President takes his job as Commander-in-Chief very serious and he strives to always do what is necessary to not only defend our nation, provide for the best military in the world, but also to make sure that they have the funding and the resources that they need to do their jobs as safely as humanly possible. For those reasons, the President is not going to accept a defense authorization bill that fails to fix the harmful sequestration cuts that shortchange our troops.
Q But they won’t understand, I think, broadly speaking -- that seems very detailed, and I understand we’re here in the Beltway. But if you’re out there in the DMZ, you’re saying why wouldn’t he do what gives us the resources that we need -- does that make sense?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think it’s because we would rather have a bill that strengthens our national security and doesn’t undermine it. And the President of the United States believes that’s exactly what this bill does.
Q Okay, last one. Missile defense in Eastern Europe. Putin is suggesting that, once again, if we move forward with something like that, it endangers his country. What’s the feeling about more missile defense not just in Eastern Europe but also here in the U.S.?
MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I haven’t seen those comments and I haven’t gotten an update on this, so I’ll have to take the question and get back to you.
Q Thanks, Eric. Is the United States planning for -- has decided to send F-16 to Pakistan?
MR. SCHULTZ: Lalit, I am confident that in the Oval Office, the President did discuss with the Prime Minister how the United States and Pakistan can best continue their robust counterterrorism operation -- cooperation. But I’m not sure if
-- I saw that report in The New York Times as well. I’m not sure if that came up, but I don’t anticipate having any large-scale announcement like that today.
Q But is that under consideration by this administration?
MR. SCHULTZ: So that is an announcement that would come from my colleagues at the Defense Department, so you might want to check with them.
Q Also a joint statement had been issued by the Pakistani foreign office. We are still waiting from the White House. It mentioned about the regional concerns of India and Pakistan regarding terrorism. You knew India’s concern about terrorism; now you know about Pakistan’s concern about terrorism. Are they on the same level? What’s your comparative analysis of the concerns?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think it’s clear that Pakistan’s relationship with India is critical to Pakistan’s future and the normalization of relations between those two countries is vital both to them and to the stability in the region. We talked earlier about economic linkages and a broader view of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship beyond just counterterrorism. And I think it’s discussions like the one the President had today that helps unlock opportunities for millions of people and leads to a more prosperous region, which no doubt will go a long way towards counterterrorism efforts.
Q And finally, are you satisfied with the actions -- counterterrorism actions that Pakistan is taking, including the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e Taiba?
MR. SCHULTZ: Pakistan has embarked on significant military operations that have had a significant impact. They’ve targeted terrorist sanctuaries and restored government-controlled parts of Pakistan that had previously been safe havens to terrorists for years. So we understand that the people of Pakistan have suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists and violent extremists, and we welcome Pakistan’s commitment as part of its national action plan to not discriminate amongst terrorist groups.
Chris, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Eric. There’s been a record number of at least 21 murders of transgender people this year alone throughout the country. The latest was a woman of color shot to death in Baltimore last week. The President has signed into law in 2008 a hate crimes law against biased-motivated crimes against transgender people, but does he think that these new crimes -- new murders raise to the level of a national crisis and he’ll plan to address them?
MR. SCHULTZ: Chris, I saw the heart-wrenching report out of Baltimore that you mentioned and I think it’s fair to say that the thoughts and prayers of those of us at the White House are with the family.
I don’t have any new sort of legislative or official reviews to announce today. Obviously the President’s record on this is well-known.
Q Senator Franken wrote a letter to the Justice Department yesterday that was endorsed by Leader Pelosi this morning, seeking information on the extent to which the federal government is reporting on these murders and to what extent the federal government will work with local authorities. Will the White House welcome the release of that information?
MR. SCHULTZ: I couldn’t hear the end of it. One more time?
Q The letter calls for information from the Justice Department on reporting on these murders and the extent to which the federal government is working with local authorities on this issue. Would the White House welcome the release of that information?
MR. SCHULTZ: So I haven’t seen the letter so I can’t comment directly on this specific issue. I will say, generally speaking, the President has been very strong in his advocacy for increased transparency and increased data. I know that that’s something we’ve worked very hard on, both at the Justice Department in terms of the law enforcement arena, but also in other areas of the administration. So, generally speaking, the President believes that the more information, the better.
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