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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest En Route Atlanta, Georgia

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Atlanta, Georgia  

12:46 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon and welcome aboard Air Force One as we head to Atlanta and the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.  

The President has made addressing the nation's opioid crisis a top priority.  The good news is that Republicans have recognized the significance of this issue as well.  In fact, today's event is organized by Operation UNITE, a group that was started by Hal Rogers, a Republican Congressman from Kentucky.  

Those of you who are covering the presidential campaign know that candidates in both parties have hosted campaign events and discussed ideas for combatting heroin addiction.  The number of events and the number of states where these events have been held speaks to how significant and widespread this problem is.

Among our announcements today are new law enforcement strategies and funding that can be used to halt the spread of heroin.  But our experts tell us that our success depends on implementing a smart public health strategy.  This is part of why passing Obamacare and expanding affordable, quality health care -- including mental health care and drug treatment for all -- is making a difference in the lives of millions of Americans across the country.

It's also why Republicans should stop trying to tear down the law.  Obamacare also includes proposals that are funded almost entirely by the federal government to expand Medicaid.  But Republicans in too many states have blocked this expansion.  This political tactic is preventing as many as 2 million Americans from getting the treatment that they need.  The President also rolled out in his budget a comprehensive plan to bolster our fight against heroin and prescription drug abuse, but Republicans in Congress won't even hold a hearing to discuss it.

So while it's encouraging that many Republicans have acknowledged the problem, it's time for them to follow through on Hal Rogers's lead, and actually make it a priority to do something about it.  And you all will hear the President talk about how this problem is having an impact on communities all across the country.  It's not just in red or blue states; it's not just among the young and the old; it's not just among black or white.  This is a widespread problem, having an impact on a diverse set of communities all across the country.

This demands a bipartisan response in Washington, D.C.  The President is committed to fulfilling that responsibility, and hopefully Republicans will, too.

So with that, why don't I take your questions?

Q    Josh, can you address the issue of whether the administration waited too long to respond to this crisis?  In the health care community, there's a belief that this is all well worthwhile and people are glad that the administration is acting, but why weren't they acting three years ago or even five years ago?  Is there a sense that he waited too long?

MR. EARNEST:  No, Mark, and I think Obamacare is a great example -- we're actually celebrating the sixth anniversary of Obamacare this month.  That is an indication that the President recognized that expanding health care access to everybody is critically important.  You will recall that one of the important components of the Affordable Care Act is a parity for health care and mental health care benefits -- making sure that people have access to mental health care benefits, including drug treatment, to fight this problem.  That for a long time, there had been a focus on law enforcement responses, but this administration recognized from the beginning that a health care response is critical to our success as well.

And I think the President's early focus on health care reform and expanding access to health care for every American I think is indicative of how the President has prioritized this element of our response to this problem.

Q    The first four-four split by the Supreme Court this morning since Justin Antonin Scalia's death.  What's the administration's reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, many of your news organizations employ smart people who attended law school who can offer up a legal analysis to you.  I won't do that.  I will just observe that this is an argument that you heard from Vice President Biden in the speech that he delivered last week.  With a Supreme Court that is not fully staffed, it makes it more likely that situations can arise across the country where there are different rulings in different circuit courts that are not resolved by the Supreme Court.

And that means that we essentially have laws that are applied in different ways, depending on which community you live in.  We sort of accept that at the state level because we believe that states should be empowered to set laws for their states.  But that is -- it is not what our Founders intended; it certainly isn't consistent with their notion of federalism when you have federal laws that are applied in different ways.  

And this does violate some of our core beliefs about equal justice under the law.  And I do think this does highlight something that President Reagan talked about.  In 1987, President Reagan made a persuasive case that the Senate should act quickly on his nominee.  That resulted in a vote in a presidential election year, in President Reagan's final year in office, on the part of the Senate to confirm his nominee to the Supreme Court.

At the time, President Reagan made a persuasive case that every day that the Supreme Court -- every day that goes by without the Supreme Court being fully staffed was a problem for the country and one that the Congress had a constitutional responsibility to address.  We agree with that.  Back in 1988, you'll recall Democrats were in the majority of the United States Senate.  They fulfilled their constitutional responsibility, and they voted to confirm Justice Kennedy in President Reagan's final year in office.  We believe Republicans should do the same thing.

Q    Josh, on a separate topic, can you clarify during the Nuclear Summit this week whether President Obama will be meeting with President Erdogan from Turkey?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, as you heard me discuss in the briefing yesterday, the President has had a number of formal conversations with President Erdogan in the last six months.  Twice at the end of last year -- once in Turkey, once in Paris.  A number of other phone calls.  Earlier this year, Vice President Biden was in Turkey and engaged in a formal sit-down meeting with President Erdogan during that visit.  When President Erdogan visits the United States later this week, he will have a formal sit-down meeting with the Vice President of the United States.  That will be an important discussion.

In addition to that, I would expect that over the course of the visit, the President will have an opportunity at some point to have at least an informal discussion with President Erdogan.  There obviously is a lot of important work to do with our allies in Turkey.  First and foremost, that involves standing with them as they confront the kind of terrorism that they've seen inside their borders all too often in recent weeks.  But that also includes continuing to intensify our coordination on key aspects of our counter-ISIL strategy, including ramped-up efforts to secure the Turkey-Syria border.

Q    Is the fact that the President's meeting with Erdogan will be informal and not a formal bilateral something that the Turks should take as a snub?

MR. EARNEST:  Not at all.  It should be an indication to them that there are I believe more than 50 world leaders planning to spend time in Washington on Thursday and Friday to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit.  We obviously welcome the significant participation we've seen not just from countries, but from world leaders at this event.  

But I think the fact that President Erdogan is meeting formally with Vice President Biden; that I do anticipate that they'll have an opportunity to have a conversation at least with President Obama; and the fact that President Obama will preside over a counter-ISIL strategy session at the summit is an indication that the kinds of priorities that the Turks have identified are priorities that will get the President's attention at the end of this week.

Q    Josh, can you speak to what the U.S. may have learned or knows that prompted the warning for DOD families to leave southern Turkey?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, the State Department and the Department of Defense have both issued directives today related to the families of personnel that are based in Turkey.  For the details of that announcement, I'd refer you to those two agencies.  

We make it a practice, as previous administrations have, to communicate publicly the guidance that we're offering to the families of our staff privately.  And the reason for that is that we want the American people who might be considering travel to the region or might be in Turkey for private reasons to have the benefit of the guidance that we're offering to the families of public employees.  

But for the reasons that that guidance was offered today, I'd refer you to both the Department of Defense and the State Department.

Q    The President has said numerous times that one of his proudest moments in office was seeing the White House lit up with rainbow colors after the Supreme Court decision to support gay marriage.  Now there are lots of state legislatures trying to argue religious liberty outright, like Georgia and North Carolina.  Does that make the President feel frustrated?  Is he aware of that?

MR. EARNEST:  The President obviously has spoken warmly and even celebrated the ruling on gay marriage from the Supreme Court last summer.  That obviously was a ruling that the President thought was the right one and was appropriately regarded as an historic one.  But the President never was under the impression -- and I don't think anybody was -- that that would be the end of the struggle for equality and for justice and for fairness.  That struggle goes on.

And there are a number of states that are having a robust debate about these policies.  And I think the President's views on those attempts are pretty well known.  I think there are a number of states -- Indiana certainly comes to mind -- that have regretted the way that they had considered those kinds of policy changes.  

But, look, each of these -- this is the way our system of government works -- that there are going to be state governments who are going to weigh in.  There should be no doubt about the President's view of this.  The President comes down on the side of fairness and equality, and opposing discrimination in all its forms every time.  That's certainly true in these instances.  It's the President's strong view that we can take all the necessary steps to protect religious freedom without giving people the approval to discriminate against people because of who they love.

Q    Can I ask you about today's opioid summit?  So you said that the Affordable Care Act has been in place for six years, but clearly more was needed -- as demonstrated by today's summit.  So could this have been done sooner, and should it have been?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think that the President's focus here has been on expanding access to health care -- quality, affordable health care for everybody.  And that has been a priority from the beginning of his administration.  And part of the reason that he made this a priority is that there were far -- before the Affordable Care Act, there were far too few Americans who had access to quality mental health care coverage.  And that was one of the -- it doesn't get a lot of attention, but it certainly is one of the things that motivated his desire to implement health care reform and get it passed through the Congress.

So, look, I think the fact is that earlier this year, the administration put forward a $1 billion package to ramp up our efforts I think it's an indication that the administration believes that more needs to be done.  And we'd certainly like Congress to take those kinds of strategies seriously.  Thus far, Republicans in Congress have refused to even hold a hearing.  They are considering their own legislation in the Senate that doesn't actually include any substantial funding.

So we’ve paid enough lip service to this issue, and it’s time for Republicans to follow the President’s lead in demonstrating some kind of commitment to actually taking action that will have an impact.

Q    But at what point did he realize that more was needed on opioid abuse in particular?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the statistics indicate that this is a problem that continues to get worse.  And it’s certainly a reason that the President has been so focused on it.  And again, we welcome the attention that we’ve seen, in particular Republican presidential candidates pay to this issue.

I think that’s an indication that it’s an issue that’s really resonating in a lot of different communities.  They understand -- these candidates understand that voters are concerned about this issue, and they want to hear presidential candidates talking about it.  I’m glad that Republicans have gotten the message, but getting the message is not enough.  If you’re running for public office or you’ve been elected to public office, you have a responsibility to act in the best interest of your constituents.  And refusing to fund or even consider proven strategies to fight heroin abuse is wrong.

Q    The government dropped its lawsuit against Apple last night.  Does the administration now consider this issue resolved?  And also, does the government now possess a method to crack into any iPhone that it wants to?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Alex, what I can tell you is that I’m aware that the Department of Justice has dropped their suit.  And their explanation for dropping that suit is that they have been able to get access to this phone in a way that does not require the assistance of Apple.  And what the FBI has indicated is that they will review the material on that phone consistent with the standard operating procedure for conducting a national security investigation.

But beyond that, I just don’t have additional details about this investigation to share,so you can check with the FBI and the Department of Justice to see if they have more that they want to say about this matter.  The President has indicated from the -- basically from the day after this terrorist attack that this investigation was a top priority.  So he certainly continues to be updated on the investigation, but at this point, this investigation is being led by independent law enforcement professionals.  And I just don’t have more insight I can share on it.

Q    And you wouldn't be able to either confirm or deny, otherwise acknowledge that the government may have a method to crack into other iPhones?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not in a position to comment on that, but the FBI and the Department of Justice may be able to.

Q    Was the President briefed this morning about the hijacking in Egypt?  And is he concerned about the fact that that was able to take place in that country?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has been informed of this particular incident.  It is, based on the little information that we have now, it does not appear that this was an incident that was linked to terrorism necessarily, that this was more motivated by a personal dispute.

But obviously, we’re very focused on the broader security of the international aviation system.  I can tell you that the Alexandria, Egypt airport where this flight originated does not have any direct flights to the United States.  For those international airports that do have direct flights to the United States, there is a protocol in place that’s administered by the TSA to ensure the safety and security of the travelers, and of those flights that land in the United States.

But obviously we’re concerned and focused on any incident that’s related to the security of our aviation system.  And by our aviation system, I mean the international aviation system that Americans use when they’re traveling around the world.  But our intense focus is on the security of flights that are arriving directly in the United States from overseas.

Q    The House is working on a Puerto Rico bill addressing the situation there.  It includes a financial control board, and political leaders in Puerto Rico have expressed some opposition to that.  Does the White House have any position on whether a financial control board should be created in Puerto Rico?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that the White House has been deeply engaged in conversations with members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, about what should be included in that legislation.  Generally speaking, we have indicated that we believe that the nation of Puerto Rico should be given some authority that would allow them to restructure their debt and get back on their feet.

We also believe that there should be a mechanism in place to ensure that promised reforms are implemented.  But whether or not a financial control board is the appropriate mechanism for that, I don’t believe that’s something that we’ve discussed publicly.  But we’ll continue to work with Congress to try to find a solution that will allow both the government and the economy of Puerto Rico to get back on its feet.

As I’ve noted in the past, the administration does not support a bailout of Puerto Rico.  But we can offer them the kind of restructuring authority that’s available to municipalities in the United States that would allow them to take steps and implement reforms that would allow the government and the economy to get back on its feet.

Thanks, everybody.  We’ll see you on the ground.

1:04 P.M. EDT