Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Chicago, IL, 4/7/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Chicago, Illinois
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:04 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Welcome aboard, everyone, to Air Force One en route to the University of Chicago Law School, where President Obama taught constitutional law for over a decade, where he'll participate in a discussion on the Supreme Court and the integrity of our judicial system. The President is very much looking forward to visiting the institution that helped shape his dedication to the rule of law, the role of the presidency, and his fidelity to the United States Constitution.
There he’ll be reunited with his former colleague, Professor David Strauss, and engage directly with the audience of students, faculty and a few of his former law students. The President will discuss today how he fulfilled his constitutional responsibility and presented the American people with the exceptional nominee for our nation’s highest court.
Both the President and Chief Judge Garland call Chicago their hometown. Chief Judge Garland grew up in Chicago, specifically in Lincolnwood, and his parents were deeply involved in the community, with his mother serving as a volunteer and his dad running a small business from their basement. This impressed upon Merrick Garland the importance of working hard, dealing fairly in service to the community.
The President this afternoon will continue making the case for why Chief Judge Garland and why the American people deserve for the Senate to fulfill their own constitutional responsibility to give this eminently qualified nominee a fair hearing and an up or down vote. For us, this is bigger than party or politics. This is about democracy and the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life.
With that, I'm happy to take your questions.
MR. SCHULTZ: Senator Dick Durbin, *Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Representative Mike Quigley are aboard Air Force One and will be with us at the University of Chicago.
Q Was Senator Kirk invited?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes.
Q And do you know why he didn’t come?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't. You should check with his office.
Q There’s reporting that the White House is declining to offer public support, as they say, for draft legislation that would empower judges to require technology companies like Apple to help law enforcement crack encrypted data. Can you tell me why?
MR. SCHULTZ: I saw that report, and I don't know what it's based on, because as I understand it, this is legislation that’s not even introduced yet. Our position on encryption is well-known. We support strong encryption. We believe it is a key tool for cybersecurity, for innovation, and to protect people’s privacy. So the President has said before that there’s no scenario in which we don't want really strong encryption. Now, at the same time, we do understand we want to make sure that we don't allow terrorists a safe haven to operate in cyberspace. So that's why we will continue to engage with the private sector to discuss the national security and public safety challenges we face with the use of encryption.
As it pertains to this particular piece of legislation, I'm sure we will take a look at what they’re proposing and be in touch.
Q I think the report actually says you’ve already offered some kind of comment on it. You're not going to necessarily publicly, but that you have seen a draft. Has the White House seen a draft that you know of?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't know the precise granularity of our exchanges with those offices, but I can tell you that this remains a priority for the President. We'll absolutely be in touch with those offices. But the idea that we're going to withhold support for a bill that's not introduced yet isn't accurate.
Q Isn't it the kind of thing, though, given the fact that you’ve backed DOJ in their effort against Apple, would this kind of thing, if you codified it in legislation, would it make it easier if it's already in legislation and it's law?
MR. SCHULTZ: We're always willing to work with members of Congress on issues like this. We believe that this issue is complicated, and that's why a national dialogue to help the American people understand it is important. So the President has said there’s benefit to a national dialogue and one that is not just specific to the encryption issue but a broader discussion of the issues related to terrorist use of social media and other communications.
As you guys have often reported, the President has engaged with the private sector on this. So have top administration officials, because we believe it's important. It's also a complicated piece of business. Josh likes to draw the analogy to child pornography. That was also complicated with sort of legal and privacy concerns, as well as business interests all at stake. And we were able to work with all of those different entities and components to come up with some solution that achieved all of our goals.
Q Last one. Would you support a law that would actually buttress that kind of effort when it comes to things like San Bernardino?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, again, we're happy to take a look at any legislation that's being proposed. As you know, the President is a strong proponent of encryption. He believes that's important for not only cybersecurity, protecting people’s privacy, but also for the heart of innovation in our country.
Q What is the President expecting in terms of an outcome from this appearance today at the University of Chicago to continue making the case, as you said, for Judge Garland’s nomination?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think today is going to be an opportunity to have a discussion about the importance of rule of law in our country and I think you can expect the President to make that case. This will be a -- the President will have opening remarks, then he'll have a conversation with Professor Strauss, who, himself, has argued 18 times in front of the United States Supreme Court. And then they’re going to open it up for questions with the audience.
I think you can expect the President to draw on his experience at the University of Chicago Law School and talk about not only fidelity to the rule of law but the importance of having each branch of government functioning. This is something that's important for the President, presumably important to many people, but it was something that was expressly articulated by President Reagan when there was a vacancy in the Supreme Court in the final year of his presidency. He said that every day that goes by without the Supreme Court having a fully staffed bench impairs their ability to do the important work that they have in front of them.
Q Can you also tell us why the President has his daughter with him today?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, on these trips, the President is sometimes fortunate to have his family accompany him. Malia is joining the President for this trip to Chicago and then she'll be with him for a few days in California. But I wouldn't expect her to have any public events or any public schedule.
Q Eric, just to follow up on Darlene’s point, in terms of the audience that the President is speaking to today, can you talk a little about potentially which constituency -- obviously there are plenty of people who, right now, support this nomination. There are many people who are adamantly against it. So who are those people who he’s hoping to reach with this discussion?
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure. Well, I think this will be a broad discussion. And if you take a look at people who believe that this seat should be filled and confirmed consistent with past precedent, that’s a belief that's not just enjoyed by this President, but is actually a widespread belief. If you look at public opinion polls, many of which have been sponsored by your news organizations, if you look at editorial boards from across the country -- I think we're up to about 300 editorial boards -- and newspapers that aren't necessarily always inclined to support this President -- and if you look at what the Constitution says, the President believes that this is a responsibility not only of him to put forward a highly qualified nominee, but also of the United States Senate to confirm that individual.
So that's where our focus is. Obviously this is in the hands of the United States Senate right now. And that's why you’ve seen us take the process of Senate confirmation very seriously. And if you recall, in the hours of Justice Scalia’s untimely passing, Republicans announced they would refuse to consider any of President Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court, in fact calling on us to not even nominate someone. We believe that position was manifestly untenable.
And they also argued that they wouldn't meet with any nominee that we put forward. Fast-forward a few weeks -- a few months now -- the President put forward a highly qualified nominee, a nominee who even Republicans admit is a consensus nominee, a nominee who enjoys the support of Republicans like Miguel Estrada, Ken Starr, Michael Chertoff, Alberto Gonzalez. This nominee is someone who has been having private meetings with United States senators, both Democrats and Republicans. Those meetings I can tell you have been thoughtful, have been substantive, have been probing.
And our positon is the following, which is if the senators themselves are going to be in a position to ask questions of our nominee behind close doors and in a private setting, why can't we do that in public? Why can't Chief Judge Garland have the opportunity to answer these questions under oath, on camera, in the public in a setting that is normally called a hearing?
Q What sort of a message does it send, though, to go to a state where there’s a competitive Senate election and where you have one of your few Republican allies that this is his home state, the day after endorsing his opponent in that race?
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure. Well, the reason the President is going to the University of Chicago is he taught there for over a decade, so he’s got deep roots not only in the Chicago area, obviously, but also at that institution. This is an institution that really shaped the President’s views on the importance of rule of law in our country and the fidelity to the Constitution.
As I also mentioned, Chief Judge Garland has roots in Chicago, too. So we thought this would be an apt place to have this discussion.
Q Was there any consideration of not doing the endorsement of Tammy Duckworth within 24 hours of the trip to Chicago?
MR. SCHULTZ: The President did decide to endorse Congresswoman Duckworth. He believes she is eminently qualified for the United States Senate. She’s a war hero. She’s someone who has served in this administration, standing up for veterans. She’s someone who served the people of Illinois in the United States Congress. He’s proud to support her.
Q And you don't think it says anything to the other Republicans who are deciding what they’re going to do about Garland or that you want to switch over to your side?
MR. SCHULTZ: The message I think that sends is just do your job. We're not asking for any Senate Republicans to do anything extraordinary, anything creative. There’s a lot of times where Congress has to face complex, complicated issues -- you might call encryption one of them. This one is fairly simple. This is an elementary responsibility for them to advise and consent on the President’s judicial nominations.
Q Has he been back to the University of Chicago Law School since he was a professor there?
MR. SCHULTZ: I did a little bit of digging on this. The President has not been back to the University of Chicago since becoming President. I cannot account for any interim years since leaving the law school and getting to the White House. But I can also tell you this is the 33rd trip to Illinois by the President since getting into the White House.
Q Can I ask you one other on something else? Does President Obama think Hillary Clinton is qualified to be President?
MR. SCHULTZ: The President has said that Secretary Clinton comes to this race with more experience than any other non-Vice President in recent campaign history. The President was fortunate to have Secretary Clinton serve as his Secretary of State for four years, when they worked together on some of the world’s most complicated and complex issues. And he’s proud of that service.
Q And what does he make of Bernie Sanders saying that the same super PAC that supported President Obama in 2012 is supporting Hillary Clinton now is a disqualification for her being President?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have a conversation with the President to read out to you on that. I know that this is a heated campaign season, and campaigns are going to trade barbs back and forth. And the good news for all of you is those campaigns have highly paid communication professionals who would be happy to answer your question.
Q The President doesn’t think that using a super PAC disqualified him from being President?
MR. SCHULTZ: I haven't talked to the President about it.
Q So to get us to inversions. The administration had made clear that there would be more inversions rules coming, but the fact that they came on Monday was a big surprise to most everybody, and the markets certainly reacted as such. So I’m curious, why that timing and why the surprise element, given the pains that this administration and the President often takes to avoid market surprises?
MR. SCHULTZ: Angela, I don't have details of how Treasury went about this process. All I can tell you is this, as you point out, was the third step they’ve taken to try and curb this unpatriotic process. And this began with the President’s announcement back in 2014 announcing that he wanted to take on this idea that some large corporate interests could shirk their responsibility to pay taxes to pay their fair share by renouncing their American citizenship. The President believes that's an unfair practice and it’s un-American. And so that's why the Treasury has taken some significant steps both in the intervening time, but, as you point out, in recent days to help discourage this action.
Q But was the surprise element intended?
MR. SCHULTZ: I can't speak to if others found this surprising. As you know, this has been a priority for this President. And I know the Treasury Department has been dogged in their process of putting this together. This is a complicated piece of business, and the Treasury Department wanted to make sure they got it right.
Q How quickly should we expect more rules on inversions?
MR. SCHULTZ: You should check with the Treasury Department. I know that if they're working on any future actions, the most impactful thing we could do would be if Congress took some action here. Unfortunately, they’ve shown -- unfortunately, Congress has not shown a backbone to stand up to large corporate interests that choose to renounce their American citizenship in exchange for tax benefits.
The President feels very strongly we should close those loopholes. That's why the President directed his Treasury Department to do what they could. But that's also why the President wants to see Congress step up to the plate and take some action here.
Q And can you say how involved was the President in the inversions rule that Treasury just came out with? Like was it something where he was regularly kept up to date by Treasury on how things were proceeding? Or was it something where he really got into the weeds on it, as he sometimes does in issues that concern hi, or that he’s particularly interested in?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Roberta, as with all tax guidance or regulation, this is an action taken by Treasury and the IRS. I can tell you that Treasury kept the White House up to date as their process proceeded. And ultimately, the President was informed of Treasury’s final decision in the days leading up to the announcement. But, yes, this is absolutely a priority of this President, and that's why he called for executive actions a few years ago.
Q In other financial news, Puerto Rico has decided to enact a debt moratorium. How does that -- or does it complicate the efforts of Washington to right Puerto Rico’s financials?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Angela, we continue to closely monitor the situation in Puerto Rico and the Treasury Department is in regular contact with their government. We know that the commonwealth is in crisis and urgently needs the ability to restructure its financial liabilities, along with independent oversight that respects the commonwealth’s governance. So that's why we’ve called on Congress to provide Puerto Rico with tools to achieve a lasting, workable solution and create a path to recovery for the 3.5 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico. We have been encouraged by the bipartisan progress that's being made on the Hill right now. We've expressed some concerns with the legislation as it currently lays out, but our work on that continues in earnest.
Q But will the action by Puerto Rico change anything that Washington is doing now that it appears there may actually be legislation?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I think the process of that legislation has been underway for a few weeks now and so we hope that that process remains undeterred.
Q Do you care to respond to the President of Russia saying the release of the Panama Papers was some sort of U.S.-driven plot to weaken Russia?
MR. SCHULTZ: I have no idea what the President of Russia is basing that on.
Q Does he need anything? (Laughter.)
MR. SCHULTZ: I can only speak for my President, and when the President speaks on highly charged topics, it’s always grounded in facts.
Q Did the U.S. have any inkling that this document dump was coming, or that these reports were about to pop, or anything of that nature?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, I can't account for the entire enterprise of the United States government. I can tell you that I did not.
Q The President and this White House has had a pretty good working relationship with CEOs of big companies, the kinds of companies that would be concerned by this move. And I’m wondering what kind of response the White House has had from its allies in the business community since Treasury came out with its decision? And do you see this sort of harming the working relationship that the President has with business in the last months of his time in office?
MR. SCHULTZ: Roberta, I want to quibble with one premise of your question, which is we think most American businesses want to pay their fair share. Most American businesses are headed by CEOs who believe that a tax system -- I'm sorry -- that they want to pay their fair share. And that's why the President believes that under current rules with these loopholes, those who are trying to do the right thing are penalized because there are currently loopholes available to those who are wishing to skirt tax law by renouncing their citizenship and moving their citizenship on paper overseas.
So the President actually believes that he wants to level the playing field so that all corporations are playing by the same rules.
Q Do you expect him today at all to address his -- Josh said that he’s had regrets over his decision to participate in the filibuster in 2006 against Alito. Do you expect him to address that today?
MR. SCHULTZ: Look, he’ll have -- the President will have a chance to make brief remarks at the top, and then there will be a question-and-answer period with Professor Strauss, President Obama’s former colleague. And then there will be an open Q&A with the audience. So I’m not sure what those questions will be.
Q Can that include us?
MR. SCHULTZ: What’s that?
Q Can that include us as the audience?
MR. SCHULTZ: Probably not today. But I did want to point out that on Justice Alito, by the way, is a justice and has been for about 10 years. His confirmation battle took 82 days. So the average for a Supreme Court justice is about 67 days from confirmation -- I’m going to try that again -- nomination to confirmation. Sam Alito’s took 82 days. So we expect the Senate to move with expediency, consistent with all of that precedent.
Q Can you speak on how the audience was selected beyond obviously they’re former colleagues of his? There are some both 7th Circuit judges and some local jurists. How were those student selected? Can you just shed any light on that?
MR. SCHULTZ: I can tell you that we worked closely with the University of Chicago Law School primarily to put this audience together. There will be current students representing all three years of law school. There will be faculty and there will be members of the sort of greater University of Chicago Law School community. So that includes some alumni, and that includes important partners they have in the greater Chicago community.
I can also tell you we expect some family members of Chief Judge Garland to join us, as well as some of their family friends.
Q Do you know who among his family?
MR. SCHULTZ: I know that his sister Jill will be joining us, among others.
Q One more to circle back on the President’s daughter. You said she’s not going to have any public events, and we wouldn't expect her to have any public events. But you speak for the President, so what is the reason that he brought her along today? Does he want her to see where he used to teach? Is there something he wants to impart to her? She’s in the middle of her own college process. Is this part of that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, the President is fortunate enough to sometime have members of his family travel with him. This is one of those trips. His daughter is going to join him on this travel to Chicago and then join us all the way to California. I wouldn't expect any public events or any public schedule she has beyond that.
MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you, guys.
1:29 P.M. EDT