Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Flint, MI, 5/4/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Flint, Michigan
11:13 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Why don’t I just give you a little bit of a rundown on the day, and then we can go into your questions.
The President is joined on the plane today by a couple of members of the Michigan congressional delegation. So Congressman Debbie Dingell and Congressman Dan Kildee are on board. There are also senior administration officials who have been playing an important role in responding to the situation in Flint also on board. Those are Secretary of HHS Sylvia Burwell, the Administrator of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, and Dr. Nicole Lurie, who is an assistant secretary at Health and Human Services. She has been the lead federal official on the ground in Flint as we’ve coordinated a significant federal response to this situation.
When we arrive in Flint, we anticipate that Governor Snyder and Mayor Weaver will both be on the ground to welcome the President to Michigan. The President will first head to a location -- this food bank in Flint that has been a hub of activity in providing some needed relief and supplies to citizens in Flint. While there, the President will meet with a wide range of federal officials who have been working on the ground to coordinate the federal response. The President will receive a briefing about that federal response. Both Mayor Weaver and Governor Snyder will participate in that meeting, because the focus of our efforts has not just been to mobilize federal resources, but to ensure that they have been effectively integrated with the resources that have been mobilized by state and local officials, as well. You’ll have an opportunity to hear from the President during that meeting, either before or after. I’m not sure if that spray will be at the top or the bottom.
From there, we’ll travel to a local high school where the President will have an opportunity to sit down and visit with six or eight members of the community to talk to a cross-section of the community about how they’ve been affected by the situation. And we’ll do a brief pool spray there so you can at least get photographs of the President doing that meeting.
From there, the President will then deliver remarks to about 1,000 people from the community that will be in attendance at his speech. And that will be the end of the day, and then we’ll head back.
So that’s what we’re looking at. I think the message that you can anticipate from the President is something that will be familiar to all of you. The President will make a strong case that he cares deeply about the challenges facing the community of Flint. He will make clear that America is strongest when we’re looking out for one another and that we have an obligation as a country to look out for everybody, including people in Flint who are dealing with some pretty tough circumstances even before there was these significant problems exposed in their water system.
So the President will make clear once again that this administration will continue to help mobilize resources necessary that will allow Flint to recover and come back stronger than ever. And he’ll be focused on that even after broader national attention moves on to other things.
Q Can I ask you about -- you said 1,000 people. I mean, that seems more like a rally or some sort. I mean, who are the people, and how come so many? What are you trying to do with that crowd?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal of the President’s visit is for the President to deliver a message to the people in the community there. And we wanted to find a venue that would allow as many people as possible from the community in Flint to hear from their President firsthand, and to hear from their President directly.
And so he’ll obviously have an opportunity to have a conversation with members of the community in a smaller setting, but we also wanted to provide a setting where the President could deliver a message in person to the people of Flint.
Q And do you know how the tickets were distributed or who got the tickets?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t, but we can get you some more information about that.
Q So there were a bunch of folks in a story that we posted on our website earlier today from the community that one of my colleagues talked to -- very critical of the EPA and the federal government as much as they are of the state government, as well. One woman was asked about President Obama coming and she said, “Great, that sounds wonderful, bring a check.” And very frustrated that they don’t have the resources to deal with the situation. What’s his answer to that, and to that frustration generally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think considering that many of the people in this community were serving poisoned water to their children for a year and a half or two years, their frustration is entirely justified. And I think the President is going to make clear that this isn’t just an isolated incident of mismanagement. This also is reflective -- or this also reflects the dangers of government at all levels losing touch with the people that they were elected to serve.
And I think it is evident from the administration’s response that the President is quite serious about making sure that the federal government is living up to its obligations to our citizens. We need Congress to take some common-sense steps here to make sure that the people of Flint and the state of Michigan has the resources it needs to address this problem.
Thus far we've seen Republicans in Congress not act as aggressively as they should to respond to this situation. There is more that Congress needs to do, and there is a role for Congress to play. And the commission that was established by the Governor to take a look at this situation ascribed almost all of the blame to failures by state regulators. And this is not an exercise in finger pointing, but an exercise in asserting the responsibility that everybody has to make sure that the people of Flint have an opportunity to get back on their feet.
Q Yesterday, Governor Snyder called on the President to drink the water while he’s in Flint. If he does decide to do that, does it send the wrong message that things are kind of okay?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think -- look, I don't think there’s anybody that thinks that what’s been happening in Flint is okay. I think what is true is that there have been important steps that have been taken -- both by state and federal officials -- that have made the water safe to drink if it’s been properly filtered.
And that's why you've had federal officials including from FEMA, but also a number of state officials, including law enforcement passing out water filters to people in the community so they can get access to clean, drinkable water. The President will follow the advice of our scientists and experts about whether or not the water is safe to drink. And the EPA and state regulators have both indicated that properly filtered water is safe to drink.
I don't know if the President is going to drink any filtered water in Flint or not, but he won’t be avoiding it because it’s not necessary for him to do so. The water is safe to drink if it’s been properly filtered.
Q How does the President plan to keep the attention on Flint and the aid flowing after the cameras leave?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he certainly has given very clear instructions to his team that follow-through here is going to be critical. And over the last three months or so, I think we've seen quite effective follow-through on the part of federal officials. Nine million liters of water has been distributed. Hundreds of thousands of filters and filter cartridges have been distributed through the community. Those are resources that were mobilized largely by the federal government. You've seen steps taken by the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to Medicaid to ensure that people can get access to health care up to the age of 21. They've increased funding for community health centers to make sure that those new patients have doctors that they can see and facilities where those exams can be conducted.
So an aggressive federal response on the part of this administration has been mobilized. It’s had an impact and an important impact, a positive one. The President is proud of that. But this is a situation that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. And the President wants to have a discussion about what we can do to make sure that situations like Flint don't crop up in other communities.
I can tell you the President does not believe that eliminating the EPA, for example, is going to prevent this from happening in other places. We need an EPA that's properly funded and that's functioning effectively and properly coordinating with state-level officials to protect our air and water. Eliminating that agency, as many Republicans advocate, is not going to contribute to that goal. I think we can all agree on that.
Q So, Josh, in terms of new resources, the administration has done as much as it can right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I pointed out, the administration has mobilized significant resources. We've expedited infrastructure funding that could be used by the state of Michigan to benefit people in Flint. Millions of dollars in emergency relief has been provided -- both in the form of personnel who were working on the ground, but also in the form of bottled water and medical supplies, and water filters -- all of which reflects the resources of the American people, making sure that an American community is not left behind.
But there is more that needs to be done to address the root problem here. And the President is committed to following through in pressing for those solutions and pressing Congress to provide the necessary funding for those solutions. Thus far Republicans in Congress have blocked the kind of robust response that is clearly necessary.
Q Josh, Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve heard of him.
Q Any comment on last night? He’s the Republican nominee according to Reince Priebus. And this sort of frees the President up to start saying what he wants to say about him, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no denying that the President will have an active role in the general election. There continues to be a -- there are additional contests ahead, particularly on the Democratic side. And there are six months until Election Day. And I’m confident that the President will spend many of those days between now and Election Day making a strong case about the progress that our country has made over the last seven years.
It was President Ronald Reagan who laid out the central question that voters should ask themselves when they walk into the polling place: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
I think it is undeniable that our country is stronger, our economy is stronger, is safer than it was eight years ago. And so the question that voters will have to ask themselves is, do we want to scrap the strategy that's worked so effectively, or do we want to build on the progress that we've made. And based on the amount of time and energy that President Obama has invested in avoiding a second Great Depression and rescuing the auto industry, growing our economy from the middle out, investing in job training, cutting taxes and making tax cuts permanent for middle-class families, and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, mobilizing the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and to act to fight climate change -- I think the President's record is clear. And the President is going to be eager not just to defend that record, but also to advocate that the American people elect a 45th President that's committed to building on that progress.
Q Is the White House concerned at all that the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, continues to lose states this late in the Democratic primary? I mean, is this a sign that there's any weaknesses going into obviously what's going to be a tough battle against probably Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Look, in each of these states, there are competitive contests. And that's been the case for a couple of months now. I think what is -- there are a number of conclusions that can be drawn about that process. I think an important one is that in every state that we have seen, exit polls indicate that Democratic voters have been excited and motivated by the choices that are on the ballot for them. The exit polls of Republican voters tell a different story. And I think that's a consequence of the different kinds of campaigns that have been waged by candidates in the two parties.
But look, ultimately the voters are going to have to draw their own conclusions. But there's no denying that the competitive Democratic contest has had a positive effect in engaging and motivating and exciting Democratic voters all across the country.
Q Josh, even if it goes to a contested convention, would the President support something like a contested convention? Do you think that would be healthy for the party to keep the competition all the way to the finish?
MR. EARNEST: Most of the analysis that I have seen has indicated that that is not at all likely to happen.
Q What was the President's reaction to Senator Cruz dropping out last night?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that he had one.
Q He didn’t have one, or you don’t know what it is?
MR. EARNEST: I'd be surprised if he had one.
Q Do you think he was watching the results come in, or watching sports?
MR. EARNEST: I'm confident that he was not watching the results come in.
Q On Syria, does the President have any plans to call President Putin about maybe pushing al-Assad to go a little softer on the opposition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of any phone calls with President Putin that are planned. If one does get scheduled, we'll let you know after it has occurred. The President has had a number of occasions just over the last three or four months to strongly impress upon President Putin the need to persuade the Assad regime to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of a cessation of hostilities and engage constructively in the political talks that are being led by the U.N.
Fortunately, President Obama did succeed in persuading President Putin to intervene, and that's why we saw for several weeks the successful implementation of a cessation of hostilities that many people were skeptical about. So President Putin did it once before. He should do it again.
Q Josh, when we get back from this trip, the President will be appearing tonight at a gala for Asian Pacific Islanders. And it's a pretty large group, and I'm just wondering if the President has a specific message that he wants to deliver tonight. And this is not a group that's often talked about -- sort of as political prowess on national elections. I'm wondering if he's going to deliver a message about getting involved in the election cycle, really try to talk about the political season at all, or whether it's a different kind of message.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President will primarily focus on the important role that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make to our country. And this is primarily an opportunity to honor those public servants who have not just represented that community but served our country in an important way. Look, what's also undeniable is that the fastest-growing voting bloc in America are actually Asian Americans.
So I think you could anticipate that the President will also make a strong case that the values that he's been fighting for over the last seven years, and the progress that we've made over the last seven years has certainly benefitted Asian Americans all across the country. And that's a record to be proud of. It's certainly a record that the President is proud of, but it's also a record that Democrats in Congress can be proud of.
Q Josh, Congressman Kildee is on the plane. He's been trying to facilitate a meeting between Amir Hekmati, who’s from Flint -- one of the Iranian hostages that was released -- and the President. Do you know if they're going to encounter each other today at all?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of a plan for a meeting like that to occur. But I'll keep my eye out and see if I can give you a head's up if it does happen. Obviously, administration officials have been in frequent touch with the Hekmati family, both leading up to -- both in the years that he was held in captivity, but also in the immediate aftermath of his release. But I'm not aware of a plan for that kind of meeting to occur on this trip.
Q What about Little Miss Flint? Is she going to be at the roundtable?
MR. EARNEST: Little Miss Flint will be participating in today's events, and the President is looking forward to the opportunity to meet her and to convey to her how inspired he was by her letter. This is a little girl who has taken action to defend her community. And I think that's an example I think that we all can at least take note of, if not follow.
Thank you, guys.
11:32 A.M. EDT