Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route New York, NY, 6/8/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route New York, New York
2:58 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Hello, everybody. Are we ready to get started? I do not have anything at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Q Any endorsement today?
MR. EARNEST: I do not anticipate any formal announcement of an endorsement in the presidential race from the President in advance of his meeting with Senator Sanders tomorrow, to be sure. That certainly would include the conversation that the President expects to have with Mr. Fallon tonight.
Q Why did you use the word “formal” when you said that just now?
MR. EARNEST: Well -- that’s perceptive of you. I'm just trying to be as specific as possible. And obviously in the readout that we put out late last night, the President had an opportunity to have a conversation with both Democratic candidates for President, and one of those calls was a congratulatory call, as we know from the readout. And for months now, we've been saying that the President will support the Democratic nominee for President. So just trying to be as specific as possible about the fact that I would not expect any sort of expression of, or formal announcement of an endorsement at any time in advance of the President’s meeting with Senator Sanders tomorrow.
Q At this point, does the President think it's appropriate that Senator Sanders concede the race and stop seeking the nomination for the party?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, the President believes that Senator Sanders has more than earned the right to make his own decision about the course of his campaign. And the President is certainly respectful of that, both because he has observed the way that Senator Sanders has succeeded in inspiring millions of Americans in support of his agenda, but the President also comes at this from a unique perspective, having run his own campaign for the presidency. And the President certainly understands the emotions and personal investment that's required to mount a campaign. So the President is respectful of that personal investment.
And again, when you have performed as well as Senator Sanders has -- he certainly exceeded everybody’s expectations, possibly even his own, in terms of the support and enthusiasm that he would generate all across the country. He’s earned the opportunity to make these decisions based on his own thinking and based on his own schedule.
Q Josh, just to put a fine point on it, does the President and the White House see Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidential race?
MR. EARNEST: Look, for now I think we've been quite clear about the President’s intent to support the Democratic nominee. But we obviously are getting very close to the end of the nomination process, but I don't anticipate having a whole lot more to say about this in advance of President Obama’s meeting with Senator Sanders tomorrow.
That meeting, by the way, will take place at 11:15 a.m. tomorrow at the White House.
Q What does the President want to say to Senator Sanders in that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I don't have a whole lot of the meeting to preview. I think what is fair is I think the President certainly wants to congratulate Senator Sanders on a remarkably successful campaign. He succeeded in energizing not just millions of Americans all across the country -- Democrats and independents -- but also in empowering a new generation of political activists.
You all have heard the President talk a lot about the importance of engaging the next generation of Americans in our political process and how our country will be stronger because of that. And that certainly is one important part of Senator Sanders’s many accomplishments.
I think the President will also convey his appreciation for the kind of agenda that Senator Sanders has run on. Senator Sanders has been dogged in advocating for addressing issues like persistent economic inequality in the United States. Senator Sanders has spoken passionately about the need to counter the influence of special interests in our politics, particularly when it comes to money from special interests in our politics. And Senator Sanders has also been outspoken on a whole host of other issues -- things like immigration reform, and protecting the right of every American to have access to quality, affordable health insurance, the need to close loopholes -- tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected. All these issues sound familiar to you because you’ve heard the President spend the better part of eight years talking about them.
So what’s also true of Senator Sanders is that he didn’t just start talking about these issues when he announced that he was running for President last summer. These are values and priorities that have been the focus of Senator Sanders’s career in public service for decades. And his advocacy is important. And I think they’ll have a conversation in the Oval Office tomorrow about how Senator Sanders can build on the progress that he has made in bringing attention to those issues and ensuring that the next President of the United States shares those priorities.
Q Last night, Donald Trump made a very specific appeal to Sanders supporters and invited them into his tent -- particularly on issues like trade. And I'm wondering how concerned the White House is about that, how concerned the President is that a portion of Sanders supporters will go to Trump because of concerns they share.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think there will be an opportunity to have a very robust debate in the fall between the presumptive Republican nominee and the Democratic nominee. And we certainly would expect that voters across the country, regardless of who they voted for, regardless in which party primary they voted for, will be listening closely to the agenda that's put forward by both candidates.
And I will say that one of the reasons the President believes it's important for Senator Sanders to remain engaged in this debate is that the kind of support that he built for his campaign is not something anybody should take for granted. It's not easy to build a nationwide political movement that earns millions of votes in primaries and caucuses in 50 states. That is a significant undertaking and a significant accomplishment. And no one should take that work for granted, and the President and the Democratic Party certainly doesn’t take the support of those millions of Americans for granted in the general election.
And I will say that I do feel strongly that the -- and the President feels strongly -- that the Democratic candidate will have a very strong case to make about why the Democratic candidate has earned the support of those voters as well.
Q So just to be clear, is the President waiting for Sanders to get out of the race before he makes his formal endorsement you’ve mentioned?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I don’t have any update on the timing of a presidential announcement of any sort of formal endorsement.
Q Wouldn’t that show some respect for this message and accomplishment you’re talking about?
MR. EARNEST: The President certainly deeply respects what Senator Sanders has accomplished, and that’s why I would not anticipate any sort of formal announcement from the President in advance of his conversation with Senator Sanders tomorrow.
Q And will we see the two of them together at all tomorrow? Do they plan to make any statement or spray during this?
MR. EARNEST: We are aware of your keen interest in covering the President’s meeting with Senator Sanders. It will be a private meeting, but we’re working to determine if there’s a way to give you a sense of their interaction.
Q And can you say any more about how the President watched returns last night? Did he or maybe the First Lady together watch Hillary Clinton’s speech? Or can you give us any readout on how that went?
MR. EARNEST: I did not have a chance to ask him about that, so let me check on that and I’ll see if I can get you the details. He obviously read a lot of the coverage today. And we were talking on the helicopter about the powerful speech that Secretary Clinton delivered last night. And it was a historic moment, and the President --
Q He was talking about that on the helicopter? The President was talking about what a historic moment it was?
Q Can you describe that in a little more detail, what he was struck by? How he viewed that speech?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President was struck by the historic nature of last night’s speech. And I think that’s mostly it.
Look, I think others have made this observation that regardless of which candidate you intend to support in the fall, the fact that we’ve got a woman who is leading, who has been nominated by a major party as a candidate for President of the United States is a history-making moment. And she rose to the occasion of that moment in delivering a powerful speech last night.
Q The primary went on as long as 2008, and in the end, the vote and the delegate margins were more substantial. Does the President think that the concerns about party unity are overblown? How worried do you detect that he is about that?
MR. EARNEST: You guys have heard the President address this. While there are obvious stylistic differences between the two Democratic candidates for President, what’s also obvious is that their values and priorities overlap almost completely; that when you hear Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders talk on the stump, they spend a lot of time talking about the middle class, they spend a lot of time talking about the importance of addressing climate change, bringing about immigration reform, ensuring access to quality, affordable health insurance, certainly countering the influence of special interests money in our politics.
These are things that both candidates talk about. These are priorities that both candidates have dedicated their career to fighting for. We don’t see the same kind of unanimity around an agenda on the other side. And so the President is certainly optimistic that the party will be united headed into the general election, and I think the President will have something to say about that himself as well.
Q Does the President believe that there are people who are holding out for Bernie Sanders, who don’t want him to quit or don’t want Hillary Clinton to be the nominee -- that the President can convince them to support the person that he believes has won the nomination and whom he clearly supports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- let me answer that question two different ways. The first is that it is an objective fact that in states all across the country, that President Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is higher than anybody else’s; the same applies to independents, by the way. And that means that the President will be a particularly influential advocate for the Democratic nominee in the general election.
And so, yes, I would expect that would have some influence on those who supported Senator Sanders in the primary, but I also suspect that Senator Sanders is going to have something to say about this as well. And he certainly has succeeded, as I mentioned earlier, in energizing and engaging millions of Americans across the country, and he will have something important to say about who the next President should be and ensuring that the next President is somebody who shares the kinds of values that Senator Sanders has dedicated his career to fighting for.
Q He’s a two-term President. Does he see himself as a part of the Democratic establishment? There’s been a lot of talk about Democratic establishment versus Sanders supporters.
MR. EARNEST: Look, when you are the President of the United States and you’re vested with that kind of authority, it’s hard to deny that you don’t wield some institutional influence. The President certainly does.
But I think what’s important about that is the President has gone to great lengths to make sure that he stays in close touch with his supporters all across the country. The notion of the establishment has a connotation that these are people in power and that they’re somehow walled off from everybody else. The President does not see himself that way. The President sees himself as somebody who has remained true to his roots. This is somebody who started his career as a community organizer and has always viewed the true power in our democracy as coming from the grassroots level.
And even though he has spent the last seven and a half years in the highest elected office in the land, the President has worked hard to make sure that he remains in close touch with the people who elected him into this job.
Q So he’s not worried about getting written off as a member of the establishment by the Sanders revolution types?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President’s track record and the President’s reputation speaks for itself -- as somebody who, yes, wields significant influence within the party and within the country. But he's also somebody who has remained in close touch with the American people, but also with his supporters who have not been shy about making their voice heard and expressing their preferences about which direction the country should take.
Q Josh, is there anything else you'd say about how the President reflected on Secretary Clinton in the helicopter ride in terms of their relationship? And also, can you say anything about when he will see her in person, given that he's seeing Senator Sanders in person tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Other than what I said before in terms of Secretary Clinton's success in really rising to meet an historical moment, I don’t have a lot more to say about the President's reaction to her candidacy or to her speech. I don’t have any updates at this point about when the two of them may get together. But we'll keep you posted.
Q Why meet with Sanders in person and not with Clinton in person?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t rule out a future in-person meeting with Secretary Clinton.
Q Since the President is --
MR. EARNEST: You kind of walked into that one, I guess, right? (Laughter.)
Q They will someday meet again. (Laughter.) Since the President -- you said he's so popular with Democrats and independents -- should we expect that he will become sort of an advisor to the Clinton campaign? Is he going to offer behind-the-scenes advice on how to reach out to some of these voters?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, what I would anticipate is that the future Democratic nominee I think would benefit from the advice of the person who's won the last two national presidential elections. And obviously the President has had the opportunity over the last several months to communicate with both Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, both on the phone and in private meetings at the White House. Just in the last month, President Obama has had the opportunity to speak to Senator Sanders three different times. And I would expect that their meeting tomorrow will be a continuation of that ongoing conversation.
But, look, I would expect him to have an ongoing conversation with Secretary Clinton, too. She obviously got the majority of delegates, and I think it's an indication that she's got a pretty good stable of advisors. But, look, President Obama is somebody that's got some experience with this process and is obviously cheering for the Democratic nominee.
Q And how many times did he speak with Secretary Clinton in the last month?
MR. EARNEST: I did not come prepared with those statistics, but we'll see if we can get them for you.
Q You all made a point in the readout last night of saying that Senator Sanders requested the meeting tomorrow. Given the fact that the President has spoken to Senator Sanders more than three times, or three times in the last month, do you have a good sense of what he wants out of this meeting? And were you surprised to hear him say "the struggle continues" last night?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think he discussed the continued pursuit of his campaign's priorities in the context of what he described as a gracious phone call from Secretary Clinton. So, look, I'll let Senator Sanders describe what he meant in his speech. But I think all of you noticed the same thing that I did about him talking about how important these priorities are to him and, frankly, how concerned he is about making sure that President Obama is succeeded by somebody who shares those values. That certainly is something that President Obama believes is a top priority.
Q If I could ask about one other topic -- Puerto Rico. The President met with some lawmakers to talk about Puerto Rico and said there's no plan B. Is that the White House's opinion? I mean, the elected officials in Puerto Rico don’t seem to be too enthused about the plan. Some are saying that the whole idea of a control board is against the idea of a democracy, where local people elect their own leaders. Is the President comfortable with the current deal as it stands?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, you'll recall that the White House -- or you may not recall, but let me remind you that the White House first laid out some legislative proposals to try to address the situation in Puerto Rico back in October. So it has been a painstaking process to build bipartisan support in Congress for a piece of legislation that would offer authority to officials in Puerto Rico that would allow them to deal with the difficult financial situation there.
The President believes this is important because there are 3.5 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico, who are facing an increasingly dire situation. The public health system has suffered as a result of the financial challenges on the island. And we've got new data from the CDC indicating that the Zika virus is likely to spread broadly in Puerto Rico this summer. That's a significant concern.
So the President is hopeful not just that Congress will act to pass the necessary Zika funding that our public health professionals say that we need, but that Congress will act in bipartisan fashion to pass this Puerto Rico bill as well -- not because it's perfect. It's not. And you've heard me describe in the past some of the concerns we have with the bill. But the bill does meet the test of giving Puerto Rican government officials the authority that they need to deal with the financial challenges there. And it's important that they be given that authority. It's also important that they follow through on reforms that would prevent something -- a financial situation like this from emerging in the future.
So this is a compromise bill. The President strongly supports it. And he encourages Democrats and Republicans in the House to support it as well.
Q On the Stanford case, the judge in that case is starting to receive a lot of threats -- people threatening that he should die and his family should be raped. Is the White House concerned about threats like those? And have you spoken to the President any more about the Stanford sexual assault case?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about this specific case. There is no excuse for threats of violence. People are certainly entitled to express their opinion, even if that includes a disagreement with a decision. But that does not justify in any way even a threat of violence.
Q Josh, should we expect the President to be out on the presidential campaign trail before the Democratic convention?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates to the President's schedule at this point, but I wouldn’t rule that out.
Q Very quickly on TSCA, the chemical safety bill that was overhauled and has now passed the Senate and the House. The President has indicated he'd sign that. Do you have any other comments of how the White House views that bill?
MR. EARNEST: Look, we believe that this is a rare moment of bipartisanship in Congress, and we are pleased to see that the Environmental Protection Agency has been given additional authority to ensure that we can keep our families safe. And preventing these kinds of toxic chemicals from being used in a harmful way in consumer products will make our homes and communities safer. And we obviously give Democrats and Republicans in Congress credit for working together to approve this bill. The President will sign it, and we'll let you know when he has.
3:22 P.M. EDT