Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Charlotte, NC, 7/5/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Charlotte, North Carolina
1:54 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One both for what is and has been a highly anticipated visit by the President of the United States on the campaign trail for the first time in 2016. The President is looking forward to the event that he'll do today with Secretary Clinton, and he'll obviously be able to speak for himself about why he is so enthusiastic about her candidacy.
But other than that, I'm happy to take whatever questions may be on your mind today. I can only imagine what they are. (Laughter.)
Q Well, we want to start with Director Comey's announcement. Do you have a reaction? Can you tell us whether or not the White House got a head's up this was coming? And can you tell us whether or not the President has any reservations about endorsing someone who is extremely careless with classified information?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can first confirm what Director Comey said with regard to the White House, which is that no one at the White House received advance notice of his comments. In fact, no one at the White House received advance notice that he was planning to make comments today. So Director Comey, in his statement I saw, confirmed that that applied to the entire federal government. I can certainly vouch for the White House. If you have questions about other government agencies, you can check with them.
With regard to the President's support for Secretary Clinton and her presidential campaign, I think you'll hear from him at length today about why he is so enthusiastic about her candidacy and why he believes she would be an excellent 45th President of the United States.
With regard to a reaction from the White House, I don’t have an official reaction to share. The reason for that is simply that, while the FBI is completing their investigation, the career prosecutors at the Department of Justice still have to make a final determination about how and whether to proceed. And we have gone to great lengths to avoid the appearance of interfering with this ongoing process. Director Comey himself noted that there was no outside influence brought to bear on this investigation. That certainly is consistent with the effort that we have made to protect the independence of the investigation. It also is consistent with the President's expectations about how any sort of criminal investigation should be conducted -- that is without regard to the political standing or partisan affiliation of anybody involved in the investigation.
So given the fact that this matter is still going to be considered by Department of Justice prosecutors, I don’t have an official reaction to what Director Comey said today about the FBI's investigation or the recommendation that they're making to those prosecutors.
Q Does the President agree that her handling of this material was careless?
MR. EARNEST: Again, what we're talking about today is an investigation that was conducted by the FBI. This is an investigation that was conducted independent of any outside influence. And again, I think based on what we know from Director Comey's comments, they've looked at this in excruciating detail. So as I alluded to last week, the President's views are irrelevant. The views that matter in this case are the views of the independent FBI investigators that have spent a long time looking into the matter.
And again, with regard to the President's support for her candidacy, he'll talk at length about that today. I think you will find him making a very forceful case about why he believes she should succeed him in the Oval Office, but I'll let him speak to that later today.
Q Josh, do you expect him to address the email issue at all during his remarks? And do you expect him to address the overall questions about her trustworthiness that the email issue has fed?
MR. EARNEST: I do not anticipate that the President will discuss directly the findings and recommendations announced by Director Comey today, but I do anticipate the President will deliver a forceful case about Secretary Clinton's qualifications and values that she'd bring to the job as President of the United States.
Q I think we're curious, to the extent that you can help us, about what they're talking about on the flight now, and also whether President Obama has decided only to talk with her about the campaign and governance going forward -- in other words, not to kind of go over these details. They could be on the plane right now talking about what the FBI Director has criticized her for and how he thinks that -- you know, what she shouldn’t do if she's President. Maybe they're not doing that, and maybe he's decided that's not going to be his role. Could you talk a little bit about kind of what boundaries he's drawn in terms of how to advise her and what sort of advice is appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I am confident that the President and Secretary Clinton are not discussing the FBI investigation that is being completed. I'm confident that they are not discussing the findings of the investigation that were disclosed by Director Comey today. I'm confident that they are not discussing the recommendation that Director Comey is making to the Department of Justice.
The President believes deeply in the principle of keeping independent Department of Justice investigations separate from politics. And that's a principle that the President believes is not just worth upholding, but one that's worth fighting for. On various occasions over the last year, year and a half in which you all have asked me questions about this, I've worked hard to try to make clear how important the principle is. And occasionally that's meant, as recently as today, that there are direct questions that I decline to answer. That also means that there are conversations that the President declines to have because he believes that this is a principle that's worth protecting. I have confidence that Secretary Clinton believes in that principle too. But I'll allow her team to discuss that.
Q Did he watch the remarks this morning, though?
MR. EARNEST: Did I?
Q No, did he --
MR. EARNEST: I did watch the Director's comments today. I don’t know whether or not the President did.
Q Was the President made aware of those comments? And who briefed him on it? Did the Attorney General brief him? Did Director Comey, after he gave those remarks, brief the President?
MR. EARNEST: No. And as the Attorney General has said, no one at the White House has received a briefing on this ongoing investigation. And the President has still not received a detailed briefing on this matter from anybody at the Department of Justice. Again, the President all along has believed that it's important for the Department of Justice to conduct their investigation separate from any sort of perceived influence from the White House or anybody else in the federal government.
So the President is aware of the news. I don’t know whether or not he watched the entirety of the Director's statement in real time.
Q In his statement today, Director Comey said that the FBI went through other agencies' email servers to find emails that Secretary Clinton had sent that she hadn’t turned over. Did that include any White House emails or even the President's emails? Were they a part of the FBI investigation?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that question. Even if I did know the answer to that question, I don’t know that I would be a in a position to discuss it. But let me consult with my colleagues to see if I can get you some kind of an answer to that question.
Q So, Josh, you've said a lot of things that they're not discussing today. What are they discussing? Are they discussing Donald Trump? Are they discussing potential running mates for Hillary? And there's some Cabinet members who are on her short list, apparently. He you could give some references, I assume.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they're having a conversation right now. And since I'm talking to all of you, it's hard for me to provide a detailed readout of that. I'll just say in general that -- look, I've made clear what they're not discussing, but I would not be surprised if they do have an opportunity to discuss the ongoing campaign. Obviously, Secretary Clinton has lots of people who have good intentions, who can offer solid political advice. The President is among them. And presumably someone who has won two national elections with more than 50 percent of the vote -- the first time that any President has done that since President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- I'm confident that Secretary Clinton is interested in whatever advice the President might have to share.
But President Obama has also been in the position of receiving a large quantity of political advice in the context of a competitive national election. So I'm confident that he will be respectful of the important decisions that she has to make. She alone is the person who can make the right decision for her and her campaign. And the President, I'm confident, will be entirely respectful of that.
Q Where are they having that meeting now, Josh? And can you also address some criticism today about the fact that they're flying together on Air Force One? Are the taxpayers paying for that? How is that funded or billed?
MR. EARNEST: Shortly before I walked back here to visit with all of you, they were visiting with some staff in the senior staff cabin. As it relates to this trip, the White House of course follows all the rules and regulations that apply to the President's political travel. Those rules and regulations apply when the President makes what are now routine fundraising trips to places like Seattle and New York, most recently. Those rules also apply when the presumptive Democratic nominee for President is onboard Air Force One. So we'll follow all those rules and regulations.
As you know, the Democratic National Committee files monthly reports with the FEC. And in those reports, the Democratic National Committee discloses the disbursements that they make to the federal government consistent with those rules and regulations.
Q Josh, the White House doesn’t disclose the reimbursement rate for specific flights, so it's impossible to determine what the specific reimbursement rate is for a trip like this one. Is that something that the White House would commit to disclosing in the future as the most transparent administration?
MR. EARNEST: The White House follows all the rules and regulations that are on the books. And we can get you the very specific part of the code that applies in this situation. We follow all those rules, and the DNC does disclose on a monthly basis the payments that they make to the federal government consistent with those rules and regulations.
Q It's been a week -- really a month of Americans seeing large-scale terrorist attacks taking place across the globe, including here at home. Given the attack in Iraq, the attack in Bangladesh, what's sort of the response or your message to the American people after a week of seeing the same stuff play over the news to reassure them that this isn’t going to come here at home?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, President Obama believes that his most important responsibility as President is the safety and security of the American people. And the President goes to great lengths to make clear that that's a priority. Obviously the United States is leading a coalition of 66 nations to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. This international coalition was possible because the President demonstrated some leadership in the international community and worked hard to assemble this diverse coalition to focus our efforts against ISIL. And that includes military efforts involving 13,000 airstrikes that have resulted in more than 45 percent of the territory in Iraq that ISIL previously controlled being retaken. Syria opposition forces with the support of our coalition have retaken about 20 percent of the territory inside of Syria that ISIL previously controlled.
So we're making progress, and we are applying significant pressure to ISIL leaders in Iraq and in Syria. Unfortunately, what we have seen is an effort by ISIL to try to export their radical ideology and inspire people to carry out acts of violence in other locations. The United States is working very intensively with our allies and partners around the globe to combat those efforts. That includes trying to counter the radical messaging of ISIL on social media. It includes better coordination among intelligence agencies and customs officials to shut down the flow of foreign fighters and to more effectively monitor individuals who are crossing borders.
But this is a significant challenge. And the President and his national security team understand that this isn't just a significant challenge, it's also the President’s top priority. And the President receives regular briefings on homeland security, and the President receives regular briefings from his national security team about our ongoing efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And I'm confident that for as long as he remains in office, the President and his team will be focused very carefully on this priority.
Q Josh, there was some indecision about whether the Secretary and the President were going to make this trip together, especially after the Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch encounter last week. Can you talk about how the decision was made to travel together and what the symbolism of sort of continuity of purpose that’s intended to send?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, obviously by traveling together it gives President Obama and Secretary Clinton the opportunity to spend some time together and to visit. I know President Obama is looking forward to doing so as he was boarding the plane. I would expect that people might conclude that the President has a lot of personal affection for Secretary Clinton. People might conclude that the President is deeply invested in the success of her campaign. It would be right to draw those conclusions.
Again, with regard to the ongoing work at the Department of Justice, we have made clear time and time again that neither President Obama nor the White House is involved in that investigation. Neither President Obama nor the Obama White House will be involved in the prosecutorial decisions that are made by career prosecutors who have received now the recommendation of the FBI. So what message Secretary Clinton’s travel aboard Air Force One sends and what it doesn’t send should be quite clear to the American public.
Q Josh, just to draw a line under the earlier discussion, the DNC will reimburse the White House or the taxpayers for the appropriate level of money for this flight? Is that how it works?
MR. EARNEST: It's slightly more complicated than that. But in a general --
Q Can you spell it out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was hoping to avoid to in this setting, but let me just give you the top lines and we'll walk through the details.
We can get you the specific rules that are written down that apply in this scenario. But my understanding about the way that this works is that the Democratic National Committee essentially establishes an escrow account that Secretary Clinton’s campaign committee pays into. And then the DNC will make disbursements from that escrow account to pay for the costs associated with President Obama’s political activities. Because, keep in mind there are payments that are made by the DNC to the federal government any time the President is traveling for political purposes. So the fact that Secretary Clinton is aboard Air Force One doesn’t change the rules. Those rules apply both for routine fundraising trips, but also when Secretary Clinton is aboard Air Force One.
So that, in general, is how this process works. But it is extraordinarily complicated. And we can certainly get you some more information, particularly as it relates to the details of the law in this case.
Q When somebody says "taxpayers are paying for this trip and I object to that," your response to that is?
MR. EARNEST: That the Obama administration follows all the rules and regulations about paying for political travel that previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have followed.
Q And this is purely a political trip? There’s no official business on this trip, correct?
MR. EARNEST: That is correct. This is a political trip.
Q Josh, how many more of these events should we expect the President to be doing jointly with Secretary Clinton? Is this going to be -- is this sort of the kickoff of a long summer of these joint events and appearances together?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I'll let Secretary Clinton and her team describe the strategy here. I think one observation that I can make is that one of the benefits of having the strong political support of someone as high-profile and as influential as President Obama is that he doesn’t struggle to get attention for the affirmative case that he will make for Secretary Clinton. There may be other prominent supporters of Secretary Clinton that only get a lot of attention for their remarks if they are appearing onstage with Secretary Clinton. President Obama can do so on his own.
And that is only part of the kind of benefit associated with his strong support for Secretary Clinton’s campaign. So I wouldn't rule out future joint events, but one of the reasons that President Obama’s support is so important is it will not require the President making joint appearances with Secretary Clinton for you all to notice.
Q Can we ask one more question about the VP search, which I think was touched on earlier? Are you saying that President Obama would share his views or help bounce ideas around if Secretary Clinton asked, in terms of a running mate? Or do you know whether that's already occurred?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don't know whether or not that's occurred. I don't anticipate being able to provide a detailed readout of their conversation, so I don't know whether or not she will ask him about that. If Secretary Clinton wanted to talk to President Obama about choosing a running mate, I'm sure he would not hesitate to engage in that discussion.
President Obama has often described choosing Vice President Biden to be his running mate as the smartest political decision he ever made. So I think it's fair to say that President Obama believes that he was extraordinarily well served by the successful execution of the process of choosing a running mate.
I know that Secretary Clinton has spoken admiringly of how well Vice President Biden has served President Obama. So presumably, Secretary Clinton would agree with President Obama that he made a smart decision in choosing Vice President Biden to be his running mate. That might lead her to seek President Obama’s advice in that process. But I don't know whether or not it's happening. And again, I think even if I knew that it were, I don't think it’s something I would be in a position to confirm, just because they’re having a private conversation about it.
Q More broadly on messaging, staying on message is important to the administration. I'm just wondering whether President Obama is a little frustrated that on this day -- which took months of waiting until she had the right delegate numbers and the timing was right -- whether on this day, when he wanted the message to be just a pure show of Democratic unity, having images of them stepping off the plane together with headlines that read “FBI” and “careless” is really not what he wanted, and whether he is concerned that even if the long-term effect of today is that there’s no prosecution, that the short-term effect will be to step on the message of the two of them.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I don't think the President is particularly concerned about that, primarily because the question you're raising is entirely outside of his control. Neither the President nor anybody at the White House had any influence on the ongoing -- or the recently completed FBI investigation. There was no White House influence on the conduct of that investigation. There’s no White House influence on the conclusion of that investigation. There’s no White House influence on the decision that Director Comey made to publicize many of the results of that investigation. And there certainly is no White House influence on the recommendation that Director Comey made to the Department of Justice.
So I think this falls in the category of accepting the things that you can't control. But I think what is also true is that the decision of the most popular national politician in the country to endorse the Democratic nominee is something that people will notice. And the President will have a very forceful case to make. I'll let all of you judge for yourself how effective he is in making that case. But the President has a forceful case to make, and I am completely confident that the news of the President making that case alongside Secretary Clinton will cut through.
Q One more thing. Director Comey has come under fire from a number of Republicans, it seems, particularly including the Speaker of the House, questioning the decision not to recommend criminal charges to the DOJ. Would the President defend Director Comey from that criticism? Would you defend Director Comey from that criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just make a couple of observations. The first is that Director Comey is of sufficient stature and skill that he can defend himself. The second is that there were a number of Republican members of Congress who, prior to today’s announcement, expressed confidence in the investigation because Director Comey was leading it. I think the third relevant point is not just that Director Comey served in a prominent role in a Republican administration, but rather that Director Comey is somebody with a well-established reputation of being able to put politics aside and focus on his official responsibilities.
So that's the reason the President chose him for the job. Presumably, that's also the reason that Director Comey was confirmed with such strong bipartisan support in the United States Senate.
But again, Director Comey is of sufficient skill and stature that he can defend himself. He certainly doesn’t need my help.
END 2:20 P.M. EDT