Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Atlanta, Georgia, 8/1/16
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Atlanta, Georgia
12:10 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Welcome aboard Air Force One, everybody, en route to Atlanta, where the President will address the 95th Convention of Disabled American Veterans. This will mark his final major address to our nation’s veterans. So the President is looking forward to speaking with these brave men and women today.
The President will make two important announcements -- first, that since 2010, we have reduced veterans’ homelessness by nearly half, and by 17 percent since just last year. And second, as part of the President’s precision medicine initiative, 500,000 veterans have voluntarily donated their health data to the future of science and medicine through the VA’s Million Veteran Program, marking a critical halfway point to the goal of signing up 1 million veterans.
The President will talk this afternoon about some of the veterans whose stories have deeply moved him over the past eight years. He'll also discuss the necessary transformation underway at the Veterans Administration, the progress we've made and the work still to be done.
This afternoon, the President will make the case that politicians and policymakers must do more than just pay lip service to caring for our veterans. He will point to some proposals in Washington that gut funding for veterans’ care or to privatize the Veterans Administration. The President believes this is a misguided approach and that, as the greatest nation on Earth, we should not leave veterans to fend for themselves.
So I hope you all look forward to the President’s remarks this afternoon. I'm happy to take questions on that or anything else on your minds.
Q -- that the President will touch upon politicians’ rhetoric when it comes to our veterans. Gold Star families have been an important part of this administration and other presidencies, as well. Over the weekend, Donald Trump made some pretty offensive comments to the Khan family who spoke at the DNC. Is rhetoric like that appropriate in the Oval Office? And will President Obama specifically mention those comments in his remarks today?
MR. SCHULTZ: Stacey, thank you for the question. I don't have any additional preview of the President’s remarks beyond what I was just able to discuss. For any response on the campaign trail I'd refer you to -- for any response to back-and-forth on the campaign trail, I would refer you to the campaigns.
I can say, generally speaking, since you mentioned the President’s longstanding support for Gold Star families, I'm happy to tell you about our approach. As you mentioned, this is something that the President believes should rise above politics; that the sacred covenant we have with the brave men and women who serve our country and those who perform the ultimate sacrifice should be one that we honor every single day. The President believes that nobody has given more for our country’s security, for our country’s safety, for our country’s freedom than Gold Star families.
This is something, as you point out, he’s expressed in public, but it's also something he’s expressed in private when meeting with families, when grieving with families. You’ll note that just last week, Sharon Belkofer introduced the President at the Democratic National Convention. She, herself, is a Gold Star mom who lost her son in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan a few years ago. The President was deeply moved by her introduction and took enormous pride in her remarks that evening. So the President believes that Sharon’s family and families all across this country who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice deserve nothing but honor and gratitude for their sacrifice.
The President has expressed that before. But in terms of what his remarks will say today, I'd encourage you to tune in.
Q Separate from the ongoing campaign and any specific person who may or may not have said anything, would President Obama, as he is leaving office, support or stand by these types of comments being made by someone who could take his place next year?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, again, I do believe the President’s views on this are well-known, which is families who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country’s freedom and this country’s safety deserve nothing but our country’s honor and gratitude and deepest respect.
Q How do you respond, or how does the administration respond to critics who say that the problems at the VA got worse, not better, during the President’s first term, and that the efforts that he’s making now essentially amount to tinkering around the edges and not the complete overhaul that they say the place requires, including more privatization, seeing private doctors, et cetera?
MR. SCHULTZ: Mike, I'm glad you asked that question, because this President has made it a priority to transform the Veterans Administration. That began many years ago, and an important milestone for that was bringing in Secretary Bob McDonald, who has an esteemed record in the private sector in terms of making sure organizations and businesses and large bureaucracies run better. That was the mandate given to Secretary McDonald when he took the oath of office to run the Veterans Administration. That's something the Secretary has made enormous progress on.
But if you're suggesting that there’s more work to be done, the answer to that is absolutely. But I do reject the notion that we're just tinkering around the edges. To the contrary. At the President’s direction, Secretary McDonald has initiated a transformation at the VA that begins with how they deploy their care and services, but also includes how they track service and care, how they hold themselves accountable, how they protect whistleblowers instead of shunning them.
So the President and Secretary McDonald have both been very clear, they want as much transparency and accountability at the VA as possible. Again, we've made remarkable success. The idea that we could cut veterans’ homelessness in half was an idea I think many people would say is far-fetched. This has been a problem in this country for decades, what some called intractable years ago. The President is proud of the progress we've made on that.
But like you said, we're not done. We've got a lot of work to go. I think the President is going to speak to this exact challenge this afternoon.
Q Can you confirm, as the Libyan government announced today, that the U.S. has begun airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, I think the Department of Defense -- we might have lifted off by this point -- but the Department of Defense did confirm that at the request of the Libyan Government Of National Accord, the U.S. military conducted precision airstrikes against ISIL targets in Sert, Libya to support the GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold inside Libya.
I can tell you that these strikes were authorized by the President at the recommendation of Defense Secretary Carter and is consistent with our overall approach of combatting ISIL, which is principally to work with capable and motivated local forces.
We've seen GNA-affiliated forces on the ground in Libya recapture territory from ISIL recently, and these strikes were intended to help support those forces as they continue to make progress.
Broadly speaking, these strikes are consistent with our overall approach -- as you've seen, we've had significant impact on going after ISIL in Iraq and Syria. I believe the latest statistics from the Department of Defense include that we've recaptured -- the coalition forces have recaptured about 50 percent of ISIL's territory in Iraq and about 25 percent of ISIL's territory in Syria. But we've always been clear that the threat posed by ISIL extends beyond those two countries. The President has been clear that he will deny any safe haven to groups like ISIL or terrorists who wish to do us harm, and that's why the strikes you've seen are consistent with that approach.
Q Are the strikes sort of a one-and-done kind of thing or will there be more?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, I don’t want to preview any additional military action for you, but these types of precision strikes were approved by the President earlier at the request of the Defense Secretary. I will say that U.S. assistance will be limited to strikes and information sharing. There are unique capabilities that our military can provide to support forces on the ground, and that's what the President wanted to do.
Q Governor Scott said that the number of Zika cases has risen to 14 in Florida. Stipulating that, of course, you want Congress to do more -- we don't need to hear that whole thing again -- but he'd asked specifically for a federal emergency response team and so I'm wondering if you could respond to the Governor's request.
MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you, Justin. The President is, as we mentioned on Friday, continually getting briefed on the situation in south Florida. I know that Governor Scott made that request, and we are -- that team is being deployed by the CDC in short order so we’ll be able to work with Governor Scott’s team on the ground in south Florida.
Like you said -- or like we’ve talked about recently, the Governor has said they’re working this aggressively. They are redoubling their vector control in the area. They’re testing both mosquitoes and people. And they’re closely monitoring and committed to making adjustments to their protocol as necessary.
They’re doing all of this with the support of the CDC at the federal level. As we’ve said, we’ve deployed -- the CDC has given out $2 million in specific Zika response funding, and also $27 million in emergency preparedness funding, much of which can be used for their response to this. This disbursement of funds is on top of other pieces that have been mobilized in the federal government to respond. The Department of Health and Human Services, they are assisting local governments all across the country on vector control. They continue to expand their efforts on research and vaccine development.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, vaccine development is one of the areas that has been slowed because Congress has not funded this response. Unfortunately, Congress left town for about seven weeks without doing anything. Congress left town about four months after the United States -- the Obama administration submitted a request for $1.9 billion worth of funding. That wasn’t a number that we pulled out of thin air. That was a number that was developed based on our public health professionals and our experts telling us what the United States government would need to fully fund a response to this effort.
So if anything, we hope that this provides a wake-up call to members of Congress that when they get back to Washington from their vacation, they can get to work on addressing this problem.
Q There was a Russian military helicopter that was shot down in Syria. I’m wondering if you can confirm whether or not it was working on a humanitarian mission. What impact do you think it will have on the peace talks and whether or not it will impact the sort of safe corridors that they’re trying to set up for humanitarian access?
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, I saw public reports on this. I know that Russian officials have spoken to it. I don’t think we’ll have too much to add from here other than to express regret for any loss of life in association with this conflict. That’s, frankly, why we’ve been working tirelessly on a political solution. We believe that there is no military solution to this crisis. That’s why Secretary Kerry has been our principal diplomat, working with his counterpart in Russia, Foreign Minister Lavrov, in order to make some progress on the political solution inside Syria.
Q Russian officials said today that basically -- that the accusations that they were involved in the hacking of the DNC or the DCC are basically just a cover or a way to distract from the fact that there’s actually been domestic tampering with the campaign, and basically accusing, I guess, the U.S. of trying to use them as a scapegoat. I was wondering, did you have any response to that? And then also, if the Russians or if a state actor is involved in these hacks -- I know you kind of dealt with this before -- but what is the administration considering as a way to respond? What is the appropriate response to these types of hacks if they’re being carried out by other state actors?
MR. SCHULTZ: Ayesha, I’ll address a couple points there. First, the FBI is still investigating this matter, so it’s important that I not get ahead of that investigation. So we’re going to wait for that investigation to conclude. They will also make a determination if it’s appropriate to publicly implicate the culprit. That’s a decision that will be made by the FBI and our national security officials to determine if that’s in the U.S.’s best interest, to make that public declaration.
I would refer you to the Director of National Intelligence -- James Clapper actually spoke to this late last week. He said that there’s “a host of usual suspects out there that engage in this sort of activity.” But the FBI is still investigating, and if there’s a point where they determine who was responsible for this attack and that it’s in the United States’ best interest to make that conclusion public, that they’ll be the first to do so.
So I don't have any updates on the investigation for you. We do know -- and the President has spoken to this -- that Russia has a record of engaging in this activity. You don't have to take my word for that. That's something that's been expressed by our national security officials for many years now. That's something we've been tracking for a while. Admiral Mike Rogers of Cyber Command, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services back in April -- that was before this latest back-and-forth -- he said that "Russia has very capable cyber operators who can and do work with speed, precision and stealth. Russia is also home to a substantial segment of the world's most sophisticated cybercriminals who have found victims all over the world."
So as we've also mentioned, Secretary Kerry raised this in a meeting with Prime Minister Lavrov, I think two weeks ago now. That's again because, unfortunately, Russia has a bad record when it comes to this type of activity. But I don't have any actions to preview for you that would come after the FBI makes a conclusion on its investigation.
Q Will there be consideration of bringing a criminal case or doing -- I mean, or some type of retaliation or, I guess, sanctions?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I want to be very clear, I cannot get ahead of the FBI investigation into this specific matter. I can say, generally speaking, if you look at how the United States has responded to intrusions by state actors into cyber infrastructure within the United States, there's a whole host of options available to us. That includes economic sanctions that would be housed at the Department of Treasury, and that does include law enforcement measures that could be taken out of the Department of Justice.
Q I have just one other one on veterans. In 2010, when the President announced -- he said that he wanted to eliminate veterans’ homelessness by 2015. And today, he is going to say that it's been cut almost in half. Can you speak a little bit to why we're not at zero, as he intended or wanted?
MR. SCHULTZ: That's a totally fair question and this is a goal that's extraordinarily important to the President. And when he set that goal, he knew it was ambitious and he knew it was a daunting task. It was a problem that has escaped administrations of both parties for many decades. Quite frankly, it's a problem that has been elusive to governors and mayors across the board for many years. But that didn't deter the President from wanting to make this a priority.
So we're proud of the progress that we've made over the last few years. Like I said, we've now cut that number in half. We've actually cut it by 17 percent in just the last 12 months. So the President is proud of the progress we've made. But you are absolutely correct to point out that there's still work to be done. And I expect the President to address this head on this afternoon in Atlanta.
Q There are hundreds more that were either arrested or dismissed from their jobs in Turkey over the weekend. At what point does your guys' refusal to explicitly condemn this turn into condoning it in some way?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Justin, I want to be very clear. We have unequivocally condemned the failed coup in Turkey.
Q -- that's not what I'm asking.
MR. SCHULTZ: We fully support the democratically elected government in Turkey. The President has conveyed that privately and we've expressed that publicly. What we've also said publicly is that we believe that Turkey must respect its democratic institutions; that freedom of the press, freedom to protest, freedom of speech are enshrined in the Turkish constitution and, quite frankly, that's just not in the United States' best interest, that's in the best interest of the people of Turkey -- that when we respect democratic institutions, that strengthens society as a whole.
So the President hasn't wavered on that at all. The President believes that the country of Turkey was shook by a failed coup by its military leadership, and so it's going to take some time to work through that. But as they do, the President has been crystal-clear that they should do so in a way that also respects civil liberties and the strong traditions of democratic institutions.
Q So you would say that President Erdogan's actions have sort of surpassed those strong institutions or gone contrary to democratic values?
MR. SCHULTZ: I would say the Turkish government understands the U.S. position, which is, in order to move past this challenging time, they have to do so recognizing that one of their strengths as a country is their respect for democratic institutions. That includes freedom of the press, freedom to gather, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. And the only way to honor the Turkish constitution is to respect those principles.
Thank you, guys.
12:31 P.M. EDT