Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Columbus, OH, 11/1/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Columbus, Ohio
3:47 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One. We’re on our way to Columbus, Ohio. This is a state that President Obama won twice when he was running for President, so he’s got a solid track record in this state. The President has already visited Ohio to advocate for the election of not just Secretary Clinton to the presidency, but also former Governor Ted Strickland to the United States Senate.
There also will be a number of state legislative candidates that President Obama has endorsed. And this is was as good example as any of a state where the President is making a case on behalf of Democrats up and down the ballot. The audience will be largely young people, and it’s an indication of the particular emphasis that the President is placing on trying to encourage young Americans to be active in our democracy and to ensure that they participate in this election.
So other than that, we can go straight to your questions.
Q The New York Times reported on an FBI investigation into Donald Trump’s connections to Russia and some of his associates’ connections to Russian associates. So I’m wondering if the White House, how involved you were in that, if you kept tabs on that investigation at all, if you were briefed along the way.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kathleen, several weeks ago the intelligence community released an assessment indicating their conclusion that Russia was engaging in malicious activity in cyberspace in an effort to undermine confidence in the U.S. political system. That represents the consensus view of the intel community. They also concluded that some of the information that they obtained through that malicious activity was released consistent with the tactics that we’ve seen the Russian government use in other countries to try to destabilize their political systems. Given the significance of this kind of activity, the intelligence community concluded that this kind of activity could only be authorized at the most senior levels of the Russian government.
The President is concerned about the consequences of that kind of an assessment, and he and his national security team have been monitoring this situation closely. You’ve heard the Secretary of Homeland Security talk about the kind of resources and expertise that are maintained at the Department of Homeland Security to assist election administrators across the country as they fortify their systems against potential Russian intrusions.
The President has given voice to his own confidence in our election system to make sure that as people are reading these news reports, that it doesn’t cause them to call into question the likelihood that their vote -- that any vote that they cast on Election Day will be counted, and that the outcome of the election will reflect the will of the people who show up to vote on Election Day.
The President has got complete confidence that our system of democracy and our system of administering elections is durable and strong. But he’s mindful of the national security threat that this kind of malicious behavior shows, and he’s going to monitor it closely.
What’s also true, however, is that any sort of investigation -- criminal investigation that arises from that assessment is something that will be conducted by investigators at the Department of Justice and at the FBI. And, as we discussed at some length yesterday, those sorts of investigations are conducted independent of any sort of political interference. That is a longstanding norm and tradition that is maintained by the Department of Justice, and the Obama White House has been scrupulous about adhering to guidelines that urge against even the appearance of political interference.
If there’s a decision that is made to discuss any investigations publicly, those are decisions that are made by officials at the Department of Justice and at the FBI. And they certainly are not made at the behest of anybody who works at the White House.
Q So you’re saying you were not briefed on this investigation into Donald Trump’s and the Trump Organization’s dealings with Russian banks and other groups in Russia?
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned yesterday, the White House is not briefed on criminal investigations that are conducted by career prosecutors at the Department of Justice and the FBI. That principle applies whether the targets of that investigation are famous or not. That principle applies whether there’s an election around the corner or not.
So the President is certainly mindful of and monitoring threats to our political system that could be emanating from Russia. But any sort of criminal investigation that is conducted is one that is led by career prosecutors with the assistance of the FBI. They are going to follow the facts where they lead. They will carefully examine the evidence, and they will make the prosecutorial investigative decisions that are required to reach a conclusion. And that’s something that they will do without any guidance or influence from the White House.
Q Josh, the FBI also released some documents about the Clinton Foundation and an investigation into the pardon of Marc Rich by President Clinton in the 1990s. Is the White House aware of this? The Clinton campaign is apparently unhappy that the FBI released this information just days before the election.
MR. EARNEST: I did see the tweet from the FBI records vault. That’s the first time I’ve ever noticed a tweet from the FBI records vault. I’m not aware that the White House was consulted before that material was disseminated. That only happened shortly before we left. But based on the information I’ve been able to collect in just the last 45 minutes, I have not spoken to anybody who has any awareness of being consulted about that material before it was released.
Q Any concern that this information that could impact the election is being released just five days -- or just a week before the election?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I would refer those questions to the person that’s responsible for operating the @FBIRecordsVault Twitter handle, whoever that person is.
Q Josh, you talked yesterday about the President’s view of Director Comey’s decision that you didn’t defend, you didn’t criticize. Does he feel the need to speak to this specifically himself? Will he do that today?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President will make any specific reference to this situation in his prepared remarks today. The President is doing a couple of radio interviews after the event today. We’ll get you some more information on that. There certainly is the potential that he could get asked about this situation. But based on the number of conversations that I had with him in advance of yesterday’s briefing, I would be surprised if he says anything materially different than what I conveyed to you yesterday.
Q And does the President still stand by Director Comey? Would he advise Secretary Clinton, if she were to be President, that -- or Donald Trump, if he were to succeed President Obama -- that he could have confidence in that FBI Director?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I noted yesterday, the President believes that Director Comey is a man of integrity, that he’s a man of principle. There’s a reason that he serves -- that he was nominated by President Obama to serve as the Director of the FBI. There’s also a reason that he was appointed to serve in a high-ranking position at the Department of Justice when President Bush was in office. There’s also a reason that a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in the United States Senate both voted to confirm him to the position of the Director of the FBI. And the President, as I noted yesterday, continues to have confidence in his ability to do that job.
What advice he’ll eventually offer to the President-elect is something that I may be in a position to discuss at greater length once there is a President-elect.
Q Josh, can you just talk a little about how the President has been experiencing being on the campaign trail this much, particularly given this coming week? He’s obviously doing more campaign stops consecutively than probably since 2012 -- what that’s been like, how he’s felt about it, and where his mind is right now.
MR. EARNEST: Those of you who have been covering many of these public appearances have recognized the President is having a heck of a good time being on the campaign trail. The President enjoys the interaction that he has in the rope lines, he enjoys the opportunity to address a large and spirited audience that he encounters most places where he campaigns. And the President is not just having a good time, he looks like he's having a good time. And I think he's mindful of the fact that over the course of this week, this will essentially be the last big campaign swing of his political career. So I think he's looking forward to making a spirited case in support of Secretary Clinton and of Democrats up and down the ballot.
Part of this is an indication of just how significant he thinks the stakes are in this election. And he's made that case pretty directly. Making the decision between the Republican and Democratic candidates is not something that the American people should take lightly. There are significant consequences for the outcome of this race. And I think that's part of the President's motivation.
Part of the President's motivation is that he believes strongly that Secretary Clinton would be an excellent President. And that's based on his knowledge of her three-decade career in public service. It's also based on his experience in running against her for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007 and 2008. It's also based on his experience watching her serve as his Secretary of State. She did a remarkable job of advancing our interests around the globe. He's also seen first-hand as she thinks about complicated issues, as she thinks about how best to protect the American people. And he believes she would do an excellent job sitting in the Oval Office.
And finally, I'll say that this is a reflection of the deep reservoir of political support that the President has all across the country. There's a reason that Secretary Clinton's team has asked President Obama to maintain such an aggressive travel schedule. They believe that he is a particularly effective messenger in making the case for Secretary Clinton to the American people. And given his own passion for Secretary Clinton's candidacy, he has eagerly accepted Secretary Clinton's team's invitation to be a visible presence on the campaign trail in the last week before the election.
Q Josh, does the White House have any -- or has it been given any intelligence from the intelligence agencies about a possible launch of a missile by North Korea in the coming days?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t been briefed on any intelligence assessment. But we can certainly look into that to see if there's more that we have to share.
Q And in the same region of the world, has the President been paying attention to the erupting political crisis in South Korea with regard to President Park and her advisor there?
MR. EARNEST: I've read some of the news accounts that some of your news outlets have written. I have not spoken to the President about those stories. I think what I would just reiterate as a general matter is that the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea is strong and durable. And the President has had the opportunity to work closely with President Park. He met with her earlier this fall in Laos to talk about the shared security concerns that we have in that region of the world. And the two leaders had an opportunity to talk in some detail about our efforts to cooperate to provide for the security of the South Korean people. And that alliance remains strong, and our commitment to that alliance remains strong.
As it relates to the domestic political situation in South Korea, that's an issue for the South Korean people to discuss and debate -- something I wouldn’t weigh in on from here. And I think that's -- my reluctance to weigh in on that I think is an indication of the overriding priority that the Obama administration places on our alliance with the Republic of Korea.
Q Anything more about Ohio, about what we'll be doing there, why it's important to him?
MR. EARNEST: I'll have some additional details once we land about other interviews that the President is doing after the event. But other than that, I think I covered it at the top.
Q There are some folks that are looking at early vote data and Democrats worrying that the African American vote doesn’t seem to be coming out in the same numbers as it did with the President. Is the President worried about that? Or are political advisors concerned about African American turnout?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think each state -- in some ways, each community -- is unique. But I think what I could just say in general, without speaking to the numbers in any one community, is that I think the President has made a pretty direct pitch to his supporters in the African American community about the fact that his legacy is at stake in this election. Frankly, that's a pitch that he's made to all of his supporters. But it's a pitch that he would expect would resonate most deeply among the African American community.
The African American community across the country has supported President Obama in overwhelming fashion. And he's deeply grateful for the loyalty and energy that his African American supporters have shown to him, not just as a candidate for President, but also while he's been in office. And the President's pitch has essentially been: You need to go out there and be active and be engaged, and just as energetic about Secretary Clinton if you're interested in seeing our country maintain the progress that we've made over the last eight years, because you've got a clear choice between a candidate that's looking to build on that progress and a candidate who is vowing to tear it down.
So you'll hear a strain of that argument in the President's remarks today. And I think it will be a hallmark of the argument that he'll make over the course of this week leading up to Election Day.
Q Josh, Donald Trump has called for supporters to turn out as unofficial election observers in some of the states -- Ohio, Pennsylvania. Some Democrats are worried about voter intimidation at the polls. Is that something that has hit the President's radar? Is he concerned about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's the responsibility of local jurisdictions to administer their elections. And many of those jurisdictions have very specific rules about who's allowed to be in a polling place on Election Day. In some cases, there are registration procedures, and in some cases there are rules about being a registered voter in that precinct in order to be in that polling place. The President has got a lot of confidence that all of those rules will be effectively and fairly enforced. And the President continues to be confident. And you've seen similar expressions of confidence from the Department of Justice that we expect that in the vast majority of polling places, Election Day procedures will be smoothly implemented and properly adhered to.
Q There continues to be ongoing protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. I'm wondering, does the White House believe that the federal government has done a good-enough job of consulting with Native communities there? And are there going to be continued consultations to sort of deal with the reason that so many people are protesting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, the Dakota Access Pipeline project itself is the subject of some ongoing litigation that you guys have closely covered. So there's not much that I can say about that particular project. What I can say more generally is that the White House has been in touch with the Department of Interior and a couple of other agencies that are taking a fresh look at the procedures that they follow to incorporate input from Native American communities that could potentially be affected by infrastructure projects. The President believes that that's a worthwhile thing for the Department of Interior to do. And so he's supportive of that process to consider reforming some of those procedures.
But with respect to the individual project, that's just something I can't quite comment on because of the fact that it's under -- in litigation right now.
4:07 P.M. EDT