Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz en route Chapel Hill, NC, 11/2/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Chapel Hill, North Carolina
1:56 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Good afternoon. Welcome aboard Air Force One en route to North Carolina. I have one -- I have two scheduling announcements to lead us off, and then I'm happy to take your questions.
On Sunday, this Sunday, November 6th, the President will travel to Orlando, Florida to participate in Hillary for America event, and then he'll return to Washington that evening. And on Monday, November 7th, the President will travel to Durham, New Hampshire for a Hillary for America rally. Further details about the President's travel on Monday will be forthcoming in the next couple of days.
Q Durham, New Hampshire?
MR. SCHULTZ: Durham, New Hampshire -- yes.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q Can we talk about the President's comments about the FBI Director? And can you explain what changed from earlier this week when your immediate supervisor, Josh Earnest, said on a number of occasions that he would neither defend nor criticize Director Comey? And then in this interview, it sounded as though the President was criticizing Director Comey.
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, the short answer to your question is, nothing changed. If you read the full transcript of the President's remarks, you will see that the President went out of his way that he wasn’t going to comment on any specific investigation. The President said that a couple of times. He also talked about the importance, though, of adhering to norms and practices that have been in place for a long time. Those norms and practices historically limit public discussion and speculation and, yes, innuendo about facts and materials that are collected in the course of a law enforcement investigation. That's exactly what Josh said on Monday, as well. Josh did say that we would -- we're not going to be in a position to defend or criticize the FBI Director. That is our view.
But what is also true, and what Josh said on Monday and what the President reiterated yesterday, is that we do take seriously these longstanding norms and customs that historically limit the sort of public speculation and public discussion of facts and materials that are collected in the context of a law enforcement investigation.
Q Is he implicitly criticizing the FBI Director, or is he really cautioning the public not to jump to conclusions on the basis of a fairly cryptic letter that the FBI Director sent to Congress?
MR. SCHULTZ: Scott, what we have said is we're not going to be in a position to criticize or defend the letter you reference, and I'll explain why. We do know that there's been ample analysis done, including in many of your outlets. But given the constraints we're under, since we're aboard Air Force One, as an official in the White House I can't engage in that speculation.
What I think the President was talking about was the importance of adhering to those norms and practices that have governed the rule of law for a long time now. I'll also say that the President believes these customs shouldn’t only apply to someone who's famous or if an election is around the corner, but these are principles worth upholding no matter the circumstances surrounding any particular investigation.
Q Eric, walk me through why the President says that -- or when asked if he was upset about the investigation, bring that up. I mean, it's hard to read anything other than an implicit criticism in it, in the same way that if somebody asks, are you upset that Eric was evasive in answering our questions, and I said, well, I certainly would like him to uphold traditions and norms where the Press Secretary answered questions -- it would be a criticism.
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, maybe that would be a fair read if the President didn’t explicitly say several times that he wasn’t going to comment on a specific investigation. So I'd urge you to read the full context, read the full transcript. Maybe that wasn’t available to you earlier. But what the President said yesterday is entirely consistent with what Josh said on Monday, which is we're not going to be in a position, given the constraints of where we work, to engage in a lot of the public speculation and discussion that resulted from the letter that Scott referenced that was sent late last week.
There has been a lot of analysis in the public space. That's not something that we at the White House have the luxury of engaging in. That's specifically why we said we're not going to criticize or defend the FBI Director's decision to send that letter. And it's precisely why the President believes that we should adhere to those longstanding customs and norms, because they help protect the integrity of investigations.
Q So when he said we don’t operate on innuendo, who was the "we" he was referring to? Who doesn’t operate on innuendo? Was he referring to the FBI, the White House, voters shouldn’t operate on innuendo? Who was he referring to?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think he was referring to the idea that in the course of a law enforcement investigation, if facts and materials are released before that investigation comes to a conclusion, or in the middle of it, that that could lead to public speculation and innuendo. And the President believes that, generally speaking, that that doesn’t serve our interests.
Q Eric, has the President had any contact with anyone in Iowa about the police shootings?
MR. SCHULTZ: Scott, I appreciate the question. The President is aware of last night's tragic shooting. The President sends thoughts and prayers to the families of the police officers in Iowa. I can tell you the White House has been in touch with local officials on the ground in Des Moines and that the Department of Justice is actively monitoring and has offered any assistance possible as appropriate. I believe the Attorney General made a statement on this before we left.
I will say the President has said in the past that there’s absolutely no justification for committing violence against law enforcement; that these are people who -- that people who attack law enforcement officers are cowards, that they’re attacking the brave men and women who risk their lives every day to keep us safe, and that, even broader than this, these are attacks on our rule of law, our civil society, and they have to stop.
Q On that, Eric, the President signed a bill last year, the Blue Alert Act, to prevent ambush assaults on police officers. The Justice Department hasn’t yet implemented that law a year and a half later. Is the White House concerned about that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Gregory, I’ll have to admit I wasn’t tracking if that is a law that’s applicable to this particular case. I can tell you that it’s my understanding local law enforcement are still gathering facts. Given that this happened last night, I imagine they’re going to still be in that mode for a while until they draw some conclusions. But you should check with the Department of Justice on if that law would apply in this case.
Q Eric, in the Tom Joyner interview yesterday, the President spelled out pretty stark consequences for his agenda if Donald Trump is elected. Are we going to hear something similar to that today, this afternoon in Chapel Hill?
MR. SCHULTZ: Scott, I do think you can expect to hear the President make the case today on the importance of this election and voting, either on Tuesday or before. It won’t do too much good to vote after. But North Carolina is a state with early vote, and I think he will be urging voters to get to the polls. I think he’ll absolutely be making the case for Secretary Clinton, why he believes she is the most qualified nominee to ever run for the presidency; that she has the judgment, character to be the next Commander-in-Chief and to make the complicated decisions that the next person who sits in the *oath of office Oval Office will be confronted with.
I also think you can expect to hear the President make a contrast with what to expect if Republicans prevail in November. You’ve got a sitting Republican senator in North Carolina up for election who has suggested an indefinite blockade of any Supreme Court nominee. That would leave the Court with eight justices. Back in 2005, this same Republican senator, Senator Burr, said that would render the Court insignificant. I’ll leave it to you, or to him, I guess, to explain what changed between 2005 and 2016.
Otherwise, the only difference I see is that there’s a Democratic President in office. I believe that Senator Burr’s comments expose the nonsense of the preexisting Republican argument that Presidents in an election year don’t have the right to confirm a Supreme Court justice. You also, by the way, have the number-two Republican in the United States Senate, the Majority Leader Whip, Senator Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, also suggesting and entertaining an indefinite blockade of any Supreme Court nominees to the bench.
If Republicans really think that that’s what the American people are yearning for -- more dysfunction, more obstruction, more paralysis -- then they’re doing themselves a disservice if they think that spreading the paralysis that has debilitated their own ability to get anything done in Congress -- if they want to spread that paralysis to the third branch of government, we think that’s misguided. We think it’s a mistake. And we think it’s evidence they haven’t learned any lessons of the past eight years.
Q Eric, can I ask -- sorry. Can I ask about another part of the NowThis interview when the President was talking about the pipeline? He seemed to indicate that the Army Corps was reviewing if the pipeline could be rerouted. I’m wondering if that was an accurate statement or if he misspoke. And if he didn't misspeak, I’m wondering if that’s part of the normal sort of easement review process or if that’s something special that’s happening in this case.
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, you spent a lot of time on that interview.
Q I read the whole transcript.
MR. SCHULTZ: Good. I appreciate that. But as you all know, since this was a public announcement, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a pause on the Dakota Access Pipeline construction surrounding the particular area that you’re referencing. They are, indeed, reviewing options and redoubling their consultations with the tribe. As they review options, they wanted to go back and reassess their prior consultations with the tribe and communications. I think they’re going to process that feedback and then determine the best path forward.
Q Do you have any timeline on that -- when that review might be done?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don’t have a new timeline for you. As the President said in the NowThis interview, he is monitoring this closely. He continues to get briefed. But you should check in with the Army Corps of Engineers if they’ve put a time horizon on this.
Q But do you think that it’ll be wrapped up before he leaves office?
MR. SCHULTZ: Ayesha, I don’t want to speculate on that. I think you’ll get the best guidance if you check in with the Army Corps.
Q Also in the Tom Joyner interview, the President talked a little bit about the black vote and how it doesn’t appear to be as strong for Hillary Clinton. Why does he think that is? I mean, could some of that be because four years ago, eight years ago he was on the ballot and black voters were excited about that, and he’s not on the ballot now? Or is there some larger commentary on Hillary Clinton?
MR. SCHULTZ: Darlene, I do think the President will address this, too, in his remarks this afternoon in a little bit. But it won’t be the first time he’s addressed this. As you know, he’s often joked that the best way the American people can send off the President and First Lady will be working hard to elect Secretary Clinton. That might be a lighthearted way to talk about the stakes of this election, but he continues to warn against complacency and discuss what’s at stake on the ballot on Tuesday. That includes all the progress we’ve made over the past eight years, which includes the longest stretch of private sector job growth in our nation’s history. It means slowing health care costs dramatically. It means the highest graduation rates that we’ve ever seen. More college enrollment. Rolling back the effects of climate change. An international accord reached to shut off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. Rejuvenating the auto manufacturing sector. Getting our nation through the housing crisis.
I’m not listing these things as President Obama’s accomplishments. I’m listing these as all items that Republicans are vowing to repeal and to walk back. So yes, I do expect the President to make a very specific pitch to the African American community to turn out, but he’s making that pitch universally that there’s a lot at stake on Tuesday.
Q Eric, can you talk a little bit about why we’re spending so much time in Florida and North Carolina? Obviously, the polls are very close there. And if you could also mention why New Hampshire the day before the election.
MR. SCHULTZ: Ellie, I’m happy to do that. I want to first state, though, that these decisions about where to send the President are calculations made by the Clinton campaign. The President has been clear that he wants to do whatever he can to elect Secretary -- to make sure Secretary Clinton is elected on Tuesday. And so they help develop where would be most valuable to send the President.
On North Carolina, as you know, the President was the first Democrat to win that state in a long time, in 2008. In 2012, it was a battleground state. Obviously they had a very successful convention in Charlotte in 2012 for the re-elect. And from what I’ve read, based on a lot of your accounts, this is a state that is in play for Secretary Clinton in 2016. The President is proud to be there to make the case.
Florida -- obviously, the President won that state twice in 2008 and in 2012. And I think that all indications are it’s a close race down there. And to go back to Darlene’s question, a lot of this is going to be dependent on turnout. And the President wants to make sure that we've left no stone unturned; that all voters know what’s at stake, feel energized, and head to the polls.
New Hampshire, with their four electoral votes, has also proven consequential in many presidential campaigns. It was a critical state for President Obama’s electoral victory in 2008. And I know that it’s important to the Clinton campaign. So the President looks forward to making the case up in Durham on Monday.
Q They did mean Durham, New Hampshire? They didn't type in Durham and --
MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, Durham, New Hampshire.
Q Eric, the State Department canceled the sale of 26,000 M4 rifles to the Philippines, prompting President Duterte affectionately, I’m sure, to call you guys “foolish” and “monkeys.” I’m wondering if the halting of that sale was intended as a rebuke of some of his rhetoric lately, or if you could walk us through what the decision-making process was.
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, I don't have a tick-tock to share on that decision. You should check in with my colleagues at the State Department. What we've said generally about President Duterte is that he’s been using some colorful words lately, but that rhetoric does not reflect the longstanding and historic close relationship we have with the Filipino people. And while some of that rhetoric has been colorful and inflammatory, we haven’t received any official requests to change our security, defense, or cooperation with the Philippines.
Q And NBC reported that the Russian government is seeking to remove Microsoft products from all of their both government- and state-controlled computers. Without going into sources and methods, do you envision this sort of back-and-forth cyberwar or cyber escalation with Russia having an impact on American businesses? And if so, is the government doing anything to sort of prepare them for the potential loss of business within Russia?
MR. SCHULTZ: Justin, I haven’t seen those reports, so I can't comment on them. I would say, generally speaking, what we have said and what our intelligence community concluded I think two or three weeks ago now is that Russia has been engaged in nefarious cyber activity in order to *influence interfere with the American elections. That is activity that's not unprecedented for them, unfortunately. We've seen that type of attempted interference around the globe on behalf of the Russians.
We've also said that the United States, when it comes to cyber activity, has the greatest defensive and offensive capabilities of any country out there. So I don't have any specific comment on that report because I can't even confirm it. But if we have anything to add, I’ll get it to you.
Q There were reports that Turkey’s Erdogan has said that Turkey would create a large safe zone in Syria. I was wondering, does the White House have any response to that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Ayesha, I did not see President Erdogan’s comments before we took off. But our views on this haven’t changed. And let me just walk you through our rationale, which is, where we stand right now is that our counter-ISIL campaign has expelled ISIL from an area across north Syria that's about the size of New Jersey. It’s about 25 percent of the territory that they previously occupied in Syria. In Iraq, we've expelled them from even more territory -- about 50 percent. But since we don't have a national government we can work with in Syria, the territory from which we've expelled them has been less.
Our strategy involves working with local partners to secure these areas and prevent ISIL from returning again. So the U.S. military has not recommended deploying U.S. ground forces to defend an area like that, nor do we believe that that's necessary. But instead, we're pursuing a diplomatic approach to try and deescalate the violence. And quite frankly, what we're also calling for is for Russia and the Assad regime to stop their barbaric bombardment inside Syria as soon as possible.
Q Is the President going to watch the World Series tonight?
MR. SCHULTZ: We’ll let you know, Ellie. I can tell you that if you happen to be with the President somewhere in Miami, we’ll do our best to make sure you can.
Q Who is he rooting for?
MR. SCHULTZ: The Cubs.
Q He’s a South Sider.
MR. SCHULTZ: The President has said that his first loyalty is with the White Sox. But given they are not in this series, he’s a Chicago fan, and he’s rooting for the Cubs.
Q Is he concerned about the electoral consequences in Ohio?
MR. SCHULTZ: Greg, I think what he said yesterday is that if you can take the time to watch the World Series or get a taco from Taco Bell, you can take the time to participate in our elections.
Q Thanks, Eric.
2:18 P.M. EDT