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The White House

Press Briefing on the President's Trip to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                              April 13, 2008
Via Conference Call
7:42 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST:  Good evening, everybody, and thanks for joining the call.  We apologize for running a little bit late.
We are joined by three folks here who will be speaking on the record about the President's upcoming trip to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago.  We'll hear some briefing opening comments from each of them and then we'll open it up to questions.  We're not going to do any follow-up questions; we're just going to take one at a time because we're going to try and move quickly through this so we can get it -- you know, give as many folks as possible the opportunity to ask a question.
So the three folks who are joining us today:  Denis McDonough, who is the Director of Strategic Communications at the National Security Council; Dan Restrepo, Special Assistant to the President -- and a new television star; and Jeffrey Davidow, who is advising the President in advance of his trip to the Summit of the Americas.
So, Denis, you want to go ahead and get it started?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Thank you, Josh.  Hi, everybody.
As you all know, we're leaving -- the President is leaving Washington on Thursday for a trip to Mexico and then continuing on to Port of Spain for the Summit of Americas.  Let me just underscore that the President is pleased to be making the first stop on this trip to the hemisphere, to Latin America and to Mexico city.
It's designed to send a very clear signal to our friends in Mexico City that we have a series of shared challenges as it relates to the economy, as it relates to security, insecurity, the threat of violence, and the impact of drug trafficking on both our countries:  and obviously, the deep and lasting cultural ties that our countries face as it relates to the deep impact that Mexican Americans have had on this country and the long history of relations between our two countries.  And then of course, building on the very positive conversation that the President had when he was then President-elect with President Calderón here in Washington in January, where they talked about and developed very concrete goals as it relates to our bilateral relationship, including on energy and climate, and the President underscoring his admiration for President Calderón's concrete commitments at the Poznan climate conference late last year.
So the first stop on this trip is in Mexico City.  It was obviously designed that way to send a very strong signal to President Calderón that we admire -- the President admires his work as it relates to confronting violence and impunity by criminal trafficking organizations, but also wanting to underscore and more deeply develop our bilateral relationship on economic matters, as well as on matters related to energy and climate change.
Let me just hand it over to Jeff to talk a little bit about both that stop and the following stop.
AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW:  We see this trip as part of the process of the United States reengaging with this hemisphere.  This is not a one-off event.  Those of you who have followed what's been going on during this administration knows that of course the President, even before taking office, met with Mexican President Calderón; subsequently with Canadian Prime Minister Harper, Brazilian President Lula.  Vice President Biden traveled to Chile, where he met with the Presidents of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and on his return he stopped in Central America and met with the Central American Presidents.
The Secretary of State has traveled to Mexico, as has Janet Napolitano and Eric Holder, and of course, five of the countries at the G20 meeting, four in addition to us, were from this hemisphere, with their Presidents representing Canada, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.
I think the backdrop -- there are two backdrops to this summit that will be held in Trinidad.  This, by the way, is the fifth summit -- the first one was in 1994.  All of the countries with democratically elected governments in this hemisphere will be represented at this summit.  That's 34 in total.  That in essence means all countries except Cuba, which is the only country that doesn't have a democratically elected government at this time.
There are two basic backdrops, it seems to me:  One, the perception coming up from the south that in recent years the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationships in this part of the world.  Whether one agrees with that perception or not, it certainly is a very strongly felt perception, which as I said, the President has been counteracting since even before he took office.  And I think this summit will give him the opportunity to meet with all the heads of state, listen to them, exchange views, and come away a lot -- with new ideas, both ones that he's developed and ones that he's heard.
The other major backdrop here is the world economic situation.  This hemisphere has done relatively well over the past five or six years compared to previous decades, in terms of growth of gross domestic product and alleviation of poverty.  And in the last year these achievements have started to dwindle away.  And there was a real concern that Latin America or the hemisphere may be entering into another lost decade.  By that they mean no growth, maybe even negative growth, with growing poverty.
Therefore, one of the major topics will be the economy, both at its macro level -- that is, the kinds of things that were discussed at the G20 -- and also something the President feels very strongly about, which is that in this economic crisis, the poorest of the poor, the voiceless, should not be the ones that have to pay a disproportionate amount of the cost of the crisis, and that development should come from the bottom up.
I'm going to turn over now to Dan Restrepo who can talk about (inaudible) the economy, plus others that will form some of the messages that the President is carrying with him.
MR. RESTREPO:  Thanks, Jeff, and thank all of you for joining this evening.  At the moment, the Americas, the countries of the Americas, the United States included, face three baskets of shared challenges.  One, as Jeff was just talking about, is the economic crisis and how do we rekindle economic growth and ensure that that growth is equitable economic growth; that the -- that no segments of society are left behind as the hemisphere recovers from the current economic crisis.
The second is the challenges of energy, our energy and climate future, and ensuring that we're moving to -- moving forward in partnerships to ensure our energy security and the climate future and ensuring that those two do not work in conflict with one another.
And third is on the question of public safety.  If you ask -- if you conduct polls -- and people have -- the challenges, the principal challenge facing people in their daily lives throughout the Western Hemisphere, they will tell you it is the economy and it is public safety.
And the President believes that we can at this summit -- looking forward and in a pragmatic way of how can we confront these challenges that we face together, how can we form dynamic partnerships with countries in the hemisphere who are willing to work with the United States and willing to work with one another, to come up with concrete proposals, to share ideas, to share practices that have worked in countries, understanding that there are differences from one place to the next, but creating the kind of flexible responses, not a one-size-fits-all solution, that can address these challenges that the hemisphere as a whole faces.
The summit provides the President an opportunity to concretely begin the process of addressing these challenges, of ensuring and explaining the parts that the United States, the ideas that he has, that he'll put forward, but also listening and learning from the leaders in the hemisphere as to the ideas that they are working on in the economics sphere, in the energy and climate sphere, and also on public safety.
At the end of the day, it is quite clear that there are shared responsibilities in the hemisphere.  The United States is stepping up to do its part on these three areas, and we want to work with countries throughout the hemisphere to ensure that they, too, step up and participate in dynamic, future, forward-looking partnerships to make the Americas a better place for all the people of the Americas.
MR. EARNEST:   Okay.  Thank you, Dan.  Let's open it up to questions.
Q    Thanks.  I'll throw this out to anyone.  On a "Face the Nation" interview yesterday, the Mexican ambassador suggested that it would be helpful if the United States enacted an assault weapons ban.  How will the President approach that issue when he sits down with President Calderón?  And what are the President's current thoughts on an assault weapons ban?
MR. RESTREPO:  This is Dan Restrepo.  The President understands the challenges presented by the illegal flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico, that is why he took the steps that were announced by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice a few weeks ago, to do more with our own law enforcement capacity to confront those southward flows, to ensure that we are enforcing the laws of the United States as they exist today -- believes we can make a great deal of headway enforcing the laws that are on the books today and make a real positive difference in terms of the flow, the illegal flow of weapons to Mexico.  That is the message that the President will be carrying with him.
He looks forward to speaking President Calderón on ways that we can work together more effectively to cut these illegal flows.  And again, it's forcing and reinforcing the support for the Mexican government's efforts in Mexico and doing our part on our side of the border.
Q    Hi, thanks, gentlemen.  A quick two-parter.  One, can you tell us about any bilateral meetings the President will be having?  And two, does the President hope to emerge with any concrete deliverables from the hemisphere meeting or the meeting in Mexico, or is this more of a, as you described it, a start of a reengagement process?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Hey, Ben, this is Denis McDonough.  We'll -- the President obviously looks forward to the opportunity while in Port of Spain to engage the summit process itself, but will also be looking for opportunities to have individual meetings with some of our friends.  But we're not in a position to lay those out for you yet.
In terms of specifics out of the trip, we do expect some.  We do expect that the President will go to the summit with some concrete proposals.  But knowing how much we all enjoyed the opportunity in the last trip to get together daily throughout the trip, we'll maintain that opportunity to lay some of those out for you when we get them.
But I think Dan and Jeff outlined in broad strokes the issues that we will be addressing -- obviously, bottom-up economic growth, and I think you all know that the President has stated throughout the course of the last several years an interest in and strong support for microfinance. 
The President has also discussed with President Calderón and I anticipate will be discussing with our friends at the summit concrete fora and partnerships as it relates to energy and climate.
And so -- and then of course the President has been mindful of concerns expressed by our friends in Mexico about the pace of assistance under the Merida program.  And the President has been very clear with his administration that he expects those investments to roll with the dispatch that the situation, both in our border communities as well as in Mexico, demands.
So those are some of the issues that we'll be working on -- have been working on and will be working on in the days ahead, and we'll have an opportunity to speak to you about them in very specific terms in the -- while we're on the trip.
Q    Hi, guys.  A few questions; the first one regarding Cuba today.  To what extent will the President discuss this, the announcement on Cuba today, and how will he respond to leaders who may say that it's not enough?  And secondly, just wondering, Denis or the others, if you can be any more specific on what exactly will come out on climate and energy -- a specific partnership or what exactly can we expect?  Thanks.
MR. McDONOUGH:  Hey, Jeff.  It's Denis -- just because you used my name.  We'll get you more specifics both in Mexico and in Port of Spain on the energy and climate, but we're not in the position in the moment to do that.
As it relates to Cuba, we've been obviously consulting about this here at home with Congress, and you can imagine that there's some who wanted to do more and some who wanted us to do less.  And the President is making a determination here, as Dan outlined in a bilingual policy rollout today -- near as we can tell, the first ever such bilingual rollout in the White House, from the White House podium -- laid out that this is a determination made by the President based on our national interest and based on his view that there's both moral and strategic imperatives at play in this question.
So we anticipate that our friends in the region, with whom we've always had a spirited discussion about Cuba, will raise this.  We obviously see, for example, that the issue of remittances is one of vital importance for other countries in the hemisphere.  And what we're trying to do generally is focus on lowering the cost of sending those remittances for working families here who are trying to send it to their families in their home countries.
And so one thing that we hope we can encourage all of our friends to do is to work with us to call on the Cuban government to reduce the cost associated with the remittances sent to Cuban families, so we can kind of get out of the business here of regulating assistance from family to family in a way that allows, particularly in these difficult economic times, allows families to help each other out.
Q    Thank you.  How you doing, guys?  To Dan Restrepo -- he can answer the question, please.  I was wondering if President Obama will talk to President Calderón about the joint implementation group, if he's going to try to resolve the issues of human rights that the Mexican government hasn't agreed on it -- to conduct the implementation of the Merida Initiative by these nine groups, that he's going to work in this group.
And secondly, if President Obama will explain to President Calderón, to the Mexican people what's his (inaudible) with the new request of $350 million on the defense budget to use in the southern border of the United States against the threat of the Mexican drug cartels.
MR. RESTREPO:  A lot of questions there, Jesus, in the form of one question.  On the first question, the President looks forward to talking and meeting with President Calderón and his advisors on how we can move forward on Merida implementation in the most effective means possible, while always respecting the views of the United States Congress, that has been an important partner in providing the funds to this very important -- (drop in audio feed) -- and accelerating -- as Denis was discussing, accelerating the delivery of the key components to support the courageous efforts of the Mexican government against the cartels while also doing our part on our side of the border.
With regard to the funding question, it's important to underscore that that funding is a contingent fund.  It is to ensure that as we move forward, that we are prepared for any contingency, and it's responsible governing to make sure you don't have to go back later if something unexpected happens and asking for money.
The President laid out a couple of weeks ago, Secretary Napolitano, AG Holder, in their trip, furthered the message of the steps that the United States is taking within the United States, using civilian personnel -- be it from ATF, from DEA, from ICA, from CPB -- to do more to fulfill the United States' responsibility to cut southward-bound flows and to ensure the safety of the border for the good of border communities on both sides of that border.
The funding should not be seen as anything more than prudent preparation for the possibility of increasing that activity, depending on the outcome of the efforts that have been laid out today.
Q    (Inaudible) summit, will the President be calling on our allies in the hemisphere to do anything in particular regarding the economy, anything in particular he would like to see countries do on their own to improve the situation?  And secondly, do you anticipate the issue of trade coming up in any way?
MR. McDONOUGH:  In terms of specifics on the economy, Laura, the -- we'll obviously be -- the first session of the plenary in Port of Spain will be focused on the economy and particularly on investments in, as Jeff said, the poorest of the poor.  Obviously the President takes note that we just had a very successful G20 summit in London that included a dramatic increase in additional funding available through the IMF, for example.  We note with appreciation the fact that the first country to go to that facility to seek additional funding was Mexico.
And it remains our hope that we can ensure that the steps that the President outlined and that the G20 agreed to in London are aggressively implemented here so that, as Jeff said, that at a time of economic uncertainty here and to ourselves, that there's resources available, policies implemented, to ensure that it's not just the poorest of the poor undertaking a disproportionate share of the burden.
But as it relates to trade, let me hand it to Jeff.
AMBASSADOR DAVIDOW:  Well, just further on the question of the economy, to add to what Denis said, there is a real desire, and shared by other governments, that ways be found so that people in the middle class and the lower class can take advantage of trade, and that this is not something that is very much divorced from them.
Indeed, I think we'll see a lot of discussion at the summit about the issue of microfinance.  And while microfinance is generally very micro, nevertheless assistance to people with small- and medium-sized enterprises can play an important role in the trade question.
In terms of trade generally, the President has made it clear -- and clearly it's policy to avoid protectionism.  This was discussed at the G20.  It's been a pillar of everything that we have been doing to face this crisis.
If we get into the specific questions, the President's trade policy does talk about moving as quickly as possible in consultation with Congress for the ratification of the Panamanian free trade agreement and for the establishing of benchmarks and guidance so that we can move at a pace that we can handle, in terms of the ratification of the Colombian free trade agreement, as well.
Q    Yes, hello, good evening.  I'd like to know whether it's the trucking issue, conflict dispute with Mexico, if we can expect any sort of announcement before the trip as we -- as it happened today with Cuba.  And secondly, we can have further details of the agenda of the President in Mexico during that date?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Yes, thanks for the question.  In terms of the specific details of the Mexico stop, we can get you more of those here as -- particularly for the travelers, though, more of those details as the week moves on here.  But, you know, obviously the President will be spending a lot of time with President Calderón.  He'll want to reach out to the other branches of government in Mexico and will be looking for specific opportunities to do that.
But those details will be forthcoming, particularly for those who will be traveling on this trip.
As it relates to trucking, obviously the President made clear that he has directed his administration to work closely with Congress, as well as with our friends in Mexico, to outline a new program that lives up to our obligations under the agreement that we've entered into.  And so that's going to be a difficult -- or that's going to be an important undertaking that continues here apace and daily.  And I don't want to get ahead of the facts on the ground here, so I think it's premature to anticipate a very specific announcement on that.  But we'll continue to work with the Congress and with our friends in Mexico to do exactly what the President has laid out he will do -- namely, getting in place a new program that lives up to our obligations under the existing agreement.
Q    Yes, thank you.  This question kind of crosses over both issues of human rights and the economy.  The Mexican Consul General in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Consulate has voiced concerns repeatedly about what he believes is the mistreatment of thousands of Mexican nationals in this area by both ICE and by other law enforcement agencies that are deputized under 287(g) section of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  I'm wondering if the issue of immigration reform and the treatment of Mexican nationals and their deportations is something that is planned to be on the table, to be discussed with President Calderón.
MR. RESTREPO:  This is Dan Restrepo.  The issue of immigration and the treatment of immigrants is one that is important to both Presidents.  President Obama has made very clear over the years of the necessity to handle the question of immigration and fixing the immigration system in the United States to ensure that it is consistent with two traditions -- the rule that we are a nation of laws and that we are a nation of immigrations -- he believes very firmly in the humane treatment of immigrants in the United States, while enforcing the immigration laws of the United States.
Q    Hi.  In his speech in Miami in May last year, then candidate Obama said, I will reinstate a special envoy for the Americas in my White House, who will work with my full support.  Is he still planning to do that?  If so, when?  Also, Senator Richard Lugar suggestion for a special envoy to Cuba -- is this something that is on the table?
MR. MCDONOUGH:  Thank you for the question.  This is Denis.  As it relates to Cuba, I think we laid out today a very consequential set of policy changes.  And as -- you know, while Dan said today that, you know, we don't want to freeze any policy in time, I think that it reasonable for us to take a hard look at how these changes are implemented and how -- what kind of reaction and development that these changes under -- these changes catalyze.  And so I don't want to get any farther out in front of Cuba than the President has directed today.
As it relates to the special envoy, the President and Secretary Clinton remain very much committed to the idea of having someone in the administration working on these issues day in and day out, that sees the hemisphere as a region of fundamental importance and priority to the administration, but also sees it as a broader regional set of opportunities rather than just as our current ambassador infrastructure has, rather than which -- you know, the current infrastructure has heavy focus on bilateral relations in each country.  And so the bottom line is that we remain committed to the idea, that Secretary Clinton and the President are actively working the issue.
And I'm not going to put a timeline on the naming of that post.  Obviously getting a person of stature and capability and proven relationship with both the Secretary and the President is much more important to us than is the timeline on which we do it.
Q    Hi, there.  I'm curious about the decision to come to Mexico City.  Over the last hundred years very few presidential visits have actually come to Mexico City.  It's a huge city, it's congested, it's prone to huge protests.  It's got to be kind of a security nightmare.  And I'm wondering if that decision to come here signifies anything?  Is it part of that reengagement process with the people of Latin America?  And how does it differ from the Bush years when Bush seemed to prefer ranches and beaches?
MR. McDONOUGH:  I would just reiterate what I said -- this is Denis -- at the top, mainly that the stop in Mexico is meant to send a message, and that is it's a message of admiration for the courageous steps that President Calderón has undertaken.  It is meant to send a signal of respect, mutual respect with our Mexican neighbors and.  And we look very much forward to a productive visit.
Q    Good evening, gentlemen.  Denis, remembering our -- fondly our trip for the G20, I just want to make sure I understand.  Is the President and the administration contemplating anything in the lines of this bottom-up economic growth that would go beyond the commitments made at the G20 to use the IMF and other developmental banks to provide just that kind of assistance?  Are we talking about administration requests for tax dollars that would go beyond that to deal with the bottom-up economic aspect of this trip?
And secondly, I just want to make sure I understood what you said earlier correctly:  We should not anticipate a resolution of the Mexican truck issue either in Mexico or later at the summit in Trinidad.  Is that a correct interpretation of what you just said?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Hey, Major, good to hear your voice, man.
What I basically said on trucking is -- I didn't want to get out in front of the trucks.  I'm not promising an agreement, I'm not suggesting there won't be an agreement.  I'm telling you that this is a President who works very diligently through the facts of an issue.  He's bringing a proven capability of bringing people together around difficult issues and focusing on -- focusing them on the challenge and then working through it.
So I don't want to get in a position to either suggest that there will or there won't be one.  What I am telling you is that we're aggressively working it, and when we get an agreement, we'll announce it.
As it relates to the poorest, I think that you heard the President say it in London and I think you'll probably hear him say this again, that there will be very concrete steps to invest in the poorest of the poor, opportunities for the poorest of the poor, not just because it's a moral issue -- although we have obviously heard very stirring suggestions of that -- about that from many leaders and many respected international voices, but also because it is an opportunity to recognize that those are the markets and the drivers of growth for tomorrow.  The President has been concerned, as Jeff suggested, about the dramatic decrease in trade that's accompanied this global financial economic downturn.
And so we want to invest in new opportunities as a way to drive the new markets of tomorrow that's going to ultimately lead to new jobs here in the United States.
In terms of your question about whether there will be specific new resources, new taxpayer resources, dedicated to this, I think in the first instance the President has laid out a very positive and comprehensive budget for the next fiscal year, and it's up with Congress now; they're actively working it through.
I think that the President will encourage the international financial institution, including the IDB, to dedicate their funds currently on their balance sheet with a focus on the poorest.  And I think you will see the President press for the kinds of policies, proven policies both here, but also through the hemisphere, that have worked to counter poverty.  That includes, as you've heard Jeff and Dan reference, microfinance.  It also includes, as the President himself personifies, an aggressive investment in education and new opportunity.
And so you'll see all these things, but as it relates to whether there will be specific new commitments of U.S. taxpayer funds, I think that the President has built a budget that's currently before Congress, a supplemental that's currently before Congress, with important investments for our partners in Mexico, always with this summit and the opportunity to create new opportunities for markets and jobs for workers in this country in mind.
MR. EARNEST:  Great.  Thank you, Denis, and thanks to everybody for jumping on the call today.  As we mentioned at the top, this is an on the record briefing so you can use it right away.  Our stenographers are working on transcribing it and when it is finished we'll get that around to folks, as well.
Thanks, everybody, for staying up late with us.
8:19 P.M. EDT