The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes Aboard Air Force One

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Tampa, Florida

10:41 A.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY:  Welcome aboard, Air Force One.  Thank you for joining us this morning as we make our way to Tampa Bay, Florida, where we’ll go to the port there.  The President will speak about the vital importance of increasing our exports as part of his comprehensive effort to build a strong foundation for America’s economic growth in the 21st century.

We will then fly to Cartagena, Colombia where the President will, as you know, participate in the Summit of the Americas.  We’re awfully glad to have you onboard today.

I have with me, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, who can field your questions on the summit and other matters of foreign policy, national security, relieving me of that duty for the day.  I can take your questions on other issues.  Let’s begin.

Q    Could you talk a little bit about the North Korea rocket -- even though it failed, does the fact that they even tried suggest that the President’s attempt to engage North Korea was itself a failure?

MR. RHODES:  Well, absolutely not.  I’d say a number of things.  First of all, what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we’ve seen in the past.

Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea.  North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions.  Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea.  When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong-il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance.

But we also made clear that we could not go forward with that type of agreement if they could not keep their commitments, and their efforts to launch a missile clearly demonstrates that they could not be trusted to keep their commitments.  Therefore, we’re not going forward with an agreement to provide them with any assistance.  We have not provided them with any assistance, and it’s impossible to see how we can move forward with the February agreement given the action that they’ve taken.

It is notable that we’ve also put the most unprecedented sanctions in place against the North Koreans that we’ve seen to date.  Those sanctions target in part their proliferation activities, their ballistic missile capabilities.  And again, what we saw yesterday was a launch that did not meet its objective and that failed shortly after takeoff.

Q    So what’s next?

MR. RHODES:  Well, today we will -- I think you’ve seen, first of all, universal condemnation of North Korea’s provocative action, including the United States and our allies -- South Korea and Japan, but also including China and Russia.  And today, I think we’ll begin consultations about -- at the U.N. Security Council about how to deliver a message to the North Koreans that the international community rejects this launch and is prepared to take additional steps, particularly if North Korea continues to go down the road of taking provocative actions.

Q    What would those additional steps be?

MR. RHODES:  Well, we already have the very tough sanctions regime in place.  I think the North Koreans have to hear a universal message of condemnation from the international community.  They have to understand that they will only deepen their isolation by going down this road.  They have to understand from us that any agreement would be impossible to move forward with as it relates to food assistance, given the action that they have taken.  So there are already consequences as a result of their missile launch.

If they continue to take additional provocative actions, we, of course, have to continue to look at ways in which we could tighten sanctions on the North Koreans and take additional steps to apply pressure on the regime.

Q    Are you worried about a nuclear launch?

MR. RHODES:  In the past, the North Koreans have tended to pursue patterns of provocative actions to include missile launches, nuclear tests as they undertook in 2006, 2009.  And so we’re certainly concerned about the pattern of provocative behavior that the North Koreans engage in.  What we want to make clear to them is that each step that they take in terms of provocations will only lead to a deeper isolation, increase consequences.  And frankly, that's not just a message they're hearing from us, they're hearing it from the Chinese and the Russians as well.

Q    Does North Korea need food aid --

MR. RHODES:  Absolutely, and the message that we’ve been delivering is that North Korea is wasting its money on these weapons as many of their people starve and as their economy is one of the most backward in the world.  What they could have is a better relationship with the international community that allows them to receive assistance, allows their people to have -- live a better life.  Instead, they’ve chosen to waste money on missile technologies and provocative actions. 

And frankly, as we saw yesterday, have not even been able to advance that capability.  We believe that the better choice for the North Korean people would be for their government to stop this type of provocative behavior and to engage the international community in a way that gives us confidence that they're going to abandon their nuclear weapons program and their ballistic missile program.

Q    Ben -- the North Korean people are really being held hostage in this situation.  We send food aid to regimes in places all over the world where we have profound disagreements with those governments.  Why is it that we feel appropriate here to use food aid as a lever to try to get the government to do what we want?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I actually -- the reason why is because we cannot trust the government to provide that assistance to the people who need it.  It’s the North Korean government that is holding its own people hostage because, frankly, we can't trust them to implement an agreement and to make sure that the assistance gets to those who need it if they show that they're willing to spend their own resources in the pursuit of a ballistic missile program, and that they're not going to live up to the agreements that they’ve made.  So if we can't trust the North Korea government to honor its own commitments, we cannot have the confidence that we need that that agreement would be implemented. 

But again, I think it’s absolutely true that the North Korean people are the ones who’ve suffered, and the North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch.  Again, what they haven’t -- is the fact that they have an economy that is desperately in need of integration with the world and that they have people, again, who would be far better off if the government spent their resources on investing in North Korean citizenry and not on these types of technologies.

Q    Iran -- talks tomorrow, what do you expect?

MR. RHODES:  We believe that the talks that are going forward is a positive sign.  They provide an opportunity for the international community to being to have a discussion with the Iranian government about how they can live up to their obligations and demonstrate the peaceful intent of their nuclear program.

I think nobody expects to resolve all differences in one meeting, but what we want is a positive environment where the Iranian government demonstrates its seriousness and its commitment to pursuing serious negotiations with the P5-plus-1.  I think what they’ll find is the P5-plus-1 is incredibly unified in support of both the need for Iran to meet its obligations and the sanctions that we put in place.  But we want to begin with a negotiation that can address our concerns about their nuclear program, and we want that negotiation to move forward with a sense of urgency.  Because as the President has said, we do believe there’s time and space for diplomacy, but it’s not unlimited.  So it’s a good first step to begin those discussions and to create an environment where we’re dealing in a serious way with the North Korean -- with the Iranian nuclear issue.

Q    Can you confirm talks in May in Baghdad on Iran -- Iran also?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think that one of the -- one of the issues that they’ll be discussing in the meeting is what’s the initial negotiations going forward, both in terms of future meetings and venues.  So that's certainly one venue that's been discussed -- Baghdad -- as a potential future venue.  But that's the type of thing that we’ll have to discuss in this -- as we chart out the way forward for these negotiations.

Again, what we want to see is all parties coming to the table in a serious way, bringing forward their ideas for how Iran can convince the international community of the peaceful nature of its program and come in line with its obligations.  It would be a positive step forward to see those negotiations continue, but we’ll have to, again, feed back to the negotiations in December.

Q    One last one, Russia is suggesting this morning that the P5-plus-1 should offer economic incentives to Iran, at least an agreement.  What does the U.S. think of that?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think what we’ll need to see if what the Iranians are prepared to do.  The onus is on them to come in line with their international obligations.  They're the ones who are in violation of their international commitments.  Therefore, we’ll want to hear from the Iranians how they can build the confidence of the international community and take steps to live up to those obligations.

If they do, we would certainly explore reciprocal actions that are responsive to concrete steps by the Iranians.  But again, we believe that the onus is on the Iranian government to demonstrate its seriousness as it goes into this process.  We’ll be ready to reciprocate steps that they take, but again we’ll have to see actions, not just words from the Iranian government, given the fact that they are the ones who are outside of their obligations.

And frankly, we have sanctions that are coming in place now that are increasing the consequences to the Iranians for their behavior and those sanctions are poised to get a lot tighter and a lot stronger over the course of the spring and summer, so that’s an additional context of these talks that we believe brings additional pressure to bear on the Iranian government.

Q    On Syria, can you comment on the reaction of the regime to the thousands of protestors that went to the streets today to kind of test the ceasefire?

MR. RHODES:  Well, again, we see some progress in terms of a reduction in violence in Syria; however, the Annan plan has different components that we do not see the regime fulfilling at this point.  They need to pull their forces out of these cities.  They need to respect the right of peaceful protest across Syria.  They need to provide for humanitarian access.  And they need to demonstrate a commitment to a political transition that’s responsive in the Syrian people.

So there has been positive progress made in terms of a dramatic reduction -- or a notable reduction, I’d say, in the levels of violence in Syria, but again there’s far more that needs to be done to make sure that Kofi Annan’s plan is fully implemented.  And that’s the position of the United States and that’s what we’re working at the United Nations to support, which is the full completion of all six points of the Kofi Annan plan; and a respect for the right of those Syrians who are protesting today do so peacefully without risk of violence at the hands of their government.

Q    Anything new on whether the President will be making any announcements on implementation of Colombian FTA?

MR. RHODES:  We’re still working.  We’ve seen a lot of progress so we remain committed, of course, and we’re moving forward in supporting the Colombian government as they take on their labor action plan.  We’re hopeful that we can resolve all those issues in the near-term future, and we’ll certainly keep you updated if that process is completed in the days ahead. 

I should just add one thing as a preview to Tampa -- we are announcing this small business initiative.  Just a little background on that -- what we’ve seen in the last two years is a significant increase in U.S. exports to the Americas -- over 40 percent increase since 2009.  The biggest job creation, in terms of exports, comes from small business.  Yet a lot of our export infrastructure in the past has been focused on bigger exporters.  What we’ve done as an administration is try to prioritize increasingly small, medium-sized businesses because they create jobs.  And frankly even in the Americas, as we see the growth of small businesses, those will help power economies, lift people out of poverty, those are the markets for our goods in this hemisphere going forward.

So today what you’ll see is the President discussing our export agenda broadly in the Americas.  Also this particular initiative, which provides additional technical assistance to small businesses here in the United States who want to export to the Americas that networks U.S. small businesses and small businesses throughout the Americas so they can be each other’s trading partners and provides additional financing for small businesses who want to get into those export markets through institutions like OPIC and the multilateral development banks. 

So this will be a theme of the President’s trip -- the economic integration of the region and that includes, of course, Colombia and the FTA, that includes our efforts to increase trade investment across the region.  It also includes initiatives like the one that he’s discussing today that will promote small-business export.

Q    Ben, I noticed that the foreign trips the President has taken in this election year are extremely short in duration  -- was just wondering what your thoughts are on trying to explain to the American people, particularly in an election year, why the President is traveling abroad and whether events like the one in Tampa today are designed to make that sort of case.

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think we made the case at a number of our foreign trips recently that the economic future of the United States is very much tied to our ability to export to new markets and to deepen our economic relationships around the world.  So that was a theme of our trip to the Asia-Pacific region, which is the fastest-growing region in the world. 

And that similarly is going to be a theme of this trip, which again is the region in the world that we have the most exports with.  So I think the message to the American people is, building an American economy that is built to last is directly tied to our ability to increase exports to places like the Americas.  It’s directly relevant to the lives of the American people and the prosperity of the American people that he be out there advocating for U.S. businesses and workers and frankly, that insofar as we have positive relationships in this hemisphere that supports our prosperity, but it also makes us more secure and makes us more able to support the advance of democratic values like we’ve seen across the Americas.  So I think these trips demonstrate the interconnection between international issues and the issues that matter to the American people.

I think it’s also noteworthy, of course, that so many Americans increasingly have deep ties to the rest of the Americas.  Many Americans, of course, can trace their origins to Latin America and so those people -- the people connections are incredibly important here in the United States and to people across the hemisphere, and that’s another theme that the President will be able to underscore throughout his travels.

Q    Jay, one more question.  Back to D.C.

MR. CARNEY:  Are we done?

Q    Mitt Romney is speaking to the NRA today to talk about Second Amendment issues, gun rights.  The President has not engaged on the issue of guns.  I wondered why and what message does the President have to gun owners of America?

MR. CARNEY:  As I said yesterday in the briefing, the President is focused on commonsense actions that protect the Second Amendment rights of Americans while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing law do not get guns.  He directed his Department of Justice in the wake of the Gabby Giffords shooting to follow up on and take action on the principles I just laid out, and there have been -- there has been progress on those issues.  The Justice Department can provide more details about that.

Q    But primarily it’s enforcement -- enforcement of existing laws that you guys --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think the President thinks it’s very -- two things are very important:  the protection of Second Amendment rights and ensuring that the laws that exist to prevent people who should not have guns from getting guns are enforced.

Q    Yesterday on Hillary Rosen, you had mentioned in the briefing yesterday that -- Hillary Rosen had come about 30 times.  Have you followed up yet to find out if it was the Hillary Rosen who is a Democratic strategist?

MR. CARNEY:  Sure, let me address that broadly.  The point I was making yesterday is that often when we get inquiries about the visitor list, the WAVES list, just based on names, it turns out that people with common names appear -- how do I want to say this?  That sometimes there are other people with the same names.  This has happened on a number of occasions.  So all I was simply saying is that at that point, we had no way of verifying that this was one person.  It’s also the case that a lot of -- for big events and things like that, that names show up but there are no -- there’s no indication on a specific day that an individual actually came or left the White House.  So sometimes people are invited to or cleared in for big events but they don’t come so it’s hard to sometimes be sure about how many times somebody has visited.

Having said that, it is certainly the case -- I don’t know how many occasions because of all those factors -- it is certainly the case that Hilary Rosen, Democratic strategist, has visited the White House on a number of occasions for large events or large meetings having to do with communications and things like that, but as Democrats have -- supporters of Democrats, Democratic strategists do on occasion.  But I don’t have a specific number for you.

Q    No meetings with the President?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not aware of any meetings with the President.

Q    Do you know when the President releases his tax in 2011 what his percentage is, what he is paying in taxes?

MR. CARNEY:  They're releasing that information in Washington today.  I don't have -- his tax rate is lower than it has been in the past.  I believe it’s in -- this is an estimate -- actually, I didn't write down.  It’s in the 20-21 percent range, I believe.  But please check the release.  Due to a couple of factors, one is his income is lower than it was in previous years, fluctuating nature of book sales.  Two, he and the First Lady contribute 22 percent of their adjusted gross income -- 22 percent, obviously, that has an impact on their tax rates. 

Having said that, let’s be clear, the President is -- on countless occasions -- people like me should be paying an effective tax rate that is no lower than the rate paid by hardworking, middle-class Americans.  That is the point of the Buffett Rule, and the -- I’ve said often that -- people like the President should not be able to -- the tax code should not written in a way that allows for -- for the wealthiest Americans to pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-class Americans.

Q    And the 22 -- 22?

MR. CARNEY:  I believe so, but I’d just ask you to check -- I believe that's right.  I don't have the paperwork with me.  They're releasing it out of the White House.  Oh, I will come down and do the week ahead -- sent it to me, and I didn't know -- so I’ll --

Q    Is there travel next week?

MR. CARNEY:  We do travel --

* * * * *

MR. CARNEY:  Okay, the schedule for the week of April 16.  On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.  On Tuesday, the President will welcome Tony Stewart and the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers to the White House to honor Tony Stewart’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.  The President will also recognize the efforts by Tony Stewart and NASCAR to give back to their community as part of their visit, continuing the tradition begun by President Obama honoring athletes and sports teams for their efforts on and off the field.  On Wednesday, the President will travel to Cleveland, Ohio to deliver remarks at an event on the economy.  Later, he will travel to Michigan to attend campaign events.  The President will return to Washington D.C. that evening.  On Thursday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.  Then on Friday, the President will welcome the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride to the White House.  That is your week ahead.

Thanks very much.

END
11:05 A.M. EDT

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