Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 1/31/2011
2:00 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Mr. Feller.
Q Thanks, Robert. Two questions on Egypt. Since the crisis began, a couple of the central questions have been whether President Mubarak should stay in power, and if so, whether he has the capacity to put in place these reforms the people of Egypt want and the White House wants. Can you explain why on those two fronts the White House is not taking a position?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Ben, it is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people have been met by the Egyptian government. We have said all along that there are, as I mentioned, legitimate concerns and grievances had by the Egyptian people for a long time -- the need for freedom to associate, freedom to communicate over the Internet, freedom to assemble, the freedom of speech -- and that those must be addressed in a substantive way by the Egyptian government
But we're not picking between those on the street and those in the government. As the Secretary of State said yesterday, we're for and have enumerated our concern for the people of Egypt.
Q You say it’s up to the Egyptian people. Is it fair and accurate to say that it is the stand of the government that you do not want any kind of transition to be through the toppling of an existing head of state; it should be through resignation or an election?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me be clear. I'm not going to get into a series of hypotheticals. I think you heard yesterday very clearly the Secretary of State say there must be an orderly transition, that a whole range of issues -- some of which I just talked about -- have to be addressed, that there has to be meaningful negotiations with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian people including opposition groups that go to answering the very core of the freedoms that people desire.
We've talked about those and you’ve heard the President speak in Cairo about them. Free and fair elections in September for the presidency and for the parliament, constitutional changes that facilitate a more open and more democratic process -- these are some of the things that I know we've spoken directly with the Egyptians about.
Q Two others on this, please. The September elections you just referenced -- is it the preference of the U.S. government that Mubarak not run again?
MR. GIBBS: Ben, it’s not -- the United States government does not determine who’s on the ballot. The question is whether or not those elections are going to be free and fair. That's what we would weigh in on and weigh in on strongly.
Q And of all these changes that you talked about that the U.S. government wants, can you give us some more detail perhaps from over the weekend or today about what the government is doing to help make it happen, as opposed to just calling for it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I'm going to let you report on that. I will say this. As you, I think, know, the President was briefed on the very latest, including readouts, from our embassy and from our ambassador yesterday. Our National Security Advisor held a call with some principals this morning. The President was briefed on the latest developments as a part of, quite frankly, as most of his daily intelligence briefing. The deputies committee -- there's now sort of a standing morning meeting on the situation that was had later this morning, and the President is receiving updates regularly out of that.
This is not about appointments; this is about actions. That's what, I think, people here and people around the world need to see from the Egyptian government.
Q Thank you. Robert, can you define what you mean by an orderly transition?
MR. GIBBS: Well, many of the things I just talked about, Jeff. I talked about -- a transition has to include -- an orderly transition has to include a process of negotiations with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian people, including those that are in the political opposition at the moment.
Q With the current government?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, I don't think the grievances are going to be met unless there’s some measure of that involved.
They have to address the freedoms that the people of Egypt seek. And as I said a minute ago, many of the things that we’ve outlined over the course of the past many days have to be included -- again, free and fair elections; we’ve talked about the emergency law; again, changes in the constitution that facilitate a more open and democratic process -- all of those things are what must happen in the country in order to transition to something that is more democratic.
Q Do you believe President Mubarak is doing that now? Are you happy with this response so far?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think this is not about appointments; it’s about actions.
Q Do you see the actions that you’re looking for?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is obvious that there’s more work to be done. I think that is obvious in the pictures that we continue to see from Cairo.
Q Do you -- what role should the military be playing in this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we have had -- I should say this, too. There’s obviously a number of calls and contacts that happen between our government and counterparts in the Egyptian government. We are thus far pleased at the restraint that has taken place and encouraged that, even as we see reports of increased participation tomorrow by protesters, that calm and nonviolence once again carry the day on both sides.
So, again, it’s our belief that, first and foremost, this has to be something that's conducted with -- through nonviolence.
Q Has anybody in the administration been in contact with Mohamed ElBaradei?
MR. GIBBS: Obviously, the embassy has been in touch with him in the past. I think he is somebody, along with a whole host of people in -- non-governmental voices in -- whether they’re opposition political parties or whether they’re heads of business or banks that we are regularly in touch with. I believe that they will continue to reach out to people like him, and to a whole host of figures -- again, non-governmental and civil society figures to have a discussion with them about what Egypt must do and what Egypt must look like.
Q Has the embassy been in touch with him in the last week?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of, at least when I came in here.
Q Wouldn’t it make sense for somebody to be in touch with him?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think that outreach is ongoing.
Q The Egyptian government in the past has conveyed to the Obama administration and to previous administrations that it suspects that the democracy push from the U.S. might result in something along the lines of what we’ve seen in Gaza, and that is an Islamist group being elected and gaining power, in this case the Muslim Brotherhood. How much does the Obama administration agree with that assessment?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Jake, I think that -- as I said here last week, I think that it is -- from what we can see, it’s not accurate to say that those protesting are made up of one particular group or one ideology. And I think it is clear that increase in democratic representation has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be the stable and reliable partner that the world sees in the Middle East.
Q ElBaradei told ABC News this weekend that the Muslim Brotherhood is no more extremist -- is not an extremist organization and is no different from orthodox Jews in Israel or evangelical Christians in the United States. Does the Obama administration agree with that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- without getting into a discussion about them, I think there are certain standards that we believe everybody should adhere to as being part of this process. One that is -- to participate in this ongoing democratic process, one has to take part in it but not use it as a way of simply becoming or taking over that process simply to put themselves in power. We believe that any group should strongly weigh in on the side of non-violence and adherence to the law.
Q Orderly transition means change. So by using those words is the administration not admitting that President Mubarak should leave?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Dan, that is -- I do believe orderly transition means change, and what we’ve advocated from the very beginning is that the way Egypt looks and operates must change. That’s why we believe we should increase the amount of freedom that is had by the Egyptian people on association, on assembly, on speech, on Internet and open communication. But that’s not for us to determine what the parameters and what the limits of those are. But undoubtedly, transition in this case means change. There’s no doubt about that.
Q If he’s the leader, though, are you not saying that he should be changed or removed from office by saying that?
MR. GIBBS: No. Again, Dan, that is not for our country or our government to determine. I don't think that people that seek greater freedom are looking for somebody else to pick what and how that change looks like. That is, quite frankly -- that doesn’t adhere in any way to an open, democratic process that allows for a full discussion and negotiation about what that freedom looks like. Freedom of -- many of the freedoms I just talked about -- the greater economic opportunity, greater economic freedoms -- that's not for us to determine.
Q The White House has really been ramping up its focus on innovation and jobs. There was a big event today as well. Does what is happening in Egypt distract at all from that push?
MR. GIBBS: No, not at all. Weather permitting, the President is planning to go later this week to Pennsylvania and continue our push on innovation. We will continue to work through all of that. I don't -- events happen that any administration and any government have to respond to, but at the same time, much as we dealt with over the previous two years, you have to deal with many things happening at once. And that's what this administration continues to do.
Q One final question. The President obviously is getting a lot of updates from his national security team, but is he also bringing in outside advisors to help him --
MR. GIBBS: The National Security Council has regular outreach to experts around the country. I know they had some folks in here earlier today to talk about Egypt as a part of that regular process. And I don't doubt that, again, at many levels of our government we are talking to many people with insights into Egypt.
Q Who were some of those people who came in today?
MR. GIBBS: We can give you a list of all those.
Q To follow, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: Chip.
Q Robert, the President’s schedule is clear today -- public schedule is clear today. Did he clear that schedule so that he could deal with this?
MR. GIBBS: No. Again, he’s gotten -- as far as I know, as of right now, there’s been -- he’s been briefed as part of the PDB on what’s happened and on the discussions that have happened at a principals’ and at a deputies’ level. But there’s nothing that I know that's been added to his schedule as a result of what’s gone on over the weekend.
Q So he’s not monitoring this constantly; he’s working on a lot of other stuff?
MR. GIBBS: He’s working on a lot of stuff. But I will say this, Chip. Obviously he’s -- we give him updates as the situation dictates.
Q Would you suspect we'll hear from him again sometime in the next few days as this goes on?
MR. GIBBS: I mean, again, I think that depends on some of what happens on the ground.
Q You said that this transition does not mean that Mubarak would have to go and that --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. I want to be clear -- I want to be very clear because I don't -- that is not for me to determine. That is not for our government to determine. That is for the people of Egypt to determine. So I have not weighed in on anything other than -- as we have throughout this process -- on the side of the people of Egypt to determine what Egypt looks like in their future.
Q Right. But my question is, are you categorically saying that at no time will the President ever say it’s time for him to go?
MR. GIBBS: Look, Chip, I’m not going to stand up here and look that far into the future.
Q But it may -- it may not be maybe a few days in the future. It sounds like you’re leaving a door open to the possibility of something --
MR. GIBBS: No, I appreciate the game we’re playing. I’d rather you not put words in my mouth in either of the three questions that get asked.
Q One other thing. Are there discussions going on about the possibility, the worries that this could spread in the Middle East?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it is safe to say that what we saw happen in Tunisia we saw certainly had the capabilities to go in other countries. I wouldn’t generalize, as I said last week, across the spectrum of countries in this region or outside this region because each country is different and at different stages of their political development.
Q Without predicting whether you’ll have to, do you feel that the U.S. could work with the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think it’s important, Wendell, that the government of -- we do not have contact with them. And we have, as we have throughout the world, standards for that contact. And those are as I dictated a minute ago. And that is adherence to the law, adherence to non-violence, and a willingness to be part of a democratic process, but not use that democratic process to simply instill yourself into power.
Q Have they met those standards?
MR. GIBBS: I am not the current ambassador. I would think that before we had any further contact, we’d want assurances on it.
Q Can you give us some idea of the level of contact between the President’s deputies and their counterparts in Egypt? We know Admiral Mullen has had talks with his counterpart, and the Secretary of State I believe as well.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think throughout the ranks of the military and over at the Pentagon, obviously between the Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministry. Our ambassador, Margaret Scobey, who we get updates from in his regular meetings about the security situation on the ground. She is obviously in contact with a whole host of entities inside of Egypt.
Obviously, one of our big focuses right now is on authorized departure -- on getting non-essential embassy personnel, their families and others who wish to leave the country on any number of planes that are in Cairo and boarding. Earlier this morning, two of those planes had left, intended for Greece and Turkey. That continues, despite government curfews. We have clearance to get personnel onto those planes and to their destinations, regardless of that curfew.
Q Only two planes flew out so far today?
MR. GIBBS: Let me be sure. That was as of 11:15 a.m. this morning. I think between six and seven of those planes were on the ground. As soon as they are loaded, they’ll lift off.
Q One final question, if I may. The Israelis gave Egypt permission to secure basically the canal, to place troops in the Sinai, required because of their peace agreement. Did the U.S. have any part in that? Did the U.S. ask Israel to allow that?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of. I believe that was -- I think that was a direct contact between those two governments.
Q The President hasn’t been in contact with Mubarak since Friday, is that correct?
MR. GIBBS: Let me just say this. Obviously the President, the Vice President, as I just mentioned -- there's contacts that are happening both throughout the region and throughout the world, some of which we’ve read out.
Q Is there -- I was just going to say, is there a reason -- has there been no contact made with the King of Jordan or -- is that why he wasn’t included on the readout, or --
MR. GIBBS: Some of these contacts we’ve discussed and some of these we haven’t.
Q Speaking of his contacts, the Saudi government put out a readout of the President’s phone conversation with the King. And let me read from it directly: “The tragic events taking place currently in Egypt, which have been accompanied by chaos, looting, intimidation of innocents, exploitation of freedom and expression, and attempts to ignite the flames of chaos to achieve their suspicious goals, which are not approved by Saudi, U.S. sides.” Is that a fair characterization of the phone call?
MR. GIBBS: I think each of the readouts are put out based on what each government says on their end of the phone. I think our readout --
Q Well, if they’re speaking -- they seem to be speaking for -- they said that the U.S. government seemed to agree with them.
MR. GIBBS: I speak for the U.S. government, Chuck, not anybody --
Q I understand. So they are wrong?
MR. GIBBS: -- not anybody in Riyadh.
Q Meaning the Saudi government put out an incorrect readout?
MR. GIBBS: Meaning you should read our readout if you’d like to know what we said on our end of the phone call.
Q So they are sent -- putting out a misleading readout?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I will -- happy to forward again the readout that reflects what we said on that end of the phone call.
Q And as far as Mubarak is concerned, so when you say orderly transition why is it that you’re hesitating? It’s clear that you’re calling -- that the United States’ position is you want an orderly regime change. Is that not correct?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I want to be careful because I don’t want you to put words in my mouth anymore than I want to --
Q I understand that. That’s why -- I mean, orderly transition -- I mean, it seems you’re calling for a change in government.
MR. GIBBS: No, we’re calling for a change in the way the country works. The determination --
Q So were Mubarak to implement all that change, you’d be okay with that?
MR. GIBBS: The determination as to when that change is met or how that change happens is not going to be determined or dictated by our country -- no more, Chuck, than I’m going to determine what freedom of speech means to you or to NBC. That’s not for me to determine. Why would it be for me to determine for Egypt? Why would anybody who is -- why would anybody who seeks greater freedom in Egypt be looking for my signoff on what that means?
Q But it seems to be that many of the protesters are upset of the perception that the U.S. government is -- looks like it’s still backing Mubarak.
MR. GIBBS: I do not think that those protesters would be assuaged by the notion that somebody in a series of buildings several thousand miles away have determined the extent to what that means for them. That is for the people of Egypt to decide and determine.
I’ll come to Connie real quick and then Jonathan.
Q Thank you. On evacuations, are military evacuations contemplated? And if --
MR. GIBBS: None that I’m aware of.
Q If American citizens have to get out on a charter but can’t afford a charter, what happens --
MR. GIBBS: If I’m not mistaken those are -- because of the way the evacuations are taking place -- I will check on -- I guess I would refer you to State on that. I think those are government charters.
Q You said that White House and the U.S. government doesn’t want to choose -- or it doesn’t want to choose the leadership of Egypt. When P.J. Crowley put out a Tweet after Mr. Mubarak’s speech on Friday night, saying that “rearranging the deck chairs is not the kind of change he’s talking about,” a lot of people interpreted that meaning that the appointment of Vice President Suleiman was not an acceptable change. How do you reconcile those two messages?
MR. GIBBS: I reconcile it exactly the way I’ve said it today and exactly the way P.J. Crowley’s boss reconciled it on Sunday. I don't -- Jonathan, as I said earlier today, I don't think anybody is looking at the pictures in Cairo and believes that the actions that have been taken thus far have met that test.
I don't -- the Secretary of State I think was asked in each of her five interviews whether or not what has been done is all that needs to be done. And I think every one of her answers included the phrase, “of course not.” So I don't -- I think that is -- those largely speak for themselves.
Q Tomorrow there is a major demonstration planned in Cairo. Have you -- has the U.S. government delivered any kind of message to the Egyptian government specifically on what should be expected of the military’s response to that?
MR. GIBBS: Simply to reiterate -- again, without getting into great specifics about each of the contacts that are had -- and Wendell -- I think it was Wendell -- mentioned Admiral Mullen and others in the Pentagon, Secretary Gates, that are in touch with their counterparts. Again, that’s just not the leadership at the Pentagon, but that is military-to-military contact, the Secretary of State with the Foreign Ministry.
We have been clear from the outset that grievances will not, and cannot be addressed through violence. So I think that message remains clear to the government of Egypt.
Q Robert, can you assure us that any private back-channel messages to Mubarak or the Egyptian government are the same as what you’re saying publicly?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Yes, without getting into what a private back channel might look like. That would make it less private. Yes. No, our messaging -- I don’t think the message would be quite clear or have a lot of impact if what I said up here transmitted to people throughout the region was different than what people heard in the region.
Q It’s happened in the past.
MR. GIBBS: It has. It hasn’t, that I know of, in this case.
Q In any of these conversations, any of these briefings that you’re talking about, how much has the price of oil crept into it? It’s obviously close to $90 a barrel. Are you concerned that it could have broader implications on the economy?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we -- there are folks obviously in the NEC that are monitoring any impact that uncertainty or unrest has throughout financial markets. We have thus far, to my knowledge, not seen disruptions in, for instance in the Suez, which obviously is tremendously important to the movement of goods around the Cape of Good Horn.
Egypt is not an oil exporter, which shouldn’t greatly impact that -- we obviously are monitoring, again, the unrest and the uncertainty to see what impacts that might cause.
Q And that's true for both financial markets and the broader economic recovery?
MR. GIBBS: I would say financial markets, commodity markets, the whole host of things.
Q Robert, can you say what kind of counsel the administration is seeking from former Senator Bradley?
MR. GIBBS: From former Senator Bradley? Let me check and see. I’m not up on what that might be.
Q -- his meeting with the Vice President and Treasury Secretary?
MR. GIBBS: Let me see -- I don't know if that's tax reform, who -- somebody who played a big role in that. But before I surmise out loud that it might be tax reform, let me check. (Laughter.) I didn’t say, “tax reform” -- no, let me just check on that.
Q Are you guys doing tax reform? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Sometimes that bubble box appears audibly. (Laughter.) I will have Ms. Brundage check on that right away.
Q You said on Friday that the U.S. aid to Egypt was under review. Can you talk about that? Is there any update on that, in terms of the status of it?
MR. GIBBS: No, I said Friday, and I would reiterate here, that we are watching the actions of the government in response to the unrest and would make determinations about our aid based on some of their actions. That's ongoing.
Q Hey, Robert. Your message is -- messaging has obviously been done very carefully, as your -- and your words are being picked very carefully. Can you talk a little bit about --
MR. GIBBS: As opposed to this haphazard briefing? Yes. (Laughter.)
Q Can you talk a little bit about the considerations and any special efforts that you guys are making to try to carefully pick your words in this crisis, and also, to follow up on Dan, the extent to which you guys -- this is impacting your other efforts at focusing on the economy and the like?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- look, I don’t think --
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I don’t -- I’ll do this answer slowly so as to -- no. (Laughter.) I think -- obviously we understand that this is a volatile region of the world; that it is -- that we have equities, again, in a strong partnership with Egypt and the Egyptian people as they have been a steadying force for peace in the region. I think that’s -- we’ve seen that since the Camp David Accords, and again, that’s been a cornerstone for stability in the region since that time.
Obviously it’s a volatile time. Things and events are moving quickly. And it’s always important that our words not contributed to the -- contribute to greater volatility.
In terms of -- I don’t think that -- as I said earlier, the President’s schedule has not changed as a result of what is happening. Obviously he continues to be kept up to date throughout the process. Our travel hasn’t changed for later in the week in terms of talking about the issue that Americans have foremost on their mind, and that is the state of the economy. We'll continue to do that.
Q How long does President Mubarak have to move? I mean, could he take months and months, outreach to these --
MR. GIBBS: Again, Ann, I think that’s determined by the people in Egypt. That is -- I think obviously, and I think you heard the President say clearly on Friday and he said this on the phone with President Mubarak, that this was an opportunity that should be seized to make significant change and to bring about significant democratic change.
And I think -- the reason that we talk about the fact that this will be determined by the people of Egypt because this is not something that is -- this is not something where the people of Egypt, again, are going to be satisfied that there is some mystical third party that determines when enough has been done.
As you heard -- I said this on Friday, the President said this later on Friday, that governments in this country at all levels and governments around the world have to be responsive to their citizens.
Q Let me ask, as well, it’s been reported that your successor, the new press secretary will report to the communications director. Will there be a change in the way your -- the press operation here works? Will the new press secretary be reporting to a communications director, not access directly to the President?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the modeling that we set up when we came in was, quite honestly, set up a bit like the previous administration’s in some ways. There was a separate -- in some different branches of the Bush administration, there was a communications operation that the press office was within, and sometimes when it was a separate office.
Dan can stick his head out of his door and I can hear it pretty clearly in my office, and vice versa. So I wouldn’t -- I don't think anybody has to worry that the operation of -- the press operation will act differently simply by combining the efforts of press and communication, largely because, quite honestly, I think if you looked at it -- and Dan and others and I have discussed this -- there’s a myriad of roles that are very duplicative.
I mean, for instance, we have assistant press secretaries that have split up a series of issues that you all interact with them. If it’s a homeland security issue, you deal with Nick. If there’s an economic issue, you deal with Amy. There’s a separate group of people in communications that works at the EEOB that they’re regional -- basically they’re regional desks. They have the country split up, but they're answering many of the same questions. So I don't think you have to fear that things are going to act differently with Jay up here.
Q Will the new press secretary have your office? In a former Democratic administration, the communications director took your office and --
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- I have not been told otherwise.
Q Robert, I want to follow up on the issue of marriage and the President’s 1996 statement. I’ll read it again: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” Why has the President abandoned this position?
MR. GIBBS: I can simply -- I was not with the President in 1996. I was younger and thinner back then -- same shoe size. I would simply say that I think that throughout the campaign of 2004 and the campaign of 2008, he’s made his position clear on that.
Q Was there a political motivation for the President to drop support for same-sex marriage as he pursued to higher office?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’d refer you to my previous answer.
Q One follow-up question.
MR. GIBBS: That's two actually, but go ahead. I’ll entertain the second.
Q Will the President reclaim his support for same-sex marriage before the 2012 election?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not in the business of predicting. I think you’ve seen this President be clearly committed to issues of equality and justice. That's why in -- I can’t speak to 2012. I can speak to 2011 as the year in which a policy like “don't ask, don't tell” will end.
Q Thank you. So what’s going to be the indication for this administration that the Egyptian people are satisfied with the degree of change that they’ve received? Is it going to be when the protests end in the streets, or when some --
MR. GIBBS: My sense is -- look, I hate to get into, again, predicting this. But I think you would see -- you’d see broad agreement in Egypt that the cares and concerns of those that have manifested themselves in these protests, that some of those grievances have been met. And I think that's why I think many people throughout the world think that we haven’t reached that level yet.
Q And a slightly separate question -- very different question about the ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. There’s been a lot of reporting over the weekend about the potential for him to run in 2012. Is there any concern that that might affect the work that he’s going to be doing for a major U.S. ally -- economic issues and otherwise over the next couple of months?
MR. GIBBS: Ambassador Huntsman has told a number -- told several people inside this building that he plans to leave in the first part of -- during the first part of this year. When the President picked him in 2009, it was because we believed, and continue to believe, he brings a broad range of experience to an extremely important ambassadorial post with one of our most important relationships in the world. The President continues to believe that.
I’ve seen reporting on this today, and I think it’s -- I want to be clear on this from up here. I’ve talked to several people in the building, and I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman, except to say, as I said earlier, that he will leave sometime in the first part of the year.
The President, and I think the American people, expect that somebody that holds the post of ambassador from the United States to China would dedicate their full energy and time to that position. And we believe that Ambassador Huntsman believes that as well.
Q Has the White House been preparing to find a replacement for him since --
MR. GIBBS: I think it’s safe to assume that when he started telling people in the building that he’d step down, that that’s a process that has begun, yes.
Q Is it Vietor? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: It is not. I can take him off the list.
Q Robert, back on Egypt, two questions, and following up a couple of people. You said that Egypt has been a cornerstone for that region since the Camp David Accords. What is this administration’s greatest fear with all of this lawlessness?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, let me rephrase what you -- some of what you said there. I think they have been a valuable partner in the region in bringing about stability. I think the Camp David Accords have provided the cornerstone for that stability. And I think -- well, it is our hope and our strong belief that that is a role that Egypt will continue to play for a long time going forward.
Q But what is the fear? What is the administration’s greatest fear? This is a country that you have greatly relied on, you’ve helped but greatly reliant on. And all the volatility --
MR. GIBBS: I think you can largely assume that our fears are the opposite of partnership and stability.
Q And also, back to what Hans asked about the barrel of oil -- the price of a barrel of oil. You say the NEC is following it. But what is the rationale, especially since they are not exporters of oil and the fact that when other countries that do export oil, particularly like in Nigeria, gas prices go up -- why now? What is the rationale? What is the NEC telling us as to why?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think there is a certain amount of volatility that’s always built into oil prices and we know oil prices also -- and I’m not going to surmise deeply on this lest I get myself in trouble -- that as I said to Hans, there are -- that we watch for uncertainty and instability and whatever its impact might be on prices through a range of different commodities.
So, again, I don’t think they’ve come to any strong determinations except that it is something that we are, as you can imagine, for our economy and for the recovery of the global economy, watching quite closely.
Q Is it a fear about transportation, moving of oil back and forth in that region -- is there a fear with that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as I said earlier, we’ve not received reports, at least when I came out here, that there were -- that there seemed to be transportation disruptions in the area of the Suez. But again, that is -- I think that is among the many concerns that we will, throughout the government, continue to monitor.
Q Thanks. I also have a couple of Egypt follow-up questions. Who inside the NSC or the EOP is actually managing this for the White House? Is this John Brennan or is it --
MR. GIBBS: No, this is -- the process is -- John has certainly been part of a number of these meetings. It’s Tom Donilon who is the principal on this, has been in virtually every one of these meetings, updated the President in a meeting we were all in on Saturday, obviously is in the PDB. Denis runs some of the deputy committee meetings that are also held on a daily basis.
Q And can you give me an idea of how many staff or basically full-time or close to full-time are on this now?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the NSC is largely divided up into regional issues. So when we go into these meetings, you see the same people that are dealing with issues throughout the Middle East obviously in these meetings.
Q Vice President Biden was really involved in Iraq, obviously was involved in the AfPak -- and we saw in the picture when the President was on the phone with Mr. Mubarak on Friday. What's Vice President Biden’s role in this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, obviously, the Vice President brings decades of experience in dealing with issues in foreign policy, and knows many of the actors in the region well. He, as you mentioned, was in the Oval Office during the call to President Mubarak on Friday afternoon. He has been a regular participant, as his staff has, in all of these meetings.
Q One more. The Associated Press today says --
MR. GIBBS: I’ve never heard of it.
Q -- administration officials, apparently not White House officials -- talking about those two terms that we talked about at the top of this briefing, the election in September and the lifting of emergency laws. And my question is, did the President personally urge Mubarak on their call to proceed on both of those fronts, or are these recommendations that are occurring at lower levels?
MR. GIBBS: Let me -- without getting myself into reading out the precise words that are used in those diplomatic calls, I’d refer you largely back to the answer I gave Mark in that the public -- our public messaging and our private messaging on changes that need to take place are remarkably similar.
Q I got the sense that what you meant was that they were not contradictory. But that doesn’t necessarily mean -- when obviously this would be a choice that the President would have to calculate, is this what I -- do I want to get involved in at this level and make these personal recommendations. But can you tell us whether he did --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, without -- again, I’m very reticent to read my notes from the call. But, again, I think when I outline up here many of the things that you heard the President has talked about throughout the many meetings that he’s had over the course of the past couple of years and in the speech in Cairo -- things like free and fair elections, constitutional change -- the freedoms that we’ve enumerated I think are all very consistent with messaging that is being delivered at all levels of our government throughout all levels of Egyptian government.
Q Thanks, Robert. What would you say to the Egyptian demonstrators watching you now and they infer a subtle support for Mubarak to stay in office and they respond to the steps you mention, and they would say we’ve given Mubarak 30 years and they just -- they don’t trust him to meet those reforms?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think first and foremost what I would say to anybody watching is that the United States and the Obama administration are fully supportive of your universal rights. And look, this country was founded on the principle of grievances with government and having -- setting about a constitution that addresses a process for those grievances to be heard. We believe that that has to happen in this instance, as well. And it is not for anybody in this government or anybody at this podium to determine how or when those grievances have been met.
As I said earlier, I don’t think anybody listening in Cairo or anywhere else in Egypt wants somebody in this country determining what’s the definition in Egypt for freedom of assembly. I don’t think anybody in this country would want that from Egypt, and I don’t think anybody in Egypt wants that from this country.
What we want is a meaningful dialogue to happen that results in significant democratic changes. When those changes and when those grievances -- when those grievances have been met through those changes, then we’ll know that from the people of Egypt.
Q Robert, who do you expect to be at the table there? I’m just curious, who do you guys -- who do you expect to be at a table for this meeting on meaningful dialogue? Is it ElBaradei? Is it representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood? I mean, I guess -- like how does he do this? Who are the people at the table?
MR. GIBBS: This has to be determined by the people in Egypt. But, again, if we determine who sits at that table, we by definition are making decisions about the extent to which freedom looks like in that country.
Q I’m not asking you that. I mean, obviously we have a lot of Egyptian experts here who are the types of people who --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that, as I said, that that has to include many of the people that the embassy and others talk to regularly in Egypt.
Q So it’s those folks?
MR. GIBBS: It has to -- well, but I think it’s important --
Q Now, I’m not trying to narrow-cast --
MR. GIBBS: Right, I think it’s important to understand that certainly -- there are certainly political actors that are currently not members of the government, some level of those -- of opposition groups, certainly meeting the standard that we laid out earlier about adherence to democratic principles.
But I think obviously that that can’t simply include political players. It has to include, as I said earlier, those in business, those in banking, those in commerce. There has to be a broad enough cross-section of the Egyptian people to weigh in on the extent to which these grievances are held and that they will be addressed.
Q But to follow up on that point, has there been conversations between people in the administration or in the embassy and anyone in Mubarak’s government about a way to proceed? If there are these conversations, who are some of the people that might be involved, whether the U.S. can help or not --
MR. GIBBS: I think that we have weighed in on the broader notion of what that needs to look like. I don't think -- and I'll double-check to see if there's any more clarity, largely because I wouldn’t have been read into each and every one of those conversations -- but the degree to which that gets quite that granular.
Again, I think this is -- I think it has to -- as I mentioned, it has to include a broad cross-section. It has to include people that represent those that have those grievances. And I think whenever you begin to narrow-cast this -- only this, not this, you’re restricting that lens in a way that, again, is not a determination that this government will make.
Q I just want to -- if you could just square --
Q Robert, just one question, one question.
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, Lester, hold on. I called on Savannah.
Q If you could just kind of square these two concepts -- because on the one hand you’re saying don’t read the “orderly transition to democracy” as saying we believe Mubarak should step down because it’s not for the U.S. to insert itself in Egypt’s internal affairs. At the same time, you’ve just described a variety of changes that have to be made in Egypt, including the emergency law being lifted, which sounds exactly like the U.S. is meddling or weighing in on Egypt’s internal affairs.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, but let’s be clear, let’s be clear. And I think the Secretary of State was clear on a number of these things over the weekend. It’s been the position of this government through Democratic and Republican administrations that greater freedoms, greater democratic reforms, greater adherence to human rights needed to be part of what Egypt looked like.
We have, as a government, Democrat and Republican, advocated for the position of a vice president for the length of President Mubarak’s term because up until Saturday, for that 31 years, there never had been. We spoke out in I think September of this year as the emergency law was again extended, something that's been several decades -- has been in place for several decades -- that we believed, Democratic and Republican administrations believed that that provided the government with extra judicial powers that were unnecessary.
So those are in accordance with the values that we hold, and the universal rights of the people of Egypt that we support. But it is not, again, for us to delineate that the only thing that has to happen is X, Y and Z. Again, that's not a -- I think that is important that we not make that determination on behalf of people halfway across the world.
Q The Vice President appointed by Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, presided over -- presides over the intelligence apparatus in Egypt that has had a reputation for torturing people, but also has had a reputation for being a close intelligence ally of the U.S., may have helped, indeed, the U.S. with rendering suspects during that last administration, though not now. Has part of the communication about changes that the West would like to see include a reform of the security service, a declaration against torture and promise to end those practices?
MR. GIBBS: Mark, I know obviously as you mentioned it is the position of our government not to torture. It is our strong belief that that goes against many of the universal rights that we’ve discussed. I do not know the level, again, of granularity that has taken place in the discussions that have happened at different levels of government since Vice President Suleiman was sworn in. Again, I can just speak again broadly to those universal rights and what they must look like.
Q Thanks, Robert. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has sent undercover investigators from New York into Arizona where they were --
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, start that again.
Q Mayor Michael Blumberg --
MR. GIBBS: Okay.
Q -- sent undercover -- sorry, this is not Egypt-related -- - sent undercover investigators to Arizona where they were legally allowed to buy semiautomatic pistols. This morning he said there was a “dangerous gap” in federal gun laws. What is this administration doing about that gap? And what is the reaction to the fact that investigators were allowed to legally buy semiautomatic pistols?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it has been -- I have not seen the reports, Sam, and I will have somebody go pull that. But obviously, we are -- we believe that there are reasons that federal laws are on the books, and the need to strongly adhere to and follow existing law is important not just in the purchase of weapons but throughout our civil life.
END 2:54 P.M. EST
May 23, 2015
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