Remarks by the President, Press Secretary Jay Carney, and Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest in Daily Press Briefing
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:50 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. How are you? You obviously heard earlier from the President in this room and he took some of your questions, so perhaps that means this will be a relatively short briefing. (Laughter.) Might go easy on me, maybe? No? I do not have any announcements to make at the top. I'll note for you that you should have received a notification that there will be a call later this afternoon during which Ben Rhodes will preview the President’s travel next week. And since that is most of what he is doing next week that will serve as our week ahead. So I don't have a separate week ahead for today.
So with that, let’s answer some questions. Jim.
Q Thanks, Jay. Two topics -- one on the VA. The President said that some of these problems did not surface to the level where Shinseki was aware of it. He said that these things weren’t troubles that they were hearing while traveling around the country, and that we need to see how to get information about systems that aren’t working. The IG’s report this week noted that there had been 18 reports since 2005 that had gone to the VA, that had gone to committees of Congress, including the committee that the President sat on while he was in the Senate. How can he say that this has not risen to the level, that it has not --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think Secretary Shinseki spoke powerfully this morning about some of these issues. I think the nature of the problem here that has been identified by the IG, by some of the reporting on this, and by Secretary Shinseki’s preliminary report, is that there were efforts undertaken to misrepresent how long the waiting times were, so that the information that was being provided to headquarters, if you will, here in Washington was not accurate in some cases, according to the IG’s report.
So what the President said today, what Secretary Shinseki said today is that these reviews -- the IG’s investigation, his preliminary report, the Secretary’s review -- have borne out the most serious concerns that this was a systemic problem. And that is why Secretary Shinseki said what he said today and why the President made the comments he did today and accepted the Secretary’s resignation with considerable regret, given the remarkable service that the General and then Secretary Shinseki has provided to this nation.
Q But do you concede that these issues of delays in veterans getting their appointments, their medical appointments, has, in fact, existed since 2005?
MR. CARNEY: I think the President noted, as he has in the past and others have, that there are challenges associated with this issue and other issues at VA, and there have been for a long time, predating 2005 even. And what we have learned in recent weeks through this review process and the investigation is that these are deeper and more serious than is even remotely acceptable, and dramatic action has to be taken.
Secretary Shinseki announced today that he’s initiated the process to fire individuals because of this conduct, and he himself tendered his resignation because he felt that it would be a distraction for him to be an issue remaining as Secretary when the focus should be on fixing these problems. And that’s ultimately what the President is focused on.
Q On Ukraine, U.S. defense officials are now saying that Russian troops appear to be moving away from the Ukrainian border. What’s the reaction -- what’s the President’s reaction to that confirmation from your own defense officials?
MR. CARNEY: While there continue to be indications of activity on the border, including a number of units that appear to have withdrawn -- and that activity has continued, and I would note what you did, statements from the Defense Department and the Defense Secretary that they have increased -- we do not have confirmation that this represents a full withdrawal yet.
We would welcome a full withdrawal, as we have called for now for some time. The presence of those troops -- many, many thousands of troops on the border -- serve to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. They were there to intimidate, and it remains necessary that a full withdrawal take place. That would be a very positive step.
We continue to work with the people of Ukraine and the President-elect to support their efforts to determine their own future. Despite the significant disruptions in regions of eastern Ukraine, the efforts of separatists seizing buildings, preventing --
THE PRESIDENT: Hello. You haven’t seen me enough today. One of Jay’s favorite lines is, “I have no personnel announcements at this time.” But I do. And it’s bittersweet. It involves one of my closest friends here in Washington.
In April, Jay came to me in the Oval Office and said he was thinking about moving on -- and I was not thrilled, to say the least. But Jay has had to wrestle with this decision for quite some time. He has been on my team since day one -- for two years with the Vice President, and for the past three and a half years as my Press Secretary. And it has obviously placed a strain on Claire, his wife, and his two wonderful kids, Hugo and Della. Della’s little league team, by the way, I had a chance to see the other day, and she’s a fine pitcher. But he wasn’t seeing enough of the games.
Jay was a reporter for 21 years before coming to the White House, including a stint as Moscow Bureau Chief for Time Magazine during the collapse of the Soviet Empire. So he comes to this place with a reporter’s perspective. That’s why, believe it or not, I actually think he will miss hanging out with all of you, including the guys in the front row. (Laughter.)
Q Third row. Third row. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: But Jay has become one of my closest friends, and is a great Press Secretary and a great advisor. He’s got good judgment. He has a good temperament. And he’s got a good heart. And I’m going to miss him a lot. I will continue to rely on him as a friend and advisor after he leaves to spend as much of the summer as he can with his kids before he decides what’s next for him. Whatever it is, I know he’s going to be outstanding at it.
Of course, that meant I had to make a decision, which is who succeeds Jay. And we’ve got enormous talent around here, but I’ve decided that we’re going to put in this slot somebody who is also a friend and advisor. So today, the flak jacket is officially passed to a new generation -- Mr. Josh Earnest. (Applause.)
Josh is a coach’s son from Kansas City. He still roots for the Royals, I guess. (Laughter.) As you know, his name describes his demeanor -- Josh is an earnest guy, and you can’t find just a nicer individual even outside of Washington.
The country, of course, knows him for his golden voice and dulcet tones on West Wing Week, the biggest viral Internet hit since “Between Two Ferns.” (Laughter.)
But Josh and I have an incredible history going all the way back to the Iowa caucuses. Josh was my Iowa communications director. And even when he was in that role, you’d find him spending an extra hour or two helping young staffers make phone calls or knock on doors. There was no task that was too small, no detail too unimportant for Josh to attend to.
At the White House, he’s been a mentor to many of the young people here who I know are thrilled for him today. He is of sound judgment and great temperament. He is honest and full of integrity. And I’m sure you will at some point get frustrated with him as well -- (laughter) -- but it’s going to be hard, because he’s a straight shooter and a great guy.
So my request is that, be nice to Jay on his farewell tour, and be nice to Josh during his initiation, which I’m sure will last maybe two days -- or perhaps two questions. (Laughter.)
So we’re going to let him hang around a little bit to milk it for all it’s worth. (Laughter.)
All right? Thank you, guys.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, sir.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, sir.
MR. CARNEY: Any questions? (Laughter.)
Q Where do we start?
Q What is the timeline, Jay? Do you have a sense?
MR. CARNEY: We haven’t got a date set. Part of his penance or initiation will be that Josh will go to Europe in my stead -- thank you, sir -- which will allow me a little time here when the boss is gone. But I’m looking at mid-June, second or third week, around then.
Q What are you going to do? Are you going to join any bands or anything? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Well, I might manage my son’s band, which is on the verge of taking off. But I haven’t made any decisions yet. I’ve managed, over the past months, to have some conversations about what my future might look like, and I’m excited by some of the possibilities. But I’m sure you guys will be among the first to know once I’ve decided what I’m going to do.
I will -- before -- I’m happy to talk about myself, of course -- (laughter) -- but this is not my last briefing, and I will probably have a few more polished things to say at some point before I go. But off the cuff, I obviously just want to thank the President, the Vice President, First Lady and Dr. Biden, the Chiefs of Staff I have had the privilege to work with, including Denis McDonough, and everyone here.
But there will be another time for more of that. But it’s been an amazing experience, just so fulfilling. And I said, as we surprised some folks in here in the minutes before I came out, that probably the best part about it is that in mid-life, you don’t often make a whole new set of friends -- and not just friends, but people you would fight by and for under any circumstance -- and that’s certainly what I have been lucky enough to get over these past five and a half years.
So it’s been a privilege, and it continues to be a privilege. And every day in here with you has been a privilege.
Q Every day? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: People, more often than not, say to me, you have the hardest job, or you have one of the hardest jobs. And I’m not saying it’s easy every day, but I love it. It’s an important interaction that takes place here. It’s not always pretty; it could certainly be better. But to be a part of it is an honor and a joy for me. And no matter how tough the briefing is, I walk out of here having been glad to stand here.
So with that, again, like I said, I’ll take more questions and talk about me, but I can also take questions on other subjects if you so desire.
Q Can you dispel the Moscow ambassador rumors?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. I can assure you that my family, having won me back, would not be happy with that outcome. So I am not --
Q No job in government?
MR. CARNEY: -- I would not anticipate that.
Anybody else? April? Yes, ma’am.
Q Jay, since you’ve been here at the White House in various capacities, and in this business, broadcasting business in various capacities, what have you, gone through your stint being here in these seats that used to look another way, and then over there, and then over here in the administrative capacity -- what have you learned? And what could you tell us to be able to better work with you as we continue our job as you would?
MR. CARNEY: April, I don’t think I want to have everybody sit here and hear me opine on this subject at length now. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other both in this room and elsewhere over the next couple of week, and beyond. And I’ll have a few things to say about how I view this job and the interaction that takes place in here and just around this building and this town. Hopefully, some of the things I say will resonate somewhere.
But I don’t think today is the day. I think today I want to just focus on how pleased I am that Josh is going to succeed me, and how very honored I feel still to have had this job.
Q First of all, congratulations.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you.
Q Can I ask you about something that Secretary Shinseki said in his speech earlier this morning? He said he was “too trusting of some, and accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times.” Doesn’t that suggest that the President needs to do more than just accept the resignation of the Secretary of the VA, that perhaps there are other top-level officials in that department who need to go? People inside these various facilities around the country that need to go? That cleaning house might be in order?
MR. CARNEY: Jim, I think that Secretary Shinseki himself announced today a process that he was initiating that is going to be dealing with directly specific individuals -- will be holding accountable specific individuals. I think what you heard the President say was pretty clear -- where there is misconduct, there ought to be consequences and punishment. And he feels very strongly about that.
There is an active investigation underway by the independent IG. There is a review that is not yet complete that Secretary Shinseki initiated, and the broader review that Rob Nabors is conducting.
So I know the President believes that holding people accountable is important and he expects that to take place. It is taking place. He also believes that the first and most important mission that those at VA have and that he has as President of this administration is to ensure that the primary focus remains on providing benefits and services to our veterans, and for the sake of that, to fixing problems that have delayed the provision of those benefits to our veterans.
So, again, what Secretary Shinseki said I think included actions that he is initiating when it comes to personnel. I wouldn’t suggest that that activity is over. I wouldn’t know. There are active investigations going on. So the focus still has to be primarily on making sure that we’re getting the services we need and, in the longer term, the reforms we need to make the system work better.
Q But does the President need that -- does the President believe that there needs to be a cleaning of the house there?
MR. CARNEY: I get the cliché, but I’m just saying that the -- I think specifically, that relates to specific individuals and actions they may or may not have taken, and misconduct that may or may not have taken place, where Secretary Shinseki believes action at a personnel level has been warranted, he is taking it. He himself -- because he did not want to serve as a distraction from the important work that needs to be done -- submitted his resignation. The President accepted it. And under the acting director -- or the Acting Secretary, rather, the President expects the IG investigation to continue, the review to continue, and for any misconduct to be met with consequences as the VA focuses on its core mission, which is providing services and benefits to our veterans.
Q And at the meeting at the White House this morning in the Oval Office, was it just the President and the Secretary in that room? Or was Rob Nabors also there?
MR. CARNEY: Rob was here. I have to -- yes, Rob was in the meeting, as well.
Q Mr. Gibson, was he in there, as well? Was this a --
MR. CARNEY: We can see if we can get a manifest. I know the President met with --
Q It’s your last briefing.
MR. CARNEY: No, it’s not my -- I’m not holding back, Jim, I promise. (Laughter.)
Q Where did the kinder, gentler Jay Carney --
MR. CARNEY: It’s not my last briefing. But I just confess I’m not sure. Rob was in the room; the Chief of Staff may have been in the room -- I’m not sure. We’ll find out for you. I know the President said today to you that he met after that with the new acting director who is currently the deputy director -- I’m sorry, I keep saying director -- deputy secretary and the acting secretary. I don’t know if that was all in the same -- at the same time.
Q And if I may go off topic, only because I don’t believe we’ve asked you on camera this week about what happened in Santa Barbara last weekend. I’m sure you’ve seen the comments that Richard Martinez, one of the fathers of the victims in that rampage, some of the comments that he has made publicly. He has said that he does not care about members of Congress calling him to offer his condolences; he doesn’t care for their sympathy. He says, “Get to work to do something. I’ll tell the President the same thing if he calls, because getting a call from a politician doesn’t impress me.” Does the President have a message to the families out there? Does he plan on visiting with those families? This is another mass shooting.
MR. CARNEY: Sure, and a horrific, heartbreaking incident. And another in a series of horrific, heartbreaking incidents. And the thoughts and prayers of the President and the First Lady and everyone here are with the families of those who were killed and those who were wounded.
Obviously, what happened in Santa Barbara or outside Santa Barbara is under investigation, and all of the elements of it remain under investigation. As a broader matter you know the President’s view. There are things we can and should do as a nation to reduce gun violence. There are things that Congress can and should do, fully consistent with the Second Amendment rights that the President supports, that can help reduce gun violence. He was explicitly disappointed in the failure of Congress to take action on a measure that was entirely consistent with Second Amendment rights that he supports that would have simply expanded background checks and make the system more comprehensive and effective.
He has acted on every item, the administration has, contained within the report provided by the Vice President to the President on measures that can be taken administratively to help address this challenge.
And I understand -- again, the reason why I pointed out that we need to set aside the specifics of this incident, that we all acknowledge and accept that the actions that we can take administratively and the actions that Congress can take will not eliminate all violence, or all gun violence, but -- or any -- necessarily a specific incident that occurred. But they are the right thing to do, and they, again, are fully consistent with our Second Amendment rights.
Q Jay, congratulations.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you.
Q Two questions, one also on veterans. When did the White House find out that he was going to resign? And did White House officials put any direct pressure on him to do so?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into internal back-and-forth. Obviously, this is something that we’ve been paying close attention to. The President asked for and received the preliminary report from the Secretary this morning, and that’s when the Secretary offered his resignation.
Q Did he know coming in that that’s what was going to happen?
MR. CARNEY: I’m just -- I’m going to leave it at that. It’s obviously something the President feels very strongly about, and that is the unique goodness of Secretary Shinseki, not just his resume, but his quality as a person. And I think it shows -- I know the President feels that the action he took today reflects that he, once again, as he has for years and decades, put others ahead of himself; put the mission ahead of his personal situation. And the President has a huge reservoir of admiration for Ric Shinseki.
Q One other topic -- on Monday, the EPA is going to announce new limits for existing power plants, and we understand that the President will not be involved in the announcement of that. This is the biggest part of his Climate Action Plan that the President announced a year ago. Why would he not be involved in this --
MR. CARNEY: I’ve seen some reporting around this. It’s kind of knuckle-headed. I mean, the President has talked about this a lot. He’s going to give the weekly address on it. He’ll be talking about it in a conference call that reporters are going to come on. This is an EPA rule that the EPA chief will announce. But I don’t think --
Q He’ll be talking about it on a conference call?
Q When will that be?
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q On Monday?
MR. CARNEY: On Monday -- yes, on Monday, my trusty advisors tell me.
Q There’s no strategic reason for him not appearing with Gina McCarthy?
MR. CARNEY: I think we own this, Jeff. And he’s proud to own it because he believes reducing carbon pollution is absolutely essential for the health and welfare of our children, and the future of our nation. He believes that we can make ourselves more energy independent, as well as address the issue of climate change in a way that enhances economic progress and the quality of the lives of all Americans.
So I think, again, he’s giving the weekly address on it, and he’ll be discussing it in a conference call on Monday.
Q Thank you, Jay, and congratulations. Nancy Pelosi, on the Hill this morning, said she hoped that the White House would get a replacement in a speedy fashion. Can you talk about a list that you’ve got compiled, presumably?
MR. CARNEY: You think I’d just do that now to violate all those principles. (Laughter.)
Q And also, what kind of person are you looking for? A watchdog? An investigator type? Or what?
MR. CARNEY: As the President said, it’s very important that we move quickly to identify, nominate, and get confirmed a new secretary. I wouldn’t want to restrict the search by laying out parameters of what the qualifications of the right person might look like. I think there are a variety of ways to go, and hopefully, a number of truly qualified individuals who will be interested in being considered. But beyond that, I certainly don’t have a list to give. We just want to move expeditiously.
Q You have one, though, don’t you?
MR. CARNEY: We just do not characterize the personnel process. And it’s certainly, I have to say, a small pleasure that we were able to come out here today and, having run a process and surprise a few people. Doesn’t happen all the time.
Q The President, in explaining the problems at the VA, seemed to sound a familiar theme that he did during HHS -- that he did during the GAO issue, that he did during the IRS, which is that it's a systemic, bureaucratic issue -- outdated technology in one case; in another case, it was people that didn’t -- wasn’t enough manpower over here; in another case it's middle management not getting the issue up to the top. And I guess my question is, so essentially when IG reports or stuff gets percolated up, we find out that's the reason -- as far as the President is concerned, that's the reason. Is there a valid concern that essentially, if there was any department we all spent 10 days scrutinizing, we’d find out it's just as mismanaged, just as bureaucratically a mess? Is he concerned that this technology issue that he’s identified at HHS, that he’s identified at the VA is systemic around the government? And if that's the case, is it time to frontload and try to do something about the management of government?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'd say a couple of things. One, as you know, the President does have a reorganization and management initiative that he has urged Congress to work with him on.
Q -- five years ago. I remember when --
MR. CARNEY: But I would urge you to talk to some folks in Congress to see how eager they are to take up what are absolutely the right reforms --
Q -- I understand that.
MR. CARNEY: But, Chuck, let’s go back. You're conflating a couple of things. The challenges that the creation of a wholly knew enterprise around the ACA and a wholly new entity at healthcare.gov were pretty specific. And there were technology issues and procurement issues and management issues that went around that.
The issues related to VA are not related to the development of a new initiative or a new website or a new -- they’re more about a problem with capacity and a problem with management. So you have a capacity problem where there isn’t enough capacity to serve efficiently the veterans who are seeking benefits at certain medical facilities. And you have a management problem and potentially management misconduct when the truth about that challenge is not being accurately reported, as it should be. At least that is the -- those are the findings of the IG and of the Secretary.
So what is true is that when these kinds of things are identified and they are as severe as we have learned they are at the VA, decisive action needs to be taken. And that is what you’ve seen Secretary Shinseki initiate and you’ve seen the President insist upon.
Q But let’s talk about the VA. So we've had IG reports going back on this issue of -- on the specific issue of the scheduling issue going back to 2004. It was something that was brought up in the transition in 2008. It was something that was brought up and it wasn’t working in 2011 and in 2012. So I guess the question is this was not a new problem, this was not a surprise. You could argue IRS was a surprise, GAO was a surprise. This was not a surprise. Do you guys lack a system here in the White House that is able to find out what’s going on at these agencies, double-check, particular on Veterans Affairs, that is sort of on top of this, going, hey, we've had these series of IG reports, can you give me a status update? How does that work?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think those are certainly good questions, and I think that specifically the issue around what was known and where did that information go -- and I think that's what Secretary Shinseki was talking about today, this morning, and what he found particularly troubling, that individuals below him in management whom he depended on to give him accurate information were disappointing to him. And that's certainly not tenable when you're trying to run a significant organization like the VA that has such an important mission, which is providing services and benefits to Americans who have earned them, in most cases or many cases, in the most difficult circumstances.
So, look, Chuck, I think that a lot of this remains under investigation or the subject of inquiry. But the fact of the matter is we have to stay focused on taking steps to ensure that those veterans who have been identified who were on waiting lists for too long and not on the official waiting list in Phoenix are taken care of as quickly as possible. And we have to identify similar challenges and remedies in medical centers across the country where they exist.
And the process of finding out where the management problems were and any misconduct was is ongoing both in the IG effort and in the review conducted by the Secretary.
Q You brought up this reviewing sort of technology issue and reorganizing government issue. Can you tell us where does it stand? This is an initiative that you guys did unveil way back in I believe ’09. Where does it stand?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, because it was when I was Press Secretary. I don't think it's a surprise to you, you're a veteran here, that trying to change and consolidate -- change the way business is done in Washington and consolidate agencies, for example, or reorganize structures in the executive branch is not always a popular thing in Congress when Congress has institutional prerogatives at stake. And so it's a challenge. It's an effort that we continue to engage in and we look for partners who believe that the --
Q -- put a shoulder into that. I mean, I guess when you look back at this -- I guess my question is how do you know you don't have the same systemic technological problems at Agriculture -- before I get a call from Tom Vilsack -- but the point is that's the pattern I feel like you see here and the President himself seems to explain to the American public, which is everything is a bureaucratic problem or technology problem.
MR. CARNEY: First of all, the President stood up here and said he is chief executive, he is President, he takes responsibility for things that happen in his administration --
Q -- takes responsibility. I'm not trying to be argumentative about this --
MR. CARNEY: -- the United States government is of substantial size and --
Q -- an explanation -- right.
MR. CARNEY: -- when things happen on your watch and you only find out about them after they happen or they’re uncovered, but you take responsibility for them. That's what the President did. That's what Secretary Shinseki did.
I'm sure -- and I've seen that some will view problems like this as an indictment of more than just one entity or one institution. The service-oriented systems that are at the heart of what the VA does and what the VHA does are pretty specific to that institution and are different from what other departments and agencies do.
And as I identified earlier, what HHS was creating and CMS was creating with the implementation of ACA and healthcare.gov, in particular, where the challenges were, were quite unique. But there are broader issues, and you know them, around procurement and technology, and I think that is something that this administration and future administrations will continue to grapple with, because we need to have effective systems that provide smooth communication between systems when it comes to electronic health records and other information that needs to be effective and efficient so that government can be more effective and efficient.
Q Jay, first of all, thanks for all you’ve done here and congratulations on getting your life back. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, sir.
Q So just one process question. The resignation is effective immediately, or is there --
MR. CARNEY: Whose? (Laughter.)
Q The other one.
MR. CARNEY: That is a question -- I believe the answer is yes, but we’ll get back to you.
Q Okay. And on this issue of not knowing and being kind of surprised about what was going on, how do you explain the letter that the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House sent the President over a year ago -- it was dated May 21, 2013 -- and he sent this letter, did not get a response. It was only publicly released after he didn’t get a response for two months, so it wasn’t one of these, like, release it publicly. It was a letter to the President of the United States not from just anybody, from the chairman of the committee with oversight over veterans affairs, saying a “pattern of heartbreaking veteran deaths, suicides and other patient safety issues have cast a dark shadow over VA medical centers around the country. For months, we have tried in vain to compel VA leaders to take meaningful steps to prevent future adverse incidents by holding accountable VA employees.” And it goes on even to note the fact that a lot of the people with oversight over -- with responsibility over this stuff were getting bonuses. I mean, now the action has been taken, but how is it that this -- did this letter never get to the President? Or how -- there was no response --
MR. CARNEY: I’ll have to get an answer to you specifically about the response to that letter. Some of the -- and I’m not familiar with the specifics of the letter -- some of the charges made in that letter I’m not familiar with or do not know yet whether they’ve been borne out as true. I’m sure they’re under investigation if they relate to the issues the IG is looking at. He is investigating them, so I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the outcome of that investigation.
Jon, look, there’s no question that the -- what we are seeing to have happened in some of our VA facilities is unacceptable. And the VA needs to -- and the leadership of the VA needs to do the best job possible on behalf of our veterans to ensure that these kinds of things aren’t happening because they harm the service and the effectiveness of the benefits that are provided to our veterans. And that’s intolerable, in the President’s view.
So I can’t respond to broad allegations about what may or may not happen. What we know from the IG is what he specifically has identified thus far in his investigation and what the Secretary has identified. I’m sure there will be more that will be reported as those inquiries come to a conclusion, and there will be more things that need to be handled and responded to, and more people that need to be held accountable. But I can’t know that, and we can’t know that, until we see the end of these investigations.
Q Does the President think -- I mean, this is an issue that he was passionate about as a senator, as a presidential candidate. Is he concerned that the breakdown in communications even at the White House, that this -- I mean, to have something of this magnitude going on for so long, and not to be aware of it until five years in -- there seemed to be a failure not just at the Veterans Administration, but here at the White House, no?
MR. CARNEY: The President stood before you, as a chief executive should, took responsibility for everything that happens in his administration, and pledged to hold accountable those who were directly responsible for any misconduct. That’s the way it should be.
The fact is the President has been, as you said, since he was a senator and a candidate for this office, focused on and committed to providing better service to our veterans. And he has done that. And I think that the record in attacking veterans’ homelessness, the record in expanding education opportunities for veterans, the record in vastly expanding access to disability benefits for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan demonstrates that commitment, demonstrates Secretary Shinseki’s commitment.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a ton of work to do; there is. And it doesn’t mean that any of what we’ve found out about the issue of waiting lists and misleading reports about the time that veterans were waiting to get service is remotely acceptable; it’s not. The challenges that servicing our -- benefits pose are significant. We have a huge increase because of the 9/11 generation in the number of veterans, number who are seeking service and benefits and who are seeking the kind of specialized medical attention that comes from having seen combat and having been wounded in combat.
And the VA and the VHA, and the medical facilities associated with it -- as veterans will tell you, and veteran service organizations will tell you -- provide unique and uniquely high-quality services to veterans who are in need of it, because of their experiences in war and after war. So that’s why it’s so important to strengthen the VA to ensure that we’re rooting out misconduct, making it more efficient, providing more resources where necessary -- because these Americans deserve the best, and where they have not been getting the best, that has to be fixed.
Q And there’s one more question. Secretary Shinseki in private conversations yesterday, including conversations with members of Congress and leaders of veterans groups, was making it clear that he did not intend to resign. So my question to you is, you are not, as I hear your answer to Jim --
Q Was that to you? Okay, to Jeff -- you are not denying that somebody at the White House told him to do what he did, or strongly encouraged him to offer that letter of resignation?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into communications between the White House and Cabinet Secretaries or agencies. I will just posit that maybe the anonymous reporting is inaccurate. That happens sometimes.
Q Is it or is it not?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to comment on -- but the fact that you’re saying thirdhand that he’s saying this to other people -- I haven’t heard Secretary Shinseki say --
Q Well if that’s true, tell us it’s not true.
MR. CARNEY: I think he can speak for himself. What I’m saying is I’m not going to comment about the communications that take place between the White House and agencies at this level. The President obviously came and spoke to you and took questions on the issue today.
Q This is, at some point, probably very soon, going to require congressional involvement.
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s started.
Q Yes, oh, indeed. And already, there’s some disagreement about what form some of these bills should take --
MR. CARNEY: Oh, you mean legislative action.
Q Yes, legislative action, not just oversight. Does the President anticipate this going easily? Or is he expecting that this could be sort of problematic?
MR. CARNEY: Do you mean trying to get legislation passed that would --
Q Well, like, to surge doctors, or the Sanders legislation which is in conflict with House legislation. Is there a sense that getting what the VA needs to fix itself will be easy or not easy?
MR. CARNEY: We would never predict easy. But I think that there is genuine bipartisan sentiment behind the need to do right by our veterans; there certainly has been in the past. And the President certainly hopes and expects that that will -- that sentiment will prevail going forward, whether it’s taking action along the lines of what Senator Sanders is proposing, as Secretary Shinseki spoke about this morning, or taking action once the specific needs are identified to make sure that we are able to, as the President said, surge resources where they are most needed.
This is the kind of thing that could bring us together here in Washington; could bring Democrats and Republicans together in support of our veterans. We’ll obviously have to see, and we’ll have to see what the needs are and what’s identified and what the requests are.
Q Is there any sense -- I’m sure it’s way too early -- but of a dollar figure of what would be needed?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have that. I think we’re still -- I mean, we are -- let’s go back to what the President said. We have increased funding for VA every year that the President’s been in office at his request, as well as increased the breadth of the services and benefits provided to veterans.
What some of the early reporting from the investigations reveal, some of the reporting from the media reveals, is that some of the issues are exacerbated or initiated because of capacity issues, problems with insufficient resources. And that needs to be further studied, and we will hope to work together with Congress to address those problems.
Q And is the White House concerned that the one-on-one meeting between Presidents Putin and Hollande at the Elysees Palace in Paris next week is incompatible with President Obama’s policy of isolating Russia and the Ukraine crisis?
MR. CARNEY: No. The President speaks to President Putin, has obviously met on numerous occasions with President Putin. They candidly discuss their disagreements. I think that our European partners have been very clear about the fact that they share our view when it comes to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, its illegal attempt to annex Crimea, the support it has given to separatists in eastern Ukraine. And it’s important that Russian leaders understand that that’s a view held by most of the world, not just by the United States and our immediate partners.
Alexis. Sorry, Major, and then Alexis.
Q I want to follow up on the VA. The Secretary General informed the Security Council Wednesday that Syria will not meet the June 30th deadline for removing the last 7 to 8 percent of its chemical weapons stockpiles, asserting that it is too dangerous to do that through certain routes of transport. Does the administration accept that as a legitimate excuse for not meeting the June 30th deadline? And what does he intend to do to see that that deadline is ultimately complied with? And what’s the schedule for that?
MR. CARNEY: You have noted that the Secretary General has said the deadline for destroying those weapons will not be met. June 30th was a target date for the total destruction of these dangerous chemicals. The international community will continue to press the Assad regime to abide by its obligations under United States Security Council Resolution 2118, and decisions of the OPCW Executive Council to complete removal operations.
From the beginning, we have pressed the Assad regime and we will continue to press the Assad regime to complete expeditiously removal operations. As a result of its own inaction, the Syrian regime did not empty the final site when the environment was more secure than it is today.
The U.S. and our international partners remain ready, as we have for months, to assist with the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. We also call on the Assad regime to fully destroy the facilities that remain intact. So we are continuing to press on this, and fully expect the Assad regime and its sponsor in Russia to ensure that the removal of the remaining roughly 8 percent of chemical weapons and precursors is finished, and that those chemicals are destroyed.
Q If I hear you correctly, you’re saying that this could have been done earlier, so this is kind of a phony excuse.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Just want to make sure, we didn’t get the chance to ask you yesterday, but the economy contracted in its first quarter. Obviously, the economic analysts looked at it and said the weather was a huge part in it. My bigger question is, how concerned is the administration about the fragility of the U.S. economy can fall into a negative growth scenario just because of a couple of months of bad weather?
MR. CARNEY: I will probably bore you to death by referring you to or reading from the statement by the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He noted that, as you just did, the notable unique influences on growth in the first quarter, including the historically severe -- not just a couple of months of bad weather, but the historically severe winter weather.
The report also shows the positive impact of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which I’m sure will be reported aggressively, together with continued slowing in health costs that helped strengthen the economy in the first quarter. The President will do everything he can, either by acting through executive action or working with Congress, to push for steps that would raise growth and accelerate job creation.
We’re obviously, as we’ve said every month or quarter when key economic stats come out, whether they’re better than expected or worse than expected, we’re focused on the long term here, and we’re focused on sustained growth and sustained job creation, accelerated growth and accelerated job creation. And that’s why the President continues to focus on what we can do to make the economy grow faster and create more jobs.
We were just up at the new New York Bridge, the Tappan Zee Bridge site, with Governor Cuomo in New York, and that’s an indication of the kind of infrastructure investment that goes a long way towards providing good jobs today and enhancing our economic productivity in the future. So you will continue to hear the President call for action that he and Congress can take together, and to take action that he can on his own towards expanding growth, rewarding hard work, and continuing the many, many, many months now of private sector job creation.
Q Back on the VA -- taken together, the President comments and yours leave the unmistakable impression that this administration, for whatever reason, did not prioritize as it did homeless veterans, as it did the backlog, as it did the GI bill, wrestling with this issue of wait times and deceptive wait times. Because there were 14 IG reports from 2009 to present -- so it’s not as if no one was aware -- it just appears that that was not give the priority that some of the other things were. Is that a fair assessment? And does the President regret that?
MR. CARNEY: The President is committed to taking all the action we can to ensure that the veterans we have in this country are getting the services and benefits they’ve earned. As your question notes, we have made progress in some key areas as the statement by the President and the questions he answered today reflect, and some of the things that have happened over the past days and weeks bear out, more work needs to be done. And that’s what he is committed to doing.
Q -- it differently in ways that he didn’t up until now? Will he ask for something from Rob Nabors on a monthly basis? He did so when healthcare.gov was in its most difficult position. He wanted almost daily, certainly weekly, updates on where things were. Is he going to apply that kind of metric going forward to this particular issue, which clearly hasn’t received the attention of other things?
MR. CARNEY: When you say the “particular issue” -- obviously there are matters that are under investigation and under review. And there are sort of two tracks here. There’s evidence of the need to hold people accountable, and action that needs to be taken as a consequence of that. And Secretary Shinseki has initiated that process and the investigations and the -- investigation and the review continue.
There are actions that we can take now, even prior to the culmination of and submission of the final report from the IG, or the review from the Secretary, to address the wait list issue and the veterans who have been poorly served because of it right away. And he absolutely will be expecting immediate action on that, and regular progress on that. We also have to find a new Secretary for the department, and he’ll be actively engaged in that effort.
Alexis, I think I promised you. Yes.
Q Two quick questions on VA. Just to follow up on what Major was asking, there are some practical suggestions that have been hanging out there in the air. For instance, one is VA vouchers to get private health care. Can you -- the President didn't mention that. I just wonder with those sorts of suggestions that are out there, how are those being weighed by the President?
MR. CARNEY: Sort of the broader policy reforms I think we’re eager to hear ideas, and leadership at VA will, and legislative teams will look at those -- policy teams rather.
I think that I would refer you to the VSOs on the seeming enthusiasm that some folks have for privatizing, for example, the VA. The folks who know this issue best I will refer you to them on whether that's the right approach to take.
I noted that veterans, despite what we have learned and despite the other challenges that the VA has faced, overwhelmingly say that they are satisfied with the care that they receive through the VA. And in some cases, that is because of the unique care that they can provide at these medical centers, which is very specific to the needs that veterans have, especially veterans returning from combat. And that's a very important thing to remember when we talk about how do we best serve our veterans.
But I haven’t -- I’m not in a position to evaluate specific ideas for changes or reforms. The President did very much support what the Secretary initiated earlier, which was when we were looking at these specific veterans who have been on waiting lists too long, getting them appointments and getting those appointments fulfilled quickly, And where there is a capacity issue, directing them to private or nonprofit hospitals for the care. But I think that is a tactical solution to the immediate challenge while broader issues are being evaluated.
Q One other topic and that is yesterday, the President met with Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, and a potential presidential nominee. And as you know there are people in this room who would have preferred to see that on his schedule, and to learn something about that instead of afterward. Since you are leaving, and Josh is going to be able to do things his way -- thank God -- (laughter) -- I want to know what is your thought about the President having either meetings or lunches that way, and not that kind of high-level --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think it’s -- look, I think it’s a valid question. Specifically to this case, this was a lunch, honestly, between friends that arose pretty late in the process here. It wasn’t something planned very far in advance. And that explains partly why it wasn’t on his public schedule.
But as a broader matter, I get the interest, but it simply can't be the case that a President can't have a lunch or a meeting that's not on his public schedule just because the fact of it might be of interest.
I had a spirited email exchange with a reporter about this, and the focus was the reason why this one should have been reported is because Secretary Clinton, according to you guys and the polls that you read, is potentially or currently the leading contender to be the next President. Well, is that the criteria for newsworthy? Or how do you set that standard? And I think the standard has to be -- the standard has to be we endeavor -- and I would compare our public schedule to our predecessor’s -- we endeavor to put as much as we can, as much as we feel it appropriate of the President’s schedule out publicly. But not every meeting and not every lunch is going to be on that schedule.
And again, this was a kind of a specific circumstance on how it came together and the lateness of the lunch, and it reflects the fact that this is somebody the President worked very closely with for four years and who he’s very close to. It was an informal lunch. It wasn’t like an official thing, it was just lunch. So there’s that.
But I’m not dismissive of the idea that it would be of interest to you, but I think that it’s also the case that there is a sort of -- you can reduce this all the way to infinity and simply say that everything the President does and everything should be transparent and public. And I think that sounds great as an ideal, but it also would render a President incapable of functioning effectively.
Q But if he promised to do that, about the transparency of the White House --
MR. CARNEY: Yes, and I think there is no question that this White House is more transparent with more information provided, more about the visitors who come to this White House, more on the public schedule than any of its predecessors.
What he didn't say is that every meeting he had and every phone call he made would be publicly previewed, because a President couldn’t effectively function that way, which -- again, I think we’re having this discussion around something that was just a friendly, informal lunch. And the interest is driven in part by Washington’s not just quadrennial but constant focus on the one thing that matters most, which is the next presidential election.
Q Just to follow up, you’re suggesting that you are heeding his interests, not her interests?
MR. CARNEY: We put out the schedule, so --
Q By keeping it off the public schedule, you’re saying it was with his interests in mind?
MR. CARNEY: I’m just saying there wasn’t a lot of -- I’m not going to get into the internal discussions.
Q Well, if there wasn’t a lot of thought placed on decision, that doesn't really square with the idea that it was missing from the schedule. So then you’re saying your fallback is you leave stuff off the schedule all the time. That's what you’re saying. We leave stuff -- like a lunch with the former Secretary of State off the schedule.
MR. CARNEY: I’m saying that not every meeting the President has or every phone call he has is on the public schedule. It has never been the case, and I promise that -- I promise that there will never be a President who is able to do that because it wouldn’t -- it wouldn’t be what allowed him or her to be effective in his or her job. So, again --
Q A quick follow. You’re not saying -- you’re not saying why she was off the schedule. She was on the schedule when she had a lunch last year.
MR. CARNEY: And I’m saying that this was --
Q This year --
MR. CARNEY: This was something that arose like -- Presidents -- it’s hard, but they can have like a last-minute decision to have lunch with somebody just like you and me, and that was part of the reason behind it. I’m sure you guys will read more into it than that.
Q You let us know about the Shinseki meeting just an hour before --
MR. CARNEY: Mark, I get it. I’m just saying -- like I don't have -- short of going back in time and putting it on the schedule so you guys could get super excited about it, I can't -- I can't rectify what you seem to want rectified.
What I can address is the broader issue of the public schedule, the need for any President -- it was certainly true in the past and will, I submit, be true in the future to have some meetings and lunches that are private. That is not to say that this one had to be or needed to be. Again, it came late. It was a late -- an item added very late in the process to his schedule. But I’m just making the broader point.
Q Jay, can you make up for it --
Q But one follow-up. Can you make it up to us by telling us what was said at the meeting? (Laughter.) Was it -- did they discuss politics? Did she give him a copy of the book?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a readout of the meeting for you, Mark. And I wouldn’t have had one even it were on the public schedule.
Q Congratulations, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, sir.
Q And at the risk of wasting our waning moments with you -- (laughter) -- I was wondering if we could ask Josh actually maybe to pop up and just say a couple things.
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q About I don't know --
Q Speech, speech.
MR. EARNEST: Well. (Laughter.) It’s an interesting time to be speechless, isn’t it?
Well, let me just say that I’ve had the honor on a dozen or so occasions to speak at this podium before. And on each of those occasions, it has never been lost on me what a genuine honor it is to stand before you.
Some of that honor is derived from the fact that it is an opportunity to represent the President of the United States, and not just any President, but this President, one that I believe so strongly in and one who is pressing an agenda for the country that I think is important and beneficial for this country.
The other thing that's on my mind this morning is how grateful I am for the opportunity to work with my colleagues here at the White House, for whom I have so much respect and affection. A lot of that has to do with the gentleman to my left, who I have learned so much from and whom I respect for the way that he does his job, but also the way that he lives his life and carries himself. And there’s a lot there that I aspire to.
The last thing I’ll say is something that you all have heard me say before from here and in private conversations I’ve had with each of you, which is that each of you has a critically important job -- to describe to the American public what it is the President is doing and why he’s doing it. And that job in this disaggregated media world has never been more difficult, but I would argue that it has never been more important. And I am grateful and excited and relish the opportunity to spend the next couple of years working with you as you work to do that very important work.
Q Some questions?
MR. EARNEST: I will welcome any Royals’ questions from this podium at any time.
Q First of all, do you expect us to believe that? No. (Laughter.) Two things -- one, you talked about working on the President’s agenda. How difficult will it be for his final two, two and a half years in office, taking on this herculean task of fixing a VA system that you acknowledge is broken, on top of immigration reform and everything else he wants to get done?
MR. EARNEST: Since the very first day that the President put his hand on the Lincoln bible on the steps of the west front of the United States Capitol, this President has been dealing with very difficult challenges. When he took office, we were on the precipice of an economic cataclysm that is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Because of the President’s political courage, and because of many of the policies that he put in place, we have made tremendous progress to come back from those rather dire economic times.
That’s just one example of the many challenges that the President has faced. The challenges that are posed by the reforms that need to be put in place at the VA are also very significant. You’ve heard -- as somebody pointed out earlier -- preserving our covenant with America’s veterans is something that the President has talked about for a long time, since before he was President. And that continues to be a priority for him. And despite the difficulty of that challenge, I’m confident that he will address it head on. And there is very important and difficult work ahead.
But the President is not fazed by it, and he’s in no way intimidated by it. He has faced down other similarly difficult challenges. And we’re going to make some progress on this one, too.
Q To follow on something Chuck was asking before about the government and problems filtering out, the President at that podium this morning said that Secretary Shinseki was deeply disappointed that bad news did not get to him. What about the President? Is he deeply disappointed that that bad news at the VA, the bad news at HHS, IRS, different agencies did not get to him? Why was he out of the loop? And is that something you’re going to fix?
MR. EARNEST: Well, needless to say, the President -- there’s no doubt that the President wished that he had a better sense of exactly what the depths of the problems at the Veterans Administration were. I think in some ways that goes without saying, because if he had, we would have had a better chance to fix them sooner. But suffice to say that this is a problem that the President will tackle head on.
And among the number of challenges that the President had to face, certainly the rollout of healthcare.gov was among them, too. And that, again, is a pretty good example of the effectiveness of the President’s leadership when it comes to confronting crises like this. And he’ll use those skills at the VA, as well.
Q Good luck to you, Jay. And I don’t know if it’s been noted, but Tangi, this is his last briefing, I understand. So good luck to him.
MR. EARNEST: It is. Tangi, thanks for being here on your last day.
Q I don’t want to steal his thunder. (Laughter.)
Q We’ve broken an hour.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, we’ve broken -- I think our AP guys -- you guys will have Josh for two and a half years.
Q We’ll just let Christi do one.
MR. CARNEY: We’ll let Christi do one.
Q Three years is a long time to be press secretary, right?
MR. EARNEST: He’s done it for more than three.
MR. CARNEY: Three and a half.
Q Three and a half. And, Josh, do you -- has Jay been looking to move on for a while? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not as far as I can tell.
Q Well, then can you speak to the timing of today’s announcement?
MR. EARNEST: This is Jay’s announcement.
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s our announcement. But the President I think mentioned that I went to him in April and said that time had come for me and my family, for me to end my service here. And I deeply appreciated his reaction. But I started this adventure through a bit of serendipity in what I figured would be a couple of years of service to the Vice President as communications director to him. Then I was surprised and incredibly honored to be asked by the President to be his second press secretary. And that was nearly three and a half years ago.
So I know some of you in this room have kids probably roughly my children’s age. And what you realize is even though I have been aggressive about spending as much time as I can with them, it’s not enough. And they’re never the age they are today again. So it’s not to say I’m going to be, like, not working, but you know these jobs put a certain amount of strain on everybody’s family -- everybody’s family. And mine have been -- my kids and my wife have been extraordinarily supportive and patient and I just feel blessed to have been able to do this for as long as I have.
So the timing of this announcement I think was driven by the timetable I started in April, and then, by what I told the President, which was I was hoping to spend the summer with my kids. And then I really wanted to get out of the Europe trip. (Laughter.)
Q Not to pry, but you did tease us just now. I mean, what was the President’s reaction?
MR. CARNEY: He spoke for himself today, and I appreciate it.
Q And do you have another job lined up?
MR. CARNEY: I have nothing to announce today.
Q Does the White House have a copy of the Hillary book?
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry?
Q Does the White House have a copy of the Hillary Clinton book? Because the White House was caught off guard by Secretary Gates’ book last year.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have one. I look forward to reading it.
See you, guys. Thank you.
3:05 P.M. EDT
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President Obama and the First Lady Attend the State Dinner with Prime Minister Renzi and Mrs. Landini
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