Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 3/2/2012
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Thanks for being here. I will make a quick announcement at the top, which is that I have a parent-teacher conference that I am committed to making, and so I need to keep this at about 35 minutes, if I could.
Q Coverage? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Hah. Have you seen my kids’ report cards? (Laughter.) It’s all good.
Ben, can I take your questions?
Q Yes, I have a couple questions on the U.S.-Israel-Iran front, based on the interview the President did with The Atlantic. I’m trying to reconcile a couple of points about the President’s approach. He says in the interview, and he’s said before, I believe, that he wouldn’t presume to tell Israel how to handle its own security. But then he also talks about how an Israeli attack on Iran could be a distraction that would allow Iran to portray itself as a victim. So I mean, in a sense, for reasons he thinks are very legitimate, isn’t, in fact, he is trying to tell Israel what to do, which is --
MR. CARNEY: No, he’s --
Q -- not to attack and let sanctions work.
MR. CARNEY: What we share in our constant and regular communications with Israeli government, military and intelligence officials, are judgments of the diplomatic situation, the situation regarding Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology, and ideas about what contingencies might breed what outcomes. But that is quite different from trying to tell a sovereign nation how to make a decision. And the President wouldn’t presume to do that, and he won’t presume to do that.
Q When asked if he plans to ramp up his rhetoric with the Prime Minister about the red line issue, he says, “Look, we’ve got options including the military option,” and says, “I don't bluff.” Does the White House feel like, privately and publicly, it has, in fact, already spelled out its red line? It has gotten specific?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think -- I want to be clear. The President obviously gave this interview and spoke extensively about this issue. He, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, military leaders, intelligence leaders are in regular consultations with our Israeli counterparts. One of the hallmarks of the American-Israeli relationship under this President is the level of cooperation and consultation.
So he is not -- does not need to communicate through an interview with Israeli leaders because he communicates with them regularly. In fact, I think he has probably met with Prime Minister Netanyahu more than any other leader.
And so, that's one thing. And then I think, yes, the conversations that he and the Prime Minister have, that leaders of this administration and leaders of the Israeli government have, are full of detail and analysis. So I don't think there will be -- I think the Israelis understand the policy approach that this President has taken and what our view is of what Iranian behavior is about, what our view is of the time and space that still is there for us to continue to pursue the diplomatic path -- isolating Iran, pressuring Iran to change its behavior. And obviously we share a lot of information in the intelligence sphere about what exactly Iran is up to with regards to its nuclear programs.
Q Finally, the President describes his relationship with the Prime Minster as "functional," and I'm wondering, given the closeness of this relationship, or how it is portrayed to us, is "functional" good enough?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I was in the interview and I think it was a -- he was giving the antonym of the question, which was, some have described it as dysfunctional and he countered, it's actually the opposite, it's functional. It is a full relationship. It is a candid relationship. They meet and speak regularly. Obviously even very close friends, as America is to Israel, don't agree government-to-government on every single issue -- matters of tactics versus strategy. But it's a productive, candid, functional relationship.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Jay, as the President elaborated on that comment about the relationship and said it was a very functional relationship, and talked about the areas in which they agree, he also described it as more of a business-like relationship than a personal rapport. He said they both have had a lot on their plates, and talk more about business than personal issues. Does the President feel that it's important to have more of a personal rapport with the Prime Minister, and is that going to be one of the goals for the meeting on Monday?
MR. CARNEY: I think the President feels that the issue that folks are focused on right now in relation to the American-Israeli relationship is one of paramount importance in terms of not just Israel's national security, but U.S. national security -- and regional and global security -- and that what is most important is that we have the kind of communication and cooperation with our Israeli counterparts that we do have, and that it is clear to Iran and clear to the world what our approach is and what our view is -- our approach is towards Iranian behavior and our view about what Iran needs to do and what its options are.
As the President said in that interview and he said other times, when he took office the world was divided about what to do over Iran's nuclear ambitions and Iran was unified. The reverse is now true because of the approach the President took, and leading the international community by demonstrating his willingness to negotiate -- discuss with Iran, to sit down and talk with Iran if it were willing to demonstrate its commitment to upholding its international obligations. By taking that approach, he has helped unify the international community in an unprecedented level of unanimity in its approach to Iran, which has resulted in an unprecedented level of international action against Iran as a result of its behavior.
So, look, the relationship is sound. I think the President also pointed out that what is true about the relationship is that Israelis know that our friendship with Israel and our support for Israel and our commitment to Israeli security is a bipartisan fact of our life here. And Americans understand that that relationship is the same regardless of which party is in power in Israel.
So this is -- the President looks at this as not a political issue, although some here would politicize it, but as an issue of a strategic, vital partnership with Israel, and a matter of national security.
Q Could you talk about the details of the meeting? Is there going to be a lunch? Is there going to be a joint press conference? Is it just --
MR. CARNEY: I don't have anything beyond the fact that they're meeting to talk to you about today.
Q President Obama called the Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, within the hour. Why did he call her and what did he tell her?
MR. CARNEY: It was actually more recent than that; it was probably about 20 minutes ago.
Q That's within the hour.
MR. CARNEY: Sorry, you're right, it was within the hour. I just know that that is what I was -- I was in the Oval when he did, and that's one of the things that delayed the briefing.
The President called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke -- I think is actually how you pronounce it -- because he wanted to offer his support to her. He wanted to express his disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate, personal attacks, and to thank her for exercising her rights as a citizen to speak out on an issue of public policy. And it was a very good conversation.
Q Is that all you can tell us about the conversation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean, I think so. It wasn't -- it was several minutes. They had a very good conversation. I think he, like a lot of people, feels that the kinds of personal attacks that she's -- that have been directed her way are inappropriate. The fact that our political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough. It is worse when it's directed at private citizen who was simply expressing her views on a matter of public policy.
Q Is it appropriate for Democratic organizations to try to raise money off of this attack on her?
MR. CARNEY: I think that I'll leave that to whatever organizations might agree with her or sympathize with her. The fact of the matter is the President was expressing his support for her, and his disappointment in the kind of attacks that have been leveled at her to her, and his appreciation for her willingness to stand tall and express her opinion.
Q One last question on the same subject, although not on Ms. Fluke. Vice President Biden, at Iowa State University, was referring to the conscience debate about contraception, and he said that, “It got screwed up.” That's a quote from the Vice President. Why did it get screwed up?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think as you remember when the President came out and made his announcement about -- from this podium about what the approach he was going to take and direct his administration to take with regards to religious institutions like colleges, universities and hospitals, the idea from the beginning, which we attempted to make clear, was that there was going to be a yearlong period where we would work to achieve a resolution to this that would preserve religious liberty and still provide the contraceptive services to women no matter where they were.
What was clear, as the President I think was pretty explicit about when he was here, is that for whatever reason, the debate was such that it became imperative in his mind that we come up with that resolution in a far quicker period of time. And that's what we did, because he felt it very important that people understand that he took the religious liberty issue very seriously, as he expressed here from the podium. His own experience with faith-based organizations when he was a young man demonstrated to him the importance that they have in our public life, and he believed very clearly that we could extend this important health care coverage to all women, no matter where they work, and do it in a way that still found that balance that preserved religious liberty.
Q Thank you. Jay, the last time -- the few times the President has met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, much of the focus was on the Middle East peace process. Is the focus on Iran pushing that aside, overshadowing that effort at all?
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s no question that Iranian behavior is a front-and-center issue right now for this President in terms of national security policy, and certainly in his discussions with the Israeli Prime Minister. But it is not the only topic that they will discuss, and it’s certainly not the only topic of importance between our two countries. The President remains committed to doing everything his administration can to encourage both parties, both sides, to come to the table negotiate a two-state solution that both sides have said they want and which really is the only way to achieve long-term peace in the region.
So that remains an important item on the agenda, and I’m sure it will be discussed when the two leaders meet.
Q You have discussed here today quite extensively the nature of the relationship between the two leaders, but is there trust in that relationship?
MR. CARNEY: Yes, there is. There is, I think, a very clear understanding of because of the level of cooperation at the highest levels, as well as at the variety of levels that I discussed of what we see with regards to the Iranian issue, what we see is happening there, what our policy is and how and why we’re pursing it, why we think, as the President has said, a diplomatic solution where Iran renounces nuclear weapons ambitions is the best option in terms of resolving this problem for the long term, as opposed to temporarily, and that -- because there is time and space available to continue to pursue that path, to continue to pressure Iran, to isolate it, to have the ever-increasing level of sanctions bite in terms of Iran’s economy, that that is the right way to go.
It is also the case, as the President made clear in that interview that he does not take any option off the table, and that everybody should be clear about that, that he does not bluff. When he says that no option is off the table in our potential response to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, he means it. And I think he made that clear in the interview.
Q When the President says, “I don't bluff,” does he mean referring to Iran acquiring the capability, or acquiring a weapon?
MR. CARNEY: I think we have made clear that we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We are -- there is a staged process here. And one of the reasons why as I’ve made clear, and others have, we know there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path with sanctions and diplomatic pressure is because we have visibility into Iran’s nuclear program -- we have IAEA inspectors on the ground -- and we know that they have not made that breakout move towards acquiring nuclear weapons.
We will continue to pressure Iran. We will continue to work with our allies to ratchet up sanctions, to isolate the regime. And the price that they’re paying for their behavior is already high and it will get higher. So that’s the policy we’re pursuing.
Q And then a follow on the President’s call with Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke. Was the President made aware of Rush Limbaugh’s comments? Is that why he placed the call?
MR. CARNEY: Well, he certainly is aware of them, yes. Yes.
Q And what did he think of those comments?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think -- this is not a quote from him, but I think he thinks they were reprehensible, they were disappointing, they were -- it is disappointing that that kind of -- those kinds of personal and crude attacks could be leveled against someone like this young law school student who was simply expressing her opinion on a matter of public policy, and doing so with a great deal of poise.
Q Is the President frustrated that Republicans have been able to convince at least other Republicans that he’s too tough on Israel and too soft on Iran?
MR. CARNEY: I think, Wendell, as you know, there is for some folks an overlay of American domestic politics here. As I know from being with him when he discusses these matters, this is a matter not of domestic politics for him, but a matter of American national security and the security of our close ally, Israel. That’s the approach he takes.
And these are extremely serious issues. And, as, again, I think he made clear in the interview that he gave to The Atlantic, he is fully focused on the threat that Iran represents both to Israel, to the region, to the United States, and to the world. And his policy has been designed from day one to prevent Iran from achieving or acquiring nuclear weapons.
Q Reports out of Israel indicate that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants the President to spell out the red lines Iran will not be allowed to cross without the U.S. joining in military action. Is that likely to happen this weekend?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the President addressed that very clearly in his interview yesterday. I think he made very clear that when we talk about the options available to the United States, and made clear, as he does, that we rule out no option, that we take no option off the table, that includes obviously the military option.
However, it is our policy that the best opportunity we and our many allies on this issue have of resolving the threat posed by the potential of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is by doing it diplomatically -- by pressuring Iran into changing its behavior so that it makes the decision, that Iran makes the decision, its leaders make the decision, to forsake pursuit of this, of a nuclear weapon. And we have time and space to continue to pursue that policy.
I think the President also made clear that there is -- it is not strategically in the United States’ interest to draw explicit red lines as to what hypothetical action by Iran would result in a specific reaction by the United States. He’s made clear what our policy is. He has made clear that we do not rule out any option in responding or in dealing with Iranian behavior. And I think that is the way it will remain going forward.
Q And can I give you -- oh, sorry, one more on a purely political question. The President recently crossed the hundred fundraiser threshold in the 2012 campaign, which is being used to beat up on him for focusing more on his reelection than on the affairs of state. I’m looking at a result of Citizens United here. At this point, George W. Bush had done roughly half as many fundraisers as the President.
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s hard to know specifically what it's a result of, as you say. The fact is the President has -- is engaging in political events because that is what is required to run for President and run to be reelected as President. It is also true that, as I understand it -- and I would refer you to the campaign for more details -- that there is an enormous amount of support for the President and a desire to participate in these political events in support of his campaign.
The fact of the matter is that it is still -- and I hesitate to give a percentage -- but it is still a fairly small portion of his time. And he is still enjoying, if you will, the fact that he doesn’t have a primary opponent. The other party is engaged in a primary campaign, the length of which is yet to be determined. He understands, having experienced it himself, that they can go on for some time. He is able, because he does not have an opponent and won’t have one until the other party has picked its nominee, to spend relatively less time than he might otherwise have had to have spent if he had a primary.
But there is no question that as we get closer to the fall, the President will, as every incumbent President has who is seeking reelection, be spending more time campaigning for reelection.
Q We shouldn’t conclude that he appears to be starting earlier to cover the impact of super PACs?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know that that’s the case. I mean, I would refer you to the campaign. And I don’t know that he started earlier necessarily. He just may be --
Q The numbers suggest --
MR. CARNEY: He just may be more successful at it than some of his predecessors.
Q Minutes after speaking with the President, Ms. Fluke -- I believe is the correct pronunciation of her name -- appeared on the Andrea Mitchell show, and she talked about the message from the leader of Georgetown University -- I believe the title is the president of Georgetown University -- was largely conciliatory, supportive, and talked about the need for more civil discourse in society. Given the fact that the President feels that Rush Limbaugh’s comments were reprehensible, disappointing and crude, what if anything should be done --
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s just be clear. You guys were asking me a question. I will say the President expressed to Sandra Fluke -- I think is the pronunciation -- that he was disappointed that she was the subject of these crude -- of these personal attacks. I think it’s fair to say that “reprehensible” was my word. I don’t want to -- but look, these were unfortunate attacks that were leveled against her, and the President feels that way. I think it’s --
MR. CARNEY: They were inappropriate and reprehensible. But the point is, the President called her to thank her for speaking out on a matter -- and doing so with great poise -- on a public policy matter, and to express his disappointment that she had been subjected to these kinds of attacks. I think that -- my understanding is that’s not quite the complete quotation from the President of Georgetown, but I’ll leave it to you to check into that.
Q Can I ask a follow-up, Jay?
MR. CARNEY: Sure. Sorry, Andrei, you’re next.
Q Okay, just two. Last night at one of the fundraisers in New York City, the President made a comment that instead of running campaign ads, I can just run footage of these GOP debates and people will be able to see clearly the differences. And his tone was one of ridicule, I think it’s fair to say. But repeatedly, we’ve heard White House officials and I think even the President himself say that you expect a very tough and close race in the fall. Given the fact that the President apparently doesn’t have high regard for the way the GOP candidates are conducting themselves, is it still the case that you still expect a tough, close race?
MR. CARNEY: I would take issue with your characterization of what he said. I think the point, as he and I and others and folks at campaign have made, is that what we have seen from the competition on the other side to produce a nominee for the Republican Party is that no matter who the nominee is, assuming it’s somebody from the current field, the policies are very much the same.
And the policies are essentially reiterations of -- often on steroids -- of the policies that got us into this mess -- that say we don’t need to regulate Wall Street, even though the financial crisis was the worst since the Great Depression and the fact that Wall Street was operating on its own set of rules contributed greatly to that. We don’t need to regulate or prevent insurance companies from throwing people off when they get sick -- throwing people off of their insurance coverage when they get sick, and we can throw off the many hundreds of thousands, I think a couple million even, younger Americans who have now -- who now have insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act. And we should -- again, according to the policy proposals put forward, which are quite similar to the ones that our Republican friends on the Hill have put forward -- we should not just -- not only should we not take a balanced approach to deficit and debt reduction, but in dealing with deficits and debt, we should go ahead and give bigger tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires while making life even harder for the middle class.
There’s no question that the President believes that in a choice between those substantive policy positions on the economy and the ones that he has pursued and is presenting, that he believes that his options are better and that the American people will agree with him come November.
I’ve got to do Andrei and then I’ve got to do one more.
Q Thank you, Jay. In the run-up to the elections in Russia, President Putin published a number of articles, made a number of announcements, including on international relations. He repeatedly was asked about Iran and Syria. He basically -- his basic point is he is not happy with a certain trigger happiness in the world that exists.
MR. CARNEY: A certain what?
Q Trigger happiness.
MR. CARNEY: Is that -- are those your words or his?
Q That’s my words, but that’s the essence of what he was saying. He said that’s why -- that guided the Russian position; in certain instances, it guided the Chinese position. My question to you about that is you said we want to make our views known so that everybody -- there's no mistake about it -- knows. Do these views from Russia and China, do these views count for the White House? And I also have a technical question about the election after.
MR. CARNEY: Well, okay let me -- and we’re going to have to move quickly. Of course, the views of Russian leaders count. We have a very important relationship with Russia and we will continue to have that important relationship. We have been in regular consultation with Russian government officials on this very issue.
The fact of the matter is, Andrei, as you know, we profoundly disagree with the decision by Russia to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution that would have -- that supported the Arab League proposal for a transition in Syria. And as regards to trigger happiness, I think anyone who has watched a single minute of footage of the brutal assault by the Assad regime on his own people understands that the trigger happiness is all on one side. And the brutality being carried out in the city of Homs in the last 24 to 48 hours is disgraceful and horrific, and should be condemned by every nation of the world. And we call on every nation of the world to join with the "Friends of Syria" to take action to prevent further brutality and further murder of Syrian people.
Q But don't we have to move away both the government troops and the opposition armed troops?
MR. CARNEY: And have you seen any sign, Andrei -- any sign -- of the government troops being willing to do anything but slaughter Syrian people who are peacefully demonstrating for more democracy? I don't think so.
Q Okay, my --
MR. CARNEY: Hey, Andrei, I got to go to the parent-teacher conference.
Q Reelections, Jay, please. Does the President --
MR. CARNEY: (Speaking Russian)
Q Does the President follow the elections and does he know who is in the running? What’s his opinion? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I confess, despite my personal interest and history with Russia, that I have not discussed with him lately, but I know he is fully aware of the upcoming elections and the participants therein.
Thank you all very much. I apologize for having to end early.
Q Week ahead?
MR. CARNEY: We’ll get that to you.
Q Have a nice weekend.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you.
1:49 P.M. EST