Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/30/2013

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Aboard Air Force One
En Route Washington, D.C.

12:12 P.M. CDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  One scheduling update and one policy update before I get to your questions.  Let’s do the policy first. 

Today, the Department of Treasury announced a two-year extension of the HAMP program, which has already reduced mortgage costs for more than 1.1 million responsible homeowners.  The median savings enjoyed by those homeowners through that program is $546 a month on their mortgage payment.  The program has also served as a template for private sector progress that has helped millions of other responsible homeowners save on their mortgage costs.

The extension of this program, however, is not a substitute for congressional action on a universal refinancing proposal that would allow millions of responsible homeowners to refinance at the current rates, which are near all-time lows.  This would give an additional shot in the arm to our steadily recovering housing market, and put more money in the pockets of middle-class families, and it would improve the economy.  This is something that the President has been pushing for some time, and hopefully we’ll get some Republicans to work with the President to get this done sooner rather than later.

Now with the scheduling announcement.  Upon the President’s return to the White House, he’ll receive his annual hurricane briefing in the Situation Room ahead of the 2013 hurricane season, which begins on Saturday.  The briefing will include an update on the 2013 hurricane outlook from NOAA, as well as an update on the ongoing current preparedness activities in coordination with state and local partners ahead of the 2013 season.

The briefing will also include a specific discussion of energy and fuel challenges following a major hurricane, informed by specific challenges and solutions employed in the response to Hurricane Sandy.  The President will be joined by members of his emergency response team, including members of his Cabinet, as well as representatives from the private sector.  And we’ll have a more detailed readout of the meeting after it concludes.

So with that, I’ll take a couple of questions.

Q    Josh, today the new Quinnipiac polls have come out that have shown the President’s approval rating at a low -- 45 percent.  Do you think that these three sort of looming controversies -- IRS, Benghazi and DOJ -- are now starting to affect the President’s standing?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t seen the poll that you’re talking about.  The truth is we’re not looking at the day-to-day polls.  What the President is focused on is the agenda that he’s laid out -- putting the expansion of economic opportunity for middle-class families first.  That is the President’s overwhelming priority.  That is the reason that the President ran for reelection, and I would submit to you that that’s the reason the President was reelected.  And that’s what the President is focused on. 

You just heard me talk about the HAMP program extension -- that is a key part of offering some assistance to middle-class families, and we’re going to keep working at it.  And whether it’s -- you heard the President talk a little bit last night about expanding early childhood education opportunities, high-quality early childhood education opportunities for children all across America. 

These are the key parts of the President’s agenda and that’s what he’s focused on, and there will be plenty of people who can dissect the polls and try to analyze them in one way or another, but what we’re focused on right now is the President’s domestic policy agenda.

Q    Josh, was the President informed of the latest ricin letter?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen those reports about this.  I know that the Secret Service has talked about this a little bit.  I don’t have any specific details for you other than to point out to you that the White House does have an offsite facility that processes the mail that we receive, so we have precautions that are in place for these kinds of things.  I do believe the President is aware, but I don’t know any details about who briefed him or any other details.

Q    And as I understand it, they are only testing now for ricin; they haven’t confirmed it yet.  Is that right?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know.  Check with the Secret Service.  They obviously have the lead on these kinds of stories.

Q    Josh, can you confirm that the President has settled on Comey for his FBI Director?  And can you discuss any timeline for making that nomination official?

MR. EARNEST:  There obviously has been a lot of reporting on this over the last 12 to 18 hours.  I don’t have any personnel announcements to make at this time, and I’m really not in a position to even give you a better sense of the timing.  So we’ll have to save that for a later day.

Q    Does it look like it will be at least a few days yet, or several days?

MR. EARNEST:  I really just don’t have any updates on the timing.

Q    Josh, what does the White House think of various media organizations’ decision not to take the off-the-record meeting with Attorney General Holder?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has already articulated his concerns about this policy.  There obviously is a complex policy challenge here between balancing the interests of the American people and protecting government secrets that are directly relevant to national security, but we also need to place a priority on protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists who have a critical role to play in terms of holding our government accountable.  The success of our democracy, frankly, relies on a free, independent, professional media.  And we need to ensure that the rights of those journalists are protected.

Now, at the same time -- well, I guess I should say this -- to that end, the President has said that a journalist shouldn’t be subject to criminal prosecution just for doing their job.  So that’s the source of the President's concern.  I know that -- so the President has asked the Attorney General to conduct a review because of these serious concerns.  The Attorney General has begun the process of reaching out to media organizations and others who will have some input on this review.

By all accounts, the Attorney General is taking this seriously, and has invited members of prominent media organizations -- leaders of prominent media organizations to participate in that review.  It's not uncommon for the Department of Justice, and, frankly, other administration agencies, to consult with stakeholders as we're making -- as we're conducting policy reviews and making policy decisions. 

So the invitation to those media executives was extended by the Department of Justice, and it's our hope that those -- that that invitation will be accepted.

Q    But why -- was the White House involved in the decision to insist that that meeting be off the record?

MR. EARNEST:  In terms of the details and the ground rules for the meeting, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice.  They're the ones who are conducting the review.  But we are hopeful that media organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to constructively contribute to this process. 

We've heard a lot from media organizations and media executives and journalists about how important these constitutional rights are and how important it is for the U.S. government to get the balance of these two interests -- these national security interests and these First Amendment interests -- right. 

So because of that persuasive --

Q    But don’t you think that --

MR. EARNEST:  Let me finish -- but because of that persuasive advocacy, the Attorney General has invited media organizations to participate, and we're hopeful that they will accept that invitation to participate. 

Q    You can understand that a meeting about concerns journalists have about the First Amendment being off the record is sort of on its face hypocritical, don’t you?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t actually see that. 

Q    Why?

MR. EARNEST:  What I think is the -- the Attorney General is interested in having a constructive -- a policy discussion with professional journalists about this, what I think most people would acknowledge is a complex policy issue.  I think most people would understand that there are two competing interests that need to be balanced here, in terms of protecting national security secrets but also protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists.  And there's no reason that the Attorney General shouldn’t be able to engage in a constructive discussion with journalists about this.

Q    If the New York Times, Associated Press and other big organizations that have said they will not attend if it's off the record don’t attend, is it a constructive dialogue?  Or do you need the biggest media organizations, the most influential, at the meeting? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you should have included the Washington Post as an influential news organization.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Well, we might be there.  We are, but I think -- we have a different policy from what I understand.

MR. EARNEST:  Look, I'll let the Attorney General and the Department of Justice give you some guidance in terms of how they're going to conduct this process.  But I don’t think there's any doubting the seriousness with which the Attorney General is pursuing what he has identified and what the President has identified as a genuine priority.  And we are genuinely interested in the input, the opinion, the advice, the expertise of leaders of prominent media organizations.  And we are hopeful and optimistic that we are going to find a way to get their input in this process.

Q    Is the President at all concerned that Holder is just under so much scrutiny at this point that it might affect his ability to get his job done?

MR. EARNEST:  Not in the least. 

Q    Josh, following up on the drone issue from yesterday -- are you in a position today to confirm the drone strike on Wali-ur-Rehman?  And yesterday, Jay suggested that hypothetically if it had -- if he had been eliminated, it would be a good thing, but the Pakistani Taliban is now saying that because of this strike that killed their number two, they're going to pull out of peace talks.  So does that change the calculus about whether it was a good idea?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what Jay -- I'm not in a position to confirm any operational details like that, so -- I'm not in a position to do that at this point.  What Jay did mention in the briefing yesterday were some relevant facts about the actions of this individual in particular, and the harm and threat that he posed to American troops serving in the Afghan theater. 

In terms of the Pakistan Taliban's response to this circumstance, I'd actually refer you to the Pakistani government.  The peace talks that they have publicly raised concerns about are actually peace talks they're engaged in with the Pakistani government, so for a reaction to that I'd refer you to Pakistan. 

Q    Does the White House feel that it's still constructive to eliminate some of these top Taliban people if it leads to a breakdown in reconciliation efforts?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't want to get ahead of any details that I'm not in a position to confirm, but I will say, as a general matter, something similar to what the President said last week, which is the President does feel a responsibility to ensure that our troops that are in harm's way in the Afghan war theater are protected.  And we're going to use a range of abilities and equipment to ensure -- to provide them as much protection as possible in the Afghan war theater.  So I'll just leave it there.

Q    Josh, a Chinese company is buying Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer.  What does the President think of that?

MR. EARNEST:  I've seen those reports.  As you know is our custom, Roger, we don't comment on individual transactions.  So I'm not in a position to offer a specific reaction from the President or the White House on the announcement of that transaction.  I will say, as a general matter, one of the things the President has talked about is we are supportive of efforts by foreign entities to invest in the U.S.; that this kind of direct foreign investment in general is a pretty strong endorsement of some of the economic infrastructure we have in this country in terms of facilities, technology, American workers.  And through additional foreign direct investment we can expand economic opportunity in this country.

So as a general matter, we're in favor of efforts by foreign entities, foreign companies to invest in the U.S.  But in terms of this specific transaction, I'm not able to comment.

Q    Would he bring this up during the talks next week with the Chinese President at all? 

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have a sense of that.  

Q    Is there any reason that he would?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't know if he'll bring it up, to be honest with you.  If we get into a -- as we get closer to the meeting, we may be able to give you a better preview of what are the items on the agenda at that point.

Q    Josh, there are reports today of Assad saying that he has received Russian rockets.  What's the White House response to that? 

MR. EARNEST:  I've seen those reports as well.  I'm not in a position to comment on -- I'm not in a position to confirm reports of a transfer of weapons.  We have long made clear that we are concerned about the Russian support for the Assad regime, both in the form of providing them weapons but also through access to Russian banks.  That concern is well known.  Secretary Kerry, principally, but others are engaged in an effort to work constructively with the Russians to try to bring about a transition, a political transition in Syria.

So we certainly are counting on the Russians to exercise their influence over the Assad regime to ensure that negotiators who represent the Assad regime in negotiations with the opposition are empowered to facilitate the full transfer of executive authority to a transitional government.  So there is a very important role for Russia to play here, and we're working with them in the hopes that they will play that role and can help facilitate this transfer that's so desperately needed. 

We are seeing a terrible humanitarian situation on the ground in Syria.  The violence is continuing unabated.  That's something that is horrific.  And it is having a destabilizing impact on the broader region.

So there's a lot at stake here.  And we are working with the Russians to get them to step up to the plate and constructively act to resolve this situation.

Q    Josh, in addition to Assad's regime claiming it's received the missiles, the leading opposition group is saying now that they're not going to participate in these talks as long as the regime is still attacking them.  If you combine those two things, I mean, does it seem like the political reconciliation that the U.S. government is advocating is -- hopes for that are starting to dim? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t -- that's not necessarily our assessment.  This is an intractable problem that we're dealing with and there are clearly a lot of challenges that have to be defused to try to bring both sides to the table, but that is the only way we're going to get the kind of solution that would allow a government in Syria to take root that actually reflects the will of the Syrian people.  That is the ultimate goal.

And so we are working with our allies and partners in the region to try to bring this -- the opposition coalition together, to sit at a table across from representatives of the Assad regime.  As I mentioned, we're counting on the Russians to exercise their influence and make sure that the negotiators on behalf of the Assad regime are empowered to negotiate with a full transfer of executive authority to a transitional government. 

So this is an ongoing process and it's something that we are fully committed to, because this is the path to addressing this problem.  And it is a difficult and challenging one, but it's one that has -- there are high stakes in the outcome, and that's why we’re working on this so aggressively.  And that work is continuing.

Q    Josh, you've said that the President will be meeting with Senator McCain to discuss his recent trip Syria.  Do you have any updates on when that may happen?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any updates on that.

Q    On the IRS -- there’s a Quinnipiac poll out today saying that 76 percent of Americans would like to see a special prosecutor appointed to look into that, and I’m wondering if the President or the White House is looking at that option at all.

MR. EARNEST:  We're not.  And the reason for that simply is that there is a new IRS commissioner in place, Danny Werfel, who is a career civil servant, who represented -- who served in administrations led by Republican Presidents and Democratic Presidents.  He’s conducting a 30-day review -- that was a review that was ordered by the Secretary of the Treasury at the direction of the President.  That is an ongoing review that is taking place.

Our administration has already signaled our willingness to cooperate with congressional oversight in this matter.  I know that there are a couple of administration officials that have already testified on this, and there are -- our cooperation in this endeavor is ongoing.  And I also understand, separately from all that, that the Department of Justice has announced a criminal investigation into this matter. 

So there are a lot of people looking at this from a lot of different perspectives.  And we’re confident that those who need to be held accountable for the wrongdoing that occurred there will be held accountable.  And the President is committed to making sure that those steps are taken to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Q    So there's not any interest in an outside, independent -- completely independent person to look at it? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would actually make the case to you that there are -- we do have somebody who is coming from the outside, who is a career civil servant who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, coming into the IRS to take a look at this.  We’ve got outside members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- who are taking a look at this.  And we have, based on news reports, professional investigators, the Department of Justice, who are investigating this. 

So I would actually make the case to you that we have a wide variety of outside, impartial, independent observers -- all of whom share the goal of getting to the bottom of what happened and making sure it didn't happen -- it doesn't happen again.  And we’ll cooperate with those efforts as necessary.

Q    Josh, just for the record, did the President meet with anybody while he was at his private residence?  Any friends come over?  Did he spend the entire time he was there alone?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have an update for you in terms of the President’s activities this morning at home. 

Q    Josh, the Republican Party has said it's going to FOIA any emails between the State Department and the President’s reelection campaign relating to Benghazi.  Are you confident that no emails of that nature will be turned up?

MR. EARNEST:  I actually haven’t seen -- I haven’t seen that FOIA.  Based on what you’ve described though, I would say that it is yet another piece of evidence that you could stack on a rather mounting pile of data to indicate that this is a politically motivated enterprise.  But in terms of the specifics, I don't have any knowledge.

Q    One more, a little out of the box, since you went with it.  A group of 10 Republicans are asking for the Redskins to change their name as to be less offensive to Native Americans.  Does the President have any feeling on this?

MR. EARNEST:  That's a good question, and it is outside the box.  I’ll give you credit for that.  I haven’t had a chance to speak with him about it, so I don't know if he has an opinion.  (Laughter.)

Q    Go Ravens.  (Laughter.)   

Q    He supports the Blackhawks.

MR. EARNEST:  Anybody else?

Q    Can I ask about GMO wheat?  Yesterday, it was announced that GMO wheat that hasn’t been approved was found -- genetically modified wheat was found growing in Oregon.  How concerned is the White House about this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are a couple of things that I can tell you about this.  The first is I know that the FDA has indicated that there is actually no food safety threat that's posed by this.  There is, however, an ongoing investigation that's been launched by the Department of Agriculture to figure out what’s going on with this situation, so I don't want to get ahead of that investigation.  We certainly have been in touch with our trading partners on this issue, but there’s no indication at all at this point based on the FDA’s review that there’s any threat to food safety.

Q    And how concerned are you that buyers are going to stop buying U.S. wheat because of this, because of uncertainty about this?

MR. EARNEST:  I actually don't have much insight into that. I’d check with the Department of Agriculture to see if they would be able to offer you an assessment on that.

We good? 

Q    Yes.

MR. EARNEST:  All right guys.

END
12:33 P.M. CDT