Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney aboard Air Force One en route Senegal, 6/26/13
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Senegal
9:40 A.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, as we begin our trip to Africa. I know that you've been briefed and given a preview of the trip, so I won't repeat that. But the President, as you just can tell, is looking forward to this visit. Africa is an incredibly important region of the world. A high number -- I forget what it is -- of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa.
We have significant economic and trade interests in Africa, as well as national security interests. And for all those reasons, this is a very important trip that we're looking forward to. And with that, I will take your questions.
Q Just to start off, you know we're going to have this gay marriage announcement imminently. Are you planning to have any sort of reaction to that here on the plane or what's the response planned?
MR. CARNEY: I'm sure that we will have a reaction. And if there is a decision at the normal time, we'll likely have a reaction from here before too long, before we land. With all decisions, we have to be afforded the time to evaluate the opinions before we offer an assessment. So I wouldn't look for us to have an immediate reaction, but we'll certainly have one.
Q Will he come back or will it be a paper statement?
MR. CARNEY: At this point, I would expect a paper statement. But anything is possible.
Q Any calls to readout at all -- on the Snowden situation -- that the President may have had?
MR. CARNEY: I have no information on the Snowden story beyond, I think, what is publicly known. We still believe that he is at the airport in Russia. We noted the statements by President Putin and the Foreign Minister. We certainly understand the fact that Mr. Snowden chose to travel to Moscow, chose to travel to Russia creates issues that the Russian government has to consider.
We also believe that when it comes to Mr. Snowden, well, we agree with President Putin that we don't want the situation to harm our relations, I would note that we have improved, as I did the other day -- significant and improved cooperation with the Russian government on matters of law enforcement, especially in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. And I would note that we are asking the Russians to expel Mr. Snowden, and that we believe there is a clear, legal basis to do so, based on his travel documents and the indictment against him. But we have no updates on those circumstances at this time.
Q Can I just follow real quick on that?
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q Are you making any efforts beyond that statement describing "clear legal basis" for returning Snowden to persuade the Russians, to coax the Russians to return him?
MR. CARNEY: We are having conversations with Russian government officials. I'm not at liberty to get into the details of those conversations, but we're having the conversations. And I think that what I just said reflects the general tenor of the conversations.
Q Can you say at what level those conversations are taking place?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to get into the individuals. Obviously, there are a variety of people in our government and the Russian government under whose jurisdiction these issues fall.
Q Jay, on the trip, last week during the briefing, Ben said that businesses want to get in the game in Africa. What specifically are they looking for from the administration that would help them get in the game?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think as you've heard us say about Asia, we had a circumstance in the first decade of this century where our intense focus on the Middle East had an unintended consequence that resulted in us not being as engaged in Africa, just as we were not as engaged in Asia as President Obama believes we need to be. And you'll hear, during the course of the trip, some of our ideas about ways that we can enhance and deepen our economic and trade relationships in Africa, our ideas for how to increase American investment in Africa and American opportunities in African economies.
The added value that the United States brings is sort of the mode of our engagement, because we believe that engaging in Africa -- as with other regions of the world -- economically has a name, not just for the economic advantages and benefits that it provides, but the fact that we can assist Africa through that engagement in lifting up the quality of life of people of African nations and enhancing their progress towards democratization.
Q Can I follow up on that? You guys are in year five I guess of the administration. There is some criticism from people on the African continent and elsewhere that the administration is too late to this thinking, that the engagement should have taken place and people expected it would have, given President Obama's sort of personal connections to the continent as well. Given what China is doing and everything else, is the United States too late? And is that criticism of you guys fair?
MR. CARNEY: We are not too late and nor are we just engaging now. It is true that this is only the President's second visit to Africa, but it is his second visit to Africa as President. He made a brief visit in 2009, I believe, to Ghana. But our engagement with Africa and our stepped up engagement as a country in Africa has occurred over the course of President Obama's time in office.
I, as communications director for the Vice President, traveled to Africa with the Vice President. And of course, there have been engagements at a variety of high levels of the Obama administration throughout President Obama's time in office. But what I won't contest is the sort of underlying premise of your question, and that is that there is great merit in engaging, in American engagement in Africa and that we certainly don't have any time to lose in making that engagement.
Q Can you talk a little bit about what this trip means personally for the President -- he has his extended family here it looks like -- and also, along the lines of this, what he wants his legacy to be in Africa? Is he thinking about that? That's been something that has been really important to both President Clinton and President Bush. And as far as I see here, he is not going to announce any major initiatives at this point along the lines of what those Presidents did. Is that something that he is hoping to do with the time he has left in office?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say, starting from the backend of your question that this trip, while important -- and presidential trips to regions of the world like Africa bring enormous benefits in terms of our relationship with the countries visited and the countries in the region -- the trip itself will not be the end point of our engagement, but will enhance it, deepen it and further it as it grows over the rest of the President's time in office.
On the personal aspects of it, I think I'll defer to him. You'll have the opportunity on I think three occasions we have press availabilities with the President. He has obviously written a fair amount about it himself in terms of his family ties to Kenya and to the African continent. But other than that, he is the best person to address the personal nature of the trip.
Q Can I just follow up on that? He is visiting Gorée Island off of the coast of Senegal, a site that has particular resonance for any Americans, particularly African Americans. What's that visit going to be like? Does he intend to give a speech there? How is this particularly important for this President?
MR. CARNEY: We'll have more details about the schedule to give to you and the sort of symbolic meaning of -- a visit like this by an American President any American President, is powerful. And I think that will be the case when President Obama visits and I'm sure particularly so, given that he is African American.
On this issue, I think it's especially appropriate to hear from him. And I know he'll address it both in the press availabilities if you ask him and in other contexts.
Q In light of the decision that we are waiting on from the Supreme Court, in his bilateral meetings, will the President address social issues with especially the President of Senegal? It's a criminal act -- homosexuality is a criminal act in Senegal. And will this be a topic of conversation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I wouldn’t rule it out. I don't want to get ahead of the Supreme Court. But the issues you raise with regard to the criminalization of homosexuality are significant. And you can assume that that's something that is both a concern to the President and the administration, and that would be something that we would discuss.
Q You said on Monday that the Snowden affair would unquestionably hurt U.S.-China relations. China is saying it's going to have no impact at all. How to expect this damaged trust to manifest itself in U.S. comments and U.S. policy? Is the U.S. going to take a formal measure to display its frustration over this?
MR. CARNEY: Not in a way that I can announce today. I would simply point you to the comments I made and others about our view of the opportunity China had in our assessment that there was no reason for Hong Kong not to detain Mr. Snowden. All the procedures were followed. And certainly, as I said the other day, we certainly don't accept the proposition that China -- that this was just a technical issue, that China could not have had an effect on.
Q Does this unquestionably damage our relationship with Russia, this situation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would simply say that we are in conversations, as you would expect, with the Russian government. Circumstances are different in that there is no extradition treaty. And we understand that the arrival of Mr. Snowden in Russia creates issues for the Russian government to consider. We have made clear that there is a legal basis, a clear legal basis for Russia to expel Mr. Snowden, in our view. And we've made that view known and are now having conversations accordingly. But as of now, we have no updates on that circumstance.
Q I know you've said that you're wishing for his recovery and you're in touch with family members. What is the current situation in terms of what your knowledge is about --
MR. CARNEY: I have no updates on President Mandela's condition that go beyond what we've heard from the South African government. We continue to pray for him and his family, and obviously all of the South African people to whom he means so much as well as his admirers around the world. And at this time, we just don't have any new information. And we simply hope that he recovers.
Q Jay, on voting rights, I know the President -- you guys issued a statement saying the President was dismayed by it yesterday. Is there anything more that you can say about his reaction or what he hopes will happen in Congress or elsewhere?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the statement reflected his deep disappointment and his expectation that Congress will take action to address the situation in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. This is something that I expect he might be asked about over the course of this trip.
Q A legislative effort that he can lead, that he can try to push?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he has signaled pretty clearly yesterday where he stands on it. And strategy is not something I'm prepared to lay out today, but he obviously believes it's important, as we all do.
Q On that subject, Jay, as a result of the Supreme Court decision, a number of states are now free to enact voter ID laws -- states including Louisiana, South Carolina, other southern states. Does the President have any concern specifically about those voter ID laws going into effect? Is there anything he would intend to do in response?
MR. CARNEY: The President is concerned about efforts, generally speaking, that have the result of restricting the ability of Americans to exercise their right to vote are always of a concern. We made that clear last year, and that remains the case. We should be, in the President's view, taking steps to make it easier for American citizens to exercise their fundamental right and efforts that have the result, whether intended or not, of restricting that right or making it more difficult to exercise that right do harm to our democratic process.
Q One last thing -- so the information recently surfaced that the IRS was also targeting liberal groups, groups with names like "progressive" and other things in their title. So in light of that, does the President feel that the IRS was unfairly or too harshly criticized for what it was doing and that the senior leaders of the IRS were perhaps dealt with too harshly?
MR. CARNEY: The President felt very strongly that the inappropriate use of criteria or inappropriate criteria to target conservative groups or any groups needed to be corrected and was a problem. As you know, the President met with Secretary Lew and Principal Deputy Commissioner -- I think that's his title now, Werfel, the other day to be briefed on Mr. Werfel's 30-day review. And he is pleased to see and continues to want to see progress made on the objectives that Mr. Werfel laid out.
I think the broader issue here -- as has been pointed out by some of your colleagues -- is that there's been a lot of flagrant, unfounded accusations made by members of Congress in the Republican Party about this issue, accusations that were made without factual foundation. But I guess the facts have told a different story.
10:00 A.M. EDT