Press Gaggle by Jay Carney and Ben Rhodes aboard AF1 en route Washington, D.C.
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Washington, D.C.
8:00 P.M. SAST
MR. CARNEY: Thanks for being here. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we begin our flight back to the United States from South Africa. With me again today is Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. Ben can best answer questions you might have about today’s event and the President’s role in it, including his speech. And I can take your questions on other subjects, but let me turn it over to Ben to start; he can give you a little bit of a laydown on today’s events.
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, clearly this was a very personal and important moment for the President to be able to speak at the memorial service for one of his true heroes. He was working on the remarks throughout both legs of our flight over here, and I think you see that they reflect both the impact that he believes Nelson Mandela had on the world, but also the impact that Nelson Mandela had on him personally.
But the President also really wanted to underscore the point that our role is to draw from the example of Nelson Mandela, both in our own lives and in dealing with the issues of the day. And he was overwhelmed by the reception he got from the audience at the event, even in very difficult inclement weather, and enjoyed his time with the Mandela family and was able to speak to a number of foreign leaders.
And with that, I’m happy to take questions.
Q When did he meet with the Mandela family?
MR. RHODES: He saw them there at the event. So he saw Graça Machel and a number of the members of the Mandela family and spoke to them at the event, expressed his condolences on behalf of the American people; indicated he looked forward to seeing them in the future if they made it to Washington or if he returns to South Africa.
Q The handshake with Raul Castro, was that by happenstance or was it planned, and what did they talk about?
MR. RHODES: Nothing was planned in terms of the President’s role other than his remarks. So the rest of it, of course, was simply his presence at the ceremony.
He was focused above all on paying tribute to Nelson Mandela. When he went to the podium, he shook hands with everybody on his way to speak. He really didn't do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak; it wasn't a substantive discussion. But I think the President’s focus was on honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela, as was the case with many leaders.
Q Can you tell us what other world leaders he spoke to? You mentioned a few there, you said there were a few.
MR. RHODES: Yes, well, he sat with Prime Minister Cameron, with the Prime Minister of Denmark. He saw a number of African leaders, President Kenyatta among them. He exchanged greetings with President Karzai, but they did not have a extended discussion.
So there were -- he was basically able to greet most of the leaders who were there in the box, but did not have bilateral, substantive discussions really; more just reflecting on Nelson Mandela and discussing the event. The one person he wasn’t able to see at the event that he wanted to was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. So after the event, when we got back to the hotel -- or when he got back to the hotel, he called Desmond Tutu, thanked him for everything that he’s done of course over the years, and expressed his respect for the role that the Archbishop played alongside Nelson Mandela in so many struggles of the last half century. And Mrs. Obama was able to speak to Archbishop Tutu as well.
Q -- that he did have some interaction with Dilma Rousseff, and it looked sort of warm, was that, again, just totally, like, superficial hello, or did they get to talk at all?
MR. RHODES: I think they spoke, but, again, not in depth. But I think he feels he has a warm relationship with Dilma Rousseff, that it can clearly weather the differences we’ve had over the surveillance issues. We have a very substantial dialogue through diplomatic and intelligence channels to work through the Brazilian concerns, and he’s confident he can have that relationship on a firm footing.
Q Did he reach any progress on getting her to the United States for a visit based on today’s visit?
MR. RHODES: No, I don't think they discussed that, that I’m aware of.
Q Do you think sort of the press sort of surrounding the handshake with Castro, does the White House think it’s blown out of proportion? Are you surprised by it?
MR. RHODES: Well, look, obviously we recognize that it’s been quite some time since the Presidents of the United States and Cuba were even in the same place. I think, though, that what people need to remember is what today was about was Nelson Mandela, one of the giants of the 20th century, a person who we will most likely never share this Earth with his caliber again.
And so that’s where the focus should be; that’s where the President’s focus was -- not on any other political or policy matter. He was focused on President Mandela. And of course, I think when you have a life as broad and sweeping as Nelson Mandela, you draw people from all over the world who have had relationships with the South African government, with the ANC. And again, I think where people need to be focused is on saying goodbye to someone who did so much to change the course of history and leave the world a better place. And that’s really the headline of the day as far as we’re concerned.
Q Ben, can I ask a question about the speech itself? The President talked about some supporters of Nelson Mandela through the years having, in his view, a complicated record of living up to some of the things that the President said Mandela stood for, some of the other foreign leaders. He didn't talk so much about the complicated record the U.S. had in respect to the apartheid government. Is there some reason that he didn't get into those issues at all?
MR. RHODES: Not at all. Let me say a couple of things. First of all, I think it’s implicit what President Obama references his own activism was against the policy of the United States government in the 1980s to support the apartheid regime. And when he spoke in Cape Town, he was very clear that he felt that, once again, that was the wrong policy. And that’s what stirred him into action -- it wasn’t just support for Nelson Mandela, it was seeking to press the United States and other governments to sanction the apartheid regime. So I think that that’s built into the activism that he spoke about and is well understood by the audience here.
I think as it relates to the challenge that he put at the end, it was in three areas. One, again, people who embrace the legacy of racial reconciliation but aren’t combating the economic inequality that continues to divide people not just in South Africa but in the United States and around the world. Second, people who embrace the liberation movements but then do not live up to those values within their own countries.
And one important point that the President made in his speech today and when he was here earlier in the summer is that Nelson Mandela gave up power. And part of what makes him so extraordinary is he was a liberation leader who took office as President, which is rare enough, but then he relinquished power to his successor in a democratic transition. That is the type of leadership that the President seeks to support around the world.
Q He didn’t obviously name any names when he went through that section, but was there any country or leaders in particular that he had in mind as he was writing that section?
MR. RHODES: I don’t want to -- I don’t think his intent was to single out specific countries. However, it’s pretty clear which countries do not value the political dissent that he spoke about, and do not carry out the democratic transitions that he spoke about. If you look in the neighborhood, for instance, you certainly see examples of leaders who may have been on the right side of some of the movements for opposing apartheid and supporting independence for nations in the 20th century, who then did not necessarily follow through by living those values once they took office.
Q Why didn’t he use the opportunity of seeing Karzai to bring up the bilateral security agreement?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, I think the President didn’t see this as a venue to do business. He wanted it to be focused on celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and saying goodbye. The other point there, though, is that we have an agreement that we are comfortable with, that we negotiated with the Afghans, that the loya jirga in Afghanistan has welcomed and embraced. And so our position continues to be that this is in the best interest of the United States and Afghanistan, and President Karzai should move toward signature of the agreement.
Q And just for the record, Alan Gross didn’t come up in the conversation with Castro, correct?
MR. RHODES: No, again, they didn’t -- as those of you who saw, I think it was just an exchange of greetings as he was making his way through the podium up to speak.
Q But is it the President’s desire to try to move toward a different sort of relationship with Cuba anyway? And in terms of talking about honoring Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela for years, dating back to the Clinton administration, was part of the United States to relax its approach to Cuba and do it in a different way. And can you talk about that?
MR. RHODES: Look, as a general matter, we have taken a different approach in some important respects in relation to Cuba. The President lifted the prohibition on family travel and remittances. He increased licensing for travel and engagement with Cuba. We’re in talks on issues associated with migration that, again, I think allow for there to be greater connectivity particularly among Cuban Americans and Cuba. At the same time, we continue to have the same grave concerns about both the human rights situation in Cuba and Alan Gross, who we believe should be released immediately so he can return to his family.
So we will continue to explore the types of openings that we’ve already undertaken, and the President has indicated a willingness to pursue different paths. But at the same time, we would very much focus our policy on supporting greater human rights dignity and opportunity for the people of Cuba that would certainly be in line with the types of values that the President spoke about today.
Q Ben, there were a lot of leaders up there. Was the President aware that it was Raul Castro when he shook hands with him? Or were people just thrusting their hands at him?
MR. RHODES: Yes, he was aware that that was Raul Castro.
Q It appeared that some people in the crowd actually booed Zuma, President Zuma, when he spoke. Given that the President thought it was a venue and a day for honoring Nelson Mandela, did he have a reaction to that?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think, first of all, one of the great things about coming to South Africa is you see the enormous demonstrative nature of the crowd -- they dance, they sing, they cheer, they express every type of emotion. It certainly makes for a very energetic event, even in very bad weather.
I think with respect to President Zuma, he of course can rightly claim his role in the struggle alongside Nelson Mandela to fight apartheid. He currently is a politician and a political leader in a democratic South Africa. And there are clearly always going to be political differences in a democracy -- but that’s a good thing, right? I mean, I think one of the legacies of Nelson Mandela is that people in South Africa can express however they feel about their government without any fear, and I think that should be welcomed. And that is a legacy of what Mandela and the ANC and so many other leaders brought about in overturning apartheid.
I should have noted earlier that among the other leaders --and you may have seen this -- the President was able -- he saw former President de Klerk as well, exchanged greetings with him, obviously speaking to the negotiations two decades ago that led to the end of the Apartheid regime.
Q Did he see Hollande or Sarkozy?
MR. RHODES: What?
Q Hollande or Sarkozy?
MR. RHODES: He didn’t mention that.
MR. CARNEY: Marvin said he ran into Hollande. But I don’t think -- I’m not sure -- I don’t believe he saw Sarkozy.
Q He did see Hollande?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. And they had a brief encounter.
MR. RHODES: And I know he said he saw some of the former British prime ministers -- Tony Blair and some of the other former British prime ministers who were there.
Q Was there any substance in the talk with Kenyatta? I mean, even the fact it happened given his legal situation seems interesting.
MR. RHODES: No, I think that they were -- he has spoken to President Kenyatta on the phone obviously about -- in the past about both the fire at the airport and the al-Shabaab attack. So it was not the first time they’ve spoken. I think they spoke about Kenya, which is obviously a country that the President knows well. And I don’t think they had any more substantive exchange in that.
Q Did he see President Carter -- former President Carter?
MR. RHODES: I don’t think he did. The Elders were sitting in a different area, which is why he didn’t see Bishop Tutu either. So I’m not aware that he saw President Carter. Obviously, he spent a good amount of time with former President Bush and Clinton as well as Hillary Clinton.
Q And is Hillary Clinton on the flight back?
MR. CARNEY: She’s not. The Clintons are all traveling together back to the United States.
Q And are the same folks who were on the plane on the way over -- also the Cabinet members and senior staff?
MR. CARNEY: We have President and Mrs. Bush. Is the Attorney General?
MR. RHODES: Yes.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, the Attorney General is with us. Susan Rice, Tina Tchen, Valerie Jarrett. That’s it, right?
MR. RHODES: Yeah, we didn’t pick anybody up.
MR. CARNEY: No, we didn’t pick anybody up, you and I.
Q Any more information on who might attend the funeral as U.S. delegation?
MR. RHODES: No, but we will get you that in the next couple days. We are focused on the Qunu event, and expect that there’ll be a number of people there. And a number of members of Congress I think did make the event today. It is worth noting the role that the -- in particular that the Congressional Black Caucus played for many years in opposing apartheid. And many of those same people were able to be here today.
Q Is he expected to do any business on the flight back? Any foreign leader calls -- anything?
Q Messages to foreign countries?
MR. CARNEY: Not that I’m aware of. If there’s anything like that, we’ll let you know. He’s having dinner now -- he and the First Lady are having dinner with President and Mrs. Bush.
Q Can I ask where? Where are they dining together -- in the conference room?
MR. RHODES: Conference room.
MR. CARNEY: And Valerie Jarrett, Tina Tchen, Susan Rice and the Attorney General.
Q Are all at dinner also?
MR. CARNEY: They’re all in the conference room having dinner, yes.
Q Jay, can you talk about the John Podesta move? What is his job supposed to be? Should we see this as part of a staff makeover or shakeup?
MR. CARNEY: I can confirm that John Podesta will be joining the White House staff as a counselor to the President. John, as you know, has an enormous amount of experience and he has dedicated his career to a goal that he shares with the President, which is improving the lives of middle-class Americans.
John was a chief of staff to former President Clinton. He was also transition head for President-elect Obama, and has served as an informal advisor to President Obama over the years as well as to the Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, whose idea it was to bring in John in this role for one year --
Q One year?
MR. CARNEY: One year only. That’s the agreement.
And he will advise on a range of issues with a particular focus on issues of energy and climate change, but will obviously bring a lot of experience to bear on behalf of the President and Denis. So we look forward to having him.
Q Do we have a start date on him?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a start date for you. I believe it’s roughly the calendar year is the agreed-upon time.
Q Is there some reason for that? It’s kind of unusual to announce a timeframe.
MR. CARNEY: It’s an important year. It’s an important year.
Q But is he only willing to stay for a year? I’m trying to figure out why we already --
MR. CARNEY: This is what Denis and John agreed on. And I know that Denis and the President are looking forward to having John’s counsel as we deal with the many issues that we have on our plate including implementation of the Affordable Care Act; including moving forward on the President’s climate action plan; pressing forward, as John did as chief of staff to President Clinton, on executive actions where necessary when we can’t get cooperation out of Congress to help advance an agenda that helps the middle class thrive, the economy grow and addresses some of the issues that the President talked about in his speech the other day in Washington.
Q And whose phone was it that the selfie was taken on between Obama, Cameron and the Prime Minister of Denmark?
MR. CARNEY: I don't know the answer to that question.
Q Are we going to get a readout out from the dinner?
MR. CARNEY: I doubt it. I doubt it. It’s just a social dinner.
Q Bring them over here.
MR. CARNEY: The President and Mrs. Obama have been very glad to host former President Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, as well as Secretary Clinton on the flight out here, and it’s been a nice time for everybody to share together. And for some of us -- I’m looking at Steve Holland here -- some of us who covered President Bush, it’s been fun to have him onboard.
Q I think it was fun for all of us.
MR. CARNEY: All right.
Q Thank you very much.
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