the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Gaggle en route Toluca, Mexico


Aboard Air Force One
En Route Toluca, Mexico

9:50 A.M. EST

MR. CARNEY:  Good morning.  Thank you for joining us on our early start this morning.  We are making our way to Mexico for the North American Leaders Summit.  And I have with me today Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who can assist on questions you may have about national security and foreign affairs. 

Let me just start by saying, as I think you know, later on this flight, the President will sign an executive order on streamlining the export-import process for America’s businesses. In his State of the Union address, President Obama set an ambitious agenda to make 2014 a “Year of Action,” using his pen and his phone to take steps to expand opportunity for America’s middle class, including helping small, American businesses compete in a global economy.

Today, as I said, aboard Air Force One, the President will sign a new executive order on streamlining the export-import process for America’s businesses, specifically the executive order that cuts processing and approval times from days to minutes for small businesses that export American-made goods and services by completing the International Trade Data System by December 2016.   

Today, businesses must submit information to dozens of government agencies, often on paper forms -- sometimes waiting on process for days to move goods across the border.  The ITDS will allow businesses to electronically transmit through a single window the data required by the U.S. government to import or export cargo.  This new electronic system will speed up the shipment of American-made goods overseas, eliminate often duplicative and burdensome paperwork, and make our government more efficient.

I have no other announcements to make, so if you have questions on domestic matters, why don't you fire away?  And then we'll turn it over to Ben.

Q    Ben, can you talk about -- (laughter.)  Sorry, Jay, I’ll get back to you.  Can you comment on the U.S. response to what’s going on in Ukraine, the violence there?  Have there been conversations with both President Putin and with Ukrainian leadership? 

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think the scenes that we saw in Kyiv yesterday were completely outrageous and have no place in the 21st century.  The fact of the matter is we have made it very clear to the Ukrainian government that it is their responsibility to allow for peaceful protest.  We consistently oppose any use of violence by all sides, but the responsibility is on the government to pull back its riot police, to call a truce and to engage in a meaningful discussion with the opposition about the way forward.

Clearly, the people of Ukraine feel that their legitimate aspirations are not being met in the current political context, and it's incumbent on the Ukrainian government to reach out to the opposition and to find a way forward that can unify the country. 

We have also made clear that Ukraine has a future that is a part of the Atlantic community, that Ukraine’s orientation towards Europe and the Transatlantic community is an important priority of U.S. foreign policy; that it is not a zero-sum game with Russia.  We understand that Ukraine is a neighbor of Russia, has historic ties to Russia, but that that need not preclude Ukraine from, again, continuing to pursue a European path as well.

So Vice President Biden communicated our position to President Yanukovych yesterday.  I know that Secretary Kerry, Victoria Nuland are working this with their counterparts, particularly as the EU prepares for a meeting.  The only additional thing I'd say is that we continue to watch events very closely, including who we believe is responsible for violence, and we've made clear that we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine.  And we have a tool kit for doing that that includes sanctions.  

Q    Can you say whether the United States would consider following the European Union’s lead if they impose sanctions against the Ukraine as an institution?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think as a general matter we aim to be coordinated with the European Union and we have generally had a common position and spoken with a similar voice on issues related to Ukraine because we both have an interest in seeing an end to the violence and seeing the unity of Ukraine upheld and seeing Ukraine on a European orientation.  So I think we are in consultation with the European Union on the questions like which individuals should be held responsible for the violence, and in consideration of issues like imposing sanctions related to the ongoing violence.

Q    You guys have been talking about sanctions now for a while.  What would it actually take to pull the trigger?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think the events that we saw yesterday are certainly heightening our focus on this issue and I think we'll be reviewing this, as we have been, on a near daily basis. And we also will be talking to the Europeans as they have their meeting of the EU foreign ministers, and we'll make a determination both on our own and, again, in consultation with the European Union about the next steps.

Q    Is that near-term thing, though?  I mean, would there be a determination like this within days, weeks? 

MR. RHODES:  Well, obviously, the situation is very fluid, so I don’t want to put a timeline on it or get ahead of any particular announcement.  I will say that events like what we saw yesterday are clearly going to impact our decision-making.  On the other hand, if the government takes the appropriate steps of pulling back riot police, of respecting the right of peaceful protest, releasing prisoners and pursuing serious dialogue with the opposition about how to pursue a more unified government and way forward, that would obviously factor into our calculus as well.

But, clearly, the United States and the European Union believe that the events of yesterday were unacceptable.  And I think that’s why you see renewed diplomatic activity this week.

Q    To what extent does Russia have a role in either reducing the violence or creating additional disturbances?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think the message that we delivered to the Russians is that, again, we are not in some competition for the future of Ukraine.  Frankly, our interest is that the people of Ukraine are able to determine their future, not any external actor.  Clearly, we believe that a significant number of Ukrainians believe very deeply in the importance of Ukraine pursuing a European orientation, even as they maintain relations with Russia as a neighbor. 

And so the role we would like to see Russia play is of constructive support for reducing these tensions and allowing the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, and that we don’t think that there should be, again, a situation where Russia is viewing this as some competition with the European Union or the United States; rather, we all have an interest in a Ukraine that is stable.  And, clearly, the status quo is not a recipe for stability, because too many Ukrainians are feeling like their own aspirations are not being met in this government and in this plan that turns away from Europe.  So that’s the message we delivered to the Ukrainian government and the Russian government as well.  

Q    So far, Vice President Biden has been your main interlocutor on this.  Is there a point at which the President gets to follow up directly?

MR. RHODES:  Yes, I would expect the President -- he’s been involved in the sense that he’s followed the situation very closely.  He’s discussed it with counterparts in the past; with President Hollande this was a subject of discussion.  And I’d expect the President to be involved in the days to come as well. 

Again, he has pressed us to make sure we’re doing everything we can to try to reduce tensions and to try to stabilize the situation and support the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people for a more unified government and a government that has the ability to pursue a European orientation as well as good relations with Russia.

So I’d expect him to be involved.  I’d expect it to come up today, frankly.  It’s a pressing global issue and I’m sure he’ll be discussing this with President Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Harper. 

Q    Is he watching any of the television footage from Kyiv or anything?

MR. RHODES:  I don’t know if he’s -- we’d have to ask him that.  I’m not aware that he’s seen particular footage, but he has been getting very regular updates on the situation in Ukraine.

Q    Do you expect the President to say anything publicly today or for it to be more in the meetings with the other leaders?

MR. RHODES:  I mean, obviously, it’s not the focus of these meetings.  The focus of these meetings is our North American partnership, trade and commerce, and increasing economic competitiveness in the North American region, security issues. 

However, it being a significant global issue, I’d anticipate that he will have some public comment on it, as well as comment with the other leaders. 

Q    Jay, can you talk about the executive order a little bit?  This system has been in the works for a while.  Why was an executive order necessary?

MR. CARNEY:  Because the President has the authority through an executive order to streamline the process on behalf of American businesses, in particular small businesses.  And, as you know, while he has taken an approach since he took office that includes not just acting legislatively, but using his executive authority where he can on behalf of the American people, he has tasked his team with finding opportunities for him to use that authority in a way that benefits the American economy and the American people.  This is an example of that.

Q    Jay, you said numerous times in recent days that it's no surprise that Democrats as well as Republicans have their problems with trade-expanding agreements.  But the enthusiasm among Democrats seems particularly slight this time around compared to last -- past rounds of big trade deals.  What can the President say to reassure Peña Nieto and Harper that there’s any hope whatsoever for accomplishing trade deals this year? 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, as you know, Mark, the President has made clear that expanding American exports and trade, especially in the Pacific region, is a priority.  And the reason for that is that there’s enormous growth and opportunity in that region, and absent an agreement that allows for expansion we would cede that territory to our competitors, which would be detrimental to our economy, to our middle class.  He is pursuing an agreement, the TPP, that explicitly protects American workers and the environment, and that he believes would be highly beneficial to our economy and the middle class.  So it’s a conversation he has and others have with lawmakers of both parties. 

I think it’s worth noting that this is an issue around which there is not a uniform point of view in either party.  And the President has long understood that.  And I think it is worth noting that this is nothing new, especially for those of us who have been around Washington for more than 20 years.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a reason to make it a priority.  The President believes it's a priority and he’ll continue to have those conversations.  And I’m sure he'll make his views known in his conversations with the other two leaders today.

MR. RHODES:  One thing to add is that this has been an ongoing negotiation for several years, so there’s been a very sustained effort over a period of years, precisely because this represents an agreement that would encompass 40 percent of the global economy and have huge opportunity for the United States and the countries involved.  That’s part of the reason why Canada and Mexico came into this process.

What I’d say also, though, is that, first of all, we see this as an opportunity to introduce elevated standards on issues like labor and the environment that were not in NAFTA.  So, in many respects, it’s an opportunity to, again, elevate the standards that were absent from the NAFTA agreement so that we are dealing with issues like labor and environmental standards that are important to 21st century trade.

The other thing I’d say, though, is that as you get further along in a trade negotiation, there are sensitive issues in every country.  Trade is not simply an issue that has a significant range of opinions in the United States.  Every country in a negotiation always has constituencies that have a divergence of views on issues in a trade agreement. 

So I think these leaders, like all leaders involved in the agreement, understand and appreciate that.  As you continue towards the end of a negotiation, you get into sensitive issues and you will have an effort undertaken to build support for an agreement.  And so I think the leaders know exactly where things are in the negotiation and appreciate that.

Q    Can you explain the decision to make this such a short trip?  Any concern at all that this could be viewed as a bit of a snub by Mexico?

MR. RHODES:  No, I don’t think so.  This is our second visit to Mexico since President Peña Nieto became President.  We had a full bilateral summit in Mexico City and had two days of good meetings and a dinner with the President the last time we were here.  So this is not the first time the President has been to Mexico since President Peña Nieto took office.

I think if you look at the history of the North American Leaders Summit, it’s generally a one-day meeting, so this is consistent with summits that have been held in the past, including summits in the United States.

Q    Jay, on Keystone, Harper told reporters yesterday his message to our President will be the same as he said publicly.  What will President Obama’s message be back to Harper on that discussion today?

MR. CARNEY:  He will say the same thing that he and I and others have said publicly, which is this a process that is run out of the State Department in keeping with past practice of administrations of both parties.  We have reached a stage in that process with the release of the environmental impact statement.  We’re now in a phase where there is input from agencies -- others agencies and from the public, and that that process needs to be insulated from politics -- that’s the President’s view -- and that he will explain that to both leaders.  I’m sure they’re fully aware of that dynamic.

Q    Do you think you can say the timeline of a likely decision, though, without commenting on the substance of it?

MR. CARNEY:  The timeline is as I just relayed to you and we’ve discussed publicly, and it’s something that is institutionalized by the State Department.  And we’re now in a phase of input from agencies and the public, and the process will move forward.  But we’re not going to alter the process; we’re going to let it proceed the way it should, because these are issues, as the President said, that have to be determined based on what is viewed as in the best national interest of the United States.

Q    Immigration is a big issue in Mexico.  In his bilat with President Peña Nieto, what will be the President’s assessment of the best chances on the timing of passage of immigration reform?

MR. CARNEY:  The President continues to believe that 2014 presents the best opportunity we’ve had to see comprehensive immigration reform become law.  We obviously have a ways to go, but the Senate has passed a bill with bipartisan support and a large majority.  The House, through its leadership, has taken steps by putting forth standards and principles.  That’s a new development this year that represents progress and demonstrates that Republican leaders recognize the value of immigration reform and the benefit that it would provide to our economy, to our border security, to our middle class, and to innovation for our businesses.

So I’m sure the President will update both leaders on where that stands, and his hope and belief that the question around comprehensive immigration reform is not if but when, and we hope it’s this year.

Q    Are you guys having any kind of communiqué or deliverable-specific tangible things you’re planning to announce as a result of today?  Or is it mainly a matter of catching up and sort of updating each other on where things stand?

MR. RHODES:  I’d expect there to be a leaders’ statement at the conclusion of the summit that addresses the agenda that we will have worked on.  And again, I think if you look at the North American Leaders Summit, it’s been a venue for us to do two things:  in the near term, to work through specific issues related to trade and commerce.  That gets at cross-border trade, customs issues, supporting the free flow of commerce, but also secure borders, efforts to promote security in North America more broadly.  We have energy cooperation and cooperation on climate change.  So there’s a range of near-term steps that they’ll be discussing today and I think we’ll be able to address at the conclusion of the summit.

At the same time, we’re also looking to what is our vision for North America more broadly going forward.  It’s a huge asset of the United States, frankly, to have such close relationships with our two neighbors, two significant trading partners.  And we cooperate on issues that run the gamut from trade to the environment, to energy and climate change, to security.  And so what is the vision of a stable, secure, prosperous North America looking ahead, I think they’ll also be addressing that as well.

Q    Obviously, going at a time when we’re marking the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, a lot of debate -- good, bad.  What is the President’s assessment of NAFTA?  Even though he’s had some issues with it, was it overall a success?  Was it something that he wishes didn’t happen?  What is his view of that?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think, on the one hand, NAFTA supports a huge amount of trade that supports a significant number of U.S. jobs.  If you look at the trade between the United States and Mexico and Canada, millions of U.S. jobs are associated with that.  I think it has led to a more prosperous and competitive North America as a whole within the global economy.  So there has been progress that is rooted in the trade relationship between the United States, Canada and Mexico. 

At the same time, there are issues that were not addressed in NAFTA, like the labor and environmental standards that the President has spoken about in the past and that, frankly, are a part of the TPP agreement.

So we see NAFTA as providing, clearly, a foundation for trade in North America that can be improved and enhanced by elevating the standards of trade to include the issues that are of increasing attention to us.  And if you look at TPP, that’s labor and the environment, but also issues related to intellectual property and state-owned enterprises, access to the Pacific markets.

So what you really want, Peter, is a dynamic where the North American competitiveness allows us to be drivers in terms of getting into the fastest emerging markets in the world, which are in this Asia Pacific region.  And so we’re in a good position to do that given our own trade relationship, but we also can, frankly, go back and elevate some of the issues that were not a part of the original agreement through the TPP.

Q    Ben, last year when we were in Mexico, one of the issues that hung over at those meetings was the level of cooperation taking place between the new Peña Nieto administration and the U.S. over security.  What’s the status of that?  Has the Peña Nieto administration made inroads on the security issue to the satisfaction of the U.S.?  What’s the U.S. view of security?

MR. RHODES:  We have maintained our security cooperation with Mexico.  We are very pleased with the level of cooperation that we have with the Mexican government in addressing the narcotrafficking issue.  President Peña Nieto is focused on reducing the levels of violence, broadly.  We continue to provide whatever support the Mexican government asks us for and requires as they deal with huge border security -- huge issues of violence around the border, and because of the narcotrafficking issue.  At the same time, we’ve continued to make clear our own responsibilities to crack down, for instance, on the flow of guns southward, which has been an element of the violence there.

So the cooperation has continued.  It’s certainly been good from our perspective, and I’m sure that they’ll address it in their bilateral meeting, as well as in the trilat.

MR. CARNEY:  Can I just say, since nobody asked -- hey, Christi, did you have a question?

Q    No.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, so a couple of things have happened this week related to the President’s primary focus on growing the economy and expanding opportunity that are rather remarkable.  First of all, you see Republicans lining up en masse against raising the minimum wage, which is a remarkable development if you think about it.  You have Americans across the country working full-time and yet being paid a wage that keeps them in poverty.  That’s not something that should happen in this country.  And the American people, including Republicans’ constituents, overwhelmingly support lifting the minimum wage.  As the CBO report demonstrated, that would lift something on the order of 900,000 Americans out of poverty and raise the wages for 16 million-plus Americans across the country.  And as Jason Furman said, the substantial consensus among economists is that it would not have a negative impact on jobs.

The second thing that happened was the five-year anniversary of the Recovery Act.  And as a point of personal privilege as somebody who was covering these matters back in the early ‘90s, I find it remarkable that Speaker Boehner attacks the President for the Recovery Act.  I remember when Speaker Boehner powerfully argued against President Clinton’s economic agenda, said that it would lead to stagnation and job loss.  He could not have been more wrong then.  We saw record job creation.  Speaker Boehner was wrong. 

Speaker Boehner argued powerfully against the Recovery Act and President Obama’s economic agenda.  In the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we've seen the creation of 8.5 million private sector jobs.  Speaker Boehner could not have been more wrong.  In between, Speaker Boehner supported economic policies that helped to precipitate the worst financial crisis and economic crisis in our lifetimes and, by the way, led to record deficits, which were handed over to President Obama when he took office.

It's very important to have the long view here.  And what we know about the Recovery Act is that it delivered tax cuts, it delivered investments in clean energy, it delivered an infusion in an economy that was teetering on the brink of collapse.  And the alternative at the time, as you remember if you saw the headlines, was the potential for depression, some predicting 20 to 25 percent unemployment.  Republicans refused to support a plan that saved the country from that kind of disaster and set us on the course towards job creation and economic growth.

This is not a project that's anywhere near done.  That's why the President remains focused principally on growing the economy, helping the middle class.  And certainly raising the minimum wage is a way to do that. 

Q    Jay, since you brought it up, on the CBO, it’s been remarkable cherry-picking of the results of the conclusions of that report by both sides.  How can it be that those economists can be right on one issue from your side, the raising people out of poverty, but so wrong on the job costs of that report?  And is there a danger in going after what is usually considered a fairly neutral arbiter of economic issues and budget issues?

MR. CARNEY:  Jim, we're not going after anyone.  As Jason Furman, the President’s chief economist, said yesterday, we respectfully disagree with that particular conclusion and point to the deep and wide body of academic research on this that supports our view.  But it’s not about -- obviously we have enormous respect for the CBO, and I think that’s reflected in the fact that we point to some of the other conclusions in that report.

It’s just demonstrated by history and, again, by the work of many experts in the field that there’s likely to have no negative impact in terms of job creation by raising the minimum wage, which spurs economic activity, lifts people out of poverty, and raises the wages for Americans across the country, including middle-class Americans.  But again, that’s a respectful disagreement on a particular finding in which the experts in the field have expressed a different view.

Q    But you must have felt that that report was damaging to your efforts to get support for raising the minimum wage.

MR. CARNEY:  Look, I think that Republicans who, against the overwhelming opinion of the American people, rally around that particular item in the report to suggest that we can’t give Americans a raise risk more damage to themselves and politically, as well as to the middle class economically, and to Americans economically. 

So I don’t think we view it that way.  Support for raising the minimum wage is broad and deep.  We’ve seen states take action, and we’re going to continue to press the Congress to take action.

Thank you.

10:19 A.M. EST