Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes en route Rome, Italy, 3/26/2014
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Rome, Italy
7:43 P.M. CET
MR. CARNEY: Good evening, everyone. Thanks for joining us aboard Air Force One as we make our way from Brussels to Rome. I have with me today Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes. I think he’s probably going to handle most of the briefing, and I’m going to turn it over to him very quickly. If you have any questions on topics not related to foreign policy or the trip, why don’t you shoot now at the top. Also, when you’re done with that, in assist to Ben, I’ll do a readout of the U.S.-EU working lunch.
Q Can you say whether on the Secret Service incident over the weekend, whether the President was briefed on it or told about it? And any reaction to it?
MR. CARNEY: He was briefed, and I would refer you to the Secret Service in Washington on this, and say generally that the President believes, as he’s said in the past, that everybody representing the United States of America overseas needs to hold himself or herself to the highest standards. And he supports Director Pierson’s approach as sort of zero-tolerance approach on these matters. But beyond that, I don’t have any other way to characterize the President on this matter.
Q Does he feel satisfied that the reforms that were put into place after the incident --
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into this. I think as the President’s speech reflected, there are truly weighty matters in the news that we can talk about.
Q Speaker Boehner says that it’s a joke that you’re going to extend the enrollment time for Obamacare. Can you respond specifically to what CMS has announced? Does the President feel like he’s bending the rules?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll tell you what’s a joke. A joke was the indifference with which John Boehner, Congressman Boehner --Speaker Boehner, at the time, greeted the extension under George W. Bush of the Medicare Part D enrollment for certain populations, compared to the response he’s given today. The only thing that has changed is that those individuals who have begun the process of applying online by the deadline, which remains March 31st, will be able to ensure that they can complete the process. That’s what we did in December, and it worked effectively, and it’s very similar to what happens when you vote. If you’re in line before the polls close, you get to vote.
And I think -- I wish the Speaker were more focused on what would happen if his agenda of repeal ever became reality, which is that millions and millions of Americans, who are demonstrating in huge numbers -- I guess millions and millions is a huge number -- that they want to avail themselves of the products on healthcare.gov, would be out of luck and the insurance companies would be back in charge deciding whether they could get coverage, whether women could be charged double, whether folks with preexisting conditions could get coverage at all.
Q Very short follow-up to that. Does the President -- worried a couple of weeks ago that there would be a real jam at the end, a gridlock at the end, trying to get in, in those last hours. Has he been assured that the website is going to be able to handle traffic right up to the end of the 31st?
MR. CARNEY: The President receives regular updates on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including the website, healthcare.gov. And I think that we expect there to be increasing numbers as the deadline approaches. That’s true in situations like this when you have open enrollment periods in general. So we expect that to be the case. And we expect that fact probably be greeted with some form of criticism by those who want to deny Americans quality, affordable health insurance, and want to put insurance companies back in control. But we’ll take that as it comes.
Q Can we move to foreign policy?
Q This is sort of Russia’s sort of view. In the spirit
of those economic sanctions on Russia, one of the goals Ben has said and Jay has said is to drive down Russian equity indexes. On March 18th, you, Jay, recommended publicly that people short the indexes. And then we’ve had these sanctions. Since then, the Russian stock indexes are actually up since your short recommendation. Do you stand by the idea that Russia is not a good place to invest right now?
MR. CARNEY: I think that Russia has demonstrated with its actions in Ukraine, specifically in Crimea, that it is flouting international law and isolating itself. And as many others have said, that behavior and the consequences of it, including the sanctions imposed by the United States and our international partners, will have an impact on the Russian economy, will have an impact on the Russian markets and on the Russian currency. We’ve seen impacts already.
And it will most certainly have an impact on potential investors in Russia. International investors want to know that the places they’re investing are places where the rules of the road are followed, where the law is followed. And Russia’s actions I think would certainly make potential investors doubtful about that.
MR. RHODES: I’d just add that we’ve already seen, in addition to the market fall and the currency difficulties, indications of capital flight. We’ve already, in the addition of the market fall and the currency fall in Russia -- for instance, the World Bank significantly downgraded its forecast for the Russian economy going forward. We’ve seen indications of capital flight, of people not being prepared to invest in Russia.
So based on what we’ve already done, you’ve already seen that impact on the Russian economy. And as the President said in his speech, that’s going to continue, based on their current actions in Crimea, and it would escalate substantially if the Russians escalate the situation.
Q Can I ask you about the speech today? It seemed --
MR. CARNEY: Because I’m going to run and leave it to Ben, I just want to give a quick readout of the U.S.-EU lunch.
You heard the President and the two Presidents give statements after -- in the lunch. So there’s not much more to add. They discussed a range of issues, including general economic development in Europe and internationally; trade, including their joint commitment to moving forward on T-TIP; the issue of Ukraine, in particular around energy security, as the President discussed in his statement in answer to questions -- as others did, too; and then climate change and efforts that Europe and the United States are making in that area. That’s it.
MR. RHODES: Before we get to questions, let me just briefly do the Rasmussen readout as well. So, first of all, the President thanked Secretary General Rasmussen, who is approaching the end of his term, for his really great and effective leadership of the alliance. They briefly touched upon Afghanistan and NATO’s ongoing efforts as we transition to end our combat mission this year and prepare for the upcoming summit in Wales.
Clearly, the focus of the discussion was on Ukraine and the situation there and, importantly, how can we reassure our NATO allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe. You saw we’ve already taken certain steps with the Baltic overflights and the Polish aviation detachment that we’ve spoken to you about.
What he spoke to him about today is that going forward we will be increasing our rotations of ground and naval forces to NATO allies to complement those aviation deployments. The United States is prepared to join those commitments so that we have a continuous presence to reassure our allies in terms of ground, naval and air assets going forward. And there’s a NATO ministerial next week at which this will be discussed. Again, the U.S. will be making commitments to that effort. We expect other European partners to step up and join us in doing so, other NATO allies, of course. And so we’ll be putting together the elements of that package.
But the key point here is that we want to make sure that there is a continuous presence that draws on the different capabilities of NATO -- air, ground and naval -- to reassure our allies going forward that we’re also looking at our collective defense planning so that we are prepared for any contingency to meet our Article 5 obligations to our NATO allies.
Q What you just said, have you talked about that before?
MR. RHODES: We alluded to it in the factsheet. There were some questions, so I want to be clear that what we're talking about is we have the ability to do rotational deployments to our Eastern European allies. We've done aviation; we are planning to expand that to ground and naval as well. That will be put together over the course of the next several days with NATO as they get ready for a ministerial next week. But we are prepared to join that effort, we will be joining that effort, and people should expect those --
Q So it’s more stuff?
Q I mean, what does that practically mean on the ground?
MR. RHODES: Well, look, you’ve seen airplanes dispatched to Poland and the Baltics. You’ve seen personnel dispatched in support of that aviation mission. And I think you will see additional personnel and assets associated with ground and naval reassurance going forward.
Again, we will be putting together the specifics with NATO in part because this won't just be U.S. unilateral actions, these will be taken in concert with NATO. And that was a discussion they had today, and the decisions on that will be made over the course of the next several days leading into the ministerial.
Q Can you say whether you’ve decided on what countries they’re going to go to? Are they also -- is it Poland? Is it that same kind of complement of countries that the aviation --
MR. RHODES: I wouldn't give you -- I don't want to give a specific list because NATO will be putting this together. But clearly, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia have been a focus for us. But we're looking broadly across our NATO alliance and particularly our allies in the East. And our intent is to provide them with concrete reassurance and collective self-defense planning.
Q Can I ask you broadly -- the President seemed to make the case in the speech for a refocus on Europe by both the United States and other nations after a lot of talk that you guys had about focusing elsewhere. And so I guess I'm wondering, A, is that your intention to really reset or refocus or pivot -- or however you want to put it -- back to Europe? And if so, other than the thing that you just said, are there specific, concrete things that will flow out of that, that will undergird that so that it's not just rhetoric but that there’s actually a change in the way that America and the rest of the world deal with Europe?
MR. RHODES: There was a lot in there, so let me -- first of all, in terms of concrete steps that we're going to take, look, on the security side, this is an ongoing process of NATO reassurance and NATO planning. And so this will unfold over a period of weeks. And the point is that we want our Eastern European allies to be reassured, and that will be manifested in the way in which we cooperate, the exercises we do, and the types of deployments that we undertake.
We already have NATO, so this is -- we’re operating within an existing framework that exists in part for this purpose, to provide for Article 5 defense of the alliance.
In terms of other steps, concretely you're going to see a significant amount of economic assistance for Ukraine. The United States portion of that includes our $1 billion loan guarantee, which we're working to finalize with Congress. We've indicated additional technical assistance we can provide for the Ukrainians. There is a very large IMF package that is being finalized that I think will indicate the seriousness of our support for Ukraine and its economy. Other European countries have stepped up to make multibillion-dollar commitments to Ukraine if you add that up.
So the point is it will manifest itself in both the NATO reassurance and the investment in NATO’s collective defense, but also the support for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government. That's going to be the clearest indication in terms of backing up exactly what the President said today and being united with the people and government of Ukraine.
I'll just make two more points, though, Michael. One is, look, we have always been invested in Europe. They’ve been the cornerstone of everything we've done. If you look at what the President said at Brandenburg Gate, what he said in Westminster, we've always seen our European allies as the cornerstone of what we do in the world.
That doesn’t mean we're not going to focus in other regions. The President is going to Asia next month. He’s going to Asia twice this year. We're working on an ambitious trade agreement in Asia. We're very involved with our Japanese and Korean allies who we just met with in confronting the threat posed by North Korea. We're very involved in participating with Southeast Asian nations in efforts to defuse tensions associated with maritime disputes. So we’ve got a significant agenda in Asia that we’re going to continue to pursue that is not going to be impacted by what we’re doing in Europe.
But the other thing I’d say is part of what the President said today is it’s not just that the United States is focused on Europe, it’s that Europe needs to come together and meet this challenge with us in terms of what the Russians have done.
So it’s not just about what we are doing for Europe. It’s what Europe and the United States are doing together to confront Russian aggression, to be willing to move to the types of sanctions that have already had a cost and that could have a far greater cost on the Russians, and also to support the Ukrainian people and government.
Q So we’re supposed to think that there is or there isn’t a significant new focus by the United States on Europe in the weeks and months and years ahead?
MR. RHODES: There is a significant new focus on the fact that Russia just invaded Ukraine. So it’s not as if this is about the fact that we weren’t paying attention to Europe. This is about the fact that we now have a European country that has been invaded by Russia. So I think this focus will manifest itself above all on how do we stand together to combat aggression in Ukraine, how do we support the Ukrainian government, how do we reassure allies.
And, frankly, it’s an opportunity for the Europeans to step up to the plate with the type of support they’ve provided to the Ukrainians, the type of sanctions that they’ve already moved to and have indicated they could go to if Russia escalates, but also in terms of their commitments to NATO. And you heard the President say today now it’s an opportunity for NATO countries to step up, to invest more in the capabilities that NATO needs, to invest more resources in collective defense.
Q But, Ben, all of that said, this is the first time that the President has come to Brussels during his time in office. The Europeans feel a little neglected. Is that something that you felt the need to address today? Certainly, the President addressed it at the top of his remarks. Is there any tension? Or is that -- or “tension” may be the wrong word -- but any hurt feelings that you feel he needed to address? Or has that been swept aside because of Ukraine?
MR. RHODES: No, I think you’ve seen the unity of the United States and Europe on display. I mean, first of all, we planned to come to Brussels for some time, predating the crisis in Ukraine. I think over the last several days at the G7 and the President’s meetings with European leaders, and the comments that you’ve heard publicly from European leaders and in his speech today, what you saw is a reaffirmation of the importance of the transatlantic alliance.
And I would encourage you, if you go back and look at the President’s speech even at Brandenburg Gate, he said that too often we take it for granted, our alliance, the progress we’ve made. The President has always been very attuned to the fact that a successful Europe and a prosperous Europe is at the core of our strategy in the world and our own security and prosperity.
But, again, I think what this crisis in Ukraine has done has simply heightened the urgency. And what we believe is that you’ve seen the transatlantic alliance meet the test over the course of the last several days at the G7 in all the discussions he’s had and certainly in the meetings he had today with the EU and NATO.
Q Edward Snowden has come up often, not often in his talks. Are leaders bringing it up with him? Is he explaining anything about that? I guess, if you could just measure that for us in terms of the --
MR. RHODES: You know, I’d like to be completely candid. It has not come up frequently at all. I believe -- I’d have to check if it came up at all today. So I’m not aware of it being a significant topic of discussion.
The fact of the matter is when we were here several months ago it was a much greater topic of discussion. I think the combination of the fact that we’ve announced some reforms, we’ve briefed our European allies on those reforms, it addresses a process that will allow for us to grant more protections to European citizens and European heads of state in terms of how we conduct surveillance. And then, when you also factor in the fact that we’re dealing with Ukraine, it just hasn’t been the same level of topic that it was in the past.
Q Ben, just before we let you go, can you give us a little preview of the meeting with the Pope tomorrow and what the President is thinking going into that?
MR. RHODES: First of all, you always welcome the opportunity to meet with the Pope. But in particular, the President -- I think like many people around the world -- has been inspired by the first year that Pope Francis has had, by the way in which he has motivated people around the world by his message of inclusion, of equality, which has deep meaning for people both of the Catholic faith, but people of different faiths all over the world.
So I think it’s an opportunity for them to get to know each other personally, for the President to hear from the Pope about what he is trying to do around the world, and really for the President to express his appreciation for the Pope’s leadership on a range of challenges that he has highlighted in his first year.
8:03 P.M. CET