Aboard Air Force One
En Route Joint Base Andrews
12:02 P.M. CDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I hope you enjoyed the day or two we spent in the Twin Cities. I know for some of you that was a homecoming. The President certainly enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time outside of Washington, D.C.
I might just add at the top that I think the last 24 hours have served as a rather apt illustration of the different approaches that are pursued by our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, you have a President who is bound and determined to do anything he can, either working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress or working around Republicans, to make progress on policies that would expand economic opportunity for the middle class.
On the other hand, you have Republicans in Congress who seem just as bound and determined to use every means at their disposal to try to stop the President from moving the country forward. And in effect, that seems to preserve some of the built-in advantages that benefit the wealthy and the well-connected. And I think you can anticipate that the President will be spending more time in the weeks ahead sort of demonstrating his determination to benefit middle-class families, and highlighting the starkly different approaches.
Q Josh, was this speech his kickoff for his role heading to the midterms?
MR. EARNEST: No. I would characterize this as yet another opportunity for the President to highlight the stark difference in approaches that I was talking about at the beginning.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about the situation in Ukraine. Russia is already threatening trade sanctions against Ukraine for signing a political and economic pact with the EU. If Russia follows through with that, would that constitute the kind of destabilizing actions that would prompt U.S. sectoral sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start with some comments that I do have on this. As you know, there were some conversations that took place between President Poroshenko and members of the U.N. -- I’m sorry, the European Council earlier today. The European Council and the United States will continue to seek immediate and positive stabilizing action from the Russian government. Comments from President Putin, like the ones that you cited, are meant to intimidate the Ukrainian government, and are simply unhelpful.
As the Council said, we expect that by Monday, June 30th, this coming Monday, that the following steps will be taken: First, that there’s an agreement on a verification mechanism monitored by the OSCE for the ceasefire and for the effective control of the border between Ukraine and Russia. Second, that there be a return to Ukrainian authorities of all three border checkpoints. Third, that the remaining OSCE observers who have been held hostage will be released along with all of the other hostages that have been taken. And fourth, that there would be the launch of substantial negotiations on the implementation of the peace plan that President Poroshenko put forward.
Let me also use this opportunity to reiterate our call for President Putin to move Russian combat forces away from the border, to cease support for separatists, and to urge separatists to abide by the ceasefire and disarm. Together, these actions would send a clear signal that Russia is interested in a diplomatic settlement resulting in stability in eastern Ukraine.
We’ve talked frequently about the potential that Russia has and that President Putin personally has to play a constructive role in de-escalating the conflict there. And these are some examples of the kinds of steps that we’d like to see by Monday to demonstrate his commitment to playing that constructive role. Threats of trade sanctions would be a pretty good example of the kinds of things that we would consider unhelpful.
The fact of the matter is, the kinds of agreements that Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova signed today are the kinds of agreements that should be decisions made solely by those sovereign governments. And the undue influence by outside actors is completely inappropriate.
Q You mentioned June 30th. What’s the significance of that deadline? Do sanctions follow the day after?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have demonstrated -- well, I guess I would say that we have signaled a clear willingness to act in concert with our partners and allies to further isolate Russia. There have already been some steps that have been taken that have isolated Russia from the international community as a result of the unhelpful actions of the Russians, and additional unhelpful actions would lead to additional economic costs that would have to be borne by Russia. That is an option that remains on the table.
Q June 30th is a pretty important day then.
MR. EARNEST: It is an important day in the context of seeing Russian action on the steps that I just outlined. I’m not prepared to draw a clear line between these steps and sanctions at this point, but suffice it to say that the threat of sanctions only looms larger, and economic costs would increase, if Russia fails to take these actions.
Q So all four of these actions are prerequisites in your mind?
MR. EARNEST: All four of these are very specific steps that we would like to see the Russians take in advance of Monday. And failing to take them only increases the likelihood that additional economic costs could be imposed.
Q Can you tell us about the meeting this afternoon on the VA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the President is planning to meet with the acting head of the Veterans Administration, Sloan Gibson, and Rob Nabors, who’s the Deputy Chief of Staff that the President sent over to the VA to look into so many of the problems that have been uncovered in recent weeks at the VA.
I don’t have a readout in advance of that meeting, but I know that we are working to try to provide you some information at the conclusion of that meeting about what they discussed.
Q What about the timing for naming a new Secretary of the VA? Is that going to be a topic of discussion? Is that imminent today, next week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update for you in terms of the timing. That remains a very high priority of this administration to install new leadership at the VA, to start putting in place some of the reforms that, frankly, were initiated by the previous VA Secretary, and have also been recommended by some of the other individuals who are looking at the problems at the VA. I know that the inspector general is working hard at this. You know that Mr. Nabors is also working hard to put together a report assessing some of the problems at the VA and maybe offering up some reforms.
So there’s some very important work that needs to get done at the VA, and that work will be enhanced when there is new permanent leadership at the VA. I don’t have an update for you in terms of timing, but that search remains a high priority.
Q After that guy at the Cleveland Clinic withdrew, did that kind of put you guys back to starting all over again in your search?
MR. EARNEST: No, it didn’t. It didn’t. We’ve had an ongoing process for some time, and we’ve made some progress in that process.
Q You’ve narrowed the choices?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve made a lot of progress, and it remains a high priority. But I’m not in a position to offer up any guidance in terms of timing at this point.
Q Josh, the President several times on this trip seemed be very critical of the news media. Why was he sort of stressing that message on this trip in particular? He seemed to also sort of be tying in the news media with the Republicans of just focusing on false scandals and the wrong storylines.
MR. EARNEST: That’s not how I interpreted his remarks. My interpretation is that so much of what -- that what Washington is focused on seems to be materially different than what people all across the country are focused on. I don’t see that as an indictment of the news media. I see that --
Q He said you won’t hear these things covered, you won’t see this on the nightly news; we had a conference the other day on working families, that wasn’t on the nightly news a lot. I mean, these are the things he was saying several times. At the fundraiser he said it as well. You don’t see it? I mean, the White House has said he doesn’t watch TV news, but yet he was very critical of the TV news. How does he know what they’re covering or what they’re not?
MR. EARNEST: To say that he’s not a regular viewer doesn’t mean he’s not aware of what’s on it. But look, I think what the President is trying to highlight is his commitment to focusing on those issues that are the subject of so many discussions around kitchen tables in middle-class homes all across the country. And those issues may not be as sexy or as intellectually captivating as some of the other things that are on the news more regularly, but it doesn’t mean that they’re less important to millions of families all across the country.
In fact, at least to this President, those kinds of discussions about balancing work and family obligations, and expanding economic opportunity, and better access to job training and a college education -- these are the kinds of bread-and-butter issues that, again, aren’t necessarily sexy issues, but they have been the primary motivation for this President’s agenda since he decided to enter the presidential race in early 2007.
And that’s not an indictment of any specific news organization, but it is an indictment I think of Republicans who are focused on different priorities. After all, they were ostensibly elected by their constituents to focus on the kinds of issues that will have the most direct impact on the lives of their constituents. All I can say is that’s what the President is focused on. And I think that what we have seen is a pretty apt comparison between a President who’s bound and determined to do everything he can to benefit middle-class families, and Republicans in Congress who are bound and determined to stop the President from making progress on behalf of middle-class families.
Q There have been general polls that say that, in the midterms, that Republicans are likely to pick up seats in the House and potentially win the Senate. If that’s true, then why does the President believe that maybe the public does actually believe in what this Republican message that he’s so critical about is actually translating better than his own message?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is that these sort of electoral polls are going to go up and they’re going to go down. I think what the President is interested in is having a broader national conversation about what we can do to make sure that Washington, D.C., remains responsive and in touch with the concerns that are expressed and experienced in the everyday lives of so many middle-class families.
That’s one of the benefits of holding up the story of Rebekah Erler, from Minnesota -- that so many of the controversies and political conflict that’s highlighted on the evening news isn’t just relevant in her life as much more basic elements of what are we going to do to make quality childcare less expensive; what are we going to do to make it a little easier for somebody to take off work if a child or a parent gets sick; what are we going to do to make sure that middle-class families have an opportunity to send their kids to college and save for retirement, and also have enough money set aside to take a modest vacation with their kids.
These are basic fundamental issues. And again, I understand why these issues are in the evening news every night. I understand why they’re not on the front page of an influential newspaper like The Washington Post.
Q Why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because, again, they’re not as sexy. Maybe they don’t make --
Q If you’re going to say something about the Post, the Post won a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism about poverty this year -- Eli Saslow. So I just want to point that out. Some of our best-read content.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I did not mean that as a criticism of the Post.
Q I know.
MR. EARNEST: I genuinely didn’t. It’s not an intentional jab to suggest that The Washington Post is an influential newspaper. It actually is.
Q I know, I appreciate that. You said it wasn’t on the front page.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not on the front page every day I think is the point that I’m making. It has been on the front page. And I remember Eli did some good work where he traveled to Kentucky and sat with people were signing up people who were benefitting from Obamacare.
Q And he wrote a book about the President’s letters that you got, if I recall.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. So there’s good work that’s done. But again, that’s not the -- again, those aren’t the blaring headlines on the front page of the Post. And I don’t mean that as a criticism of the people who are making those decisions. I just want to suggest that there is a difference -- that while the stories that are being covered and getting front-page attention are leading the network news are interesting, and in many cases very important to the future of this country. The conflict in Iraq in has been in the news and on the front page of The Washington Post a lot. That’s an important issue. But there are also important issues related to the day-to-day challenges experienced by middle-class families.
And I think what the President is saying is that even if they’re not on the front page of The Washington Post every day, they are at the top of his mind every day when he wakes up and goes to work in the Oval Office.
Q Josh, let’s talk about landmines and the announcement this morning that the U.S. will stop acquiring them. What is the current size of the U.S. stockpile of landmines? And are they currently being used anywhere in the world?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to detail the inventory of landmines that are in the U.S. stockpile. I can tell you that there was a commitment that was announced today that the United States will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel landmines in the future, including to replace existing stockpiles. And what that means is we were signaling our clear aspiration to eventually accede to the Ottawa Convention.
Now, that does raise the question in the minds of some defense experts about the defenses that are in place along the border between North Korea and South Korea. And let me just be clear that the announcement today in no way signals a reduction in our commitment or our ability to assist in the defense of our allies in South Korea. This is an issue that’s going to require some additional study. And eventually, we would like to find a way that we can, like I said, continue the robust defense that’s in place of our allies in South Korea while eventually acceding to the Ottawa Convention.
Q So is it those concerns about the situation on the Korean Peninsula that is keeping the U.S., despite this announcement, from immediately just starting to destroy our stockpile or at least committing not to use them?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I’m in a position to sort of give you a thorough analysis of all the reasons that we may not be ready to accede to that convention today. But I do think it is a notable adjustment of U.S. policy that we are now articulating our desire to be able to accede to the Ottawa Convention.
But again, we do that knowing that our commitment to protecting our allies in South Korea has in no way been diminished.
Q And on Syria, on the announcement of the President’s request for half a billion dollars to help train the rebels, does that signal that the situation in Iraq and in Syria has basically become one regional conflict?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are certainly regional elements to the violence and destabilizing activity that we’ve seen in that region. There’s no doubt about that.
I think what the announcement that you’ve seen represents a couple of things. The first is, there has been a -- there’s already been a wide range of efforts in place to support moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. We’ve talked about in the past that this includes a significant amount of humanitarian assistance that’s been provided to the opposition but also to countries in the region who are dealing with the consequences of the violence and instability that has racked that country. We’ve also seen the provision of a wide range of both military and non-military assistance to the Syrian opposition -- to moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, I should say.
So the second thing is that this is an announcement that additional vetting has been done that makes the U.S. government and the Obama administration in particular more comfortable with providing additional assistance to moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. And that’s an important next step.
Ultimately, though, one element of our policy hasn’t changed, which is that finally resolving the situation in Syria is going to require a diplomatic solution. And it’s no doubt that it’s a little disheartening that a diplomatic solution seems quite a ways off, but that continues to be, in our judgment, the only resolution to that ongoing conflict.
Q Is there an expectation for timing on how Congress will take up that request? And is it too little, too late already?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think so, primarily because I think that they are -- this may be, at the risk of sounding naïve and overly optimistic, an area where there could be some bipartisan common ground.
So, frankly, due at least in part to our travels to Minnesota, I haven’t seen all of the reaction from leaders from both parties on Capitol Hill to this request for additional funding for overseas contingency operations, but we’ll see. Hopefully, Congress will act pretty quickly.
I know that, at least rhetorically, there have been some influential Republican members of Congress who have indicated that this would be a good thing to do, but I would understand if they’d want to take a look at our proposal and consider it more carefully before eventually taking action. But hopefully, that can be done quickly, and action in the legislature can be done quickly as well.
Q Our reports have armed drones flying over Iraq, and then also Iranian drones doing surveillance. So any reaction or updates on the President’s thinking with what’s going on in Iraq? And then secondly, there’s reports that Khattalah is going to be back in the U.S. as soon as this weekend, so any updates on or briefings that he’s had on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first let me say that I think that we have acknowledged -- well, I know that we have acknowledged that we have increased the amount of intelligence-gathering and surveillance equipment in Iraq, including surveillance drones. This is part of our effort to try to get a better sense about what’s actually happening on the ground in Iraq as it relates to the strength of ISIL. So that’s something that we’ve previously talked about, and that is an effort that is ongoing. And we have acknowledged publicly that the increase in resources now allows us to have around-the-clock eyes on the situation in Iraq.
In terms of armed drones, I’d say two things about that. For operational details, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense. But the second thing is that the President has reiterated his commitment many times to making sure that we have the resources in place and the equipment in place to provide for the protection of U.S. personnel in Iraq. There have been other moves that have been announced by the Department of Defense to ensure that those resources and that equipment and those capabilities are at the ready. That included the movement of an aircraft carrier in the region and other Navy vessels to provide for the protection of U.S. personnel in Iraq. But in terms of individual operational changes in our posture, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
In terms of Abu Khattalah, I don’t have any updates in terms of the timing of his arrival in the United States to stand trial.
Q Week ahead?
MR. EARNEST: I do have a week ahead.
Q I have one before the week ahead.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q We haven’t seen Rebekah’s letter, although the President quoted from it extensively in his speech. Are we going to get to see that? If not, why?
MR. EARNEST: Only because the letter included some personal details about her family’s situation that I think she -- rather, pretty understandably didn’t want to share.
Q Could you just redact those? (Laughter.) You could.
MR. EARNEST: We probably could, but I think at this point we’ve shared as much of the letter that we’re going to share at this point.
Q And just one quick one. Martin Indyk’s resignation as the Mideast peace envoy -- I know his deputy has stepped up as an interim. Will the President replace -- announce a full-time permanent replacement for that position?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I’ll have to take that question. I actually would suggest that you check with my colleagues at the Department of State. They may have a better sense of that.
The President is certainly appreciative of all that Mr. Indyk has done in pursuit of trying to find a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He’s done really important work. He’s an expert in this area. He’s returning to the Brookings Institution, but we anticipate that he will continue to be involved in this administration’s efforts to try to resolve that situation.
We have complete confidence in his deputy who is going to take over. And this is a process in which the United States continues to be engaged.
The week ahead:
On Monday, the President will welcome back to the White House Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. The visit will highlight our close relationship with Chile and our strong partnership with the Bachelet administration on advancing peace and global security, social inclusion and free trade. The President looks forward to consulting with President Bachelet on U.N. Security Council matters, other multilateral and regional issues, and ongoing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as on expanding educational exchanges and deepening our collaboration in the areas of energy, science and technology. The Vice President will also participate. It sounds like a long meeting.
In the afternoon, the President will host a reception at the White House in recognition of LGBT Pride Month. The First Lady will also attend that reception.
On Tuesday, the President will hold a Cabinet meeting and attend a couple of other meetings at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President will host top economists for lunch to discuss ways to accelerate economic growth, expand opportunity, and improve the competitiveness of the American economy.
On Wednesday [Thursday], the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Friday, the President and First Lady will celebrate the Fourth of July by hosting military heroes and their families for an Independence Day celebration with a barbeque, a concert, and a view of fireworks on the South Lawn. Some White House staff and their families from across the administration will also attend this event for the concert and fireworks viewing. The event will be streamed live at whitehouse.gov/live.
Q Can I ask about the economists? This is the second recent lunch he’s having with economists. Is it the same group? And what did he learn from the first one, and what does he hope to learn from this one?
MR. EARNEST: It’s a different group of economists. And as you know, the President is always on the look for some outside-the-box ideas for ways that we can strengthen America’s economic competitiveness and expand economic opportunity for the middle class.
So again, I think the President is looking forward to what he would describe as a pretty open-ended discussion. He’s looking for people who are legitimate experts in this field to bring their ideas. And the President has put forward a lot of good ideas already. He’s going to continue to push those ideas, but he’s also not going to stop looking for new ideas, some outside-the-box ideas -- maybe even some ideas that might cause Republicans to drop their strident opposition to policies the President supports that could, again, move the country forward.
So the President is looking forward to the discussion. I wouldn’t expect any major announcements out of the lunch, but I can tell you that it’s an opportunity for the President to have the kind of conversation and to draw out the kinds of ideas that he thinks would be good for the country.
Q But there’s these two recent meetings. And I mean, I’ve been doing this for about a year or so, and I don’t recall him having lunch with economists before. Is there something about right now or the time that we’re in right now that would cause him to look for these fresh ideas, these out-of-the-box ideas?
MR. EARNEST: Well, two things about that. Like most Americans, the President has lunch every day -- and we don’t tell you about who has lunch with him. So that’s part of it. But the President has periodically over the course of his administration looked for opportunities to sit down with experts in a wide range of fields to talk to them about their ideas for the kinds of policies that would strengthen the country. And this is just the latest example. There is no one thing that has precipitated this series of meetings. But the President really enjoyed the discussion that he had with economists a couple of weeks ago, and he’s really looking forward to next week’s discussion as well.
12:30 P.M. CDT