Gaggle by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes aboard Air Force One en route Prague, 4/8/10
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Prague, Czech Republic
8:41 A.M. CEST
MR. GIBBS: Good morning. So we're just going to take you quickly through the day, answer a few questions. We have not a ton of time because they’ve got to do a meeting in here with the President in a little more than about 10 minutes.
Q We could just stay.
MR. GIBBS: He appreciates the offer to share his conference room.
Just have Ben walk you guys through what the President has on his schedule, what he’ll see. I will say this -- I'll send around a post that went up on the White House blog overnight from Brian McKeon, who is with the Office of the Vice President, but also works for the NSC. Brian was formerly the chief counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will be heading up our efforts to see the treaty ratified through the Senate. So there’s a blog posted that discusses a little bit about what’s in the treaty, what the use of terms like unilateral language means, and some particulars around that.
The treaty will be made publicly available later today. We will post that.
Q Is that something you send around, or how does that get posted?
MR. GIBBS: I assume it’s rather large, so we'll put it up
-- I believe they’re going to put it up on the Internet. And then starting later today members of our negotiating team will begin briefing on the specifics of the treaty to the Senate.
I've said this a few times in my briefings and I'll get you these exact years and votes, but if you look back at previous nuclear reduction treaties in the late ‘80s, the early ‘90s, and even as late at 2003, these are documents that enjoy vast bipartisan majorities -- votes in the ‘90s. We are hopeful that reducing the threat of nuclear weapons remains a priority for both parties.
So with that, let me have Ben walk you guys through a little bit of what you’ll see today.
MR. RHODES: Sure. And just to add to what Robert said, we'll have fact sheets on different parts of the treaty, different key areas of the treaty that we should be able to share with you. And then I'd just also add, too, that the consultations with the Senate have been ongoing, so we've been in consultation obviously throughout this process. And today we'll have a chance to brief on the full text of the treaty and the protocol.
So just to walk through the day, when we arrive we'll go to the Prague Castle, where there will be a welcome ceremony with President Klaus. Obviously we're being hosted by our very close friend and ally, the Czech Republic, and President Klaus will greet President Obama in a signing ceremony there.
Then the President will head right into his bilateral meeting with President Medvedev. This will be an opportunity of course to mark the conclusion of the START treaty, to discuss some issues related to that, but also to cover a broad agenda of issues between the United States and Russia on which we're cooperating.
The President will have a smaller bilateral meeting with President Medvedev and then an expanded bilateral meeting with --
(the President comes in.)
THE PRESIDENT: I was going to say, he’s doing a really good job. (Laughter.) I was impressed. It sounded like he knew what he was talking about. (Laughter.)
Q Do you want to take over, Mr. President? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: No, I'm good. (Laughter.)
MR. RHODES: So they’ll have a bilateral -- I think we'll have a spray at the top of that, but they’re obviously going to be making their statements later.
Then they’ll proceed to the signing ceremony, which is also at the Castle there. President Medvedev and President Obama will sign the treaty. Then they’ll both make statements and have a press conference. After the signing ceremony there’s a ceremonial lunch, and that is the United States, Russia and the Czech Republic will be at that lunch to mark the occasion.
Around this time, again --after the treaty is signed, I think that is when it will be released. And again, I expect it will be posted on the web, and we'll see about having paper copies available. And again, this is the treaty and the protocol. So this will be the first time that that text has been made fully available.
Then there’s a bit of a break and at that time we’ll I think have the opportunity to brief you more fully on the treaty with some of our negotiating team who will be there with us, as well as the bilateral meeting that the President had with President Medvedev. I think we're going to head back to the hotel and do the briefing there.
Then the final event of the day for the President is we are hosting a dinner for Central and Eastern European heads of state and heads of government. There will be 11 leaders there: Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and then of course, the Czech Republic, and both the Prime Minister and the President will be there from the Czech Republic.
The President wanted to take this opportunity since he was in Prague to have a dinner and multilateral discussion with these 11 close allies of the United States, to, again, discuss a range of issues on which we cooperate closely with them from the global economy to European security, to how we're cooperating around the world, in Afghanistan and other places. These are all, of course, NATO allies.
And that's it. At that dinner I think we'll have a pooled arrival and then the dinner itself will be a closed working dinner where they’ll have an opportunity to discuss a range of issues. I imagine we'll have some kind of a readout to the dinner as well for you guys.
So that's the day. And then the next morning, before we leave the President will have a bilateral meeting with the Czechs, with both the President and Prime Minister together, before we take off on Friday morning.
So that the schedule, and I'll take a couple of questions if anybody has any.
Q -- expects the bilateral meeting with Medvedev to focus heavily on Iran. How much progress do you expect the President to be able to make on that issue with the Russians?
MR. RHODES: Well, the Russians have been a close partner with us throughout the process of the P5-plus-1 negotiations. I think you’ve seen President Medvedev be in line with President Obama in both his statements and his approach in terms of providing Iranians with an opportunity to change course but also saying that there will have to be consequences if they don't.
The Russians are currently negotiating with us for a multilateral sanctions regime in New York, so currently we're in multilateral negotiations where we believe we'll have a sanctions resolution this spring. This will be an opportunity for them to discuss those negotiations and discuss recent developments as it relates to Iran, but again, those negotiations are now in a multilateral basis in New York. So while -- it’s an important opportunity for them to consult and I think to continue to discuss the progress of those negotiations.
And again, what we've said and what I think we’d underscore again today is that when the President took office relations with Russia were at a -- really at a post-Cold War low, and that in the pursuit of the START treaty I think says something about an important landmark in terms of arms control nuclear policy, but it also demonstrates that we believe we can work together with the Russians on issues of common interest. And that would of course include Iran. And we believe we’ve worked constructively with them on Iran. That would include Afghanistan. It would also include economic and trade issues that we’ll also be discussing as well.
So there will be a range of issues discussed, to include Iran. And we believe that, again, the Russians have been good partners throughout this process at the P5-plus-1.
Q What is issue number one? What’s issue number one? Is it Iran?
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, I think really issue number one is coming here to sign this treaty. I mean, President Medvedev and President Obama really worked personally together on this. I mean, a lot of you travel with us. I mean, they -- I think they met seven times bilaterally, both in Moscow but then on the margins of multiple summits. They spoke on the phone an additional seven times.
Q So is this eight?
MR. RHODES: This would be eight, yes. This should be their eighth meeting. So this is something that the two of them personally invested a lot of time and effort in. So I think it was important for them to mark that achievement.
The President, of course -- so there’s a discussion of the kind of completion of that treaty and look to the future cooperation on these issues.
President Medvedev is obviously coming to the nuclear security summit, and obviously President Obama just released an important document in the Nuclear Posture Review, which we’ve consulted with the Russians in. So there’s a range of nuclear non-proliferation and security issues I think they’ll discuss.
Iran is obviously one of those, because as you’ve heard us say many times, for the non-proliferation regime to work effectively those who break the rules and fail to live up to their obligations have to be held accountable. So I think Iran will be discussed in that context of a shared commitment that they have to non-proliferation and nuclear security.
So it’s an important issue. I think there will be also a broader range of issues discussed. Russia is cooperating in Afghanistan. The recent terrorist attacks in Russia, President Obama was able to express his condolences personally to President Medvedev by the phone. I'm sure that he’ll have an opportunity to do that again in person today. And then some issues related to economic growth and the G20 as well.
Q And on Iran, what’s your best-case scenario coming out of this meeting, going into the meeting next week with Hu Jintao?
MR. RHODES: I think these are important opportunities to discuss Iran bilaterally; to discuss Iran’s continued failure to live up to their obligations. But again, what I would underscore is that we’re into a period of intense negotiations in New York. The Chinese are a part of those negotiations, as you’ve seen recently reported. So a lot of those -- the details of that sanctions regime are being worked through in New York.
So this is an opportunity for the President to consult on a leader-to-leader basis with his Russian counterpart. He’ll have that opportunity with President Hu, and he also recently met with President Sarkozy. He talked to Prime Minister Brown on the phone. And I think we’ll also have an opportunity to talk to Chancellor Merkel. So I think he’ll be meeting with each of the leaders to discuss the progress that’s being made, but also the focal point of the negotiations right now is in New York, given the fact that all the P5-plus-1 is now at the table on this.
MR. GIBBS: I'd just underscore that -- because this goes to both the relationship that we have bilaterally with Russia but also the engagement that the President has undertaken over the course of 15 months, has brought us to the point where, as Ben just said, the P5-plus-1 is all actively at the table negotiating this, something that -- again, 15 months ago, the problem of Iran existed; what didn’t exist was an international framework in the P5-plus-1 to deal with it.
Through the President’s both engagement with these countries bilaterally, multilaterally, and by the offers that have been made to Iran that have been turned down, the world has been brought together at a point that it wasn’t at only a short time ago.
Q Well, I guess that’s the exact reason to ask these kinds of questions, is because you’ve got these intense negotiations, you’ve got all the parties at the table, so here the President is meeting with the two most important players in those negotiations in the span of, I don’t know, four days or five days, if I'm doing the math right. And so he’s got to want something out of that. It can’t just be, hey, there’s stuff happening in New York.
MR. RHODES: No, I think -- look, I think -- well, no, but the point of New York is that that’s where the details -- I mean, we’re in a period of --
Q But this is how you get to the end, is leaders come together and they figure out ways you can break through those talks, right?
Q I guess are you guys hoping that when the bilat ends today that President Medvedev says something specific to push --
MR. GIBBS: He’s there. We’re at that point. We’re no longer coming out of these meetings where people are looking for whether the Russians or whether the Chinese are at a point where --
MR. GIBBS: I understand, but -- and I don’t --
MR. RHODES: -- negotiate the specifics of a sanctions resolution.
MR. GIBBS: They’re not going to come out of here today and say, we’ve reached an agreement on -- because --
MR. RHODES: It’s a bilateral meeting, and --
Q But can they make any progress on Iran today? Are they hoping to?
MR. GIBBS: I think they’ll discuss it, but again, I don’t -- again, they’re at a point where what wasn’t possible many months ago now is. But again, I don’t expect any pronouncements today coming out of this meeting. I do think the meeting upcoming with the Chinese leader is important and demonstrates, again, the approach that we’ve taken to bring all our partners, including the Chinese, into these negotiations, and to have his important participation in the nuclear security summit, which, in many ways, builds off both the Nuclear Posture Review and the START treaty that we signed today, moving the agenda on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons forward.
MR. RHODES: I'd just add to that, I mean, echoing what Robert said, President Medvedev has been clear for a time -- we would come out of these meetings, and he’s been supportive of the need to move to sanctions if the Iranians continue to fail to live up to their obligations. So we believe the Russians are onboard with the sanctions effort.
I think that you’ve heard the President express the importance of getting this done. Of course, it’s an opportunity for them to discuss the importance of holding Iran accountable. But what I would also say, though, is that, just echoing what Robert said, these consultations further isolate the Iranians. I think the Nuclear Posture Review we released, which focused upon the Non-Proliferation Treaty as the central dividing line between those states that will have a negative security assurance and those states that don’t, further isolates the Iranians and sends a message to them that they will not find greater security through the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
So there’s a range of actions we’re taking, of course, ongoing unilateral sanctions that we have on the Iranians, whose enforcement we’ve tightened, and then of course these multilateral efforts at the United Nations, which, again, we believe should and will conclude this spring.
So I think there’s a whole range of ways in which the international community is working to isolate Iran. And I think that they’ll cover that broad range in their discussions. But of course the sanctions regime that is being negotiated will be a topic. But again, as Robert said, the Russians are already committed to the notion of holding Iran accountable through the multilateral sanctions regime, and that’s being worked hard in New York too.
So I'm not trying to downplay. I'm just -- we believe that they have --
Q So you’ve got everybody onboard with maybe -- with talking about sanctions. Then you’ve got the really hard process of what do they look like; what can everybody agree on they’ll say and they’ll do. And that’s the really difficult part that you’re in right now.
MR. GIBBS: Right, and quite frankly it will play out in many places. You know, Bill Burns and others actively engaged with their counterparts in the P5-plus-1; Ambassador Rice at the United Nations; as well as the President and his counterparts.
So these are discussions that are happening I would say simultaneous, but it will be 3:00 a.m. on the East Coast, so maybe that would be too cute by half.
We’ve got about one or two more minutes and then we’ve got to get the --
Q Has the President been briefed on the situation in Kyrgyzstan and will that be playing any part in the discussions with various leaders?
MR. RHODES: Yes, the President has been kept informed about the situation in Kyrgyzstan throughout the day -- the day and a half. And I do expect that that would come up, given the fact that both the United States and Russia have relations with Kyrgyzstan so I expect it will be a topic of discussion.
Q How much of a fight are you guys expecting in the Senate for the START treaty?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, I think when the agreement was announced -- and again, I said this, I don't want to pre-judge votes here, but obviously the very strong statement that Senator Lugar issued about moving this process through the Senate quickly, which I know is important to many, including President Obama -- as I said, this is an issue that President Obama got involved in as a senator through a partnership with Senator Lugar. Brian McKeon as I said, on the Vice President’s staff and working with the NSC, will head up our efforts to get this through the Senate.
And I would say again, this is an issue that, from Reagan to Clinton to Bush, has enjoyed bipartisanship. It’s why leaders like Secretary of State Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry put out supportive statements upon our conclusion a few weeks ago of this treaty.
So I think it’s the President's hope and expectation, one, that the Senate will ratify this treaty this year, and secondly, that what has always been a strong bipartisan issue will continue to be so. And I'll send around the votes. Again, the last three prominent nuclear reduction treaties that have gone through the Senate have passed with no less than 93 votes. So we’ll get an opportunity to see.
MR. RHODES: I’d just add one thing to that. Secretary Gates said this when the treaty rolled out, but we’ve consulted with the Senate throughout this. A couple of issues were of interest to a number of senators, included the missile defense and the stockpile management. The treaty places no constraints on the development of our missile defense in Europe. And similarly we’ve made significant investments in the stockpile that we’re very confident that we can actually strengthen the infrastructure of the stockpile and have a reliable nuclear deterrent with these reductions in deployed weapons and launchers.
So we’re confident that based upon our consultations with the Senate throughout this process that the final product of this treaty is very much in line with some of the issues that were expressed just by senators.
Q Do you think before the August recess --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know that I would set a timetable of before August.
All right. Thanks, guys.
9:03 A.M. CEST