Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:29 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. Welcome to your daily briefing. As you can see, I have with me a guest star, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is here. He will talk to you at the top about the report -- or analysis that many of you received earlier today on the critical need to invest in our infrastructure to help build the economy today and in the future, and in doing so create first-class jobs across the country.
As we normally do, I'd like it if you would hear what he has to say, address questions on his subject matters first, and then when that's done we'll let the Secretary go and I'll be here to take questions on other subjects.
With that, I give you Secretary Foxx.
SECRETARY FOXX: Thank you, Jay, and thank all of you. I'd like to be here celebrating all the work that's happening around our country to renew and reinvigorate our nation's transportation networks. Unfortunately, however, this may be the more dire moment the American transportation system has faced in decades. As soon as August, the Highway Trust Fund -- the account that pays for building and repairing our nation's roads -- will start bouncing checks. Unless Congress acts, up to 700,000 Americans will lose their jobs over the next year in road work, bridge-building, transit maintenance.
All of these types of projects may be delayed or shut down completely -- which means freight won't move, which means trade will slow, which means businesses won't hire. And, by the way, your morning commute will be longer because the roads you're driving on will crumble and no one will show up to fix them.
We're already starting to see it happen. In Nashville, Tennessee, four bridges carrying 130,000 vehicles a day -- they've reached the end of their useful life. And one of them has been shut down three times since last summer because concrete keeps crumbling onto the underpass, threatening cars below.
We have an infrastructure deficit in this country. We've been saying that for months now. And according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we need $3.6 trillion in investment -- that's an all-in number that includes things other than transportation. But we need $3.6 trillion of investment by the time our decade is through in order to raise it to an appropriate level. Now, that's an all-in number, as I said -- but the thing is our infrastructure deficit is only going to get worse without action.
We cannot meet the needs of a growing country and a growing economy by simply maintaining our current level of effort. We must do more. Over the next generation, this will become even more apparent because the country will demand more of its transportation system than it ever has. By 2050, this system will need to move up to 100 million new people, and 14 billion additional tons of freight -- almost twice what we currently do.
Even if Congress today funded our transportation system at recent levels, we'd still be on the same track; we'd still be on the track towards a slower, less safe nation where rush hour becomes rush all afternoon.
So what we need right now is to rally around a set of ideas that increase annual investment, speed up our permitting and review systems at every level of government, and ensure that future transportation projects do even more to grow jobs today and long into the future. That's why a little over a week ago the administration sent the GROW AMERICA Act to Capitol Hill. We did it to bring these ideas to the table. The GROW AMERICA Act will do more than just level off the Highway Trust Fund; it would substantially increase annual funding to help us relieve congestion, alleviate freight chokepoints, and create jobs right now and long into the future.
We believe there's a lot of room for agreement around the ideas in this bill: Growing our overall investment; setting the global pace for safety; strengthening our freight networks; streamlining the permitting process to gets projects done faster; giving communities of economic interest a bigger voice; and opening more opportunities for private capital to invest in America's infrastructure. These are elements of what a 21st century transportation system looks like.
And we remain optimistic. For more than a half century, broad, bipartisan majorities in Congress have consistently recognized that as America grows, so must our investment and transportation. And I believe we can do so again.
So I want to thank you very much, and I look forward to your questions.
MR. CARNEY: Nedra.
Q: But since you sent that bill to the Hill, have you seen any movement to indicate there might be some progress towards making that first one solvent?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, I'm encouraged by what we hear from the U.S. Senate. As you know, Senator Boxer and several members of the Senate committees are working on a proposal. I believe they've announced that that proposal become public today. And we've said all along there's got to be broad-based, bipartisan support, and it looks like they're working their way towards that.
But again, we believe our bill is one that's going to do dramatically important things for this country: increasing investment, making sure that our country is moving forward with projects at a faster clip, and ensuring that we're going to relieve some of these freight chokepoints that are going to become problems in the future.
Q: What about in the House? Are you having any encouraging conversations there, or is it –
SECRETARY FOXX: I have spent a lot of time and a lot of shoe leather on both ends of Capitol Hill, and what I can tell you is, is that people on both sides of the aisle want to see something get done. But we're going to have to work at it, and this is going to be a nine-inning game. It's not going to get solved in the first inning.
Q: Is there really enough time to rally around a long-term solution at this point, whether it's yours or Senator Boxer's or someone else's? Or are we really at the point where it's down to the crunch and there's going to be a need for some kind of stopgap just to get through the summer season?
SECRETARY FOXX: The reality is -- and I come from local government. I can tell you that what's happening in local communities and in states across this country is that the cumulative effect of short-term measures is starting to stave off the pipeline of projects that this country needs to move forward.
And so we urge Congress to take a very close look at our bill. We're also urging Congress to share their ideas, and we're looking forward to trying to get there. But we think this is something that needs to be tackled; it needs to be tackled so that there's certainty at the state and local levels, but there also needs to be substantial growth in our investment and infrastructure for us to move forward, as we need to, with so many more people and so many more goods that need to get someplace.
MR. CARNEY: Jessica, then Chuck.
Q: I wanted to ask you about crude oil carriage on trains, which is something -- I know you've just ordered an emergency order on that -- and the NTSB is working on recommendations. What do you think the best solution is to make that a safe process going forward?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, let's start with the fact that on the good side of the ledger, the country is moving towards becoming the largest energy producer in the world, which is a very substantial improvement over where we've been, and it's part of what the President has been working towards since he came into office.
At the same time, all of us recognize that as we grow our ability to excavate and create more energy, we have to make sure that we're leading the world in safely transporting that energy as well. And that is why you've seen USDOT take several steps, including the steps last week of putting out an emergency order requiring shippers to notify communities when Bakken oil is moving through those communities. We also issued a safety alert advising that Bakken oil not be transported on DOT-111 tank cars. We, on April 30th -- I know that because that's my birthday -- we sent a rule over here to OIRA; that's a comprehensive rule designed to address our movement of this material by rail comprehensively, dealing with speed and other issues, including new tank car standards.
So it's going to take a comprehensive approach. We're going to keep looking for ways to address this in advance of a rule coming out, but we're going to work as hard as we can, as fast as we can to get that rule done.
Q: Mr. Secretary -- and I think we've had this discussion before -- but how much is election-year politics stalling this in the House, do you think?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, you know, look, I think the reality is, as I said before, this is a problem that has been boiling for some time -- 27 short-term measures just over the last five years that are impacting communities every single day. I can't speak to the politics so much as what I can tell you is, is that when you talk to state DOT directors, you talk to mayors and governors around this country, there is a palpable level of concern not only about the short term, but, frankly, about the long term because the pipeline of projects is getting slowed by the indecision.
Q: The likelihood, though, that this is probably going to be a lame duck -- that you won't get really any movement on this until after the November elections?
SECRETARY FOXX: Our hope is, is that Congress will act as soon as possible, and we hope that happens before the Highway Trust Fund becomes insolvent. Beyond that, we continue to listen to Congress for clues as to when they want to take this up. But 27 short-term measures over five years -- we've got to stop doing that at some point, and that's why we put a bill out there, and that's why we're going to keep urging action on a long-term solution.
MR. CARNEY: Bill.
Q: What's the right combination of funding for the Highway Trust Fund if, for example, revenues are lower because of increased fuel efficiency?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, that's one of the reasons why we've introduced a different mechanism. We would continue, under our bill, to use existing gas taxes to fund about half of the bill. But the other half of it -- which is what it generates right now -- what we would also do is use pro-growth business tax reform to provide another $150 billion to support a $302 billion program over four years.
We think it's important, because by introducing a new pay-for we also introduce new innovations in transportation -- a dedicated freight program, for instance, that focuses on where freight moves and helps relieve chokepoints and gaps in our freight systems. We also think that we can do more to encourage states. Just like we want to improve the permitting time at the federal level, we need carrots to be able to help the states do the same thing, and that's what we're trying to do with this proposal. So with a new pay-for, we have new programs, and I think our solution is a good one and we hope Congress takes it seriously.
Q: So the business taxes would be on transportation of businesses?
SECRETARY FOXX: Actually, it actually could be broader than that. It could be taking some of the untaxed earnings that are overseas and plowing some of that into infrastructure. A fix like that would generate more than just what we're asking for, for transportation, but certainly it could fund $150 billion.
MR. CARNEY: Phil.
Q: Mr. Secretary, one new pay-for that's being tried in Oregon, Washington, and proposed in California is a tax per mile on vehicles -- getting rid of the gas tax, replacing it with a tax per mile. Is that something you're encouraging, proposing, part of?
SECRETARY FOXX: It is not in our bill. Our bill is paid for with pro-growth business tax reform and use of existing taxes. And that's what we think is the best solution for the moment.
Q: Do you support it?
SECRETARY FOXX: We support our bill, yes. (Laughter.)
Q: No, would you support -- I think you know what I meant. Do you support the tax-per-mile proposal?
SECRETARY FOXX: We support our bill. I know there are innovations and creative ideas that are out there at the state and local level, but given the enormity of this crisis and the growth that it requires us to put into the system, we think our solution is the best one.
MR. CARNEY: Justin.
Q: I know that you said that you support your guys' bill, which is valid -- the $75 billion a year -- but it seems like Senate Democrats are focusing on funding that would be about $50 billion a year closer to what's currently been funded with inflation. Would that be okay for you guys? Would you be all right with that? Or are you really kind of insisting on greater funding?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, I'd put it this way -- I just spent the better part of a week going to eight states, twelve cities, large and small, and I have to tell you that America has been waiting on a bigger solution. Whether I was in Louisville, Kentucky or Anniston, Alabama, or Tallulah, Louisiana, or Dallas, Texas -- all of these places in America are places that have long to-do lists, and our ability to support those to-do lists is being limited by the year.
And so in Washington there's a lot of discussion about trying to get back to where we've been. But out in America, folks are trying to move to the future, and that's what we're trying to urge.
Q: So you wouldn't support what Senator Boxer and some others are pushing for right now?
SECRETARY FOXX: What I want to do is be in a position of encouraging the discussion and debates and progress, because we've had such a run of short-term measures in the past that progress is important. But make no mistake -- America is hungry and starving for more infrastructure investment, and we have a responsibility to articulate that as an agency, because America is growing whether we're investing or not. We're going to have 100 million more people in this country, 14 billion tons of freight moving around this country. And that long commute that folks had this morning is going to get longer if we don't start doing something right now.
MR. CARNEY: Jim.
Q: Mr. Secretary, just to jump to a different subject -- back in March, the FAA says there was this incident where a drone came pretty close to striking a U.S. Airways commercial plane. Has the Department been looking at this as becoming a bigger problem? Is this something that you're looking at going down the road as an issue?
SECRETARY FOXX: Absolutely. By law, folks are supposed to notify air traffic control when they're within five miles of an airport facility, and that's a standing rule we have. But this is also pointing at why we went forward with UAS test site programs this year -- we have two of six up and running right now -- so that we can establish broader guidelines in the future to avoid these types of incidents from happening.
MR. CARNEY: Fred.
Q: Two questions. How do you feel about the possibility of more toll roads for federal? And also, some previous decade -- previous administration, a proliferation of earmarks -- what kind of reassurance can you give folks that a new broad transportation plan, no matter how well-needed, is not going to lead to various earmarks, politicize that maybe that the best projects don't need to be -- are being funded that don't need to be funded?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, on the first question, there's been a lot of interest in the toll issue, but it's actually not how we pay for our bill. The way we pay for our bill is the way I said we pay for it, which is pro-growth business tax reform. And we think that we have to have a multi-tiered approach going forward to tackle the larger infrastructure deficit the country faces.
So think about it this way: We would put a four-year, $302 billion proposal on the table. In addition to that, we would work with not only ourselves at the federal level, but states to try to accelerate permitting process and review so that more value could be captured for the dollar. We also would create more pathways for public-private partnerships in a variety of ways through TIFIA, through RRIF, some of our loan programs, to get more private capital invested in American infrastructure.
So within that context, the tolling piece, which is a smaller piece of our bill, but what it basically does is it enables a given governor -- if they decide they want to pursue tolling -- to apply to the federal government and to have a decision made based on whether they're using that toll revenue to improve the facility that they're using or to relieve congestion. And then at that point, if it's acceptable at USDOT, they would have more capability to do it. But it's not a free-for-all and it's not a way we pay for our bill.
Q: On the question of -- to reassure this doesn't turn into some sort of earmark bill down the road, to make sure the proper projects get funded.
SECRETARY FOXX: Yes, well, I would -- I think the issue here is that we've got to grow our investment first. The methods and means by which projects get done and delivered in most cases is going to be the usual way -- through the formula programs that we have existing. Our proposal would introduce some more competitive programs, but those would be merit-based competitive programs, not ones that are pork-based.
Q: You talked about pro-growth corporate tax reform generating $150 billion. Right now, the House just last week passed a $150 billion corporate tax cut; the Senate this week is picking up a tax-extender bill that would add $85 billion to the deficit. It seems like they're going in the opposite direction from where you want them to go, which is something that would generate new revenue. Is the administration going to demand that Congress deliver something that generates that new revenue for transportation, not add to the deficit?
SECRETARY FOXX: I'd point out that the very day that the framework that we have backing up our bill was announced back in February, the Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, introduced a proposal to use corporate tax reform -- using his words, "corporate tax reform" -- to pay for, in part, infrastructure investment.
And so this doesn't seem to be an area where there lacks bipartisan interest; this is an area where there is bipartisan interest. It's just that we have to play this out and work hard every day to make progress on it.
MR. CARNEY: Roger.
Q: Thank you. Do you have any idea if you lost 700,000 people because of lack of funding, to what extent might that affect GDP for the U.S. for this year?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, I'm sure it will be negative, not only for the jobs that we lose, but what we lose in the course of losing projects. One of the big reasons why we're having some of a resurgence of manufacturing activity in this country, more than we've seen in the last 15 years, is because one of the things we can claim is that we have a safe, reliable, efficient transportation system. And the more we put that at risk by not making the kind of investments we need to make as a country, the more challenged we're going to be long term, and we're going to lose opportunities to grow jobs in this country because of the indecision.
MR. CARNEY: All right, Chris, last one.
Q: Thank you. I'd like to ask something considerably off topic -- your earlier role as mayor of Charlotte. Tomorrow, the fourth circuit court of appeals is going to be hearing arguments in a case on same-sex marriage regarding the Virginia ban, which of course will have an impact on North Carolina because those two states are on the same circuit. You have never publicly expressed your views on this issue before. Do you now support same-sex marriage or think it should come to North Carolina?
SECRETARY FOXX: I support same-sex marriage.
Q: What makes you support it?
SECRETARY FOXX: Well, you know, look, who someone loves should never be an issue at work or anyplace else. And as a mayor, I was the first mayor to even go meet with the LGBT community. I was, unlike my predecessor, someone who went out and went to the annual human rights campaign dinner and signed a letter. I did a lot of things.
But this is a place where I think the country's attitudes are shifting, and I think North Carolina got it wrong. I hope they get it right.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY FOXX: Thank you. I appreciate it.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you all for waiting. As we say good bye to Secretary Foxx, thank him for coming here today, making a presentation and taking your questions, I can take questions on other subjects if you have any.
Q: Jay, two regions of eastern Ukraine have voted for sovereignty from the Kyiv government. Would the United States recognize the votes?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the so-called referenda to which you refer are illegal under Ukrainian law and a transparent attempt to create further division and disorder. And in addition, an international media documented episodes of carousel voting, of pre-marked ballots, of children voting, the announcement of results before ballots could be counted. So we do not recognize the results, and you have seen the European Union and other leaders say the same.
In addition, we're disappointed that the Russian government did not use its influence to forestall these referenda, according to President Putin's call on May 7 for them to be postponed. Instead, Russian state media sought to legitimize these so-called referenda over the weekend with repetitive coverage of these votes as if they were legitimate. And we've seen reports that Russian police even provided security for a polling station in Moscow.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian government is proceeding with plans to hold OSCE-led roundtables on constitutional reform and national unity, including with Ukrainians from the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. And we call on Russia to support this effort.
The focus of the international community, including Russia, should be on supporting the Ukraine government's efforts to hold a presidential election on May 25. But we note that the OSCE has reported that Ukraine is successfully implementing all the necessary procedures and requirements for free and fair elections, which will allow all Ukrainian people a voice in the future of their country.
As you've probably seen, recent independent polls have shown that a substantial majority of Ukrainians intend to vote on May 25. Any efforts to disrupt this democratic process will be seen clearly for what they are -- as attempts to deny the rights of Ukraine's citizens to express their political will freely.
Q: But would you acknowledge that these votes today aren't really a good sign, going into this May 25th election, that there's going to be an expression of national unity with that vote?
MR. CARNEY: I would say that the fact that Russia did not use its influence to forestall the referenda to follow up on what President Putin said when he announced that he believed these votes should not be held on the day that they were held is disappointing, and so has been the coverage in Russian state media of what happened over the weekend in Ukraine -- which suggests that there has not been a significant change in attitude by Russia towards the efforts by separatists in Ukraine to breed chaos and to prevent the effective carrying-out of national elections on May 25.
Our focus is on ensuring, with the international community and the Ukrainian government, that those elections are held and that they are free and fair, and that Ukrainians from every region of the country are able to express their free will through a legitimate balloting exercise and the selection of a new President. This is an important process, and that is the means by which Ukrainians can express their will. They can also do so through the OSCE-led roundtable that the Ukrainian government supports and has drawn up plans to proceed with. Another important indication of the seriousness of purpose of the Ukrainian government -- the significant restraint that the Ukrainian government has shown; the openness the Ukrainian government has shown to the concerns of ethnic Russians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east and south of Ukraine who seek perhaps greater autonomy from the center.
The process that the Ukrainian government supports is the legitimate way by which these concerns can be addressed. Holding illegal referenda, annexing countries by force -- annexing, rather, sections of a country by force, as Russia did in Crimea -- that's not the way to proceed. It's certainly not a way to proceed that's recognized under international law.
Q: There's a new video that's purporting to show the kidnapped Nigerian girls. Has the U.S. verified this video? And does it give any clues that could help find them?
MR. CARNEY: We have seen the video, Nedra, and we have no reason to question its authenticity. Our intelligence experts are combing over every detail of it for clues that might help in the ongoing efforts to secure the release of the girls. As you know, President Obama has directed his team to do everything it can to support the Nigerian government's efforts to find and free these girls.
I can report to you that our interdisciplinary team with representatives from the State Department, the Department of Defense, the FBI and others is up and running now at our embassy in Nigeria, helping to support the Nigerian government by providing military and law enforcement assistance as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support. And we continue to work closely with our international partners, including the UK and France, and to press for additional multilateral action through the U.N. Security Council via sanctions on Boko Haram.
Q: France announced today that it's going to go ahead with a contract to sell helicopter carriers to Russia. And I'm wondering what the White House reaction is to this sale and whether the White House feels this undercuts the Western message on sanctions and on Ukraine.
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a specific reaction to that report. What I can tell you is that we have worked very closely with our European partners and our G7 partners on a coordinated approach to escalating the costs to Russia for its approach to the challenges in Ukraine, for its transgressions of international law with the annexation -- the illegal annexation of Crimea, and for the efforts that Russia has engaged in that have helped to destabilize the situation in eastern and southern Ukraine.
You have seen the United States and our partners in Europe, and our partners on the G7 take significant actions to impose sanctions on individuals and entities. And that effort continues even today, I believe, if you saw the EU actions that were announced, and the EU's clear support for elections on May 25. You've also seen from our European allies comments that clearly support the position that the United States holds, which is that any attempt to disrupt those elections on May 25 in Ukraine will be met by more severe sanctions -- the imposition of more severe sanctions, and that that is something that our European partners support.
I think that you have seen, in the way that the President has approached this, an effort to make sure that we are coordinating with our partners so that the actions we take have a broad and significant impact on Russia, and Russian officials understand that the escalation of efforts to destabilize Ukraine will be met with an escalation in costs.
Q: And yet, it's obviously very difficult for partners as this sale makes clear. And I guess I'm wondering how confident is the White House that partners are going to be there if it comes time to ramp up the sanctions.
MR. CARNEY: I would simply point you to the statements of European leaders, including Chancellor Merkel and others, that underscore the broad support that exists in Europe for the position adopted by the United States, which is that we ought to work together in a coordinated fashion to impose higher costs on Russia if Russia takes actions that further destabilize the situation in Ukraine. You've seen that already. You've seen that coordination to this date. And I expect you'll see it, if it is necessary to impose further sanctions, if Russia continues to engage in activities that undermine stability in Ukraine, that in any way undermine the implementation of elections on May 25. And I think that there's ample evidence to support that position.
Q: Getting back to the U.S. team in Nigeria, I know last week you mentioned that they're well-versed when it comes to hostage situations and intelligence expertise. Just curious -- has that team's scope been broadened in any way since last week, in light of the First Lady's comments over the weekend and the social media push coming from the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think from the First Lady's speech over the weekend as well as -- or her address over the weekend as well as what the President has said, and everything that members of the administration have said, you understand that the President and the First Lady and others believe that we ought to be doing everything we can to assist the efforts of the Nigerian government to find and free these girls. And we are. The scope of that assistance has been outlined, and it includes military and law enforcement assistance, advisory assistance, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support. And we are actively engaging in that effort now.
I think it's important to note that when we talk about assisting in the effort to locate the girls, we are talking about helping the Nigerian government search an area that is roughly the size of New England. So this is no small task, but we are certainly bringing resources to bear in our effort to assist the government.
Q: And when you talk about surveillance and reconnaissance, what are we talking about in terms of assets?
MR. CARNEY: If you ask the Department of Defense, they can provide more detail about the assets that are being brought to bear. Each of the agencies -- State, DOD, FBI -- can give you more details about what assets are being brought to bear; which personnel were brought from outside Nigeria. There were obviously existing personnel at our embassy in Nigeria but some came from AFRICOM and some came from Washington.
And we can provide a little more detail on what the composition -- in fact, I can provide a little more detail on the composition because I asked for it and here it is. There are five State Department officials -- including a team leader, two strategic communications experts, a civilian security expert, and a regional medical support officer; ten Department of Defense planners and advisors who were already in Nigeria and have been redirected to provide support to the kidnapping response; seven additional DOD advisors from AFRICOM; four FBI officials with expertise in safe recovery, negotiations, and preventing future kidnappings. So they are digging in on the search and coordinating closely with the Nigerian government, and we obviously want to do whatever we can to assist that effort.
Q: And this sounds like a bit of a ramping-up of resources since what you described last week. Did something change in terms of you just didn't want to talk about exactly what you were doing last week? Or was there just maybe a recalculation as to how much should be provided?
MR. CARNEY: No, Jim, in fact, the offer of support was made, it was accepted. The idea of standing up this interdisciplinary team was presented and accepted, and that team is now in place. And it includes the ability to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. I'm not going to get into details of what that support looks like, but that was always envisioned as part of the broader effort.
Q: Folks may think that that means UAVs of some sort.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, but I'm not going to get into the details of how that support is supplied or what technology might be used, if any. But we have teams in place -- the individuals that I just listed -- who have expertise in these matters and can provide the advice and assistance to the Nigerian government that we offered and they have accepted.
Q: And not to belabor this, but when the First Lady made her comments in the weekly address on Saturday, was there a conversation that was had here in the White House about just how to ramp up attention, how to draw more attention to this? And was that why the decision was made to have the First Lady go out and make this presentation?
MR. CARNEY: As I think you saw from both the weekly address and communications via Twitter on this matter, she is deeply concerned -- as is the President -- about the fate of these girls and broadly concerned about what these girls represent in terms of the power and importance of making sure that girls around the world are educated.
The opposition to allowing girls to get the education that they deserve is opposition to progress, opposition to economic empowerment, opposition to health and security for millions and millions and millions of people around the world. And this is a profoundly important idea. And these girls are suffering specifically and individually, but they are also suffering on behalf of a broader proposition, which is that whether you're a girl or a boy, you should have all the rights to education that can be attained in the country in which you live. And I think that's a principle that obviously the President and First Lady support, and it's a principle that most Americans, I think -- I would daresay all Americans support.
Q: Jay, two questions. One, we're nearing I think the three-month mark on a vacancy in the ambassadorship to Russia. I know normally that's not a long period of time.
MR. CARNEY: I've taken myself out of the running. (Laughter.)
Q: I understand that. Normally, that's not a long period of time for a vacancy, but considering the current situation, how much closer is it? Because the leading candidate is currently the ambassador to Ukraine -- is that what's slowing things down?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't have any comment on short lists or candidates for any position that's currently in need of being filled except to say that a position like that is one that the teams in place to review personnel decisions act aggressively on, and that we will move on when the time is right and when everything is in place.
Q: Has it been a hindrance not to have an ambassador there?
MR. CARNEY: I think we have an excellent team at our embassy in Moscow, and I don't believe that that's been a hindrance. The fact of the matter is, because of the crisis in Ukraine we have had more high-level, direct conversations between U.S. and Russian government officials probably in a short period of time than has been had in a long time as a general matter. The President and President Putin have spoken frequently. Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry have met and spoken frequently.
Unfortunately, Russia has -- against the will of the international community, the United States, the European Union, the G7 and pretty much most of the world -- decided to engage in practices that violate flagrantly international law, that violate a sovereign nation's territorial integrity, and that seem to seek to destabilize the free and fair presidential elections that have been called for May 25 in that country. So I can tell you on this personnel matter that it will be acted on as soon as the President is ready to name someone.
Q: On the VA, when it was clear HHS was struggling to implement the health care law, the website, the White House decided to send in an emergency team, led by Jeff Zients, outside group from here. Anything under consideration to do the same thing at the VA, considering that the crisis appears to be arguably a lot worse, exponentially, than what was taking place at HHS of coming in and trying to send -- if you're not going to get rid of the current team, then sending in some sort of emergency group?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't have any personnel announcements to make on the VA except to say that the President takes the situation, as he has said, around the Phoenix office very seriously. And that's why he directed Secretary Shinseki to investigate, and Secretary Shinseki has invited the independent Veteran Affairs Inspector General, Office of Inspector General, to conduct a comprehensive review.
The President remains confident that Secretary Shinseki is focused on this matter, and he's confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the Department and to take appropriate action based on the IG's findings.
On the broader issues, I think it's important to note that this administration, with Secretary Shinseki's leadership, has aggressively addressed the challenge posed by the backlog at VA -- a backlog that was enhanced in its size in large part by the decision to have a predisposition towards acceptance for those who would have claims over Agent Orange exposure and claims over PTSD.
Q: How can you say that definitively about aggressively taking action when the issue in Phoenix and with another whistleblower actually has to do with lying about the backlog?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that the numbers broadly reflect an aggressive approach, and that includes --
Q: -- considering what happened in Phoenix it could be all of this --
MR. CARNEY: Well, you're talking about an individual matter that is under investigation, and we take it very seriously, as does Secretary Shinseki. And we look forward to a full review by the independent inspector general and for the results of that review. I would say that since the beginning of fiscal year 2014, 759,724 claims have been completed, which is 162,831 more than the number of claims completed this time last year, which shows an enhanced focus and dedication to providing our veterans with the service and care that they deserve.
Q: -- go back to that six-year problem. I mean, actually, it's been longer than that with the VA --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think, as Secretary Hagel and others noted, this is obviously a challenge that has been long in the making, and that's a broad issue that has --
Q: But are you thinking -- is there any taskforce back there about trying to come up and say, you know what, we got to get in --
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any personnel announcements, Chuck. What I can tell you is that we're very concerned about the reports. We look forward to the independent IG's review of it.
Q: So you'll wait until there's an IG before you guys decide whether to fix this yourself?
MR. CARNEY: I just don't have any -- well, no, I don't have any personnel announcements to make.
Q: To follow up on that -- do you think that the VA has done a good job in addressing this issue of backlog of claims overall? What grade would you give them?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jon, what I would say is the VA has aggressively addressed the challenge posed by the backlog -- a backlog that was put under considerably additional stress by the correct decision to recognize those with claims related to exposure to Agent Orange from the Vietnam War generation, and those with claims related to PTSD from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That put a lot more stress on the system but it was the right thing to do. And since the high-water mark, in terms of the backlog, especially those claims that had been waiting for more than a certain number of days, there has been substantial progress in the reduction of the size of the backlog.
I don't have all the data with me right now, but I can assure you, as the number I did just provide to you demonstrates, that this has been something that has gotten the attention of obviously Secretary Shinseki, but also the rest of the administration. And it's something that the President feels very strongly about.
Q: But just to get on Chuck's point, the issue in Arizona is that it seems that there was a cover-up to try to hide the true size of the backlog. Now, we don't know if that was something just limited to Arizona; if it happened elsewhere. But are you confident you can trust the statistics that you have; that in fact, VA has made, as you said, progress, a lot of progress in dealing with this backlog if at least in this one instance the suggestion is that the numbers may not be right?
MR. CARNEY: I can't prejudge, obviously, a review that's being undertaken with regard to a specific office and allegations around that office. What I can say is, yes, we are confident that there has been significant progress made in reducing the size of the backlog. And that has been a focus at the VA and of the entire administration -- because of the fundamental conviction reflected in the fact that the President has made sure that funding is increased for the VA throughout his time in office -- that we have a commitment to our veterans for the service they've provided our nation, and that includes especially our wounded veterans and our disabled veterans who need the care that they deserve.
Q: Okay. And then just two other quick ones. This issue of the memos outlining the legal case for targeting American citizens with drone strikes, the David Barron memo or memos -- do you have a response to the calls from Senator Rand Paul and others to make those memos public? I know you've offered to show them in a classified setting, but will you release those memos publicly?
MR. CARNEY: What I can --
Q: How many of them are there? I mean, I know some of them are --
MR. CARNEY: Sure. What I can tell you is a couple of things. First, on the Senator Paul op-ed in which he does call for the memos to be made available to senators, we have made the memo available -- the memo in question available to members before the vote.
Q: I think he wants it released publicly.
MR. CARNEY: He also called for the public release, and what I can tell you is that the Justice Department is reviewing the Second Circuit opinion on this matter, and I would refer you to them for how they're evaluating their options.
So there has been a court opinion on the specific question of public release of this memo, and the Justice Department is reviewing that, and that's something that I would refer you to them on. But it is the case -- and it's an important point to make -- that for all the senators who would vote on the judicial nominee, the memo has been made available for any of the 100 U.S. senators to review.
When it comes to the nominee himself, David Barron is an exceptionally qualified judicial nominee. He's a respected member of the Harvard Law School faculty, a former acting assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, and a former Supreme Court clerk. He will bring outstanding credentials, legal expertise and dedication to the rule of law to the federal bench.
The administration is working to ensure that any remaining questions members of the Senate have about Mr. Barron's legal work at the Department of Justice are addressed. As I think I mentioned last week, last year, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had access to the memo. And I would note that in his committee vote, Mr. Barron received unanimous democratic support. And we are confident he will be confirmed to the first circuit court of appeals, and that he will serve with distinction.
Q: How many memos are there? How many memos in which he was the principal author outlining that legal case?
MR. CARNEY: There was one memo in question that I have referred to and that has been made available to U.S. senators.
Q: Are there others?
MR. CARNEY: Are there other memos that he drafted? I don't know. Again, there is a memo in question that has been the subject of a Second Circuit decision and I know that that memo has been made available to all U.S. senators.
Q: Okay, and then just one more. The President, at the DCCC dinner, used this factoid -- since 2007, they -- meaning the Republicans -- have filibustered about 500 pieces of legislation that would help the middle class. Does he stand by that number?
MR. CARNEY: I didn't see the comments or the context. There's no question that there has been historic obstructionism by Republican-led Congress, in the House in particular, but I don't have the context for it.
Q: What's been the contribution so far of the U.S. team in Nigeria? Are they using -- for instance, are they using technology to help find these girls? Like, maybe drones?
MR. CARNEY: As I mentioned earlier, we have experts in a variety of areas, including investigations, including reconnaissance and surveillance. I don't have a catalog of the equipment they might be using or what the specific resources they're bringing to bear there. They are there to advise and assist the Nigerian government in an effort that the Nigerian government is leading to find and free those girls.
Q: So they're actively involved in the search?
MR. CARNEY: They are actively involved in working with the Nigerian government to provide the advice and the expertise that they can provide to assist in that effort. So in that sense, yes, they're actively involved.
Q: Jay, I wanted to ask you about Tim Geithner's book that came out today. One aspect of it is he kind of has this thrust in there that he did not feel comfortable reading some White House talking points about Wall Street bonuses because he felt there was nothing the administration could really do to get those bonuses to go -- get them back, and that he felt uncomfortable, thought it was politics being played. What do you say?
MR. CARNEY: I didn't see that. What I can tell you is that Secretary Geithner's book I think reflects the enormous challenges that this administration faced and the incredibly significant decisions that were made by the President and implemented by his team to prevent what was already the worst recession in our lifetimes from becoming a Great Depression. And I think the numbers reflect the success in that effort, including the trend lines that essentially were in place when President Obama took office when it came to job loss, when it came to contraction of the economy and the reversal of those numbers because of the decisions that President Obama made and that Secretary Geithner was elemental in advising him on and implementing on his behalf and on behalf of the American people. So President Obama is enormously grateful for the years of service that Secretary Geithner provided to the country.
Q: He also writes specifically about being prepped for Sunday shows one weekend and he says, "I objected when Dan Pfeiffer wanted me to say Social Security did not contribute to the deficit. It was not a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute." Why do you think a top White House aide would suggest to the Treasury Secretary that he say something --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'm pretty sure I was in that, and I think what Dan and others have said is what we say constantly publicly because it's a fact is that Social Security is not the main driver of our deficit. It is certainly not the driver of our near- and medium-term deficit challenges. And we have always taken an approach, which is to pursue Social Security on a separate track from some of the other entitlement programs that are contributing, principally through health care costs to our --
Q: But Secretary Geithner says he agrees with you, that it was not the main driver. What he is saying --
MR. CARNEY: And that, I am sure, is the point that Dan was making.
Q: Okay, but he says, "I objected when Dan Pfeiffer wanted me to say Social Security did not contribute to the deficit." Not that it's the main driver, but that it did not contribute at all.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I am very confident that as I and Dan and virtually everyone else has said, as well as economists have said repeatedly -- he said that the point was that Social Security, as a matter of fact, is not the main driver of our deficit. It is certainly not the main driver of our near- or medium-term deficits.
What you have seen, because of the policies implemented by this President, is the sharpest reduction in our deficits in more than 50 years. And we have done that even as we have enacted policies that have allowed the economy to grow, albeit not fast enough, and to create millions of jobs, although not as many as we would like.
And that's why we have to continue to be focused on expanding opportunity for the middle class and making the kind of investments that Secretary Foxx was talking about earlier today from this podium -- the kind of investments that have long enjoyed bipartisan support, that helped put people to work right away and helped create the kind of economic foundation that we need for further growth in the future. We look forward to working with Congress in order to enact those kinds of policies so that the recovery from the recession that we've seen since those dark days chronicled in Secretary Geithner's book continues and expands.
Q: If there are not 60 votes today to move forward in the Senate on the energy efficiency bill, how will the White House move forward with its agenda -- with regulation and executive actions?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President is committed, as you know and as he has said many times, to moving forward on an agenda that maximizes our energy security, that ensures that we are approaching our energy needs through an all-of-the-above approach, that we are taking the action that we can take to reduce carbon pollution. And he'll continue to do that. He's taken executive action and he looks forward to working with Congress where Congress is willing to work with him. But he will not rest even if Congress won't act.
Q: Can I follow up on Jon's question about the drones memo? Can you just clarify, what is it that the President wants the Justice Department to clarify? Because he was the consumer of the memo with the White House Counsel's Office and he has the power to declassify, so are you saying --
MR. CARNEY: It's a legal case, Alexis. It was a decision from a court. The Department of Justice is party to that case, is reviewing that decision and reviewing its options going forward. I don't have a preview or a prejudgment about what DOJ will decide.
Q: So just to clarify, would it be correct to say that the President, working with the Justice Department, is considering making -- would that be correct to say considering making --
MR. CARNEY: Well, that would not be what I said, so I can tell you and what I will say is that the Justice Department is reviewing its options in light of the decision by the Second Circuit.
Q: But it's a possibility?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, the Justice Department is reviewing its options, and I refer you to them for more details.
Q: Thanks, Jay. Back on the kidnapped girls -- how much discussion has there been inside the White House on whether or not the high-profile weighing in on this subject -- the First Lady's weekly address, the hashtag campaign featuring her and other prominent administration officials -- actually helps facilitate the release of the girls, as opposed to just highlighting an issue that the President and others find very important -- that is, women's rights, girls' rights, girls' education globally? In other words, is there a practical -- do you believe that applying this kind of international pressure on a kidnapping will help convince the kidnappers to act in a -- by releasing them?
MR. CARNEY: No, I wouldn't say that. I think that highlighting the situation there and the tragedy that the abduction of those girls represents helps focus attention on the matter and helps I think focus the attention of those who would want to assist in the finding and recovery of those girls.
What we believe we can do when it comes to actually locating them and releasing them, having them released, is provide a kind of assistance that we're providing to the Nigerian government and that I catalogued earlier. But we're not anything but realistic about the challenge here. It's extremely difficult, as I noted earlier. The area that the Nigerian government is looking for the girls in constitutes roughly the size of New England.
But we're going to do everything we can to assist that effort, and that includes the assistance that we've -- the specific personnel and advice and assistance we're providing, and it includes engaging as we have in an effort to raise awareness of this issue -- although, I think, it's fair to say that it has been getting a lot of attention separate and apart from the focus the President and the First Lady have put on it. And it should, because I think, as I noted earlier, this is a tragedy for these girls, for these families, but it also speaks to a broader issue when it comes to the rights of girls and women around the world and the essential value of education when it comes to the rights of girls and women, and the economic advancement of them, their families and their nations.
Q: Jay, still on the Nigerian -- the Boko Haram leader today said that those girls are not going to be freed until his detained members are. What's the White House reaction to that?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a specific reaction beyond noting how heinous this abduction is and noting that we are working with the Nigerian government by providing advice and assistance in the effort to find and recover those girls.
Q: -- telling the Nigerian government, in our view, you shouldn't negotiate with these guys, or you should negotiate with these guys?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a readout of conversations that I'm sure are taking place in great detail when it comes to the advice that we're providing and the assistance that we're providing. I can tell you that we believe the girls ought to be released and we are working with the Nigerian government to provide whatever assistance we can with that aim.
Q: The Syrian opposition leader is in town today and he's supposed to be meeting with the President. Can you tell us, number one, when that meeting is? And second, will the U.S. reconsider the request for weapons?
MR. CARNEY: In fact, the Syrian opposition leader is meeting with National Security Advisor Susan Rice this week, along with other National Security Council staff. I don't have any scheduling announcements for the President at this time, though I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that he might stop by and meet with President Jarba.
As a general matter, the U.S. is pleased to welcome the delegation of Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which arrived last week in Washington and is visiting through May 14, led by President Jarba. This is the coalition's first visit to the United States since being established in 2012. And, as I just noted, Susan Rice -- Ambassador Rice will meet with President Jarba this week, along with other NSC staff, as part of our commitment to empower the moderate Syrian opposition and bolster its efforts to assist those in need inside of Syria. The U.S. is taking additional measures to support the coalition, local communities inside Syria and members of the moderate armed opposition.
Last week, the State Department announced that we have made the determination that the coalition's representative offices in the U.S. are foreign missions under the Foreign Missions Act. We also announced we are working with Congress to provide more than $27 million in new, non-lethal assistance, bringing the total of non-lethal support we have committed and are providing to the Syrian opposition to nearly $287 million.
So, again, I can't rule out that the President will meet with President Jarba, but it's not on his schedule and the meeting that is scheduled is with Ambassador Rice.
Q: Is there any inclination to reconsider military assistance?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we provide a variety of assistance, and I'm not going to get into detail on every single type of our assistance. So I think -- I'm not sure of the question you're asking, the specificity that you're applying to it. We obviously provide a significant amount of assistance to the Syrian opposition. We also provide and are the leading provider of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.
Q: On Ukraine, does the White House believe that the government in Kyiv did everything that it could to convey a message of unity to the east and south? Or in the last several days, was there more that they could have done to head off recent events?
MR. CARNEY: We have commended the Ukrainian government for their restraint, for the approach that they have taken in general to the crisis and to the efforts to destabilize their nation that separatists and Russia have engaged in. And that includes their efforts to reach out through the establishment of OSCE-led roundtables for discussions about constitutional reform and regional autonomy that they seek to engage in with Ukrainians from the east and the south. I think that represents the approach that they've taken, the reasonable and restrained approach that they've taken as a general matter to some remarkable provocation. So we commend them for that.
Q: On Iran, the U.S. team is heading off to Vienna this week to begin the process of drafting up a possible nuclear deal with Iran. Does the President still put chances of a deal at around 50 percent, 50/50?
MR. CARNEY: I certainly don't have an update to what he said in the past about the prospects for reaching a deal. It is absolutely his view that we are doing the right thing by testing whether or not Iran is serious about reaching a deal through the P5-plus-1 process. And you're correct that the P5-plus-1, EU and Iran are meeting in Vienna this week at the political directors level, which comes after technical experts from the P5-plus-1 and Iran met in New York last week.
As has been the usual practice, the expert group meets regularly for technical discussions and then to prepare for subsequent discussions, and then to prepare for subsequent discussions at the political directors level. That's what's occurring now. The previous rounds were used to review all of the issues and to understand each other's positions. And the next step is to begin to see if a text can be drafted, and that is something that presents obvious challenges.
So we approach this as we have from the beginning, with the firm belief that resolving this issue through diplomacy is far preferable to the alternative, but also mindful of the fact that the success of any negotiation will come from concrete commitments and concrete actions fulfilling those commitments by Iran.
Q: Just on Ukraine, if the separatists of these areas that had referendums this week go ahead and thwart voting in the Ukrainian elections, would that be seen as satisfying that criteria that the President and Angela Merkel established that Russia could face sectoral sanctions if it disrupted the elections? In other words, does Russia's refusal to use its influence to allow the elections to take place equal disrupting the elections?
MR. CARNEY: Without sort of parsing all the different possibilities that are contained within your question, I will say that it is absolutely the case that if there are efforts to disrupt the elections and Russia is responsible for those efforts or responsible for failing to use its influence to prevent those efforts, that that will be viewed very dimly by the international community, by the United States and, as Chancellor Merkel said, by Germany and other members of the EU. And we have committed to escalating the cost to Russia if Russia engages in efforts to destabilize the May 25 elections.
Thanks very much.
END 2:36 P.M. EDT
Jay Carney, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/305403