Barack Obama photo

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest

July 12, 2016

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Dallas, Texas

11:29 A.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One, making our way to Dallas, Texas, where the President will speak to a memorial service that's been planned by the city of Dallas to honor the memory of those police officers who were killed last Thursday evening.

Onboard Air Force One today, the President is joined by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Texas Congressman Marc Veasey.

I don't have much of a preview of the President's remarks to offer. I can tell you that the President worked late into the night consulting Scripture to write the remarks. There is some material that the President's speechwriting team had prepared for him, but what you'll hear from him today largely reflects his own writing and writing that he did late into the night last night.

But with that, I'll do my best to answer your questions from here.

Q: I didn't hear you -- did you say he was staying up last night reading the Bible?

MR. EARNEST: The President worked late into the night last night consulting Scripture to write the remarks. He was able to draw on some material that his speechwriting team had prepared for him. But the remarks that the President will deliver tonight, or this afternoon, reflect his own thoughts that he put to paper last night.

Q: Do you know what he was reading in particular?

MR. EARNEST: Beyond consulting Scripture, I don't know what other material he drew upon for the remarks.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about Senator Cruz? Was he invited by the President? What does it say about the two political rivals traveling together at this time?

MR. EARNEST: Senator Cruz was invited by the White House to accompany the President on Air Force One as we travel to his home state for this memorial service. At the time that our country is feeling so divided, I think it is important that the country's leaders are coming together across party lines despite significant political differences to emphasize a shared desire to unify the country. I think that's reflected in the speaking program today.

President Obama will be preceded by remarks from Senator Cornyn and former President Bush. I think that is another indication that -- of something the President has been saying for some time. The President is not the only person who said this; Speaker Ryan said this quite eloquently at the end of last week, as well. Our country is not nearly as divided as it might seem. Our country is not nearly as divided as our political debates might seem. Our country is not nearly as divided as the dysfunction in Congress might make it appear. Our country is not nearly as divided as the rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail might lead some to conclude. And unfortunately, it requires moments of -- it's in moments of tragedy that this unity is revealed.

This is a phenomenon the President will note in his remarks.

Q: Is the President having a conversation with Senator Cruz on the plane? And if so, can you tell us what they're talking about?

MR. EARNEST: I don't have details of a private conversation to read out. But I'm confident that they will have a conversation on the flight.

Q: Was a similar invitation extended to Senator Cornyn to travel with the President?

MR. EARNEST: Yes, there were a number of Democratic and Republican members of Congress who were invited to travel with the President today. Each member of the congressional leadership had to make their own decisions about their travel arrangements. So Senator Cornyn was certainly among those invited. I don't think that his office intended it as a slight in any way for him to not join the President on the trip, and we certainly didn't interpret it that way.

Q: Josh, the President had a meeting -- or attended a meeting yesterday with law enforcement that you referred to in the briefing yesterday. Some participants said there was a discussion about whether or not his tone had been helpful with regard to police officers, and also that he had said if the shooter had lived, that he would have been charged with a hate crime. Can you comment on those two aspects of that meeting?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I can do is speak for the President. I'll allow the representatives of law enforcement who participated in the meeting to characterize their own views.

The President did have an opportunity to -- well, let me start by saying that the primary purpose of the meeting, in the mind of the Vice President and his team who organized the meeting, and the President who was eager to participate, was to hear from representatives of law enforcement. The President felt it was important to once again sit down with them and hear their perspective. There's been so much debate about the very difficult job that our police officers have to do, particularly over the last week. And the President wanted to hear directly from them their perspective on that debate.

So that was the point of the interaction. The President did have an opportunity to once again reaffirm his strong support for the outstanding work that is done by the vast majority of police officers in this country. The President has time and again made the point that acknowledging the reality of the persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system is not at all inconsistent with voicing emphatic, unwavering support for police officers who make significant sacrifices and do outstanding work in protecting the American people. The President made that very point in public comments he made to some of you just hours before the shooting in Dallas. And that is a point that the President did have an opportunity to reiterate in the context of yesterday's meeting.

As it relates to your question about hate crimes, I made a reference to this yesterday in the briefing, that based on what law enforcement officials in Dallas have told us about their interaction with the shooter and what they have learned thus far in the investigation, his actions were targeted at white police officers. His actions were motivated by racial hatred. The hate crime laws that we have on the books don't exist just to protect black people or minorities. They're there to protect all Americans. And given what we know about the racial motivation of the shooter, in the President's mind this fits the definition of a hate crime. Now, the shooter is dead, so obviously charges are not going to be pursued. But that's the way that is often described in a hypothetical. But this was an act of hate.

Q: Josh, can you give us a preview of tomorrow's meeting?

MR. EARNEST: You may have seen the President had an opportunity to talk about this a little over the weekend, and the President did update his Facebook page with a post last night with a description of what the President hopes tomorrow's discussion will be about. At the White House, the President will meet with individuals with a wide variety of perspectives on these issues. The President is interested in talking to civil rights activists, academics, leaders in law enforcement, community leaders, law enforcement officials, political leaders to talk about some of these questions that our country has been wrestling with. Those questions have bubbled to the surface in the last week or so.

But these are questions that our country has been grappling with for generations. Christi knows this sort for firsthand, based on her own history as a journalist, but these are issues that President Obama has been dealing with since his first years in public service back as a state senator. Senator Obama made a legislative priority of working with Democrats and Republicans, law enforcement leaders, and civil rights leaders to try to address significant problems related to racial profiling in the state of Illinois. And there was important progress that he was able to make legislatively to address some legitimate concerns that had been raised by people on both sides of the issue.

So the point is, these are issues that the President both has a track record of working on as a public servant. He also has an intellectual interest in these issues I think because even a dispassionate analysis of the situation would recognize that there are legitimate interests and legitimate concerns that are raised by people of good faith on both sides of this issue -- I guess I should say all side of the issue -- because I think even to reduce these questions down to two sides is to oversimplify them.

So I think the President is interested, however, not just in an important conversation at the White House tomorrow, but he's also interested in continuing to push that conversation in the direction of concrete actions and solutions. And that's hard. And even the most optimistic assessment of what could happen tomorrow doesn't leave anybody concluding that all the problems are going to be solved. But the President is hopeful that while the country is focused on this issue, that we can reprioritize and reenergize the search for common ground.

Q: Josh, when the President talks about the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, he draws criticism from people who think he's undercutting the law enforcement agencies and maybe even that he's helping to create an environment where there's hostility toward the police. And by the same token, when he goes to Dallas to speak at a memorial for slain police officers, he draws criticism that he's not going to Baton Rouge or to Falcon Heights. Can you talk about how you hear him thinking through that -- what is actually a dichotomy for him, or at least in terms of public response to it? Does he see it as something where he's trying to hit right in the middle, or is there some other way he's trying to approach that inevitable conflict?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, you're raising an important question. And this is a question that the President will confront quite directly in his remarks today in Dallas. So in a couple hours, he'll say it much more eloquently than I possibly could from here, but let me make one observation that I think does attempt to answer your question.

When the President was talking about this in Warsaw over the weekend, the President expressed a hope that people who are speaking publicly about this issue would do their best to resist the temptation to merely retreat into their partisan or ideological corners. And we've seen this practice far too often, where people who care passionately about this issue -- again, on all sides -- too often see people from a different perspective, not as fellow citizens, but rather as antagonists or opponents or, in some cases, even enemies.

That is a significant obstacle, if not the most significant obstacle, that prevents us from making more progress to resolve these questions. That's why it's the President's view that the work that needs to be done is not work that just needs to be done in communities across the country, it's work that needs to be done in the hearts of people across the country.

The President will say it much more eloquently than I did.

Q: Just a quick follow-up. You're a senior advisor to the President. You've been around this for a long time. Do you think he needs to go to Minnesota or Louisiana, or some other community that's grieving this in a different way, to continue this conversation?

MR. EARNEST: Well, since you asked about my own view, why don't I just give you my own view? My view is that, as President of the United States, what the President has to say -- and when we're talking about these issues, what this President has to say about them -- gets lots of attention. And the President's comments and thoughts and work on this issue will get significant scrutiny regardless of where he decides to go to say them.

For example, while we were over the Atlantic Ocean on the way to the NATO Summit last Thursday, the President updated his Facebook page with some comments about what had happened earlier that week in Minnesota and Louisiana. This was before the terrible shooting in Dallas, of course. Even in that setting, the President's observations about those situations got a lot of attention.

So I think what many people of good faith who are fair-minded, who are urging the President to travel to those places to shine a light on those situations, my observation would be the President has shined a light on those situations. The President has raised the fact of these persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system, even without traveling directly to those two communities.

Q: Josh, briefly on a different topic. There was a ruling today about the South China Sea. China sort of immediately disregarded it, or dismissed it. Is the United States concerned that China will not follow international law as a result of this ruling on the South China Sea?

MR. EARNEST: So, Jeff, the ruling from the tribunal numbers some 500 pages, so I cannot give you a definitive reaction to the ruling. Attorneys for the U.S. government are still reviewing the details.

Let me just say as a general matter, however, that based on the well-established process that's codified in the Law of the Sea Convention, this tribunal ruling is final and binding on both parties. Now, let me make clear, as I've said on numerous occasions: The United States is not a claimant to any land features in the South China Sea. Our interest lies in a desire for a peaceful resolution to disputes and competing claims in that region.

Again, the United States wants to preserve the freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in that region of the world. The South China Sea is a strategically important region of the world. It also is a route for billions of dollars in commerce. And it's important to the U.S. economy that that not -- that that flow of commerce not be significantly disrupted. That's why we have gone to great lengths to make clear that we're not a claimant, we're not taking sides in the claims, but we do strongly urge all parties with relevant claims -- many of which are competing -- to resolve their differences peacefully and through established processes like arbitration.

Q: But to put a finer point on it, does this mean China should stop its reclamation efforts in the South China Sea?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we certainly would encourage all parties to acknowledge the final and binding nature of this tribunal. We certainly would urge all parties not to use this as an opportunity to engage in escalatory or provocative actions.

So again, we don't have a claim here. The President earlier this year did work with the countries of ASEAN to express their support for the peaceful resolution of these issues and to prevent escalation or provocation or a further militarization of this situation, or this region of the world. But ultimately it's going to be up to the parties to resolve their differences. And there certainly is the potential that the ruling of a tribunal like this could aid in the resolution of these disputes in a way that doesn't further enflame the situation.

Q: Can I ask another foreign policy one on Poland? The government there has responded to some of the stuff that the President said about their constitutional court by saying that they didn't see the President's comments as in any way critical of their handling of that situation. Obviously the President used some guarded and diplomatic language to describe that, but would it be fair to say that he was critical of what's been going on in Poland with their constitutional court?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, President Obama did have an opportunity to speak both in private with President Duda and publicly to all of you about the situation in Poland. In both settings, the President was conscientious about respecting the sovereignty of the Polish government and the Polish people, and in both settings the President did take advantage of the opportunity to restate the shared values of all of our NATO allies, including Poland. And those values include an unshakeable commitment to the rule of law, to democracy, to a set of universal human rights that includes freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

The President talked about the obvious pride that the people of Poland have in advancing those shared values and enshrining them in their constitution. And the President did feel that it was appropriate in the context of the ongoing debate inside of Poland to talk about the shared commitment of NATO allies to those democratic principles.

Beyond that, I think the President's words that he shared in the news conference on this issue speak for themselves. And you're right to observe that the President's comments were purposeful, both in terms of the words that he chose and the fact that he made the decision to raise these issues publicly.

Q: One more on Dallas. Is today the first time that he's making -- the President is making an appearance like this, where the victims were exclusively police officers?

MR. EARNEST: There are other situations where the President has appeared and spoken at a memorial service where first responders were among the victims. I'm thinking of the situation in West, Texas, where there were first responders who responded to that situation. Obviously it's a much different situation.

I know there are other situations where the President has thanked first responders who were certainly in harm's way. But off the top of my head, I can't think of another situation in which one of the victims of a mass shooting was a law enforcement official. But if I'm wrong about that, that's only my inability to think clearly at this precise moment.

Look, let me just say -- and I made a reference to this yesterday -- I think in the President's mind, one of the things that deepens this tragedy and deepens the pain that is felt not just by the families of those who were lost but by the entire Dallas community is the fact that among the victims are individuals who volunteered for this duty. These are men who signed up to serve and protect their citizens. These were individuals who were prepared on Thursday night, as they had been every day that they reported for duty, to put their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens. And on Thursday night, they were protecting their fellow citizens who were exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. And surely the free speech that was being uttered by some of the people in that crowd were statements that these police officers didn't agree with. But that in no way lessened their commitment to their job and their duty to protect the rights of their fellow citizens.

And that situation does deepen this tragedy. There's no denying that.

Q: Josh, in his remarks on Thursday in Warsaw, the President suggested that these issues are broader than just the police. He talked about the police manning the barricades in communities that have been neglected, and the Dallas police chief kind of echoed that yesterday when he talked all the things the police are being asked to do. Is that something we can expect to hear the President talk about either today or maybe at the White House tomorrow?

MR. EARNEST: In terms of today, yes, you can expect to hear the President talk about that a little bit more. Scott, just as you're thinking about this issue, I'd remind you that the time that I heard the President speak in the most detail about this was in the aftermath of the conflicts that we saw in Baltimore. The President did a news conference in the Rose Garden -- you're nodding your head, so you remember what I'm talking about -- the President gave a rather long answer in illustrating this dynamic.

Q: (Inaudible) with Prime Minister Abe --

MR. EARNEST: Prime Minister Abe stood rather patiently in the Rose Garden as the President described this particular phenomenon in the United States, that there are communities in the country that don't get as much attention from policymakers that the President believes that they should to address some of the basic problems in these communities -- whether it's to confront a lack of access to health care, or a lack of access to economic opportunity, a lack of access to quality schools, a lack of access to healthy food. And the only thing that they do have access to is robust law enforcement.

And that's not -- first of all, that is entirely unfair to our men and women in law enforcement to thrust all these problems that are too difficult for us to solve. But it also is -- well, it should serve as a wakeup call to state, local and federal governments about the responsibility that they have to citizens in those communities that are plagued by persistent and deeply entrenched problems. We can't just expect police officers to solve it. And this is something that the President is quite passionate about.

I do understand that this came up in yesterday's meeting with law enforcement leaders as well. I would expect the President to touch on it in his remarks today, and I would expect it to be a subject of some discussion in the conversation that the President has tomorrow.

Q: Josh, can you just talk to the event that's going on tomorrow at the White House, which you touched on a little bit? Do you anticipate anything further this week happening with the White House? Any other engagement that the President has planned?

MR. EARNEST: Yes, but nothing I can discuss at this point. So stay tuned. We'll see if we can get you some more information before the end of the day today.

Q: So how do you anticipate that information being shared? You'll put something out? The President will mention it? Obviously it wouldn't be appropriate for him to mention it in his remarks.

MR. EARNEST: Well, it's not something that the President will mention in his remarks, but we'll make sure that we keep you in the loop on it.

Q: Josh, do you have any -- we never did a week ahead last week for obvious reasons. Do you have anything else for the President's schedule for the rest of the week that you --

MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates to the President's schedule at this point, but we'll see if we can get you some more information before the end of the day today.

END 12:00 P.M. EDT

Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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