Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base
3:17 P.M. MDT
MR. EARNEST: Before we start, I have some additional information about the rescue of the Thunderbird pilot whose aircraft crashed earlier this afternoon.
As you know, it is not uncommon for local military and law enforcement assets to be used in support of Secret Service operations during a presidential visit. This afternoon, after learning of the crash, a military helicopter that was operating in support of a Secret Service mission responded to the crash site just a few miles away from Peterson Air Force Base. This helicopter is part of a search-and-rescue unit that's based here in Colorado. The helicopter, in close coordination with the Air Force and the Secret Service, identified the site of the crash and landed to retrieve the pilot. The Secret Service agent onboard the helicopter is an EMT and was able to quickly evaluate the pilot's condition.
After rescuing the pilot, the helicopter returned to Peterson Air Force Base and landed their local first responders who were able to evaluate the pilot further. Fortunately, the pilot did not sustain serious injury. The helicopter, after delivering the pilot, took off and resumed its mission in support of the President's drive from the United States Air Force Academy back to Peterson Air Force Base.
This is a good illustration of the skill, professionalism and judgment that our men and women in the military and the Secret Service display every day. The President benefits from that service every day and is deeply appreciative of what our men and women in the military and the Secret Service do. Obviously we don't frequently have the opportunity to tell that story, and obviously today I'm pleased to have the opportunity to do so.
Many aspects of the crash are still under investigation, so there's not much more that I can say about it at this point. But I'm sure this is something that the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force will take a look at and they can answer additional questions you may have on it.
Q: Can you describe the conversation between the President and the pilot?
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned, the pilot fortunately did not sustain serious injury, so he was up, walking around, and the President had an opportunity to walk over and shake his hand. The pilot saluted the President and, as I mentioned in my statement earlier, the President was obviously pleased to have the opportunity to both express his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured. The President did thank him for his service to the country, and the President advised the pilot that this might be a good time for him to contact his wife and let her know that he's okay.
Q: Do you know the name of the pilot? And do you have any information about what led to the incident in the air and how he managed to survive it?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I don't know the name of the pilot. Obviously the Air Force has a standard operating procedure for publicizing information like that, so once that information can be released I'm sure the Air Force will release it.
I don't have any additional details about what conditions may have contributed to the crash of the aircraft. That obviously will be the subject of a careful investigation that will be conducted by the Air Force. So for additional information about that investigation I'd refer you to the Air Force.
Q: Did the pilot come to that hangar? Did the President ask to meet with him and that's why he was there? Or how did that come about?
MR. EARNEST: Once the pilot was rescued by the helicopter, they brought him to where local first responders were, and so that's why he was at that location. But that did happen to be the location where -- that would be along the route of the President's motorcade on the way to the airplane. So the pilot and the first responders were, in this instance, literally on the way to the plane. So the motorcade stopped and the President had an opportunity to visit briefly with the pilot but also to thank the first responders who reacted quickly to attend to him.
Q: You said the helicopter return to its job of overseeing the motorcade movement. But the pilot would have been rescued before the motorcade was underway, right?
MR. EARNEST: Just so you understand the timeline, the helicopter was at the Air Force Base because the President had not left from the Air Force Academy yet. So when they were informed of the crash they responded quickly, identified the crash location, were able to rescue the pilot, bring him back to the Air Force Base. Once they returned to the Air Force Base they were able to essentially allow first responders to do the work of evaluating the pilot. So he was offloaded from the helicopter, and the helicopter was able to take off and went back and fulfilled its mission related to the President's motorcade trip back to Peterson Air Force Base.
Q: Was it just one Secret Service person on the helicopter -- so it was just piloted by one person?
MR. EARNEST: It's my understanding that there was one Secret Service agent that was aboard the helicopter, and that Secret Service agent did happen to be an EMT. In order to ensure effective coordination and communication between the military and the Secret Service when there is a military helicopter that's conducting operations in support of a Secret Service mission, then it is not uncommon for Secret Service personnel to be on board the helicopter.
So this is a helicopter that is operated by military pilots because it's a military helicopter. But to ensure effective coordination and communication in support of a Secret Service mission, a Secret Service agent is aboard the helicopter. In this case, the Secret Service agent happened to be an EMT and was able to put those skills to work to evaluate the condition of the pilot.
Q: So it was a military helicopter that a Secret Service agent happened to be on.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. And again, the Secret Service agent was onboard the helicopter because the helicopter was operating in support of the Secret Service mission. And it is just a coincidence that the military helicopter that was operating in support of the Secret Service mission actually is typically part of a search-and-rescue unit. And so they obviously had skills that were put to relevant use here in terms of rescuing the pilot whose aircraft had crashed.
Q: This was a rescue unit of what branch of the military?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. I assume that it is an Air Force search-and-rescue unit, but I'll see if I can get that information for you.
Q: Is everybody good on the plane? The President said yesterday that he wanted to increase Social Security benefits for seniors. It seemed like the first time we had heard that from the President, although he's talked before in the past about bolstering it. So I'm wondering if you could put some more meat on the bones about what exactly the President is proposing there, if we're going to see an actual proposal, or just if this was him maybe misstating what he's said before about wanting to strengthen the system but not actually strengthening -- or improved benefits?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President -- let me start by saying that you obviously had the opportunity to see the President's speech in person and you understand that the President was talking about his commitment to ensuring that Americans all across the country get a fair shot and a fair shake. And part of that is ensuring that Americans across the country have access to a secure and dignified retirement.
Many Americans rely heavily on the benefits that they get from Social Security. These are obviously benefits they have -- from a system that they have paid into. And dating back to 2007, the President has discussed a variety of ways to strengthen Social Security both in terms of extending the solvency of the Social Security trust fund, but also potentially strengthening the assistance that it provides to Americans across the country.
Let me finish because this part is key, too. There were a lot of ideas that have been put forward about how exactly to do that. And one of the ideas that the President has previously mentioned is the idea that you can essentially ask wealthier Americans to pay more into the system. Right now, every American pays -- I think it's about the first $110,000 that they make every year, they pay a percentage of that income into the Social Security system. There have been a variety of proposals about raising that cap. Obviously if you make less than $110,000, then you don't have to pay -- you wouldn't have to pay an incremental increase because your income does not exceed that level. So this is essentially a way that you could ask wealthier Americans to pay more into the system.
Now, what the President discussed in 2007 is that he made a campaign promise that he would not raise taxes on individuals who make $200,000 a year or couples who make more than $250,000 a year. So one proposal that the President discussed in his first campaign for the presidency was potentially raising the cap above that $250,000 threshold. Again, that would be a way that wealthier Americans could pay more into the Social Security system. This would not add an additional burden to middle-class families, but it would enhance the resources that are available to strengthen the Social Security system either by extending solvency of the trust fund, or increasing benefits, or both.
And so the President essentially, yesterday, was indicating that proposals to increase the solvency of the Social Security trust fund, enhance benefits, and do so without adding a burden to the middle class is consistent with his vision of expanding economic opportunity for the middle class and ensuring everybody in America gets a fair shake by getting access to a secure and dignified retirement.
Q: But just to be clear, what was the proposal that the President has made in the past to increase benefits? I understand the things that you talked about to increase solvency, but that different than the benefits. So what is the proposal that the President has made that would have people taking more money out of the system?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President talked about in 2007 is that there are a variety of ways that we can consider strengthening retirement security for Americans across the country. I don't think the President has ever been in a position in which he ruled out increasing benefits that could be available to seniors.
Q: He did the opposite. He's advocated reducing benefits through chained CPI, and of course that was part of negotiations.
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate you raising that because that is not true. We discussed that as a policy proposal because that is something that Republicans advocated. That is something that Republicans wanted. And the President -- the whole notion of a grand bargain is that Republicans would get something that they want and Democrats, including the President, would get something that he wants. So that is something that Republicans put on the table, something that Republicans put on the table because it's something that they support. That is not something that the President ever supported; it's something that the President acknowledged that could be part of a grander bargain that would do a bunch of things, including strengthening Social Security and reducing the deficit.
So that's never been something that we've proposed or supported. It's something that we've indicated that would be acceptable as part of an acceptable grand bargain that Republicans advocated.
Q: I think my point is that you guys put that in a budget, admittedly as part of this grand bargain. You've never put in a budget how you would increase benefits to Americans. And so I think there's two parts of the question -- one, what would that benefit increase look like? Is this an actual proposal, or just a broader policy thing? And the other is, this is obviously been a huge touchstone in the Democratic presidential campaign. Bernie Sanders has hammered this issue time and again. And so I think a lot of his allies, a lot of progressives are seeing this as a fig leaf by the administration to say, okay, now we're supporting increasing Social Security benefits in an attempt to unify the party. So can you speak to that, and if that is not at all intended, or if that is sort of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just want to go back to this because this is important. And I know that this is something that back in 2011 and 2012 and 2013 that we discussed a lot, but it's important for everybody to understand who may not have been covering this issue as closely as you were back at that time that the reason the so-called chained CPI was included in our budget was not an indication that we supported that policy proposal. That has never been the position of the administration, and it's certainly never been the position of the President.
We did include it in our budget to illustrate what kind of impact that could have on our fiscal situation, but only as part of a broader so-called grand bargain, something that -- the reason it would be included in a grand bargain is because it's something that Republicans were asking for. That's the essence of a grand bargain. So that has never been our policy position.
Q: -- policy position?
MR. EARNEST: I'm having flashbacks of 2013. We made very clear that -- yes, that is traditionally what a budget is used for. But in the years that we included chained CPI in our budget we were very specific about the fact that this is not a proposal that we support, but rather we would include it in our budget to illustrate what a potential grand bargain could look like. And the essence of a grand bargain is that Republicans would get something that they want and Democrats would get something that we want.
The reason that a grand bargain did not succeed in being completed is Republicans never wanted to be in a position of actually considering what Democrats wanted. So it's very important for people to understand, the President does not support, has never supported this so-called chain CPI proposal. That is something that Republicans wanted, and the President indicated a willingness to try to find common ground with Republicans if he were to get something that he wanted, too, in a grand bargain. Unfortunately, Republicans were never willing to actually do that.
But to answer your question more directly, I would not at this point anticipate a more detailed white paper policy proposal from the administration. I think the point that the President is making -- which, again, is consistent with what he said back in 2007 -- is that if we want to find ways to expand economic opportunity for the middle class and make sure that everybody in America is getting a fair shake we need to look creatively for ways to ensure that people can have access to a secure and dignified retirement. And one way that you could do that would be to strengthen the Social Security system, potentially by extending the life of the trust fund, potentially increasing benefits, and doing that without adding an additional burden to seniors or to middle-class families.
And that's the point that the President was making. I recognize that there are other Democrats that have advocated for this position, too, and we obviously are pleased. I think this does go to something that the President was talking about in the town hall, which is that despite the longer-than-expected Democratic primary that, frankly, has been more competitive than many people expected, there has been remarkable unanimity of opinion around a core set of values. And there are significant stylistic differences between the two Democratic candidates, but when it comes to the core values that Democrats are fighting for, there's a lot of overlap among the proposals that have been floated by the two candidates and by the current Democratic President.
Q: Let's go to another one of those. Bernie Sanders today introduced a bill on Puerto Rico that obviously differs significantly from the package that was negotiated by the administration and House Democrats and House Republicans. I'm wondering what your guys' reaction to that bill is -- if you think it's helpful, or hurts your chances of getting the legislation that you support passed, and if you support Senator Sanders's legislation.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen Senator Sanders's proposal, so I don't anticipate at this point that we would comment on it. I'll just be clear about what we discussed earlier when I think you asked me about this a couple of weeks ago. There are certain aspects of the House bill that the administration does not support. And these are proposals that would allow some employers in Puerto Rico, for example, to pay younger workers below minimum wage. I think Republicans would have a tough time articulating how exactly that's going to improve the fiscal condition of the island of Puerto Rico. It seems mean-spirited to me.
But this is a compromise proposal, and the President is willing to go along with this compromise because he does believe that this House proposal does sufficiently give Puerto Rican authorities -- Puerto Rican officials the authorities that they need to restructure that debt. There are also built into the legislation proposals for holding Puerto Rican officials accountable for implementing needed reforms to address the long-term fiscal challenges that are facing Puerto Rico.
The President believes this is an important priority, because right now there are 3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico that are facing an increasingly dire situation because the government of Puerto Rico can't pay its bills. It's having an impact on the local education system. It's having an impact on the local health care system. And the President is hopeful that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will get together and pass this bill so that we can start to address some of those problems.
So the bill that's been put forward in the House is one that the administration supports, not because we believe it's perfect, not because we support every provision that's included, but because we do believe it would provide Puerto Rico the relief that's necessary to address their many problems.
Q: Josh, is the White House satisfied with the State Department's response to this missing aspect of this press briefing video, and specifically the fact that the State Department is not even investigating further to determine who was responsible for this and why they did it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don't know a whole lot about this particular situation. It's an unusual one, to say the least. It sounds like the State Department has concluded that somebody made a specific decision to edit the video. Now, first of all, that seems inconsistent with the whole purpose of a public briefing. Second, what does seem consistent with the spirit of a public briefing is a full, complete and accurate transcript, which I understand was released by the State Department and has been publicly available since the day of that briefing. I also understand that video footage that was not altered of the particular briefing has been available through the Department of Defense that regularly records those briefings.
I'm not really sure what that person thought that they were doing by editing the video, but it's not consistent with the goals of the briefing or consistent with the standard practice that is observed by other government agencies that hold regular briefings, including the White House.
Q: If somebody did that on your staff, would you want to find out who they were and fire them?
MR. EARNEST: I feel quite confident in saying that no one would make a decision like that about a briefing that I was involved in without telling me. I think we benefit from the fact that we have a somewhat smaller operation at the White House.
But, look, what the State Department has done is clarified exactly what procedures should be followed, and they expressed a lot of confidence that something like this would never happen again.
Q: This isn't some other part -- I mean, this is your government. This is President Obama's government. This is an executive agency. It would seem like -- I mean, it's not like somehow they're different or separate. They're part of your operation. I mean, in some ways you oversee them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, not really. I think what is true is that it is important for government agencies to be functioning consistent with the kinds of values that are articulated at the White House. And the clarification that the State Department has issued as it relates to their policy for issuing videos of public briefings is consistent with the policy that we've pursued at the White House.
Q: So, on that, your counterpart at the State Department has said the reason that they are not going to investigate this any further is that at the time that this happened there was no formal policy prohibiting this. So is there a formal policy at the White House that prohibits the editing of videos of your briefings? And if not, how are you confident that that won't happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm confident because I know that everyone that works on my staff at the White House understands that preserving the integrity of those kinds of transcripts and those videos is really important. So it's not uncommon, those of you who are close readers of transcripts that are issued by the White House, for clarifications and corrections to be issued. Those are always clearly marked. And that's an important principle.
Look, I'm not aware of any manual that is handed out to employees at the White House that governs these kinds of things, but I'm confident that everyone at the White House understands why it's important to preserve the integrity of these materials.
Look, I also understand -- I guess I would also make the point that I think a whole lot of people at the State Department understood the importance of preserving the integrity of these kinds of materials because the complete, accurate, and unedited transcript was issued on the same day of the briefing and has been available on their website from the beginning. The same is true of the video that was posted by the Department of Defense. So I feel quite confident in saying that this is a widely understood principle in public affairs operations across the federal government.
Q: Can you give us your reaction to Paul Ryan endorsing Donald Trump today, saying that he'll vote for him?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think I have a reaction to share, but thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Q: Does the President share Hillary Clinton's view that Donald Trump is unfit for office and shouldn't be able to have the nuclear codes? That was part of her argument today.
MR. EARNEST: Well, those are obviously the words that she included in her speech and represent her view. The President has had a number of opportunities to describe his view of the job and his concern about some of Mr. Trump's comments and what they say about how he would handle the important responsibilities of the presidency. But I'll let the President's words speak for themselves. Over the last few weeks, you've gotten plenty of them.
Q: -- in terms of the nuclear codes before. Is that consistent with --
MR. EARNEST: Can you say that one more time?
Q: You've used that analogy before in terms of somebody who has the nuclear codes.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's sort of the most vivid illustration of the substantial responsibilities that are invested in the presidency. And it's why the debate about who should succeed President Obama as the 45th President of the United States is an important one and one that is worth the time and attention of all of you and your news organizations, but also worth the time and attention of the American people who have to make a decision about what person and what kind of person is going to be entrusted with that substantial responsibility.
But, no, I don't think that is a reflection of a coordinated effort when it comes to language. I think that is just both Secretary Clinton and President Obama discussing, in vivid terms, the importance of this election.
Q: Was Donald Trump in mind when the President was delivering his speech today and talking about the responsibilities of American leadership?
MR. EARNEST: No, I feel confident in saying that he was not. The President was articulating the approach that he has taken to trying to advance U.S. interests around the world. And he used some examples of ordering military action to take terrorists who seek to do harm to the United States or our allies off the battlefield. He also described his approach to using diplomacy to try to advance our interests, particularly when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And his discussion of that approach I think reflected his own thinking after seven and a half years sitting in the Oval Office about how best to achieve America's goals around the world, particularly as it relates to maintaining our relationships with countries that are allies of the United States and with countries that aren't.
Q: Did you have a chance to look into the renewing of the Iran sanctions after 2016 at all?
MR. EARNEST: I thought I did. But why don't I give you something useful. I mean, what I can say -- well, I'll just give it a shot. We'll wing it. Look, there has been interest that members of Congress have articulated in this issue for quite some time. And we participate in those conversations, and we'll continue to do so, both with Democrats and Republicans.
Our focus, however, right now is on ensuring Iran's continued compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that verifiably commits Iran to not developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we continue to believe that we have the tools that are necessary to fulfill the terms of the agreement that we committed to, but also to hold Iran accountable, fulfilling their end of the bargain. And in order to effectively implement the Iran deal and to hold Iran accountable, and to coordinate with our allies and to fulfill our own responsibilities, we don't believe that additional legislation is required to do that. And that is what our focus has been on.
What you also have noticed is that the United States continues to have significant concerns about other aspects of Iran's behavior that do not involve their nuclear weapons program. And those are concerns that relate to Iran's support for terrorism, the Iran regime's propensity for violating human rights, and Iran's support for destabilizing activities in the Middle East, and Iran's continued insistence on menacing our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel.
The administration continues to consider and apply tough sanctions against Iran for that kind of behavior. And the administration continues to have significant authorities in that area, and we continue to use those significant authorities in coordination with the rest of the international community.
So we'll continue to engage in a conversation with Congress right now, but our focus has been on implementing the JCPOA -- and that's something that does not require any additional legislative activity. And we're also interested in using existing sanctions authority to hold Iran accountable for other activities that are of significant concern to the United States. And we'll continue to consult with Congress about that because we know that there are members of Congress in both parties that share our concerns about that behavior, and those conversations will continue.
Q: I think there is still an outstanding question, though -- even though, granting the point that you don't think you need additional legislation -- whether under the JCPOA, Congress could renew these sanctions without violating the deal. And we haven't really heard a definitive answer from the administration on that point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, I think what I can say is that we continue to be in close consultation with members of Congress about the most effective way to implement the JCPOA to achieve the desired result, which is continuing to verify that Iran is not able to develop or acquire a nuclear weapon. And that's what our focus continues to be on. There are some members of Congress that support that effort and there are some that don't. And our concern primarily has been about opponents of the deal using legislation to undermine it. And we've been explicit about our firm opposition to that kind of legislation.
You're asking a different question about whether or not there is legislation that can be consistent with implementing the deal. And that's something we'll continue to talk to Congress about.
Q: Josh, can I ask, one of the things that was a little unusual about the speech today was when the President gave a fairly sensitive list of people who have been killed and captured on his watch, some of whom are familiar to Americans and some of whom probably aren't. And I was curious why he made the decision to list those people by name.
MR. EARNEST: The President said that on a couple of other occasions. The President -- I recall a VFW speech where the President did that. I think what is true about many of those individuals that the President names is those were individuals who were taken off the battlefield because of the skill, professionalism and courage of members of the United States Air Force. Those were -- not all of those individuals, but some of those individuals were removed from the battlefield by military aircraft, manned or unmanned.
So speaking to Air Force cadets in front of a large Air Force audience, it seemed appropriate in this instance to describe situations in which the President had called upon members of the Air Force to take action that keeps us safe. But the President also I think went to some length to describe situations in which the threat of military force can be used to back meaningful and impactful diplomatic efforts, whether that's removing Syria's declared chemical weapons stockpile or reaching an Iran deal. That's how diplomacy and the world's most effective fighting force can go hand-in-hand to advance our interests.
And I think that's the point the President was trying to make. I mean, in the instances that the President laid out, diplomacy was not really a viable alternative.
Q: -- in part to concerns that he hasn't used force aggressively enough to defend the nation, or trying to make the point that he has?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was just trying to help people understand exactly what his approach has been. And his approach has included ordering robust military force to eliminate dangerous terrorists from being able to threaten the United States. But in other situations, the mere threat of military force backed by robust skilled and tenacious diplomacy has succeeded in advancing our interests and making America safer.
All right, thanks.
END 3:48 P.M. MDT
Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317924