Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Delaware
12:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. We'll just do a quick announcement at the top here.
Investing in a 21st century American infrastructure is an important part of what the President believes we need to do in the long term for the benefit of our economy and the benefit of middle-class families in America. Modern and efficient infrastructure, whether moving goods to our harbors and ports, or connecting people to services, or gigabytes to our offices and homes, helps businesses expand, manufacturers export, investors bring jobs to our shores, and lowers prices for goods and services for American families.
So today, the President will announce a new executive action to create the Build America Investment Initiative, a government-wide initiative to increase infrastructure investment and economic growth. These steps build on the momentum the President has generated using his executive authority to invest in modernizing our infrastructure, including speeding up the permitting process for major infrastructure projects to create more jobs. These long-term benefits are crucial to the success of our economy and middle-class families, but they're also important for short-term investments in terms of creating jobs.
You'll hear more from the President on this today. But with that, because it's a short flight, I'll go to your questions.
Q: Do you have any information on this passenger airplane that was shot down in Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that we're aware of reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border. The President has been briefed on these reports. The President has directed his team to be in close touch with senior Ukrainian officials on this matter. But I'm not in a position at this point to confirm any of the details that are included in those reports. The President has asked to be updated over the course of the day.
Q: Do you have any idea -- do you know whether a plane was shot down, or how it was shot down, anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to confirm -- I know that there are a number of reports speculating about the possible cause, but I'm not in a position to confirm any details at this point.
Q: Can you confirm that there's a plane down?
MR. EARNEST: I can confirm that we've seen those reports, but I'm not in a position to confirm any details at this point.
Q: Has the President or any of the staff been in touch with U.S. allies, including Russia, about these reports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that earlier this morning the President did have a phone call with President Putin. The topic of that phone call was -- it was obviously to discuss the sanctions regime that the President and his team and European leaders announced yesterday.
Q: Who initiated that call?
MR. EARNEST: That call was placed at the request of Moscow. And it was an opportunity for the President to make clear once again the important principle that's at stake here. The United States is committed to ensuring that this international norm of countries respecting the territorial integrity of other countries is prioritized. And the President has made clear that the international community, the United States and our European allies are willing to take steps and impose economic costs on Russia if they decline to respect those basic norms.
And it's an opportunity for Russia to play a constructive role in deescalating this conflict. They could shut down the border and prevent the transfer of heavy weapons and materiel to separatists. They have not done that. President Putin himself could intervene with pro-Russian separatists and encourage them to abide by the ceasefire. He has not done that.
That is the reason that you've seen the international community take steps to impose additional costs and further isolate Russia, and additional steps are on the table if Russia doesn't change course.
Q: Do you know if this downed Malaysian plane was discussed on that call?
MR. EARNEST: The only readout I have so far is just of what I've conveyed to you in terms of their discussion about sanctions.
Q: But do you know whether that call happened before you guys were aware of the report of the plane?
MR. EARNEST: The precise time I'm not aware of. But I'll see if I can get you some more details.
Q: Do you know perhaps the tone of the call or what President Putin was conveying to President Obama?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you heard the President say before, his relationship with President Putin is very businesslike, that they do have a candid exchange of views when they have the opportunity to speak. That occurred again today.
Part of this conversation also included the President's view that these sanctions aren't imposed just for the sake of imposing sanctions. We would like to see the situation in Ukraine resolved in a way that allows the Ukrainian people to exercise some sovereignty over the direction of their country. Right now the provocative actions that we're seeing from Russia and pro-Russian separatists and efforts by Russia to support those pro-Russian separatists are preventing that from happening.
So there is, as we've said many times, an opportunity for the Russian -- for the Ukrainian people to determine what they would like the future of their country to look like, and that that means the opportunity to have strong relations with their neighbor Russia, while at the same time having a useful, productive relationship with the West. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. That was part of the conversation as well today.
Q: So you're saying that as of now the only topic that you know that was discussed on the call was the sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: I'm saying that the only aspect of the conversation that I'm in a position to read out is the discussion that they had about the sanctions regime that was imposed yesterday.
Q: And you're not in a position to read out any other calls about the plane with any other allies, any other foreign leaders?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point. The President has not placed any calls like that. I know that there have been U.S. officials that have already been in touch with Ukrainian officials and some of those conversations are at the specific direction of the President.
Q: Do you know who specifically briefed him on the plane?
MR. EARNEST: I don't.
Q: Somebody on the national security side, though?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know who spoke to the President first about the plane.
Q: You mentioned that some officials have made calls at the direction of the President. Can you tell us who made the calls and to whom they were made?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have those details in front of me either.
Q: Just a follow-up question on the sanctions, if I may. Yesterday Gazprombank was part of -- was one of the groups that was targeted. Why not Gazprom itself?
MR. EARNEST: There is a whole team at the Treasury Department that's been very focused on putting in place a sanctions regime that would maximize the impact on Russian businesses and the Russian economy while minimizing the impact on American businesses and the American economy. In terms of the specific tactical decisions that they made about the size and scope of the sanctions, I'd refer you to the Treasury Department.
As we've said a couple of times before, it doesn't make a lot of strategic sense to talk very candidly about what specific sanctions may be put in place, so I don't know how specific they'd be willing to get in terms of having that conversation. But it's evident from the reports that the sanctions regime that was announced yesterday has sent a pretty clear message to the Russians about the determination of the United States and our allies in Europe to impose further costs on Russia if they continue to destabilize the situation in Ukraine.
Q: Is it fair to say, though, Josh, that Gazprom itself was not targeted because it produces and provides so much gas to Europe?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to say that. Again, you'd have to -- in terms of the thinking behind the individual businesses that were named in the sanctions regime, I'd refer you to the Treasury Department.
Q: Josh, for planning, is there any possibility that the President would make a statement today on the situation in Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: At this point there's no plan to do that. But this obviously is a situation that just broke, and we'll keep you updated. If there are any changes to the schedule that are required based on today's events we'll obviously keep this group updated very closely.
Q: Can you update us on the administration's briefings with members of Congress as it relates to the Iran negotiations? Are you having any success selling lawmakers on the idea of a possible extension of those negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the administration believes strongly in the importance of consulting closely with Congress on this matter. I can tell you that every single day this week senior administration officials have been in touch with congressional members and staff about this matter.
Congress has played a constructive role in passing a sanctions regime against Iran that was -- that compelled them to the negotiating table. And around that negotiating table we've seen the Iranians engage in conversations that were constructive. The constructive nature of those conversations has been a surprise to some people who were initially skeptical at the outset. That skepticism was well founded, but we have had some conversations preliminarily in Vienna with the Iranians about what paths forward could look like, including the possibility of extending the agreement. That's also been the subject of numerous conversations between senior administration officials and members of Congress.
In terms of the reaction of those members of Congress, I'd refer you to them. But I'm not at this point prepared to suggest that there's been a path forward chosen yet, but the range of options is being considered by the administration and is included in the discussions with Congress.
Thanks, guys. Buckle up. We'll see you in a minute.
END 12:21 P.M. EDT
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/305565