Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Fayetteville, North Carolina
1:50 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: All right. Happy Friday, everybody. TGIF. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to North Carolina, where the President will once again urge voters in that battleground state to support the candidate who's committed to building on the progress our country has made under President Obama's leadership.
Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued the final jobs report before the election, and it serves as a useful illustration of the progress that we've made as a country. About two weeks after President Obama's inauguration in 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a jobs report on February 6th, which, when compared to today's latest report, demonstrates that the U.S. economy is far better off than it was when President Obama entered office.
That jobs report from February 6th of 2009 indicated that in the previous month, the U.S. economy had shed 598,000 jobs. Later revisions indicated in January of 2009 that the total job loss number was actually 791,000 jobs. That stands in quite stark contrast to the 161,000 jobs that our economy added this past month.
In that jobs report in early February of 2009, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. It was increasing and peaked a little over a year later at 10 percent. The latest jobs report indicated that the unemployment rate ticked down once again to 4.9 percent, which, of course, is less than half of what it was at its peak.
In February of 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that the unemployment rate in the African American community was 12.7 percent. It was on its way up to a high of 16.8 percent a little over a year later. The current report indicates that the unemployment rate in African American communities is actually 8.6 percent, almost half of what it was at its peak.
That February 2009 report indicated that the unemployment rate in the Hispanic community was 10.1 percent, on its way up to a high of 13 percent. The latest jobs report indicates that the unemployment rate in the Hispanic community is less than half that -- now at 5.7 percent.
The last data point that I want to raise is just the increase in wages. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that wages increased four-tenths 1 percent last month. That's a significant increase. And over the last 12 months we've seen a 2.8 percent increase in wages.
Real wages over the course of this business cycle have grown at a faster rate than any other business cycle since the early 1970s. And that's an indication that on the closely watched metric of wages, increases are, well, accelerating. And that's a good thing for the U.S. economy.
Overall, these numbers underscore as clearly as any other piece of data the extreme risks of electing a President that would tear down the policies and roll back the priorities that has made this progress possible.
So with that long windup, let's go to your questions.
Q: Josh, can we start with the American servicemembers that were killed in Jordan? Do we know why those troops opened fire on the American servicemembers? And is the U.S. seeking some type of apology or clarification from Jordan's government?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, as you've seen from my colleagues at the Pentagon, three members of the United States armed forces were killed at a military base in Jordan earlier today. As the Commander-in-Chief, the President sends his condolences to the families of those who were killed. It underscores once again -- not just in the mind of the President, but in the mind of everybody who works at the White House -- the grave risks that our men and women in uniform assume to their own personal safety for the United States of America. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude.
Obviously, Josh, the United States is quite interested in getting to the bottom of what exactly occurred, and our expectation is that the government and military officials in Jordan will assist us in that investigation.
Those armed forces -- those servicemembers were in Jordan as part of an ongoing training mission. It does underscore the important relationship between the United States and Jordan and how effectively our two countries are able to coordinate when it comes to mitigating the security risks facing both our countries. The United States is committed to that relationship because we believe it enhances the national security of the United States. We'll certainly want to draw on the kind of cooperation that the U.S. has with Jordan to get to the bottom of what exactly happened.
Q: There have been reports of a threat from al Qaeda just ahead of the election. How seriously is the White House taking those threats? And sort of what are you doing to prepare for that kind of thing?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, I've seen those reports. I can't comment specifically on them. I don't have a new intelligence assessment to offer from here. What I can tell you is that the President and his national security team are vigilant about all threats that are facing the United States. The President is regularly updated on -- and by regularly, I mean updated every day -- on the risks that are facing the United States -- not just our broader national security, but also the risks that are facing the homeland. And the President's national security team adopts a posture of ensuring that we're adapting to the latest threat picture.
We're particularly mindful of the kinds of risks facing the United States around significant events. Sometimes it's holidays, like the holidays at the end of the year, or the Fourth of July. Sometimes that's around specific events of national significance. So we're certainly mindful of the potential of increased risks around a national event like Election Day. And even as we're mindful of those risks, the President's national security team and certainly our Homeland Security Department is taking the necessary steps to protect the American people and mitigate any changes to the threat picture.
Q: Josh, two aides for Chris Christie were convicted in the Bridgegate scandal. I'm wondering, does the White House have a reaction to that case? And has that had an impact on the transition planning that's going on with Chris Christie being the chair of the transition for the Trump campaign?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific reaction to the outcome. There obviously was an independent investigation conducted into those actions and some of the decisions that were made by those officials in the Christie administration. Given the fact that there's potential for an appeal here, I'm not going to weigh in in a lot of detail.
More generally, there has been no impact on the robust transition planning effort that's been underway. We have indicated a priority that President Obama has placed on ensuring a smooth transition to the next President regardless of who that person is. And our transition team has been able to work effectively with those individuals appointed by Mr. Trump to ensure that his team is able to effectively plan in the same way that Secretary Clinton's team has. And we expect that that planning will continue up to and through Election Day.
Q: Josh, there are multiple reports today about sort of dissension in the ranks at the FBI. A group of field officers in New York who are openly anti-Hillary Clinton and pro-Trump, and part of the leaks that we're seeing are from FBI officers who are against Hillary Clinton. Is the President concerned that the FBI is becoming a partisan organization?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is obviously a question that's been in the news quite a bit over the last week. And I think what I can say is, as I've been saying over the course of most of the week, there's not a particular leak that I will comment on.
But what I will do is give voice to the kinds of traditions and guidelines and norms that have long guided the behavior and decisions made by officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI. Our democracy places a premium on separating out criminal investigations, law enforcement, from politics. That makes our democracy stronger. It inspires greater confidence in our criminal justice system by the public. And it has served our democracy well when investigators and law enforcement officials have observed those norms. And the President had an opportunity to speak about that this week as well.
What's also true is that the Department of Justice and the FBI are instrumental in protecting the United States of America. We know that there are FBI and Department of Justice investigations that have disrupted plots to carry out acts of violence here in the United States. We know that the Department of Justice and the FBI work effectively together to fight crime. And we know that the Department of Justice and the FBI work effectively together to protect the liberties and civil rights of the American people. The President believes that work is critically important. He certainly doesn't want to see anything that would undermine that important mission. And the President has confidence that the vast majority of the men and women in the Department of Justice and the FBI, including at the highest levels, are acting consistent with their responsibilities and doing the right thing to keep the country safe, to fight crime, and to protect our freedom.
Q: You said he spoke to someone from the FBI?
MR. EARNEST: I said the President spoke to these norms and values in an interview earlier this week.
MR. EARNEST: It's okay. Thank you for clarifying.
Q: So is he concerned about partisanship in the ranks or at the top of the FBI?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I just can't speak to these individual reports. But I'll just say that, in general, the President believes that the longstanding guidelines and traditions and norms that prevent politics from intruding on law enforcement decisions are important to observe. And our country has been well-served by the longstanding commitment to those values and norms. And, frankly, it enhances the ability of law enforcement officials and lawyers at the Department of Justice to maintain the confidence of the American people, even as they carry out the important work to enforce the law, protect the homeland, and protect the freedoms and liberties of the American people.
Q: But Josh, there seems to be some disagreement about whether the President's comments in that interview you mentioned should be construed as criticism of Comey, given that he laid out some norms and traditions that he believes in that are in direct contrast to what has exactly happened from Comey. So is the President comfortable with the fact that his comments are being broadly perceived as a criticism of FBI Director Comey?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think the President tried to be as clear as he can in talking about a complex situation. The President noted in that interview that he was not going to talk about any of the particulars of the current situation. But the President did go into some detail in talking about why these norms and guidelines that limit public discussion of criminal investigations are so important. And the President believes that those norms and guidelines are really important and are worth upholding.
Q: Why won't you speak to the reports that Kristen asked you about? Everyone is seeing them. They're shaping people's perceptions of the FBI and the Justice Department. So why wouldn't you say anything about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess for a couple of reasons. The first is that I certainly can't speak in a lot of -- based on my own personal knowledge of the situation there, there's been no investigation that's been conducted by the White House into the activities of FBI agents in any field office, let alone in New York. So I don't have any sort of independent knowledge of what exactly has happened there or what kinds of things are prompting these reports. I'm not calling these reports into question, I'm just suggesting that I don't have my own independent knowledge or independent basis for commenting on them.
The second is, I'm also wary of the kind of institutional responsibilities that apply to the White House as well; that in the same way that it's important for law enforcement officials to protect their own -- to prevent their own political views from interfering with their ability to do their job, officials who work at the White House also have a responsibility of avoiding even the appearance of interfering with the ability of law enforcement officials to do their job. And so I'm sensitive to the fact about how any comments on this specific matter could be construed because these are comments from the person who speaks frequently for the President of the United States.
What I do feel confident in talking to you about are the President's deep feelings about the priority that we should all place, and that all law enforcement officials should place, on these kinds of longstanding guidelines that limit the public discussion of criminal investigations.
Q: So you said you don't have any knowledge. Do you think this is -- does the President think this is something that should be looked into?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there certainly are mechanisms in place for however a review like that to happen. There's a reason that there is an inspector general. There's a reason that the Congress has oversight responsibilities over the entire executive branch. But ultimately, those two entities that I've cited don't answer to the President of the United States.
Q: Just on the election, what does the President think about the lagging turnout in early voting among African American voters?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is watching the situation carefully, and I think the President has delivered a quite -- a series of impassioned speeches encouraging people to participate in our democracy and to try to mobilize support for the candidate that is vowing to build on the progress that our country has made under President Obama's leadership. And the President is warning against complacency, and he certainly wants people to understand the stakes in this election. And he's confident that if people do understand the stakes in this election and take seriously the responsibility that they have as citizens to shape the future of the country, that people will be mobilized and will participate.
But look, the reports differ in states all across the country. I think the President's view would be the country would be better off if more people in every state are participating and casting a vote regardless of who they're voting for.
Q: You talked about the extreme risks that would be posed by a Trump presidency to the job numbers. Donald Trump was endorsed by the KKK newspaper this week. It happened just this morning at a rally, people screaming, "Execute her!" -- talking about Hillary Clinton. Yet we're going into the final weekend with this race looking very, very close.
What does the President think this says about the country that if Trump wins, or even if he doesn't win, that there is close to a majority of the country who is supporting this kind of candidacy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think, first of all, we'll know on Tuesday exactly what percentage of the country offered up that kind of support. There's no hiding the fact that the President has been deeply disturbed by some of the rhetoric that we've seen put forward by the Republican nominee and his team. And that has not just been true in the last couple of weeks. That's been true over the last several months, even the better part of a year.
And the President has been concerned that some of that rhetoric has been entirely inconsistent with the founding principles of this country. He has found much of that rhetoric to be destructive and damaging. The President is not alone. There are people in both parties across the country who have been deeply concerned about the rhetoric, and language, and tactics that have been employed by the Republican nominee. And it only serves to motivate the President even more to be supportive of a candidate that is campaigning consistent with the kinds of values that have animated his time in public life.
Q: But it's not just the rhetoric from Trump, it's the way it's resonating. A lot of people are responding to it, or are not speaking out against it. What does the President think that means about the country, not just about Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, what we have seen is a Republican candidate that has been successful in -- as the President himself has said -- playing on the anxieties, economic and otherwise, of a large swath of the American electorate. And the President, in his stump speech, sort of -- well, mocks this a little bit, right. Sort of raises this question about why would you expect a billionaire who has made a bunch of his money by stiffing working people -- why would you expect that person to be a champion for working people once he enters the Oval Office. That's sort of a good example of the President sort of raising doubts about whether or not the Republican nominee actually will make good on the promise to address the concerns that have been raised.
So some of this goes to the kinds of tactics that are being used by the other side that are breathtakingly cynical. Some of this goes to the mood of a country that's anxious about some of the changes that we've seen in our country. And the President has tried to make the case -- and Secretary Clinton has too -- that our country is going to be more effective in confronting the challenges that we face if we stand together and we draw on the kinds of values that were instrumental to the founding of the country. The Republican nominee is offering a different approach that suggests that we should divide ourselves up and consider some tactics that, frankly, violate some of those norms and principles that we hold dear in this country, at least that we have for a long time.
Q: Is President not disturbed that it's working with a lot of people?
MR. EARNEST: I think we'll find out on Tuesday whether or not it worked.
Q: If the polls are to be believed, minimum 40 percent of the country -- probably more than that -- will be voting for Donald Trump. That's not disturbing to the President?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think it will -- we'll have an opportunity to take a look at the metrics and sort of consider how much support the Republican nominee gets, and probably be able to dig in a little bit into why that is. I think to the extent that we're willing to do any pre-election analysis, I think some of this does raise some significant questions about the vacuum that exists at the center of the Republican Party platform.
There has not been any commitment on the part of Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. to any sort of conservative agenda, even though they have a governing majority in the United States Congress. And that has allowed -- that vacuum being created has allowed a candidate that isn't particularly conservative to fill the void. And that has been bad for the country, both in the context of an election, but it's also been bad for the country in the context of a dysfunctional Congress that hasn't been able to do much over the last couple of years.
Q: Has the President spoken with President Park of South Korea? I mean, they seem to be pretty close in the past. Is he hoping that she's able to hang onto her position? Or is he kind of trying to keep his distance right now?
MR. EARNEST: What I would say, Josh, is that the alliance between the United States and South Korea is a close alliance, it's a strong alliance, and it's one that is strong today as it's been. And one of the hallmarks of a strong alliance is that it remains durable, even when different people and different personalities are leading the countries. And it's because the government and people of both countries are committed to that alliance.
So President Obama had an effective working relationship with President Park's predecessor in terms of strengthening our alliance, and the President has been able to work effectively with President Park to strengthen the alliance between our two countries in the three or four years that she's been in office as well.
Obviously, she's facing a difficult domestic political situation, and that's something that I won't weigh in on. I'm not aware that the President has weighed in on it, either in public or in private. And the President has not -- I don't believe the President has spoken to her since shortly after we returned from Asia, and that was in the aftermath of a nuclear test from North Korea.
But all of the other elements of our alliance remain in place. And the U.S. commitment to that alliance is as strong as ever.
Q: On another ally, Turkey -- the Turkish government has arrested Kurdish opposition leaders. Germany has responded strongly. Does the White House have any response? And is it something that the President hopes to speak about with sort of his allied leaders when he sees them in about a year from now -- a week or so from now?
MR. EARNEST: There's a lot that's been going on in Turkey over the last week or so, so I appreciate you asking me that question. The United States is deeply concerned by the Turkish government's detentions of opposition party -- of opposition members of parliament, including the co-chairs of the HDP -- the Peoples' Democratic Party. This comes on the heels of what appears to be an increase in official pressure on opposition media outlets in Turkey, including to the detention earlier this week of Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief of one of Turkey's most respected newspapers.
Our deep concerns have been expressed by -- have already been expressed by senior U.S. officials to their Turkish counterparts. And we underscored in both private conversations and in public that our Turkish Ally has a special obligation as a democracy to reinforce the public's confidence in the rule of law.
Now, what's also true is that Turkey is a country that has sustained significant violence, including at the hands of terrorists. And the United States condemns the deadly and indefensible bombing in Diyarbakir. We wish the wounded a speedy recovery and offer our condolences to the loved ones of those who lost their lives. We again call on the PKK to cease its senseless brutal attacks, and to continue to stand with Turkey in its fight.
The United States supports the government of Turkey's efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the July 15th coup attempt. We stand by our friend and NATO Ally, Turkey, in the fight against terror in all its forms, including against the PKK. However, as Turkey's Ally and friend, we encourage the government of Turkey to ensure that the rule of law and fundamental freedoms are protected. Democracies become stronger by allowing diverse expressions of views, particularly in difficult times.
Suppressing speech and opinion does not support the fight against terrorism. It only encroaches on the fundamental freedoms that help ensure that democracies remain strong.
Q: Can you say what U.S. officials spoke to their counterparts in the wake of these arrests?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any calls to read out from here, but you might check with my colleagues at the State Department.
Q: Do you have any reaction -- the President is getting some criticism for saying that only a handful of people are being affected by Obamacare, yesterday in his speech. People are saying that downplays the actual effect on people who are being hit by these premium hikes.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the point of the President's remarks is that the vast majority of people who go to HealthCare.gov and sign up for health care will be able to purchase plans for $75 a month or less. With regard to those Americans who don't benefit from subsidies -- and the fact is, most Americans who can go to HealthcCare.gov and do sign up will qualify for subsidies -- but for those who don't, the President has put forward specific proposals that would address the concerns and reduce their costs. And that's everything from expanding tax credits to getting all states across the country to expand Medicaid. We know that would put downward pressure on prices, too.
So the President has put forward some specific ideas for addressing those concerns, and the President believes that Democrats and Republicans in Congress should work together to enact them.
Q: Week ahead?
MR. EARNEST: I'll do it quickly. It's around here somewhere. Okay, I'm going to do it from memory. Oh, you're saved.
On Sunday, the President will participate in a Hillary for America event in Orlando, Florida.
On Monday, the President will participate in a Hillary for America event in Durham, New Hampshire. Afterwards, the President and the First Lady will travel to Philadelphia to participate in a Hillary for America event. There may be some additional changes to the schedule on Monday, so we'll just keep you posted on all events.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the President will be at the White House and he'll be attending meetings at the White House.
On Thursday, the President will welcome the Cleveland Cavaliers to the White House to honor their 2016 NBA championship.
And then on Friday, Veterans Day, the President will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and deliver remarks at the Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Q: Should we expect to see the President with the President-elect this coming week?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, the President's schedule on Wednesday and Thursday is something that we're keeping flexible to allow us to add an event like that if it works for both people. So stay tuned on that.
Q: Wednesday is currently meetings at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Wednesday and Thursday right now.
Q: Although, the Cavaliers are Thursday?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, so you're right -- Tuesday and Wednesday are both meetings at the White House. The other obvious question is sort of about when the President would address the results of the election. I would not anticipate that he would do that Tuesday night.
Q: Not even in a paper statement?
MR. EARNEST: Potentially. But we'll keep you posted. But certainly not on camera or in person. But we'll obviously keep you -- but potentially Wednesday and Thursday. And we'll just keep you posted on that.
END 2:21 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/319314