Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
12:46 P.M. EDT
MR. SCHULTZ: Good afternoon. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we head to the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, a city that has harnessed innovation to redefine itself as a center for technology, health care and education. From the beginning of this administration, the President has been committed to science and innovation, making the largest single investment in basic research in our history, recruiting tech talent to work in the federal government, launching 21st century moonshots for cancer, brain research, and solar energy, expanding broadband, and unleashing the potential of precision medicine.
But today's conference is not about the progress we've already made. The President convened the White House Frontiers Conference to focus on the work that remains, to gather some of the world's leading innovators to discuss how investing in science and technology frontiers can help improve people's lives.
Prior to his remarks and the panel discussion on future health breakthroughs, the President will get a look at how these innovators work, from an actual spacecraft to a groundbreaking prosthetic arm -- is doing just that.
With that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q: Can we perhaps start with what happened in Yemen yesterday? Can you tell us a little bit about whether and where the President took the decision -- whether he took the decision to launch retaliatory strikes, or whether it was a standing order in the field; whether there will be more strikes like that if the vessels are fired upon again?
MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you, Andrew. As the Department of Defense announced last night, U.S. military -- the United States military struck three radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory on Yemen's Red Sea coast. These strikes were recommended by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford, but they were indeed authorized by the President. These were ordered in response to the missile launches threatening the USS Mason, which is operating in international waters.
These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway.
Q: But has he given them an order to -- has the President given them an order to, say, they can continue to fire back if fired upon, or is rather something that would go back to him for another decision?
MR. SCHULTZ: Yesterday's self-defense strikes specifically targeted radar sites involved in the recent missile launches in the vicinity of the USS Mason and other vessels in international waters. The intent of our strikes were to deter future attacks and to reduce the risk to U.S. and other vessels. And we are prepared to respond if necessary to any future missile launches.
Q: Eric, people are looking at this as an escalation of the U.S. military involvement in Yemen's war. We've tried to kind of stay out of it, and we haven't struck the Houthis directly before. So is it fair to say the U.S. is stepping up its military role, or is this purely going to be defensive measures if and when there are strikes launched at the U.S.?
MR. SCHULTZ: If they're looking at the situation in that regard, they would be looking at it incorrectly. This is purely a self-defense action designed to deter future missile strikes against U.S. assets in the area. We absolutely believe that the situation in Yemen is one that should be resolved, and that we'd like to see a de-escalation of the violence.
There was actually an accord signed on April 10th with all the parties involved, and our belief is that the violence should subside consistent with the terms in that agreement.
Q: And, Eric --
MR. SCHULTZ: This is -- let me just be crystal-clear. So this is not any engagement in the sectarian situation on the ground in Yemen. This is purely a self-defense measure taken in response to the missile launches threatening the USS Mason.
Q: The White House has talked a lot in the past about Iranian support for the Houthis and armed shipments to them. At this point, does the U.S. have any reason to believe that the missiles that were launched at the U.S. asset was not provided by Iran? And do you have any response to the Iranian navy ships that are now heading with a beeline to the region?
MR. SCHULTZ: So, Josh, we saw those reports. I'm not going to speculate on the intent of the Iranians. I will say that what we have said is Houthis in Yemen are being supported by the Iranians. So we know that for sure. But I'm not going to be able to dig any deeper on our analysis there. I can tell you that our bottom line for the area is that we call on everyone involved to deescalate the violence. There was an important agreement reached on April 10th; this included the Saudis, the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and others. And we call on all parties involved to abide by that agreement.
Q: Any update on the U.S. review of support for the Saudi-led coalition?
MR. SCHULTZ: As you know, that was announced over the weekend in response to a strike by the Saudi-led coalition of a funeral home. I don't have any updates on that. But obviously, the President believes that when we support any mission like the Saudi-led coalition, it's not a blank check; that we expect that actions carried out, consistent with American values. And that's what prompted the review.
Q: Eric, do you think that the heightened tensions in Yemen could distract the U.S. from its mission against ISIS?
MR. SCHULTZ: No, Kevin. We believe that the sectarian violence in Yemen should be resolved through political means. And that's why there was an agreement reached in the middle of April, and we call on all parties to follow through with the commitments made in the April 10th agreement.
In terms of the President's focus on ISIL, that's been relentless. You've seen us have success in rolling back ISIL-controlled territory all around the globe. You've also seen us have success taking out their leadership one by one. You've seen us have success constricting their ability to attract finances. So our focus on that remains unabated.
Q: Eric, Nigeria has announced that some of the girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram have been released. Does the White House have any expectation of more girls being released? And has the U.S. been involved in that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, I did get briefed on that earlier before our flight, and I can tell you that the United States does welcome the news that a number of Chibok girls -- school girls -- have been released to the Nigerian government. We're working with our partners in the Nigerian government to gather the details on the release of these girls. But we continue to call for the unconditional release of all those being held by Boko Haram, now known as ISIL's West Africa Province. We also continue to provide intelligence, advice and assistance to Nigeria and its regional partners in the fight against the group.
Q: There's been a new Secretary General at the United Nations chosen. What's the White House reaction to that choice?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, if it hasn't come out already, a statement by the President will be released shortly, and that statement will reflect President's congratulations to Antonio Guterres as the next Secretary General of the United Nations.
As a founding member and host country of the United Nations, and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the United States pledges to provide our full support to Mr. Guterres when he assumes the leadership of the United Nations next January. We believe that as the former prime minister of Portugal and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Guterres has the character, vision and skills needed to lead the United Nations at this critical moment, and manage reform in its organizations and operations to better meet the unprecedented challenges facing the international community right now.
Q: And just one more on a completely different topic. Does the White House have any reaction to the latest reports of sexual misconduct by the Republican nominee Donald Trump?
MR. SCHULTZ: Jeff, I don't have a specific reaction for you on all of the reports of sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by the Republican nominee for President.
I will say the President has long said that Donald Trump is not qualified to be President of the United States. That's not just because of his misguided and unwise policies, but it's because of his temperament, his character, and his judgment. That has not just become evident over the last 24 hours, but it's become evident in a long series of views and statements that we've seen from Donald Trump. And the President's belief that Donald Trump should not be President is a view that will likely be reflected in tonight's remarks.
I expect the President to make a strong, affirmative case, not only for Ohio Senate candidate Ted Strickland, but also for our party's nominee for President of the United States. But he's also not been shy about discussing why he believes Donald Trump is unfit to serve as President of the United States.
Q: Has he read the latest reports?
MR. SCHULTZ: I don't know if he's read individual reports or not.
Q: Donald Trump has said in the past that if the President comes at him politically, that he will come at the President and he'll attack the President. Obviously, the President hasn't been shy about saying what he's had to say about Donald Trump. Is he concerned about anything that Donald Trump might say about himself or about the First Lady, given the attacks that are politically being made by both of them today and ongoing?
MR. SCHULTZ: Isaac, your question seems to suggest that Donald Trump hasn't been attacking the President.
Q: Well, I mean, in the last -- beyond the birtherism stuff, which -- and I'm not discounting that. But more specific attacks, laying into the President as a -- his theme for the last week has been Bill Clinton -- that the President would emerge as that kind of thing. Or do you feel there's nothing more that he can say about the President?
MR. SCHULTZ: Look, the President is going to be out there making the affirmative case for why Secretary Clinton is uniquely qualified to be the next President of the United States. The President believes this for two reasons.
One, he saw firsthand her tenacity, her relentlessness, and her focus and drive on behalf of the American people as Secretary of State in his administration.
Two, he has actually served as President of the United States. He sat in the Oval Office at the President's desk making decisions day in and day out for the past eight years. So he knows what it takes to be President of the United States. He believes she is best suited to take over the responsibilities next January, but he also believes that she's running against someone who is unfit for office. And the President is going to make that case no matter what threats are thrown at him by the Republican nominee.
Q: Trump brought up the First Lady at the debate on Sunday. She's campaigning, I think right now, against Donald Trump. Is the President at all concerned about things that Donald Trump might say about her?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think the only reference to the First Lady that Donald Trump made was thoroughly debunked by every fact-checker who looked at it. And I think --
Q: -- personal attacks on the First Lady?
MR. SCHULTZ: I can't think of a bolder way for Donald Trump to lose even more standing than he already has by engaging the First Lady of the United States.
Q: Eric, let's go to Thailand. Did you have something else on the campaign?
Q: Is it fair to say that, in terms of the energy the President is devoting to campaigning for Hillary, it's to make sure that his agenda and much of his legacy is not dismantled?
MR. SCHULTZ: Well, Todd, the President has talked about this, and I suspect he will in tonight's remarks. He believes that the progress we've made over the past eight years is significant, is substantial. Again, we have the longest stretch of private sector job growth in our nation's history. We have a historic climate agreement with about 90 other nations to reduce carbon pollution around the world. We have the lowest increase in health care costs in decades. Twenty million now have health care under the Affordable Care Act. We've had a relentless campaign against terrorist organizations who wish to do us harm.
The President does believe that there's a lot at stake in this election. And the contrast could not be clearer. And we have one nominee who, as the President has said, doesn't have much of an agenda other than to reverse the progress that's been made over the past eight years.
Q: A question on Thailand. As you know, the Thai King died yesterday. First of all, does the President have plans to go to the funeral? And secondly, the Crown Prince has indicated that he doesn't want to be -- succeed to the throne just yet. Are you concerned that a disorderly transfer of power in Thailand might further destabilize the country, which has suffered two coups in the last, what, 15 years?
MR. SCHULTZ: Andrew, I hadn't seen those reports before we boarded. I could say, generally speaking, as I think was reflected in the President's statement earlier today, that we do offer our heartfelt condolences to the people of Thailand.
The King was a close friend to the United States. The President had an opportunity to visit with him in 2012 on the President's visit. The President recalls the King's warmth and grace at the time. As the President said in his statement today, the King was a tireless advocate for his country's development. He exuded a creative spirit. He was a driver of innovation and an inspiring force for improving the quality of life for the people of Thailand. He will be missed, and the American people share with the people of Thailand in this period of mourning.
I don't believe that they have released any details about a service yet. So once they do, then we'll be in a better position to respond with our plans.
Q: Eric, there's a report that the President and the administration are going to be holding a meeting to discuss options for military action in Syria on Friday. Can you confirm that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Toluse, I don't have any internal meetings to preview at this time. I can tell you that Secretary Kerry is traveling to Switzerland later this week -- I think over the weekend, actually -- to meet with a number of countries to discuss a multilateral approach to resolving the crisis in Syria.
This is obviously consistent with the President's view that the situation in Syria can only be resolved diplomatically. And while this war continues in earnest, the United States continues to lead the world in humanitarian assistance for Syria as the single largest donor to the humanitarian crisis there.
This now includes up to -- well, this now includes $5.9 billion worth of humanitarian assistance. That includes things like food and shelter, water, medical care in urgent relief to help address the crisis there.
As you know, the President doesn't believe there's a military solution to the crisis in Syria, that this will only be solved diplomatically. But this hasn't deterred us from our campaign against ISIL. Again, this is a place -- even in Syria -- where we don't have a centralized government to work in. We've been able to roll back territory controlled by ISIL, about 25 percent of their territory that they've previously held. We've also been able to take out ISIL leadership there, most recently Adnani.
Q: Eric, could you tell us a little bit about why Ohio and why Ted Strickland? This is a Senate race that's not looking real hopeful for Democrats. So what's the impetus for this trip?
MR. SCHULTZ: I think there's probably a lot of Democrats in Ohio who would have a different analysis for you, Josh. But look, the President's view is he's not only President of the United States, he's also head of the Democratic Party. And like I was saying to Todd earlier, there's a lot at stake in this race in 2016. That's why he's working so hard to elect Secretary Clinton president.
But he also believes that there is a lot at stake in the down-ballot races. That's why he's been working hard to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives and to the United States Senate. Ted Strickland is obviously someone the President knows well. He's been a tireless advocate for the working people of Ohio. He believes that we grow -- he shares the President's beliefs that we grow the middle class -- we grow the economy from the middle class out. He wants to continue a lot of the progress we've seen over the past eight years, again, including the longest stretch of private sector job creation in our nation's history.
So I think you can expect him to make that case tonight. And obviously, we have some events tomorrow in Cleveland.
Q: Eric, the CEO of Wells Fargo announced that he was stepping down. Does the President have any reaction? And how does he feel about Senator Warren saying that his resignation isn't enough, that he should actually have to pay back some of the money he made while Wells Fargo was going through some of the controversies over the last few years?
MR. SCHULTZ: Sure, Toluse. I saw that again overnight. And we'll just say that the decision to have an executive step down rests with the company, so we're not going to comment on whether or not the decision was warranted or appropriate. But I will take this opportunity to address some of the broader issues that this misconduct highlights and why we need to continue to address them.
Principally, the Wells Fargo matter demonstrates the importance of the CFPB, which is the first financial regulator dedicated solely to protecting consumers. The CFPB and other regulators have levied significant penalties here, and we welcome that. Based on their findings, this is exactly the type of behavior they're designated to guard against. We've seen Republicans -- some of whom are on the ballot in races that we just discussed -- want to dismantle the CFPB. They want to increase influence by the big banks.
The President believes that consumers need a voice in Washington. That's why he went ahead and created the CFPB, again, against stiff competition -- against stiff opposition, most notably from Republicans. And I believe that -- well, more importantly, the President believes that this is why we need safeguards in place.
Q: Thanks, Eric.
END 1:06 P.M. EDT
Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/319303