Barack Obama photo

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz

February 06, 2015

Aboard Air Force One

En Route Indianapolis, Indiana

12:58 P.M. EST

MR. SCHULTZ: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome aboard Air Force One. Thank you for joining us as we head to Ivy Tech Community College where the President will discuss the importance of middle-class economics, specifically making the paychecks of working families go further, preparing hardworking Americans to earn higher wages, and keeping good high-paying jobs here in America.

The President will also be joined today by a bipartisan group of elected officials, including former Senator Dick Lugar, who is on the plane with us this afternoon; Senator Joe Donnelly; Congressman André Carson; and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who will actually introduce the President.

I also want to draw your attention to Ivy Tech's renowned apprenticeship program, an initiative that serves as a model of how technical and community colleges can successfully coordinate to help students advance towards an industry-recognized credential. To date, more than 9,000 apprentices have been awarded college degrees through Ivy Tech's program, and apprentices have an average starting wage of north of $50,000.

And as you all know, just last week, the President unveiled efforts to align more than $50 billion in education and workforce investments to support more programs that link apprenticeships, on-the-job learning, and the chance to earn college credit.

So, with that, I will take your questions.

Q: What can you say about the Islamic State's claim that an American hostage that has been held there has been killed?

MR. SCHULTZ: Nedra, I saw those reports. We're obviously deeply concerned by those reports. We have not at this time seen any indication to corroborate those claims, but that's all we have right now.

Q: Do you have any information that she was in the area where this bombing campaign was going on?

MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I know these reports are a few minutes old, so I can assure you that our intelligence community is looking into them.

Q: Can you say in general what the United States does when we conduct our airstrikes to ensure that American hostages or other hostages being held by the Islamic State are not in the vicinity?

MR. SCHULTZ: I can tell you that, as with all of our coalition partners, the United States supports and coordinates with the Royal Jordanian Air Force as they continue to fly over Syria. I'd refer you to the Department of Defense on how that works, but we do coordinate.

Q: Eric, can I ask you how closely has the U.S. tracked this woman's location while she's been in custody or has been a hostage of ISIS? Does the U.S. know where she is, generally?

MR. SCHULTZ: Kevin, I appreciate the question, but I don't have an intelligence assessment to read out to you at this time. I can tell you that, of course, the United States of America spares no effort to secure the safe release of any American held overseas. That includes exhausting military options, intelligence resources, diplomatic channels, obviously the financial stranglehold we put on ISIL. So I can speak generally to that, but that's about it.

Q: So, Eric, what's the intelligence community doing now to verify this? Do we have the CIA investigating this? What are you doing to confirm or disprove these reports?

MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I don't have anything further to tell you about this. Obviously we are deeply concerned, and as soon as we have anything additional we'll be in touch.

Q: On another topic, the Benghazi Select Committee has said they intend to interview several current and former administration officials, including several presidential aides. How are you responding to that?

MR. SCHULTZ: I saw that press release, Nedra. I will say that, as you know, we've cooperated with all legitimate oversight requests heretofore on Benghazi, and that's actually been a two-year journey with Congress. And every time I turn around, there's another committee in Congress issuing a report exonerating us from any of the conspiracy theories Republicans have proffered over the past two years.

But as you know, we've participated in 22 congressional hearings, over 125 member and staff briefings, and dozens of witness interviews. All told, again, I believe that several of the committees have issued reports giving us a clean bill of health on this issue.

Q: So at this point, have you determined whether or not you'll make those officials available?

MR. SCHULTZ: I haven't even seen the request. We've only seen a press release on this.

Q: Can you talk about yesterday -- the President got some criticism for his comments at the prayer breakfast. Was he surprised by that? And what is your response to that?

MR. SCHULTZ: I saw that commentary, Anita. I think that the President has spoken many times to his belief in American exceptionalism. And the President believes America is the greatest country on Earth not only because of our military might or economic prowess, or because we serve in a unique leadership role amongst the international community, but part and parcel to America's standing in the world is our values, and those are values like equality, tolerance, fairness, civil rights, human rights, treating every human being with respect and decency -- no matter their gender, their race, their faith, their sexual identity. Part and parcel to that and our values are holding ourselves up to our own values and our own standards.

So the President believes that when we fall short of that, we need to be honest with ourselves and look inward, and hold ourselves accountable. That's what gives us the moral standing around the world -- not just because we assert it, but because we hold ourselves accountable. So whether that's our elected officials, whether that is a free and vibrant press, a judiciary system that's independent -- those are the values the President was talking about.

Q: Did he think he would have that kind of criticism? Was he surprised by that?

MR. SCHULTZ: Fair question. I have not spoken with him about the reaction to the remarks, but I know that there's a failed presidential candidate, an RNC chairman from the past who have criticized us. But I don't have a response to either of those two people.

Q: He's also being criticized by some Republicans, like Rob Portman, who's not one of these conservative pundits. He's a Republican senator who said that he's troubled by the idea that the President was drawing some sort of moral equivalency between what ISIS does and things done in the name of Christianity. Was he trying to draw a comparison and a sense of equivalency between those two things? Or does he reject that characterization?

MR. SCHULTZ: Again, what I think the President was trying to say is, over the course of human history there are times where extremists pervert their own religion to justify violence. And that's what the President was trying to talk about yesterday.

Q: How did President choose the national prayer breakfast to make those points?

MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I think if you look at the entire text of the remarks, you'll see how well suited they were for that audience and that setting. And again, I think the President -- I'd refer you to his speech earlier this year at the United Nations General Assembly, where he spoke very compellingly about the United States' standing in the world and how part and parcel to that standing is us living up to our own values and our own principles.

Q: Can I ask about the event today, actually? He's talking about I guess things that came up in the State of the Union and the budget, but it's the first travel since the budget. There's a couple members of Congress -- you said a few that are around -- but has he talked to leadership in the last week about his budget rollout and what he wants? Has he talked to any congressional leaders?

MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have specific conversations to read out to you at this time. But I can tell you that we are absolutely in touch with House members, Senate members and their staffs of both parties, working through the President's priorities and what he laid out in the budget, and a lot of the proposals, like today's, on making the first two years of community college free for all Americans, working through those to achieve -- make that a reality.

Q: Has the President garnered any bipartisan support for the community college proposal? When he announced it, he talked about Senator Alexander being from a state that does a similar thing. But to date, I'm not aware of any Republicans who have signed on, or even said anything good about his approach to doing this. Has there been progress behind the scenes?

MR. SCHULTZ: I'm so glad you asked, Julie. I went back on the calendar and I looked that we announced this proposals 27 days ago. So I don't have -- I'm not surprised that Congress hasn't passed this yet, because it is a significant proposal. And as you point out, it is an idea that has engendered bipartisan support. This was a program that was started under a Republican governor in Tennessee, adapted by a Democratic mayor in Illinois, and now you've got a Democratic President talking about it in Washington.

So while this is not law yet, we believe the conversation just started, and we're looking forward to lifting up those ideas today in Indianapolis.

Q: On the conversation on the AUMF with Congress -- what's the timetable for sending up language? And can you quantify at all for us the behind-the-scenes sort of conversations and consultations that have gone on about what that resolution should say?

MR. SCHULTZ: I believe my colleague, Josh Earnest, has put the timetable at "relatively soon." I'm going to stick with that.

Q: But he didn't rule out today. Can you now rule out --

MR. SCHULTZ: I can rule out today, yes. I can tell you that consultations have been robust; that right after the New Year break, the President sat down with leadership. This was a topic that came up in the discussion. And it was clear that leaders on the Hill wanted to do this -- wanted to get this done. It was also clear that this is a priority for the President and that they wanted language from the White House. They also wanted to be consulted in advance of sending that language up. So that's what we've been doing -- robust, intensive, discussions, bicameral and bipartisan.

Q: Who's been involved in those discussions? Do you have senior administration officials on the Hill talking to people about this? Cabinet members, the National Security Advisor?

MR. SCHULTZ: We have a whole team that's working on this. That includes folks from our White House Counsel's Office, our national security team, our legislative team, and maybe even a communications person or two.

Q: I've got some labor questions for you, Josh -- or, excuse me, Eric. I'm sorry.

MR. SCHULTZ: I'll take it as a compliment.

Q: First of all, when looking at the West Coast ports, there's a potential of a shutdown of those ports in the next seven to five days. And we're interested in knowing if the White House would be willing to do anything along the lines of what Bush did and employ Taft-Hartley to force those negotiations to go forward and for the workers to go back to work.

MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, Annie, I appreciate the question. And I can assure you that officials at the White House and across the relative agencies are closely monitoring the situation. Right now, our belief is that both sides should be resolving this at the negotiating table.

Q: Is Taft-Hartley something that's off the table for you, or is it something that you'd consider?

MR. SCHULTZ: I think it's just a premature question, because we believe both sides ought to resolve this at the negotiating table.

Q: Do you have any sense that they're about to come to some sort of resolution? I mean, you're talking about $2 billion a day in loss.

MR. SCHULTZ: We believe this ought to be resolved at the negotiating table. We believe they're working expeditiously to do so, and that's how it should be resolved.

Q: On another labor question, or similar lines -- U.S. oil workers have -- negotiations have broken down with U.S. oil workers in nine plants, which could potentially have a terrible effect. I'm curious if the White House has been involved at all in helping those negotiations?

MR. SCHULTZ: I don't have any specific pieces of involvement to read out to you at this time. I can tell you this is another situation that we are monitoring, and it's yet another situation that should be resolved at the negotiating table through the sort of collective bargaining that has been known to help be an instrument to resolve these in the past.

Q: But there's not a federal monitor in that case -- mediator in that case. Is that right?

MR. SCHULTZ: I believe that's correct. I just meant in the colloquial term that we are monitoring it.

Q: Okay. Just one other question. On the Department of Energy -- the Department of Energy pulled a $1 billion commitment for a clean oil plant in Illinois. And this is a project that had been sort of a marquee clean oil project for quite some time. And I'm just curious, like, why was the administration's mind changed on this particular project?

MR. SCHULTZ: Yes, I'd refer you to the Department of Energy for details on their decision to close out the federal support for the project. I think it was becoming clear to them that it wasn't going to be able to meet the budgetary deadlines to use funding that Congress had set aside for it.

Q: Is it any sort of retreat from the clean coal efforts that the administration has backed?

MR. SCHULTZ: Absolutely not. As you know, the administration has shown unprecedented support for clean coal technologies. And I'd refer you to our budget released this week that includes a new proposal for tax incentives to support clean coal.

Q: On arming Ukrainian rebels, there seems to be growing political pressure for this. And yesterday, Josh seemed to open more of a door by talking about a level of bloodshed that may call for arming them. Where does the White House stand with this decision? Are they holding off until the President can speak with Chancellor Merkel?

MR. SCHULTZ: Julie, I know your question was premised on rising political forces, but I just want to be clear that a decision like this made by the President would only be made by what's in the best interest of the national security of the United States.

I don't have an update for you on this. As you know, Josh has discussed this at length over the past few days, specifically our hesitations on this, which I'm happy to repeat include that given the military might of Russia, no amount of lethal aid that we would supply could bring the Ukrainians on par with that. And then, also that our fundamental belief is this is something that should be resolved diplomatically.

Q: Also, in Yemen, rebels have taken over and dissolved parliament. What's the White House response to that? And does that change our counterterrorism strategy there?

MR. SCHULTZ: I'll do both. We have seen the reports that the Houthis held a public press conference in which they announced a new presidential council and their intention to dissolve the Yemeni parliament. We are deeply concerned with this unilateral step. We believe that this doesn't meet the standard set by the U.N. Special Representative for Yemen, in which our goal is to convene both parties to achieve consensus.

And in terms of our counterterrorism operations, as the President said a few days ago now, those remain uninterrupted. And I don't have a change for you on that.

Q: And just one more time, can you just confirm that the United States is not investigating or trying to confirm whether or not this American female hostage was killed? You haven't said whether they're investigating or not. I'm asking if they are.

MR. SCHULTZ: Let me be clear: We have not yet seen any indication to corroborate ISIL's claim, but I'll also be clear that members of the intelligence community are absolutely looking into this.

Q: Can I ask about Susan Rice's event today? I know she's probably going to get into a lot of the details of the document itself. But can you speak a little to how the document came together, who put it together, who wrote it, why you're putting it out now, and what has changed in the five years since you last put out the National Security Strategy?

MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you, Kevin. As you point out, National Security Advisor Susan Rice is going to have a lot more to say on this, I believe maybe right now, at Brookings. But I can tell you in terms of the process that was put together, it is the culmination of a very long process, an exhaustive process, a process that takes into account senior leadership of the departments and agencies. And that includes Department of Defense, Department of State, our partners who work on trade issues, the intelligence community. And this also includes high-level discussions with both Ambassador Rice and the President.

Q: Any thoughts on why you've decided to put it out at this point in time versus -- I know you said you're going to start working on it in 2013, so why is it now that it's coming out?

MR. SCHULTZ: I think it's important to just take a step back and realize that this is a document that provides strategic perspective to span several years, offering direction that has to go a little bit deeper than the daily headlines. So therefore, it's not unusual to take a substantial amount of time to put it together and then put it out.

Q: Was there any effort or any thinking that went into getting it out before you request new authorization from Congress for the operation against ISIL? I mean, was there a thought that you should have a document that reflects the governing principle before you ask for specific authority to strike Iraq, Syria and maybe other places?

MR. SCHULTZ: Well, again, on the AUMF, we believe that we already have the authority under the 2001 AUMF. The President also believes that we present a much stronger front to the international community when both branches of government are speaking together.

In terms of the timing, I don't believe it's tied to the AUMF language, but I do think it's tied to the budget. Because, as you'll see, the budget that we released earlier this week conforms to the National Security Strategy.

END 1:16 P.M. EST

Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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