White House Press Gaggle by Josh Earnest Aboard Air Force One, Dec. 15, 2014

En Route Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey–(ENEWSPF)–December 15, 2014 – 1:45 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Let me just do a short topper on the event today, and then we’ll get to your questions.  This afternoon, the President will deliver remarks to approximately 3,000 servicemembers and Department of Defense civilians, including some who have recently returned home from Afghanistan, serving at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, one of America’s premier joint bases. 

During his remarks, the President will express his gratitude for their service and sacrifice, and call on all Americans to remember them and their families during this holiday season.  As the nation’s only tri-service joint base — active duty, reserve, and guard servicemembers of the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard — it ensured total force integration by training, supporting and sustaining global contingency operations.  The base spans about 42,000 acres in Burlington and Ocean County, New Jersey, supporting approximately 44,000 of America’s finest who live, work and train there. 

And just a little update about congressional participation.  At the event today will be Senator Booker and Senator Menendez, as well as Congressman-elect Tom MacArthur, Congressman Donald Norcross, and Congressman Jon Runyan.  And I can tell you that Congressman Norcross is on the plane with us flying up there.  I also anticipate that Governor Christie will meet President Obama upon arrival and will also attend the event as well.

So this I think is a pretty good illustration of —

Q    You buried the lead, Josh.  (Laughter.)   

MR. EARNEST:  Didn’t mean to.  Well, I do think that this sort of illustrates that this time of year, that it’s pretty easy to be bipartisan when we’re talking about supporting our men and women in uniform and their families.  And if it’s not easy, it should be.

Q    How did Christie’s participation take part?  How did it unfold?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, typically, when the President travels to a state, he’s often — but they’re not always — met on the tarmac by the home-state governor.  And so for an event like this, again, it’s easy to be bipartisan when we’re talking about showing our support to our men and women in uniform and their families, particularly around the holidays.

Q    Will he travel to the event with the Governor in the motorcade?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’re landing at the Air Force base, so if he does it will be a short trip.

Q    Josh, is this a base that’s also used as a launching area for Ebola troops?  And will the President refer to that?

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll have to check on that.  I don’t know if there are any personnel from this particular military installation who were involved in this effort, but we can check on that.  But what there are, is there are individuals who are returning home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Q    How much discussion is underway about extending the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan as a result of the recent violence in Kabul?

MR. EARNEST:  None.  The President has made a clear decision and laid out a clear strategy for responsibly drawing down our troop presence in Afghanistan.  And this is contingent upon the first Democratic transition of power in the history of the nation of Afghanistan.  It involves the hammering out of the bilateral security agreement that has now been signed by the leaders of the two countries.  We’ve seen a similar agreement enacted between the government in Afghanistan and our NATO allies who play an important role there as well.

So we are still on track, based on the strategy the President laid out, for winding down our troop presence in Afghanistan, and by the end of next year essentially withdrawing our military footprint substantially.

Q    Can you talk a little bit about the situation in Australia?  Did the President speak with Prime Minister Abbott?  And how closely had you guys been monitoring everything that was been going on?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell that last night and over the course of the morning and this afternoon, the President has been regularly updated on the situation in Australia.  The President’s chief Counterterrorism Advisor, Lisa Monaco, has been responsible for ensuring that he is up to speed on the latest developments.

I don’t have any presidential-level phone calls to read out at this point.  I can tell you that as is customary in these sort of situations, the United States did offer some assistance and support to the Australians as they dealt with this particular scenario.  But I don’t have any presidential calls at this point to read out.

Q    Josh, on bill signings, has there been any further decision-making on whether to sign the Russia sanctions bill?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have an update for you in terms of the thinking on this.  I know this is something that has been the source of some discussions at the White House over the last several days. 

And as we talked about in the briefing on Friday, the legislative language changed a couple of times sort of in the run-up to its passage.  So this is something that we’re still reviewing.  And if we have an update on this in the next couple of days, I’ll let you know.

Q    And what about the defense authorization bill — timing on that?  Is it safe to presume he’ll sign it?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s my — have they actually — has that passed both the House and the Senate?

Q    I’m told it has.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  I’ll have to get back to you for an update on this.  This is something that we traditionally sign every year, so I would anticipate that that would be the case this time as well. 

I know that in the past there have been provisions included in the NDAA that interfered with the ability of this administration to move forward with the President’s goal of closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.  I suspect that similar language is in there that has raised concerns in the past.  But at this point, I don’t have any — I guess I don’t have a veto threat to issue at this point.

Q    Will the President talk with Senator Menendez about the Russia sanctions bill since they’re going to be together?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if they’ll have an opportunity to talk about that.  I do think that Senator Menendez is planning to fly back with us to Washington.  I believe that Senator Booker is as well.  But I don’t have any conversations to preview with them at this point.

Q    On Sunday, Dick Cheney continued sort of his strong defense of harsh interrogation practices by the CIA, saying that if he could do it, he would again in a minute.  Do you think that the former Vice President was wrong in his categorization?  And did the President have a reaction to that language?

MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t speak to the President about the Vice President’s — the former Vice President’s appearance on “Meet the Press” this weekend.  But I can say unequivocally that the President certainly believes that the former Vice President’s assessment is wrong.  That’s why the President on his second full day in office reversed the policy and unequivocally banned those tactics from ever being used again. 

Again, it’s the view of the President that the use of those tactics only serves to undermine the moral authority of the United States of America around the globe.  And the fact is — and I think this is something that even Vice President Cheney would agree on — is that our moral authority around the globe is an important tool in our arsenal for protecting and advancing America’s interests around the globe.  And the President’s commitment to banning those tactics and the President’s commitment to releasing the report are all part of the effort to continue the process of rebuilding that moral authority in a way that will enhance our national security.

Q    Josh, by the time we had final passage on the $1.1 trillion spending bill over the weekend, some divisions became evident on both parties.  Do you all see similarities between the divisions within the Democratic Party that became evident and the ones in the Republican Party?  And has the President done any outreach to Senator Elizabeth Warren?

MR. EARNEST:  I think there’s a very important difference between the differing views that were expressed by members of the Democratic and Republican Party.  The difference on the Democratic side was one related to tactics not principle.  I think pretty much every Democrat disagreed — well, that’s an overstatement.  Many Democrats and certainly the President and some of the most outspoken opponents of this proposal shared the view that the specific provision related to watering down one element of Wall Street reform was not a good idea. 

The difference in tactics, though, it’s the President’s view that it was important to sign this bill because the alternative was merely a three-month CR in which Democrats and Republicans on the Hill would come back and try to negotiate a budget three months from now.  And the fact is Republicans would actually have more leverage three months from now because they would have more representatives in both the House and the Senate when the new Congress takes office. 

So the President made a tactical decision to go ahead and support this piece of legislation because he believes, frankly, that it’s better than the agreement that would be reached three months from now.  On the Republicans side, I do believe there was a difference of opinion, that there were some — and a substantial number of Republicans who do believe that weakening Wall Street reform is somehow in the best interest of the country.  The President sharply disagrees with that view. 

But I do believe that there is more of a difference of opinion on principle, and I think that’s why many observers believe that some of the rifts that we see in the Republican Party are much deeper and, frankly, more consequential.  But I think this is a story that, frankly, will be told throughout the legislative process in 2015 and beyond as Republicans in both the House and the Senate figure out how they’re going to assume the responsibility of essentially being in the majority and running both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. 

Q    Does the President see Senator Warren as someone he has to reckon with over the next two years?

MR. EARNEST:  I think the President is going to continue to see Senator Warren as somebody that he can work with to protect the interest of middle-class families and to make sure that well-connected Wall Street firms, and others, aren’t allowed to run roughshod over the regulatory process.  President Obama and Elizabeth Warren, both prior to her entry into the Senate and after, have worked effectively together to stand up for middle-class families, and whether that’s the creation of the CFPB and the passage of Wall Street reform prior to her taking office, or even just last month when the President and Senator Warren spoke out together in opposition to the tax extenders package that was being negotiated in Congress. 

This was a package that would have substantially relieved the tax burden of well-connected corporations without offering much relief to working families.  That violated a basic principle of this President’s strategy for strengthening our economy and benefiting middle-class families.  Senator Warren had the same objections, and that was an example of the President and Senator Warren working together pretty effectively on behalf of middle-class families, and I would anticipate that we’ll see that kind of cooperation into the new year as well.

Q    Would the President agree to any further rollbacks in Dodd-Frank if needed to reach a compromise with Republicans?

MR. EARNEST:  The President doesn’t believe that it’s in the best interest of the country for us to water down Wall Street reform.  In fact, the President has been working, and his administration has been working, to implement the Wall Street reform legislation since it was passed four years ago now. 

And there has been a concerted effort to make sure that these regulations, as they’re implemented, are implemented in a way that don’t have a significant detrimental impact on the broader economy, but do actually hold Wall Street executives and Wall Street firms accountable for their conduct.  Never again do we want taxpayers to be on the hook for bailing out Wall Street reforms that make — Wall Street firms that make risky bets that go south.   

Q    But banks that have now seen a success here, they may want to come back for more.

MR. EARNEST:  They may.  And that’s why the President — and I think you can be confident that one of the President’s priorities is going to be protecting Wall Street reform.  And there’s no doubt that there now is a — that the majority party in both the House and the Senate will be eager to do the bidding of those Wall Street firms.  And that makes it all the more important that the President is working closely with Democrats in Congress to fight back those efforts.

And I do anticipate that we’re going to expend some time and energy next year and the year after trying to counter the efforts of Wall Street firms and their lobbyists. 

Q    Josh, I think Senate is rolling back the D.C. marijuana provision.  I know you had said last week that the White House — D.C. voters voted for it, it could go forward.  What are your thoughts on that?  And has the White House’s stance on legalization changed at all?

MR. EARNEST:  The White House position as it relates to some of the voter actions on marijuana that we’ve seen in the last few years hasn’t changed.  But the principal concern that we have with the legislative action in Congress from last week is because it violates the principle of home rule.  The President believes that the voters of the District of Columbia sent a pretty clear signal about how they believe their community and their district should be governed, and the President does not believe it’s appropriate for Congress to be interfering in those local activities in this way.

Q    And has the President’s stance on legalization changed at all, aside from voter initiatives?

MR. EARNEST:  No, it has not.

All right, okay.  See you on the ground shortly, guys. 

Q    Thanks Josh.

1:59 P.M. EST


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