White House Press Gaggle by Josh Earnest Aboard Air Force One, Jan. 13, 2016

En Route Omaha, Nebraska–(ENEWSPF)–January 13, 2016 – 1:39 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to lovely Omaha, Nebraska.  The President is looking forward to the visit to highlight a couple of things.

Obviously, you had the opportunity to hear his State of the Union speech last night where the President indicated a desire to spend more time over the course of his last year in office talking directly to the American people, looking for more informal settings where he can talk to the public both about his agenda — he has a vision for where we should take the country — but also to hear more from people firsthand about some of the challenges facing the country, but also some of the opportunities that they see for themselves, their families, for their communities to capitalize on the future.

So when we arrive in Omaha, the President will be spending some time with a woman from the Omaha area who wrote the President a letter last year, and he’ll do that before he addresses a larger group of Nebraskans at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  So the President is really looking forward to this stop.

Over the course of his remarks, which you’ll obviously see, one of the things the President is going to talk about is how strongly Nebraska has bounced back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  The unemployment rate in the state of Nebraska is below 3 percent, and it’s clear the people in Nebraska are doing something right when it comes to their economy.  So you certainly can expect to hear the President talk a little bit about that.

Two other things I want to mention before I get to your questions — obviously you saw that the President had the opportunity to visit briefly with King Abdullah of Jordan prior to boarding the aircraft.  The President only spent a couple of minutes with him, but it was an opportunity for the President to greet him.  Yesterday, the Vice President sat down and had breakfast with King Abdullah of Jordan.  I also note that the King, over the course of his visit, also had the opportunity to meet with other senior members of the President’s national security team, as well.

Obviously, Jordan is an important partner when it comes to our collective efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  Jordan also is assuming a significant burden in terms of caring for the basic humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are fleeing violence in that country.  The United States has offered significant support to Jordan as they have borne that burden, and this is an indication of the important and enduring relationship between our two countries.

Prior to leaving the White House today, the President also had the opportunity to speak on the telephone with President Putin of Russia.  We’ll get you a more formal readout of that conversation — that will be distributed by my colleagues at the White House — but as usual, they spent a significant portion of their time discussing the need for the Russians to live up to the commitments that they made in Minsk to end their support for the separatists that are destabilizing Ukraine right now.

There was some discussion of other issues, including the ongoing efforts to try to reach a — bring about a political transition inside of Syria.  Both the United States and Russia have a vested interest in seeing that occur.  And we previously complimented Russia for the constructive role that they played in this rather painstaking process.  And the two leaders had the opportunity to discuss that.

But as I mentioned, there will be a more — slightly more detailed readout that will come from my colleagues back at the White House on paper later today.

So, with that, I can go to your questions.

Q    Can you give us a little bit more of a tick-tock about what happened with the sailors?  And has the President spoken with his — with any of them, or with his senior advisors about this today?  Can you give us a little insight into that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you the President has been updated on a regular basis by members of his national security team about that situation.  And we’re obviously pleased that the Iranians followed through on their commitment to promptly allow our sailors to continue their journey.

We’re appreciative of the key role that Secretary Kerry played in securing this outcome.  I do think it underscores the value of the diplomatic line of communication that’s been opened between Secretary Kerry and his counterpart.  It certainly has not resolved the long list of concerns that we have with Iran’s behavior.  That list includes threatening Israel, developing ballistic missiles in violation of a variety of United Nations Security Council resolutions, and supporting terrorism.  But today’s outcome is a good reminder that this kind of diplomatic engagement — that has been the target of some criticism — actually does advance the interests of the United States and enhances our national security.

Q    Is the President satisfied with how Iran handled it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess — let me answer the other part of your question, which is that there is more work being done to understand exactly how the situation came about.  And that work is underway.  So there’s not a whole lot more that I can share with you in terms of the details of this situation.  But we’re obviously gathering more information — the Department of Defense is gathering more information, so we can get a better picture of what exactly led to these individuals ending up — these sailors ending up in Iranian custody.  And we’re certainly going to want to understand more about how they were treated and what transpired while they were in the hands of the Iranians.  So there’s not that much that I can say about that now, principally because we’re still understanding exactly what transpired.

Q    Do you know if the President saw the photos or video of them being arrested or detained, or whatever term you want to use?  And did he have a reaction to them?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if he’s seen the photos, to be honest with you.

Q    In an interview, the Vice President said this morning that the U.S. did not apologize in order to get their release, but do you know if the idea of having the U.S. apologize was ever discussed, or was that ever something that Iran wanted?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware that the prospect of the United States issuing a formal apology was ever discussed.  It certainly did not occur.

Q    — think the sailors should have been detained in the first place?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we have been focused on primarily is the safety of our soldiers — of our sailors.  We obviously were pleased that they were released promptly and allowed to continue their journey.  We’ve received assurances from the Iranians that that is what would happen, and it did.

As it relates to the details of the circumstances that led to them being taken into custody by the Iranians and what exactly transpired while they were in custody, we’re still trying to learn more about how exactly that all happened.  And so that’s why I’m reluctant to say much more about it at this point.

Q    Can you tell us whether President Obama saw Governor Haley’s response to his State of the Union address or is aware of what she said, and what he thinks about it?  I mean, not the part where she criticized him, but the part we all care about — the rest of it.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  The President did not get a chance to watch it live.  We were still traveling back from the Capitol while she was delivering the response.  The President has read news accounts of it, so he certainly is aware of her response.

Look, I think at the White House we took note of it for the same reasons that you did.  She was willing to do something that a lot of other Republicans — leading Republicans have been unwilling to do, which is to actually articulate a commitment to some core American values that some leading Republican presidential candidates are speaking out against, or at least speaking in a way that contradicts those values.  And her willingness to stand up and speak out against that took some courage, and it was rather conspicuous, given the willingness of a lot of other leading Republicans to either ignore it or to try to sweep it under the rug.  In some cases, we’ve seen leading Republicans be totally coopted by it.

Look, that doesn’t mean that we agree with Governor Haley on everything; we surely don’t.  But her willingness to stand up for some important principles was noted, and it took courage.  And for that, she deserves credit.

Q    Back to the Omaha portion of this.  You mentioned Nebraska’s economic situation being much better than in many parts of the country.  To what extent can you tie that to the administration’s policies?  And then, also, does he have any plans to do anything with Warren Buffett while he’s in town?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m certainly no expert on Nebraska’s economy. I think there are a number of things that have contributed to the kind of durable economy in Nebraska that we’ve seen.  A couple of things come to mind.  The first is, we’re producing more oil and natural gas in the United States than we ever have before.  I think that is consistent with the kind of approach that we have seen to energy policy that the President has pursued.  There also clearly is a growing renewable energy industry in Nebraska, and that’s the kind of energy future that the President envisions for our economy and for our country.

And I think a state like Nebraska is a pretty good indication of how communities all across the country can benefit from smart investments in wind energy production, in particular. We’ve seen rural communities all across the country actually be pretty strong when it comes — under the President’s leadership, as a result of the President’s policies.  Nebraska is also a state that would benefit significantly from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that the administration is seeking to negotiate.

So despite the kind of economic strength that we already see in Nebraska, the President believes that there’s more that we can do that would make the people of Nebraska even more prosperous.  And the President is pursuing policies that are consistent with that.

You asked about Mr. Buffett.  I don’t know Mr. Buffett’s schedule today.  The President obviously knows Mr. Buffett pretty well, and I think if there’s an opportunity for the President to visit with Mr. Buffett today, I’m sure the President will take advantage of it.

Q    We reported on this meeting with the families of the slain police officer.  Can you tell us any more about what’s going to happen with that meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  I know that meeting will occur, but I don’t have a lot more details for you now.  Why don’t we touch base after the meeting has transpired, and we’ll see if I can get you some more information.

Q    — the police officer’s family also?  The police officer’s family, which has been reported —

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  That’s what he asked about.

Q    Back to Iran and the detaining of U.S. sailors — why didn’t the President mention it in the State of the Union address?  And you did tick off quite a few concerns that the administration continues to have with Iran.  Is this the latest in a series of moves that would consider the trustworthiness of Iran as you go forward with the Iranian nuclear deal, which I assume is going to be finalized as the JCPOA is finalized this weekend, I hear.

MR. EARNEST:  As it relates to the address last night, at the White House we reached the conclusion that further elevating the situation by including it in the State of the Union address would not be the most effective way for us to assure the safe return of our sailors.  And I think the outcome, which is the release of the sailors just hours after the President completed his address is a pretty powerful endorsement of that strategy.

At this point, I would not have any reason to think that this incident would have an impact on the implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  As we’ve discussed earlier, the timing of when this so-called implementation day will occur is dependent primarily on the Iranians, because we have been resolute about the fact that the Iranians will not benefit from sanctions relief unless and until they have fulfilled every single commitment that they made in the context of the joint agreement.  And we are going to require that they provide sufficient access to international inspectors so that those steps can be independently verified prior to any sanctions relief being offered to the Iranians.

So that means that we’re still waiting on Iran to take all the steps that they are required to take, and for international experts to confirm that those commitments have been fulfilled consistent with the agreement.  And only after both of those things have transpired will we move forward with formalizing our part of the bargain, which is offering Iran relief from the sanctions that were put in place as a result of their nuclear program.

As we’ve discussed previously, this agreement won’t have any impact on the existing sanctions that are related to some other aspects of Iran’s nefarious behavior, including their support for terrorism and their new development of their ballistic missile program.

Q    Josh, would the President have delivered a different address if Donald Trump were not the leading candidate, or one of the leading candidates for President on the Republican side?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me try to answer your question this way.  For those of you who have been covering the President for a while now — and as I sort of look around the group here, I think many of you have — I think you can draw a pretty straight line from the speech that the President delivered at the Democratic Convention in Boston in July of 2004 through the address that the President delivered eight years and two weeks ago in Des Moines, Iowa, on the night of the Iowa caucus, through to his first and second inaugural addresses.  In each of those high-profile addresses, the President offered up a fundamentally optimistic vision for the country.  And he delivered those addresses — at least a couple of those addresses at times when people had reason not to be feeling particularly optimistic.

At least one of those addresses — I have the first inaugural in mind — was delivered in the depths of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  And even looking at that address, you sensed the kind of optimism and possibility that the President senses about this country’s future.

And I do think that last night’s speech was a reiteration of that vision for the country.  And the vast majority of those speeches were delivered before several of the current Republican candidates for president walked across the national political stage — not just Mr. Trump, but even people like Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio.

Q    It’s hard not to connect some of his comments with Mr. Trump.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s hard not to see the stark contrast in approach — I would readily acknowledge that.  I think that was pretty obvious even to people who are only sort of paying attention to politics.  And I think the President alluded to that last night, that elections are about making choices, and the American people will ultimately have the opportunity to make their own choice.  And I feel confident that, while Democrats pride ourselves in having a big tent party and representing and incorporating a lot of different views into our party, that the core values and principles of what it means to be a Democrat are consistent with the optimism that the President articulated last night.

And that does stand in stark contrast to the core message that’s being delivered by basically all of the Republican candidates for president.  I don’t think that’s much of an exaggeration.  I know that Mr. Trump gets most of the attention, but again, we’re seeing all of the Republican candidates make a rather overt appeal to people’s anxieties and fears and insecurities about the future.

And I’m not in a position to talk about the strategy that that they’re pursuing for their campaign, but I am in a position to note that the kind of vision that they have for the country is quite different than the kind of vision and leadership that the President has been talking about for more than a decade now.

Q    What do you think about the Republican Party that they tapped someone who they knew would come out swinging against Donald Trump to be their response?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, you guys have written about how — that there seem to be a number of differences of opinion inside the Republican Party right now.  What consequences that has to the election, that’s something for you guys to analyze in advance and for us all to consider after Election Day has occurred.

But, look, what the President did yesterday was — last night was to articulate a vision for governing the country.  And it was not rooted in opposition to another person or another politician, or even another politician’s views.  What the President laid out yesterday reflects what he thinks is the best about this country and what he thinks is the most effective approach any American President can take to leading the greatest country on Earth.

This issue of Republicans in Congress, too — they seem to be struggling in terms of putting together and articulating their own vision of a government — or a governing agenda that is something other than opposing the President’s agenda.  There is no better example of that than citing what House Republicans did just within the last week.  They voted for like the 60th time to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  They haven’t voted on their own affirmative health care proposal even once.  And in some ways, that is actually the clearest illustration of the challenge that’s facing the Republican Party.

And the reason that that’s a challenge for them is — the whole reason that we have a political debate in this country is that people have the opportunity to put forward their ideas; they defend them in the public square; they advocate for them; they marshal evidence; they present data to try to persuade people that the vision that they’re offering up is in the best interest of the country.  And Republicans seem to be struggling rather mightily right now in articulating their own coherent agenda for how they would lead the country.

But again, that is a challenge that is facing not just Republicans who aspire to the White House; this is a significant challenge for Republicans that right now are entrusted with majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Q    As you well know, Omaha is practically within shouting distance of Iowa.  I think it’s an Iowa media market.  Is the President’s visit — did that factor into today’s visit in terms of trying to influence the debate in Iowa?  And is this indicative of how he’ll try to influence the political debate over the course of the year, as he talked about doing last night?

MR. EARNEST:  I think I would describe the geographic circumstance as an appealing side benefit of this trip.  I’m confident that — the President wanted to travel to a state that demonstrated his commitment to talking to people other than just his supporters.  And going to a state like Nebraska that didn’t give him any electoral votes in 2012, gave him a single electoral vote in 2008, I think is a pretty good way for the President to start that effort.

And that means not just giving a speech before large audiences — although that’s a valuable way to give as many people as possible the opportunity to see the President makes a trip — but it also should include a conversation, a real conversation with somebody local.  And so the President is going to do both of those things on this trip.

I don’t know how much of an impact it will have on the ongoing political debate across the river.  But, look, if that is — if that geographic circumstance is a reason for more people to pay attention to what the President has to say today, then we obviously welcome it.

Q    I think there is a bid to put the 2nd District back in the Democratic column in 2016 and try and do the “blue dot” again for the Democrats.

MR. EARNEST:  That will be — I’ll just say that it was a point of pride to those of us who worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 that we did succeed in winning that electoral vote.  I suspect, though I don’t know, that when we get to the general election that whoever the Democratic candidate is would be similarly proud to earn the support of that congressional district.  But that’s something that somebody else is analyzing  — but probably not yet.  We’ll wait until the general election before we do that.

Q    He talked last night about one of the few regrets that he has is that the polarization, the division hasn’t gotten any better; maybe worse.  If you contrast his visit from 2008 when there was kind of this soaring message of unity to today, and you look at 2008 when he did carry the district — 2012, much different story — any reflections on kind of how you see that in Omaha, the kind of division that has deepened over time?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, what the President was really talking about was more about the political division and debate in Washington.  It’s more profound there.  You could probably make a case that some of the partisan divisions and rancor has grown more significant across the country, too, but it’s been much more pronounced in Washington, D.C., at the core of our system of government, in the United States Congress.  That’s primarily what the President was referring to.

But, look, the President did acknowledge that that situation has worsened under his presidency.  And the President did acknowledge that that was the source of some regret.  And he acknowledged that a different President with greater skills, like somebody like President Lincoln or President Roosevelt, might have been more effective in bridging that divide.  But the President also said that in his remaining year in office that he was actually going to try to be better, that he was going to try to do more and be more effective in trying to bridge that divide. And we obviously would welcome that kind of sentiment from leaders on the other side of the aisle, too.

That might have been part of what Governor Haley was articulating.  But I hope she’s not the only one.

Q    — he’s going to, do you know what the subject of her letter was, what she wrote to say to the President in the letter?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me pull together some more information on this.  I don’t want to over-promise on what we can provide, because we’re trying to walk the fine line of protecting this woman’s privacy, but obviously we’re going to her house, right? So let me just figure out where we’re going to draw that line, but, yes, I will get you some additional information.

Q    On that Putin call — I know you’re doing a readout later, but is there anything important we should ask here?  How long it lasted, or any agreement on a timeline, anything like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I know of.

Q    Back to King Abdullah for a moment.  Is there something that the administration wants him to do beyond what he’s doing, especially, perhaps, committing ground troops inside Syria?

MR. EARNEST:  I know there were a number of discussions that the King had while he was in D.C., not just with the Vice President, but also with Secretaries Kerry and Carter.  I don’t have a specific readout of those conversations.  Let me just say that we obviously value the contribution that the Jordanians are already making to our counter-ISIL campaign.  The President himself has said that we’re going to spend some time talking to all of our partners in that coalition about what more they can do to reinforce our efforts against ISIL, not just militarily, but in terms of other aspects of our campaign — counter-finance, countering their radical online strategy.

I will tell you that the President’s brief conversation with King Abdullah was not in pursuit of any specific request like that.  The President’s visit with King Abdullah was largely social.  We heard that King Abdullah was here at the airport at the same time that the President was, and so the President wanted to go by and say hello.

So for more details for any specific asks that were made of the King while he was visiting the United States over the last couple of days, I think you should check with my colleagues at the National Security Council who can give you more details about all of the conversations the King had while he was here.

Q    Do you know whether there was some discussion of committing to retake Palmyra —

MR. EARNEST:  I know that there has been a variety of discussions about how to enhance the ground forces with whom our coalition can partner to more effectively push back ISIL.  But I don’t know if that entailed any specific asks of the Jordanians. It might have, but I just don’t know.

Q    On Medicaid, is there a Medicaid announcement coming up?  And is that going to be — presumably that’s what Louisiana is all about.

MR. EARNEST:  — initiatives being discussed in both states. We’re traveling to Nebraska.  There are a number of — the Republican governor of Nebraska has indicated his strong opposition to expanding Medicaid.  However, there are a number of Republican state legislators who do believe that expanding Medicaid in Nebraska would be beneficial to the state.

Q    You just happen to have a list.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  I happen to have some statistics.  If Nebraska were to expand Medicaid, an additional 42,000 people who do not currently have insurance would be able to get health care coverage if Medicaid were expanded in Nebraska.

And that would actually have a significant positive impact on the lives of 42,000 Nebraska citizens.  But it would also have a positive impact on the Nebraska economy and a positive impact on the Nebraska budget.  Right now you’ve got a state budget that has to bear that burden.  And again, the benefits of Medicaid expansion is that the federal government is currently promising to take on the vast majority of that cost — 90 percent of that cost.

So that’s why most states have concluded it’s a no-brainer for states to make this decision, that there are important economic benefits, there are fiscal benefits to the state, and it can make a significant difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people.

That’s a good transition because that’s obviously why we were pleased to see the announcement from the Governor of Louisiana just yesterday, I believe, the newly-elected Democratic Governor of Louisiana has said that he would use his executive authority to expand Medicaid in Louisiana.  And the number of people in Louisiana who will benefit from this is significant.

Q    You’ve got that number right there.

MR. EARNEST:  I do.  In fact, it’s so significant I’ve committed it to memory.  (Laughter.)  The Governor’s office says that about 300,000 people in Louisiana would benefit from this decision.  And that’s why — yes, just in Louisiana alone.  And that’s why the Governor’s office has said that they want to work as aggressively and as quickly as they can to implement this expansion.

I haven’t touched base with my HHS colleagues to determine exactly what sort of timeline would be realistic, but we are obviously going to join them in working hard to try to implement this as quickly as we can.  And we obviously are pretty excited about that decision from Governor Edwards.

Q    Will the Governor be at the event tomorrow?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know yet, actually, but I’ll try to find out in advance of tomorrow.

Q    On the Nebraska Governor, he originally said that he was not going to be able to make the welcoming event, but apparently he was able to fit it into his schedule.  So any comment on — are you guys pleased that he was able to rearrange things?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know the details of his schedule or what changed in his schedule that allowed him to participate in one form or another today.  We’re obviously pleased that he’ll be at the airport to greet the President.  I know that the President is looking forward to meeting him.

Again, traditionally, when the President travels across the country, he is met at the airport by a local leader, often the governor, whether that person is in the President’s party or not. And we’re obviously pleased that — I think Governor Ricketts is pursuing the kind of political tradition that Nebraskans have long adhered to, that regardless of political party that when you’re the governor of the state and the President of the United States is coming to visit, then you extend to him a courteous and proper Midwestern welcome.

And so, again, Governor Ricketts I’m sure would be the first to say that there are a lot of — plenty of things he disagrees with the President about, but, look, you’ve got to give credit to Governor Ricketts for putting aside those differences and extending the kind of courtesy to the President of the United States that I think the vast majority of Nebraskans would expect.

Good.  Thanks, guys.  It will be a fun trip.


2:15 P.M. EST