White House Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest Aboard Air Force One, April 18, 2013

En Route Boston, Massachusetts–(ENEWSPF)–April 18, 2013 – 9:35 A.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good morning, everybody.  Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Boston.  I have a couple of updates that I’ll walk through before we open it up to questions.

The first is you all have received an email overnight that the President signed a disaster declaration for the state of Massachusetts.  This will make additional federal resources available to state and local officials who are responsible for responding to the bombings in Boston.  So I wanted to flag that for you.

Second is prior to departure from the White House today, the President received a briefing on the latest — on the investigation into the bombings in Boston from his Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco.  As you know, over the course of the last couple of days, the President has been routinely briefed on these latest details, and so he got his latest briefing this morning in person prior to leaving the White House.

The third thing is many of you have asked whether or not the President will have the opportunity while he’s in Boston to meet with the families of those who were injured or killed in the bombings.  He will have that opportunity while he’s in Boston.  He’ll also have the opportunity to talk to some of the first responders, both professionals as well as the volunteers who were the first on the scene and were there to tend to those who were injured in the blasts.

I don’t have any details for you at this point about where and when those meetings and those visits will occur, but over the course of the day we’ll keep you updated on the President’s activities.

The last thing is I wanted to just give you a sense of who’s aboard Air Force one with us today.  Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation are onboard.  So both Massachusetts senators — Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Mo Cowan are aboard Air Force One this morning.  Also aboard are Congressman Michael Capuano, Congressman Steven Lynch, Congressman Richard Neal, Congressman Bill Keating, and Congressman John Tierney.  And then also aboard the plane is Vickie Kennedy, the wife of the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.

Those are all the updates I have at this point.  So we’ll open it up for questions.

Q:  Josh, do you guys have any update on the West, Texas situation?  Was the President briefed on it?  And at this point, are you guys looking at this as an accident, or any kind of possible suspicious activity there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by saying that the thoughts and prayers of the President and First Lady go out to those who were affected by the blast that we saw in West, Texas last evening.  It is clear just from the reports that the devastation there is quite significant and the Federal Emergency Management Administration is in coordination with their — with local authorities who are responsible for responding to that scene.  We have offered to make resources available and we are in close touch with the local authorities who are responsible for investigating and responding to that scene.

So at this point, I don’t have an update for you on the investigation.  If you have questions about — I’d urge you to check with the Texas Department of Public Safety and with local authorities for that.

Q:  Has President Obama been briefed on it?  

MR. EARNEST:  The President was briefed — I should have mentioned that — the President was briefed on this very, very early this morning.

Q:  What time?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have the exact time for you, but very early.  Prior to the briefing that he got from Lisa Monaco before his departure from the White House today.

Q:  Did they wake him up to give him a briefing, or was it —

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have those details.  I just know that he was informed of this very early this morning.

Q:  Do you know who the point person doing those briefings is?  Lisa Monaco is briefing on also this —

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have granular detail in terms of who is receiving the updates on these things.  Lisa Monaco is the President’s Homeland Security Advisor and so she obviously is playing an important coordinating role with the President.  She’s got an extensive background in homeland security issues.  And so it is her office that’s responsible for coordinating those functions inside the White House.

So, again, I don’t know who briefed him first thing this morning, but I can tell you that he will be regularly briefed on this situation, as he has been the others that have been going on the last couple of days.

Q:  Has he spoken with Governor Perry about this?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any calls to read out at this point, but if there are any additional calls I’m able to read out to you then I will.

Q:  Josh, on guns, he mentioned yesterday that it’s not over.  He said he’s going to take up some things today.  What is he planning on doing for the future to get it back going?

MR. EARNEST:   Well, it was apparent for those of you who saw the President’s remarks in the Rose Garden that the President continues to feel very passionately about the Congress taking the necessary steps, common-sense steps that would make our community safer.  The President indicated in his remarks that this is merely round one and that he’s ready to keep up the fight for this effort.

Fortunately, the President is not alone.  I think you saw a rather emotional and persuasive op-ed from former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in The New York Times this morning.  I think that passion — the passion of her feelings on this issue are evident.  And I think that reflects the passion that people all across the country feel about this issue, that there are too many families who’ve been altered forever by gun violence. 

And the President believes that, as you heard him say yesterday, that attempts to mislead the American public about the contents of the legislation are unconscionable and that the President will continue to work to mobilize support all across the country to get action through the United States Congress.  And the President has public opinion on his side, and the President will continue to mobilize that public opinion in support of these common-sense measures.

And, again, you can’t reiterate often enough — we can take these common-sense steps without infringing in any way on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.  The President believes powerfully that the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans should be protected.  But he believes just as strongly in taking common-sense steps that would protect the lives of innocent men, women, and children who all too often are tragically gunned down on the streets of too many cities all across this country.

Q:  Will he be calling senators and speaking out at public events again?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any specific updates for you, but I don’t think the President has indicated that he’s going to be shy about making his feelings on this issue known.

Q:  Josh, the President was really harsh on Republicans yesterday in the Rose Garden after the guns setback.  Does this mean that he’s given up trying to reach this consensus in the middle to achieve other parts of his agenda — immigration, budget-related topics?

MR. EARNEST:  Not at all.  First of all, the common-sense compromise that the President was advocating for was actually formulated by a conservative Republican and a moderate Democrat. So we’ve seen bipartisanship at work on this issue.  And in terms of consensus, 90 percent of the American public agrees with the President’s point of view and agrees with the compromise that was put forward by Senators Toomey and Manchin. 

So I think we’re pretty close to a consensus on this just as about everywhere except in the United States Congress.  And as the President alluded to yesterday, I think that is an indication of the pernicious influence that some special interests have in the United States Congress.  And that is going to require a vocalization of public opinion to overcome it.

At the same time, it’s an indication I think that even on a hotly contested issue — I mean, it shouldn’t be a hotly contested issue, but even in this case, what has been a hotly contested issue in terms of common-sense measures that would reduce gun violence — even that highly contested issue is yielding some bipartisan agreement.

We did see, in addition to that compromise measure that was formulated, again, by a conservative Republican and a moderate to conservative Democrat, we saw that there were a number of Republicans who also have or would describe themselves as conservative who voted for that legislation.  We just need to get more of them. 

But my point is, is that we should be able to find similar common ground on some of the other issues that the President is hoping will move through the Congress.  I think there’s a pretty good indication that we’re going to find some common ground and make some bipartisan progress on things like comprehensive immigration reform.  We’re at the beginning of that process so we’ll see how that moves forward. 

But I don’t see any reason why anybody who’s taking a look at what’s happening in Congress right now should despair about the possibility for bipartisanship.  I think what the President is frustrated by, in reaction to the gun vote yesterday, was a willingness to willfully distort the facts that were included in that legislation, and as I mentioned, the outsized influence that’s being exercised by some special interests in Washington, D.C. and the unwillingness of some members of the United States Senate to stand up to them.

Q:  Josh, I’m not going to ask you to preview the President’s comments, but can you give us any insight into how they took shape, how much of a hand he had in crafting them?

MR. EARNEST:  I know the President did spend some time working on his remarks.  You can expect that he will in his remarks offer his condolences on behalf of the First Lady and his family, but also on behalf of the American people to the people of Boston.

At the same time, he will reiterate his confidence in the resilience of the people of Boston, and remind the American people that the way that the people of Boston have responded to this terror attack represents who we are as a country, and it represents the values that we cherish as Americans.  And you’ll hear more from the President on that today.  He’ll say it more eloquently than I just did.

Q:  Maybe an official on background or something could give us info on who took the lead in writing the speech — something along those lines.

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll see if we can get you some more information on this, but I know this is something that the President has spent a lot of time personally working on.

Q:  Josh, did the President monitor any of the news coverage yesterday about what was going on in Boston, with the reporting that wound up being retracted by a couple of news outlets about arrests that they said were taking place but it turns out it hadn’t?  Had he monitored any of that and did he have any concerns about that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know whether or not he watched any of that news coverage, and I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to him about some of the conflicting reports that we saw yesterday. I would just reiterate something that the FBI mentioned yesterday, is to urge caution as we’re reporting out some of these facts.  There are often unintended consequences of these erroneous reports, so I would just encourage caution as people are working this story.

Q:  Can I just ask a question about North Korea?


Q:  North Korea has apparently made some of the first overtures in the most recent escalation of tensions for negotiations, to hold some kind of negotiations with all kinds of conditions and so on.  Has the President seen those?  And what is his reaction?  What does he make of it?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t had the chance to speak to the President about it, but I can give you a White House reaction.  I can tell you that our administration and the United States in general remains committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  The United States has been and remains open to authentic and credible negotiations that would implement the September 2005 statement of the Six-Party talks. 

The North Koreans, in the context of those talks and on other occasions, have articulated their willingness or their actual commitment to renouncing nuclear weapons and discontinuing their nuclear program.  In order for those talks to make progress and to be fruitful, it’s going to require the North Koreans to demonstrate some seriousness about living up to their obligations and keeping those commitments. 

So far we have not seen that.  I think that the belligerent actions and words that we’ve seen emanating from the North Korean regime actually indicate the opposite of that. 

So we’re open to credible, authentic negotiations, but it’s going to require clear signals from the North Korean regime, clear signals we haven’t seen so far, to live up to their international obligations and to keep their commitments to end their nuclear weapons program.

Q:  So it sounds like you’re saying that this latest offer from them you don’t view as credible.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’re open to credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but we also need to see some clear evidence that the North Koreans themselves are willing to live up to their international obligations, are willing to demonstrate their commitment to ending the nuclear program, something they’ve promise in the past.  And we haven’t seen that thus far.

Q:  Can I ask about Iran?  Diplomats this week are saying that Iran has tripled its production of high-tech machines that can be used — use nuclear weapons, some 600 of them in the last three months.  Does that suggest that the U.S. approach to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is not working?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have anything for you on those specific reports.  I think what you have seen from this administration is a coordinated effort to bring together the international community in opposition to the Iranian nuclear program.  I think just in the four or five years that the President has been in office, we have seen a pretty significant reversal of the dynamic that was in place in terms of dealing with the Iranians.  We saw an international community that was splintered and we saw an Iranian regime that was united, but in the four or five years that the President has been working on this issue, we’ve actually seen a dramatic reversal in that dynamic.  The international community is now united in our opposition, and we’ve worked with our international allies and partners to isolate the Iranian regime and put in place the toughest sanctions that have ever been put in place against them.

And there are indications that those sanctions are having an impact on the nation of Iran.  And what we’re seeking from the Iranians is a commitment to live up to their international obligations.  And the President has been pretty clear about his determination to ensure that they do that.

Q:  Can I just clarify one thing?


Q:  Is he speaking today to families of the victims who were killed, or the wounded, or both?

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll have some more updates as the day goes on in terms of — we will try to get you some details about who he’s talking to.

Q:  Josh, can I just ask is there — did the President give any indication this morning from his briefings about Boston that there’s been any advance in the case, any movement toward identifying a suspect or having someone in custody?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  It’s one that I’m unable to answer at this point.  I don’t want to read out any of the details of the briefings that the President has received.  So updates on the progress of the investigation will be announced by the FBI and so I’m going to leave it to them to report out those details. 

Thanks, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you.

9:51 A.M. EDT