En Route Seattle, Washington—(ENEWSPF)—November 24, 2013 – 3:27 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One for our three-day trip out west. Before we get to your questions, I do have a quick — at the top a little bit of news.
Prior to departing the White House this afternoon, the President called Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel today to discuss the P5-plus-1 first-step agreement with Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The two leaders reaffirmed their shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The President noted that the P5-plus-1 will use the months ahead to pursue a lasting, peaceful and comprehensive solution that would resolve the international community’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Consistent with our commitment to closely consult with our Israeli friends, the President told the Prime Minister that he wants the United States and Israel to begin consultations immediately regarding our efforts to negotiate a comprehensive solution. The President underscored the United States will remain firm in our commitment to Israel, which has good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions.
The President and Prime Minister agreed to stay in close contact on this issue as the P5-plus-1 and Iran negotiate a long-term solution over the next six months.
Q Josh, has that readout been made public yet?
MR. EARNEST: It has not, or — I guess it has now. (Laughter.)
Q What was the Prime Minister’s reaction? Can you tell us that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we traditionally don’t read out their side of the calls. I can tell you that the call lasted about a half hour, and it was a useful discussion.
Q The Prime Minister has called it a “historic mistake” that the President specifically addressed those concerns.
MR. EARNEST: What the President was focused on was ensuring that the Prime Minister understood that the United States remains completely committed to closely consulting with Israel throughout this process. He also reiterated that the United States and Israel are committed to the same goal, which is ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. That is, for rather obvious reasons, in the clear national security interests of the nation of Israel. That’s why the Prime Minister — that’s why Prime Minister Netanyahu has made his views on this topic so clearly known.
It’s also the President’s view that ensuring that Iran doesn’t obtain a nuclear weapon is also in the national security interests of the United States, not just because of our enduring security alliance with the nation of Israel, but because of all — but also because of the significant destabilizing consequences for an already volatile region of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. So our position on these topics has been clear for some time.
The one other thing that I’ll note is something that has also been noted publicly, which is that some of the aspects of this interim phased agreement that was announced late last night directly address many of the concerns that both the United States and Israel share about Iran’s path to obtaining a nuclear weapon; that there are three clear paths that the United States and Israel have been concerned about. And each of them is addressed in this agreement.
The first is, there is the obvious concern about the plutonium heavy water reactor that Iran is constructing at Arak. Under this agreement all activities at that — to build that reactor have stopped. The second is the obvious concern about Iran’s stockpile. And Iran has agreed to neutralize an important portion of that stockpile.
The third concern that’s been harbored, again both by the United States and the Israelis, is that Iran would use the cover of talks to continue to make progress on their nuclear program. But under this agreement, that progress has been halted, and in some cases, as I pointed out with respect to the stockpile, has been rolled back.
So there is an opportunity in this six-month window for diplomacy to work toward achieving the goal that the United States and Israel share, which is ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
Q Josh, is there a timetable for the next round of talks? The Iranians have said they’ll be ready to start right away.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a date to announce at this point, but based on what I said about the President’s desire to immediately begin consultation with the Israelis, that should be an indication to you that the President — or that the United States, in coordination with our P5-plus-1 allies, are eager to get to work in this six-month window that is before us right now.
Q And can you talk at all about some of the main White House players in this negotiation and in this dialogue over the last several months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there has been some reporting on this overnight about some of the bilateral communications that have occurred between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime. I don’t have a lot of details to fill in. Suffice it to say that there was a robust debate during the President’s first run for this office back in 2007 about the wisdom of bilateral communications between the U.S. and Iran.
So this is something — I only raise that to remind you that these kinds of conversations are something — is something that the President has long advocated. The other thing that I would reiterate is that those conversations — or those communications between the U.S. and Iran were useful in informing the P5-plus-1 process. They were useful in generating some ideas that could contribute constructively to that process. But they were in no way a replacement or a substitute for what we believe is the proper venue for this agreement — for an agreement to be reached, which is the P5-plus-1 talks.
But we have been pretty candid about the letters that the President has exchanged with Iranian leaders. We have talked about some of the bilateral communications that have occurred in the context of U.N. meetings. And I know there’s been some reporting on some other aspects of that communication, but there’s nothing that I can get to — into detail from here.
Q Can you say who’s been advising the President the most on this particular issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President — a number of the President’s national security team have been very involved in this. The most public aspects — or those who have been most publicly involved in this process have obviously been the Secretary of State and the Undersecretary of State, Wendy Sherman, who has been our point person for a lot of the P5-plus-1 talks.
But obviously, Susan Rice and Ambassador Power, in their roles at the United Nations, have been instrumental to all of this. But there are a number of members of the President’s national security team at the White House that have been involved, as well. And they will continue to be involved in that process moving forward.
Q Any examples?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I can share at this point.
Q Josh, what kind of outreach has the President and other members of the White House been making to Capitol Hill since last night? Have there been calls this morning? Are they reaching out the senators and House members? How is that working?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t go into any detail about those specific conversations, but given the late hour in which the agreement was struck yesterday, some of those conversations didn’t happen as promptly as we would otherwise plan for them to occur.
But last night, and certainly over the course of today, there have been a number of conversations between senior White House officials and members of Congress. These discussions in the context of the P5-plus-1 have attracted a lot of attention on Capitol Hill for very good reason. And we have worked very closely with Congress throughout this process to keep them informed about those conversations.
As we pointed out a couple of times, Congress has played a really important role in this broader process. It was Congress that passed the important sanctions that took effect a couple of years ago that have had a decimating impact on the Iranian economy. We’ve seen the Iranian currency plummet as a result of some of the steps that Congress has passed. So we are committed to working closely with Congress to ensure — well, let me back up. Because of those sanctions, Iran has taken advantage of a diplomatic opportunity. Those sanctions are what brought the Iranian regime to the table.
So we want to continue to work closely and strategically with Congress as we pursue the opportunity that’s been presented by this diplomatic window to actually achieve our ultimate goal here, and that’s to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q And some Republican lawmakers have been sharply critical of the deal, including Senator Cornyn, last night, who said it was a distraction, or — I don’t know if he used exactly that word, but some variation of that in a tweet from the health care rollout. And I’m wondering if the White House has any response to that.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any direct response to that. I know that there are many people who took a rather dim view of that perspective, both for its plausibility and for its — what it says about our foreign policy priorities in this country. So I’ll leave it to others to make that assessment.
Q If Congress passes new sanctions, will the President veto them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you have — what we’ve seen from Senator Reid, Majority Leader Reid and others is that — I think even Senator Corker made this comment after meeting with the President earlier this week — that the Congress had agreed to hold off on passing additional sanctions because of the need to act strategically. And so there is a sense that we want to work closely with Congress, and I think despite the impertinent tweets of some members of the Senate Republican conference, that most senators recognize that there is a constructive and important role for congress to play as we move forward. And we will certainly be consulting closely with them as they do that.
Q What is the final goal of the final round of this agreement? Is it full dismantlement of the centrifuges or is it something less?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we’ve been crystal clear from the beginning about what the goal is, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That goal hasn’t changed. That is a goal that is shared by all of the P5-plus-1 partners. That is a goal that is shared by the Israelis. That is a goal that is shared by the Saudis.
So we’ve been pretty clear about what exactly we are seeking to achieve here. And that’s what so valuable about this first phase of this agreement, which is that it does for the first time in nearly a decade halt any progress that Iran has made on its nuclear program and rolls back some key aspects of it that were of particular concern to the U.S., our P5-plus-1 partners and our Israeli allies, and that was the plutonium reactor, the stockpile of — some of their uranium stockpiles, as well as this idea that Iran would use diplomatic talks as cover to continue to make progress on its nuclear program.
So while this phased agreement is only a first step, it’s a really important first step because we are achieving something that we haven’t achieved in nearly a decade.
Q Josh, back to sanctions. Senator Schumer today said that this agreement more likely will bring Democrats and Republicans together in December to pass more sanctions. So how damaging to this agreement would congressional action on further sanctions be, even if the President were to veto them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal — sanctions have always been a means to an end. And the first — the sanctions that have been passed by Congress thus far have been instrumental, as I pointed out, to achieving the end, which is opening up a diplomatic window, bringing Iran to the table so that we could try to resolve our differences with Iran — and when I say our differences with Iran, I mean the international community’s differences with Iran — that we could resolve those differences peacefully. That has been — that is, in the President’s view, as the Commander-in-Chief, it’s his view that that’s the most enduring way for us to achieve our ultimate goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
What’s important about that is that these sanctions were successful not just because they imposed severe limits on commerce between Iran and the United States, but rather that these were sanctions that were implemented in coordination with countries all around the world that, frankly, because of the President’s leadership on the international community, that we went out and have worked closely with the Russians and the Chinese on implementing these sanctions. We’ve worked closely with India and South Korea, who have strong commercial relationships with Iran to enforce these sanctions.
And the concern is that rather than capitalizing on the diplomatic window that’s opened up, doubling down on sanctions at this point would actually undermine the international coalition that we built. And that is why we have urged Congress to act strategically, as they have thus far, to bring pressure on the Iranian regime to reach a diplomatic solution, but do that in a way that it doesn’t actually undermine the broad international pressure that’s been brought to bear that’s been so critical to getting us to this place.
Q Josh, you mentioned that the President talked about this in 2007 and 2008. What role has he played in these talks and in this issue over the last several months? And at what point did the White House see the possibility for an agreement like the one that was signed this morning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, you’ll remember, Jeff, that there is a — that this has been a theme — that the President’s desire to extend an open hand to the Iranian regime to try to resolve our differences diplomatically and peacefully has been a theme of the President’s foreign policy since the first day he took office. The President’s commitment to trying to achieve a diplomatic solution to achieve our goals was a prominent theme of the President’ first inaugural address, and has been ever since.
So this has been a priority for some time. In terms of the turning point, I think that a lot of observers rightly point to the election of President Rouhani in June, that he was somebody who was elected with what many people assessed to be a clear mandate to try to relieve the economic pressure that Iran was feeling as a result of the sanctions that the United States had put in place, and as a result of the close international coordination and implementation of those sanctions. So there’s no doubt that that was an important marker in the road to progress.
But, again, what we have achieved so far is only a first step. It’s an important first step in that it does halt and roll back some of the Iranian nuclear program for the first time in a decade, but over the course of six months. This is a really important period here to try to resolve our differences with Iran peacefully. That is certainly something that the American people strongly support. It reflects the view of the international community that this is something that we should try to resolve peacefully. It’s also the view of the President that the agreement would be more enduring and would provide greater security to Israel, to our allies and partners in the region, and to the international community if we can resolve our differences on this issue peacefully. So that’s why —
Q Does he feel vindicated at all by this, given the context of the campaign?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if he feels vindicated, but I think any impartial observer would acknowledge that the strategy that the President has been talking about for more than six years has yielded some important, if preliminary, results.
Q Josh, Foreign Minister Zarif said that if there are any new sanctions, the deal is off. So is it also the administration’s understanding that if sanctions are passed in Congress, by Congress, even if they don’t kick in for another six months, that this deal falls apart?
MR. EARNEST: The President has been very clear that he does not believe that Congress should pass additional sanctions at this time. And that’s something that we’ve been pretty clear on for some time. That’s why we were pleased to see the comments of Senator Corker and Senator Reid and other influential senators who have been following this closely who recognize that taking a strategic approach to applying our sanctions regime is the best way to for us to make progress and ultimately achieve success in this endeavor.
Q I also have a question on Obamacare.
Q — just one more.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll come back to your question.
Q Six months puts you kind of at the heart of next year’s midterm elections, and I’m wondering if the President has considered what the consequences of failure would be to the politics of this country, what it would do to Democrats if there were to be a failure in negotiations coming at that particular time.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t asked the President this specific question, but I feel confident in saying that the President is concerned about the consequences of reaching a final agreement on a whole host of things that are more important than politics. The stakes here are high, which I think is — I think you guys all recognize that. That’s why we’re spending so much time talking about this on a Sunday afternoon.
The stakes are high insofar as the consequences of failing to make progress and reach an agreement are much bigger than politics; that the enduring threat posed by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon does pose a significant threat to the national security of Israel, who is our closest ally in the region. It does pose a significant national security threat to other allies and partners that the United States has in the region. It could have a destabilizing impact on what is a volatile part of the world that would be bad for our own national security interests.
So we have to walk quite a ways through the priority list before we get to the political implications of these conversations.
Q I just have one technical question. The sanctions relief has been numbered around $7 billion, I think $6-7 billion. How much of that are U.S. sanctions, and how much of that are the other — world sanctions from other allies, if you know?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that I do. I actually would refer you to the Treasury Department. David Cohen is somebody else who has been intricately involved — to go to your earlier question — somebody who has been intricately involved in putting the sanctions regime in place. He’s something of an expert on the subject. And so you might try to track him down either today or tomorrow. He can answer some of the more technical questions about the impact of the sanctions relief that has been under — the subject of so much discussion.
Any other Iran questions that we want to cover?
Q Any other calls planned?
MR. CARNEY: Not that I know of right now. But if we’re in a position to read out additional calls I’ll definitely let you know.
Q So on the announcement that the January 1st enrollment deadline has been pushed from December 15th to — by another eight days. Some insurance companies say they’re not certain they can meet that deadline and it’s going to depend on how many people sign up in those final days. So the question I have is, first, did the administration consult with the insurance companies to make sure they could meet the deadline? And then, secondly, is there a contingency plan if these enrollments aren’t processed in time?
MR. EARNEST: Throughout this process as we’ve worked to implement the Affordable care Act, we have been closely consulting with insurance commissioners in individual states as well as insurance companies themselves. Over the last couple of weeks you’ve seen the President himself meet with the leaders of — or executives of some of the largest insurance companies in the country, and the President met with some of the representatives of insurance commissioners all across the country.
That is only one example of the extensive ongoing coordination between the administration and people who have a significant stake in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. So, yes, we have been in close communication with insurance companies about the best way to implement some of these aspects of the law.
I hadn’t seen the comments that you’re referencing, but I can assure you that we’ll be in close coordination with those who have made those comments to try to work with them to ease this transition period. That ultimately is what we’re talking about here — that implementing the Affordable Care Act over the course of the next six months, this is essentially a transition period for a lot of Americans and for a lot of companies. We’re building on top of and trying to reform the private health insurance market, and so we anticipated all along that there would be some glitches and some problems that we had to iron out. And that’s what we’re working to do.
And the whole reason for extending the enrollment period for eight days was to try to make that transition period a little bit easier, both for insurance companies and providers, but also for customers who want to take action and who want to buy insurance policies so that there’s not a lapse in their health insurance coverage. And we’ll be continuing to work with insurance companies and insurance commissioners to make that transition as smooth as possible.
Q The President, on this trip, is going to be raising money for the various campaign committees. And I’m wondering now, given the problems with the health care rollout, if he’s confident that Democrats can win back control of the House of Representatives in 2014.
MR. EARNEST: The President is very confident that can happen, and the President thinks there’s good reason for that — specifically, Democrats have laid out a very clear agenda for what they hope to achieve in the next Congress. Democrats have been very clear about putting the interest of middle-class families at the top of the agenda, and that expanding economic opportunity should be a top priority of the United States Congress.
And what we’ve seen, unfortunately, with this current Congress are steps taken by Republicans in Congress to undermine our economic recovery and our ability to bounce back from the worst recession since the Great Depression. And what we’ve seen is a pretty coherent plan from Democrats who believe that rather than trying to play political games that undermine the recovery, that we should be — that Congress and the administration should be working together to put in place policies that will actually support the recovery and help the private sector move forward in creating jobs and bouncing back from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
So that is the platform on which Democrats all across the country will be running. That is the platform of which the President is very strongly supportive. And the President is committed to working with members of either party, frankly, who share that goal. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is, we’ve seen that it’s almost exclusively Democrats who are articulating that as their priority. And that is, in my view, to the detriment of Republicans who are running for reelection and hoping to enter the Congress.
But, look, we’ll have the opportunity to have a pretty robust debate about this next year. But the President feels good about the chances that Democratic candidates all across the country will have to win elections on a platform that puts the interests of middle-class families and their economic well-being first.
Q Should Democrats not be running on health care then, given that the new health care law is being implemented now? Should that not be a focus of their campaigns?
MR. EARNEST: I think one reason that for generations we’ve seen that middle-class families have been worried about their economic well-being is because of our broken health care system; that for too long, middle-class families went to bed at night worried that they were just one illness away from having to declare bankruptcy.
And there was an interesting story in your newspaper today about families in Kentucky who were overjoyed about the prospect of having health care coverage that would allow them to go to the doctor, and the impact that would have on the pocketbook and the budget of their family. So running on health care and talking about the consumer protections that are in place thanks to the Affordable Care Act is certainly an important part of the kind of economic stability that’s so critical to so many middle-class families, and I’m sure will be the subject of intense debate in the next election.
But Democrats who make the case that these important reforms to our health care system are good for middle-class families, are good for small businesses, are good for reducing the deficit have a really strong case to make and a strong platform from which to run.
Q The President is going to two states that have had some success with health care enrollment, but he’s going to be talking about immigration and the economy instead. Is he trying to kind of stay away from the subject now and highlight two other issues that probably play more to his base?
MR. EARNEST: No. I wouldn’t rule out that the President might say something about health care in either of these places. I thing the value of the two events that the President has planned for Monday and Tuesday that aren’t related to campaigning are an opportunity to remind all of you and the American public that the economy is the President’s top domestic priority, and specifically, strengthening the economy and expanding economic opportunity for middle-class families.
He’ll do that on Monday where he’ll talk about reforming our broken immigration system. There are significant economic benefits of finally passing the compromise bipartisan measure through the House that’s already passed through the Senate. It would significantly add to economic growth I think over the next 20 years — something like $1.5 trillion would be added to the economic growth. And we would actually see the deficit decline by about $850 billion over that same period.
So there’s significant economic benefits for passing common-sense immigration reform. The President will talk about that on Monday.
And then on Tuesday, the President is going to visit one of the most powerful engines of economic growth in Southern California, the entertainment industry, on Tuesday. And in his visit to DreamWorks, he’ll talk about how some of the policies that the President has put in place and has urged Congress to pass stand to do more to support our economic recovery. And so that should be an opportunity for the President to focus on that priority at that event.
But each of those things is related to the economic well-being of middle-class families in the same way that ensuring that every middle-class family has access to quality, affordable health insurance is critical to their economic well-being as well.
Q Do you have a sense that the President is planning to do quite a bit more for the 2014 elections than he did for 2010? Just looking at the fundraising schedule alone, it seems like there’s a stepped-up effort on his part.
MR. EARNEST: At the beginning of this year, the President did make a commitment to the party committees that he would participate in a set number of events to benefit their committees’ fundraising efforts, and that is a commit that the President has lived up to.
In an off-year — in the year before an election like this, I think the most tangible way that an incumbent President of either party, frankly, can benefit his party’s prospects in congressional races is to try to help them raise money. And that’s something that the President has been very committed to over the course of this year, certainly in the last several weeks, as anybody who has been paying attention to the President’s travel schedule has surely noticed. And I would anticipate that the President’s efforts on that front will continue into next year.
But I don’t have anything off the top of my head to announce about our plans for next year, but suffice it to say I anticipate the President will maintain a pretty busy travel schedule as he advocates for the election of Democrats in the midterm elections.
All right. Thanks, everybody. Enjoy the rest of your flight.
3:59 P.M. EST