En Route Boise, Idaho–(ENEWSPF)–January 21, 2015 – 11:47 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody, and welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way toward the beautiful state of Idaho. As you all know, this is the first opportunity that the President has had to visit the state of Idaho as President. The President did campaign in Idaho during his efforts to capture the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. But the President is looking forward to his return.
The President, in his remarks later today, will be echoing many of the themes that you heard him articulate last night in the context of the State of the Union address. In particular, one of the interesting things that they’re doing very well in Idaho is making the kinds of investments that are important to ensuring that they have a skilled, well-trained workforce. That’s had important economic benefits for the state of Idaho. It’s also had important economic benefits for middle-class families in Idaho.
And there is a good working relationship between some local businesses and Boise State University, and Boise State University also has a pretty thriving program when it comes to offering technical education, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. And the President wants to lift up those efforts.
What’s interesting about it is Idaho is a state that has a Republican governor, all of their statewide officials are Republican. They have substantial Republican majorities in both the state senate and the state house. They have two Republican members of Congress — both of them are Republican. And of course, they have two United States senators and both of them are Republican, too. But yet, at the same time, they recognize in their state how important it is to have a workforce that has access to training and education that’s good for their economy.
The point is there’s no reason that those kinds of investments need to break down along party lines, the Republicans, back in their home states, understand that these are common-sense investments that are important to middle-class families and are worthy endeavors. And the President will talk about that in his remarks later today.
So, with that, why don’t we go to your questions?
QCan you address Speaker Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to come and address a joint meeting of Congress next month to talk about Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Darlene, I’ve seen those news reports. I’ll say a couple things about it. The first is that we were notified of the Speaker’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning shortly before the official announcement. As it relates to the Prime Minister’s decision to travel to the United States and deliver those remarks, I’ll tell you that we’re going to reserve judgment on that until we’ve had an opportunity to speak to the Israelis about what their plans are for the trip and what he plans to say. So at this point, we’ll withhold judgment until we’ve had the opportunity to do that.
QWill he be visiting the White House on that trip?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all, and so we’ll wait to hear from them about what their plans are and what he plans to say in his remarks to Congress before we have a decision to make about any meeting. Obviously no invitation has been extended or no ask has been made because we haven’t talked to them about this trip.
I mean, it is — you’re sort of highlighting something that is interesting about this, which is that the typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there. That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when we travel overseas. So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.
But again, the President has spent more time and on more occasions talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu than any other world leader. So I am confident that at some point White House officials will have an opportunity to talk to their Israeli counterparts about the Israeli plans are. Then we can go from there.
QIt sounds like you’re — the White House is annoyed.
MR. EARNEST: No, I — look, I think what we’re saying is that we’re going to reserve judgment on the trip until we’ve had an opportunity to talk to them about what exactly they’re planning.
QIs it appropriate for him to use a speech to Congress to lobby on behalf of sanctions that are being considered right now?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not entirely clear to me that that’s exactly what they’re planning to do, though, again, some of that is because we haven’t heard from them about what exactly they’re planning to do. I can tell you when it comes to Iran sanctions, the President has been crystal clear about what he believes our strategy should be. Right now there is a diplomatic option that is being pursued. The only reason that that diplomatic opening was created is because this administration worked closely with Congress to put in place a sanctions regime that has crippled the Iranian economy. And that sanctions regime has only been successful because the administration has worked closely with our diplomatic partners around the globe to implement those sanctions.
So what the President has said is that if Congress were, as some advocate, to pass legislation right now in the midst of these diplomatic negotiations that imposes additional sanctions on Iran, what it could do is it could cause two things to happen. One, it could cause the talks to falter. And the reason for that is we reached an agreement early on in these talks that we wouldn’t put in place additional sanctions in return for the Iranians rolling back certain key aspects of their nuclear program. So passing additional sanctions at this point would be a pretty blatant violation of the deal in the minds of this broader international coalition that has been the key to the successful implementation of the sanctions regime. So what the President has said is that for right now, we should allow this diplomatic opening to continue to be pursued.
And the other thing I’ll say about — let me say two more things about this. The first is, Prime Minister Cameron, when he spoke at the White House on this issue when he was asked by Jon Karl about his appraisal of the wisdom of adding additional sanctions, was pretty clear, in his view, that it would have a bad impact on our ability to build an international coalition against Iran for the Congress to pass additional sanctions. So it’s not a situation where you have to stand here and take my word for it. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, was actually instrumental in working with our European allies to put these sanctions in place.
The second thing is, the reason that the President is pursuing this approach is that he believes it is clearly in the best interest — best national security interest of the United States of America. He also happens to believe that it is in the best national security interest of our best and closest friend in the region, Israel.
QJosh, has the President been briefed on the situation in Yemen, and does he have any thoughts on what’s going on there?
MR. EARNEST: The President has been updated on the situation in Yemen, both over the course of the day yesterday and already today. I can tell you that any time we’re dealing with a situation like what we’re seeing in Yemen our first concern is for the safety and security of Americans who are in the country.
Now, as I think the State Department has announced, several months ago the personnel at the embassy in Sanaa was drawn down to just essential staff. But we certainly are monitoring the security situation there very closely to make sure that we can do what’s necessary to protect Americans who are serving this country over there.
The second thing I’ll point out is that for all of the instability that we see in Yemen right now, we have succeeded in continuing to apply pressure against the AQAP leadership. And that obviously is our top priority in Yemen right now. There is this very dangerous al Qaeda affiliate that is operating in Yemen that is seeking to establish a safe haven there and we know has previously attempted to use that safe haven to attack the United States and our interests. So our efforts to continue to apply pressure to the al Qaeda leadership continue to this day and to this minute.
The third thing I’ll say is that we want the people of Yemen to resolve their differences, including their political differences, peacefully. And we support President Hadi and the Yemeni government as they seek to implement the constitutional process that’s in place. That certainly is the best way for us to ensure that the voice of the Yemeni people is heard in their political system, and that’s a process that we’re supportive of.
I will say that we’re gratified that we’ve heard comments sort of on both sides to this dispute that it is important for foreign embassies and other foreign citizens who are in Yemen to be protected. And we certainly are gratified by that, and we would encourage both sides to live up to that principle.
QJosh, Dianne Feinstein said yesterday, though — she’s reported to say that she thinks that the embassy ought to be closed. And I know there’s a lot of concern that’s going on about embassy security. Does the President think that the embassy needs to be closed? And if not, what’s the sort of trigger at which point you would say, all right, that definitely needs to be closed? Because I gather that’s probably, after Benghazi, not just a State Department-level decision. I gather the White House has probably got to be heavily involved in that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think as I mentioned, this is the first concern that we have. Our concern for the safety of Americans serving overseas is our top concern whenever we’re presented with a situation like this. And that is why there is careful White House scrutiny of the security situation there.
We obviously have security experts on the ground in Yemen and security experts at the State Department who can assess the security situation and can assess what steps are necessary to protect the safety and security of Americans. This is something that we take very seriously, and we are monitoring this minute by minute. And we’ll take whatever steps are necessary to protect American citizens up to and including evacuating the embassy if we determine that that’s necessary.
QJosh, I wanted to ask about the President’s tone last night in the speech. There was no mention — little mention of the elections last November. There was no note of congratulations for Senator McConnell as the new majority leader in the same way there was for Speaker Boehner four years ago when he won that post. In fact, he took a little bit of a swipe at McConnell over his comments on climate change. I’m wondering, is that the kind of approach that you think is going to yield success when the President has some things he wants to move through Congress this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things, Mike. The first is that the President has on a number of occasions had the opportunity to visit directly with Senator McConnell, and I think on at least a couple of those occasions, he’s had the opportunity to speak to all of you as he was speaking to Senator McConnell. And I know that in the context of that meeting the President convened at the White House with congressional leaders just days after the election, he did have the opportunity to congratulate Senator McConnell on his election victory and his leadership election victory as well. And those congratulations were heartfelt.
As it relates to the President’s discussion of climate change yesterday, I don’t think it would be accurate to suggest that the President was necessarily singling out any particular member of Congress for any particular comments they had made. I think the President was merely acknowledging what I think is a — what I know is a broadly accepted scientific fact, which is that human activity is having an impact on our climate. And it is critically important — in fact, the Department of Defense has identified this as a national security priority — that we need to take some steps to reduce carbon pollution and try to mitigate the impact of climate change on our communities all across the country.
QBut it was a pretty defiant speech. I mean, I was in the gallery watching Republicans, and some of them were shaking their heads sort of in disbelief of his tone. He does have things he wants to get done in Congress this year, and I’m wondering if that was the sort of right note to strike yesterday.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the State of the Union is an opportunity for any President to come before the Congress and the country and lay out their vision for moving the country forward. So it wouldn’t be surprising at all if there wasn’t at least one point in the speech where every single member of Congress, in both parties, might have disagreed with something that the President said.
But that’s the whole point of the State of the Union, is to articulate a clear vision for where you want to take the country, and that’s what the President did last night. I think the President was sincere about his desire to not just, I think as you described it, be open to the views that are articulated by members of Congress, but actually be committed to implementing those areas where there’s common ground about how we can move the country forward. And the President has said on many occasions that we can’t allow a disagreement over one issue to be a deal-breaker over all the others.
The other thing is I think the President also articulated this idea that if we have the kinds of debates that are worthy of the hallowed legislative body that is the United States Congress and this great country, then we are going to be able to find some common ground. It doesn’t mean that Republicans are going to embrace 100 percent of the President’s agenda, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to fold on their principles. Rather, there are some principles, however, where we should be able to find some common ground.
But the best example of this I thought was when the President referred to sort of this sense that we can all surely agree around this idea that parents shouldn’t have to worry about their son being harassed as he’s walking home just as strongly as we agree with the idea that a police officer should be able to come home at the end of his shift and do so safely and without his or her spouse worried about whether or not they’re going to walk through the front door on time.
So there are some basic principles that we can agree on. And it doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree on everything. There are vigorous disagreements about policy and about vision and about priorities, and the President didn’t paper over those in the speech, and I’m not going to paper over them here. However, what we’re most focused on is trying to find a little common ground.
QOn those many issues of disagreement, what did the speech accomplish? I mean, as Mike said, the heads were shaking on the Republican side.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Todd, I think, again, we’re going to have ample opportunity to sit down with Republicans to try to find some common ground. The President has started that work already, and we’re going to do that moving forward.
What the President accomplished last night was he, I think, feels good — I spoke to him briefly before I came back here — he feels good about the opportunity that he had to articulate a very clear vision about what he wants to do with his remaining two years in office, what his priorities are as he considers his remaining two years in office, and what potential exists for the country. He’s feeling energized and optimistic about all of that. And I think he is pleased to have a chance to present a coherent vision.
Q– (inaudible) —
MR. EARNEST: No, there’s nothing specific, but I think it was the general idea of how important it is to ensure that our workforce has access to the skills and training that are important to a middle-class job. It’s something the President believes the United States Congress should pass legislation to invest in. And Idaho is a good example of a state where they have made an effort to invest in those kinds of programs that ensures that middle-class families have access to skills and training that are critically important to getting a middle-class job. And that’s good for those middle-class families; the state of Idaho has found that that’s pretty good for their economy.
QShould we read anything into the fact that he visited two red states on this trip? Is this like part of the “no red states, no blue states” theme that came up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not a coincidence that the President traveled to two red states. He’s traveling to states where the congressional delegation in both states is entirely Republican, where they have Republican governors. But, yes, even despite the fact that those are states that are essentially led by Republicans, there are areas where their policy priorities are not entirely inconsistent with some of the policy priorities that the President has identified.
And I think the President does wants this to serve as a pretty useful illustration that there are some common-sense things where Democrats and Republicans can put aside our differences and actually focus on cooperating around issues that are most important to Middle East families.
QCan you give a little bit of a hint, a preview —
MR. EARNEST: Not yet. We’ll have an opportunity to do a little bit more of that tomorrow.
QAs you know, the fact that Idaho is on the President’s bucket list — three more states to go. Is he committed to visiting all 50 states before the end of his term?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if I’d describe it as his bucket list, because he’s been to Idaho before. But I do think the President would like to have the opportunity to visit all 50 states as President of the United States. So hopefully we’ll be able to get that done in the next two years.
QCan I ask you about — the State of the Union has turned into something other than just a one-hour-and-15-minute event — (inaudible.) What’s the strategy here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about that, Todd. I mean, obviously we spent the first couple of weeks in the month of January rolling out some specific policy ideas that the President did include in his State of the Union, and he used the occasion of the State of the Union to articulate to the country how all these policy ideas fit into a coherent vision for how to move the country forward, and more specifically, how to focus on middle-class economics.
There are a couple of reasons why we pursued this strategy. We pursued this, as you point out, a little bit differently than what we’ve done in previous years. The first is the President did sense a little momentum, that at the end of last year we made a series of bold policy announcements from moving to normalize relations with Cuba, to reaching a significant climate agreement with China, to taking executive action to bring some accountability to our broken immigration system — that there is some momentum built up in that policy process. And after taking a break through the holidays, the President was eager to build on that momentum that had been built up.
And I think we feel pretty good about our ability to have done that and rolling out ideas like how we can save a new borrower 900 bucks a year on their mortgage costs, or the idea of ensuring that good students can qualify for free community college. These are the kinds of bold ideas indicate that the President continues to be energized about what we can do for the middle class in this country and why that’s going to be so critical to the future of our economy.
And I do think that as a practical matter, by rolling out each of the policy proposals individually, it did prompt greater scrutiny of those issues. That’s a good thing because we believe wholeheartedly that these are good for the country.
I do think it also serves as a pretty useful illustration or contrast with the Republican agenda. You’ve got a new Republican majority in Congress; ostensibly, all of these members of Congress ran for office with a long list of promises about what they would do when they took office, and now that they’re in the majority, they ostensibly would have more power to pursue that agenda. And yet, in the first couple weeks of this month, all we’ve seen is them go back down sort of the well-worn path of the Keystone pipeline and undermining the Affordable Care Act.
I don’t think that — I don’t find it to be a particularly persuasive or compelling vision for the country. But Republicans will have an opportunity in the days and weeks ahead to more clearly articulate what it is that Congress can do to help middle-class families and to move the country forward. And the President certainly looks forward to discussing those policy ideas with them.
We’re hopeful — in the same way that Republicans, as you point out, Mike, in some apparent cases in the President’s speech were shaking their head, I’m sure as the President reads the policy proposals of the Republicans, whenever they put them forward, that he’ll shake his head a couple of times, too, because there are some areas where we disagree. But the President will be reading those ideas not looking for an opportunity to raise his objections, but looking for an opportunity to start a conversation about common priorities.
So we certainly look forward to Republicans fulfilling their responsibility to put forward a proactive governing agenda for the country. And when they do, the President is hopeful that we’ll be able to have a legitimate discussion and debate about where that common ground exists.
QQuick question about the speech. That line was not in the text about “I know because I won” the last elections — was that entirely spontaneous, or had he planned to say that?
MR. EARNEST: It was a spontaneous reaction to some of the — to the smattering of applause that was on the Republican side when the President noted that he’d run his last campaign.
QWas he offended by that?
MR. EARNEST: No, he wasn’t offended. I mean, I guess in some ways — I actually did have the opportunity to listen to the speech from the chamber last night; it was the first opportunity that I’ve had to do that. It was really — it was kind of cool. And it was — I didn’t just enjoy the opportunity because the President that I really believe in was giving a speech, but because it really was an important symbol of our democracy, and I enjoyed that.
But my personal experience aside, my initial reaction when I heard that smattering of applause was that’s quite a compliment, the Republicans are relieved that they don’t have to run against the President again. So I think that is probably the — I suspect that the President was feeling a similar sentiment. But maybe you’ll have the opportunity to ask him about that.
QMrs. Obama was clapping, too. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was thinking about this this morning and I suspect that that may be the case, that she was applauding as well, and that another off-the-cuff retort you could hear from the President is, I hear your applause but you’re not as relieved as my wife.
But, look, I think in the mind of the President, it is — and the President acknowledged this in the speech, too. He sort of had that line about there’s a time for us to have debates and to campaign, but there’s also a time for us to come together and govern and try to look for some common ground where we can make progress for middle-class families. And we’re hopeful that this is the right time for us to put politics aside and actually focus on what we can do for the middle class. That’s what President is doing. Hopefully Republicans will as well.
QTo go back to Netanyahu and the invitation to Netanyahu for a second. I believe the statement that Speaker Boehner’s office put out today said that they want him to come and address Congress about the threats that Iran poses to the region, which seems to suggest that they want him to come also and lobby for the sanctions. I mean, I know you said that you don’t want to comment until the administration has had some time to check in with Netanyahu and his people about the visit, but it seems pretty clear what the intent of the invite is for.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it does seem clear that they wanted him to come and talk about — they wanted the Prime Minister to come and talk about the threat from Iran. The President did that from the well of the House of Representatives last night and I think gave a pretty cogent explanation of what his strategy is and why he believes that’s in the best interest, again, not just of the United States but of our closest friend in the region, Israel.
So at this point, we’ll have some conversations with the Israeli government; we’ll allow the Israeli government the opportunity to preview what the Prime Minister intends to say. But the President has been pretty clear, and was last night — as recently as last night — about the strategy that he’s pursuing, about the wisdom of pursuing this diplomatic opening that exists, and why at this point adding additional sanctions would not be a good idea.
QJosh, on AUMF, the President obviously called for an authorization last night. This also came up in the congressional meeting a week ago. Is the President prepared to submit a draft of an authorization to Congress to begin the process there? Or can you shed any light on negotiations that might be going on in terms of collaboration on that draft?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that over the last several months there have been a number of conversations both with relevant committee leadership but also with some rank-and-file members as well about the text of a new AUMF.
As we’ve mentioned previously, the President believes he has all the legal authority that he needs right now to order the military actions that are currently underway. What the President said last night is consistent with what he said before, that he believes it would send a very clear signal and a strong signal to the American people, to our allies, and even to our enemies that Democrats and Republicans in the United States are united behind his strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
The President did have the opportunity to talk about this in the congressional meeting that he convened of bipartisan leaders last week. In the context of those discussions, the President did agree to put forward some language for Congress to consider. However, there were members of Congress in both parties who said, before you send us language we’d like to have the opportunity to talk to you and consult with you about what’s in that language. And the President agreed to do that, for one reason and one reason only, which is we want a bipartisan AUMF to emerge from this process. So we want to have a conversation with Democrats and Republicans about what that language should look like so that we can try to build bipartisan support for that language once it’s presented to the entire Congress.
QBecause the Speaker has insisted that the President send the draft to the Congress. But it sounds like you’re saying that there’s a process underway in consultation with them to do that, but ultimately you will send a draft to the Congress.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. But that draft language will reflect congressional consolation, and that comes at the request of congressional leaders. And the goal is to secure bipartisan support for whatever AUMF emerges from the legislative process.
QHas there been an acceptance that bilateral immigration reform probably won’t happen in this Congress? It wasn’t discussed much last night compared to previous years.
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, the President has not given up on bipartisan immigration reform legislation. The reason for that is there is bipartisan support in the United States Congress for immigration reform legislation.
So this administration is going to continue to work with any interested member of Congress who wants to work on that priority. This is, as we mentioned a lot over the last couple of years, this is legislation that could have the impact of significantly reducing the deficit, contributing to economic growth, creating jobs, securing our border. There are a whole host of reasons why law enforcement, the Chamber of Commerce, the business community, the labor community, even the evangelical community all support bipartisan reform — immigration reform legislation. So we’re going to continue to look for an opportunity to advance that.
And the President did hold this up as an opportunity for us to try to encapsulate some shared values and legislation, that there is bipartisan agreement in Congress that we can be both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants; that it is possible, and I think that it is likely, that the vast majority of members of Congress actually see themselves and their story in the story of striving college students who may be American in every way, but their papers.
And, again, the President thinks that’s a pretty fundamental value that certainly the vast majority of the American people subscribe to, and I think it’s something the vast majority of members of Congress subscribe to. And focusing on those values where there is some agreement is a path for bipartisan agreement around legislation.
I don’t want to over-simplify it. Legislating is difficult, hard work. But we were able to build a bipartisan majority in the United States Senate two years ago for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, and the administration stands ready to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to do it again.
QCongressman King referred to that college student DREAMer as a “deportable” and criticized the White House for inviting her to a VIP seat in the First Lady’s box. Do you have a response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a response.
QWhat about trade? The President mentioned trade last night in his speech, and just a minute ago you talked about conversations that we’re going on. (Inaudible) conversations are going on on trade and the White House trying to get Democrats to the President’s point of view —
MR. EARNEST: Well, to the extent that there had been applause in the chamber during the State of the Union is an indication of support or opposition to a particular policy issue — I think we saw that there is bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition to opening up American goods to overseas markets. And so there’s going to be some work to be done on both sides to persuade Democrats and Republicans that this is a good idea. The President believes deeply that this is a good idea.
One reason that he thinks it’s a good idea is because he’s not going to sign any sort of trade agreement that he doesn’t know is clearly in the best interest of American middle-class families, that isn’t clearly in the best interest of American businesses, and it isn’t clearly in the best interest of American farmers.
I think the President was pretty blunt last night about the need for the United States to engage in a discussion with other countries in the Asia Pacific about what the rules of the road are going to be when it comes to the economy, that if the United States hangs back, we’re going to allow China to write the rules of the road for trade. There’s no way that that’s in the best interest of American workers. It’s certainly not in the best interest of American businesses. And I don’t think American farmers are going to think that’s in their best interest either.
So, from the President’s point of view, there is no choice but to engage. And the President does have confidence in his ability to reach an agreement and to present Congress with an agreement that would be clearly in the best interest of American middle-class families. And when he does that he will be making the case to both Democrats and Republicans that they should support it for that reason.
QJosh, can I ask you something on cybersecurity? This is something obviously that came up in the State of the Union. Sort of two things on this. The first one is, in light of the CENTCOM incident, has there been any action taken to better secure Twitter accounts and Facebook and things like that from say, yourself or the White House? You can imagine the sort of hell it would cause if your account went out and started tweeting weird stuff about the President.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you for pointing that out. I really appreciate that. Let me just say that — I will note that from my vantage point in the room last night, I did notice that there were a substantial number of Republicans and Democrats who were applauding the President’s support for cybersecurity legislation, and it certainly will be a priority. It has been a priority for this administration, and we’re pleased to see that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress consider it a priority, again, to the extent that you can measure those kinds of things by applause.
As you know, last week the administration did send up cybersecurity legislation that we believe would be in the best interests of the country both in terms of national security but also our economy.
As it relates to the hack of the CENTCOM Twitter feed, what I’ll say is that of all of the incidents of cyber attacks that we’ve seen over the last several months, that one is rather inconvenient but the early assessments of that particular incursion don’t reveal — or don’t indicate that classified information was revealed. We’ve seen businesses and even some government facilities sustain more dangerous attacks than that one. So I wouldn’t hold that one up as an example for why we need cybersecurity legislation, as inconvenient as it was.
And certainly, at the White House, we practice what is sometimes cheekily referred to as “cyber hygiene” and making sure that we are cognizant of the links that we’re clicking on and that we’re changing passwords and those kinds of things. And so when we land the plane in Idaho, I’m confident I’ll be in touch with my folks back at the White House to make sure they’re changing the password on my Twitter account. (Laughter.)
QThe Vice President seemed to suggest this morning that the shooting incident this weekend at his Delaware home may have even been a random occurrence not directed at him. Has the White House been briefed on this incident? And do you have any information about whether there is a threat to the Vice President or new information on that?
MR. EARNEST: I know that White House officials have been briefed by the Secret Service on this incident. I, however, have not gotten briefed by the Secret Service on this incident. So I’d refer you to the Secret Service for any updates they may be able to provide.
QDoes the White House see Paul Ryan as the best partner for tax reform?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s hard to say right now who is the best partner. We certainly, at this point, we are interested in talking to any willing partner who is interested in some of the general ideas that the President laid out last night.
Now, I’ll point out that a couple of the tax ideas that the President discussed were ideas that have previously been supported by Republicans. This idea of adding a financial fee to the most highly leveraged financial firms on Wall Street is actually an idea that was cribbed from the proposal that the previous Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled last year. The increase in the capital gains tax rate to 28 percent is not just an idea put forward by Barack Obama, it’s actually the capital gains tax rate that was in place under President Reagan. Republicans certainly like to talk about how strong our economy was when President Reagan was in office, so, ostensibly, a capital gains tax rate at the 28 percent level didn’t harm our economy too badly — it certainly didn’t back when President Reagan was in office.
And we have heard Republicans articulate in general their support for closing some loopholes and using some of that revenue to invest in infrastructure.
Now, I’m ready to admit right away that the devil is in the details and that these things are complicated. But to the extent that we can identify some areas of common ground, we’re eager to pursue them. These kinds of investments in infrastructure are really important to our economy, and the President is really interested in making our tax code more simple and more fair. So if there’s an opportunity for us to do both of those things, we certainly would welcome cooperation from Republicans who share that view.
So I don’t know of any specific conversations with Chairman Ryan on this specific issue, but if he’s interested in having them, I’m confident that he’ll get his phone call returned from the White House.
QI have one final question.
MR. EARNEST: One last one.
QThere were some published reports that while in Boise the President was going to meet with a family of an American pastor that’s been held in Iran for a couple of years. Is that on the schedule?
MR. EARNEST: It is on the schedule. The President will have the opportunity to meet with the wife of Saeed Abedini. As we all know, Mr. Abedini has been held unjustly in Iran for a number of years now. His wife lives in Boise, and so it’s an appropriate occasion for the President to visit with her.
The thing that we will assure her is something that we have said publicly many times, which is, specifically, that the United States remains concerned about the unjust detention of several Americans in Iran, including Mr. Abedini. There are occasionally conversations between U.S. officials and Iranian officials in the context of the P5-plus-1 talks to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. We routinely, on the sidelines of those conversations, raise the case of Mr. Abedini, Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Hekmati and our concerns about the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson with the Iranian counterparts.
And I will say that I believe it’s just within the last 10 days that Secretary of State John Kerry had the opportunity to raise the status of these individuals and their unjust detention with his Iranian counterpart when they were meeting in Europe. So this continues to be a priority of the administration, and the President will discuss that with Mr. Abedini’s wife today.
QWill there be pool photo coverage of that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe there will. It will just be a private meeting.
QWill there be a readout or anything afterward?
MR. EARNEST: If there’s anything more we can say about the meeting than what I just did, then we’ll give you some more details.
QWill we know when it’s happening?
MR. EARNEST: I can let you know — why don’t we do this. Why don’t I confirm to you after it’s taken place.
QJosh, are there any other phone calls or meetings that the President has scheduled that you can let us know about?
MR. EARNEST: There may be one other call that the President is planning to make en route with a foreign leader, and I’ll see if I can get you some more information on that before we land.
QIs that going to be to Israel?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s not.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any scheduled calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu at this point.
Thank you, guys.
12:25 P.M. EST