Aboard Air Force One
En Route Fort Stewart, Georgia
10:02 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: So before we get started, I just want to give you a sense of what the President’s activities are today. I think many of you dialed into the call last night and have a good sense of what the plans are. This morning, the President and First Lady are traveling to Fort Stewart, which is home to the United States Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and one of the nation’s premier military units, which has deployed numerous times to Iraq in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. And currently has elements supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Fort Stewart has been a leader across the military by providing extensive educational counseling in order to protect its service members against the aggressive and deceptive recruiting, serving as a model for other bases. In 2011, more than 4,800 soldiers at this army post took over 15,000 college classes using Department of Defense tuition assistance.
You’ve heard the President and the First Lady both talk about the sacred trust that the people of the United States have with our men and women in uniform and their families. Certainly, part of that sacred trust is a responsibility to protect them from overly aggressive and deceptive trade practices.
That’s why the executive order that the President will sign sort of under the banner of the “We Can’t Wait” campaign, that should be familiar to all of you, will put in place protections for military families from deceptive and aggressive marketing practices, such as ensuring that they provide to servicemembers “Know Before You Owe” financial aid forms. It will also include trademarking of the label the “GI Bill” that will prevent unscrupulous educational institutions from misusing that term.
This is particularly important and something that’s close to the President’s heart. The President has talked about how his grandfather benefited from the GI Bill. Obviously, the Greatest Generation used the benefits associated with the GI Bill to create the strongest and most thriving middle class in the history of the planet. And the President and First Lady remain committed to ensuring that those same opportunities exist for this generation of Americans.
So that will be what the President will talk about today, both the President and First Lady. I’m sure they’ll talk about it more eloquently than I just did, so listen carefully.
But with that, I’ll open it up for questions.
Q 2.2 percent quarterly growth. Are there any -- which is below expectations. Are there any concerns about the slowing of the economic recovery?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you’ve even heard me say a few times, Matt, that regardless of where these individual reports come in, in relation to expectations, we don’t put too much weight on any individual report. Rather, what we examine are the longer-term trends. And today’s report indicates that for the eleventh consecutive quarter we’ve enjoyed economic growth in this country. So for those of you scoring along at home, that’s almost three years of consecutive, economic growth in this country.
So while we’re moving in the right direction, the President -- while we’re moving in the right direction, this report illustrates something that the President has long understood, which is that there’s quite a bit more work to do, both in terms of the putting in place policies that will help the private sector create jobs, but also ensure that we have policies in place that will benefit middle-class families and those families trying to get into the middle class.
There are a couple of aspects of the report that I do want to point out to you, however, that do have some encouraging data. Specifically, personal consumption increased by 2.9 percent; that’s an increase from 2.1 percent in the previous quarter. We also saw residential home construction increase by about 19 percent. So there have been four consecutive quarters of improvement in the residential housing sector. That’s the first time that that’s happened since 2005. And the auto industry continues to be a source of optimism and strength for this country -- that in this report it actually accounted for 1 percent of GDP growth, just the auto sector alone.
So it’s an indication that there are some parts of the economy that are functioning pretty strongly, but there’s quite a bit more work to be done.
Q Josh, did the President agree to an interview in the Situation Room in connection with the one-year anniversary of the bin Laden raid? And if so, how is that not a politicization of the Situation Room?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I -- what I can tell you is that the President didn’t -- has conducted a couple of interviews over the course of the last year about the successful mission against Osama bin Laden. There is, as you would expect and as many of you have demonstrated over the course of the last year, a lot of interest in that mission, how the decision was made to carry out that mission, and what activities were involved in preparing our courageous men and women in uniform to undertake that mission successfully.
I think the President has spoken frequently about how the lion’s share of the credit for the success of that mission goes to our men and women in uniform, to the men and women in the intelligence community, who worked so hard to ensure that mission’s success.
And so what the President did yesterday and what he has done many times before over the course of the last year is talk about that mission and talk about the success of that mission.
Q Did he do so yesterday in the Situation Room? And how was that decision made? Whose idea was it?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I’m not prepared to talk in detail about interviews that the President has conducted that haven’t aired yet. I would show the same deference to the Associated Press if the Associated Press had conducted an interview that had not yet been published or reported.
Q Has there ever been an interview done in the Situation Room before now?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know.
Q And is it appropriate to be talking about these things in connection with the one-year anniversary in particular?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I -- (laughter) there certainly is interest around the one-year anniversary, so I’d be surprised if nobody asked about it in the context of the one-year anniversary. I expect that all of you will be asking about it next week as well.
Q The reason why I ask that is because when it was the anniversary of the health care -- signing of the health care bill, that was dismissed as a hallmark holiday by senior White House officials. And now, when it’s the anniversary of this, there seems to be a lot of interest on the part of the White House in marking it. So what’s the difference?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s a pretty good example. In connection with the anniversary of the President’s historic signing of the health care reform legislation, many journalists -- I think understandably -- asked questions about the health care reform legislation, about the success of the health care reform legislation, what it said about the President’s leadership and his priorities. And I think the same is true of this anniversary as well.
Q But he didn’t talk about it.
MR. EARNEST: Of course he did. The administration talked about it quite a bit. The President put out a video. I know that the campaign talked about it a lot.
Q Talk to us about North Korea and these analysts have determined that these rockets are fake. What has been the determination of the administration? And how do you view this display of fakery?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific intelligence assessment to offer you this morning, Dan. I have seen those reports, and national security officials at the White House have seen the reports that you’re referring to. So I don’t have a specific response to those reports.
What I can tell you is that the failures of the North Korean missile program over the last couple of weeks have been widely observed and well chronicled.
Unfortunately, they are also part of a series of provocative steps and actions and words from the North Korean regime that only serve to further isolate that nation. And certainly it’s not in the best interest of the North Korean people.
Q On the Secret Service investigation, we’re hearing more information coming out on what happened in other countries, on other trips. In light of that, is the White House now reexamining staffers’ activities in other countries aside from Colombia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know Dan, there have been no credible -- I don’t think there actually have been even any uncredible accusations have been made about the conduct of White House staffers. So I’m not sure.
Q I’m not saying that anything has been made. I’m just saying, are you looking at now that other things are coming out on the Secret Service in other countries, is it a time to then reexamine what may have happened in the past in other countries as well with regard to White House staffers?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think as Jay mentioned earlier this week, there was a review that was conducted by the Counsel’s Office, solely out of due diligence. Again, even in the case of Colombia, where there were credible allegations raised and concerns raised about the conduct of some members of the Secret Service and some members of the military there, that out of due diligence the Counsel’s Office did conduct a review of the White House.
But those same kinds of -- as I pointed out, no credible allegations or even uncredible allegations have been made about the conduct of White House staffers in other countries.
So I don’t have anything to report out to you at this time other than, as Secretary Napolitano said earlier this week when she was testifying before Congress, she pointed out there is an ongoing investigation about the conduct of Secret Service agents in Colombia -- that that’s continuing. And she also pointed out that if there were other credible, substantiated allegations that needed to be reviewed, that the Secret Service would stand ready to do that.
But I also want to -- feel obligated to reiterate something that the President himself has said a couple of times and something that you’ve heard Jay repeat a couple of times, which is that the men and women of the Secret Service hold themselves to a very high standard. And the overwhelming majority of the men and women of the Secret Service live up to that incredibly high standard on a day to day basis, even as they’re carrying out very important and very dangerous work.
Q Josh, the UN Special Envoy has found Syria in violation of the peace agreement there. What’s the next step in Syria? What’s the administration’s response? There are demonstrations planned there later today.
And also, is the President aware of the situation in London, where apparently someone is wearing explosive devices and threatening to bomb -- set off a bomb? I mean, that just broke while we were taking off.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those reports so I’ll have to circle back with you on that.
As it relates to Syria, we have frequently noted and condemned and mourned the tragic loss of innocent life in that country. It’s an indication of the dangerous path that the Assad regime has taken that country down. We are also concerned about the destabilizing effect that that has throughout the entire region.
We are pleased that there has been international support for the Kofi Annan plan. And we anticipate -- and we’ve been disappointed in the Assad regime’s failure to live up to promises that they made in the context of that plan. So I know that Ambassador Rice, Secretary Clinton have talked about this in recent days, that we intend to continue to ramp up the international pressure against the Assad regime, and encourage them in the strongest possible terms to live up to the obligations and commitments that they made in the context of the Kofi Annan plan.
Q Is the President talking to U.S. allies about potentially a Libya-type intervention? Because it seems like the peace plan didn’t work.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they’re still making efforts to implement that peace plan. But I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you in terms of the President’s conversations with allies or other world leaders.
Q Josh, the EPA regional official who had made the “crucify” comments -- there have been some calls for him to be removed. Can you give us anything on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a whole lot to add beyond what Jay said yesterday, which is that the official in question has apologized for those comments and acknowledged that they do not reflect at all the Obama administration’s policy on these kinds of issues.
The truth is better illustrated by the facts of our policies and the impact that the administration’s policies have had, which is that oil and gas production has increased every single year that President Obama has been in office. Currently, oil production is at an eight-year high. And natural gas production is at an all-time high.
And I think that those specific statistics speak much more about this administration’s policies related to oil and gas production than anything that was said a couple of years ago by an EPA administrator.
Q Would you say then that those comments have been a liability for the administration?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that those comments are not true. And if -- and the person who said them admitted as much.
Q And on May 5th, the first official campaign events are on the schedule. And I just wanted to ask, what’s changed? What factors come into play that you now call these official campaign events as opposed to anything else that the President has done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, speaking generally, these are events that are organized by the President’s reelection campaign, and are geared toward building support for the President’s reelection campaign. That’s the express purpose of the events, and that’s why the campaign will -- the President’s reelection campaign will be doing their part to organize and pay for those events.
Q Back on Syria just for a moment. Secretary Clinton said about a week ago that while she wished the Annan plan well, that it was time for the United States to consider the possibility that it might fail, and that the U.S. and allies might have to take additional measures, possibly including that UN Chapter 7 resolution. A week has gone by. Are you any closer to declaring the Annan program dead and looking for other options instead?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would -- I don’t have a whole lot new for you on that, to be candid. This administration has expressed in the strongest personal terms our frustration and disappointment with the Assad regime’s utter failure to live up to the obligations and commitments that they made with the Annan plan. That part is -- their failure to do so is indisputable.
But it is fair to say that certainly Ambassador Rice, certainly Secretary Clinton are actively engaged in working with our international partners and consulting with them to continue to ramp up pressure on the Assad regime to stop the violence against innocent citizens of Syria; and to encourage them and to make it clear to them that they have an obligation to live up to the commitments that they’ve made.
Anybody else? All right, thanks, everybody. We’ll see you on the ground.
Q Actually one quick thing about that event. Is he going to be meeting privately with anybody? I know there’s some time when we get on the ground.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have some more for you on that when we get on the ground.
Q Who is on the plane, by the way?
MR. EARNEST: Antoinette says yes. But we’ll have more for you.
Q Who else is traveling today?
MR. EARNEST: Thank you for mentioning that. I failed to mention that Holly Petraeus is traveling aboard Air Force One today. As you know, Mrs. Petraeus has taken on a leadership role at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with a special focus on protecting military families and veterans and spouses of our men and women in uniform to ensure that they’re treated fairly by financial institutions and, in this case, by some educational institutions as well. So she’s traveling with the President today because she has a direct role in ensuring that some of these issues that are laid out in the executive order are carried out.
Q Any members of Congress, the military? And other White House -- who’s the deputy -- is it Alyssa?
MR. EARNEST: Alyssa Mastromonaco is aboard the plane, as is Tina Tchen, who is the First Lady's Chief of Staff.
So I also have a week ahead for you. Let me -- at least I thought I did. Oh, yes, here it is. There's a not whole lot on here, but a couple of important details to remind you of.
On Monday morning, the President will deliver remarks at the Building and Construction Trades Department Legislative Conference. That’s in Washington, D.C. And then in the afternoon, the President will welcome Prime Minister Noda of Japan to the White House. The President looks forward to holding discussions with the Prime Minister on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues, including the U.S.-Japan security alliance, economic and trade issues, and deepening bilateral cooperation. The two leaders will also discuss regional and global security concerns.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Thursday, the President and First Lady will host a Cinco de Mayo reception at the White House, as they've done in previous years.
On Friday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
And then on Saturday -- next Saturday -- the President, as Mike pointed out, will travel to Columbus, Ohio and Richmond, Virginia for a couple of campaign events.
In terms of this weekend, the President will -- is obviously giving what I can only assume are highly anticipated remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday evening, and then also has a campaign function on Sunday evening in the Washington area.
Q Anticipating that his remarks will go over smashingly, can you tell us who wrote them or who worked on them?
MR. EARNEST: As in previous years, there’s been a team effort among the very clever members of the White House speechwriting team.
Q Does he enjoy it?
MR. EARNEST: He does.
MR. EARNEST: He does. I mean, when you see him deliver the speech he looks like he's laughing and having a pretty good time. (Laughter.)
Q No, I mean, does he enjoy the dinner? I mean, he enjoys his own remarks, I get that. (Laughter.) But does he enjoy the spectacle, the dinner, the --
MR. EARNEST: I think that one of the things that the President does appreciate is -- and you’ve heard him talk about this, and I think you’ll hear him talk about this a little bit on Saturday -- that there are people who work at the White House, who cover the White House for major media organizations, who -- well, for media organizations large and small -- who take their job very seriously and fulfill a very important role in our democracy.
And I think the President believes it’s appropriate to pay tribute to those efforts. But also, I think the President appreciates that he can do so in a setting in which people aren't taking themselves too seriously.
Q For the Sunday evening campaign event, is that open press?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what the press access for that event will be. But if you’re supposed to work this weekend we could check and see exactly what demands will be on your time.
Q Okay, thank you.
Q You said that the conference was by the Building and Construction --
MR. EARNEST: Building and Construction Trades. Okay?
Q Thank you.
10:23 A.M. EDT