Aboard Air Force One
En Route Las Vegas, Nevada
4:09 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Welcome aboard Air Force One. Thank you for being with us. I know you all saw and heard the President’s statement in the Rose Garden earlier today about the tragic events in Libya. You also saw that the President traveled to the State Department to show solidarity to the hardworking men and women there, and to grieve with them for the loss of Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith, and the two others.
I can tell you that on this flight the President has spoken with Sean Smith’s wife. He has also spoken with both the mother and father of Ambassador Stevens. On all these calls, he has offered his condolences and made clear that his thoughts and prayers and the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the family members of those we lost. He thanked the family members for the service to their country that Ambassador Stevens and Mr. Smith provided, and made clear his commitment that justice be done when it comes to finding out who was responsible for the attacks that led to their deaths.
I don’t believe Jen has anything at the top, so with that we’ll take your questions.
Q Does the administration consider the statement that came out of the Cairo embassy that’s caused so much discussion -- does it consider that to be administration policy? And if not, did the administration do anything to distance itself from that statement?
MR. CARNEY: Rather than answer that question directly by myself, I can quote to you from the President in an interview he gave not that long ago, back at the White House, to Steve Kroft, “60 Minutes.” The interview covered a lot of subjects and it covered a number of questions about the incident in Libya. But with regards to that specific question, I think this may be responsive. It’s a little long, so bear with me.
The question was, “Your opponent, Governor Romney, used the attack in Libya and also the situation, the incident in Cairo yesterday, to attack your policies, to go after your foreign policy in a fairly broad-based attack. What are your thoughts on that?” That’s the question.
And it’s responsive to that because, as you know, Governor Romney attacked the statement from the embassy.
And the President said, “I think most Americans, Democrats or Republicans, understand that there are times where we set politics aside, and one of those is when we've got a direct threat to American personnel who are overseas. And so I think that if you look at how most Republicans have reacted, most elected officials, they've reacted responsibly, waiting to find out the facts before they talked, making sure that our number-one priority is the safety and security of American personnel.
It appears that Governor Romney didn’t have his facts right. The situation in Cairo was one in which an embassy that is being threatened by major protests releases a press release saying that the film that had disturbed so many Muslims around the world wasn’t representative of what Americans believe about Islam, in an effort to cool the situation down. It didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton; it came from folks on the ground who are potentially in danger.
And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.
And I do have to say that, more broadly, we believe in the First Amendment. It is one of the hallmarks of our Constitution that I’m sworn to uphold. And so we are always going to uphold the rights for individuals to speak their mind. On the other hand, this film is not representative of who we are and our values, and I think it's important for us to communicate that. That's never an excuse for violence against Americans, which is why my number-one priority -- and my initial statement -- focused on making sure that not only are Americans safe, but that we go after anybody who would attack Americans.”
The President continues, “There's a broader lesson to be learned here, and Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as President, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that, that it's important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Q If I could do just one follow -- the President said he believes in cutting people slack in those circumstances. There have been some reports saying that the administration made deliberate efforts to distance itself from that statement early on. Do you think that’s accurate?
MR. CARNEY: Pointing to what the President just said, this was a statement put out, a press release put out by the embassy in response to a situation that was developing on the ground, and that was meant to calm down -- hopefully calm down a situation that could potentially have put American personnel in danger. And as the President said, he's not going to question their judgment in doing that.
Q Jay, does the U.S. -- does the White House believe that the attack in Benghazi was planned and premeditated?
MR. CARNEY: It's too early for us to make that judgment. I think -- I know that this is being investigated, and we're working with the Libyan government to investigate the incident. So I would not want to speculate on that at this time.
Q Are you guys worried about al Qaeda in Libya? They seem to be growing. We just saw a report --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I want to be careful about making statements that are based on speculation about this incident and its causes. It's under investigation, obviously, and as we find out information that can be made available I'm sure we will.
Q Do you think it was inappropriate for Governor Romney to speak before the President on this issue?
MR. CARNEY: I can't improve on the President's words that I just read to you from this interview, so I won't try to.
Q On the tweets that came after the statement, are those also the policy of that embassy? And is it typical for an embassy to tweet? And do you know if any have been deleted?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the State Department on this. Again, I think I can't improve on what the President said in response to questions about this earlier today.
Q Why did the President feel it was so important to continue with his campaign schedule today?
MR. CARNEY: Well, and first, let me just say that he is monitoring the situation in the region. He has had several meetings already this morning in addition to, as you saw, the statements he gave and the visit he made to the State Department. He is making phone calls, including those that I read out to you, and will be regularly updated throughout the day and evening and tomorrow on developments.
Q Is there anyone else traveling with the President now in addition --
MR. CARNEY: There is always and is today a senior national security staff member traveling with the President.
Q So not just because of the events today?
MS. PSAKI: Just one thing I just wanted to say about the remarks the President will give. Obviously, as Jay mentioned, he has been monitoring this all day; he'll receive briefings all day. If anything about his travel would have prevented his focus on this, that would be a different story.
But in his remarks today he will speak about the memory of the four people whose lives were lost, as he did this morning. And his remarks will certainly -- the tone of the events of today -- or of last night will certainly be reflected in his remarks as well. As our view, it's not a day of politics as usual, and that will be reflected in what he says this evening in Las Vegas.
MR. CARNEY: If I could just -- that might be a little helpful, again, quoting the President with regards to one of your questions, Amy, in the interview. And I want to make clear that this interview was broad-based on many subjects and included a broader discussion about the events in Libya and Egypt, not just the back-and-forth on politics. But since you asked, I wanted to read that response.
He also said this, and I quote -- the President did -- "This is also obviously a reminder that for all the progress that we've made in fighting terrorism, that we're living in a volatile world, and our troops, but also our diplomats, and our intelligence officers, they’re putting their lives on the line every single day in some very dangerous circumstances.
And I think Chris was an example of the best that our diplomatic corps has to offer -- somebody who was on the ground and because of his actions and his courage helped create an environment in which thousands of lives have been saved, and was full of energy and hopefulness about the relationship that the United States and Libya can develop over the long term.
So we honor his sacrifice. We honor Sean Smith's sacrifice. But I think we also have to understand that we have to remain vigilant, and that even as we continue to apply pressure on al Qaeda and other elements that are affiliated, that in big chunks of the world -- in Northern Africa and the Middle East -- you've got a lot of dangerous characters, and we've got to make sure that we're continuing to apply pressure on them. And that’s something that I'm determined to do."
Q Is the President at all upset -- beyond possibly Romney misspeaking or getting his facts wrong -- is he annoyed at all that a candidate came out before the President of the United States to address an international incident?
MR. CARNEY: I think that he was asked about this and addressed it. I read his response at length. I don't have anything to add to it.
His focus, our focus, is on making sure our personnel are secure, making sure that we are working to find out who is responsible, bring them to justice. Those are the things that this President is focused on right now.
Q Can you elaborate just a little bit more of what we can expect from the President at the event later today? Should we still be thinking of this as a campaign rally?
MS. PSAKI: This is still a campaign event. As I mentioned, the tone will reflect the events of the last 24 hours. He will speak at the top about the memory of the lives that have been lost. He remains focused on not only that, but on bringing the killers to justice, on making sure our diplomats are safe.
And he will talk about his vision for the future of the country, including many of the steps that he talked about last Thursday. But, again, you will see and notice in the tone of what he speaks about this evening that it is not a typical contrasting speech.
Q So this comes sort of in addition to the remarks he was planning to make, or is he going to not speak about other things that he otherwise would address?
MS. PSAKI: He will speak about his vision for moving the country forward -- his belief that anybody who works hard and plays by the rules should get a fair shot, his belief we should make sure kids can go to college, make sure middle-class families have tax cuts -- many of the pieces that you've heard him talk about previously.
I'll let you -- I’ll let the President deliver the remarks later this evening, but it will reflect the events of the last 24 hours. And at the top, he will of course mention, as he did this morning, the events of last evening.
Q Jay, the President has talked about that justice will be done in this case. Would the United States consider unilateral action if it found the perpetrators, or would it necessarily work in coordination with the Libyan government?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to speculate about what action might be taken under hypothetical circumstances. I would say that it's important to note that we have a close, cooperative relationship with the government in Libya, the interim government.
I would note that they were very quick to condemn the attack. And Libyans both assisted Americans in trying to repel the attack and assisted American personnel in trying to keep them safe during the attacks. And that is worth noting.
So we are working with Libyan officials and the Libyan government in our efforts to find out who was responsible and bring them to justice.
Q Jay, is the U.S. doing something wrong policy-wise in Libya that brings this on? Or is the policy fine, it's just this particular event?
MR. CARNEY: I think it's important not to speculate, not to jump the gun, not to guess, while we are still collecting facts, at what precipitated this and who was responsible. And I think that your question goes to that.
I think that our policy in Libya has been focused on freeing that country from a terrible tyrant, one who was on the verge of authorizing a massacre in the city of Benghazi, the city where Chris Stevens, Ambassador Stevens lost his life, and that this country and this administration are committed to helping the Libyan people achieve the democracy that they seek in the aftermath of years of tyrannical rule under Muammar Qaddafi.
Q Jay, we know that the President spoke last night with Prime Minister Netanyahu for an hour. And today, there are headlines that Netanyahu said that his top duty is preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and that he must do his duty even when "friends disagree." Does the President think that that kind of -- those kinds of comments are constructive after the conversation he had last night?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President did have an hour-long conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It was a good conversation in which both leaders were united in their commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That is the President's policy, and he has made clear that he will use all tools of American power to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
He has also made clear that there is time and space to pursue a diplomatic resolution to this problem through sanctions and other means, as well as diplomacy, to pressure the Iranian regime into forsaking its nuclear weapons ambitions. We have the capacity to monitor the Iranian nuclear program. And we know that they are not currently on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. And we would know if they were to make a so-called breakout move towards developing such a weapon.
The President has also made clear that the window of opportunity to resolve this diplomatically will not remain open indefinitely. And our efforts to sanction Iran punitively, to isolate Iran, to make the regime pay a high price for its obstinacy continue. And the President and the Prime Minister are in total agreement on the policy objective here.
Specifically to your question, Israel absolutely, as a sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself. The President of the United States is committed to Israel’s security. We have an unprecedentedly deep and broad relationship with Israel under this administration when it comes to military and intelligence matters. We have provided unprecedented levels of assistance to Israel in the effort to achieve security for Israel, and we will continue to do that.
Q If Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to meet with the President, why wouldn’t the President meet with him in Washington?
MR. CARNEY: I think you saw the statement that we put out last night. The President will be in New York at the United Nations General Assembly early in that week; the Prime Minister does not arrive until later in that week. There was not logistically an opportunity for the two leaders to meet in New York. A meeting was never requested in Washington, therefore it could not have been denied.
I think it is important to note, within the context of this discussion in the press, that it is proof of the incredibly close and vital relationship between our two nations and between our two governments that when this issue arose, the President of the United States picked up the phone and called Prime Minister Netanyahu and spoke to him for an hour. And that, I think, demonstrates the kind of relationship we have, and it reinforces something that I think sometimes is forgotten, which is there is no leader with whom President Obama has met and spoken with more frequently as President than Prime Minister Netanyahu. And that, again, is reflective of the kind of relationship we have with Israel.
Q And just one more thing on the Cairo embassy. One of Romney’s critiques has been that you’re sending mixed messages. If the State Department says one thing and the embassy puts out separate statements, tweets separate things, how is that not a mixed message?
MR. CARNEY: This is not a time to try to score political points. As the President said, as a general practice, politics should be put aside when the lives of American personnel are at risk, as they were last night.
The President’s focus, the Secretary of State’s focus is on ensuring the security of American personnel. And for his views on this, I think I’d refer you to the comments I read that the President gave earlier today.
Q Do you know how much of the -- for example, what you read to us, has that been released by CBS or -- like the statement that you read, the quote from the President, has all of that been released today? If not --
MR. CARNEY: We -- and I apologize if you weren’t able to get it back here, that he segment that CBS played was shorter than what I read to you.
MS. PSAKI: One other piece, just --
Q Has CBS released a transcript of what you --
MS. PSAKI: When we arrive, the President will deliver remarks to Obama for America’s National Volunteer Leaders video conference. This is a monthly conference that provides OFA team leaders with national campaign updates and serves as an opportunity for the leaders and volunteers to interact and share insights. He will also take a few questions, and you’ll have the opportunity to hear that, view that as well.
MR. CARNEY: Any other questions? Thanks, guys.
4:31 P.M. EDT