James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here on yet another beautiful spring day — or so it seems. I don’t have any announcements at the top, so I’ll go straight to Jim Kuhnhenn.
Q: Thanks, Jay. Two topics. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was on the Hill today and met privately with House Democrats and the authorization bill was a topic of discussion. And the Congressman who came out — John Yarmuth — later told reporters that Denis said, “If there’s no bill that’s fine, we can live with that.” I’m wondering whether, with still having the consequences of sequestration, does having no bill still leave you in a similarly bad place in terms of —
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jim, I’m not going to confirm secondhand quotations from the Chief of Staff in a private meeting. I can obviously —
Q: Does it reflect the White House position that having no bill is fine?
MR. CARNEY: Well, obviously, we prefer legislation that effectively funds the necessary priorities and the President’s priorities and that achieves all of the priorities that the President has set forth. But I don’t have, again, a readout for you or a confirmation or even guidance on a private conversation between the Chief of Staff and members of Congress.
Q: This weekend is Memorial Day Weekend and the President has made it a tradition to go to Arlington and deliver an address. This year, can we expect him to address this issue of the Veterans Affairs and the troubles that are facing that agency?
MR. CARNEY: Jim, I don’t have a preview for the President’s schedule on Memorial Day, but he will certainly, as he has every year as President, convey the nation’s everlasting appreciation to those who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country. Beyond that, I ask you to wait until the day itself.
Q: Jay, what is the White House’s reaction to the Thai military declaring martial law?
MR. CARNEY: We are obviously monitoring events and are aware of reports that Thailand’s army has declared martial law. As the State Department said last night, the United States remains very concerned about the deepening political crisis there, and urges all parties to respect democratic principles, including to honor its commitment to make — sorry — including respect for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
We expect the army to honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and not to undermine democratic institutions. The U.S. firmly believes that all parties must exercise restraint and work together to resolve differences through peaceful dialogue to find a way forward. This development underscores the need for elections to determine the will of the Thai people.
Q: Whom is the United States speaking to in terms of the government there? Are you speaking to the caretaker government?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the government remains in place. There is a caretaker government or a caretaker prime minister, as I understand it. And the Thai military, which has been reported has declared martial law, has also made a commitment to make this a temporary action and not to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. And we expect the army to honor that commitment.
Q: On another topic, has Rob Nabors given any kind of an update to the President since going over to the VA?
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you about Mr. Nabors is that he has been dispatched to the VA at the Secretary’s suggestion — a suggestion that was endorsed strongly by the President. The President is focused on the review that Secretary Shinseki has announced and has launched of the allegations regarding waiting lists and disclosure of waiting lists and wait times when it comes to getting benefits and services.
I can tell you that Rob is on his way to Phoenix to visit the Phoenix Veterans Affairs medical facility to meet with its acting director as part of this review. The President looks forward to the results both of the review and of the independent investigation that is underway and is being conducted by the inspector general.
Q: What is the President’s expectation in terms of the timetable for that review?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the VA for a timetable.
Q: What is his expectation?
MR. CARNEY: I think the President’s expectation is for it to be comprehensive and for it to elucidate what happened, and for it to contain within it a clear indication of how to make improvements where they are necessary. He also awaits the independent investigation of the inspector general.
The President is focused on, in this matter, making sure that we know all the facts and that we act on those facts to better serve our veterans who so deserve the benefits that are granted to them through the VA.
Q: He hasn’t set a deadline for when he’d like to hear back?
MR. CARNEY: The President obviously wants both of these two inquiries to proceed efficiently and quickly, but to be comprehensive and effective. So he’s not setting an arbitrary deadline. He expects both of them — or hopes that both of them will be, again, comprehensive and effective.
I refer you to the VA where I think the Secretary and others have indicated, or at least provided more detail about the review and what their expectations of it are. But what I would like to note to you is that Rob Nabors is on his way or will be traveling to Phoenix on Wednesday evening. He’ll meet with leadership there at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix, including Interim Chief Steve Young, who was appointed following U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki’s decision to place the director and two other employees there on administrative leave. Nabors will also conduct a site visit of the facility and meet with local veteran service organizations as part of his trip.
Today, Rob Nabors is also engaging with several VSOs in Washington, D.C., including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, and Vietnam Veterans of America — all of these meetings taking place ahead of his visit to Phoenix.
Q: To be clear, is that Wednesday or —
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry. He will be on his way to Arizona Wednesday evening. He is having these meetings prior to his departure for Phoenix.
Q: So those meetings are going to take place on the day of Wednesday or the day of Thursday?
MR. CARNEY: Today, he is having these meetings.
MR. CARNEY: Here in Washington, D.C.
Q: And the Phoenix meeting will take place when?
MR. CARNEY: He leaves tomorrow evening.
Q: And they will happen also tomorrow?
MR. CARNEY: Well, my understanding on how the clock works it will probably happen Thursday if he is leaving tomorrow evening.
Q: Well, they are three hours behind us, so it could also happen when he lands.
MR. CARNEY: Why don’t I refer you to the VA for the minute-by-minute schedule.
Q: Jay, the folks over at the American Legion have emailed out to reporters a memo dated April 26, 2010 — and I think this memo came up at the Senate hearing last week on the VA issues — and it talks about certain facilities adopting use of inappropriate scheduling practices, sometimes referred to as gaming strategies. And the memo goes on to warn facilities not to use these strategies to conceal the wait times. It seems as though — looking at this memo and the fact that it was brought up at a hearing last week — that this has been going on for years, this concealing of wait times. How is it — is the President satisfied that he had not heard of this until these news reports?
MR. CARNEY: Let me be clear, because there was a misunderstanding and a lot of misreporting about this specific topic. Yesterday, I was asked I think by you when did the President learn of the specific allegations, or at least that’s what I understood your question to be — of the specific allegations contained first, I believe, in a CNN report about the Phoenix facility. The President, as we all know, we’ve discussed it here, has been talking about the issues and challenges facing the VA since he was a candidate. And it was precisely those problems that had been identified and were discussed in 2006, 2007 and 2008 that he spoke about as a candidate and that led him to commit to increased resources available to the VA so that we could better serve our veterans and to deliver on that commitment every year since he’s been President.
So, no, this is not a new issue to the President. That’s why he has been focused on it since he has been President. That’s why he has been so focused on improving service and care for our veterans. That’s why he has directed his administration to take the steps that it has taken to expand access for our veterans to the important benefits that they have earned and deserve. That’s why he has directed his administration and the VA to create a presumption of acceptance for disability claims when it comes to those exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam conflict, and to those who have suffered from PTSD — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, that greatly expands —
Q: He’s known about the long wait times for several years, but the issue of the concealing of those wait times, the practices that were being implemented at certain facilities around the country to hide the wait times to make their records I guess look better in terms of how long veterans would have to wait — that is something that the President did not know about until just a few weeks ago?
MR. CARNEY: Again, we can repeat this, and I apologize if there was a lack of clarity on my part yesterday. I was responding to a question about, I understood, from CNN about CNN’s report about allegations, including that some veterans had died as a result of these issues in the Phoenix facility. That matter is under independent investigation by the IG. The IG himself has made some statements about that investigation and the results of it so far. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, has also launched his own review of those allegations and others that have emerged in the wake of that reporting.
And we, the President and the rest of us, await the results of those two inquiries. And he is not at all pleased with some of the allegations and will be extremely unhappy if some of them prove to be true. But he will wait for the facts and the investigations, as we all should, and then insist that action be taken and people be held accountable.
Q: So how long has the President known about the concealing of these wait times?
MR. CARNEY: Again, Jim, I would urge you to wait for the investigation.
Q: How long has the Secretary known about these wait times?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the Veterans Affairs Department.
Q: You just don’t know that at this point?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer for questions about the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to the VA.
Q: And how would you respond to the House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor — he said earlier this morning that — and I’m paraphrasing here — that the President seems to keep learning about these scandals through news reports.
MR. CARNEY: Again, that’s a product of perhaps my lack of clarity yesterday and some I think reporting inaccuracies. I was responding specifically to a CNN report that I think people learned when they either saw it on CNN or heard the report about it. The President has been discussing these issues and pressing Congress to tackle these issues since he was a candidate for this office.
And again, we can go over the record of support for our veterans since President Obama took office, the request for additional funding that the President has made every year he’s been in office for the VA, the expansion of services that he has directed take place through the VA on his watch, and the overall commitment that he has to our veterans. And I’m happy to go through that record with you again if you like.
Our focus on — the President’s focus isn’t on glib rejoinders. It’s on getting results and finding out exactly what happened and making sure people are held accountable for any malfeasance or misdeeds that may have taken place. Before we know that, we have to wait for these investigations, which is the right way to go about it.
Q: The President still plans to comment on this soon?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any updates on the President’s schedule.
Q: Thanks. The President was meeting this morning with business leaders and it got us thinking about the trade agreements. Do you know if trade agreements were discussed this morning, T-TIP or TPP?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President had an excellent meeting with CEOs from a variety of companies — I think 11 all told, foreign and domestic — focused on his SelectUSA initiative. It is aimed at encouraging companies to invest here in the United States where the economy has been stronger than in many places around the world, where energy prices are low and where we have a highly productive workforce. That has been the focus so far this week of the President’s time and attention, and will continue to be as he proceeds through the week. And he’ll obviously make that a focus of his remarks when we’re at Cooperstown on Thursday because tourism is an important source of foreign direct investment in the United States.
I don’t have a readout on all the topics of conversation that were discussed today in the meeting except to say that the President found it excellent and he found a lot of receptivity among this group, because this is a group of individuals who represent corporations who have either brought back operations to the United States or have made new investments in the United States, reflecting a trend that is very positive for the U.S. economy and for U.S. workers.
Q: In those business people there was one Canadian who has invested in North Carolina. What kind of message do you send to foreign businessmen, not just the Americans who bring back employees and jobs, but also the other ones — what kind of message —
MR. CARNEY: We’re in a global economic competition, and the President believes that we, the United States, have to do the best job we can of making clear to multinational corporations and foreign corporations that the United States is a very attractive place to invest, to build and to hire. So he absolutely welcomes foreign direct investment. It’s a piece of what drives our economy and the kind of investment that we seek from foreign companies is the kind that brings high-paying, quality jobs to the shores of the United States. And that’s good for the American economy and good for American workers.
Q: To follow up on this topic, Senator Levin, of course, introduced a bill this morning that would ban or make it harder to do corporate inversions. Is that a bill that if it reaches the President’s desk the President would support?
MR. CARNEY: We haven’t obviously reviewed any legislation at this point yet. On the general principle that we should have a tax code that does not reward companies for moving their operations and jobs overseas but instead encourages them to invest here in the United States and to build businesses and jobs here in the United States is one that is reflected in the President’s budget. And he encourages Congress, especially Republicans in Congress, to approach tax reform in a way that keeps this issue very much high on the priority list. We need to reform our tax code in a way that makes investment in the United States attractive, that creates incentives for companies to invest here, instead of a tax code where, as currently exists, there are loopholes that companies can exploit to avoid the taxes they owe on U.S. income. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of resistance to that proposition from Republicans, but we hope they’ll change their opinion.
Q: Jay, how does the President want Rob Nabors to function as he conducts the review, so that —
MR. CARNEY: As he always has, professionally and effectively.
Q: — observers are not concerned that the President is putting a political thumb on the scale while an independent investigation by the IG is underway?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’ll let others evaluate the politics of this or who’s injecting politics in it. The President sent Rob Nabors over there because Rob Nabors is a professional and is one of his most trusted advisors. And he expects Rob to work with the Secretary and others at the VA on this review so that we can get to the bottom of these issues, find out what happened, take remedial action where necessary and hold people accountable where necessary.
Q: And let me just follow up. If the President sends an aide, a top advisor to interview, or to take a site visit and, in effect, talk to the same individuals that the IG wants to interview, is there a perception that the White House is trying to do more than review, but is maybe trying to influence the outcome?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the VA and to the IG. Obviously the VA has called for, requested the independent inspector general’s investigation, and I’m sure they have no interest in, in any way, doing anything but helping that investigation move forward and get to a conclusion.
The President is very interested in finding out what happened and instituting and completing this review that Secretary Shinseki initiated. That’s why he asked one of his most trusted advisors to be assigned temporarily to the VA to take on this assignment and to help the Secretary conduct the review.
But we are very interested in, from the President on down, the completion of both these inquiries — both the review and the IG’s investigation.
Q: Yes, on Ukraine, Jay — we’re a few days out from the presidential elections that is this coming weekend. The OSCE issued a report saying, the rest of the country, fine, they’re ready to go, the election mechanism is in place, et cetera, but in the eastern and southern areas that the turmoil has been happening in, there’s been widespread intimidation of polling workers, not free and fair campaigning. At this point, is there any way Russia avoids sectoral sanctions, or is that a given now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I certainly don’t have any announcements to make on potential additional sanctions at this time. We have made clear that if Russia chooses to undermine the May 25th elections in Ukraine there will be consequences; there will be additional costs, and they will be imposed not just by the United States but our allies and partners, as they have also made clear.
What I would point you to is that the OSCE thus far has said that in the vast majority of the country they anticipate that the election will go forward and will be free and fair. There is no question that in Donetsk and Luhansk and some other areas, separatists have taken steps that seek to undermine the effective carrying out of the election. And we call on Russia to use its influence to persuade those separatists to stand down and to allow the Ukrainian people to express their will freely.
What I would also note, and I think others would note, including those from international bodies, is that it is fully possible for Ukraine to conduct an election even as there are some relatively small pockets of problem areas. That is not to say that we condone or countenance the kind of activities that the separatists have engaged in, in violation of the Ukrainian constitution, Ukrainian law, or the efforts that the Russians have engaged in in supporting the separatists. What we hope is that Russia will use its influence in a positive way to allow these elections to take place so that the Ukrainian people can choose for themselves who their president will be.
And in the meantime, as they have already been doing, the Ukrainian government has begun the process of engaging Ukrainians from across the country, including in the east and the south, in roundtable discussions about constitutional reform and changes that can be made to empower regions and create more autonomy for regions as it relates to the center of the country in Kyiv. And that’s very positive. And they have kept their word in conducting those roundtables and holding those dialogues. And I think that, again, sends a positive signal about the intentions of the central government in this process and their willingness to resolve these issues peacefully, in a way that’s consistent with Ukrainian law and with the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Q: So in the areas where they’re having trouble you have not seen any sign of the Russians doing what you have repeatedly called on them to do?
MR. CARNEY: No, I didn’t say that — oh, you mean in terms of using their influence to — we have yet to see any significant sign that Russia is effectively persuading separatists to vacate buildings, for example, return property to local and regional governments, and to allow the elections to take place.
Now, there have been statements out of Moscow relating to the disposition of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine that if carried out would be positive. We have yet to see any indication that Russian troops are withdrawing from the Ukrainian border. But we will monitor that closely and certainly hope that the statements of today and yesterday from President Putin and the Russian Defense Minister end up being more than just statements, but presage actual movement by Russian troops away from the Ukrainian border. That would be a positive development.
Q: A couple things on VA before I take on a couple of other issues. Yesterday you said the administration was supportive of the goals of this piece of legislation before the House this week, the Veterans Management Accountability Act. Shinseki is against that, says he has all the authority he needs to punish and deal with those who do not perform up to standards of the Veterans Administration. Does this indicate the White House and the Secretary disagree on what needs to be done as far as accountability within the VA?
MR. CARNEY: No, what I said yesterday and what remains true is that the administration shares Congress’s concern about ensuring accountability and effectiveness at the VA and is working to address the problems that have surfaced. And we will closely look at the bill that you mentioned, and as I said, we share the goals and we’ll work with Congress to address some concerns that we have with the details of the bill. But the overall issue of —
Q: — more does need to be done to give the VA more authority.
MR. CARNEY: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, the President has already directed Secretary Shinseki to make sure that the VA is making maximum use of its existing authority when it comes to making sure people are held accountable, and also that they’re assessing whether or not they need additional tools. So we think this is an important issue. We share the concerns that are at the heart of this proposed legislation. We also will work with Congress to address some of the concerns we have with the details of the legislation. But the overall issue of making sure that there are tools in place to hold people accountable at the VA is one that we share.
Q: You’ve mentioned many times the need for these investigations to succeed. I was on the phone with Chairman Miller of the Veterans Committee today. He said that he sent a letter right after the news reports in Phoenix surfaced urging the VA to send a cease-and-desist order about the destruction of any documents related to this investigate, and it was eight days before the VA actually sent that order out to the Phoenix office. He’s concerned there and at other places where investigations are underway that the VA is slow to tell people: Preserve all evidence so facts can be determined and accountability can be assessed and carried out. Will you say on behalf of the President that the VA needs to move on this faster, and that in every case where there’s an investigation, a cease-and-desist order about not destroying evidence and maintaining everything that the investigators need to see should be done?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, I’m not aware of the specific order that you’re referencing. It is certainly our view and it is Secretary Shinseki’s view that the VA and its offices needs to cooperate and will cooperate with both the review that Secretary Shinseki has initiated and the investigation that the IG has launched. And that’s absolute appropriate.
The President wants to know what happened. The President wants to make sure that any bad behavior is surfaced and that people are held accountable if the problems and the allegations that we’ve seen out there prove to be true.
Q: — are expressing fears that evidence is being destroyed, will be destroyed.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again —
Q: That goes to the center of what you’re trying to do, if you say these investigations are —
MR. CARNEY: If that’s true, that will be, I expect, a focus of both the review and the independent investigation. I don’t know that to be true. I know that Secretary Shinseki has acted immediately to begin the review. He suspended, as I mentioned, the three people in the Phoenix office, the Phoenix facility. We’ve dispatched the White House Deputy Chief of Staff to assist in the review there, I think which reflects the President’s focus and concern about this. And the Secretary himself called for the IG to launch an independent investigation.
So we eagerly await the results of both inquiries. And again, the President expects results and he expects the information that he and the rest of the administration needs in order to ensure that we’re taking all the necessary steps to provide the best service we can to our veterans, and to hold accountable any individuals who might have acted poorly.
Q: Two other quick topics. The House made clear the ENLIST Act will not be on the floor this week or any other time this year. Does that suggest to this White House that all hopes for any even incremental movement on immigration bills out of the House that could form the basis of a conference with the Senate bill are now over?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say a couple of things. The fact that there is discussion in the House about any element of immigration reform is something we view as a positive. But a bill like that would not in any way fix our broken immigration system or tackle the heart of the problem. We continue to make clear our view that the House should follow the Senate’s lead here, take up comprehensive immigration reform either in whole or in pieces as long as the pieces add up to comprehensive immigration reform, and get this done.
Q: But if they can’t get the piece that you don’t think moves in that direction, they can’t even do that, doesn’t that signal to you this is all but over?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we remain hopeful that there is a window of opportunity.
Q: Realistically hopeful?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to say the odds are overwhelming. I mean, we’re talking about House Republicans, and they have had a great deal of difficulty confronting this issue. But leaders in the House have noted the importance of addressing immigration reform, noted the importance of the issue to our economy and to matters related to security and accountability. And we remain hopeful that they decide to act and act this year, because the benefits of comprehensive immigration reform are so clear.
And what we hope is that — I mean, we know they won’t act because the President wants them to act, but they might act because so many others that support comprehensive immigration reform are encouraging them to act. And that includes the business community and law enforcement community and the faith-based community. There are just so many good reasons to do this from so many different political angles, if you will, that we hope that that concentration of energy will compel House Republican leaders to take this up and take advantage of this rare consensus.
Q: Last topic — the combatant commanders were here yesterday, and there was a rather large, multi-stakeholder meeting today on Afghanistan. Where is the President on deciding ultimate post-2014 troop strength? And where does it stand on the bilateral security agreement in the aftermath of the Afghan elections? These things will soon be coming to a head.
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’ll certainly well into 2014, and our position is what it was and as I discussed in the past, which is that we will evaluate our options when it comes to a post-2014 troop presence dependent upon actions taken by the government in Kabul to sign the BSA. I don’t have any updates on that process. It’s obviously something that remains under discussion. When the President —
Q: Is this a decision week?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to give any timetable for it except to point you to what I said in the past about the options available, the narrow purpose for any remaining — should there be a remaining troop presence in Afghanistan, what the mission would be, which would be to continue to train and assist Afghan forces and to assist in counterterrorism operations. The military conflict, the war that U.S. forces have engaged in will come to an end at the end of this year. And the decisions about a potential force that would continue in Afghanistan are dependent on a number of issues including the BSA.
Q: Jay, on the VA, Tammy Duckworth is, as you know a wounded war veteran, served in the VA Department earlier in this administration as a Democrat. She said today to The Washington Post, “It’s hard, because Mrs. Obama has done so much, Mrs. Biden has done so much, and I see that as part of the President’s push on this overall issue.” And then she went on to say, “I think he has relied on Secretary Shinseki, but we could use his personal attention at this point.” You have a Democrat from the President’s home state saying we haven’t had his personal attention. How do you react to that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would simply say that the President has provided his personal attention. He has personally instructed that we provide additional resources to the VA. He has personally overseen the —
Q: Democrats are not buying it. Even Democrats are saying we need to see him.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not sure that the quote you read backs up what you’re saying.
Q: “We could use his personal attention.”
MR. CARNEY: And what I’m telling you is the personal attention is there. And as I just noted, his senior aide is going to Phoenix tomorrow evening as part of his assignment to assist Secretary Shinseki with that review, which reflects the President’s focus and attention on this issue. And we share concerns that have been raised around some of the allegations that have surfaced in recent days. And that’s why the President wants the Secretary and the IG to conduct their inquiries completely and thoroughly and effectively and quickly, so that we can get to the bottom of what happened, get the results of those inquiries and take action accordingly.
Q: You continue to call it “allegations,” and there are some, but on the other hand, that memo that Jim Acosta was mentioning before from 2010, an internal VA memo said, “The purpose of the memorandum is to call for immediate action to review current scheduling practices to identify and eliminate all inappropriate practices.” So four years ago, they were saying it’s not just allegations, but a top VA official had determined this was going on and they had to immediately take care of it. So will you admit at least that it’s not all allegations, that, in fact, some of this has happened? The VA said it.
MR. CARNEY: Again, I have made clear that some of the allegations that have emerged in these reports, including the most sensational ones, are under investigation. And we’ll wait to see the results of that. I think it’s an important place to start that no one in this building or anywhere else in the administration, including over at the VA, holds a position that all the challenges that the VA was confronting in 2008 and 2009 have been solved. Far from it. And that’s why the President, as a candidate, spoke about the problems at the VA, spoke about the need to provide necessary resources to the VA.
Q: So why didn’t he send Rob Nabors there in 2010 or 2011?
MR. CARNEY: Look, Ed, this is under investigation and the President wants results.
Q: But a memo in 2010 said it was going on — four years ago.
MR. CARNEY: You’re talking about an internal VA memo. I would refer you to the VA.
Q: They didn’t share it with anyone over here?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the VA about their internal memos. What I can say is that the President insists that these investigations go forward and that they come to a conclusion and produce results so that we can evaluate what happened and what action needs to be taken. And I would point to all of those who have, as the President does, a concern about our veterans and the need to provide them the services and benefits that they deserve; to the effort that we have taken and that Congress has responded to in providing the additional funding over and above what was provided in the previous administration — substantial increases year by year — and to the steps that, under Secretary Shinseki’s leadership and the President’s leadership, have been taken to expand the benefits provided to our veterans, expand significantly the number of veterans who are availing themselves of benefits through disability claims and through the Veterans Health Administration, and to say simply that more work needs to be done. And that is absolutely the President’s focus.
Q: That’s what — when you say the President is focused on this, has personal attention on it — next week, you’re having a White House summit on youth sports safety, which is obviously important, dealing with concussions, et cetera. Why not next week around Memorial Day have a White House summit on veterans benefits, veterans issues, deaths at hospitals?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would posit a couple of things. One, the President is actively engaged in the effort to find out what happened related to these allegations in the VA. As I just noted, his top advisor is heading to Phoenix, working with the VA as part of that review. And we continue to proceed on a lot of fronts when it comes to veterans’ benefits and veterans’ affairs. It is also the case, when it comes to the summit on concussions, that this is a matter of interest to and concern to millions of families across the country. So it’s entirely appropriate to focus some attention on that issue.
Let me move up and back — Zeke.
Q: In terms of the scope of Rob Nabors’ investigation at the VA, is he solely focused on these specific allegations that have come up, or is he looking at the broader, longstanding issues at the VA as well?
MR. CARNEY: Let me just clarify that Rob is not independently investigating. He is helping the Secretary conduct the review that the Secretary initiated. So for the scope of that review, I’d refer you to the VA.
Q: So Rob is not going over there to deal with any of the other existing issues at the agency, the still long wait times for veterans going back, regardless of whether or not there’s an attempt to sort of change how those wait times —
MR. CARNEY: I mean, I think those are fair questions, but I would refer you to the VA, which is obviously the organization we’re talking about here and the review that’s being conducted is one that has been directed by the Secretary of VA.
Q: And in the case of the IRS, the President put in sort of a — he had a window I think when they went over there and in terms of when he wanted a report back in terms of those specific allegations. Does the President — has he given the VA a timetable in when he wants to see —
MR. CARNEY: I think I was asked that and I’m not aware of the specific timetable. I believe Secretary Shinseki has addressed this question and I would refer you to him and to the VA.
Q: Jay, I don’t know if you saw a Politico story today about the midterm elections, quoting anonymous Democrats saying that the President had what they called “electoral detachment.” The President has set up no meetings with his political staff and does little beyond headlining events to activate big donors. There’s no strategic direction. The story put this in contrast to Bill Clinton who has had meetings with the DSCC and the DCCC. So my question is, how engaged is the President in the Democratic strategy for these midterm elections?
MR. CARNEY: The President is focused on what he can do to help Democrats in this midterm cycle. And there are three areas where he can help and where he has been helping and where I think Democrats would attest to the fact that he’s been helping. And that’s ensuring that campaigns and the committees have the financial resources they need — and I think if you talk to Democrats, they will tell you that he has devoted a significant amount of time to that effort.
He is leveraging his grassroots network — a network that made him the first person since President Eisenhower to get 51 percent of the vote twice — and all of the data and technology that comes with it available to 2014 candidates. And of course he is focused on turnout. Midterms, as all you expert political reporters know, are about turnout, getting the base out. And no one is better at doing that than President Obama, at least in the Democratic Party, and so he’ll be focused on that.
Beyond that, what the President, and I think I would say any President, would do in this situation is help set the terms of the debate. And what you see the President doing — whether it’s talking about the urgent need to invest in our infrastructure so that we can create jobs today and an economic foundation for the future, which is what he was focused on last week, to what he is focused on this week when it comes to attracting foreign investment into the United States, which helps create high-paying jobs here in the U.S. — the President is focused on issues that matter to the American people and where, unfortunately often there is a stark contrast with the other party’s economic agenda in particular — an agenda that, as we’ve seen from the budget that emerged yet again in the House, is focused on providing additional tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and corporations, that would hike taxes on middle-class families, strip away benefits, voucherize Medicare — I mean, an economic plan that is not just unpopular but highly dubious as policy. And that’s the kind of contrast that I think the President can point out when he is talking about the issues that matter most to the American people.
Q: So how intensely focused is he on the midterms? How much time is he going to be devoting to this? This mentions supposedly no meetings with political staff. I mean, is that true?
MR. CARNEY: I think the President — I don’t have a detailed accounting of his time. The President is primarily focused on the issues and the opportunities related to advancing his agenda on behalf of expanding opportunity for the American people. He strongly believes that setting the terms of the debate on these issues and moving the ball forward, down the field, if you will, when it comes to expanding opportunity, is both good policy and good politics. And that is helpful for Democrats when Republicans choose to oppose some of these very initiatives that help expand the middle class, help grow the economy, reward hard work and provide opportunity.
Additionally, the President is doing the things that I talked about when it comes to making sure that candidates and committees have the financial resources that they need, and providing to them the pretty extraordinary grassroots network that the President amassed in his two campaigns.
Q: And then, just two quick ones. One, there’s reporting today that the First Lady is vowing to fight an effort by Republicans in Congress to roll back some of her healthy school lunch initiatives. How active do we expect the First Lady will be in fighting this legislation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the First Lady has from day one made the health of our children a top priority. And that means keeping the pressure on to ensure that school nutrition standards already implemented by 90 percent of our schools stay intact. The First Lady and this administration believe that every decision we make should be guided by sound science and hard evidence, not politics or special interests, particularly when it comes to the health of our children.
So these issues around the health of our children, nutrition issues, have obviously been a top priority for the First Lady since she came here. And she’ll continue to work very hard on those and make clear where our priorities should be, which is on our kids’ health and not on politics.
Q: And then, a last little bit of housekeeping. The President last year was to give back 10 percent of his — sorry, 5 percent of his salary to express some solidarity with those who had cutbacks because of the sequester. Has he returned that money to the Treasury yet? Has that happened?
MR. CARNEY: I believe the answer to that is yes. But I’ll check for you.
Peter. Didn’t I call on you already?
Q: Not yet. I was just trying to confirm some dates.
MR. CARNEY: It seemed like he asked me a question. (Laughter.)
Q: — honest answer.
MR. CARNEY: What do you guys think?
Q: General Motors today announced I think 2.4 million more cars to be recalled. I think the total year to date is now something like 15 million-plus. Should the U.S. people be disappointed in the lack of transparency by General Motors given the fact that the U.S. people helped bail it out?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, these are — as I think we talked about earlier this week, these are enforcement actions, and I would refer you to DOT and the Highway Safety Transportation Administration for the actions they’ve taken with regards to penalties. In terms of decisions by GM itself to recall vehicles, I think, again, that would something that DOT might better address.
Q: I guess given the fact that a lot of these issues sort of bubbled up during the government oversight process when they were considering a bailout, what does it say about the government’s ability in terms of its oversight that none of these things came up during that time?
MR. CARNEY: Well, you’re asking pretty technical questions about the Highway Safety Transportation Administration. I would refer you to them. What I think is absolutely important as a general principle is that every automobile manufacturer, foreign or domestic, be held accountable when it comes to safety matters. But in terms of enforcement of these issues and decisions around recalls, I’d have to refer you to DOT and to the companies themselves.
Q: Can you give us a sense of how often the President is updated in terms of the breadth of what’s going on at General Motors right now? The U.S. has been paid back all the money, so I’m just trying to get a sense that given $15 million — it’s a massive number and that the U.S. was behind the bailout —
MR. CARNEY: I just don’t have — I haven’t had that conversation with him.
Q: Jay, Congressman Lewis yesterday came out against the nomination for Judge Michael Boggs in Georgia. I’m just wondering if the White House is still behind his confirmation. Have you changed anything? And how much — or how much work can be done with Democrats who have been unhappy with the nomination?
MR. CARNEY: As you know, Lesley, because I think we talked about it a lot last week, it is important to understand the process by which nominations come into being. And I explained in some detail how this nomination arose. We have been trying to fill these judicial vacancies for more than three years, but two of the President’s nominees were blocked for nearly 11 months and were returned at the end of 2011. So our choice is and was clear: Do we work with Republican senators to find a compromise, or do we leave seats vacant?
Four of these vacancies are judicial emergencies, and we believe it would be grossly irresponsible for the President to leave these seats vacant. Judge Michael Boggs was recommended to the Republican by Senators Isakson and Chambliss as part of a compromise to fill a total of six judicial vacancies in Georgia. The two senators have now also agreed to support the President’s nomination of Leslie Abrams to fill a seventh vacancy. So, again, this is a recommendation from the two senators. It is our view that he is qualified for this post. His track record as a state trial and appellate court judge demonstrates that he is qualified for the federal bench, and we obviously support his nomination.
But it is important, again, when you report on the general picture here about this nomination and how the process works and the compromises come about, that you have all the details.
Q: Thanks, Jay. Again, with the elections coming up in Ukraine in five days, do you have any insight at all as to who or what entities may, in fact, on election day be at the polls, for example, monitoring the procedures?
MR. CARNEY: The OSCE has, as I understand it, dispatched or will dispatch quite a number of election monitors.
Q: — international entities, do you think?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. The OSCE, I believe — I don’t have the demographic breakdown, but individuals from a variety of different countries. I think a relatively small percentage of them are Americans. But it’s all overseen by the OSCE.
Q: And are there NGOs perhaps involved?
MR. CARNEY: You would have to ask them, but I think it’s a substantial number. And they have been monitoring the prelude to the election and the preparatory work the Ukraine has done, and they have given reports on that work and generally very positive reports about work that’s been undertaken by the Ukrainian government to ensure that there is a free and fair election on May 25th. And they have also reported back, as I think one of your colleagues mentioned earlier, on problems in places like Donetsk and Luhansk, and the impact that separatists have had under the influence of and, unfortunately, with the support of Russia. We continue to call on Russia to use its influence for good, if you will, to allow all Ukrainians the opportunity to vote in a free and fair democratic election on May 25th.
Q: Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Bill, last one.
Q: Jay, back to judicial nominations. As you know, David Barron is also held up in the Judiciary Committee. The White House has released the one memo related to the Alawi drone attack. Does the White House plan to release, as some senators have suggested, any and all memos written by David Barron, drone related?
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is a couple of things. First of all, David Barron is enormously qualified for this judicial post. He’s a respected member of the Harvard Law School faculty, a former acting assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, and a former Supreme Court clerk. The administration is working to ensure that any remaining questions members of the Senate have about Mr. Barron’s legal work at the Department of Justice are addressed.
Last year, as you know, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had access to the memo you referred to, and I would note that in his committee vote, Mr. Barron received unanimous Democratic support, and we’re confident that he will be confirmed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals and will serve with distinction.
I would also note that questions have arisen regarding what materials the administration has made available as the Senate evaluates Mr. Barron’s current nomination. The administration has made available unredacted copies of all written legal advice issued by Mr. Barron regarding the potential use of lethal force against U.S. citizens in counterterrorism operations. And anticipating any question about public release, I would refer you to the Justice Department. All written legal advice issued by Mr. Barron has been made available to members of the Senate as part of their deliberation.
Q: — the use of drones against U.S. citizens — have those members been released or will they be released as well?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think you’re using “release” a little loosely, but I —
Q: Made available to the Senate is what I mean, senators.
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that all written legal advice issued by Mr. Barron on the issue of potential use of lethal force against U.S. citizens in CT operations has been made available. For more information, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q: On the public release —
MR. CARNEY: I’d refer you to the Department of Justice. There was obviously a Second Circuit opinion and Justice is evaluating that opinion.
END 2:03 P.M. EDT