Aboard Air Force One
En Route Chicago, Illinois
MR. EARNEST: Before we get started, all of you may have seen that the President spent some time in the hangar that houses Air Force One, before we took off. But while he was there, the President was able to speak to all the members of the Presidential Airlift group. These are the men and women of the United States Air Force that have a full-time job, which is maintaining Air Force One and ensuring that it continues to serve as the safe, dependable, comfortable aircraft that all of us enjoy every time we travel with the President of the United States.
So the President, I believe, has spoken to just about all of them before in one setting or another, but I believe this was the first time he had an opportunity to speak to them as a group. After his short remarks, the President had an opportunity to shake hands with every man and woman who serves in the Presidential Airlift group and thank them for their service to the country and to thank them for the remarkable service that they have provided to him and his family, but also all of us. So that was a nice moment.
I have a couple of metrics that may be useful.
Q Were their families there?
MR. EARNEST: Their families weren’t there — just the servicemembers. A couple of other metrics I think that illustrate powerfully exactly the service they provide: We are actually onboard the flight as Air Force One flies its 445th mission with President Obama onboard. It's the 445th mission with President Obama onboard. Total, before this flight, Air Force One was airborne with President Obama aboard for 2,799 hours and six minutes, and that equates consecutively to 116 days spent on Air Force One.
Air Force One has touched down — let me actually — this is worded interestingly, and I'm going to try to do this in a way that you guys will think is fun. There are 49 states that President Obama has traveled to on Air Force One. Can you name the 50th one that he has not? Playing a little version of Jeopardy.
MR. EARNEST: Maryland — exactly. We always depart from Maryland but never travel to Maryland on Air Force One. So I thought that was pretty clever. (Laughter.)
Fifty-six different countries have been the destination for presidential travel aboard Air Force One. So that gives you a sense of how much time President Obama has spent aboard this airplane. It also gives you a sense of how much work has gone into supporting the President as he represents our country and travels around the world. Obviously, the President is deeply indebted to them for their service, and he had an opportunity to thank them in person.
Q Does this mean he's going to miss the aircraft?
MR. EARNEST: I think all of you have heard him say a number of times in public just how much he is going to miss having the opportunity to travel aboard Air Force One. There is no aircraft in the world that can do what Air Force One can do, and certainly under the demanding circumstances under which this aircraft conducts these missions. And the message that the President delivered to the men and women of the Presidential Airlift group is that the reason that this airplane is so special is not just because of the technology onboard, but because of the dedication and the investment that the men and women of the United States Air Force have made to this aircraft. So it's genuinely a national treasure, and President Obama feels deeply fortunate to have benefitted from their tireless commitment to their job.
Q We were going to get you gifts for your last gaggle, like some drink coupons. But we thought having them on time wouldn’t be in keeping with Josh Earnest style. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I'll take it. One other thing before we get to your serious question — and this is to the photographers in the back — five years ago — more than five years ago, I did my first gaggle back in June of 2011. I walked back here for the first time, through this doorway, and all the photographers are doing what they're doing now. And they are assured me that they'd photographed every gaggle. (Laughter.) So I totally got rolled, so it obviously seems fitting to have you photograph the last gaggle that I do aboard Air Force One.
So with all of that, I don’t know if you guys have any news of the day we need to get to. If not, that would be fine too. (Laughter.) You probably have a little bit.
Q There's a bill in Congress about Russia called the Countering Russia Hostilities Act of 2017. I was wondering if the President — is that something the President would support?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the details of the legislation. I could tell you that the President certainly does believe that there is an important role for Congress to play when it comes to countering Russia's malicious cyber activity, most recently their efforts to undermine public confidence in our democracy. That is one of the reasons that the President asked the intelligence community to compile the report that was issued at the end of last week. The President asked that senior members of Congress actually be briefed not just on the unclassified version of the report, but to actually be briefed on the classified version of the report.
My understanding is that every member of Congress received one classified version of the report, and there's one version of the report that has the highest classification that was presented to the congressional leadership. And that, I think, is an illustration of just how seriously the administration takes these matters and how important it is for Congress to fulfill their basic responsibility in protecting the country. And that can certainly involve hearings. I know that there are some members of Congress that are interested in hearings. I know there are other members of Congress that are interested in additional sanctions being applied to Russia in response to their malicious cyber actions. All of this is worthy of congressional attention, but I don’t have a specific decision on the legislation to share with you.
Q Generally, do you support the idea of Congress passing legislation to codify some of what the President did executively in terms of sanctions? In other instances, particularly on Iran, you have opposed or have said it's unnecessary for Congress to take that sort of action.
MR. EARNEST: What we have often observed is that the executive branch, whether it's the President of the United States or the Secretary of the Treasury, does already have extensive authorities that they can use to apply sanctions against individuals or entities or countries around the world. In this case — so that's a fact, and that is why there are some occasions where we have expressed some opposition to congressionally mandated sanctions, because oftentimes they are duplicative of executive authorities the President has and had already used in many cases.
So in other situations, there is a role for Congress to play in terms of imposing sanctions. There's sanctions legislation with regard to North Korea, for example, that I know that the administration has supported in the past. So we have not, as a matter of principle, opposed all legislative activity with regard to sanctions. There are some situations where we have opposed sanctions — or not necessarily opposed sanctions, but have said that sanctions were not necessary because the executive branch already had the necessary authority to impose sanctions at the President's discretion.
Q And then one more. But this is an instance where if — the President does have the authority to do what Congress is looking to codify — I guess what I'm asking is, are you guys open to them doing that, even if it's unnecessary, as you might describe that characterization to it because it's Russia and because President-elect Trump is going to come in and could potentially undo what the President did executively?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that obviously after January 20th, President-elect Trump will have to determine exactly how he wants to exercise his executive authority. I think the most recent example where we have encountered this situation was actually with regard to the Iran Sanctions Act at the end of last year. Congress passed legislation to impose additional sanctions against Iran. The administration did not support that legislation because of our view that there was already sufficient executive authorities the President could use to impose financial penalties against Iran. But you’ll also recall that the President didn’t veto that legislation because it didn’t undermine the effective implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So I think that’s an illustration that we have judged each proposed legislative package of sanctions individually and on its merits. And we would do that in this case as well, but I haven’t had a chance to take a look at exactly what Congress is proposing.
Q Can you give us a sense of the President’s mood heading into Chicago and the speech tonight? I mean, the speech tonight and sort of the next-to-the-last big “it’s over” moment for him. So can you talk a little bit about his mood?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that particularly in the last 72 hours or so, the President has been working diligently on his remarks for tonight. The President is not one to be overly sentimental, but given the circumstances I think it would be unrealistic to expect anybody to not feel some nostalgia for this moment.
The President has had the blessing of serving this country as President for the last eight years. He’s deeply grateful to the American people, including those that did not vote for him and did not support all of the policies that he put forward — because he’s recognized that even many of those Americans, even those who didn’t always agree with him have prayed for him, have supported his family, and out of patriotism to the country have shown respect to the office of the presidency. And the President is deeply grateful for that, and he’ll express that gratitude in his remarks tonight.
In his remarks, the President will also express his unrelenting optimism about the future of the country and the future of our democracy. Obviously, the President on a number of occasions has indicated that the election didn’t turn out the way that he had hoped, but the President retains profound confidence in our country and in our citizens and in our system of democracy. And it’s not blind faith, so you’ll hear the President once again encourage the American people to take an active role in their democracy not just in the run-up to elections, but every day, in engaging in their communities, in being educated on the issues and making their voice heard, and engaging in a broader public debate about what’s best for the country.
The President believes that the success and the vibrancy of our democracy depends on that kind of citizen engagement. The President, as you’ve all heard him say many times, believes that our democracy works best when it works from the ground up. That’s how change happens. And the President certainly benefitted from change that originated at the grassroots, and he hopes that the American people will continue to remain engaged in that way. If they do, the future for our country is as bright as it’s ever been.
Q Speech done?
MR. EARNEST: I would say the speech is all but done. I think the President is going to reserve the right to make a few last-minute line edits on the flight. I know that that was a presidential directive that was issued to the speechwriters shortly before I walked back here. But I would say that the version that currently rests on Cody Keenan’s laptop is essentially the version that he’ll be reading from tonight.
Q Do you have a sense of what he plans to do, either publicly or behind the scenes, to advocate for the issues that he cares about going forward after leaving office tonight?
MR. EARNEST: That will not be part of the speech. There will be a time and a place for the President to speak at more length about what he intends to do once he leaves office. But today — tonight, the speech will be focused on the future of the country, the future of our democracy, and just how important it is for all Americans to be engaged in the work of building our country and moving it in the direction of a more perfect union.
The President will express particular confidence and optimism in the younger generation of Americans that’s coming of age now. And in the President’s mind it’s important to also take a moment to speak to them, and he’ll do that in his remarks, as well.
Q Was he monitoring Senator Sessions confirmation hearing today at all, or were folks at the White House? And did you have any reaction to the proceeding?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that the President has been following it. I’ve had — while I was in the office I had the television on in the background a little bit. It was apparent that there was — according to my email, it looks like it’s still ongoing, so a lengthy hearing.
We’ve often said that Congress does have an important responsibility to provide advice and consent to the President’s nomination. I will say that Senator Grassley and the Republicans in the Senate didn’t consider Attorney General Lynch’s nomination with the same haste and courtesy that she was entitled to, and certainly not with the same speed and courtesy that’s been shown to Senator Sessions. I’m sure they’ve got an explanation for that, but obviously it will be up to the individual senators to decide exactly whether or not they want to support President Trump’s — President-elect Trump’s nomination.
Q We’ve seen movement among congressional Republicans from the repeal-then-replace of Obamacare, doing them in conjunction. Is that something that you guys are heartened by, to see the process develop in that way? Or is your sort of opinion on the whole thing that you hope they won’t touch the law at all, or kind of only at –
MR. EARNEST: The argument that we’ve been making since the President signed the bill into law is that the President hopes that Democrats and Republicans would come together around specific ideas for strengthening the Affordable Care Act. There are some common-sense things that can be done that would make health care more affordable for many Americans. There are some things that Republican governors could do that would expand access to Medicaid for many Americans. That would result in millions of Americans getting access to health care coverage that they don’t currently have.
The President has expressed a deep concern about the idea that Republicans would repeal the Affordable Care Act without putting forward a replacement that would risk 30 million Americans losing their health insurance, seeing the entire health insurance market thrown into chaos, including those Americans that get their health insurance through their employer.
So this would be a bad step for our economy, obviously a bad step for the health of hundreds of millions of Americans across the country. So I think it’s too early to judge exactly whether or not this is a constructive step, but I think this does highlight a couple of things. The first is, I do think it highlights concerns that Republicans have — newly expressed concerns about the potential that their action to repeal the Affordable Care Act would be bad for the country, bad for the economy, and bad for Republicans politically. All that’s true from our perspective.
They’re also laying bare the fact that despite the fact that Republicans, for almost seven years now, have been claiming that they have their own alternative to health care reform, that they actually don't — because if they did, it would be on the table right now.
And this goes to something — an argument that I made frequently during the campaign, which is that the Republican governing philosophy was centered on saying no and not actually presenting any affirmative ideas for moving the country in the right direction. And again, that may have been good politically in the short term for Republicans, but it's bad in the short term and long term for the country. And I don't think it's a sustainable approach when the American people are looking to the Republican Party to actually make some governing decisions for a change.
Q Josh, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. agreed today to lead a panel studying vaccines — the safety of vaccines for President-elect Trump. Is that something that this White House thinks needs to be done?
MR. EARNEST: Every scientific expert that I've heard from has expressed in pretty unambiguous terms that there’s not any scientific ambiguity about this. And so I haven't seen in detail exactly what the incoming administration and some of his appointments are planning to do, but the scientific advice that has been consistently offered by government and non-government scientists alike is that parents should have their children vaccinated. That's good for their children and it's also good for our broader society.
And the refusal on the part of some families to have their children vaccinated puts other kids with health problems at serious risk. There are some people that have legitimate medical reasons why they can't be vaccinated against measles, for example. And the idea that children who can have the vaccine choose not to, based on the misguided advice that was given to their parents, puts those children who can't be vaccinated at pretty serious risk.
I remember we had a debate about this a year or so ago. Children can't get the measles vaccine until they’re a year old. So if there’s some six-year-old running around out there that didn’t get the vaccine, even if they could have, catches measles, that puts every infant in the community at risk. And there’s no good scientific justification for doing something like that.
So, again, that's the advice that has been consistently put forward by the CDC and other officials at HHS. But this is also the kind of advice that scientists and academia and the private sector have offered as well. But I don't want to speak in a whole lot of detail with regard to the incoming administration’s plans because I haven't heard much about it.
Q — earlier about about Air Force One (inaudible). You said 445th mission. What is the definition of a mission — because most of these trips have multiple stops?
MR. EARNEST: A round trip. I'm going to confirm this with the military aide before I go farther, but I think what is true is — for example, the roundtrip flight that we're on is one mission. So, now, when there are multiple legs like, for example, a foreign trip, I don't know how that breaks down. But we'll see if we can get you some more detail on that.
Q The chairman of Donald Trump’s inauguration committee said today that President Obama had invited the President-elect to ride with him to the Capitol on Inauguration Day. You had a question about that at the briefing last week that you didn’t want to go into any detail. Can you confirm at least that part, that (inaudible) Friday — or a week from Friday?
MR. EARNEST: We're still putting together the details of January 20th. I just want to make sure that everything is set before we roll out the schedule for the President’s activities on January 20th. What I can tell you as guidance is that we intend to have a schedule that honors the kinds of tradition that previous outgoing Presidents have honored. But we'll follow up with you on all the details of that day as soon as we can.
Q Is the President doing something different? I don't get what the whole –
MR. EARNEST: I think that the schedule that President Obama will have on January 20th will be quite similar to the schedule that previous Presidents have had. But until we get all the elements of the schedule locked down, I don't want to go into confirming individual aspects of his schedule. But we'll lay all that out well in advance of the 20th.
All right, thank you all.
Q Congratulations on your last gaggle, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. It's been almost always fun. We've had some interesting gaggles, haven’t we? There were times where we — I know I was — my colleagues were urging me to include a bad turbulence time, but I couldn't really work it in. But there have been times where we've — we'll work on something here. But whether it's landing while we're gaggling, or people falling while we're gaggling –
Q — how many?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that. They count the briefings, but I don't know if they count the gaggles.
There was also one time in which the gaggle was broadcast live on one television network back home. This was on the day that, tragically, the Malaysia airplane was shot down over separatist-controlled area in Ukraine. And you’ll recall that when the news of that tragedy broke, that President Obama was on the phone with President Putin at the time. And the first reaction from the White House was — shortly after President Obama concluded that phone call, he boarded Marine One, we boarded Air Force One and then we flew to Delaware — and this was the first reaction from the United States government was in the gaggle on the flight to Delaware. And I got all kinds of texts and emails from people that they were hearing me live on ABC. So, quite a day.
Q And dealing us even when you may not want to. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: What I have found is that gaggles are actually fun. In some ways, having a smaller group of people and standing so close to all of you makes it a little less formal and, in many ways, a little bit more efficient than the daily briefing.
But I certainly appreciate the all the dedication that all of you show. A lot of us, we get on the airplane and have an opportunity just to — I'll spend a little time preparing for the gaggle, come back and talk to all of you, and then I go back and put my feet up. And as soon as I walk away from here you guys all have to get to work. So that's never been lost on me. But I certainly appreciate the dedication that you’ve shown in doing this job, and it's not something that I'm going to soon forget. So, thank you guys.