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Obama Press Conference At White House

Published on 19 April 2014

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by James S. Brady


Washington, D.C.

White House Logo
White House Logo

Office of the Press Secretary
April 17, 2014


James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

**Please see below for a correction marked with asterisks.

3:40 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. Before I begin I just want to express on behalf of the American people our deepest condolences to the Republic of Korea and the families of all those who’ve seen their loved ones lost when a ferry sank within the last couple of days.

Obviously, information is still coming in. We know that many of the victims of this terrible tragedy were students. And American Navy personnel and Marines have already been on the scene helping the search and rescue. As one of our closest allies, our commitment to South Korea is unwavering in good times and in bad, and that's something I'll underscore during my visit to Seoul next week.

With that, I’ll take some questions. Let’s see who we got. Kathleen Hennessey of the LA Times.

Q Thanks, Mr. President. It sounds like there’s been some development in the Ukraine talks in Geneva. I’m just wondering if you could describe your level of confidence in what this agreement is and how you can be sure that Russia will follow through, given some of the remarks from President Putin this morning.

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we can be sure of anything at this point. I think there is the possibility, the prospect that diplomacy may deescalate the situation and we may be able to move towards what has always been our goal, which is let the Ukrainians make their own decisions about their own lives.

There was a meeting in Geneva -- representatives of the Ukrainian government, the Russian government, the EU, as well as the United States. It was a lengthy, vigorous conversation. My understanding is, is that the Ukrainian Prime Foreign** Minister gave a detailed and thorough presentation about the reforms that they intend to introduce, including reforms that provide assurances for Ukrainians who live in eastern and southern Ukraine that they will be fully represented, that their rights will be protected, that Russian speakers and Russian natives in Ukraine will have the full protection of the law. And my understanding, based on what I’ve heard, is that there was an acknowledgement within the meeting that the Ukrainian government in Kyiv had gone out of its way to address a range of the concerns that may have existed in southern and eastern Ukraine.

There was a promising public statement that indicated the need to disarm all irregular forces and militias and groups that have been occupying buildings. There was an offer of amnesty to those who would willingly lay down their arms, evacuate those buildings, so that law and order could be restored in eastern and southern Ukraine.

The Russians signed on to that statement. And the question now becomes will, in fact, they use the influence that they’ve exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election, move forward with the decentralization reforms that they’ve proposed, stabilize their economy, and start getting back on the path of growth and democracy and that their sovereignty will be respected.

We’re not going to know whether, in fact, there’s follow-through on these statements for several days. And so today I spoke with Chancellor Merkel; later on in the day I’m going to be speaking to David Cameron. We’re going to be consulting with our European allies. Over the last week, we have put in place additional consequences that we can impose on the Russians if we do not see actual improvement of the situation on the ground. And we are coordinating now with our European allies.

My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days. But I don’t think given past performance that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.

If, in fact, we do see improvements, then that will obviously be a positive. In the meantime, we’re going to make sure that we continue to help the Ukrainian government -- working with the IMF, the Europeans and others -- to stabilize their economy and to start reforming it. We’re going to continue to work with our NATO allies to make sure that they are assured that we’re going to meet our Article 5 obligations and that they are secure.

And as I’ve said before -- I think I had an interview with Major yesterday in which I mentioned this whole exercise by the Russians is not good for Russia either. There are, I think, a number of articles today indicating the degree to which an economy that was already stuck in the mud is further deteriorating because of these actions.

And in my conversations with President Putin, I’ve emphasized the same thing, that we have no desire to see further deterioration of the Russian economy. On the other hand, we are going to continue to uphold the basic principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity for all countries; and that there’s a way for Ukraine to be independent, to be sovereign, and to have positive relationships with both the West and the East, with both its European neighbors and its Russian neighbors. And that’s our primary concern.

Maria Peña, La Opinión.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. I’ve got a hot spot for you here in the U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said -- or claimed that you haven’t learned how to work with them. And he’s angry that you’re attacking the GOP on the lack of movement on immigration reform. So I was wondering how you respond to that.

And the second part to that, right now you have hunger strikers across the street demanding relief for undocumented immigrants. And I was wondering if you can dispel the rumors or if there’s a leak from the White House that you will make some sort of announcement in the coming weeks to expand that relief for the undocumented. Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I actually had a very pleasant conversation with Mr. Cantor yesterday.

Q Really?

THE PRESIDENT: I did. (Laughter.) You’re always kind of surprised by the mismatch between press releases and the conversation. I wished him happy Passover. And what I said to him privately is something that I would share with him -- that I’ve said publicly, which is there is bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform. It would strengthen our economy, it would help with our security, and it would provide relief to families who -- many of whom have lived here for years and who have children and family members who are U.S. citizens; and that Congress should act; and that right now what’s holding us back is House Republican leadership not willing to go ahead and let the process move forward.

So it was a pretty friendly conversation. I think in his press release, I gather he was referring to the observation that we’d made a day earlier that it had now been a year since the Senate had passed a strong bipartisan bill, and that although we had heard a lot of talk about the House Republicans being interested in doing something, nothing had happened yet, and suggesting that we need some urgency here. I still feel the same way.

I know there are Republicans in the House, as there are Republicans in the Senate, who know this is the right thing to do. I also know it’s hard politics for Republicans because there are some in their base that are very opposed to this. But what I also know is that there are families all across the country who are experiencing great hardship and pain because this is not getting resolved. I also know that there are businesses around the country that could be growing even faster, that our deficits could be coming down faster, that we would have more customers in our shops, if we get this thing resolved.

We know what the right thing to do is. It’s a matter of political will. It’s not any longer a matter of policy. And I’m going to continue to encourage them to get this done.

As far as our actions, Jeh Johnson, our new head of the Department of Homeland Security, has been talking to everybody -- law enforcement, immigrant rights groups -- to do a thorough-going review of our approach towards enforcement. And we’re doing that in consultation with Democrats and Republicans and with any interested party.

I do think that the system we have right now is broken. I’m not alone in that opinion. The only way to truly fix it is through congressional action. We have already tried to take as many administrative steps as we could. We’re going to review it one more time to see if there’s more that we can do to make it more consistent with common sense and more consistent with I think the attitudes of the American people, which is we shouldn’t be in the business necessarily of tearing families apart who otherwise are law-abiding.

And so let me --

Q Do you have a time?

THE PRESIDENT: I won’t get into timing right now because Mr. Johnson is going to go ahead and do that review.

Isaac, from Politico. Where are you, Isaac? There you are.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. …

And on Ukraine, you’ve said in other situations -- Iran, for example -- that the military option remains on the table even as talks go on. Is the military option on the table with Russia? And if so, would that be through NATO forces, through lethal aid to Ukraine?

THE PRESIDENT: Now, keep in mind I think I’ve been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution. What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians -- not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians -- takes place. They move forward with reforms that meet the interests of the various groups within Ukraine, they move forward with elections, and they start getting their economic house in order. That’s what’s going to solve the problem.

And so obviously, Russia right now still has its forces amassed along the Ukrainian-Russian border as a gesture of intimidation. And it is our belief -- and not ours alone -- but I think broad portions of the international community believe that Russia’s hand is in the disruptions and chaos that we’ve been seeing in southern and eastern Ukraine. But there is an opportunity for Russia to take a different approach. We are encouraging them to do so.

In the meantime, we’re going to prepare additional responses should Russia fail to take a different course. We’ve already had an impact on their economy that is well documented. It could get significantly worse. But we don’t have an interest in hurting ordinary Russians just for the sake of it. Our strong preference would be for Mr. Putin to follow through on what is a glimmer of hope coming out of these Geneva talks. But we’re not going to count on it until we see it. And in the meantime, we’re going to prepare what our other options are.

Thank you, everybody.

END 4:13 P.M. EDT



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Posted 2014-04-19 12:50:00