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Transcript: Press briefing on Air Force One

Read the transcript from the Air Force One briefing at Tinker Air Force Base.
Oklahoman Modified: May 26, 2013 at 1:17 pm •  Published: May 26, 2013

MR. EARNEST: Well, to take the last part of your question first, today is not a day for politics. The President is going to be focused today on, as I mentioned, offering his condolences to the people in these communities who were affected. You’re talking to the people who have lost a lot -- either the lives of family members of friends, or they’ve seen all of their physical possessions taken away from them.

So it’s not a day for politics. That said, I think it is evident to any impartial observer here what an important role the federal government can play in providing assistance to our people at their time of urgent need. And you talk about an agency like FEMA that, when this President took office, did not have a very good reputation, and I think there were some failures that were widely reported about their response to previous natural disasters.

Craig Fugate, the current administrator for FEMA, is a widely regarded expert in this area. Based on my own personal experience -- I worked on the Governor’s race in 2006 in the state of Florida, and one of the first promises made by both the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate for governor was to reappoint Craig Fugate as the state’s emergency manager because he had such a strong reputation there.

So the President -- when the President appointed him to his job, without regard to political persuasion, the President chose the best person for the job. And I think it’s important that you have somebody like Mr. Fugate, who has an expertise in this area, running this agency. And I think it’s evident, and I think we’ll see a little bit of that even today, the difference that that has in the lives of people who have been affected in such a traumatic way.

Q: In the last six months or so -- Newtown, the President went to Texas, the President was in Boston in April. What kind of role does he see himself playing when he goes to sort of comfort the families in the wake of such a tragedy?

MR. EARNEST: I think it’s important -- the President believes that it’s important for people to understand, people in these communities to understand, that the entire nation is standing with them in their time of need; that it’s important for -- that our country, for all of the political turmoil and strife and strident debate that goes in our nation’s capital, that the people of this nation are united by something much stronger than political debate.

Those political differences are genuine, but they in no way undermine the bonds among the people of this country and the symbolism of the leader of this country -- as I mentioned, the greatest country on Earth -- traveling to a community in a time of crisis and articulating not just his own personal condolences for their loss, but his own personal resolve and the resolve of the country to ensure that they have the resources and the expertise of the greatest nation on Earth to stand with them in the recovery.

And that is a powerful statement and a powerful message that any President can deliver. And it’s a responsibility that this President takes seriously, both as a reminder, again, to the people in these communities who have been affected, but also as a reminder to people all across the country that, as Americans, we stand together in time of crisis and put aside our differences, whether they’re political or otherwise; that our bonds as Americans are strong, and the strength of those bonds is put to the test and they hold up particularly in times of crisis.

Q: -- a bookend element to that of what the end of a recovery process like this looks like, or at least six months, seven months down the road?

MR. EARNEST: I do think that there is a -- that it’s a pretty vivid illustration about the President’s commitment to seeing these things through. You’re right that the recovery effort in the aftermath of Sandy is still ongoing and there are still a lot of people in these communities who are hurting and are still struggling to come back from the blow that that storm dealt to them.

But the President made a promise, in the aftermath of that storm, that he would continue to focus on that recovery effort and that the federal government would continue to focus on that recovery effort long after the nation’s attention, or at least the media’s attention had turned elsewhere.

And so the President does view this as -- he’s looking forward to his trip to New Jersey, because I do think that we’ll see that significant progress has been made, even though there is significant work that remains to be done. And I do think that six, eight, ten months down the road, that people in Oklahoma, because of the strong support of the federal government but also people all across this country who generously contributed to the Red Cross and other places that are assisting in the effort, that they’re going to have a lot to show for the support of the country and in Oklahoma as well.

Q: Any comment on Syria and Hezbollah?

MR. EARNEST: We obviously took note of the comments that were made yesterday. We’ve expressed our concerns for some time now about the role that Hezbollah has played in supporting the Assad regime. We have condemned that violence and their involvement in that violence.

It is evident to us that the public pronouncement of Hezbollah’s involvement is a response to the increasing casualties being sustained by Hezbollah fighters in the area, and it only underscores the urgent need for a democratic political transition to take place in Syria. It’s time for Assad to leave power, and it is time for a political transition to take place because it’s clear that this instability is being felt throughout the region and poses a significant threat to the region because of that instability.

So we’re going to continue working with our partners and our allies to try to facilitate a continued transition in Syria.

Q : But it doesn’t change -- Hezbollah’s declared intentions doesn’t change the calculus at all in terms of further intervention by the United States and helping to arm the rebels and do other -- sort of go further?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the calculus that the President is making is something that is regularly reviewed and updated. This is a situation that we’re following close. And what you’ve seen, as you’ve seen over the last several months, that our involvement and our assistance to the opposition there has steadily increased. Our commitment to providing humanitarian aid to those who are bearing the brunt of this violence is resolute.

We’re continuing to support our partners who are also dealing with this. The President talked about this quite a bit when he was in Jordan about the humanitarian crisis that they’re dealing with there. So we’re going to continue to provide that kind of support. But we’ve also in recent months ramped up our support in other areas in terms of nonlethal aid to the opposition.

So this is something that is regularly being reviewed. And I’m sure that in the days and weeks ahead, as we continue to review our posture here, that the public pronouncements of the Hezbollah leader will also be factored into this.

All right, guys, thanks.