After ending a summit with six Gulf nations, President Obama held a press conference Thursday night from Camp David in Maryland. Topics spanned the world: from the Amtrak tragedy in Philadelphia, to an emerging trade deal in the Pacific, to assuaging the Gulf nations' concerns over his administration's ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Let's break it down.
On Amtrak and Infrastructure
Obama began the press conference offering his condolences for the victims of this week's Amtrak crash.
"I want to express my gratitude for the first responders, who raced to save lives, and for the many passengers who, despite their own injuries, made heroic efforts to get fellow passengers to safety," the president said. "For a lot of people on that train, it was a routine journey, a commute, a business trip. For the Amtrak employees who were badly hurt, it was their office. ... That somehow makes it all the more tragic."
He then turned away from the personal, to the political.
"Until we know for certain what caused this tragedy, I just want to reiterate what I have already said, that we are a growing country with a growing economy," Obama said. "We need to invest in the infrastructure that keeps us that way, and not just when something happens like a bridge collapse or a train derailment, but all the time. That's what great nations do."
Investigators and emergency workers continue to sift through the wreckage of Amtrak's Northeast Regional Train 188 in Philadelphia. Earlier Thursday, workers recovered an eighth body—the last person from the train's manifest who needed to be accounted for. More than 200 people were sent to area hospitals after the train derailed Tuesday night, and 43 remain hospitalized.
In Washington—aside from the condolences offered by lawmakers—much of the talk about the crash has centered on Amtrak's funding. On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would cut the train service's funding to $1.14 billion, from last year's total of $1.4 billion. Congressional Democrats had pushed for even more funding in the wake of the crash.
A reporter asked Obama whether it's time to consider raising the federal gas tax in order to bolster the Highway Trust Fund, which is nearing insolvency.
"I think that's going to be something that we need to explore," Obama said. "My hope is we have a chance to have a serious discussion and look at all potential revenue sources. What is absolutely true is the Highway Trust Fund has consistently gone smaller and smaller and smaller and inadequate for the needs."
On His Talks With the Gulf Nations
The conference marked the end of a summit Thursday between Obama and representatives from six Gulf nations—Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman. The six are known as the Gulf Cooperation Council. The administration hoped to assuage worries within the delegation that the U.S. is less than fully devoted to the Gulf countries' defense. Much of their concern stems from Secretary of State John Kerry's ongoing negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal. According to a report in Reuters, the president told the representatives that a "broader rapprochement" with Iran is not in the works.
"I want to be very clear," Obama said in his opening statement. "The purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran. None of our nations have an interest in an open conflict with Iran."
Obama said he'd updated the representatives about U.S. deal-making with Iran, and that the administration hopes to support Gulf partner nations so they themselves can deal with Iran "from a position of confidence and strength."
"I'm pleased here at Camp David," Obama said, "we agree that a comprehensive, verifiable solution that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran's nuclear program is in the security interests of the international community, including our GCC partners.
"We will help our partners improve their own capacity to defend themselves," the president said of the Gulf countries. "We will work together to develop an integrated defense capability against ballistic missiles, including an early-warning system, and we will work toward the development of rapid-response capabilities to undertake missions such as counterterrorism and peacekeeping."
Ahead of the summit, a few top leaders, including King Salman of Saudi Arabia, decided not to attend the talks, a move perceived as a "snub" despite reassurances to the contrary.
On the Trade Deal and His Political Squabble With Elizabeth Warren
The president addressed recent tension with congressional Democrats over his proposed trade deal, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He said he shares the values of his Democratic trade-deal opponents regarding economic equality and making sure the deal is not only free, but fair. The issues between Obama and his "progressive friends," he said, all come back to differences in policy preferences and differences in analysis "in terms of what we think is best for our people, for our constituents."
Over the last several weeks, Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have been engaged in something of a war of words over the trade plan the president is strongly pushing, which Warren believes could hurt policies she supports, like the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law. "The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else," Obama said over the weekend. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, called that comment "disrespectful" Tuesday and suggested the president wouldn't necessarily speak that way about a male senator. White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Wednesday suggested that the White House expected Brown to apologize for the implication.
"The issue with respect to myself and Elizabeth has never been personal," Obama said Thursday, smiling when he again used her first name. "I think it's fun for the press to see if we can poke around at it when you see two close allies who have a disagreement on policy issues."
The Senate on Thursday advanced a bill that would give Obama Trade Promotion Authority, also referred to as fast-track authority, which would allow trade deals to be passed by an up-or-down vote without amendments. That vote should ease the path in the Senate for TPP. Obama thanked and congratulated the Senate at his press conference Thursday for advancing the bill.