The White House on the Obama-Castro Handshake

Friday, December 13, 2013
From The White House's Daily Press Briefing with Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest:

Q. What I wanted ask about was the famous handshake with Raul Castro.  And I’m wondering -- we all saw the President exchanged some words with Castro.  I’m wondering what those words were, and did the name Alan Gross, the American political prisoner being held in Cuba, come up?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s my understanding -- I obviously wasn’t there. That's why I’m not sleep deprived today. It’s my understanding, based on people who did talk to the President after his speech, that they didn't have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the President was making his way to the podium. So there was not an opportunity for the President to chronicle his many concerns about human rights abuses on the island of Cuba.

The President did not have the opportunity to say to him directly something that he said many times, which is that Alan Gross should be released. So they did not have an opportunity to have a robust exchange of ideas.  Rather, they had an opportunity to exchange pleasantries.

Q. So you said the President has said many times that Alan Gross should be released?

MR. EARNEST:  He’s said it before.  Maybe it’s not many times, but he has said before that Alan Gross should be released.  I think we put out a statement from the President just a couple of days ago on this topic.

Q . And what -- so I understand he’s there, he passed -- I know this was not a prearranged handshake. But obviously, you knew that Castro was going to be up there on that stage.

MR. EARNEST:  That's correct.

Q. Was it discussed beforehand what to do when the two would inevitably come face to face?

MR. EARNEST:  Not to my knowledge.  Not to my knowledge.

Q. And can you -- you’ve seen some of the criticism.  John McCain actually compared this to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler.  What’s your response to all that criticism, that people say that the President shouldn’t have given Castro the opportunity to have a handshake with the leader of the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, first of all, the President shook hands with everybody who was on the stage, and Mr. Castro was one of those individuals who was on the stage.

The second thing I’d point out is, I think even in the few number of times that I’ve stood at this podium, I’ve been asked about other people who have tried to draw connections between recent political events and the terrible reign of Adolph Hitler.  That is a dangerous and usually unwise thing to do in public.

The third thing I guess I would say is that there used to be a pretty important principle that originated in the Republican Party, I believe, that partisan politics should stop at the water’s edge.  And it’s unfortunate that we did see a number of Republicans yesterday who criticized the President for a handshake at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  That is I think an important progression in a number of politicians’ views on that topic.

Q. Is there anybody that the President would not -- is there any world leader the President would not shake hands with? If Assad had been on that stage, Kim Jong-un had been on that stage -- I mean, is there -- I’m trying to gauge the principle. He shook hands with everybody on the stage. I mean, is there anybody he wouldn’t?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a difficult hypothetical to entertain, and I decline to do it at this point.