The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Gaggle aboard Air Force One en route Miami

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Miami, Florida 

1:19 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  I've got a quick topper, and then we'll get to your questions, okay?  The President is looking forward to this trip to south Florida, not just because of the weather forecast, but because of the opportunity it presents to engage members of the south Florida Latino community and Telemundo viewers across the country about immigration reform.

You will recall that just a week or two after the President took the oath of office in January 2013, the President once again laid out his core principles for common-sense immigration reform. These ideas were eventually incorporated into a compromise Senate proposal that earned the support of more than a dozen Republican senators, including one from the state of Florida.

They backed that bill not because it was perfect, but because it strengthens the U.S. economy, shrinks the deficit, ramped up security at our borders, and would ensure that we better lived up to our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. 

House Republicans blocked this compromise proposal for a year and a half.  So the President, drawing on well-established precedent, acted on his own to address some of the problems, using his executive authority.  His actions would, among other things, allow individuals who have been in the United States for a number of years to get a work permit after submitting to a background check and paying taxes. 

As you know, at least one district judge has sided with the administration about the legality of this action.  Another district judge has ruled against us, and the Department of Justice has filed an appeal. 

This town hall meeting today will give the President the opportunity to answer questions about the situation and signal his determination to continue to lead the fight for common-sense reforms that are good for our security and good for our economy.

So that's what we have to look forward to today.

Q    Josh, what’s the President’s thinking of what the status is of the DHS funding bill in Congress?  Is he confident that DHS will be funded given the position that Senator McConnell has taken?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, we're confident that the right thing to do is for Congress to fulfill their responsibility to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security has a budget that allows them to be funded through the end of the year.  That's seems like a pretty basic responsibility.  I think it does to most Americans and it certainly does to the President. 

We haven’t seen the Republicans thus far act with that level of common sense.  So, no, I don't think it is at all clear how this ends up.  But we are hopeful that common sense will prevail and that Republicans will put aside politics and vote to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of the year.

Q    On Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit -- the Prime Minister today said that world powers have “given up on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”  What is the White House reaction to that comment?

MR. EARNEST:  The whole point of the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the United States and our international partners is to resolve the international community’s concerns with the Iranian nuclear program and to secure an agreement that would ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.  That is the goal of those negotiations.  It is consistent with the President’s view about the best interests of American national security.  It's also consistent with the President’s view about the best interests of our closest ally in the region, Israel. 

I believe that our international partners have reached a similar conclusion, that it's in their interest that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.  The Middle East is a rather volatile region of the world.  If Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon, it would, in all likelihood, set off a nuclear arms race that would add even further instability to that region.

So the United States has worked closely with the international community to try to strike a diplomatic agreement to resolve these concerns so that Iran can prove to the international community that they are not developing a nuclear weapon.  And in return, Iran would allow to, step by step, rejoin the international community.  Right now, the Iranian economy has suffered pretty significantly from a sanctions regime that the United States has put in place, in careful coordination with our international partners. 

So that is the goal of these ongoing talks.  And the Prime Minister has articulated his concern and, in some cases, even opposition to those negotiations.  But the President continues to believe that those negotiations are the best way for us to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.  If we can get Iran to not just state affirmatively that they are not developing a nuclear weapon, but also to agree to steps that would allow the international community to verify that they’re living up to the agreement, that is the best outcome.  And that is the best way to ease the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

And if the Prime Minister has an alternative about how those concerns can be more effectively resolved, then we’d certainly be interested in hearing his ideas for that.  But thus far, what we have pursued is what the President and our international partners believe is the best way to resolve these concerns.

Q    Is Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress destructive to Israeli-U.S. relations, as Susan Rice said?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, to be precise, I believe what Susan was referring to is how reducing the U.S.-Israeli relationship to just a relationship between two political parties is destructive to a relationship between our two countries that for generations had been strengthened through bipartisan cooperation, not just in this country but in Israel.  The President himself has raised this concern.  The President has said that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel can't just be reduced to a relationship between the Republican Party and the Likud Party. 

The fact of the matter is, while we've had a Democratic President in the White House for the last six years, we have, by the admission of the Prime Minister from the Likud Party in Israel, had unprecedented security cooperation between our two countries.  That's consistent with the generations-long precedent of bipartisan support for our closest ally in the Middle East.

So what we hope is that we'll continue to see leadership in this country and in Israel that will not allow the relationship between our two countries to be dragged down by party politics. Party politics is fundamental to the political system in both of our countries, but for generations, both countries have succeeded in not allowing this critically important international relationship to get buffeted by those kinds of political arguments.  And the President believes that U.S. national security has been enhanced by protecting this relationship, and he believes that the interests of Israel are best served if we can protect this relationship from being subject to partisan politics.

Q    The President agrees with the National Security Advisor that by accepting the invitation Prime Minister Netanyahu has done something that has been destructive to the fabric of the U.S.-Israeli relationship?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I think it is entirely consistent with what the President has already said, that the U.S.-Israel relationship has been strengthened because you have seen leaders in both parties in both countries signal their strong support for that relationship.  And allowing this relationship to be subjected to party politics does weaken the relationship.  It's not good for that relationship. 

And again, this is the reason that the President has said that he’s not going to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he travels to Washington next week, is that it has the potential of leaving some voters in Israel even with the impression that the President might be interfering in that election.  And the President believes that we need to be rock-solid in our commitment to Israel’s security -- as we have been -- and that means not allowing it to be injected with party politics.

Q    If he does believe that, why not ask Prime Minister Netanyahu to call off his speech?  I mean, if he believes that his presence, his very presence here to give a speech two weeks before his election is destructive to the relationship, why not ask him to postpone it?

MR. EARNEST:  Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to make these decisions for himself.  He’s the Prime Minister of Israel.  He’s the person who should be setting his own schedule.  And he’s the one that has to make the decisions about what will be in his country’s best interest -- in the same way that the President of the United States has to make those kinds of decisions for his country.

So ultimately, the Prime Minister will set his own schedule. The President is also going to set his schedule.  The President believes that setting his schedule and not including a meeting with the Prime Minister on this trip is consistent with the best interests of American national security. 

Now, I'll also point out that when setting the President’s schedule, he’s concluded that spending time with the Israeli Prime Minister to make sure that we are closely coordinating and cooperating our efforts is in our best interests.  That's why the President has actually spent more time with Prime Minister Netanyahu than any other world leader. 

Again, but ultimately, this is a decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to make for himself.  But I think what the National Security Advisor said about that decision is consistent with what the President has said about that decision.

Q    Do you know whether the President spoke with Ambassador Susan Rice before she made those comments in a broadcast interview and whether they talked -- whether she was authorized to say that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, what she said was entirely consistent with what the President said publicly before.  I don't know whether or not the President had the opportunity to speak with her specifically about her Charlie Rose interview that she did yesterday.  I do know that she participated in at least some portion of the Amir of Qatar’s visit to the White House yesterday, so I know that she did see the President yesterday.  I don't know whether or not they talked about her interview.

Other questions?

Q    On the 529 college savings plan, the House is going to vote on those today.  We haven't seen a statement of administration policy on that, but the plan basically would expand the 529 program when the President originally wanted to restrict the program earlier.  If it does get to the President’s desk, is he going to sign it?  Does he have a policy position on that yet?

MR. EARNEST:  When it comes to education tax benefits, our highest priority should be to expand, improve and simplify tax benefits for the middle class.  The President’s nearly $50-billion investment in the middle class, which builds on bipartisan legislation and is fully offset, would cut taxes for 8.5 million students and families, and simplify taxes for every single student who relies on education tax credits to help pay for college.  The proposal before Congress would not achieve these goals, and instead focuses exclusively on education savings plans that are used by less than 3 percent of American families. 
So while we do not oppose the House bill going forward, we do look forward to working with Congress on more ambitious, fiscally responsible education policies that would actually do more to improve college access and affordability, and promote opportunity for middle-class families.

Q    So it’s not a veto threat, but you -- you oppose parts of the bill, but not the actual bill moving forward?

MR. EARNEST:  Frankly, what we believe is -- we don’t oppose the House bill, but we believe that there is a whole lot more that we can do that would be a whole lot more effective and more fiscally responsible to ensure that we’re opening up a college education to even more middle-class families. 

Q    A question on the trip to Miami.  There were reports today that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell haven’t spoken in two weeks.  The President is here in Miami -- going to be here in Miami today and not in Washington.  Is there enough coordination and talking going on between the different parties and the party leaders to bring this to a resolution before the deadline?

MR. EARNEST:  The fact is the dispute -- the principle dispute right now appears to be between Republicans in Congress. There is a Republican majority in the House; there’s a Republican majority in the Senate.  There seems to be a majority in both houses for funding the Department of Homeland Security, so ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader to get together and figure it out.  So even if they haven’t spoken in the last couple of weeks, hopefully they’re going to speak today, because the deadline is on Friday.

Q    Any chance the President will -- when he gets back to Washington, will hold meetings with Republican leaders on this?

MR. EARNEST:  If we determine that it’s necessary for the President to do so, I’m confident that the President can make himself available to lead a meeting like that.  But like we’ve said, there is ample opportunity to use common sense, show some leadership, and actually fund the Department of Homeland Security.  There’s rarely a good time to be messing around with the funding for that department, but now seems like a particularly bad time to allow a political disagreement to prevent the men and women who are protecting our borders from getting paid.

Q    Josh, a couple of questions about Cuba.  Over the weekend, a couple hundred dissidents were arrested as part of public demonstrations.  How concerned is the administration about this, and what has your response been to it?

MR. EARNEST:  We continue to be concerned about the Cuban government’s treatment of their own people.  For generations, we’ve seen the Cuban government not just neglect but, in some cases, even trample the basic human rights of their people, and that includes a tendency to round up political protestors, or at least people who have different political views than their government.

So we have made clear our concerns about this on a number of previous occasions.  Ultimately, our strategy for engaging the Cuban people is to move to reestablish diplomatic ties between our two countries, to try to open up some more commerce between our two countries in a way that would essentially further empower the Cuban people.  And we also believe it will be effective in removing what has been an obstacle to our efforts to try to build greater international consensus around the need to pressure the Cuban government.  And too often, the U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba has interfered with our ability to get people to focus on Cuban policies that trample the basic human rights of their people.

So we’re confident that we’ve taken the right steps to try to bring about the kind of change that we’d like to see in Cuba. And that change is something that should be driven by the Cuban people, and they should have a government that reflects their will and their ambitions. 

Q    How much of a political problem is this for the President as he’s trying to sell his Cuba policy?  Back when he announced it, 50 political prisoners were released; now, 200 have been rounded up.  I mean, how much does that undercut the President’s argument that -- his attempts to sell this policy to audiences like the Cuban Americans who will be listening to him in Miami today?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what’s important here is some historical context -- that for 50 years there had been a firm embargo and a refusal to establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.  That policy allowed the Cuban government to essentially, with impunity, continue to trample on the basic human rights of their people.  The President believed that it’s time for a new strategy. 

And that’s why, at the end of last year, he announced some policy changes that reflects that new strategy.  And the President was clear in his very first statement on this that we did not anticipate that this would solve every problem overnight, but what we do anticipate is that over time, by redoubling our efforts to engage the Cuban government and the Cuban people, that we can empower the Cuban people to speak with a greater voice and to ultimately have the kind of political leadership that reflects their will and their ambition.

Q    Josh, on the immigration executive action, I believe a court yesterday rejected the administration’s request to rule on the stay request by the end of this week.  So is the Justice Department going to do more?  Are they going to appeal to a higher court?  Or what’s the next step to try to get this stay so that you can actually move forward with the parts of the directive that are affected by the ruling?

MR. EARNEST:  You’re right, we did see a ruling -- or at least an order from Judge Hanen that asked the plaintiffs in the case -- essentially the consortium of states that have come together in protest over these executive actions -- to file their response to our stay by early next week.  The administration had previously said that we wanted the judge to rule on our application for a stay by today. 

So I think this is an indication the judge doesn’t intend to meet that deadline, but does want to hear from the plaintiffs by early next week.  And we continue to be confident in the legal arguments that we’re making in this case. 

There is a clear, established precedent for the President taking these executive actions.  And again, the executive actions that the President has put in place are actions that would actually bring accountability to our broken immigration system.  It would bring millions of people who have been in the United States for a number of years out of the shadows.  It would submit them to a background check.  It would make them pay taxes.  And it would ensure that we can focus our limited law enforcement resources on those who’ve only recently crossed the border and on those who may pose a threat to national security or to the communities that they’re living in.

So this is a pretty common-sense decision.  It’s one that’s rooted in well-established legal precedent.  And that’s why we’re going to continue to aggressively make our case in the courts.

Q    Given that, is there any thought to moving forward with the part of the directive that’s not affected by the ruling with the new -- with parents of U.S. citizens?  Given that that wasn’t supposed to start -- that the applications weren’t supposed to start until May, couldn’t you start moving forward with that sooner?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are two elements of this.  One aspect of the ruling is something I alluded to in my previous answer, which is the judge’s ruling that went against the administration does not affect the ability of homeland security officials to use prosecutorial discretion, which means that they can focus their law enforcement resources on felons and not on families; that they can make sure that they’re focusing on people who have only recently entered the country and on people who may pose a threat to public safety. 

Those efforts are ongoing.  Those efforts continue.  So those efforts are not affected by the judge’s ruling.  What is affected by the judge’s ruling are the administrative steps that would allow us to essentially issue work permits to those individuals that have agreed to come out of the shadows, that have agreed to submit to a background check, and that have agreed to pay taxes.  And that is, in the President’s view, establishing some accountability.

Now, it’s also, in the view of some law enforcement officials across the country, including some law enforcement officials from Texas, consistent with the kinds of steps that would protect public safety.  Because if people are coming out of the shadows and submitting themselves to a background check, if they don’t pass the background check then they can be detained and deported.

So there is an opportunity for us to step up our enforcement as well in the context of these basic executive actions.  So there are any number of reasons why we believe that we should be able to move forward with these administrative actions.  And that does mean that those actions that we can implement, we’re going to.  But the Department of Homeland Security has said that they will not implement the work permit process until some of these legal questions have been resolved.

Q    Has any infrastructure been put in place to process all of these cases?  I mean, there are complaints that there aren’t enough judges to handle backlogged cases, people who have been applying for citizenship and green cards for a long time.  Is there enough, or is there a move to -- I don't know -- bolster the system?

MR. EARNEST:  For the specific process, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.  The process that people would go through, to be clear, would not be getting a green card.  It would be a separate process.  So a green card would confer them with some legality, and this is actually deferred enforcement.  So they’re separate processes. 

I know that the Department of Homeland Security, since the President announced these executive actions back in November, has been taking the necessary administrative steps to be prepared to begin accepting those applications.  They have not started accepting those applications because of this recent legal ruling. But we’re hopeful that we can resolve these legal questions and, again, move forward with implementing the President’s executive actions.

Anybody else? 

Q    Back to Julie’s question.  Does this mean because the district court judge, in essence, delayed and asked for plaintiffs to respond -- will you be kicking it to the Fifth Circuit then for an emergency stay right away, or do you wait for this district court process to unfold?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, we’re going to continue to see it through at the district court level.  Now, I don’t want people to be confused.  That’s under the question of a stay.  There is a question about our appeal of the merits of the case, and that is something that we have appealed to the Fifth Circuit, and that is a process that’s moving forward. 

Q    There are going to be some young immigration advocates at this town hall that are going to want the President to do more executive actions.  Does the lawsuit and the DHS standoff, does that sort of stand in the way of the President doing more on immigration?  Is he deterred from wanting to do any other executive actions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, when he made this announcement in November, did indicate that he was using every tool at his disposal, all of the authority that he has to try to address some of the problems of our broken immigration system.  So I think the President will make the case that he has acted using all of his authority to try to solve as many of these problems as he can. 

He’s also going to reiterate his commitment to try to work with Congress to advance legislation.  The truth is there’s a lot more that could be done with legislation that would be good for the country.  And the President stands ready to work with Democrats and Republicans to try to make that legislation a reality.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there were fruitful talks that were convened between Democrats and Republicans on the Hill with the support of the administration to reach a bipartisan, common-sense proposal, a proposal that passed the Senate with the bipartisan support of both senators from Florida.  Unfortunately it was blocked by House Republicans.  So because we’re now in a new Congress we have to start that process over.  The President stands ready to do that.  We just haven’t seen a lot of interest from Republicans, unfortunately.

Q    Josh, there was a report out of Miami that the White House invited Congressman Curbelo to attend the town hall meeting and that he asked for a ride on Air Force One to get up there and was denied.  Can you talk about that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as a standard practice when we travel to -- when the President travels outside of Washington, it's not uncommon at all for us to invite a member of Congress from the congressional district where the President is appearing.  And we do that, whether or not it's a Democrat or a Republican who’s participating -- or who represents that district in Congress. 

What’s also true is that over the course of the last several months, we have made more of an effort to try to invite members of Congress from both parties to ride on Air Force One.  And there have been some high-profile members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who’ve joined the White House for trips.  In this case, we were unable to accommodate the Congressman’s request, but we typically try to do so when we can.

Q    When you say “unable to accommodate,” was it a space issue?

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not sure exactly of the issue. 

Anybody else?  Okay.  Thanks, everybody.

1:44 P.M. EST

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