The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/7/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

*Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.

2:16 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:   Good afternoon, everybody.  I apologize for the delay in getting started today. I'm not going to have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions, if you're ready, Darlene.

Q    I am.  Thank you.  Do you have any details for us on the power outage and how broadly the White House may have been affected by it?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  I suspected that might have been the subject of some conversation back here.  I can tell you that there was a power outage this afternoon that did briefly have an impact on the White House complex.  Some parts of the White House complex did have to go onto backup power, but some of the issues have been addressed in such a way that we’re now back on the regular power source.  So things are slowly but surely returning to normal here in the White House complex.

Q    And is there anything you can say about what the President was doing or where he may have been when the power --

MR. EARNEST:  I am not under the impression that the President was in any way affected by this.  I happened to be in a meeting with him, and when I walked out of that meeting I was informed that there had been a power outage.  So at least during the period in which it seemed to be most noticeable, I was with the President and he did not notice. 

Q    Nothing dimmed where you were?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I could perceive.

Q    On Iran, I was wondering if you had any reaction to Speaker Boehner saying today that the framework deal with Iran is a direct threat to peace and security in the Middle East and around the world, and that it would pave the way for a future nuclear-armed Iran.  And he’s responding to some comments the President made in the interview yesterday with NPR.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Darlene, one thing I would point out is that that is not the conclusion of the government of Saudi Arabia or the government of Egypt, both of which have put out statements supportive of the diplomatic agreement that was announced at the end of last week.  And both of those governments who are located in the Middle East suspect that this is the kind of diplomatic agreement that would actually bring some greater stability to a very volatile region of the world.

We’re pleased to see their encouraging statements.  But we’ve also been direct in acknowledging that there are more details that need to be negotiated with the Iranians.  That’s why these negotiations on the more technical aspects of the agreement will restart, and we anticipate that -- or at least hope that an agreement on all those details would be reached by the end of June.

Q    So you’re saying that Speaker Boehner should wait a little bit, wait for the details?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m saying that -- I guess what I would suggest is that every member of Congress should wait until June 30th before fully evaluating the wisdom of this agreement.  Now, they certainly can draw on the kinds of commitments that Iran has already made in the context of this initial step here, and those commitments are significant.  Those commitments do effectively block every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon.  And those commitments do include Iran cooperating with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.  That represents progress toward our goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and that’s why the President described this effective piece of diplomacy as our best bet for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Q    One last question having to do with the NPR interview. The President took a dig at Scott Walker and said that he needed to “bone up” on his foreign policy.  And then last month, the President also criticized Scott Walker when he signed the Right to Work bill into law in his state.  So I’m just wondering, what does the President have against Scott Walker?  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll just say that I assure you that it’s nothing personal.  Both of them, as you know, participated in the Gridiron Club dinner last month.  But there’s no doubt, as I’m sure that even Governor Walker himself would be happy to tell you, that there are significant policy differences between the two men, and there will be ample opportunity over the course of the next year or year and a half for us to discuss those differences -- at some length, I suspect.  But I’m not going to start that today.


Q    Josh, back on the power outage.  Can you talk at all about what led to this, both at the White House and then across D.C.?

MR. EARNEST:  The proximate cause of the disruption and power is something that I think Pepco was looking into right now -- that’s the local utility.  And so they’re taking a look at this.  I do understand that my colleagues over at the Department of Homeland Security have indicated that they do not currently see a nexus to terrorism or anything like that.  But this is something that Pepco is looking into, and I’m sure as they get more details about the cause of this disruption that they’ll be able to share that with you.

Q    Can you confirm that DHS is investigating this as well?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if there’s any investigation that’s going on on their part.  I know that any time something like this occurs, they’re certainly aware of it and interested in understanding what exactly happened.  I don’t know if there’s any sort of formal investigation going on, though.

Q    And what happens at the White House when there’s a power outage.  You said you went briefly on backup power.  Is that generators?

MR. EARNEST:  In terms of the infrastructure that’s involved, I don’t have an answer for that.  What I can tell you is that the impact on those of us who were working at the White House was minimal and that there were at least some of us who were unaware of any sort of impact or event when it first occurred.

But for obvious reasons, a complex like the White House has certain built-in redundancies to mitigate the impact of these sorts of events.  And at least as it relates to this specific situation, those redundancies proved to be effective.

Q    And moving on to a couple other questions.  The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is expanding.  To what extent is that not only on your radar, but what can the U.S. and what is the U.S. trying to do about it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, first and foremost, Jeff, what we believe should be done in Yemen is that all sides to that conflict should participate in a U.N.-led process to bring an end to the violence and try to negotiate a political settlement to the conflict.  And right now, I would concede that that seems something that’s unlikely to happen in the near term.  But that should not be used as an excuse for anybody to resist the efforts of the international community to try to bring an end to the violence, to try to negotiate a political resolution to the crisis, principally because of the terrible impact it is having on hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent people in that chaotic region of the world.

And the United States has put our full weight behind that U.N.-led effort.  At the same time, we are certainly understanding of the steps that the Saudis have taken to try to resolve the security situation along their southern border.  Their concerns are justified.  And the United States is providing some logistical support so they can take those steps.

But we would like to see us get to the point where all sides who are involved in this conflict would enter into a U.N.-led process to try to resolve diplomatically the conflict in that country.

Q    But can you speak to the fact that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, and so more and more people are going hungry?  Is there anything that the U.S. is doing to address that particular humanitarian part of the conflict?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any announcements to make at this point, but this is obviously -- the human impact of this violence is something that we’re mindful of and extremely concerned about.  And we’ll be closely monitoring this situation in the days and weeks ahead.


Q    How does this administration feel about the latest request from the Saudis of the Pakistani military to help assist them with the crisis going on in Yemen?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we know that there are a number of countries that have pledged support to the Saudis, and one of the countries that the Saudis made a request of was the United States.  And because of our close security relationship with Saudi Arabia, the United States is using some of our unique capabilities to support this ongoing mission that, again, is dedicated to addressing legitimate security concerns that they have along their border with Yemen.

I know that there are a number of other countries that have pledged to support the Saudis in this effort.  That’s obviously a decision that those countries are making and one that many are doing at the specific request of the Saudis. 


Q    First, I wanted to sort of sort out something from the President’s interview with NPR yesterday.  He said one concern about the deal that people might have that he saw as kind of legitimate was that in maybe 11, 12, 13 years, that the breakout time would be reduced from a year to a far shorter period.  And then over at the State Department before the power went out over there in the middle of Maria’s briefing, she seemed to be trying to clean that up and saying that that was an incorrect reading of it.  So could you clarify that for us, what the President envisions in year 11, 12, 13 if that year-long breakout period would remain?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple of things.  What we indicated in the factsheet that was released at the end of last week is that the breakout period for Iran would extend at least 10 years.  And that obviously is a dramatic improvement over the current situation.  Right now, our experts estimate that Iran essentially has a breakout window of two to three months.  And again, this breakout window is -- if Iran were to make a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon, the amount of time it would take for them to build up a stash of weapons-grade material to build a weapon would take two to three months.

And again, we envision a scenario where that is essentially quadrupled or quintupled depending on how you measure it over the course of the next decade.  After that, there are still some details that need to be negotiated in terms of what the breakout period looks like.  But what is also true after that 10-year window is that we have extensive insight into Iran’s nuclear program and we have greater ability to understand exactly what they’re up to so that we can more closely monitor their activity and have a more precise understanding of exactly what that breakout period would look like.

Q    I guess what I’m trying to understand is, if I’m Iran, right, and my goals are maybe both sanctions relief and getting a nuclear weapon, it seems like a pretty great deal to get a decade of sanctions relief while I can build up all of my nuclear infrastructure that I need to do -- build these advanced centrifuges that we don’t yet have, and then at the 10-year mark, have a breakout period that’s essentially zero.  So even though the U.S. figures it out, we can flip the switch and start --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, don’t misunderstand -- there are significant limitations that are placed on their nuclear program in the first 10 years.  So it would not be accurate to say that Iran would be enhancing their capacity over 10 years when it comes to their nuclear program.  In fact, they’re rolling back many key aspects of their nuclear program -- everything from significantly reducing their stockpile of uranium from 10,000 kilos to just 300, so basically reducing that stockpile by 97 percent or more.  They are obviously reducing the number of centrifuges that they have by two-thirds.  They’re making specific commitments about the level at which they’ll enrich uranium. 

Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium over 3.67 percent for 15 years.  So we’re talking about long-term commitments that Iran is making to scale back their nuclear program and to ensure that their nuclear program only exists for peaceful purposes.  And the other thing is that Iran has agreed to cooperate with intrusive inspections so we can both verify their compliance with the agreement but also have a greater understanding of the scope of their nuclear program so that after 10 years, we would actually have a much better sense about what their goals are and what capabilities they actually have.

Q    The last one I wanted to ask about was Chuck Schumer in Politico yesterday, I think while we were in this briefing, maybe kind of came out publicly and said that he would endorse the Corker legislation.  It looks like Democrats are now -- or Democrats and Republicans are a vote away from a veto-proof majority on that.  Is the incoming Senate -- or Democratic leader in the Senate publicly backing this bill that you guys have really kind of forcefully come out against a sign that your strategy is not working?  And at what point do you sort of shift strategies from saying we don’t want this at all to, let’s try to alter this bill in a way that might be a better solution for you guys?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the first thing I would say about that is the administration continues to be in close touch with members of Congress about this agreement, and it continues to be our position that members of Congress should evaluate this agreement on the merits.  And if they review the four-page parameters document that outlines the long list of commitments that Iran has made to block every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, it should strengthen everyone’s confidence in this ongoing diplomatic effort.

At the same time, I will readily acknowledge that there are additional details that need to be locked down.  And that will be the substance of ongoing negotiations through the end of June.  That’s why we have been very clear from the beginning that Congress, if a deal was reached by March, that Congress should not take a vote that would undermine negotiations until any time before June 30th at a minimum.  And that continues to be our position.

Now, the other thing that I will tell you is that there actually is -- that there are a number of concerns that we have with the Corker legislation, and let me try to be more specific than I was able to be yesterday in highlighting one area of concern that we have, and that is, specifically included in the Corker legislation is a provision that essentially makes the agreement contingent upon Iran renouncing terrorism.  Now, that’s an unrealistic suggestion because we’ve been very clear that this agreement is focused on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that it is not going to succeed in resolving the long list of concerns that we have with Iran’s behavior. 

We know that Iran has for decades menaced Israel and made anti-Semitic claims about its people.  Those are threats that we consistently and continue to roundly condemn.  That’s true before the agreement and that will likely be true after the agreement.  The President alluded to that in the NPR interview that he did yesterday.  We have raised concerns about the unjust attention of Americans inside Iran.  The release of those American citizens is not contingent on the completion of the deal.  That doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in seeing those Americans released -- we certainly believe that those Americans should be released.  The point is, we want to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And inserting a provision like this that essentially is intended to undermine the agreement in the first place is why we so strongly oppose, or at least have significant concerns and oppose the current form of the Corker bill.

Ed, go ahead.

Q    Josh, if the President is making this big sales pitch that you’ve been touting, doing these interviews, and the incoming top Democrat, as was just noted, says, I’m not buying it, I’m going to support this bill that the President says don’t support -- doesn’t that suggest a sales pitch is falling flat?

MR. EARNEST:  No, Ed, the sales pitch has only just begun, and that’s because we continue to be in a position where we want to make sure that members of Congress actually understand what’s included in this agreement and to understand what significant commitments we obtained from the Iranians for scaling back their nuclear program. 

That’s one reason why we have offered up to members of Congress who serve on the national security committees that they can get a classified briefing from Wendy Sherman.  She is one of the primary negotiators of this agreement.  We’re offering up a classified briefing to members of the national security committees in Congress about the agreement because we want to make sure that people consider this agreement on the merits.  And if they do so, they will understand the wisdom of this principled, diplomatic approach.

Q    Right, but I’m saying you’re offering that classified briefing, we’re going to give you more info, wait until the end of June.  And Chuck Schumer, one of your allies, saying, no, I’m not waiting.  How can you say the sales pitch is working?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m saying that the sales pitch is just beginning and that there is ample reason why individuals who take a close look at this agreement can conclude that this is clearly the best way for us preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  That’s what the Saudis believe.  That’s what the Egyptians believe.  That’s what a former Mossad chief said in an op-ed that ran in an Israeli newspaper yesterday.  So there is strong evidence and there are a lot of experts, both technical and otherwise, who have reviewed this agreement and have reached the same conclusion that the President had, that this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Q    The President called the current Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid last week.  Does he have a commitment, the President, that Harry Reid will vote no on Corker-Menendez?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, for his position you should check with Senator Reid.  But we continue to strongly believe that there are Democrats who are interested in this kind of principled approach to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  But those conversations continue.  And for individual members of Congress who have a position on this issue, I’ll let them state it.

Q    He’s a pretty important one, though.  You would think he’d have --

MR. EARNEST:  No doubt about it.

Q    In the NPR interview -- I just want to follow up on Justin -- the President said, “We’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that breakout is at least a year.”  And then he goes on, “and then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter, but at that point, we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves, we have much more insight because of this deal into their nuclear capabilities,” he’s saying.  Doesn’t that suggest  -- breakout is a year in terms of them getting the capability to have nuclear weapons for the first 13 years.  But the President is acknowledging in years 13, 14, 15 they may have the capability to get it much quicker.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Ed, what is no doubt true is that right now they can get it much more quickly.  Right now, our experts tell us that the breakout window is two to three years [sic]. And that’s the wisdom of this agreement, is that if we can, over the course of more than a decade, get greater insight into Iran’s nuclear program and succeed in blocking every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon --

Q    -- two to three months, isn’t it?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry, yes.  Did I say two or three years?

Q    Yes.  I just want to be clear.

MR. EARNEST:  I apologize.  What our experts tell us is that currently the breakout period is two to three months, and under this agreement, we could extend that period to a year for more than a decade.  And that is the commitment that we’ve received from Iran, and that certainly is preferable to the current scenario.

Q    Two other quick things.  At the Easter Prayer Breakfast today the President said sometimes he hears less than loving expressions by Christians, he gets concerned about that, but he said that’s a topic for another day.  Do you know what he is referring to what he gets upset about?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t.

Q    Okay.  Last thing.  Bowe Bergdahl.  There’s some new information suggesting that he showed an intent to travel to Uzbekistan and multiple searches on his computer about organized crime, made contact with a local Afghan to try and get off his military base sooner.  Are you concerned about these allegations? Have you heard about them?  Does it change your mind at all about the idea that he served with honor and distinction?

MR. EARNEST:  Ed, I’m very reluctant to weigh in on this, and it’s because there are sensitive issues related to the chain of command and the military code of justice.  So there’s an ongoing investigation by the Army into this specific matter, so I’m very reluctant as the spokesperson for the Commander-in-Chief to weigh in on this matter.

What I will tell you, though, is that the President’s commitment to ensuring that any servicemember will not be left behind is a value that we continue to firmly believe in, and it’s one that this President believes is important for him to uphold and for all Commanders-in-Chief to uphold.

Q    But if you don’t want to jump ahead of the investigation -- we’ve talked about this before -- why did Susan Rice go out there and say he did serve with honor and distinction when you didn’t have those facts?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, again, I don’t want to comment on the case that’s still under investigation by the Army.


Q    Josh, when you said you were with the President at the time of the power outage, what room were you in?  Were you in the Oval?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, Mark, we were in the Oval.

Q    With a lot of windows there, so you might not have noticed.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  That’s true.  That’s why I said that we did not perceive any sort of change.

Q    Did other offices in the West Wing experience power outages?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s my understanding that at least some offices in the EEOB were affected.  It’s unclear to me exactly to what extent offices here in the West Wing were affected.

Q    And on the Iran nuclear deal, can you explain when an agreement with a foreign country is a treaty and when it’s not?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there is a long history of this that I will get you a detailed accounting of this if this is an area that you’re interested in.  There is a very long document that we can provide you that details all of the other sorts of important national security agreements that have been negotiated by previous Presidents with other countries that did not require congressional sign-off.


Q    Switch to Cuba, if I could, and the upcoming trip.


Q    So now it’s been announced that the Secretary of State and the Foreign Minister of Cuba are meeting, which is the highest-level meeting between the two countries since the revolution in Cuba.  What’s the significance of that, in the White House opinion?  And what would it take -- would something have to be done there -- if you could explain does something have to happen at that level before the President himself would announce and sit down with an official bilateral meeting with the President of Cuba?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t seen that specific announcement from the State Department.  If they’ve made that announcement, I don’t know -- I wouldn’t refute it.  But it obviously, if true, would be the next step as we seek to begin to restore our diplomatic ties with Cuba.  There have been obviously meetings that have been conducted at a lower level below the Foreign Minister and Secretary of State level to begin that process.

The second thing I would say is that at previous Summits of the Americas, there have been occasions where the President has been standing onstage with President Castro -- I think this is true of previous Presidents, too.  I don’t have any additional -- so I guess my point is that it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a President to interact with the leader of Cuba when he’s at a meeting with world leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere. *[Cuba has not attended previous Summits of the Americas. President Obama and President Castro did shake hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa in December 2013.]

I don’t have any additional details about what the President is planning while he’s in Panama, but we’ll certainly keep you posted on that.

Q    I guess what I’m trying to get at is what is it that   -- so the White House, or Washington, the administration did not object this time to Cuba being here at this summit.  So they now know that Raul is going to be there.  There are some important things, obviously, happening between the two countries.  Since you allowed him to be there, why not talk to him?  What is the reason not to have a sit-down meeting with a guy you’re still trying to figure out at least diplomatic relations with, these other big issues that are on the table?  Because -- maybe it’s a naïve question, but I think it’s reasonable.

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think that it is a reasonable question, and I think the question is merely what’s the sequence of these conversations.  And that’s something that our diplomatic team is still working through, and if we have something to announce in terms of the President’s involvement on this, we’ll let you know.


Q    The trial underway in Boston could very well reach a verdict today.  Can you tell us how the President would feel about the death penalty?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President’s views on this topic generally are something that he’s talked about at length but not recently.  Obviously this is a decision that a jury in Boston will have to make, and it obviously is a very serious one and it’s one that we certainly would expect them to carry out seriously.  All indication is that they’re doing that.

But I wouldn’t want to weigh in on this, again, because this is something that they’re deliberating on right now.

Q    This particular case -- we know he opposes, generally, the death penalty.  But this particular case has many circumstances which could conceivably reverse that. 

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of his position.  I think that he’s expressed some concerns about that process, but I don’t think that he’s said that he is across- the-board opposed to the death penalty.  But I’ll look into that for you to make sure we get you sort of the full detail of his position. 

Q    On Cuba, the Deputy National Security Advisor said this morning he expected the State Department to have a decision soon on whether to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.  Then there are other reports suggesting that they will be removed within a day or two.  Can you enlighten us?

MR. EARNEST:  I would not envision a final decision happening that quickly.  You’ll recall that this is a process that begins at the State Department but it doesn’t end there, that there are some other steps to the process beyond that.  And we’re still, as far as I know, as of right now -- that that designation -- that that open policy question still resides at the State Department.  I would anticipate that it will move to the next stage relatively soon, as the Deputy National Security Advisor referred to.  But I wouldn’t necessarily expect a final decision in the next day or two.

Q    In other words, not before any potential meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, certainly not before our departure tomorrow.

Q    But possible before the President conceivably meets on the sidelines with the President of Cuba?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if we get some more details about that decision-making process, we’ll let you know.


Q    Josh, does the power outage and the things here -- I’m surprised you didn’t bring it up -- but does this highlight some of the issues with infrastructure right now?  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  The actual cause of this specific incident is still being reviewed so I don’t know if an upgraded infrastructure would have prevented it from happening.  It’s certainly -- I guess to your point, it’s hard to imagine that a more modern power grid would have hurt.

Q    Can I ask you quickly about college basketball?  Duke Blue Devils --

MR. EARNEST:  We can talk about that.

Q    Okay.  So very quickly, a more serious issue within the college basketball community is right now Coach K, the winner, the coach of the Duke Blue Devils, said this morning that he thought that players, if they go to college, should have to stay for at least two years, or should have the right to go directly from high school to the pros.  Does the President think that the present situation that exists right now as it relates to the NBA is sufficient and should it be changed -- as long as he’s the basketball-fan-in-chief, so to speak -- to have student athletes stay in school longer before they have the ability to go pro?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t asked the President about this specific proposal that was floated by Coach K today, but it certainly is a provocative one because it does sort of raise concerns about -- or at least raise questions about the way that college basketball players are treated in the system.  And I think you could raise legitimate questions about a process that sends an 18-year-old high school kid straight to the professional ranks.  At the same time, going to college for only a year also, in some cases, may enhance their stock in the NBA draft, but it doesn’t put them very far down the line of getting a college education.

So I can understand why there might be a lot of different views and a lot of factors to consider here, but I haven’t talked to the President about this specific detailed proposal.

Q    Not about the specific -- rent a player in general.  Can the President -- you can probably speak on his behalf -- what does he think of this idea of rent-a-player?  Duke suggested -- it doesn’t do it -- but other schools have been accused of that.

MR. EARNEST:  In terms of just having them come do a one-and-done situation?

Q    Yes.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously, the President has in the past expressed concerns about the impact of that kind of an arrangement on a player.  And part of that is because if they leave after a year they haven’t made a lot of progress in terms of getting, obtaining a college degree.  And there are questions that certainly some players are able to enhance their draft stock by doing that, but certainly not all of them.  And the President’s concern is for those that don’t. 

And there are a whole host of other concerns about what do you do with players who go to college for a year and then get injured, what sort of greater challenges that they face as well. So there are a lot of complicated consequences for the policy that's currently in place and for some of these proposed solutions.  But it certainly warrants the kind of robust debate that it sounds like was probably reignited by Krzyzewski’s comments.


Q    You’ve repeatedly laid out all of the great points, in your view, of the Iran deal and said that the sales pitch has only begun, that there’s been this robust conversation.  Why hasn’t the President reached out directly to Senator Corker on this? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President has placed telephone calls to the four highest-ranking members of Congress, the Democratic and Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate.  There are a whole host of other conversations that have taken place between senior members of the President’s national security team and members of Congress.  I'm not sure who exactly had the responsibility for calling Senator Corker, but I'm confident that he has received at least one phone call from a senior administration official about the deal to make sure that he understands, as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that he understands exactly what’s included in this agreement.

And again, we would expect that someone like him, as we would even just a back-bencher in the Senate, that they would evaluate this agreement on the merits and evaluate it on the specific serious commitments that we obtained from the Iranians that shuts down every path they have to a nuclear weapon.

Q    So as serious as this is, and as important as it is, and as confident you are in the points that you’ve laid out, why would Congress having a vote up or down on this be the worst thing in the world?  Don't you have some confidence then that those members of Congress, especially after talking directly to the White House, would vote along with the deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that assumes, Michelle, that they are -- well, that's a good question, Michelle.  (Laughter.)  I'm going to try to find a diplomatic way of characterizing this.  I raised concerns yesterday that the approach that some members of Congress had used in considering this agreement was highly partisan.  And the best example I have for that is that you had 47 members of the Republican United States Senate -- 47 Republicans in the United States Senate who wrote an open letter to the hardliners in Iran suggesting that they should not negotiate with the President of the United States.

That is an indication that this is a partisan football and that, frankly, they’re not willing to consider the deal on the merits.  We do have confidence that if people did consider the deal on the merits that we would be able to garner strong bipartisan support.  There’s a reason that you see a former chief of the Mossad in Israel come out in support of this agreement; that you see the Saudis and the Egyptians indicate their support for this effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There are plenty of reasons when you consider the merits of the agreement to support it.

And this goes back to some of the concerns that we have with Senator Corker’s legislation.  It is clear that there are a large number of Republicans in the United States Senate at least who view the Corker bill as a vehicle for undermining negotiations.  And that is the concern that we have.

Q    I think that -- I mean, that seems like something that early on would be a great point, except now we see more and more and more and high-ranking Democrats agreeing with it.  How does that shape your view, then, of what this bill aims to do?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, our concern about the legislation has not changed, and this is something that we've been talking about for a few weeks now, since the bill was introduced six or eight weeks ago.  And the concern that we have, at least -- and I'm able to be more specific about this today than I was yesterday -- that for example -- this is just one example, this is not the entirety of our concerns with the legislation, but this is a significant concern that we have -- is that it includes a provision that makes the Iran deal contingent on Iran renouncing terrorism.  That's not a reasonable expectation that that's going to happen.  That's not the point of the agreement.

We have a long list of concerns with Iran and their behavior, and not all of them are going to be resolved because we reach this nuclear agreement.  And I would make the case to you, as I have in the past, that those long list of concerns are an important reason for us to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which is why the stakes of success here are so high. 

So this provision in the Corker bill I think gives you a good illustration of how the bill could be used to undermine negotiations.

Q    Why would influential Democrats be agreeing with this? That tells you that there’s either something wrong with the sales pitch, or there’s something wrong with the deal, in their view.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess you’d have to ask them.  I think each of them would have their own answer to that question.  But we feel confident that individuals who are willing to consider this deal on the merits, that the vast majority of them would find a good reason to support this legislation -- or at a minimum, would be in a position where they would say it’s clear that the administration and the United States and the international community has made substantial progress in getting the Iranians to make serious commitments about their nuclear program. 

nd we should reserve judgment until all of the details of this agreement have been negotiated by the end of June.  And that is also something that we’ve been saying for some time now and that’s something that I’d reiterate at this point, too, that waiting until June and waiting until everybody has an opportunity to evaluate the full deal on the merits is also important.

Q    And last question.  It’s been brought up a couple of times, even just now, the words that the President used in that NPR interview about years down the road -- kind of alarming to some.  But using sanctions and having them snap back -- is that really a legitimate way to look at a recourse to Iran pursuing a bomb down the road, if the White House repeatedly says that that’s what they did while sanctions were in place?  I mean, that was the argument you used for not just keeping sanctions and keeping things in place.  But would sanctions then be any effective punishment or stoppage for them pursuing it down the road?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the way that we see this is that the very tough set of sanctions that the international community imposed on Iran is what compelled them to the negotiating table. The only reason we’re having this conversation is because there were serious costs to the Iranian economy that were sustained by Iran’s reluctance, to put it mildly, to come into compliance with the international community’s expectations about their nuclear program.  So by imposing these sanctions and enforcing them with a broad international coalition, we succeeded in compelling Iran to come to the negotiating table and actually entering into serious negotiations to resolve those concerns and eventually shut down every single pathway they have to a nuclear weapon.

So we have seen that sanctions have in the past been effective, and the reason that they’ve entered into this agreement is to get sanctions relief.  So if we detect at any point over the course of the agreement while it’s being implemented that Iran is not living up to their terms of the agreement, the fact that sanctions could snap back into place does give Iran a pretty important incentive to continue to live up to the terms of the agreement.


Q    You talked about the White House’s concern about the provision in the review act that’s basically would condition approval of a deal on Iran renouncing terrorism, which is not something that’s a part of the negotiation.  Is the White House or anyone at the White House doing anything to lay out for members of Congress either who support the bill or who are looking at supporting the bill what terms you might be able to live with, maybe that are inherent to the kinds of agreements that you’ve been negotiating with Iran?  Things that have to do with our nuclear program, things that have to do with breakout time or enrichment capability, or any of that?  I mean, is that something that you could envision, that the White House could envision working with Congress to work out?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to get into the details of the kinds of conversations that are currently taking place between senior administration officials and members of Congress. But we certainly want to help members of Congress understand exactly what kinds of commitments Iran has made.  And the reason we want them to understand those commitments is because those commitments do effectively shut down every pathway that Iran has to getting a nuclear weapon.  And if we want to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which has been a longstanding goal of this administration, then principled diplomacy is our best bet for doing that. 

And we’re going to continue to make that persuasive case to members of Congress.  And, frankly, we would like to see Congress engage in a posture where they are actually supportive of what is our best bet for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And there is this tendency -- and, again, this is a tendency that we see much more often on the Republican side than on the Democratic side -- where you see Republicans undermining the President’s effort to conduct diplomacy, but refuse to engage in the President’s decisions about the use of military force.  And that’s a pretty astounding irony in the eyes of the President, and one that I think goes to my previous concerns that I articulated to Michelle.  I think it raises questions about the motivations of at least some members of Congress, and might raise the question about the degree to which partisan politics is influencing their decision-making on a critically important national security priority for the United States.

Q    But people like Senator Cardin have talked about strengthening the President’s hand, and they are looking at the review bill potentially as a way of doing that.  So wouldn’t it actually make the agreement stronger, the President’s authority to negotiate it stronger if there were legislation that said if these things aren’t in the deal, things that the White House has said you want in the deal and you want Iran to commit to, then Congress won’t approve it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the problem with that, Julie, is it’s the responsibility of the President of the United States to conduct foreign policy, and that setting up a dynamic like that essentially says that the President is not empowered to conduct that foreign policy; that essentially we would have 535 secretaries of state, not just one.

And that is not a way for the United States to preserve our influence around the globe because it doesn’t just raise questions in the minds of our adversaries like those in Iran, it raises questions in the minds of our allies that if -- we know that the United Kingdom, for example, a nation with whom we have a special relationship, is counting on the United States to live up to an international commitment that they’ve made; that doubt in their mind is raised about whether or not they need to go and negotiate with 535 members of Congress or if they can engage in  -- enter into an agreement with the President of the United States and his Secretary of State and know that the United States will live up to that commitment.

And again, the truth is, this doesn’t have anything to do with this President.  This has a lot to do with the way that presidential authority has been exercised by previous Presidents in both parties and the way that future Presidents in either party would be empowered to conduct foreign policy in the future.

Q    Just shifting to Cuba for a second.  Recognizing that the decision is the State Department’s to make, does the President have a view on whether it would be productive at this point to take Cuba off of the list?  And how quickly would he be prepared -- he said yesterday he would -- he’s ready to take action once he gets a recommendation.  How quickly might that happen once State says what it thinks the policy should be?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the State Department is the first step in that process.  And again, as the National Security Advisor -- Deputy National Security Advisor indicated today, we would anticipate some action from the State Department on that relatively soon.  But I don’t have any more details about that process for you.

Q    About how quickly the President would act on that recommendation?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t have any details at this point.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  First, I'd like you to pass along on that document you’re going to send to --

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  We can definitely make sure you get that.

Q    Mr. Mark Knoller, I mean. 

Q    I asked first.  (Laughter.) 

Q    I’d like to switch gears, springing off the President’s environmental climate change event today, if I could.  There are many in the environmental community who have said that the President has been inconsistent at best and disappointing as a champion of the environment during his term.  They point to a day earlier this month when he, on the one hand, he sets new emissions standards, on the next -- in the next moment he allows drilling or oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean.  They point to the fracking policy which they feel has fallen short.  On the positive side, the CAFÉ standards is something that they applaud. But a mixed bag.  Has the President been a green President?  Has he done all that he can to address climate change?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mike, we can get you some more details about the legacy of this President when it comes to fighting the causes of climate change and making America independent of foreign energy.  But there is no doubt that because of the investments that this President championed very early on in his presidency that we have made tremendous progress when it comes to energy efficiency. 

You alluded to it in terms of the impact that that has had on the American fleet of automobiles and trucks that are on the roads right now.  That isn’t just going to save money of middle-class families -- save the money of middle-class families, it also is going to reduce the impact that we have on climate change.  The same is true when it comes to investments in clean energy -- that we have tripled the amount of energy that’s produced by wind and increased the amount of solar energy that’s produced in this country 10 times. 

Now, what’s also true is that we have also ramped up production of oil and gas in this country.  And that is consistent with the all-of-the-above approach that this President has pursued.  But that is positioning the United States to best benefit from this change that we see is coming when it comes to the energy markets; that demand for solar and wind energy is only going to increase both as concerns about the impacts of climate change increase, but also, frankly, as we understand that the supply of oil and gas declines.

And we want to make sure that these clean energy jobs of the future in terms of building wind turbines or building solar panels, that those are the kinds of good jobs that are created here in America.  And there is a real economic opportunity associated with those kinds of investments.  And that’s one of the reasons that the President is so aggressively pursuing them.

The last thing I’ll say is that another part of this President’s legacy will be the clean-power rule that he has implemented.  We have seen other Presidents consider those kinds of proposals to start regulating what is the largest contributor to carbon pollution in this country, and that is a process that is well underway because of this President’s leadership and because of the President’s courage to act on what’s a pretty potent political issue.

And again, I think that is an indication of the President’s conviction on this issue, but it’s also why the President is going to go down in history as the greenest President we’ve ever had.


Q    Thanks a lot, Josh.  You’ve mentioned a word over the course of the past few weeks really in terms of Congress’s role in the Iran nuclear agreement, and that word is “evaluate.”  What’s the difference between Congress evaluating the deal and any of us in this room evaluating the deal?  And what I mean by that is it really means nothing, from my perspective, to evaluate a deal when Congress doesn’t have the power to modify it, to reject it, to in any way make any changes to that deal.  So what do you mean when you keep on saying “evaluate?”

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean that members of Congress should consider the agreement and decide whether or not the President has achieved his stated objective of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, shutting down every pathway they have and making them cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.  And these are details that we hope will be completed by the end of June, and that’s what members of Congress should consider. 

Now, what’s also true -- and I mentioned this just a little bit earlier -- there are members of Congress who serve on the national security committees who have an open invitation to participate in a classified briefing about these conversations, about these talks with the Iranians.  Unfortunately, that’s not an opportunity I can offer to all of you, but again, this is something that members of Congress have access to because they’re elected representatives of the people and they serve on the relevant national security committees.  And it’s part of their responsibilities to conduct oversight of the national security agencies.

There’s one other thing that Congress can and should do in the context of this agreement, which is it is only Congress that has the power to vote to remove the sanctions that Congress put in place.  And that is something that we think Congress should do only after Iran has demonstrated over the long term their willingness to keep the commitments that they make in the context of these negotiations.

So that’s the role that we believe that Congress should play.  It’s an important one.  It’s one that we take seriously.  Frankly, I hope -- I wish they would take that role -- that all of them would take that role as seriously as we do.

Q    And Congress has another role, and you -- in answering Julie’s question you really didn’t talk about that either, and that is its role in terms of foreign policy.  You said that the President is the sole voice of foreign policy of the United States, and to a large extent that’s very true, but it’s ignoring the treaty power of the Constitution.  How do you respond to that?  Why shouldn’t members of the Senate be able to give an up-or-down vote on the deal which is now preliminary, negotiated in Switzerland?  Why shouldn’t they be able to have that opportunity?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m going to give you the same document and same briefing that Mark is going to get as it relates to the long list of international agreements that have been reached by an American President that are critically important to our national security that don’t require congressional approval.  There’s a long track record of that, and that clearly applies in this case, as well.

Q    But why is this particular preliminary agreement, unlike, for instance, SALT, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which Congress did have the power and did invoke that power to ratify that particular treaty?  Why is it different?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, one of the reasons that’s different is that was a situation in which the United States in the context of that treaty was actually making substantial changes in terms of reducing our nuclear arsenal.  We’re not making any sort of concessions like that in the context of this agreement with Iran. Our nuclear posture remains the same, and we’re -- frankly, we’re not making those kinds of commitments in this agreement.

Q    But Russia’s was reduced, right, as well, in that particular agreement?

MR. EARNEST:  It was, but you’re asking me what the consequences were for the United States and why the United States Congress had to weigh in on that deal.  That was a situation where the United States was making a significant change to our nuclear posture.  We’re not making that kind of concession and we’re not making that kind of change in the context of these conversations with the Iranians.

Let’s move around a bit.  Susan.

Q    Thanks.  Can you rule out -- going back to the Cuba issue -- can you rule out that you’re going to -- the State Department is going to announce its decision on the terrorism list -- state-sponsored of terrorism list this weekend and whether Obama is going to sit down with Castro for any type of meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  I just don’t have any of those details to announce at this point.  But stay tuned and we’ll let you know. 

Q    Okay.  On the Christian issue this morning, Obama’s comments.  I’m wondering if you -- when you had a meeting with him, whether you asked him about what he was referring to.

MR. EARNEST:  I did not.  We had a discussion on another topic.

Q    Can you ask him?  Because I think that’s sort of -- it leaves a big question hanging in the air about what he meant -- whether he meant the religious freedom issue.

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, I did have the benefit of attending the breakfast today, too, and I don’t think it was a big question that was hanging in the air.  I think it was something that drew a lot of laughter in the room principally because people understand that in a roomful of believers, there are still going to be people with pretty starkly different views.  And in some cases, it means that those differences may provoke some people to fall short of even the expectations that they set for themselves as they try to set a high standard for the way that they live their life.  And the President acknowledged in his remarks that he was somebody who himself felt -- acknowledged that he fell short of that every day, too.

Q    Right, but he made some sort of controversial remarks about the Christianity at the last prayer breakfast, so I’m wondering --

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not sure they were particularly -- I don’t think I’d stipulate that they’re controversial.

Q    Okay, well, people have said they are.  But I’m wondering --

MR. EARNEST:  But just because people disagree with him doesn’t mean that they’re controversial inherently.  But go ahead, I don’t meant to interrupt you.

Q    Sure, but more to my point, there is an opening for a Christian -- an envoy to Christian and other religious minorities in the Middle East.  It’s been open since last summer, since Congress passed the bill calling for Obama to appoint the opening, the envoy.  Why has Obama decided to leave that position open for this time period when we have ISIS executing Christians at an alarming rate in the Middle East?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know what the status is of that particular personnel opening, but we can look into that for you.


Q    Josh, in the context of the President and the climate change event today, this may not rank as high as some of the items that Mike was mentioning earlier in terms of the greenest President ever, but we’ve got a preliminary report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee talking about what the best diet not just for people’s health but also for the environment and the planet.  Now, these rules are of course done in five-year cycles.  The new guidelines would be released later this year.  Does the White House support inclusion or exclusion of things like sustainability, climate change, and supply chains when we’re considering the impact of Americans’ diet?

MR. EARNEST:  Jared, I’m not aware of that ongoing policy process, but it sounds like something that the USDA may be able to give you some more insight on.

Q    Well, that’s interesting because Secretary Vilsack has said that he doesn’t support the inclusion of these guidelines.  That was in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.  And I was wondering if the President, because these things are still in a preliminary period, and Ag and HHS still have to weigh in, so would the White House support -- despite Secretary Vilsack’s opinion, would the White House support inclusion of these greener guidelines?  They’re basically saying that a vegan diet or a vegetarian diet would be better for the planet, for the country. Obviously it would be controversial.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t at this point anticipate -- again, knowing hardly anything about this policy process, I would not anticipate contradicting Secretary Vilsack who obviously knows a whole lot more about it than I do.

Q    One more on food and beverage, and I know these are silly.  While the President was in Louisville, he mentioned that he got a whole mess of bourbon from the mayor of Louisville.  Will that be the font from which a bourbon summit is eventually enjoyed?

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll see.

Q    With a nuclear deal looming, how does the President plan on maintaining a positive relationship with Israel, a long friend of the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has indicated on a number of occasions that the strong, unprecedented security relationship between the United States and Israel will continue.  And whether that’s investments in Iron Dome or other commitments that we can make to ensure that everybody around the world understands that the United States of America has no closer ally in the Middle East than Israel, the President will take whatever steps are necessary to do exactly that. 

The President said that publicly; the President has communicated that privately to Prime Minster Netanyahu, as well. And the President has done that because of the strong ties between our two countries.  And those ties and that strong relationship will endure.

Q    How does the administration plan to address the concerns that you spoke about earlier with how Iran treats the Israelis? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have obviously on a number of occasions had ample opportunity to condemn the kind of rhetoric that we’ve seen directed at Israel by the government of Iran.  Our position on that has not changed.  That’s something that we continue to strongly oppose and condemn.  And this nuclear agreement is not going to resolve all of those concerns, but it's precisely because Iran does so frequently menace Israel that we believe we need to take these steps to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

As distasteful and unethical and immoral and as the rhetoric is that we see from Iran aimed at Israel, it would be worse if it were rhetoric that was being uttered by a nuclear-armed Iran.  And it would make those threats and that menacing even more dangerous.  And that is why the President believes that resolving -- preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the best interest of the United States, it's also in the best interest in the nation of Israel. 

Okay.  Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thank you very much.  Before my question, if I may, on behalf of the Indian-American community and Mr. Singh’s family, to thank the White House doctors, White House press staff and the Secret Service -- because of their timely efforts he’s still alive today. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, good.  I'm pleased to hear that.  Very pleased.  I'm sure what our men and women at the Secret Service would tell you is that they’re just doing their jobs.  But I think it is a testament to their heroism and their willingness to act quickly actually does, in a very tangible way, save lives.  And I'm certainly pleased to hear an update on Dr. Singh’s condition.

Q    Yes, sir.  Thank you.  My question is, so much has gone on between Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the White House and also President’s visit to India.  A lot of the Indian parliament and also a lot of high level U.S. visits and a lot of agreements. My question is after a lot of agreements were made here at the White House and also in Delhi during the presidential visit, are they going to implement them now or in the near future, soon? Because so much time has gone and now 70th anniversary of the U.N. is coming up where the President said that India should be a member of the U.N. Security Council.

MR. EARNEST:  I think what the President said was that he said in the context of a reformed Security Council that the President would support the inclusion of India in that process.  So that continues to be our policy and one that we are certainly aware of.

The President, as we’ve talked about on a number of occasions, genuinely enjoyed the visit that he had to India back in January and takes very seriously the kind of opportunities that exist in that friendship between the United States and the world’s largest democracy in India.  And this is a relationship that continues to strengthen in a way that has both national security benefits for both countries, but also in a way that has important economic benefits for both countries.  And the President certainly considers it a foreign policy priority to continue to strengthen that relationship.

Q    And finally, quick question on immigration.  What is the future of the illegal immigrants that are still waiting and watching, and also, depending on the President’s decision?  What’s the message to them now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we continue to be working through the legal system to appeal the ruling of the district court judge that prevented the implementation of some aspects of the President’s immigration executive actions.  And that’s a legal process that’s ongoing.  We continue to have very strong confidence in the legal strength of those arguments. 

So thanks, everybody.  Have a good Tuesday. 

3:17 P.M. EDT

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