Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Worcester, MA
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Worcester, Massachusetts
2:08 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: I want to begin with a brief comment about -- the Senate Republicans have once again today blocked a plan to allow hardworking Americans to refinance their student loan debt at today’s low interest rates -- all in an effort to protect tax loopholes for the wealthiest among us. It’s unfortunate, if not surprising, that Republicans in Congress have once again obstructed progress in Washington in order to protect millionaires and billionaires at the expense of hardworking, middle-class Americans.
So with that, I’ll open it up to questions.
Q Josh, any reaction to Eric Cantor’s loss and what that means for the President’s agenda, particularly immigration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that I’m no expert in Republican primary politics. I’m sure there are a lot of people in your rolodex who have more keen insight on a Republican primary election to offer than I do.
But that said, I do think that this -- the outcome does provide some evidence to indicate that the strategy of opposing nearly everything and supporting hardly anything isn’t just a bad governing strategy; it’s not a very good political strategy either.
That’s why the President has pursued a different approach. The President has clearly laid out what his priorities are; has worked hard to build support across the country for those priorities. These are priorities that will support middle-class families across the country, expand economic opportunity. That’s why the President’s priorities are shared by the vast majority of Americans.
So when it comes to policies that will create jobs, reforming our education system, including by opening the door to a college education to more Americans, or even reforming our broken immigration system, the President is going to continue to look for opportunities to work with people across the aisle to find common ground to make progress on those core priorities. That’s what the President has been doing for the last five and a half years, and that’s what the President is going to continue doing for the next two and a half.
Q Has this changed the calculus at all as to when the President might take some executive actions on immigration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have seen some analysis out there over the last 18 hours since the polls closed that I have to admit I’m a little perplexed by. I just moved to Virginia. I didn’t move to the 7th District. But I’ve seen that Majority Leader Cantor campaigned very aggressively against bipartisan, commonsense immigration reform. But yet, in the analysis, there are some who suggest that his election was the key to getting immigration reform done. So I’m not quite sure how people have reached that conclusion.
It’s my view, and it’s the view of the White House, that there is support all across the country for commonsense bipartisan immigration reform. There is bipartisan support for it in the Senate, where it passed. There is also support across the country among leaders in law enforcement, the business community, in the labor community, in the faith community, who all understand that fixing our broken immigration system would be good for our economy and good for the country.
A lot of Republicans are supportive of immigration reform along the lines of the compromise that had passed through the Senate because it significantly reduces the deficit by $900 billion over 20 years. So there are any number of reasons why acting on immigration reform, like that passed through the Senate, is a good idea. That compromise proposal is just as good today as it was before the polls opened yesterday.
Q But doesn’t Eric Cantor’s loss suggest that the forces that are against this on Capitol Hill -- the tea party and some of the conservatives who have been most vocal against is -- are not on the wane but, in fact, gathering strength? And doesn’t that then demand that the President do something different to try to get this through if it’s going to get through, or to do something on the executive side that Congress can effect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say three things about that. The first is, again, the Majority Leader campaigned very aggressively against comprehensive immigration reform and he lost. So I’m probably the last person that House Republicans should take political advice from, so I won’t even offer it. But I’m confident that that will factor into their own political calculus.
The second thing I would point to are the results of the South Carolina Republican primary. Again, I’m no expert in Republican Party politics, but I’d be hard pressed to name a constituency more conservative than those who cast ballots in the South Carolina Republican primary. Senator Graham didn’t just support comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, he actually wrote the bill, or at least he helped write the bill -- he was among those who wrote the bill. And he made no apologies about that. In fact, I think he has made a, again, a persuasive case for why comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing for the country. Senator Graham didn’t get everything in that piece of legislation that he hoped he would get, but the President didn’t either. That’s the nature of compromise. But I think both Senator Graham and President Obama, who have starkly different political views, have found a lot to like in that piece of legislation.
In terms of the options that are before the President, I think you’re going to see the President continue to make a case for why Congress should act to fix or put in place reforms in our broken immigration system. As the President announced several weeks ago, he’s directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a review about the options that may be available through the President’s executive authority to try to address some of the most persistent problems with our broken immigration system. That review is still ongoing.
I don’t have an update at this point about the content or timing of that report, but that’s something that remains on the table as well.
Q Josh, on Iraq, the State Department has suggested the United States is going to give additional assistance to the Iraqis to stop this movement of militants from Mosul to Baghdad. Can you detail what kind of assistance we’re talking about, what additional force the United States might use or other assistance?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, give me one second here. Let me start here: The United States is deeply concerned about the continued aggression of ISIL in Iraq. In addition to the violence in Mosul, we’ve seen the reports and are closely following the ongoing attacks and violence in the Baiji and Tikrit areas, and other parts of northern Iraq. The deterioration in security is rapidly becoming a humanitarian issue and requires a coordinated response by Iraqi leaders from across the country to halt the advances ISIL has made and regain control of territory currently in ISIL’s hands.
In addition, we condemn ISIL’s despicable attack on the Turkish consulate in Mosul. And we call for the immediate release of Turkey’s kidnapped diplomatic and security personnel. We’re in touch with the governments of Turkey and Iraq, and stand ready to provide any appropriate assistance.
The situation in Iraq is grave and we’re actively working with Iraqi leaders in support of their efforts to implement an effective and coordinated response to address this crisis. We’ll continue to provide all appropriate assistance to the government of Iraq, to assist it in our common fight against the threat that ISIL poses to Iraq in the region.
Q Can you say what “appropriate assistance” means?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don’t have any details. At the briefing yesterday I went through some of the material assistance that we’ve provided in the past.
Q But it’s different today than it was at yesterday’s briefing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there’s no doubt that the situation has deteriorated even in the last 24 hours. It’s something we’re concerned about. And we’ve been in touch with the government of Iraq about what we can do to support them as they try to address this security threat.
Let me point out one other -- mention one other thing that the President has talked about in the last couple of weeks. In his West Point speech, the President talked about this Counterterrorism Partnership Fund. What the President has proposed is essentially $5 billion that will be put into a fund that could be used to support our coordination with partners throughout the region as they combat extremists and terrorist elements that are waging a war inside of Syria right now. So what the President would like to see is additional resources that could be brought to bear to assist our coordination and consultation with countries that neighbor Syria and are most at risk of being drawn into the violence that’s underway there.
Q And one quick follow-up to that -- you mentioned rapidly becoming a humanitarian issue. That is an issue in which the President has used American force in the past -- to stop Muammar Qaddafi and in other cases. Should that be read as a warning that the President is ready to use military force to stop a humanitarian disaster?
MR. EARNEST: It should be read as the President being genuinely concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been drawn into this conflict. And they’ve been drawn into it because we’ve seen extremists descend on this region of Iraq that includes one of the largest cities in Iraq. That violence has caused hundreds of thousands of people, according to reports, to be displaced from their communities, from their homes. And the President is and the country is concerned about the basic needs of those people being met.
We have provided a lot of humanitarian assistance to countries that are currently housing Syrian refugees that have fled Syria. So we’re very attentive to the wide range of humanitarian needs that are pretty severe in the region right now. And those humanitarian needs seem to be growing rather quickly in the last couple of days, and we’re concerned about that.
Q Is he considering stepping up that aid?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything to report along those lines right now, but there’s no doubt that we’ve noticed that the situation is getting worse.
Q Josh, you have basically a haven for extremists that’s developing between Lebanon through Syria into Iraq now, which is bigger than the haven for al Qaeda ever was in Afghanistan. How much of a direct security threat does the administration see this to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: The President has been talking for quite some time, since the very early days of the conflict in Syria, about the destabilizing impact that that could have on the broader region. That is something that we are concerned about and continue to be concerned about.
It poses a very different kind -- at this point, it appears to pose a different kind of threat to the United States’ interests, but a serious threat and one we continue to be concerned about.
Q Different in what way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, different in that core al Qaeda had repeatedly and publicly vowed to attack the United States homeland. The threat in the region that we’re talking about now appears to be somewhat different, but it’s one that we are watching very carefully for a variety of reasons -- because they’ve proven to be very violent, because they’ve demonstrated a willingness to consider targeting American interests and American allies.
And that’s a threat that we take incredibly seriously. It’s one that the President has been closely focused on. It’s the reason that we value the cooperative relationship we have with a lot of governments in this region. And it’s the reason that the President is considering things like the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund to make sure that we are devoting the necessary resources to cooperate with our partners in these areas, to protect the United States of America and our interests and our allies.
Q Josh, Bashar al-Assad is claiming common cause with al-Maliki, claiming that he’s battling the same kind of radical elements that are at play in Iraq. Is he wrong? Why is that any different? We’re encouraging al-Maliki to take tougher actions against the uprisings there. Why is Syria different?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Syria is different in a couple of ways. The first is that Mr. Assad has repeatedly used his armed forces to attack his own people, including those that were not involved in the conflict. That violence has been terrible. It’s something that we have roundly and repeatedly condemned. And it’s violence that’s been condemned by leaders of countries all across the globe.
So the approach that President Obama has pursued is to find ways to support the moderate opposition. There are a variety of ways that we can offer that support, both in the form of military and non-military assistance. And that is assistance that we are constantly reviewing. And we’re routinely looking for ways to offer the kind of assistance that would be most effective. And, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve also provided assistance in the form of humanitarian aid for those who have been displaced or caught in the crossfire.
And so we have demonstrated a pretty comprehensive approach, but the tactics and strategy of the Assad regime to use the military might of that country against the Syrian people is despicable. And it’s the reason that we have for some time now have been calling on a political transition to take place in Syria.
Q One on immigration again. Senators Kirk and McCain wrote to the President today to ask him to use the power of his office to speak out against illegal minors coming across the border, down in Arizona. Is that something he might be interested in doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Stephen, I got asked about this a little bit yesterday at the briefing, and I pointed out that the law is pretty clear on this, that the deferred action that the administration put in place in terms of dealing with those who came to this country as minors only applies to those who have been in this country since before June of 2007. So those who are attempting to cross the border now would not be granted that same kind of deferred action.
So we’ve been pretty clear across the administration about what the law is and how that law will be enforced, and our commitment to enforcing that law accordingly. So that is the policy of the administration, something that I’ve said, and I’m confident that the President shares that view.
Q One more on guns. His remarks yesterday caused quite a stir on guns. Would it be fair to draw a conclusion that he’s concluded that there’s not really any possibility of any new legislative action during his presidency on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: No, he’s not drawn that conclusion. I think what the President has concluded is that for legislative action to be successful, people all across the country are going to have to make their voices heard.
We’ve seen a number of polls that indicate that the vast majority of Americans support commonsense measures to reduce gun violence. One example of that is closing loopholes in the background check law. Doing so would make it harder for those -- for criminals and others who shouldn’t have access to guns get access to them. And we can do that, we can implement that law in a way that would protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
But again, that piece of legislation is not going to pass without more grassroots-level, vocal support from people all across the country who hold that view. I mentioned polls earlier indicate that a vast majority of Americans support that kind of approach. And there’s some polls that indicate a majority of Republicans actually support that approach.
But again, it is unlikely that we’re going to see any significant changes legislatively without more Americans standing up and making their voice heard, and making it clear to their members of Congress that this should be a priority.
Q Since you brought up polls, there are a couple of new ones out today that indicate that the public was not pleased with the way the Bergdahl release was handled and thought that Congress should have been consulted more. Does the President regret the level of consultation that he offered to Congress on this in advance of the release, and in advance of nailing down the specifics of a deal?
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate the precision of your question in which you asked about the level of consultation, because there was consultation with Congress over the last several years about the possibility of executing a prisoner exchange like this to free Sergeant Bergdahl.
I think a lot of the dissatisfaction in Congress seems to stem from the fact that members of Congress were not notified of the precise operational details of a secret military mission before it was launched. It is certainly well within their rights to be frustrated about that. But as the Commander-in-Chief, the President feels a responsibility to safeguard -- or at least minimize the risk faced by our men and women in uniform -- both those who were responsible for executing this mission, but also for the life and wellbeing of Sergeant Bergdahl.
So we’re aware of the frustration of some members of Congress. I will say that that frustration notwithstanding, this administration has demonstrated a commitment to consultation with Congress. The President spoke at length last summer about his view that our foreign policy is stronger when you have bipartisan support in Congress for the foreign policy decisions that are made by the administration and implemented by the United States of America.
So that consultation and cooperation and bipartisan support is something that we routinely actively seek, and we’ll continue to do so.
Q Josh, you characterized members of Congress as being upset over not knowing the precise operational details like what times does the helicopter land -- I assume is what you’re talking about. What they're saying they're upset about, and I think they’ve been pretty clear about it, is that they weren’t told this prisoner swap was actually happening or under what conditions, which I think is a much broader thing.
And what I wonder is, A, whether you hear those concerns and are choosing not to listen to them, or that you’re not hearing those concerns from members of Congress. And then the other thing I wonder is the extent to which dysfunction in Congress has been to your advantage on foreign policy where you’ve been able to do a lot on foreign policy without consulting Congress and getting no backlash. Libya would be a good example. Again, this Bergdahl thing where nobody is coming in and saying, look, the law is that you notify us; the rules and the norms are that you talk to the Big Eight before you do it.
So two questions. But let me -- go ahead, one at a time.
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the details of the prisoner swap, that was something that's been widely known. This is something that had been consulted -- our administration had consulted with the relevant leadership in the committees about this precise prisoner exchange both in 2011 and 2012. It also appeared on the front page of The Washington Post in February of 2014. So the contours, the outlines of this proposed deal to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl were well known, not just by members of Congress, but also by members of the public, at least those who subscribe to The Washington Post.
In terms of your other question about sort of notification, I tried to explain to Major and Jon when they asked about this yesterday that it’s very difficult to -- the decision was made to execute this transfer in the context of a military operation that would involve flying military personnel to a remote region of Afghanistan to conduct this exchange. So it’s difficult to separate out a decision from the military operation that ensued.
Q What you’re saying is the people who pay for those military planes and pay for the intelligence on the ground and are charged by the American public and the Constitution with overseeing all those programs are not entitled to have any information even in the very, very secluded space of those Big Eight? Isn’t that a problem?
MR. EARNEST: I strongly disagree with your characterization there. We consulted frequently with Congress over the years about the possibility of conducting this prisoner exchange. And as soon as the mission was completed, you saw a number of senior administration officials getting in touch with senior members of Congress -- both on the relevant committees and in the leadership in both parties -- to give them details about what had happened. You saw senior members of this administration go before every single member of the United States Senate in a classified session to explain to them and describe to them what exactly had happened, and to answer their questions about that.
You saw exactly the same thing happen in the House of Representatives just two days ago. When the House of Representatives returned from their two-week Memorial Day recess, there was a classified session that was hosted for every single member of the House of Representatives to get a briefing from senior administration officials at the State Department, at the Defense Department, in our intelligence community, and at the White House to explain to them what had happened and to answer their questions about it.
So there is a very clear commitment on the part of this administration and the White House to consult with members of Congress. And this goes to what I think your second question was, which is this administration values bipartisan cooperation around our foreign policy. The President gave a speech about this on national television, actually -- a primetime address where he described his view that our foreign policy is strengthened when it has bipartisan support. That’s why we will continually seek it.
But in this case, the Commander-In-Chief had to make a decision about living up to a commitment to leave no American serviceman or woman behind. And he signed off on this operation, and it was executed. It involved the transfer of prisoners. It was predicated on certain security arrangements with the Qatari government. The national security risks were mitigated. And the President makes no apologies about that decision.
Q Josh, at the same time, though, those long-ago consultations that you refer to were in the context of a broader agreement and a broader discussion with the Taliban, where there were other things that the Taliban would agree to do, not simply release Sergeant Bergdahl. So isn’t it -- are you saying that members of Congress were consulted on a specific swap, or were they consulted only in the broader sense?
MR. EARNEST: It’s going to be hard for me to get into the details of what those conversations were, Jim. But I can confidently tell you right now that those consultations included explicit references to the release -- or the transfer of five Gitmo detainees in the exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. That was made explicit in those consultations in 2011 and 2012, and it was explicit in The Washington Post story, as well.
At the same time, I haven’t heard any member of Congress -- maybe I missed it -- but I haven’t heard any member of Congress suggest that they would have been just fine with this deal had it also included an agreement from the Taliban -- pardon me -- had the deal also included an agreement from the Taliban to start talks with the Karzai government. I don’t think any member of Congress is raising that as an objection.
Q The last time the White House consulted with Congress on this, in 2011 or 2012, the White House wasn’t ready to make this deal. So if you’re going to consult with Congress about a deal that you’re not going to make, that’s a much different thing than consulting with Congress about a deal that you are going to make, wouldn’t you agree? That there’s a change in -- a significant change in the substance of the conversation?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I’m willing to concede that point. Why is that you think that this is a deal we weren’t ready to make back in 2011 or 2012?
Q Well, Josh, if you said to me right now, I’m not going to punch you in the nose, I’m going to consult with you -- I’m not going to punch you in the nose, I’d be like, okay, that’s great, Josh. Then you turn around two years later and you punch me in the nose and I go, well, why didn’t you tell me you were going to punch me in the nose so I could duck you. I think there’s a substantive change in the position that you’ve taken, and possibly one that people might be upset they weren’t informed of. Also I wouldn’t recommend doing that. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Under no circumstances am I going to punch you in the nose. Let’s just --
Q But it might change in two years and you won’t tell me.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure this analogy holds up, because the --
Q Well, I’m not a communications director or press secretary, but --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t mean it as a -- I mean that as a way to try to answer your question, not as a criticism of the way that you asked it.
The point is we consulted in 2011 and 2012 about this precise aspect of the deal, right. We floated the probability that we would consider transferring five -- these specific five detainees in Guantanamo in exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. That was something that we consulted with Congress on in 2011, in 2012. And that ultimately was a decision that the President ended up making.
So that’s where we are today. And that is what I cite when I say that we’re committed to consulting with Congress, and particularly our partners who lead relevant committees in Congress and have leadership positions in the United States House and the United States Senate.
Q One last thing. The President met with the Sentencing Commission today, which had made some recommendations. Is the President signing off on that? Can you give us a bit of a readout of what the President’s stance is after this meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I do have a brief readout to share with you. The President met with members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission to discuss their shared interest in a smarter, fairer and more effective criminal justice system. The commission is a bipartisan and independent agency in the judicial branch of the government, which is responsible for developing and revising the federal sentencing guidelines.
As you know, these are issues the President and his administration have been working on for quite some time both through our administrative efforts in supporting the bipartisan work on the Hill for which the commission has also expressed support. This is a priority that the President has talked about, trying to reform some of these guidelines. The Attorney General has played a pretty active role in this reform process.
There are some Republicans in the United States Senate who have indicated similar ideas for reforming the system. And this was an opportunity for the President to talk directly with some of the professionals who were involved in devising that system.
Q And is he signing off on anything at this point? I believe one of the recommendations was up to 70 percent of certain drug felonies could be -- the policies could change for them.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any new policy positions to announce out of that meeting today. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you on the ground.
2:38 P.M. EDT