Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/18/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:58 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the White House. Happy Thursday. Before I go to your questions, I did want to echo an announcement that was made from Paris earlier today, I believe. The United States welcomes the announcement today from President Hollande that France will conduct airstrikes in Iraq. This is a significant contribution to the efforts of the growing international coalition to combat ISIL, and we look forward to coordinating closely with our French partners in the days to come.
So given the interest that there has been in our efforts to build this growing coalition, I thought I would note that at the top. But with that, Darlene, I’ll go to your questions, if you’re ready to get us started.
Q Can you confirm reports that are out there that the U.S. will provide $46 million in military assistance to the Ukrainian military?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did read an Associated Press report on that topic.
Q Good source.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, you must have a good source. President Obama is looking forward to his meeting with President Poroshenko in the Oval Office shortly. You’ll have the opportunity to hear from both of them about the discussion that they have today. The visit is an opportunity to highlight the United States’ firm commitment to stand with Ukraine as it pursues liberal democracy, stability and prosperity.
The two Presidents will be discussing efforts to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, as well as our continued support for Ukraine’s struggle to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
We have announced that $53 million in new security and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, which brings our assistance to approximately $291 million this year. That is in addition to a $1 billion loan guarantee that was announced earlier this year, as well.
Today’s new package of assistance includes more than $7 million to be directed to international relief organizations to provide humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It also includes $46 million in security assistance that will support Ukraine’s military and border guards. This is in addition to the $70 million in security assistance that we’ve previously announced in Ukraine.
All of this is a reflection of the support from the United States for the people of Ukraine as they seek to determine the future of their country that reflects their will. It also reflects our commitment to standing with the people of Ukraine as they confront this incursion on their territorial integrity and their sovereignty, and on their efforts to build a strong democracy and a strong economy for their people.
Q Now, President Poroshenko was here today. He addressed Congress. He’s asking for lethal aid. The U.S. is not yet ready to provide what he’s asking for. Is some of the resistance to providing lethal aid, does that have to do with the cease-fire and perhaps wanting to see how long that will hold before you make a decision on whether to give Ukraine any sort of weapons?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I should point out that the security assistance that we are providing today does include the kind of valuable equipment that will be useful to the Ukrainian military. It includes things like body armor, helmets, vehicles, night and thermal vision goggles and other devices, heavy engineering equipment, advanced radios. It also includes counter-mortar radar equipment that could provide for the protection of Ukrainian forces and provide warning of incoming artillery fire. So we’re talking about some sophisticated military equipment that would be useful to the Ukrainian military and to their security forces.
The President, I believe as recently as just a couple of weeks ago, was asked about the possibility of providing lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military. In the context of that answer, the President did talk about the strong ties between the U.S. military and the Ukrainian military and our commitment to supporting them. At the same time, we believe that the best way to resolve the differences between the Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed separatists is for the Russian government to use their influence with the separatists to encourage them to engage in legitimate negotiations with the central government to try to resolve their differences, and to do that in a way that reflects a commitment to genuine negotiations.
We believe that is the path of resolving this situation in the most enduring way. It also is the way that is clearly in the best interests of those Ukrainians right now who are living in a conflict zone.
Q If I could just switch to another topic. General Dempsey told the Associated Press earlier today in an interview that it’s going to take at least three months to begin training and arming moderate Syrian rebels, and eight months to a year to field a cohesive fighting group. That seems like a long time. Can any of that be done sooner?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have the best information about how the Title 10 authority that we are hopeful that Congress will pass today will be executed in pursuit of this mission to ramp up our assistance and training to Syrian opposition fighters.
As you know, Darlene, the United States has been providing assistance to the Syrian opposition, including some military assistance, for more than a year. So there is assistance that’s already been provided that is already strengthening the Syrian opposition forces.
The President does believe, however, that additional assistance should be provided so that those Syrian opposition fighters can be in a position to take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their country. This is part of the President’s determination that it would not be in the national security interests of the United States to put American boots on the ground in Syria in a combat role. So we'll be -- someone, however, needs to be responsible, as our military planners have said publicly -- needs to be responsible for taking the fight to ISIL on the ground in Syria. And that is why the United States is taking an active role in ramping up the assistance that we provide to the Syrian opposition. Those Syrian opposition fighters will have the backing of an international coalition of countries who are prepared to offer military support in the air in support of their ground operations.
So we are optimistic that by implementing some of these changes that we can improve the capacity of the Syrian opposition fighters. But ultimately, the President believes that these Syrian opposition fighters need to be responsible for taking the fight to ISIL in Syria.
Q If President Poroshenko is asking for heavy weapons, why not simply give it to him? Are you concerned about Russian retaliation or something?
MR. EARNEST: Steve, it's simply the judgment of the President that the best way for us to resolve -- or for the situation in Ukraine to be resolved is through negotiations between the Ukrainian central government and the Russian-backed separatists in the east. When asked this question in the past, the President has recognized, or has acknowledged that it would be challenging to provide all of the military equipment necessary to try to level the playing field between the Ukrainian military and separatists that have the backing of the rather sophisticated Russian military.
Our strategy of supporting Ukraine has been somewhat different, which is to provide them some economic and diplomatic assistance, and enough military assistance that they can sort of bring both sides to the negotiating table to try to resolve their differences through negotiation, as opposed to on the battlefield.
Q You mentioned the French contribution. Is that the only other country besides the United States joining in airstrikes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, as I've mentioned a couple of times in the past, the announcements of commitments of members of this broader international coalition will largely come from those countries. That is the way that those commitments will have the most credibility. And after all, it's the decision of the leaders of these countries to make about what sort of contribution they can dedicate to this broader international effort.
The President did, however, yesterday in his remarks talk about some of the commitments that we've received and have already been carried out. There are more than 40 countries so far that have offered assistance to the broad campaign against ISIL. The United Kingdom and France have been flying over Iraq with us for some time. France, in particular, has some sophisticated intelligence and surveillance capability that has already been put to good use in Iraq. And the French President today announced that France was prepared to take the next step of actually carrying out airstrikes in Iraq.
This is in addition to other commitments that we've received. Both Australia and Canada have indicated that they are willing to send military advisers to Iraq. German paratroopers have committed to participating in some of the training efforts that we've been talking about. Saudi Arabia announced in the last couple of weeks that they would be in a position to host at least some of the training operations that would ramp up the capacity of the Syrian opposition fighters.
So what starts to emerge there is a pretty good picture of the kind of broad international support that exists for this strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat -- destroy ISIL.
Q And lastly, the President sent out a tweet last night about keeping the U.K. together. What are his concerns about Scottish independence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President was trying to make clear in the form of that tweet, as he did in his previous comments on this topic, is to make clear that this vote is one that should rightly be decided by the people of Scotland, and they should cast a ballot in support of what they think is best for their country. The President, speaking as the President of the United States, talked about his belief that the United Kingdom is a robust, strong, united partner, and we want to keep them that way.
Q I'm a little confused about the lethal versus non-lethal aid to Ukraine. In the past, a senior administration official told us that there was a worry on the part of the U.S. of working this kind of a proxy war against Russia. Is that still the concern? Or what really is the point of helping the Ukrainians militarily but only up to the point of lethal aid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we do have an interest in making sure, Michelle, that the Ukrainian military isn't overrun by the separatists. The separatists have access to rather sophisticated military equipment because, as we have said on numerous occasions, the Russian military is actively supporting their efforts. NATO has produced photographic evidence of this, despite the denials -- the hard-to-believe denials of Russian military and political leaders.
So the fact is Russian separatists are obtaining sophisticated military equipment from the Russians, and we want to make sure that the Ukrainian military doesn’t get overrun. But at the same time, this is a conflict that will not be satisfactorily resolved on the battlefield. There is an opportunity for these differences to be resolved around the negotiating table. That’s where they should be resolved. And the Ukrainian government will have the support of the international community as they try to engage these Russian-backed separatists in conversations.
What we will do and what we’ll continue to do is call on the Russians to use their influence with the separatists to encourage them to engage constructively in those conversations. Russia’s failure to do that will put them at risk of sustaining even more economic costs that could be imposed by the international community.
It’s time for Russia to play a constructive role in this process. And the failure to do so has already led to significant economic costs being imposed on the Russian people and on the Russian economy.
Q And in all this time, including since the cease-fire, have you seen any step at all by Russia to do that, to use their influence to deescalate it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been some indications that the Russians have taken some steps that are consistent with supporting the cease-fire agreement that was reached a couple of weeks ago. But we have seen, as we have in the past, some mixed signals from Russia on this.
And so while there are some signs to be optimistic about the direction that this is headed, there’s still a lot more work to be done to implement the cease-fire agreement, to convene the kind of negotiations that will ultimately resolve the differences between the Ukrainian central government and the separatists in the east.
Q So you’re still seeing troops massed at the border?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to the Department of Defense and other places about what sort of -- what the latest assessment is of the situation at the border and what the latest assessment is of Russian military involvement in this conflict.
But what we have seen is a pattern of Russia continuing to allow weapons and materiel to be transported across the border from Russia into Ukraine and into the hands of Russian-backed separatists.
Q So that’s still happening.
MR. EARNEST: Again, for the latest assessment, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. But what we have consistently seen is -- since the cease-fire agreement, we have seen the conflict deescalate; that there are indications that the cease-fire is taking hold. But there have been sporadic exchanges of fire that indicate that there is still some work to be done to implement the cease-fire agreement. And then the cease-fire agreement, of course, would not be the end here; that would rather be the beginning, because that would hopefully, once the cease-fire was in place, open the door to the kinds of negotiations that would actually resolve the broader differences between the government and the separatists.
Q Thanks. And you still don’t see this as an invasion? And if not, why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because what we have seen for several months now is the kind of activity in Ukraine by the Russians that blatantly violates the territorial integrity of that country. There is an international norm at stake here, which is that sovereign governments respect the borders of other sovereign governments. And Russia has acted in a way inconsistent with that international norm, and as a result, the international community has spoken with one voice and taken steps to impose economic costs on Russia for the failure to uphold those basic international norms.
Q So it’s not an invasion?
MR. EARNEST: What we’ve seen, Michelle, is activity by the Russians that flagrantly violates the territorial integrity of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. And the international community has taken action to impose costs on Russia for that flagrant violation.
Let’s move around a little bit. Justin.
Q I have two things I wanted to ask about. My first one was on ISIS. There seems to be have been like a bit of a messaging cleanup this week coming out of the White House -- whether it was Secretary Kerry on whether or not we’re at war with them; Secretary Kerry about whether we were communicating with the Assad regime; General Dempsey on whether ground troops were a theoretical possibility or not; or Admiral Kirby on whether you really needed the authorizations to do this train-and-equip program.
We’ve heard statements that you’ve then had to clarify or walk back, or however you want to characterize it. And so what I’m wondering is, if all these represent sort of differences of opinion within the President’s team that are sort of manifesting themselves as people ask questions about them, or if they're just instances of a big, sprawling bureaucracy and not all being on the same talking points.
And if it’s the latter, whether you’re worried at all that that's going to erode support, as it seems to have a little bit this last week for the President’s plan to address ISIS.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say two things about that, Justin. One is something that I said before, which is that I am confident that the senior members of the President’s national security team are on the same page as the Commander-in-Chief. And I feel so confident in saying that -- that if you doubt that, that I would encourage you or your colleagues to check specifically with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of State. I’m confident that they would confirm for you that they are exactly on the same page as the Commander-in-Chief.
As it relates to some of the instances that you’re referring to, the thing that we have said for quite some time is that these are complicated, complex issues, and that the President feels a strong commitment to ensuring that we’re communicating clearly with the American public and with our allies about what our policy is and about what our policy isn’t.
And it is appropriate for you and your colleagues to closely scrutinize the comments of me and other -- and the senior members of the President’s national security team when they're doing interviews or when they're testifying before Congress. And we welcome that scrutiny. And I think what sometimes that scrutiny lends itself to is a dissection of words to sort of probe the deeper meaning. And when we’re talking about complicated issues, it’s natural for people to raise additional questions about those comments.
But what I have said -- throughout the instances that you have cited -- is that the comments of Chairman Dempsey in the hearing, and Secretary Kerry in other settings, is completely consistent with the policy that has been laid out by the Commander-in-Chief. That continues to be true today.
Q And then I wanted to ask about DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the context of the Politico story that came out.
MR. EARNEST: I read it.
Q Yes. Harry Reid said today that the future for the chairwoman is kind of up to the President. So what I’m wondering from you -- since the article seemed to express some disenchantment at the White House with the chairwoman -- is whether you guys remain confident in her, and whether you expect her to serve as DNC chairwoman throughout the rest of the President’s term.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did read in the story the on-the-record statement from my colleague Mr. Schultz here, expressing his full support for the work of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the chair of the DNC, and frankly, for all of the staff over at the DNC. They have very difficult work, and that is work that they do outside of the limelight but it produces important results for the Democratic Party. And the President is invested in their success and the broader success of the Democratic Party.
Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz has a pretty strong record of performance to indicate the benefits of the tireless work that she’s been engaged in over the last four years or so that she’s been the chair of the party. Over the last 20 months, she’s traveled to 37 states and 99 different cities -- just one more, and she’ll be in the triple digits. Under her leadership, the DNC has expanded their digital and technology staff, who are providing campaigns of all sizes, cutting-edge tools that the Obama campaign used to great success in 2012.
Under her leadership, the DNC launched the voter expansion project earlier this year, and they have voter expansion directors in dozens of key states, including places like Georgia, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire and others. She also has been hard at work working closely with the finance staff at the DNC to pay off debt that the DNC incurred in the context of the 2012 elections. The DNC incurred that debt to assist Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in all 50 states. President Obama benefited from those efforts as well.
So he certainly has been pleased to see the DNC succeed in paying off their debt. And I now I understand they’re operating at a six- or seven-million dollar surplus. So that didn’t happen by accident; it happens because of the dogged determination of Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the staff at the DNC, like I said, that does really good work outside of the spotlight. And they don’t get the credit they often deserve.
Q So in the story, she said that she planned to stay in the position until January 2017. Since she has expressed that desire, do you guys expect her to be the chairwoman of the party until then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she is -- her term does run through 2017. She was elected by the membership of the DNC, and I would -- I don’t anticipate at this point any reason to change that.
Q You’re responding to some of the in-the-administration and current members’ reaction about ISIS. I wonder if you could respond to Retired General Mattis’s testimony yesterday about specifically not taking things off the table and saying that this is a forecasting -- the President has talked a lot about hammers and nails. Are you concerned at all about putting away the hammer and letting the nails do what they will?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I have answered a version of this question before, but let me take another shot at it.
Let me start by saying I did not see General Mattis’s testimony, so I’m not in a position to react to him directly. But I can react to the contention that you’ve raised about sort of the wisdom of taking things off the table when it comes to our military strategy.
The one thing that the President has taken off the table is deploying American military personnel on the ground in Iraq and Syria to serve in a combat role. The President does not believe, as he mentioned in his remarks to the men and women at MacDill Air Force Base yesterday, he does not believe it is in the national security interest of the United States for us to get dragged back into a ground war in Iraq and Syria. That means you will not see columns of American tanks rolling through Iraq with the goal of taking and holding territory in Iraq.
If there’s anything that we’ve learned over the course of the last decade is that providing for the security of the nation of Iraq is not something that the United States can do alone. For all of the tremendous capacity and bravery of our men and women in uniform, they should not be in a position where they are providing security in Iraq for large segments of Iraqi territory for the Iraqi people. This is work that the Iraqis must do for themselves.
That’s why the lynchpin of this strategy was the formation of an inclusive government in Baghdad that could unite the diverse elements of the nation of Iraq to confront the ISIL threat.
So we are gratified that Iraq’s political leaders have taken the important step of forming this inclusive government. We hope that they will continue to live up to their promise to govern in an inclusive way and make sure that every Iraqi citizen all across that country feels like the central government in Baghdad is looking out for their best interests.
We believe that will have a corresponding impact -- a positive impact -- on the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to fight for and defend that entire country. And we are confident that that is the right strategy. And the reason the President has been clear about that is, first, he believes that it’s important to be transparent with the American public -- as transparent as possible -- about what our strategy is and what our strategy isn’t. It’s also important for the Iraqis to understand that the American military is not going to swoop in and save them.
The American military and the American people are ready to support the Iraqi people as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their country. They can count on being backed up, as they have been for the last couple of months, by American military airstrikes. They can count on the support of the broader international coalition that the President is building. As I mentioned, President Hollande has indicated a willingness to order the French military to carry out airstrikes in Iraq, too; that will be done in close coordination with the broader international coalition and in support of the effort by Iraqi security forces on the ground in Iraq.
So it’s important for the American people to understand what our strategy is and what our strategy isn’t. It’s also important for the Iraqi people and Iraq’s political leaders to understand what our strategy is and our strategy isn’t. This will make it clear to them that they need to step up and take responsibility for the security situation in their own country.
Q On a separate topic -- and you got a version of this earlier -- but is there anything -- where are the discussions in the administration at this point about the possibility of recognizing an independent Scotland?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I understand that the vote is actually going on right now. So we’ll let that vote be concluded before we start delving into the policy implications of either a “yes” vote or a “no” vote.
Q Military contingencies, economic contingencies, treaty contingencies -- are these being discussed now? Or are you waiting until after the vote?
MR. EARNEST: If necessary, I’ll have more to say about this after the vote. But we’ll see.
Q Josh, just a couple of follow-ups. First, on the Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to be clear -- does the President have complete confidence in Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the DNC chair?
MR. EARNEST: I ran through her track record --
Q I’m just curious -- just the fundamental -- we’re looking for the nut graph. Does he have confidence in her as chairman?
MR. EARNEST: Yes -- based on the strong track record of leadership that she has already demonstrated at the DNC, the President has strong confidence in her ability to lead that organization.
Q Okay. And back to the campaign operation, whatever you want to call it, against ISIS -- why does the President never use the word “war” when describing this? I know we had some back-and-forth here, and you eventually used it, but we haven’t heard it -- if I’m correct, we haven’t heard him say this is a war. Does he consider it a war?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, yes -- based on the position that I have clearly articulated, that the United States, in the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and their affiliates all around the globe, we’re at war with ISIL. But when I say “we,” it’s important for people to understand that I’m talking about the broader international coalition and the international community that’s being led by the United States is at war with ISIL.
What the President, when he is describing what we’re doing there, is trying to do a couple of things. The first, obviously, is to be very clear about what our intentions are and what our intentions aren’t. The second is, the President has gone to great lengths to try to describe to you and to the American public that the counterterrorism strategy that we are pursuing in Iraq and in Syria is consistent with the counterterrorism strategy that we’ve used successfully in other places. This is a strategy that’s predicated on building up governments, building up the capacity of local forces, backing them up with American military might where necessary to take the fight to extremist organizations on the ground and deny them a safe haven.
Now, what’s also clear is that this strategy is significantly different than the war that was fought in Iraq earlier in the previous administration principally. And the President believes that’s important for people to understand, too -- that, again, we do not envision a scenario where there is a long column of American tanks rolling across the Iraqi border with the goal of taking and occupying significant swaths of Iraqi territory. So I think the effort that you are picking up on is an effort to try to differentiate the strategy that the President is employing in this situation from the strategy that was employed earlier this decade in Iraq.
Q So when the President says there will be no ground troops, there will be no combat troops in Iraq, is that what he means -- we won’t see columns of American tanks going through Iraq to occupy territory? Because I don’t hear anybody actually proposing that. Is that his definition? Is that where the line is drawn? So we won’t have columns of American tanks and ground troops trying to take over swaths of territory in Iraq? Is that what he’s ruling out?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has been very clear about what he’s ruled out, so I’d encourage you to check his remarks on this topic.
What the President has said is that he is not going to put U.S. military personnel on the ground, in Iraq, in a combat role. That means a variety of things, but that is the guideline that the President has laid out. It certainly means that there won’t be long columns of American tanks rolling across the Iraqi desert trying to take and occupy Iraqi territory. It also means --
Q But --
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish. It also means that we’re not going to put American military personnel in a situation where they are responsible for personally and directly engaging the enemy in combat. The President has been clear that they will be there in an advise-and-assist role, and there are a variety of ways they can do that. They can do that by serving in the joint operation center and coordinating the efforts of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and integrating them with the broader coalition forces. There might also be a scenario where American military personnel -- again, in an advisory capacity -- could be forward-deployed with Iraqi security forces. They would be forward-deployed to offer some tactical advice, maybe call in some airstrikes. But again, they would not be in a position where their specific responsibility was to personally or directly engage the enemy in combat.
Q That’s what I’m getting at. So the President is not ruling out having U.S. troops based with Iraqi forces on the front lines -- based with Iraqi forces, embedded with Iraqi forces that are engaged in combat? He does not rule out having Americans serving side-by-side with Iraqis in such a position? Forward-deployed, as you said.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, you’re trying to describe what I just said, but you’re using different words in doing that. So in terms of trying to understand what our position is, I’d refer you to what I just said. And I say that only because -- not because I’m trying to be argumentative, but only because you and your colleagues are rightly holding us to a high semantic standard. So in terms of trying to understand what I said, I just tried to lay that out.
Q But on this high semantic standard, these would be heavily armed American troops. They would be on the front lines; they would be in the line of fire. But their purpose would be to advice the Iraqis and to call in airstrikes, but they would be right in the thick of it, no? And the President is not ruling that out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President -- well, let me take this in a couple of different forms. The first is, there have been -- the President has ordered additional military personnel to Iraq over the course of the summer, and there have been War Powers notifications filed as it relates to those military deployments. Each of those War Powers notifications indicated that those troops are combat-ready, that they are armed for combat because they need to protect themselves. Iraq is a very dangerous place right now.
Second is, there are already American military personnel that are in the line of fire. They’re pilots -- they’re piloting aircraft, carrying out airstrikes against ISIL positions in Iraq.
So the point is -- and the President made this point in his remarks at MacDill yesterday -- that each of these missions carries with them a risk, and no one should minimize the risk that our men and women in uniform are taking on in support of this mission. The President certainly doesn’t minimize that risk.
Q And just last thing on this high semantic standard -- so these would troops, they would be serving on the ground. These would be troops, wearing boots I assume. They would be combat-ready. And they would be in the line of fire. I’m just trying -- how are you not considering these troops that are combat troops?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jon, in a variety of ways. The first is that they’re not responsible for going in and occupying large swaths of Iraqi territory. They’re not in a position where -- we’re certainly not talking about 140,000 or 150,000 of them. And we’re not talking about their principal responsibility being to directly and personally engage the enemy in combat. They are not in a combat role. They’re in an advise-and-assist role that, yes, that does carry with it some risk. But it is different than the combat role that American troops were engaged in for such a long time in Iraq.
Q So two quick questions. On the French airstrikes, is the United States government disappointed that the French, according to President Hollande, apparently ruled out airstrikes in Syria, and said that the airstrikes -- they’re willing to participate in Iraq only. And second, has the United States government seen this new video that was released by ISIS today? And what’s your reaction to that video?
MR. EARNEST: Let me take your second question first. I have not personally seen the video. I’ve seen the reports about the video. Our intelligence community is reviewing that video for any information that they can glean that might be useful. They’re reviewing that video in coordination with our British allies as well. But for any additional information or questions, I’d refer you to the U.K. government on that.
As it relates to the French announcement today, we were gratified to see President Hollande step up and indicate France’s role to assume some of the burden or carrying out airstrikes in Iraq. As we continue to broaden in a systematic way that military campaign against ISIL, including hitting targets in Syria, we’ll continue to be in touch with the members of this international coalition as we embark on this effort.
But this will be an ongoing process, and the announcement from the French today is an important one, that they’re going to join the U.S. in carrying out some of these airstrikes in Iraq.
Q According to my colleagues -- I mean, I wasn’t there, obviously -- but to my colleagues who were at the press conference, he specifically said that these will be limited to Iraq and we’re not going into Syria. So this wasn’t just an omission of he didn’t say; he specifically said we’re not going to be participating in. So is there a sense that the United States government could convince the French to go further at some point in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly not going to speak for the commander-in-chief of the French military for what steps the French military is prepared to take. But the effort to build this coalition is an ongoing one, and we’re going to continue to consult with our allies and partners about what role they can play to contribute to this broader international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q A question about Ukraine. You said it’s in your interest in making sure that the Ukrainian military doesn’t get overrun. Is that your description of the current state of the military conflict in Ukraine -- that they are not being overrun?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not a military analyst, but I do think that based on my basic understanding of the situation on the ground there, I don’t see any evidence that they have been overrun, if that’s what you’re asking.
Q But you’ve described that as kind of a satisfactory state. I mean, obviously the Ukrainian government thinks --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think I used that word. I don’t think I said it that way.
Q Okay, so this isn’t -- so the current military situation is not satisfactory to you -- to the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what would be satisfactory to the United States is the full implementation of the cease-fire agreement and the beginning of negotiations that would eventually resolve differences between the Ukrainian central got and the separatists.
Q I get that. But Poroshenko clearly feels that his current military situation is untenable without lethal military aid from the U.S. -- more than night goggles. And you’ve decided that lethal military aid is not necessary to achieve the goal of getting a diplomatic solution. And we’re trying to figure out why, since you have a difference of opinion between the White House and the Ukrainian government.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sure you didn’t intend it this way, but I wouldn’t describe our military assistance to the Ukrainians as just “night goggles.” I mean, over the course of this year --
Q Well, non-lethal aid.
MR. EARNEST: Right. So we’re talking about $100 million in security assistance -- more than $100 million have been provided to them. This includes body armor, helmets, vehicles, night and thermal vision devices, heavy engineering equipment, advanced radios, demining equipment, portable explosive ordnance disposal robots, patrol boats, rations, tents, counter-mortar radars.
Q A bunch of stuff.
MR. EARNEST: So a bunch of stuff. That’s my point -- that our assistance that we have provided to the Ukrainian military is extensive.
Q Do you believe that that assistance and the new stuff you’re giving them now is going to create a situation that will get Russia to do what you want it to do at the negotiating table -- you know, come and negotiate the cease-fire? Do you believe that this assistance is going to do the trick?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we believe is that it is clearly in the interests of the international community for nations all around the globe to respect the basic territorial integrity of other nations. This is a --
Q Except he’s not doing that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a critically important international norm. And the United States, in conjunction with our partners in Europe, have taken significant action to impose costs on Russia for their failure to observe that basic international norm. In fact, they haven't just failed to observe it; they have flagrantly violated it.
And as long as Russia continues to violate that norm, they will put themselves at risk of being further isolated and sustaining further costs to their economy. But ultimately, it will be the decision of President Putin to decide what is in the best interest of Russia. But right now, for the instability that they’re fomenting in this region of the world, their economy has taken a hit.
Q Not a big enough hit to get them to the negotiating table. I have one last question. There is a model for this --
MR. EARNEST: Let me say one thing about that. We believe that it’s the separatists who should be at the negotiating table with the Ukrainian central government. But I understand your point.
Q Okay. Well, they -- Russia --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, but I understand your point.
Q But there’s a model for this, which is in Georgia and Moldova, where the Bush administration have a certain amount of aid to these countries but not enough to prevent what’s called a frozen conflict -- where Russia just destabilizes them enough that they don’t control other territory and they don’t need to take over these countries lock, stock and barrel, they just need to keep them in this frozen conflict state. Is that the model for what you’re doing with Ukraine -- Georgia and Moldova?
MR. EARNEST: No, what we would like to see in Ukraine is Ukraine be able to make the kinds of decisions that reflect the will of the Ukrainian people. We believe that we can do that in a way that reflects the strong ties that already exist between Ukraine and Russia, and that strengthening Ukraine’s ties with the West through the signing of association agreements and other strong ties should in no way have an impact on the ability of Ukraine to have a strong and fruitful relationship with Russia as well.
Q Thanks. Next week, the President is going to be attending the U.N. Climate Summit, but the top leaders of China and India are not going to be attending. Have you had to lower your expectations for that summit because of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have more to say about the activities at the United Nations possibly as early as tomorrow. But we are looking forward to this meeting. There’s a lot of important work that’s going to get done in New York next week, and some of it will involve bringing along the international community in terms of coordinating in an effort to reduce the causes of climate change and of carbon pollution.
So we’ll have more on that next week. I don’t anticipate the fact that the heads of state of those two countries not being there will have any impact on our ability to advance the ball on this priority.
Q Speaking in front of Congress, President Poroshenko just asked explicitly the United States to grant Ukraine the special security status as a non-NATO ally. Is the United States ready to grant Ukraine the status?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with that specific request, Jerome, so I’ll have to take that question.
Q Thank you. Can you give us an update on the airstrike decisions, the options the President is considering? Has he gotten them? And also, what kind of role will he play in the airstrikes? Will he give the military a long leash or a short leash?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s probably not an analogy that I’ll repeat.
Let me say it this way: The President did have a briefing with his top military leaders at CENTCOM yesterday at MacDill Air Force Base. The President described that briefing as thorough. He was pleased with the work that has been done by his military planners as they develop options and plans related to his order that he’s prepared to broaden out military action in that region of the world. They would broaden out this military operation in a way that would further our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. But as I mentioned with Jon and others, that would not include putting American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to carry out a combat role.
But this is part of an ongoing process. And the update that the President received at CENTCOM was useful, and it did reflect a lot of work that has been going on for quite some time at the Pentagon, but that work is still ongoing. And I don’t have any announcements to make about decisions that the Commander-in-Chief has made at this point.
As it relates to what sort of ongoing communication will exist between the Commander-in-Chief and the military as they carry out this campaign, what I would say is that the -- what we have seen so far in Iraq over the course of the last month or so is an indication that the President is prepared to lay out guidelines for his military planners and his military commanders who can then carry out the actions that they believe are necessary within the confines of those guidelines.
What Chairman Dempsey referred to at one point during his testimony earlier this week was the President’s desire to review certain elements of that plan on a case-by-case basis. What Chairman Dempsey was referring to was this question that Jon and I were discussing, which is the possible forward deployment of American military advisers with Iraqi security forces. Again, Chairman Dempsey did not raise the prospect that those American military personnel would be in a combat role. They would not because the President would not approve that.
What the President would consider, however, is the forward deployment of these -- of this personnel, of these advisers to offer tactical assistance to Iraqi security forces and if necessary call in airstrikes in support of their ground operations. So that is something that the President said that he wanted to reserve the option of considering those requests on a case-by-case basis.
But more generally, the President has laid out for his military commanders clear guidelines for executing the mission that he has ordered. And the military is carrying out these operations within the guidelines of what the President has ordered.
Q So there’s no airstrike decisions yet, and we shouldn’t expect them to be imminent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not -- right, in Syria. Yes, I was trying to decide whether you were talking about the Iraq thing or Syria. We have indicated that we are -- that the President is ready to order additional -- or ready to order airstrikes in Syria at a time and place of his choosing. And I don't want to be in a position of telegraphing those plans in advance at this point.
Q Just to pinpoint that, because the Journal says this morning that the President wants to be in the position to authorize each and every run in Syria once he orders it. True or not true?
MR. EARNEST: Not true.
Q Why is that not true?
MR. EARNEST: Because what the President has done in Iraq and what he will do in Syria is lay out clear guidelines for what the President envisions for our military planning, and he will authorize -- put in place guidelines that the military can use to carry out these operations.
Q Did the President communicate that yesterday at MacDill, say that that -- once I give you the guidelines you’re free to go?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to -- I don't want to characterize the conversations between the President and his military planners, but let me just say that this is consistent with the air campaign that the military has been conducting in Iraq, that there are more than 160 airstrikes that have been carried in Iraq. The President did not sign off on each of those 160 airstrikes individually; rather he presented guidelines --
Q And he won’t in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q Okay. I wanted to ask you about something that we reported this morning about a threat that I’m curious if the President has been briefed on, and to what degree he is knowledgeable about it. It’s a group that is related to al Qaeda called Khorasan. And we have reported that in dozens of airports, U.S.-bound passengers are undergoing enhanced screening. Security agents are looking for hidden explosives, uncharged laptops and phones are banned from flights because this particular group is trying to create an even more sophisticated way to smuggle explosives on planes. And this could be a more immediate threat than what is currently dominating a tremendous amount of policy and headlines, meaning ISIL or ISIS. Can you tell us anything about what the President knows about this, the degree to which his counterterrorism officials are on this?
MR. EARNEST: You’re asking me about an intelligence issue, obviously, so there is -- I’m limited in what I can say. But what I can tell you is that our intelligence professionals have long spoken about the host of terror threats that are emanating from Syria. You’ve also heard me discuss quite a bit about the challenges posed by foreign terrorist fighters. And next week you will hear directly from the President when he chairs a U.N. Security Council session on this very topic.
At the same time, I’m not in a position to provide granular detail from here about specific threats or potential cells that may be operating and seeking to carry out attacks against American interests. Frankly, doing so would be counterproductive to our whole-of-government approach to countering this challenge.
Let me just add to that by saying generally that the Obama administration and our law enforcement and national security professionals remain vigilant about threats that are emanating from Syria and other places around the globe. And this requires the constant evaluation of our security posture. It often will require the tweaking of our security posture to change certain elements in a way that would strengthen our defenses in one area.
And sometimes these changes to our homeland security posture are pretty evident to the traveling public, and sometimes they aren’t. But we remain vigilant about the threats that continue to emanate from al Qaeda and their affiliates all around the globe.
Q Just to get back to Poroshenko for a moment, because he said, “We can’t keep the peace with blankets, and we can’t win the war with blankets.” Understanding that you believe the United States is providing more than blankets, there are prominent members of the Democratic Senate, Carl Levin chief among them, who urge the President and this White House to provide lethal arms. Is that something you are ruling out permanently?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for a substantial national security decision like that, I’d let the President made that decision. So I’m certainly not going to do that from here.
But we have provided substantial security assistance to the Ukrainian military, and that reflects our commitment to the Ukrainian people.
Q It’s on the table but just slightly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the characterization of whether or not this is something we might do in the future -- ruling out that we would do something like this in the future would be something that the President would do, not me.
Q Josh, I know you don’t want to telegraph when airstrikes will start, but in an open forum today, Secretary Hagel did tell the House, I believe it was, that he and General Dempsey have approved Syrian airstrike plans, and they were presented to the President yesterday down in Tampa. Is that accurate?
MR. EARNEST: The President did review in a briefing with his military planners at CENTCOM some of the plans that they have developed as it relates to the order that he has said he’s prepared to issue to broaden our airstrike campaign into Syria to deny a safe haven to ISIL. It is a core principle of this presidency to ensure -- to actively deny a safe haven to those individuals or organizations that seek to do harm to the United States or our homeland.
So this is something that our military planners at the Pentagon have been hard at work on for quite some time now. The President described the briefing that he received from them as thorough. He was pleased with the solid work that they’ve been doing. I did not sit in on -- I don’t want to say this in a way that leads you to believe that I sat in on the briefing. I did not. I did have the opportunity to speak to the President.
Q But it has to come up the chain of command, I guess is the point; that Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, top two military advisors, have at least approved airstrike plans, they say, and now it’s on the President’s desk.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to characterize -- I didn’t see the Secretary’s remarks, so I don’t want to be in a position of characterizing what the Secretary or the Chairman has signed off on.
What I can tell you is that the President was pleased to have the opportunity to review the hard work that’s been underway at the Pentagon for quite some time, and to consider those detailed plans that were put forward before him. And he was pleased with their work, but their work is ongoing and continues. The other work that they’re engaged in is building this broader international coalition.
And the President had the opportunity to meet with his senior national representatives of other governments who are co-located with CENTCOM. These governments are some of the regional governments that could potentially contribute to a broader international coalition.
So I just raise that to make sure that everybody understands that CENTCOM is not just responsible for doing this kind of military planning and presenting options to the President. They’re also actively engaged in the effort to coordinate with regional governments about the role that they could play in a broader international coalition.
Q Just want to go back to Darlene’s question at the beginning about sequencing in terms of Syria and airstrikes. When General Dempsey tells the AP that it could take at least
three months to train the Syrian rebels, can airstrikes move forward in Syria before the rebels are trained, since the President -- a key part of his strategy is United States airstrikes coupled with the rebels being the ground troops to fight ISIS on the ground? Can you do one without the other?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would -- I think the short answer to that is yes, because the President has announced his intention to take -- to broaden out the military airstrikes –-
Q He can start it and then --
MR. EARNEST: Right, in a way that would succeed in degrading the ability of ISIL to -- well, degrading the capacity of ISIL. So that can be done by ordering airstrikes on the front end before there is a fully trained and equipped security force on the ground to take the fight to them. But what we've been clear about for quite some time now, and as you’ve heard from our military planners, it will require boots on the ground to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in Syria. That is the way that we can ensure that we are effective in denying them a safe haven in Syria. But certainly the use of American and allied military airstrikes would have an effect, even a substantial effect, on degrading the capacity of ISIL.
Q On boots on the ground, how does the President, how do you react, when his former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates says you can't win, you can't destroy ISIS without having U.S. combat troops on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's consistent with what I just said -- it is going to require combat boots on the ground to take the fight to ISIL in Iraq and in Syria –
Q He suggested U.S., not just the Syrian rebels.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see the entirety of his remarks. I'm not sure that that's exactly what he was implying.
Q He said the President is putting himself in a trap. So it didn’t sound like he was saying count on the Syrian rebels. He said the President is headed for a trap.
MR. EARNEST: There is a basic strategy that the President has laid out and it does include boots on the ground. The question is whose boots on the ground is it going to be. They are not going to be U.S. boots on the ground engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Syria.
What we can do, and what the President believes we should do, is ramp up the assistance that we provide to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, ramp up the assistance that we provide to the Syrian opposition so that they can take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own countries.
Q The last one on that point -- in your exchange with Jon, if U.S. troops are forward deployed, as you say, alongside Iraqi troops, giving them tactical guidance, and these U.S. troops are fired upon by ISIS, are the U.S. troops to do nothing?
MR. EARNEST: U.S. troops will have rules of engagement; they always do when they enter a situation like this.
Q And what would those be? Will they fire back at them?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'm not going to detail those rules of engagement. The Department of Defense can do that for you. But certainly the Commander-in-Chief would expect that the American troops do what is necessary to defend themselves. That would be –-
Q If they’re defending themselves and they’re firing back they’re in combat.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, as I described earlier, the principal responsibility of these American troops would not be to personally or directly engage the enemy in combat --
Q Not the principal responsibility, but they could be drawn into combat.
MR. EARNEST: That's not how I would describe it. This is another, I think, useful data point. The strategy that the President laid out, this counterterrorism strategy that involves on occasion the forward deployment of some military personnel who are not engaged in combat operations is consistent with the counterterrorism strategy that we've used in other places.
Q But they’re on the ground and they’re in a combat zone. Or are you saying they’re in some other area?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it will depend on exactly what the scenario is, exactly how far --
Q So then how do you know -- if they’re not in combat if you have to figure out what the scenario is. The question is more if you have the Iraqi soldiers there fighting ISIS, who the President has called these awful terrorists, and they’re firing upon them, that sounds like a combat zone that U.S. troops are in.
MR. EARNEST: Iraq is a very dangerous place and American military personnel will have the equipment they need to defend themselves. But what their role will be -- and this is what’s real important for people to understand -- their role will not be to roll across the border in a long line of tanks to occupy significant territory in Iraq. Their role will be to provide advice and assistance to Iraqi security forces who are taking the fight on the ground against ISIL. In some cases, that could mean being on the ground in forward-deployed locations to call in airstrikes –-
Q That's not their role, of course, but when you're in a combat zone, your role can change, right? Isn't that what General Dempsey is suggesting? Your role can change.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the environment in which you're operating can change. But their role specifically would be to offer advice and assistance to the Iraqi security forces who are taking the fight on the ground to ISIL.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to go back to what General Dempsey said about the timeline and the three-to-four months to begin this training program and then a year perhaps to get them ready to actually be ready for action. In terms of these troops who are American troops, combat ready but not combat troops, and the threat to the region, threat to the United States that the President expressed when he gave his remarks, in this interim year, given how key they are to his strategy, does the threat to all of them, including those U.S. troops, escalate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, there are already a number of things that we can do to try to address the situation. The first is we already have for over a year been providing assistance, military and non-military assistance to the Syrian opposition. So there already is a relationship that exists between the U.S. and some of these groups that are fighting ISIL in Syria.
I think what Chairman Dempsey again was referring to was –-
Q But over that period of time we've seen their gangs grow, their strength grow, their cash reserves grow.
MR. EARNEST: What we have also seen and I think what we'll continue to see in the months ahead as the relationship between the opposition fighters and the United States becomes solidified, as they get additional equipment, as they get additional training, as they get additional experience fighting ISIL, I do anticipate that we will see their performance improve. I would also anticipate that as ISIL forces are subjected to American military or allied airstrikes in Syria, that that will degrade their capacity and performance on the battlefield as well.
So I think the point here is that what the President envisions in this broadened, systematic air campaign is the deployment of American and allied air power to degrade ISIL. That is going to have an impact on their ability to operate. It will have an impact both in the context of their physical equipment being degraded. It also will add another element that ISIL fighters need to be worried about.
Right now, the reason that we are concerned about this situation is that ISIL is essentially operating in a virtual safe haven. Once there are American warplanes and allied warplanes flying overhead, Syria, or at least that region in Syria, will no longer be a safe haven from which ISIL is able to freely operate and coordinate attacks in Iraq, and certainly would make it much harder for them to contemplate carrying out attacks against the United States homeland.
Let me just reiterate that at this point our intelligence community assesses that we are not aware of any active plotting against the U.S. homeland. But if we were to allow this safe haven to persist it's not hard to imagine that ISIL could, in fact, turn their attention to plotting against the U.S. homeland. That is why the President has ordered this broadened air campaign as part of this coordinated strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q After the President’s speech, you said the President would welcome any show of support from Congress. And the vote, as you know, from the House was 273 to 156, but 40 percent of Democrats opposed it. There’s expected to be a split, as well, in the Senate. Is that the show of support that the White House was hoping for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, we certainly are very pleased to have seen a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats come together in the House of Representatives in support of a proposal that the President considers a top priority. That doesn't happen very often these days in Washington, D.C., and we were pleased to see members of Congress put aside partisan labels and actually focus on this core priority. There are Democrats and Republicans --
Q Forty percent of the Democrats voting to oppose the President is the show of support that sends a message that there is a unified show of support?
MR. EARNEST: I think the fact that, again, a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats in a very divided House of Representatives is a strong show of support to the American people, to the international community, and to our enemies that the United States is determined to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. That is an important show of support for the President’s strategy.
And like I said, this is a testament to the willingness of members of Congress -- even those who voted against it -- to put aside their partisan labels, to carefully consider the proposal in front of them and vote their conscience. And that is the responsibility of elected members of Congress. But in this case, I believe that they deserve credit for faithfully executing that responsibility.
Q And I just want to turn really quickly to phrase differently something that's already been asked about the meeting with President Poroshenko. And I know you’re not going to want to put words in the President’s mouth. But what does he say to him when he asks specifically for lethal aid? What’s the succinct argument for why the U.S. will not provide that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll have an opportunity to hear from the two Presidents about their meeting. I don't want to prejudge on the front end that that's something that President Poroshenko will directly raise himself in the Oval Office with the President. So you’ll have an opportunity to hear from the two of them after their meeting, and you’ll get a sense of what their discussion was like.
Q Thank you, Josh. So apparently ISIL has made military gains in the last 24-48 hours in northern Syria against Kurdish forces, in other words, non-Assad forces. Are military gains like that, is that a concern to the White House? Are they addressed under the President’s new policy? Is that a potential instigation or does it meet the threshold for airstrikes against ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, I haven't seen those reports, but certainly the goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL -- would involve reducing their capacity to make military gains.
So even in the short term -- and we’re talking about -- the President has been pretty clear that ultimately destroying ISIL is not a short-term proposition. But what we do think that we can do in the relative near term is to have an impact on degrading the capacity of ISIL to launch military operations in Syria or in Iraq. That is, after all, the reason that the President has ordered this broadening of our military campaign. It also would serve to deny them a safe haven.
And so I guess to answer your question, again, without having seen the reports that you’re referring to, the effort to degrade ISIL in the short term, we would expect would have the effect of reducing their capacity to make military gains.
Q Okay. On this forward deployment of advisors, would you characterize them as advisors that -- if they were potentially forwardly deploying, calling airstrikes, they’re advisors, correct?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has described these as military personnel in an advise-and-assist capacity.
Q There are now 1,600, give or take, American military personnel in Iraq in that capacity. Is there an upper limit to that number?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if there were an upper limit to that number, the President would set it. I can tell you that the President does not envision anything even approaching the kind of sustained, on-the-ground military presence that was responsible for occupying Iraq a decade ago. But what the President does envision are American military personnel working closely with Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, as they are now, to integrate the contributions of the international coalition and the ground defenses of the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to take the fight to ISIL. So there’s an important role that American military personnel are on the ground and already playing in Iraq.
Q Finally, what you’ve seen on the Hill over the last few days is a lot of concern from members about the role of the neighboring states. The President and other officials made a big deal about Arab nations joining the coalition. Senator Corker, I think, yesterday called them potential “coat holders.” You haven’t revealed the exact role that many of these nations are going to play. Today, Secretary Hagel said the perception of this is not just an American enterprise is very important. If it’s a perception issue, when are you going to come forward with some specific information about what Arab nations are contributing to the coalition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, the one thing that I would refer you to is I would refer you to the Jetta communique that came out last week, that there’s some pretty stark language in it that indicates the commitment of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to this broader effort. They agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight against ISIL. That includes stopping the flow of foreign fighters, countering the financing of ISIL, repudiating their hateful ideology, ending impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice, assisting with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities brutalized by ISIL, and, as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of the coordinated military campaign against ISIL.
I think that is a pretty strong declaration from some of these Arab countries of their support for this broader international coalition. I guess my point is you don't have to take my word for it; you can look at the communique that they have signed their names to, to indicate their commitment to this broader international effort.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll do one more. Chris.
Q Thanks, Josh. House Democrats yesterday launched a discharge petition to compel a vote on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Does the President support those efforts?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I can tell you the President has long supported inclusive federal legislation to address employment discrimination against LGBT Americans, and we continue to believe that Congress needs to act. We welcome efforts to move this issue forward, and we’ll work with lawmakers and advocates to achieve this important goal.
You’ll recall, Chris, that the President has acted using his executive authority to try to take some steps to end employment discrimination against LGBT Americans. So this is clearly a principle that we support, and we welcome congressional action in this area.
Q The language associated with this version of ENDA has a narrower exemption along the lines of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That's narrower than the language in the Senate-passed bill. Does the President prefer the language in the version that's (inaudible) or wants the Senate-passed language?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do know that this is the subject of ongoing conversations between White House officials, senior administration officials, and interested members of Congress who have been focused on these issues. So I don't want to characterize those conversations at this point. But this is, generally speaking, a value that the President supports and encourages Congress to act on.
Q Why don't you want to characterize those conversations right now?
MR. EARNEST: Because they're ongoing. And so we’ll let those conversations continue in private.
Q Do you anticipate the President will reach out to members of Congress to encourage them to --
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific calls to read out from the President at this point, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out conversations along those lines.
Thanks very much, everybody.
2:05 P.M. EDT