Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes en route Andrews Air Force Base, 9/25/2014
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base
**Please see below for a correction to the transcript, marked with an asterisk.
2:58 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I don’t have any announcements at the top, but Ben and I are here to take your questions on a variety of topics. So who wants to go first?
Q Any clarification from the Iraqis about the charges that they made this morning about a plot?
MR. RHODES: What we’ve consistently said to the Iraqis is that if they have information that is relevant to terrorist activity or terrorist plotting that they can and should share that through our intelligence and law enforcement channels. As you saw in our statement, we have not confirmed any specific threat against the United States in terms of homeland plotting by ISIL, so we want to review information from the Iraqis and seek to corroborate that.
Again, the issue of foreign fighters in particular has been a focus for us -- it was a focus of the UN Security Council session yesterday. So it's a threat we take seriously. But in terms of specific plotting, we'll have to follow up with the Iraqis on their information.
Q The fact that they did not communicate that information through the channels that you requested raise doubts about the Iraqi government or their approach to security?
MR. RHODES: No, not at all. I think that the Iraqis are, understandably, dealing with an enormous security challenge in their own country that they’re seeking to get their arms around with our help and support. And part of the benefit of having, for instance, the teams that we have in Baghdad and Erbil, the joint operation centers, the advisors, is it provides a mechanism for coordination. That begins with activities in Iraq against ISIL, but ultimately we’ll want to share information as it relates to terrorist plotting.
And look, we would certainly take seriously any information they are learning as they have ISIL operatives detained, or as they reclaim territory that ISIL may have controlled that we can then use to learn more information. So I think we’re going to have to have those protocols in place and we’re going to follow leads based on the information we’re provided.
Q And, Ben, just to clarify -- the President and Abadi did not discuss this when they met? Abadi did not mention any of this to the President, is that right? And are there any steps the U.S. is taking with regard to the metro in Washington, the subway in New York, major metros -- even though you haven't corroborated this yet?
MR. RHODES: No, the President did not discuss this with Prime Minister Abadi. They obviously spent a lot of time, almost the bulk of the meeting on ISIL, but not any specific threat discussions like this. And, no, we have not taken any additional steps with respect to security of those metro systems. We regularly share through the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security threat information as we get it related to terrorist ambitions and activities and plots. So if that becomes necessary, we’ll do so, but we haven't done so yet.
Q Josh, how quickly does the President want to have a new Attorney General picked out and in place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, the President will be talking a little bit later this afternoon about the extraordinary service that Attorney General Holder has provided to the country. Attorney General Holder has agreed to remain in his position until his successor is confirmed by the United States Senate, so we would anticipate a pretty seamless transition here. But I don’t have a time frame at this point for when an announcement might be made about his successor.
Q Does the President have an initial list of candidates that he’s looking at?
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident that there are members of the President’s team who have been thinking who solid candidates might be. No one has asked me for my opinion, so I haven't seen the list. But I’m confident that the President will have his own ideas and that there will be a formal process that we’ll undergo here. This is a high-priority position; it’s important not just for the President in terms of offering some advice and counsel, it also is important to the country in terms of enforcing our laws. So this is something that will get a fair amount of attention and I’m confident that whoever is nominated to this position will be the kind of candidate that deserves bipartisan support in the Senate. And while it will be important for the Senate to play their usual role of vetting the President’s nominees, we would anticipate that they would act promptly on whoever that nominee is and give that person the bipartisan confirmation that I’m confident they’ll deserve.
Q What is the reason the Attorney General gave for why he’s leaving now? And did the President try to talk him into staying longer? What was their discussion like when they talked about this?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a lot of insight to share based on that private conversation. But you’ll hear the President talk a little bit more this afternoon about the tenure of service that Attorney General Holder has had in this administration. And the President certainly has appreciated the wide range of difficult issues that the Attorney General has grappled with in office.
Q Do you anticipate the Attorney General staying on to deal with the rest of the Ferguson investigation? I mean, that seems like something that was personally important to him. He went and visited the community. That could take a while longer.
We don't know – there is no timetable about a replacement. But do you have any sense of whether the Attorney General will be particularly hands on with that continuing forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that whoever the next Attorney General is will have a similar interest in ensuring that justice is served in that case, as well. So, like I said, as long as Attorney General Holder remains in office, I’m sure that one of the issues that he’ll be very closely focused on. And he has spoken pretty powerfully about his own personal interest in that particular case, and I’m confident he’ll be deeply involved in that during his remaining days in that office. But I’m also confident he’ll ensure that we've got a pretty seamless handover -- transfer of authority when it comes to that case as well.
Q Ben, can I ask -- the President was in close proximity to the people working on the Iranian nuclear talks during his stay up in New York. Did he get any update for them? And was there any interaction at any point between the President and President Rouhani, or anyone else in the Iranian delegation? If not, why not? Are you disappointed by that?
MR. RHODES: Well, there have been ongoing talks between the United States and Iran, and the P5+1 in Iran around the UN General Assembly. And so the President was updated on the status of those talks by Secretary Kerry, members of his team. Wendy Sherman, Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan have been in New York as a part of those talks. But the President did not have any interaction with President Rouhani or the Iranian delegation.
Again, we didn't plan to. We didn't have any expectation that we would. The fact of the matter is that these talks are very -- well, there have been very regular, extended discussions over a period of days that are technical in nature in many respects. So we believe the best way to move the ball forward is with our team working with the Iranians and the P5+1, and to see whether we can narrow gaps and achieve and agreement in the next two months. And so the President wants to let that work proceed. He’ll stay updated and make decisions about what is an acceptable deal for the United States and the international community.
Q -- readout of the Egyptian meeting? And what are they doing in the coalition?
MR. RHODES: Let me give you a readout of both meetings. In the meeting with Prime Minister Hailemariam of Ethiopia, the two leaders discussed the deepening economic ties between the United States and Ethiopia, and the increased U.S. trade and investment opportunities with Ethiopia. They're also a partner in the Power Africa initiatives that we have and that we’re working to expand.
They focused on counterterrorism cooperation, where Ethiopia has been a strong partner, particularly in efforts against al Shabaab in Somalia. They discussed South Sudan, where we’re working together to address a humanitarian crisis, but also forge an inclusive political solution so that the country can move forward. And then the President discussed democracy and the need for there to be continued progress by the Ethiopian government, but also respect for the role of civil society and the space that civil society needs to operate.
Then with the Egyptian meeting, President Obama and President SiSi had a productive meeting. They discussed opportunities for bilateral cooperation going forward. President Obama underscored his commitment to the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt. The two leaders agreed to preserve and expand cooperation on a range of issues, including our military intelligence and counterterrorism relationships.
The President discussed President SiSi’s steps to reform the Egyptian subsidy regime, which is a positive step forward, and pledged support for Egypt’s economic reform agenda, which is going to be necessary to attract international investment. They agreed to convene a strategic dialogue at the foreign minister level to facilitate coordination on issues of mutual concern. They also discussed the importance of supporting the international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
On Libya, they discussed the need to support the country’s elected government institutions, and pledged to continue to address this issue as part of the strategic dialogue.
The President discussed our ongoing concerns about Egypt’s political trajectory. They had a frank exchange on those issues. The President noted that inclusive elections and governance and the protection of individual rights, including freedom of speech and assembly and the right to due process, are critical to the stability and prosperity that Egypt seeks. The President raised a number of specific concerns that we have related to human rights, including, for instance, the detention of journalists, and the President expressed his view that we believe those journalists should be released.
On the coalition, Steve, your question, Egypt can participate in a variety of ways. As you heard the President say the other day, Arab nations are conducting airstrikes with us, but then we need to be sharing intelligence; we need to be countering the extremist ideology that ISIL propagates; we need to be cracking down on the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Iraq and Syria. Egypt is a partner in all of those areas. And we'll continue to explore with them the role they’ll play.
But on the airstrikes, we're focused on the five Arab partners we have now. We believe that is very strong Arab participation in terms of the direct military action in Syria. But Egypt has a range of other roles it can play given our counterterrorism relationship.
Q Ben Hamas and Fatah have apparently reached a deal today to govern the Gaza Strip with the PA having a role in that. Does the U.S. see that as a positive step?
MR. RHODES: Josh, we're aware of the reports and we’d have to see what the specifics of any agreement are. In the past, our view of efforts at Palestinian reconciliation have been that Hamas cannot participate in the government given the fact that it is an organization that has not abided by the core principles. But as a general matter, we do want to see the situation in Gaza improve for the Palestinian people and we're going to support efforts that can improve governance and development and humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza.
Q There are still hundreds of hostages remaining -- ISIS hostages in Syria. Do you know what happened to them? Is there any effort underway to free them?
MR. RHODES: Hostages? Well, from which -- any particular -- well, look, many people have been abducted, just to put this in context. Obviously there are a significant number of people who are subject to ISIS brutality. In terms of hostages from individual countries, I don't know that it runs into the hundreds if you're talking about Western hostages.
But as it relates -- I'll speak to Americans. There’s a very small number of Americans that continue to be held. We continue to focus on whatever resources we can bring to bear to try to secure their release. This is something we work very actively. I know some of our partners, like the British, of course, have been very concerned about the number of hostages that are held there -- of their citizenry.
So, again, we're focused on what we can do particularly for our American citizens who are held there. I think more generally, ISIL has used abductions as a means of terrorizing populations and seeking to obtain ransom. So we'll continue to be vigilant for their efforts to secure hostages for those purposes.
Q And the FBI has identified the ISIS militant seem in beheading videos. Can you tell us more about that?
MR. RHODES: I think I'd let the FBI speak to that. We've obviously dedicated a lot of resources to knowing who the individuals are who conducted these executions. We have a commitment to see that justice is done for these executions. The FBI Director discussed the progress of that investigation. We won't go beyond him given that it's an active, ongoing intelligence and law enforcement matter.
Q I have a question for each of you. On Eric Holder, I'm wondering, can you talk about the timing of the midterms? Is that in any way pivotal in your calendar for trying to get a nominee? Does it make a difference who controls the Senate? You might say that the Democrats will still control the Senate, but I'm just wondering is that sort of part of the calculus at all in your timing.
MR. EARNEST: It's not. I do anticipate that Democrats will hold the Senate. That said, I also anticipate that whoever the nominee is will earn and ultimately receive bipartisan support.
Q And I wanted to ask you, Ben, President Obama’s remarks yesterday before the U.N. -- a lot of people noted the sort of shift in rhetoric, more kind of -- I don't know the right way to explain it -- aggressive or sort of judgmental rhetoric against ISIS, very direct. Some people have compared him a little bit to President Bush in terms of the way he expressed himself. And I'm wondering what do you think about those comparisons? And do you think that the President in any way -- is this with ISIS kind of his version of 9/11 in any way? Does he feel like maybe President Bush -- I'm not articulating myself well, but you know where I'm going with this.
MR. RHODES: I think this sometimes gets -- they are different events in time; they’re different Presidents in time. These attempts to draw direct parallels I think miss the clear differences between events, between terrorist organizations, between Presidents.
What I will say is in terms of President Obama’s approach, he has always been very clear about the need to deny terrorist groups safe haven. The very first speech I wrote for him was August 1, 2007, when he said that he’d go into Pakistan to take out al Qaeda terrorists. He drew some heat for that at the time. So on this issue of terrorism, he’s always made clear that we need to take the fight to terrorists, and that’s what he’s done in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. That’s not new.
I think, however, what was a new focus of his in the UN General Assembly was the need to go beyond just the efforts to take out terrorists militarily, and get at the extremist ideology, the sectarianism that has been tearing the Middle East apart. So where I think you saw a very strong and forceful message was on the need to get at these underlying causes that have allowed ISIL to take such root. We’re doing that, and we’re going to keep doing that.
And the fact of the matter is, again, our commitment to go after terrorism has been bipartisan, has crossed administrations. We do have a different model. There were 180,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when we took office. Now there are 30,000 in Afghanistan, roughly 2,000 in Iraq. So we’ve not used U.S. ground forces in this effort against ISIL. We’re using air power and support of partners on the ground.
At the same time, again, I think there’s broad bipartisan support to go after terrorists, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. We are doing it through a different model in terms of our military action. But I think the President, insofar as he was forceful yesterday, is because he needed to make clear to the world that the ideology, the sectarianism has to be rejected just as we’re going to do whatever is necessary to deny terrorists a safe haven using our military.
Q Ben, did the President, in any of his formal or informal conversations during the General Assembly, receive any additional commitments from countries to participate in the coalition?
MR. RHODES: Well, yes. And we saw announcements from the Netherlands, from Belgium that they’re going to commit their military to take action against ISIL. You saw over 100 countries commit to the UN Security Council resolution that commits them to cracking down on radicalization and the flow of foreign fighters. We had additional discussions with other countries about what they could contribute. Prime Minister Cameron has called back parliament for a session on Friday to discuss U.K. military involvement.
So I think what we see is, on the military side, we have these five Arab partners; we have an increasing number of European countries that are stepping up to the plate to take either military action against ISIL or to commit to the training-and-equipping mission for the Iraqi security forces; and then a much broader group of countries that are working on issues like foreign fighters and financing.
But I think there were a number of discussions, and there will be further announcements made by countries going forward. General Allen is going to be working on this very hard. And I think you’ll see the coalition continue to grow.
Q Ben, can I ask you -- just ancient history from 48 hours ago, we were a little surprised to hear the President say that he met the Chinese Vice Premier at the UN. Can you tell us -- do you know anything about that meeting, how long it was, what they talked about? And was there some hint of movement on the climate issue?
MR. RHODES: Well, Josh, your last point is the right one, which is that given that this was a Climate Summit, we believe very strongly that progress internationally on climate change is going to depend upon action by not just the United States, but China, India, all the major economies. So it was a good occasion to see the Chinese Vice President *Premier and discuss what steps we can take in terms of commitments to fight climate change. So I know that was a prominent issue of discussion.
I think there were also discussions around economic issues. But again, I think the setting being the Climate Summit, I think it was important for us as the two largest economies to have a chance to compare notes on our actions against climate change. And the President is traveling to China in November, so we’re also beginning to shape the agenda for the President’s visit to China. And so it’s a good opportunity to touch base on that.
Q How long a meeting was it? Was it at the UN Headquarters?
MR. RHODES: I can check. Yes, it was at the UN Headquarters. I’d have to check the time for you. I don’t know offhand.
Q One other thing on the speech. The President added a little line about Israel in the speech to the prepared text. Why did he do that? What was the point?
MR. RHODES: What was the line?
Q Worthy of reflection in Israel, talking about violence in Gaza and it had pushed Israelis away from the peace table.
MR. RHODES: Well, I think it’s consistent with what he’s always said certainly in recent years, which is that as difficult as it is to make peace, the status quo is not a sustainable situation. And it’s going to take courage and political risks to pursue a peace process, but that if you reflect on the situation, the current environment is not a sustainable one for Israel and its security for the Palestinians and their aspirations. So, again, I think it’s consistent with the message he’s had certainly in recent years on this topic.
Q I was wondering if you could clarify the timeline on General Holder. When did he tell the President that he wanted to leave very soon? And when did the President accept that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific time frame to lay out for you. It was recently, but not in the last few days. And, yes, this was a decision that the Attorney General made on his own. And the President accepted his decision without putting up much of a fight simply because it's clear to anybody who’s been paying attention that Attorney General Holder has confronted a large number of issues, many of them very complicated, some of them even controversial, over the course of the course of the last five and a half years, so he has certainly put in his time in a way that he can be proud of and in a way that the country is appreciative of.
Thank you, guys.
3:21 P.M. EDT