Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/21/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:58 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I don’t have any statements at the top, so let’s just go straight to questions.
Jim, would you like to start us off?
Q Thank you, Josh. I wondered if you could discuss some just-now breaking news -- reports that there’s a --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t like it when you begin your questions that way. (Laughter.)
Q I imagine you might be aware of it. But one of three detainees has been released in North Korea and apparently on his way.
MR. EARNEST: I am, Jim, in a position to confirm that Jeffrey Fowle has been allowed to depart the DPRK and is on his way home to rejoin his family. We certainly welcome the decision from the DPRK to release him. While this is a positive decision by the DPRK, we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, and again, calling the DPRK to immediately release them.
The United States government will continue to work actively on their cases. We’re appreciative of the efforts of the government of Sweden for the tireless efforts of their embassy in Pyongyang, which acts as the protecting power of the United States in the DPRK.
As a condition of his release, the DPRK authorities asked the United States government to transport Mr. Fowle out of the country upon his release. The Department of Defense was able to provide transportation for Mr. Fowle in the timeframe that was specified by the DPRK. And if we’re in a position to release additional details about his return, we’ll do that. But that’s all I have right now.
Q Can you give us a sense of the timing? When was the administration made aware that this was a possibility? How long have you been aware that this would be occurring today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, this is -- the release of these three individuals is something that the United States has long advocated both publicly and privately. In terms of the timeframe of this announcement, I’d refer you to the State Department; they may have more details on this specific release.
Q And there’s nothing on the other two? No indication that they would be released --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to believe that they should be released, but I don’t have any updates on their status at this point.
Q I wanted to ask you on two other subjects. The Department of Homeland Security just announced that any travelers from West Africa -- from Liberia, from Guinea, from Sierra Leone -- will have to go through the five airports you had designated last week with the enhanced screening measures. And as you, I believe, said last week, that covered virtually everybody that was coming in from those countries but not entirely. Why was not this policy that’s being announced today put in place back then, since it would have presumably 100 percent coverage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what we have said for some time is that the President stands ready to consider additional travel restrictions as necessary to further protect the American public. And this is an example of an additional travel restriction that could be put in place by our homeland security officials to ensure the safety and security of the American public.
So when the President was asked in the Oval Office on Thursday evening of last week about a travel ban, the President explained why he did not believe that a travel ban would be in the best interest of American public safety, but he did indicate an openness to additional travel restrictions that could be put in place to protect the American public. This is an example of one of those travel restrictions. And it’s something that -- I mean, this is relatively creative policymaking.
This is a situation where the Department of Homeland Security had to work with airlines that are flying passengers from a variety of countries, from Europe to the United States. It did require some work with the State Department to inform other countries. So there was a lot of coordination that had to go into developing and implementing this policy, and we’re pleased to see that that’s being implemented starting tomorrow, I believe.
Q And what steps has the administration taken in the event that any of these travelers enter the U.S. over land rather than by plane? Are there additional screening protocols being put in place in both northern and southern entry points?
MR. EARNEST: It is my understanding that DHS is focused as well. There’s been a lot of international -- well, there’s been a lot of public attention on the screening measures that are in place for individuals who are arriving at airports. There are similar screening protocols in place for those who arrive at seaports and over our land ports of entry as well. For those details, I would refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security who can walk you through those details.
Q And I had a midterm campaign question. In an interview with Al Sharpton yesterday, the President said he was pushing for turnout on behalf of Democratic candidates, and he said they are -- these Democratic candidates are folks who vote with me, they have my agenda in Congress. And as you know, many of these Democrats are running -- are vulnerable Democrats running in red states who are -- been trying mightily to distance themselves from the President. So I’m wondering, given that two weeks ago the President said that his policies were on the ballot as well, what’s the President trying to communicate here given that distancing from Republicans? Is there a strategy here that we just don’t get?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say two things about the President’s answer. The first thing is, it’s important to take a look at the question that he was asked. And the question that he was asked is, what specifically -- the question that he was asked was specifically, what should supporters -- why should supporters of the President be actively engaged in the midterms elections? Why should they support Democrats? Why should supporters of the President support Democrats?
And the answer that the President gave is one that should be familiar to you, which is that the President remains committed to a set of domestic policies that will enhance the financial standing of middle-class families all across the country, and that there are a range of proposals that would make progress against that principal objective.
The President is eager to work with Democrats or Republicans in Congress to raise the minimum wage, to pass laws that ensure equal pay for equal work for women. He is eager to pass policies that would invest in early childhood education or in infrastructure -- the kinds of proposals that would create jobs in the short term but also would be good for our economy over the long term.
And the fact of the matter is that for reasons that you’d have to ask them about, Republicans have blocked these proposals at every turn. These are common-sense proposals that have traditionally earned bipartisan support, and the President is eager for partners in Congress who will be supportive of these kinds of priorities that benefit middle-class families. And in the vast majority of cases all across the country, we’re talking about Democratic candidates who are the ones who share the belief that policies that benefit middle-class families should be prioritized. And the President has worked hard to support the candidacy of those candidates.
Q But in red states, don’t the President’s comments also act as to light a fire under Republican voters as well? Does he realize that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you’d have to sort of do an analysis state by state to decide what sort of impact comments like this have. I think what the President is focused on is making sure that Democrats in each of these states understand the stakes for this election. And the fact of the matter is, states -- Democrats who are running in red states, blue states and in so-called purple states, are going to need the strong support of those voters who supported the President in his reelection campaign; that they’re going to need the support of young voters and Hispanic voters and Asian voters, African American voters, of course.
And so helping voters in all these states understand the stakes in the midterm election is one way the President can help Democratic candidates on the ballot, and that is part of what the President is trying to communicate in his radio interview with Mr. Sharpton and he’ll continue to do interviews on radio and with other outlets to make this case.
Q Josh, back on the Jeffrey Fowle case -- what were the circumstances of his release? Was there some sort of deal? Did you give them something for him in return?
MR. EARNEST: Steve, all the details that I have about his release were -- I read at the top. So I’d refer you to the State Department who may have more details about this specific situation.
Q Now, the measures that DHS announced, does this obviate the need for a travel ban? Is this your answer to those who are demanding a travel ban?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our views on the travel ban haven’t changed. The President has reached the conclusion -- this is consistent with the advice he has gotten from scientists and other public health experts -- that a travel ban would only serve to put the American people at greater risk. The reason for that is simply if you institute a travel ban, the individuals who have spent time in West Africa would essentially go underground -- they would seek to evade detection, they would conceal the true nature of their travel history in an attempt to enter the country.
The vastly preferable system to have in place would be for these individuals to be subjected to intensive screening before they ever board an aircraft, and then to be subjected to an additional round of screening upon arrival in the United States. That’s the way that we can ensure the safety of the American public.
The fact of the matter is, giving individuals an incentive to conceal their travel history only puts the American public at risk because it makes it harder for us to determine which individuals need to be subjected to the screening that we’ve described.
Q So the travel ban is off the table?
MR. EARNEST: So the travel ban at this point, the President has concluded, again, on the advice of scientists and public health experts, that it would put the American people at greater risk, not less. The travel restrictions, however, that are being announced today strengthen the measures that are in place to protect the American public because it ensures that individuals who are traveling on commercial airlines to the United States are funneled to these five airports where there is personnel available to pull them aside and ensure that they get proper screening before entering this country.
You’ll recall that there are other measures that are in place, too. They are given information about Ebola -- what signs they should be on the lookout for in terms of symptoms; their contact information is also collected so that if there’s a need to reach them on short notice, that that can be done as well.
Q And last thing -- Ron Klain not starting until tomorrow. Why was he not able to start until Wednesday? Was there some -- were there some business entanglements he had to get out of?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know the details. We can follow up with you on that, but the fact of the matter is he accepted the job on Friday and starting on Wednesday. I think that’s a pretty quick turn-around.
Q Just to clarify on the travel ban question, because I think I remember you saying last week that it was an option that was on the table. Is it now no longer on the table?
MR. EARNEST: No, again, our view of the travel ban has not changed. At this point, it is the view of the President, based on the advice he has received from scientists and public health experts, that it strengthens our security measures and keeps the American people safe to keep those lines of travel open so that individuals who are traveling from West Africa to the United States are subjected to screening measures, both before they board an aircraft and after they leave the aircraft in the United States. That's the best way to protect the American public, and that is a guiding principle that the President will use as he considers the notion of a travel ban.
If for some reason the advice he receives from scientists and public health experts is different and he starts to get advice that for whatever reason it would actually be beneficial to the American public and would enhance our safety here at home for a travel ban to be put in place, the President is open to it. He’s not philosophically opposed to a travel ban.
Q It's still an option, but perhaps it's in the drawer instead of being on the table. Something along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: I guess, to torture that analogy a little bit, I guess I would --
Q Pardon my torturing, but it has not been completely ruled out.
MR. EARNEST: I frequently do that myself, so I'm willing to let you do that. What is important for people to understand is that there has been, as of tomorrow, an additional travel restriction that has been put in place based on the policy that was conceived over at DHS that would funnel travelers from West Africa to airports where the secondary screening measures are already in place. And the President does believe that that will further protect the American people.
Q And can I ask, just to go back to the President’s events in Chicago and Maryland and getting back out on the campaign trail for these midterms -- has he or the White House or both of you considered what life will be like with a Republican Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. The fact of the matter is, the President has spent a lot of time over the last couple of years trying to boost the candidacy of Democratic candidates, both incumbents and challengers all across the country. And the President has spent a lot of time raising money; there’s been a lot of coordination between the President’s own campaign infrastructure and the campaign infrastructures of candidates all across the country. And we do anticipate that there will be significant benefits that can be transferred in the form of volunteer lists and other technology that was used to turn out votes in 2012 that can benefit candidates in 2014.
That all said, the reason that we continue to be confident about the outcome in midterm elections is because in each -- and this goes to sort of what I was talking to Jim about earlier -- that on the issues, we see Democratic candidates all across the country strongly advocating policies that benefit middle-class families. That's not just the right thing for the country, it is the President’s view that the best way to grow our economy is from the middle out. But that also happens to be an approach that is strongly supported by the vast majority of Americans.
So as long as -- the more that we can have debates on the issues and discuss the priorities of the two candidates, that in this case there’s a pretty clear choice between a whole slate of Democratic candidates that are fighting for middle-class families and a whole slate of Republican candidates that believe we should just offer greater tax cuts and benefits to those at the top with the expectation that it will trickle down on everybody else.
Q And do you mind if I just press you a little bit more on the President’s comments to Al Sharpton, saying that these candidates in these hotly contested races have supported my agenda. Mary Landrieu does not support the President on the Keystone pipeline. Mark Begich differs from the President on oil exploration in Alaska. Kay Hagan and Bill Braley differ with the President on how to respond to the Ebola scare. So don't you think those comments were just a little unhelpful in those races?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I think candidates will make their own case about what it is -- what their priorities are. I think the President was simply making the observation that he is strongly supportive of candidates that are strongly supportive of policies that benefit middle-class families. And when you go down the line, from raising the minimum wage to passing laws that ensure equal pay for equal work for women, or investments in early childhood education or our infrastructure, that the President is looking for partners that support an agenda that benefits middle-class families.
Frankly, the President -- if there were Republicans who were willing to step up to the plate and do the same thing and support those kinds of policies, we would have seen a lot more progress in this country over the last couple of years. But the fact of the matter is Republicans have stood firmly against the kind of policies that benefit middle-class families. And the President is eager to support Democratic candidates that support those priorities that benefit middle-class families.
It doesn’t mean that they’re going to agree on everything, but it does mean the President wants members of Congress that have their priorities straight.
Q And you don't see the Senate as a lost cause?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely not.
Q I just wanted to follow on that a little bit and try to square something. So you’ve talked about how the President wants to be supportive of lawmakers who share his priorities and how important it is to energize the Democratic base. But at the same time, we haven't seen the President on the campaign trail once with a Senate Democrat, and there’s plans for him to do one appearance with a Democrat that seems relatively ahead in the polls. So can you just kind of square that for me -- why, if it's important to support candidates with his priorities and important to energize the Democratic base, we're not seeing the President out on the campaign trail with Senate Democrats right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have talked about quite a bit, Justin, is that there are a variety of ways in which the President and his campaign apparatus can be beneficial to Democratic candidates up and down the ballot all across the country in the midterm election. The President himself has observed that his name is not on the ballot this year, but he is interested in supporting candidates that are advocates for an agenda that benefits middle-class families.
And so that's why you’ve seen the President, starting at the beginning of last year, work to raise money in support of political committees that benefit Democratic candidates. You’ve also seen, again, the President’s campaign team, such as it exists now, working to derive the benefits of technology and a volunteer base and transfer them to Democratic candidates -- that there are some candidates running in purple states where there is a pretty developed and successful Obama campaign infrastructure. And by working closely with those campaigns, we've attempted to transfer that support and that organizational architecture to benefit other campaigns.
But ultimately, campaigns have to make their own decisions about how they can best benefit from the President’s leadership. And whether that is benefitting from money that he’s raising to support committees that support their campaigns, or whether that is benefitting from technology or other organizational techniques that benefitted the President two years ago that could benefit Democrats this time, that there are a variety of ways that the President can support them, and the President has been eager to do that.
Q There was a story in the Times over the weekend that suggested basically that the hopes for Democrats this cycle are coming down to African American voters and that that was the last chance the Democrats really had to keep the Senate. And so I'm wondering, since the President has obviously been targeting African American voters with I think a number of radio appearances, including this Al Sharpton one, if this latest comment, which seems contrary to him not going on the campaign trail and not meeting Senate Democrats publicly -- and even Vice President Biden said earlier this year, I'll campaign for you or against you, whatever is most helpful -- if this is a signal that you guys see the Senate as very much in jeopardy and as this is kind of a last chance to energize the base.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll say a couple things about that. The first is that -- I mean, at the risk of stating the obvious, the fact of the matter is the stakes in this election are high, and there is an important -- this is an important opportunity every two years, as exists every two years, for the American electorate to make their voices heard and to influence the composition of the federal government. They’ll also influence the composition of state government in a bunch of states, too.
So the stakes for this election are high. That's why you’ve seen the President be so invested in raising money and trying to lend some organizational expertise and experience to other Democratic candidates. In some cases, he’s campaigned for them. So the President is committed to supporting candidates that support the kind of middle-class agenda that he has strongly advocated.
The second point I would make on this is simply that the success of many of these Democratic candidates will depend on their own success in motivating voters that strongly supported the President in 2012. The fact of the matter is that there has traditionally been a drop-off among some segments of the Democratic Party electorate in midterm elections. That’s no secret. The President has demonstrated an unprecedented ability to earn the support of and turn out some of those constituencies in support of his campaigns in presidential years. And so the question is how can the President leverage his past success in motivating those communities to benefit Democratic candidates.
Now, ultimately, those Democratic candidates will have to develop their own strategies in their states for figuring out how exactly to do that. And there are people running in red states that have a strong track record. There are Democratic candidates who have a strong track record of getting elected in their states. So it should be their decision. It's ultimately their campaign. It's their name that's on the ballot. And in some cases, we're talking about candidates that have a strong track record inside their own states.
What the President has said he will do is do whatever he can to help those candidates get elected, but ultimately it's up to those candidates to make the decision about how the President can most be helpful.
Q Just a last one to try to decipher what you just said a little bit. (Laughter.) Do you think that basically if Democrats lose the Senate, are you saying that the individual candidates and not President Obama is to blame for Democrats losing the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm saying is that individual candidates across the country are running their own campaigns, as they should. And I'm confident that they will get all of the credit or blame that they deserve for the outcome of the election. I’m also confident that people will evaluate what the President could do to be helpful. Did he do all that he could to raise as much money for Democratic candidates given the other challenges that are on his plate? And the President has worked very hard, and I think those of you who have traveled with the President over the last several months can attest to the amount of time that he spent trying to help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
So you guys will all decide who deserves the credit and who deserves the blame. What the President is focused on is doing everything that he can to support Democratic candidates across the country.
Q Real quick. Just how far along is the President in finding a new Attorney General?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update on that personnel process at this point. So thank you for asking, though. We’ll keep you posted. I know there’s a lot of interest in that.
Q Just coming back to this question of Democratic candidates in the midterm -- looking at it from the President’s perspective, or from your perspective more broadly here at the White House, given that he has said that his policies are on the ballot, as he did at Northwestern; given that he has now said that the people that are in these key races are those who have supported his policies -- from the President’s perspective, if Democrats did better than expected in this midterm election, is it to a degree, at least in part, a vindication of his policies, or a sign his policies have broad support in the country? And, conversely, if he gets a shellacking, if Democrats get beaten badly in this midterm election, is that an indication that the President’s policies have been, at least in part, repudiated or don’t have broad support?
MR. EARNEST: Here’s a promise that I will make -- I’ll make you two promises on this. The first is, this is a question that will be asked of me many, many times when we’re in this setting a day or two after the election. And at that point, I promise you that I will answer the question.
Q Well, at that point, I fear, Josh, that you may spin a little bit. So now I’m asking you -- and we don’t know. I mean, a lot of people are predicting that things are going to turn out badly for Democrats; you’re a little more optimistic on this. So I’m just asking, if you turn out to be right, does that show -- I mean, the President has said it’s his policies that are on the ballot. The President has said that these are candidates that have supported him in Congress. Well, if you do better than expected, won’t that show that there’s support for the President’s policies?
MR. EARNEST: Only because you so cleverly asked this question will I do my best to indulge it here a little bit. What I will say is this -- is I’m am confident that if Democrats are able to hold on to the majority in the United States Senate, that there will be plenty of credit to go around. And I think somebody like the President, who has made an aggressive case for the policies that benefit middle-class families that so many Democrats support, I’m confident that the President will get his fair share of credit for that.
I’m also confident that if things don’t turn out the way that we hope and expect, that the President will get at least his share of the blame. Whether that’s deserved or not will have to be determined by someone else. But I think you have certainly observed these election cycles more closely than I have over the years. And I think we would all agree that whoever is sitting in the Oval Office at the time that these elections take place gets some credit for the success and at least as much of their share of the blame if they don’t go the way that that person hopes. And that is a -- there’s a long track record of that in American political history, and I’m sure it will continue this year.
Q Okay, and then just a quick question about -- there’s an interesting note in the transcript. The pool report from last night made reference to the President joking about getting back home and seeing in his desk a bunch of junk, including some unpaid bills. He said he thinks they eventually got paid. But that didn’t make it into the official transcript. I think it was just listed as inaudible. So I’m just wondering what happened there. And secondly, can you tell me what bills were not paid? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I did not have a chance to rummage through the desk of the President while he was at home this week. I can tell you that there was a problem with the recording of the event. I’m sure that all of you who have tried to take your tape recorder or even your more sophisticated recording equipment into a presidential event have experienced a little bit of a malfunction like this.
I will take this opportunity to remind all of you something that you all know. The only reason we’re having this discussion is because of the unprecedented commitment to transparency that this administration has put in place by opening up the President’s comments at fundraisers in private homes to press coverage. And so we certainly welcome your attention, and so I’m glad you’re so mindful of that transcript that we released on this topic yesterday.
Q By the way, are you predicting the Royals in four, a total sweep?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to get too -- I’ll get too cocky. I’ll take the Royals in six, just because they want to clinch at home this time, as they have the last couple of times.
Q Can you state as clearly as possible what the administration’s point of view is with Congress and the sanctions regime against Iran, and any possible negotiated agreement to prohibit Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s difficult to talk in a lot of detail about this because there isn’t an agreement with Iran at this point. That’s something that’s still being negotiated. So with that caveat in place, let me say that --
Q But clearly you thought through what would need to happen in relationship to Congress and its legally approved sanctions regime if there were an agreement.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, we have. But the clarity with which I can talk about this is limited by the fact that there is still a lot of negotiations that are ongoing with Iran and our P5-plus-1 partners that are relevant to this discussion.
So that said, I will try to be clear as I can. The scenario that seems most -- well, I guess I wouldn’t describe it as likely because I don’t want to predict the future, but say it this way: That if an agreement of some kind were reached with Iran, it would be a longer -- it would take some time to implement it; that we would want to make sure that Iran was taking the verifiable steps that they’d committed to to implement the broader framework of the agreement.
And what that means is that, in the first instance, the United States would look to suspend sanctions, and then, only if and after Iran has been determined to uphold its end of the agreement, would we look to lift or terminate sanctions. And there’s actually a very common-sense reason for this, which is that if it became clear that Iran was not living up to its end of the bargain, we would want to have a posture where we could quickly snap sanctions back into place. And so that’s how we’ll proceed.
Let me also just state as a general matter that the success that we had in compelling Iran to the negotiating table required significant congressional involvement. By putting so much economic pressure on the Iranian regime, we were able to compel them to the negotiating table, and that economic pressure was applied principally by the sanctions that Congress passed. The administration signed that bill into law, obviously, and worked very closely with our international partners to implement that sanctions regime. That means that both the legislative branch, in terms of the sanctions that were passed in legislation, and the administrative branch -- or the executive branch, in terms of administering those sanctions, has worked very closely together in very fruitful fashion.
So Congress has been involved in this effort and they’ll continue to be.
Q Undoubtedly, we all know that. Let me try to get to the crux of the matter. In this scenario that you just described -- suspend sanctions to see if they uphold the agreement -- do you do that by executive power alone, or do you seek legislation that does that and then has a date certain upon which you agree with Congress to judge Iran’s compliance with that agreement and then either put those sanctions back in by law or remove them by law?
MR. EARNEST: Again, this is the kind of detailed question I think that’s difficult to answer in advance of an agreement being reached among Iran and the P5-plus-1.
Q So it’s possible that you would do it by executive authority and not have Congress --
MR. EARNEST: I would not be in a position to prejudge any outcomes at this point.
Q The New York Times suggested that’s exactly what you are thinking, and there was a denial of that yesterday. I’m just trying to figure out what the denial is about.
MR. EARNEST: I think the denial, based on my interpretation of the transcript of my esteemed colleague here, is the assertion that the administration was seeking to carve out Congress’s role in this whole process. The fact is, we’ve been very committed to Congress’s ongoing role in this process, and that is the notion that was disputed.
Q Right, but Congress isn’t part of the negotiations, and it has expressed a level of concern in light of this story that it may be cut out of the process in this intermediate step you just described of suspending sanctions.
MR. EARNEST: Congress has been -- Congress -- congressional leaders, at least, have been regularly updated on the status of these negotiations. So there are congressional leaders that are aware of this ongoing process. So Congress has continued to be briefed and kept in the loop as we try to move this process forward.
Q Josh, the President, as you said, bases his decision on a travel ban on the advice he has received from scientists and public health officials. Can you be well-informed on the science and the public health implications of a travel ban and still support it?
MR. EARNEST: You’d probably have to ask somebody who still supports the -- who supports the travel ban about that. I mean, I don’t know -- I think it depends on what sort of explanation you have for why you support a travel ban. But based on this President’s review of the facts and the advice that he has gotten from experts, he doesn’t believe that a travel ban at this point is in the best interest of the American public and our safety.
Q So would he be in a position to inform Democratic candidates who are running for the Senate who have taken a travel ban position that they should educate themselves more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’d have to ask them why they are advocating the benefits of a travel ban. It’s the conclusion that this President has reached, based on the scientific advice that he has gotten from medical experts and public health experts that it’s not in the best interest of the American public.
Q And I think you were trying to get at something in all the conversation with Justin and Jon. Do you think there is a tactical mistake that some Democrats -- let’s say in Georgia, North Carolina, possibly elsewhere -- are making in not having the President come?
MR. EARNEST: These are -- in each of those places, you’re talking about candidates and operatives that have a strong track record of electoral success in those states. So I wouldn’t, either from the podium or anywhere else, second-guess the strategy that they’re pursuing. We’re talking about candidates that have a strong track record of success. They understand how best to motivate -- to win over and motivate voters to their cause and encourage them to motivate them to turn out on Election Day. So I wouldn’t second-guess their strategy other than to say that the President stands ready to do --
Q But it sounds like the President, in injecting himself in the way he has in the midterm, he’s sort of saying, look, you’ve already got the downside, why don’t you bring me in and get some of the upside.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I wouldn’t be in a position of second-guessing the strategy that is being implemented by candidates and their advisors that have a strong track record of electoral success in their states.
Q Until --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as I think Jon sort of alluded to, we’ll see what happens.
Q Josh, did the -- just connecting the dots -- did the President not paying his bills have anything to do with his credit card being declined? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not that I know of. That was clever, though. (Laughter.)
Q Okay, good.
MR. EARNEST: But it takes an incisive journalist like Ed Henry to connect the dots. (Laughter.)
Q But just to be clear on the transcript, what you’re saying is that nobody at the White House tried to keep the President saying -- whether it was a joke or he was being serious -- that he hadn’t paid his bills. Nobody at the White House tried to keep that out? That was a transcription error?
MR. EARNEST: That’s right. That’s a transcription error. I mean -- and there was a presidential pool that was in there to hear it --
Q Who heard it.
MR. EARNEST: -- and that’s the reason --
Q And you don’t quarrel with what they heard?
MR. EARNEST: No, I wasn’t in the event and I haven’t --
Q Nobody out here quarrels with what they heard?
MR. EARNEST: No, no.
Q Okay. There’s a GAO report out saying that I think they studied over the course of three years federal government employees and that there were about 57,000 federal employees who were sent home for bad behavior, doing something wrong at work, and they stayed home for 30 days or more. And that cost taxpayers $775 million in salary. Does the President think there is a better way to deal with these things in the executive branch? Does it sound like government waste?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is possible that there’s a better way to handle this, these kinds of situations. And that’s why the Office of Personnel Management has taken the necessary steps to figure that out.
I mean, there are situations where federal leave policies do make more sense. I mean, I would point out that in 97 percent of the cases, we’re talking about federal leave that’s for less than 20 days, and these are situations where the federal government is closed because of bad weather or situations where you have DOD and other personnel that have traveled or even lived for a period of time overseas, where they get some paid leave in order to move back into their house in the U.S. and get their family readjusted to life back in the United States.
So there are circumstances where it makes sense for us to have reasonable paid-leave policies for federal workers. And I’m confident that the Office of Personnel Management, once this review -- once this report is finally issued, that they’ll take a close look at it and make any revisions that are necessary.
Q Last thing. A couple on Ron Klain. There are various reports out today suggesting that when he is done being Ebola czar, Ron Klain is either in line to be counselor and replace John Podesta, or White House Chief of Staff and replace Denis McDonough. My question being, he hasn’t even taken the job yet -- why are people either in the White House or around the White House even speculating about Ron Klain’s future? Shouldn’t priority number one be take the job and then deal with Ebola?
MR. EARNEST: That is the number-one priority. It’s certainly the number-one priority of Mr. Klain, who starts tomorrow. I know that Mr. Podesta and Mr. McDonough continue to be very focused on the important jobs that they have to do around here. I think it’s important to note that those reports did not cite White House officials in terms of speculating --
Q White House insiders.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, did not -- right, right.
Q You’ve never been a White House insider. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: A pretty strict journalistic attribution standard there. (Laughter.) People here at the White House are very focused on the jobs that they have in front of them, and I’m confident that that includes Mr. Klain, Mr. McDonough, and Mr. Podesta.
Q Forgive me if you were asked this on Friday -- I checked the transcript but I didn’t see it. Several years ago -- and that was not a joke about transcripts. But back in 2004, Ron Klain -- a long time ago -- but Ron Klain was a registered lobbyist, various clients -- Fannie Mae, Signa, Time Warner, I think, other clients. Was that reviewed at all by the White House Counsel? There doesn’t appear to be anything associated with Ebola or bio. But was that reviewed by the White House Counsel before he took this job, or is that something already dealt with? Since the President -- because Ron Klain has served here before -- the President in 2009 made a pretty big deal about saying former lobbyists should not work in this administration.
MR. EARNEST: We can get you some more details about the vetting process, but certainly Mr. Klain and his background was vetted before he took this job. That was true when he worked in the White House during the first term and it was true this time as well. Mr. Klain continues to be the person that the President believes is the expert implementer that’s needed to ensure that our whole-of-government approach to fighting Ebola is effectively applied in this situation to protect the American public.
Q And the last one. Sometimes -- I mentioned 2004 -- sometimes people lobby in Washington but they technically don’t register as lobbyists because they don’t meet a certain threshold of the percentage of time they focus on lobbying. My question being, has the White House asked as to whether -- or found out if he has done any lobbying since 2004, since he left Vice President Biden’s office in the last couple of years, has he served, done any kind of lobbying?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that he has, but we can get back to you with some more information on that.
Q When do you think we’ll see Ron Klain? And what’s his first order of business?
MR. EARNEST: He will start tomorrow. I don’t know if he’ll make any public appearances in conjunction with his job. As I pointed out on Friday when we talked about him getting the job, is that the profile that he will have is primarily a behind-the-scenes one. He’s got a responsibility for making sure that all of the government agencies that are responsible for responding to this effort are coordinated and integrated in a way that meets the high standards the President has set for his team, and that includes everybody from the CDC and USAID and DOD, who are trying to stop the outbreak at its source, to HHS, DHS and CDC personnel that are trying to keep Americans safe from Ebola back here at home.
And as I mentioned, Mr. Klain is somebody that has very strong management credentials, both inside of government and in the private sector, and it’s why we believe, and the President believes, he is the right person for the job.
Q Speaking of keeping Americans safe, you have these new regulations coming from DHS about where people from African nations can come into; the new guidelines from the CDC on protocols. Did U.S. officials underestimate the seriousness of the situation in this regard?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think as a general matter, the government response to this matter has appreciated how serious this is. That’s why you saw the CDC and USAID commit significant resources to stopping this outbreak at the source when it was first reported back in March. And there has been careful attention -- close attention that’s been paid to this issue, particularly in the last few weeks now that there were cases -- or patients that were being treated in U.S. hospitals.
What I will say is something that we acknowledged last week, which is that there have been some shortcomings in the response, and the President has been pressing on his team for quite some time now to ensure that our response lives up to the high standards that he has set for his team in service of the American people. And I think some of the announcements today indicate the fruits of that effort, which is that the President has pushed his national security team to determine if additional travel restrictions could be put in place that would make the American public more safe. And that resulted in the DHS announcement today whereby national security officials determined that this set of travel restrictions would ensure that travelers on commercial aircraft are subjected to these secondary screening measures by funneling them to the airports where that personnel is readily available to conduct those screenings.
The updated CDC guidelines for health care workers is another example of that. The Director of the CDC himself acknowledged that even one health care worker being infected by the Ebola virus because they were trying to treat an Ebola patient is unacceptable. And that prompted our experts to go back and review what protocols were in place before and should be in place now to protect health care workers across the country. And the result of that was the guidance that was announced by CDC just last night.
Q The fact that these new guidelines are coming out, and the new DHS regulations seven months after you said the March focus on this -- it doesn’t play into the Republican narrative this election season about competence at the White House.
MR. EARNEST: No, it does not. And I think, again, what you are seeing is you are seeing put in place measures that are intended to protect the American public. The fact is, when it comes to our screening measures -- and I discussed this at length with Olivier last week, who unfortunately is not here -- but we talked quite a bit about the success of our screening policies. The fact of the matter is, even seven, almost eight, months after the original reports of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, so far there are no instances of an individual that’s exhibiting symptoms of Ebola having passed through the transportation system, having passed through the screening system.
There have been, because of the screening regime that is in place in West Africa before individuals board aircraft, there have been dozens of individuals who have been denied boarding because they’re exhibiting symptoms consistent with Ebola. So that’s an indication that these screening measures have been effective. And I think people can take some confidence in that.
The other thing that people can take some confidence in is knowing that I think we’re up to six patients now that have been treated at a variety -- or at least two or three different medical facilities in the United States -- have been treated, and successfully, for Ebola; that these are patients that have been able to walk out of those facilities. And those individuals were treated and recovered from Ebola by health care workers who themselves were protected and did not contract the disease.
So we have demonstrated an ability in this country to successfully treat Ebola patients in a way that doesn’t pose a significant risk to health care workers. We want to make sure that health care workers across the country have learned from those best practices and are following those same protocols.
Q Finally, has the President expressed any disappointment or frustration that Democratic Senate candidates are separating themselves from him on a travel ban?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, on the travel ban issue specifically?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President feels very good about the policy that we have put in place, because he believes that based on the scientific advice that he’s received, that a travel ban is not in the best interest of American public safety, so he feels very good about this policy.
Q Thank you, sir. Just to quickly follow on Major -- first of all, how long is the interim period by which you would judge whether Iran is complying with any prospective agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m confident that that is among the kinds of details that will be discussed in the context of the negotiations. So it’s hard to speculate on that in advance of an agreement being reached.
Q Okay, I’d like to switch to Kobani if I could.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q We were told several weeks ago that it was likely -- the possibility that Kobani would fall was likely, that it was not a strategic asset or a strategic location, that there were other towns across Syria and Iraq that were under the same attacks, under siege, that we would never hear about. Then we were presented last week with the view that it is a military opportunity because ISIL’s targets are out in the open. And then yesterday, Secretary Kerry said it’s a moral question, or a humanitarian concern. So I’m wondering which of those is true. And is this more or less an effort -- because it’s so visible, it’s happening in real-time on television -- to deny ISIL a propaganda victory?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think any of the things that you cited there, Mike, are necessarily mutually exclusive. The United States has been concerned for a number of years now about the ongoing humanitarian situation in Syria, and as we have seen, the humanitarian situation in Kobani over the last several weeks has been particularly bad. We have seen ISIL fighters conducting attacks in and around Kobani that have killed or injured innocent civilians. So we are concerned about the humanitarian situation there.
What also is true is that ISIL, because of their focus on this particular town in Syria, has raised the stakes of this conflict, and they raised the stakes by shifting additional resources to that particular conflict. But by shifting resources to that particular conflict it created an additional set of targets for our military airstrikes to hit.
And I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for a detailed assessment of that, but based on what I have heard them say, they feel that the strikes that have been taken against ISIL targets and against ISIL personnel in and around Kobani have had an important effect on ISIL’s capabilities.
So all that is to say that this is a situation that we continue to watch closely. Our ability to dictate the outcome there is reduced by the fact that we are limiting our approach to airstrikes. We don't have the kind of --
Q (Inaudible) resupplying --
MR. EARNEST: Well, yes, but we don't have the kind of coordination that we had with Iraqi security forces when they conducted ground operations to, for example, retake the Mosul Dam, or to fend off an ISIL advance on Erbil, or to end the siege of Sinjar Mountain, or to end the siege of the village of Amerli, where there were religious and ethnic minorities that were being targeted by ISIL. In those situations, the United States military and our coalition partners were working closely in coordination with Iraqi security forces to act successfully against those military targets and ultimately accomplish that very limited mission in those locations. That sort of ground force with whom we're closely coordinating doesn’t currently exist.
Now, there are ground forces in Kobani and these are local fighters that we have sought to resupply. The Turks announced yesterday, I believe, that they would allow Iraqi Kurds to fight inside Kobani alongside those local fighters, again, to try to fight off an ISIL advance. But the nature of the coordination is materially different, and that will have an impact on the ability of the United States and our coalition partners strictly through airstrikes to dictate the outcome.
Q And finally, a lot has been made about arming the moderate vetted opposition. In the back and forth, the President finally has decided to go ahead with that. The program is not up and running. And yet here we are, we're dropping weapons -- sophisticated weapons through air drops to a group that's affiliated with the PKK, a group that is recognized by the United States as a terrorist group. And so how do you square that?
MR. EARNEST: I do that in a couple of different ways. The first is that we have worked to build up the capacity of local fighters in Iraq and in Syria. And what we did is we are supporting the efforts of the Kurds in Iraq to resupply local fighters in Syria. And that means that we were able to use American military capability to conduct these airdrops and to ensure that weapons and materiel supplied by the Kurds in Iraq could be transported and delivered successfully to fighters on the ground in and around Kobani. So this is part of our strategy to build up the capacity of local fighters.
Q But they haven't been vetted.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I'm talking about is the local fighters in Iraq. Separately, the fact is there are a lot of different groups that are operating in Kobani. We do have, as you point out, limited insight into those particular local fighters. But the fact is, at this point, they are working hard to defeat ISIL forces that right now are concentrated on this specific community.
So we're going to evaluate each of these circumstances as they come along to look for opportunities to support local fighters against ISIL. And this is an example of the kind of opportunistic approach that this administration and our broader coalition is pursuing.
Q When did the President sign off on the new travel restrictions? Was that something that was proposed to him in the meetings he had over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that has been discussed in the last couple of meetings as DHS is working through this policy process. I don't know that these specific travel restrictions, however, required presidential sign-off. We can look into that for you, though.
Q And then quickly on Iran, I just want to make sure that it's the White House’s expectation that if a comprehensive deal is reached, that at least initially in a to-be-determined time frame the President can use executive authority to suspend sanctions, and then at a certain point, however, he will need to seek congressional authorization to lift the sanctions if Iran abides by the agreement, is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I would say is that -- I'm hesitant to speculate about sort of what would be required to deal with specific sanctions because the agreement itself has not been reached; that talking about what sort of sanctions would be removed or lifted or suspended based on a commitment from Iran to do X, Y, or Z is something I don't want to speculate on at this point because the negotiations are ongoing. So I would hesitate to speculate on that.
Q I'm just basically condensing what you said earlier, which sounded like you were drawing a distinction between suspending and lifting sanctions, and that suspending did not require congressional authority, and lifting would require congressional authority.
MR. EARNEST: And what I'm saying is, in some ways it depends on what the sanctions are. And I don't want to speculate about what those sanctions -- what sanctions might be lifted or suspended, because that's the subject of ongoing discussions with our P5-plus-1 partners and the Iranians right now.
Jared. We’ll do Jared in the back, and then we'll move up one to the other Jared.
Q Thanks. The President has not missed out on many opportunities to criticize other countries around the world for not doing enough to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Does the President agree with former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that countries have ignored this because it's an African problem?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen those comments from Mr. Annan. I will say that the United States has been very focused on marshaling international support to this response. The President himself, as you all reported last week, made a number of calls to world leaders last week to encourage them to ramp up their response. We've seen significant commitments from those countries, on the order of about $300 million in financial commitments from those countries to this ongoing response effort. There are additional commitments that have been made in the form of personnel and supplies that will also be beneficial to this effort.
And one of the reasons the President made the decision to commit significant DOD logistical resources to this problem -- or to this response -- is that it would galvanize the international community, that nongovernmental organizations and other governments would have greater confidence in the capacity of this response knowing that the Department of Defense logistical infrastructure was in place to support the response.
So there are a number of things that the President and this administration have done to galvanize the international community in this effort, and that is work that is ongoing.
Q Earlier, to Jim’s question, you -- he was asking about, has the President gamed out scenarios for a possible Republican Senate. You said, not really. Why not?
MR. EARNEST: Because it's our expectation that Democrats will continue to be in the majority in the next session of Congress.
Q To follow up on the international effort on Ebola, I know that the President last week talked about part of the trouble with a travel ban is the notion of this broken travel, and since there are no direct flights between these three West African countries and the United States, there are almost always traveling I guess through Europe. Has the President spoken with these European counterparts to prevent them or encourage them not to put in place any sort of travel ban that would thus make it that much more difficult for travelers to reach the United States?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. The President has had a number of conversations with his European counterparts, the leaders of these other countries. I know that the topic about travel restrictions that could be put in place to greater protect the populations of Europe and the United States have been discussed. But in terms of the specifics of those conversations and whether or not the President made a specific ask, I'm just not prepared to read out the discussions in that great of detail.
Q But if a country were considering that, the President would disagree with that assessment from that world leader.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't put myself in a position to
-- and I don't think the President would put himself in a position to where he’s second-guessing other world leaders about what they need to do to protect their own people. So the President has been very clear about the scientific advice that he’s received, that it is in the best interest of the American people and the public health of this country for the travel lanes to remain open.
Q Some of the countries already have much more restrictive travel situations already. So that's -- just to throw it into the mix. My question is about the authority of Mr. Klain. Unlike the CDC, which really does not operate with that kind of authority, will Mr. Klain have the authority to require all the hospitals across the United States to comport with the new protocols that have just been put in place when dealing with Ebola patients, whether they’re diagnosed or suspected of Ebola?
MR. EARNEST: The principal point of contact for hospitals across the country will continue to be officials at HHS and at CDC. Those are the public health professionals, the scientific experts that can provide the best advice to medical facilities and health care workers across the country. That will continue to be the principal point of cooperation.
Now, what I will say about that are two things. One is, it obviously is in the interest of hospital administrators and doctors and nurses to take the necessary precautions that are based on the lessons learned at those facilities that have successfully treated Ebola patients in a safe way. And the President wants his team to focus on what the federal government can do to support local hospitals and local public health professionals to detect, isolate and treat Ebola patients should they materialize. And that's what we continue to be focused on.
Let me also say that the other thing that the President has urged the CDC to do is to be more assertive in offering this guidance to public health professionals and to health care workers and to hospitals across the country, that typically there is a pretty -- I guess I would describe it as a more advisory role that CDC will play in terms of communicating with hospitals and doctors and nurses across the country.
The President has asked the CDC to be more assertive in conveying information about the protocols that should be in place to protect health care workers as they do this important work.
Q At the risk of belaboring this, CDC never was set up to have that kind of an authority. Would it be then the Secretary of HHS or Mr. Klain that has the authority to actually require those hospitals to follow those procedures?
MR. EARNEST: It would not be Mr. Klain, but in terms of the nature of the relationship between HHS, CDC and hospitals, I’d refer to HHS for that.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Katie.
Q Hi, Josh. The President told Reverend Sharpton last night that he told candidates in tight races that you do what you need to do to win. In some cases, that means distancing themselves from the President. And you just said you wouldn’t second-guess the strategy of Democrats who aren’t inviting the President to campaign. So were these vulnerable Democrats given a heads-up that the President would call them strong allies and supporters, which is kind of an attack-ad-ready sound bite? And how does the President think this will help those vulnerable Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that the ratings for the Al Sharpton Show yesterday must have been, like, through the roof. So I’m confident he’ll be asking the President to participate in his show once again.
I don't know that any other candidates were given a heads-up that the President was prepared to appear on the Sharpton show. The fact is that the President has been very clear about his support for candidates that are strong advocates of an agenda that benefit middle-class families. And that approach is one that this administration will continue to pursue as we support Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in races all across the country.
Q Josh, can I just have a general idea of what the rest of the President’s week is going to look like? We’ve talked about the fact that he’s not out campaigning, that much of the schedule was cleared because of the Ebola fears. While we haven’t had any additional infections, what does he think of the state of play there?
Q Knock on wood.
Q Yes, knock on wood, exactly. What does he think of the state of play there? And what’s he going to be doing the balance of the week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have more details about the President’s schedule for tomorrow later on today. And it is fair for you to assume that the President continues to get detailed briefings from members of his staff about our Ebola response, and it’s clear that there’s quite a bit that's happening from Mr. Klain starting tomorrow, to the significant financial commitments that we’ve gotten from countries around the world, to the strengthened guidance from the CDC about protocols that health care workers should implement, to even the new travel restrictions that were announced today by the Department of Homeland Security. So there’s a lot of work that is being put into this by a wide range of government agencies, and the President continues to monitor those developments very closely.
Q So is the President going to reschedule any of the things that he canceled last week? Is he going to continue to do these phone-ins to specific Democratic interest groups during the rest of this week, with the balance of time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that I do anticipate that at least some of the travel that had to get canceled last week will be rescheduled. In fact, I think that we have already announced that the trip to Connecticut is back on the books for some time before the election. I’m not sure which day, but we can follow up with you on that.
And I do anticipate that the President will be engaged in some other political activities as well, additional radio interviews and other things, too.
In the back, I’ll give you the last one. Yes, you. What’s your name?
MR. EARNEST: Charlie?
MR. EARNEST: Who are you with, Charlie?
Q Breitbart News.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q The recent story on the USCIS preparing for a surge of government IDs, do you have a response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't. I’d refer you to UCIS on that. I don't have any information about that.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Thanks, everybody.
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