Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/28/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:57 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Before we get started today, I just want to let you know there’s been one brief addition to the President’s schedule. This afternoon, he will be convening a conference call with the members of the USAID DART team who are currently deployed to West Africa, responding to the Ebola outbreak in that region of the world.
These are individuals who have been on the ground in West Africa since I believe the first week in August. They are responsible for coordinating the government’s response to this Ebola situation. And the President is obviously very grateful for their service. As you’ve heard me say on a couple of previous occasions, the only way that we can entirely eliminate the risk to the American people from the Ebola virus is to stop this outbreak at the source. And these men and women who are government employees have been on the ground in West Africa working to accomplish exactly that.
So the President will be calling to offer his gratitude on behalf of the nation for their work. Upon completion of that call, as the President walks from his office to the helicopter, the President will make a statement about that call prior to departure. So you should plan on that accordingly.
So with that, Nedra, would you like to get us started?
Q Yes, Josh, on that call, is that the President’s way of basically showing appreciation at a time when maybe some of these workers could be subject to quarantine? Is he trying to send a different message?
MR. EARNEST: No, the message that the President is trying to deliver is that they have a critically important role in our response to this Ebola situation. And simply put, their work is critical to ensuring that we entirely eliminate the risk associated with the Ebola virus to the American people, and that’s to stop this outbreak at the source.
And that work can only be done based on the skill and professionalism of those who are serving on the ground. We’ve seen countries around the world make significant contributions to this effort, but no one has committed more than the United States of America. And the heart of this effort is this DART team that’s operating on the ground with the support of CDC and other government agencies that are responsible for responding to this effort.
But the President and in fact the entire nation is grateful for their service, and the President wanted to take a little time out of his day to offer that gratitude.
Q We heard Dr. Fauci say this morning that states are within their rights to impose stricter sanctions than what the CDC is recommending. But is there any concern that there is not a uniform policy, and that that could be sowing confusion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing that there should be no confusion about is the risk that is associated with the Ebola virus in this country. The risk to the average American is vanishingly low, as Dr. Fauci himself has said. We know this because the science indicates exactly how this virus is transmitted. It’s not possible to get this virus by drinking food -- drinking water or eating food in this country. It’s not possible to contract the Ebola virus by breathing air in this country. In fact, we know that the only way that you can catch the Ebola virus is to come in close contact with the bodily fluids of an individual that is already exhibiting symptoms of Ebola.
In fact, there are only two instances where the Ebola virus has been transmitted in this country, and that is a virus that has transmitted to two health care workers who were treating a very sick Ebola patient. In other good news that was announced earlier today, the second of those two health care workers is slated to be released from a hospital in Atlanta later today. So there are only two instances where the virus was transmitted on American soil, and both of those health care workers who contracted the virus on American soil have been treated. And as of this afternoon, both will be virus-free and released from treatment. So that certainly is welcome news and we’re pleased to see it.
Q The President had a meeting with administration officials here on Sunday for a couple hours, including Secretary Hagel. So how come the Pentagon then came out with a different policy for some of this toward West Africa? And isn’t that the kind of thing that someone like Ron Klain should be coordinating within the government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron Klain is responsible for coordinating our whole-of-government response to the Ebola situation. He has performed very well in that task. The President and everyone here at the White House who has a role in working on this effort is appreciative of the kind of management expertise that he’s bringing to this challenge. And the impact of his work is already being felt both here at the White House but across the government.
As it relates to this specific policy, I don’t think it’s a particular surprise to anybody who understands that it’s not uncommon for the policy that’s implemented for civilians to be different than the policy that’s implemented for our military service personnel. That’s not unusual. And that takes a variety of forms. In this case, we’re talking about a policy that’s still under consideration, I might add, by the Secretary of Defense. So I don’t want to suggest that any sort of -- that I’m getting ahead of any sort of policy announcement that’s made by the Department of Defense.
But the policy that is evidently under consideration is one that would restrict the movements of service personnel that had been working in West Africa. And this illustrates the kind of different challenges that both -- that our civilian governments are dealing with and the challenges that our military is dealing with. When we’re talking about our civilian governments -- or our civilians, and what sort of policy is in place to monitor the health of health care workers who are returning from West Africa, we’re talking about a couple of dozen health care workers a week who are returning to this country from West Africa. When we’re talking about military personnel, we’re talking about thousands of military servicemembers who have been or will be deployed to West Africa to carry out the mission that the President ordered.
And it simply will be easier to directly and actively monitor their health if their movements are restricted to certain locations. We’re talking about thousands of military personnel that are traveling from bases all across the globe. And in order to monitor their health, it simply is easier to do that if their movements are restricted and they’re all co-located.
Now, the other thing that is important for us I think at this point to acknowledge is that this is indicative of the kinds of sacrifices that our military servicemembers make on a daily basis; that there are a wide range of sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make for the sake of efficiency and for the sake of uniformity and for the success of our military.
So to take a more pedestrian example than the medical one that we’re talking about, there might be some members of the military who think that the haircut that’s required may not be their best, but that’s a haircut that they get every couple of weeks because it is in the best interest of their unit and it maintains unit cohesion, and that is a policy of the military, and that obviously is a situation in which application of military policy is not -- or is necessarily different than the application of the policy in a civilian context.
Q But we’re not talking about haircuts. We’re talking about the outbreak of this disease here that has deadly implications.
MR. EARNEST: Of course we’re not. And I’m not trying to suggest that it’s somehow unimportant. I think it is a useful illustration, though, that the kinds of sacrifices that our men and women make in uniform range from very simple, elemental things, like a haircut, to more serious things like medical quarantine. But the fact of the matter is those are the kinds of things that have an impact on their day-to-day personal convenience, but yet they make those sacrifices for the benefit of the broader military.
Q But I guess my question is, is the White House concerned that a patchwork of different policies between states, the military, what the CDC is saying, is sowing confusion, or is that perfectly acceptable to have all these different standards from your viewpoint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t think that actually reflects the entirety of what’s happening as well. I mean, there are a couple of states -- New York and New Jersey -- that have gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks. But the fact is, if you look at announcements that have been made by other states -- states like Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut, the District of Columbia -- all have issued
policies that are much closer to the kinds of policies that were recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
And I do think that we're starting to see an emerging consensus from other states about the policies that can be best implemented to protect their civilians.
Q Josh, the Australians have issued a blanket visa ban. Did you have any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. I don't have an immediate reaction. Obviously, individual governments are going to make decisions about what they believe is in the best interests of their populations.
The President has made his own decision about the wisdom of a travel ban. It is his view that implementing a travel ban would not be in the best interests of the safety and well-being of the American people. It would only serve as a disincentive for people to be candid about their travel history.
The reason we want people to be candid about their travel history is because if they’ve recently traveled in West Africa and had exposure to Ebola patients, then we want to make sure that they're properly screened before they enter the country. And even if they are not exhibiting symptoms of Ebola, we want to make sure that they have the information that they need to get medical attention and treatment quickly if that should be necessary.
Q And you haven’t raised any concerns with the Australians about this?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to the State Department for any sorts of communications between our government and theirs. But, again, we certainly respect the right of nations like Australia to make their own decisions about what they believe is in the best interest of their citizens.
Q And we're a week out from the elections. How confident are you at this point that Democrats will retain the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: We continue to be confident because of the message that the vast majority of Democratic Senate candidates are carrying about how important it is for Congress to be advancing policies that benefit middle-class families.
That's in the best interest of the country. I think it also is a value that the vast majority of voters agree on. There are others who are more steeped in these details that would suggest that they have confidence in the outcome because of the advantage that Democrats have on the ground, that many Democratic candidates have been able to apply the lessons learned from the success of the Obama campaign in 2012 to benefit their own campaigns, and that there are some early data to indicate that those strategies are having -- are being successfully implemented this time around as well. But I’d refer you to my colleagues at the DNC and other places that may have a more granular assessment to share.
Q Okay. And the President, we're told, spoke to the newly elected -- newly reelected Brazilian President. Did he invite her back to Washington? All the frictions about the surveillance practices, are they gone now? Or is some of that still there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly was pleased to have the opportunity to congratulate President Rousseff on her reelection. The President does value the strong working relationship that he has had personally with President Rousseff, but also the strong working relationship that has existed between Brazil and the United States for quite some time now.
I don't have any announcements to make about possible travel or invitations that might be extended, but we’ll keep you posted. A Brazilian state dinner would certainly be a sight to see, wouldn’t it? (Laughter.)
Q Just a couple clarifications on the military question.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q So you had said -- I think you said something about this is -- you're waiting to see whether it’s a recommendation and you're waiting to see whether it’s actually adopted. It’s true, though, the Army actually implemented the policy yesterday, right? They announced it.
MR. EARNEST: The Army did make an announcement, but the Secretary of Defense is considering a department-wide policy.
Q Department-wide policy, okay.
MR. EARNEST: And so I didn't want to suggest in answering Nedra’s question that I was prejudging the outcome of any sort of decision that the Secretary of Defense should rightly make.
Q Okay, and then just to follow up. I understand how the Army and the broader Defense Department could well have policies that maybe make sense for them that don't make sense to the civilian population. But I think people looking at and hearing you guys talk about how these policies should be driven by the science, right -- and Dr. Fauci spent much of the morning today talking about you associate the risk level with the level of punishment or the level of restriction that you put on somebody based on the scientific risk level. And then you see the Defense Department saying that people who are coming back, soldiers who are coming back who specifically are not medical providers, right, like you guys have said that and you’ve said that from the podium a lot that these people aren't actually dealing directly with patients, so they’re at least one step if not multiple steps removed from the health care workers who are actually suiting up and being with the patients, and that those people then are -- who are hammering the -- building the hospitals are now being told to be isolated by the military. Do you guys view that as being driven by the same science that Dr. Fauci is talking about? Because it doesn’t seem like that's being driven by that science. It may be driven by other elements, but it's not the science that you guys want, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that. And I'm not sure if your question does this, but let me just put this on the table for broader discussion. It would be wrong to suggest that it would make the American people safer to apply this military policy in a civilian context. The science would not back up -- back that up. In fact, implementing this military policy in a civilian context would only have the effect of hindering our Ebola response by dissuading civilian doctors and nurses from traveling to West Africa to stop the outbreak in its tracks. And you’ve also heard me say many times the only way that we can entirely eliminate the Ebola risk to the American people is to stop this outbreak in its tracks in West Africa. So that's the first thing.
The second thing is -- and in some ways, this goes back to the numbers -- what Dr. Frieden discussed yesterday in talking about the kinds of measures that should be in place to monitor the health of health care workers who are returning from West Africa is that they will conduct essentially a personalized assessment of each traveler as they’re returning. That is something that is possible to do because there are only a couple dozen a week who are returning from West Africa to the United States. And that is slimmed down even further that these individuals are spread across five different airports. So it's possible to conduct a personalized assessment, both of the risk that each individual faced when they were in West Africa and how that risk should impact the kind of monitoring that this individual receives.
And that's the way that this policy is implemented in a civilian context, because the science tells us that the only way that you can transmit the Ebola virus is when you're exhibiting symptoms and somebody comes into close contact with the bodily fluids that you excrete while you're exhibiting those symptoms. So that's why we're focused on the health and whether or not somebody is exhibiting symptoms.
It's much more difficult, I think for obvious reasons, to conduct a personalized assessment of risk and tailor a monitoring regime for them when you’re talking about thousands of people who performed a wide variety of functions in a wide variety of locations in this region of the world, and when they’re preparing to travel back to a wide range of localities not just around the United States but around the globe. These are -- the men and women who are being deployed to West Africa are coming from military installations around the world. And so for the sake of efficiency, there’s an obvious benefit to restricting the movements of these individuals so that their health can be monitored, consistent with scientific guidelines.
And so the last thing I'll say about your question, Mike, and I think in some ways this might get to the core of it here, that what we're talking about is the implementation of a policy that is consistent with the science; that we are -- both military leaders and civilian leaders acknowledge that after spending time in West Africa, the health of these individuals should be monitored. And in the military context, the way that this monitoring recommendation is applied is by closely restricting the movements of our military personnel so that that monitoring can be done.
I think we would all acknowledge that that is going to make personal life for some servicemembers a little inconvenient, but what we know about our men and women in uniform is, one, that they’re willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the broader efficiency of the military. We also know that there are other ways in which their basic life will not be as disrupted as a civilian’s would. For example, our military personnel, while their movements are restricted, would continue to receive a paycheck. That's something that when applied in a civilian context may not be possible.
The last thing is -- and this sort of goes to something that somebody raised yesterday -- when we're talking about medical professionals who are going to West Africa, these are individuals who are volunteering to do so. That is why their service and commitment to serving their fellow man is worthy of a lot of praise and respect. When we're talking about military members, these are individuals who signed up for the military and they’re ordered to travel to West Africa. So the notion that we may impose an undue burden, or at least impose some inconvenience on them, doesn’t affect their ability to fulfill the mission. Despite the inconvenience, we know that they’re going to go serve their country because they’re ordered to do so by their Commander-in-Chief.
The calculation for a civilian is different. These are individuals who have responsibilities that we wouldn't want to -- well, let me say it this way: These are individuals who we wouldn't want to unduly burden because we're asking them to volunteer their expertise and knowledge to stop this outbreak at the source.
Q Thank you, Josh. Ambassador Power has been requesting a wider, larger involvement of different countries in the fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa. Secretary Kerry is in Canada. He’s in Canada -- is he going to bring this request to the Canadian government? Is this the kind of the work he’s going to do over there? And also, I'd like to know if the President himself is involved in reaching to other leaders and saying -- and asking for more people on the ground.
MR. EARNEST: Richard, the President has made a number of phone calls over the last couple of weeks to world leaders to urge them to make a greater commitment to the international Ebola response in West Africa. Again, the only way that we can entirely eliminate risk from the Ebola virus to the American people is to stop this outbreak at the source. And it's going to require the international community marshalling sufficient resources and personnel and equipment, focusing in on this region of the world and stopping this outbreak.
And the President committed Department of Defense resources to lend their logistical expertise to make the flow of equipment, supplies and personnel into that region of the world more efficient. And we have seen that that has galvanized the international community to respond more robustly to this urgent need. And the President has had a number of conversations with world leaders to encourage them to ramp up their commitment.
We can get you -- we can follow up with you to get you some more specifics about who the President has called and what sort of commitments have resulted from those conversations that the President has convened.
Q Josh, Chris Christie said this morning about the CDC, “They don't want to admit it that we're right and they were wrong. I'm sorry about that.” There seems to be still quite a disagreement of how things are playing out. I'm just wondering
MR. EARNEST: There certainly wasn’t a disagreement about the need for Nurse Hickox to be released. She was released consistent with the guidance from the CDC and she is making her way -- presumably has arrived in her home in Maine, again, consistent with the guidance that were articulated by the CDC.
Q Has the President gotten around to talking to Governor Christie yet?
MR. EARNEST: Again, we had a number of -- I don't remember if you were here yesterday -- we had a number of --
Q I was here. I thought maybe --
MR. EARNEST: You may remember as vividly as I do that I'm just not going to get into a detailed accounting of the conversations that have taken place between members of the administration and --
Q Because he sure leaves the impression that he hasn’t had the chance to talk to the President. It seems kind of strange that this is the governor of one of the states with one of the five airports that you’ve cited, putting these extra procedures in place. Wouldn’t some coordination be appropriate? It seems like if they had spoken, I imagine he would have told us. How is that he hasn’t gotten around to talking to the governor?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t assume that. There are --
Q Well, in the interest of transparency, you would tell us if they had spoken, I assume.
MR. EARNEST: That's a good one. (Laughter.) What I can tell you is that -- what I can tell you is that there are -- administration officials from a wide variety of agencies have been in very close touch with New Jersey officials for exactly the reasons that you're citing; that New Jersey is one of the locations where travelers from West Africa are arriving in the United States via commercial air travel.
And there is in place in -- at Newark Airport a monitoring regime -- or a screening regime that is supervised by the CDC, that is carried out by CBP officers. And there has been close coordination between those individuals who are conducting that screening and public health officials on New Jersey who have worked to ensure that health care workers have the supplies and training necessary to take in any Ebola patients if they're caught in that screening.
So that is one indication of the level of coordination that's underway. I already cited the other example, which is that Kaci Hickox, the nurse who had recently traveled to West Africa, has been released consistent with the scientific advice that had been offered by the CDC. So I think there are a couple of ways that we can illustrate the kind of coordination that you would expect at the state level between the federal government and New Jersey officials.
I’d also point out, again, states like Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut, the District of Columbia are all places that have also issued guidelines that hew much closer to the scientific guidance from the CDC and is indicative of the kind of coordination that exists between the federal government and all 50 states.
Q Yesterday, you had -- when asked about the defense -- about the Army policy, you said that this was made by one commanding officer in the Department of Defense. Can you tell us who that commanding officer was?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at the conclusion of our -- at the conclusion of the briefing yesterday, or I guess maybe it was even in the early evening, General Odierno made this announcement about Army policy.
That is the policy that is currently --
Q But that's not just one commanding officer. That's the Chief of Staff of the United States Army.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q And the Army --
MR. EARNEST: And that was -- again, that was an announcement that was made after the briefing that we had yesterday.
Q But wasn’t he the one commanding officer you were referring to?
MR. EARNEST: No, I was not -- because that announcement had not been made in the context of yesterday’s briefing.
Q And the Army represents the overwhelming majority of those that are serving right now in West Africa?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not clear to me exactly what the breakdown is, but there are --
Q The Department of Defense tells me of the 4,000 that will eventually be in place, 3,200 at least will be Army. So this is effectively -- you say there’s no Department of Defense policy yet, but the Army represents the bulk of those here, and the bulk of those who will be subject to this policy that General Odierno has announced.
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident that even General Odierno would defer to the rightful role of the Secretary of Defense in setting department-wide policy when it comes to measures like this.
Q Do you think the Secretary of Defense will reverse the Army on this? Do you think that's a possibility?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of a decision that's made by the Secretary of Defense.
Q Okay, and there’s one other question. As I’m sure you saw the ABC News/Washington Post poll --
MR. EARNEST: I don't think I had a chance to catch it this morning, Jon. Maybe you can fill me in, though. (Laughter.)
Q I will. In our poll, and this is something we’ve seen in several other polls over the last several months, 60 percent said they have little or no trust in the federal government to do what’s right, and 63 percent believe that the government’s ability to deal with problems has actually gotten worse over the last few years. What do you make of this?
Obviously, President Obama is somebody who came into office intent on restoring the public’s faith in the ability of government to make their lives better; to see this where you have such a high percentage of the American public saying they have little or no faith in the federal government.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't account for the answers that presumably were given by several hundred Americans. What I can say is that this administration has placed a priority on ensuring that the United States, as it has long been, continues to be a force for good in the world.
And whether that is responding to a situation like an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that nobody else wants to have to deal with, that the United States of America is the one nation that's willing to stand up and make a significant commitment in a way that actually galvanizes a response from countries and organizations around the world; that it’s the United States the world turns to when the President says we need to build an international coalition to take the fight to a terrible extremist organization like ISIL that threatens to destabilize an entire region of the world. And so it’s the United States -- and under this President’s leadership -- that a coalition of more than 60 nations has been built to take this fight to ISIL.
Here at home, you have seen a pretty aggressive response from this President in the early days of his administration when we were on the precipice of a second Great Depression that because of the policies that this administration put in place supporting our men -- our workers, our innovators, and our entrepreneurs who eventually led us back from the depths of that economic downturn in a way that has surprised a lot of observers, even some of our observers in-house that the resilience of the American economy continues to grow at a rate that has surprised many experts. And you’ve heard the President himself say that the United States of America had created more jobs since that economic downturn than Europe, Japan, and other large economies combined.
So this, I think, is indicative of the important role that the United States has to play both in terms of confronting problems on a global scale, but also making sure that the needs of middle-class families here at home are met as well. And I recognize that there is plenty of skepticism about that, and I think that is indicative of your poll. But I also think that a close examination of this President’s record indicates that people can feel very good about the United States government, particularly under leadership of this President, being a force for good in the world.
Q Why do you think there’s such skepticism on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. The pollsters that you pay good money to conduct that poll probably would have better insight than I would on that.
Q Getting back to Ron Klain, you said earlier that he’s performed very well in his task so far. What has he done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- I guess there are a couple of ways to answer that question. The first is, Ron is somebody who since Wednesday -- so I guess we’re talking about his seventh day on the job; he certainly didn’t get the chance to take the weekend off, I’ll tell you that -- that’s somebody that since Wednesday has been very hard at work in coordinating the whole-of-government approach that the President had mandated for responding to the Ebola situation. And that means that Ron has arrived here at the White House early in the morning. He stayed until late at night. He’s convened a variety of meetings with senior officials here at the White House. He’s regularly briefed the President.
I know that last week he had the opportunity to travel to the Department of Health and Human Services to meet with officials there who have been working so hard on this response. You all know that later this week Ron will be traveling to Atlanta where he’ll be meeting with officials at the CDC.
Q What day will that be?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an actual date on that. I know that it’s later this week. We’ll see if we can get you some more details on that.
But I can tell you that this is the result of a lot of work here. And we continue to be pleased that we’re putting in place the policies that are driven by science, that are motivated to protect the American public, and are geared towards stopping this outbreak at the source. Ultimately, that’s the only way that we can entirely eliminate the risk from this disease.
Q Do you think his lack of visibility could be a problem? The New York Daily News has on its front page, where in the hell are you czar” -- czar you -- or something like that. There’s a play on words with “czar” and so forth.
MR. EARNEST: Real clever. (Laughter.)
Q Yeah. (Laughter.) Maybe, maybe not. But I suppose there could be a public perception out there that he’s kind of invisible. And if he’s doing so much, why not let everybody see it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I’d say a couple things about that. The first is I recognize that all of you have not had a chance to see him and talk to him every day, but the President certainly has. And the President is appreciative of his commitment to this very difficult task. And I think the American people are in a position where they can be confident that somebody that has extensive management credentials, both inside and outside of government, somebody that has excellent organizational skills and somebody that has a reputation for getting results is somebody that is on the task and is responsible for coordinating this very challenging problem.
Q And getting -- there’s a Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, has sent a letter to Secretary Johnson and Secretary Kerry asking whether or not there are plans to admit Ebola-infected non-citizens in the U.S. for treatment. Is there any kind of response to that? Is that happening?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the letter. We’ll have to take the question.
Q And do you know whether or not that’s happening or not? Would non-citizens be coming into the U.S. for Ebola treatment?
MR. EARNEST: That certainly hasn’t happened so far. I don’t know of any plans to do that but, again, we’ll take a look at the letter. It sounds like he sent the letter to DHS and the State Department so you might see if they have a response to his letter.
Q And on the midterms, are you guys disappointed in any way that this Ebola scare has occurred right before the midterms? That it has just sort of come at an inopportune time? It has thrown this White House off message somewhat -- you haven’t been able to talk about the things you wanted to talk about -- is that a problem, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would first posit I don’t think there’s ever a good time for an Ebola outbreak. (Laughter.)
Q True, true.
MR. EARNEST: So that said, I think that this is the kind of challenge that the American people anticipate that their government should take on. And I didn’t get a chance to review the ABC/Washington Post poll today, unfortunately, but I did have the benefit of checking out the CNN poll. It sounds like Jon did, too. According to the CNN poll -- maybe this is your next question -- (laughter) -- a substantial majority of Americans do have confidence in the federal government’s response to the Ebola situation.
Q Fifty-four percent, I believe. That’s a substantial majority?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I think there is -- well, what I was trying to say is that there is an even larger percentage -- I think it’s like 74 percent -- do not believe that there will be a widespread outbreak in the United States.
Q That’s right. What does that say to you?
MR. EARNEST: What does what say to me?
Q The fact that there are so many Americans -- a large majority of Americans -- who don’t think that there will be a widespread Ebola outbreak.
MR. EARNEST: It’s an indication to me that at least a large percentage of Americans are focused on listening to the science and do understand what our scientific experts tell us, which is that the risk -- the likelihood of a widespread outbreak of Ebola inside the United States is exceedingly low and that’s attributable to a wide variety of things. Largely, that’s attributable to the way that this disease is transmitted. Some of that is attributable to the modern medical infrastructure that’s in place in this country to treat Ebola patients in a way that doesn’t pose a significant risk to the broader community.
It’s also attributable to the whole-of-government approach that the President has employed in responding to this particular situation and making sure that there are guidelines in place for monitoring the health of individuals who have recently traveled in West Africa that have returned to the United States, making sure that there are guidelines in place so that health care workers can treat Ebola patients in a way that doesn’t expose themselves or the broader community to greater risk. It also benefits from the substantial commitment of federal resources to try to stop this outbreak at the source. Again, that’s the only way that we entirely eliminate the risk from Ebola to the American people.
So I think there are a large number of reasons that people can feel confident that that’s the case and I was pleased to see in your poll that about three out of four Americans do.
Q We asked, we reported, we put it out there.
MR. EARNEST: There you go. All right, thank you, Jim.
Bob, what you got?
Q Let me try to ask the question of the last two days in a broader sense.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. That usually works. (Laughter.)
Q The Ebola --
MR. EARNEST: Should we note the sarcasm in the briefing in case it was lost on anybody? (Laughter.) Future individuals may not benefit from the look on my face when they are -- I’m sorry, Bob. Go.
Q Did New Jersey officials from Governor Christie on down relent over the nurse who wouldn’t quarantine quietly, so to speak, because of discussions with the administration officials from the President on down? Do you think that’s why they ended up sending her -- letting her go? Or was it the threat of a federal lawsuit? Were those discussions of that nature?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I think you should ask Governor Christie why he made the decision to allow her to leave. That decision that he made is certainly consistent with the -- it’s consistent
MR. EARNEST: It’s consistent with -- well --
Q I tried.
MR. EARNEST: The decision that he made -- I didn't mean to suggest that you weren’t doing your job. I just -- I’m just suggesting --
Q Oh, no -- he isn’t here.
MR. EARNEST: -- that he’s in a better place to answer it. Yes.
I think I would just observe that the decision that he made is entirely consistent with the advice that he had received from the CDC. And I do think that is indicative -- to his credit -- that is indicative of the strong coordination and communication that exists between his office and the Centers for Disease Control. And he made that decision consistent with the scientific advice and the scientific expertise that's been amassed in the four decades since we’ve been dealing with Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. And we want our public officials to be in a position where their policy decisions are being driven by the science, and so he deserves credit for that.
Q Josh, has this administration been working with some of the other countries who are invested in Africa? And what are the conversations -- if you’ve had them -- about giving and supporting and trying to contain and prevent this Ebola outbreak?
And I’m talking about countries specifically like China -- is very much invested in Africa, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and they have been working on building infrastructure. What is the conversation with this administration and the Chinese government in reference to trying to help fight and combat the Ebola outbreak?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific conversations to read out to you. I’ll check with my colleagues at the NSC and see if they can provide you some additional detail about those conversations. I think the one thing I’ll say is that, as indicated by the significant commitment that this administration has made to responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, no one is more invested in Africa’s success than the United States of America.
And I’m sure there’s a colorful, colloquial expression about when times get tough that you know who your friends are, and I think it’s apparent that the people in -- at least in these three West Africa countries are facing a really tough time now. And I think they can take a lot of solace in knowing that the most powerful country in the world is their friend and is ready to back it up with the kind of concrete action that will be necessary to stop this outbreak in its tracks.
Q Okay, a follow on that, but right now China is considered by the IMF the greatest economy in the world. So with that --
MR. EARNEST: I don't think that's true. The greatest economy in the world? I quibble with that notion.
Q Read it, read it -- well, they're not the greatest economy. They're the biggest economy -- the best -- the biggest economy in the world right now. The IMF, go read the paper. It was a couple weeks ago.
So anyway --
MR. EARNEST: We don't have to argue about this. Go ahead with your question.
Q I’m not -- I don't like being discredited. But moving on --
MR. EARNEST: Well --
Q Go ahead.
MR. EARNEST: That's all right. Let’s move on. I’ll take your advice.
Q So anyway, with them having this economy, this great world economy now being considered number one, don't they have -- isn’t there --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to concede that point, so can you ask the question in a way that doesn't say something that I’m not willing to accede to?
Q All right, well, let’s -- okay, let’s say this then, by China being the economy that they are around the world, and how they invest in Africa, do they have a responsibility?
MR. EARNEST: I see what the question is. I think the simple answer to your question is yes. I think every major economy and country in the world, regardless of the size of their economy, has a responsibility to join the international effort to stop this outbreak at the source.
The President has identified this Ebola outbreak as a national security priority. That means it’s also a national security priority for other countries around the globe. And we certainly would welcome the commitment of resources from countries around the world, including China, to this broader effort.
I know that there has been a commitment of resources from China. I don't know -- I don't have it in front of me so I can't detail it for you, but we can look up some additional information for you if you’d like, although we certainly would welcome a greater commitment from nations like China. And the President has had a number of conversations with world leaders in the last couple of weeks about those countries making a more substantial commitment to this broader effort.
But as it relates specifically to China, I just don't know exactly what kinds of conversations have been held and what sort of commitments that they have made. But I think, as a general principle, I can say that nations like China should commit additional resources to this international effort.
Q And the last question. Have you heard of any -- have you heard any word from the economic persons who are dealing with the economies in those West African countries to talk about the economic impact on their countries since August, since the Ebola outbreak really started?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is one of the reasons that the President is concerned -- this is one of the things that led the President to say that this Ebola outbreak is a national security priority because it’s having a very destabilizing impact on the region as it spreads that impact could become more significant.
It also clearly has a significant economic impact; that there are -- so that is something that the President is concerned about, is concerned about the impact that could have on the local population and on the population of neighboring countries.
So in terms of the details of the financial toll, I’d refer you to the State Department that is likely to have conducted an analysis like that. But I think as a general matter I can tell you that the administration is concerned about the negative economic impact of this Ebola outbreak in those three countries.
Q Josh, listening to your answers to Mike, it seems to be worth surmising that the reason the Army Chief of Staff issued the order he did is not for public health reasons or scientific reasons, but for reasons of order and efficiency. Is that a fair interpretation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess you should ask them exactly why they put in place that policy.
Q You gave a lengthy answer explaining the differentiation between civilian interactions and military protocols, and the fact that they get paid, the fact that they take orders, the fact that there is a efficiency component that you believe would be complicated by them returning to base wherever it is.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. So I stated all those things as a factual matter, that these are sort of clear, factual differences in terms of the consequences of implementing this policy in a military context and implementing this policy in a civilian context. But in terms of what actually motivated him to make this decision --
Q No, no, you said there was not a scientific reason to do it, and that it would actually -- if implemented in the civilian world would be harmful, so I’m just saying --
MR. EARNEST: That's true. And so that's an explanation about why we implemented --
Q So the science doesn't back it up and the public health doesn't back it up -- other reasons back it up as a policy?
MR. EARNEST: No -- again, what I’m trying to say is to suggest that applying the military policy in a civilian context would make the American people safer is just wrong. The science doesn't back that up.
So we should acknowledge the different circumstances that exist in a military population and a civilian population. In this military population there are -- first of all, this military population that spent time in West Africa is much larger in scope and in scale than the civilian --
Q Right. But you would acknowledge that it could create confusion in the public mind to hear that members of the military who are not directly providing medical care, but are building structures and providing the airlift and all the other capabilities, are going to have isolated treatment for 21 days -- or be in isolation for 21 days, whereas a health care worker, who, as she said in her own blog, held a dying child who died from Ebola in her arms is not subject to the same level of direct, active, isolated monitoring, they would wonder, well, wait a minute, these seem to be in different risk categories. And yet, the military is taking this much broader, extensive precaution and isolation approach, while as in the civilian world, we aren’t.
MR. EARNEST: Right.
Q You can understand how people might be confused about that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can understand why people might suggest that there is a benefit to applying a military -- military policy that works in a military context and suggesting that it might work in a civilian context. And I’m just saying that's wrong. The science doesn't back that up.
General Odierno and eventually Secretary Hagel will have to discuss why they made the decision to implement this policy in the military context. I think as a factual matter, we can observe that this military population is substantially larger when compared to the population of health care workers that are returning to this country from West Africa.
Because the population that's returning from West Africa is -- the population of health care workers that's returning from West Africa to this country is smaller, it’s more feasible to actually conduct a personalized risk assessment and tailor the kind of monitoring regime that should be in place to ensure that they and the people they come into contact with are safe. And that's exactly what is happening.
And that is why the risk that is facing the average American -- even if they were to come into contact with somebody like Nurse Hickox -- is low. And that is why our monitoring regime is tailored the way that it is. So that the only way that that risk starts to rise if she starts to exhibit symptoms of Ebola. And again, that goes to the way in which the Ebola virus is transmitted.
So again, we have -- that's why we have protocols in place to monitor the health of health care workers when they return to the United States to do so closely, and to quickly isolate and treat them if there is a concern that they might be exhibiting symptoms of Ebola.
Those kinds of risk assessments for a population that large is simply not feasible. And that is -- that's just a fact based on the size of the military population that we're talking about. And so there is obviously an efficiency gain that's associated with restricting the movements of those individuals and carefully and directly monitoring their health.
Q Can I just --
Q The day that --
Q Can I just follow up real quick on this?
Q Of course.
Q So you’ve said now a couple of times it’s impossible or it would be very difficult for the military to follow up and do the personalized assessment on these people that you can do -- because of the numbers, the vast numbers. But isn’t it also true that the military has far more knowledge about these people, about the people in the military than you do some random doctor appearing at an airport? You have complete medical history on file for these people. You know who they are, where they are, how to get in touch with them.
Q They go back to base.
Q They go back to --
Q -- their military facilities.
Q And you said there’s all these bases, right, so even if there’s 4,000 people -- if you take the maximum that are there -- they're going to back to dozens of bases, you divide 4,000 divided by a dozen, you might only a few dozen at each base, why is it so difficult to imagine that you could apply the same CDC-based, medical-based standards that you're doing in civilian at the military level? I don't understand.
MR. EARNEST: I think -- again, I think it’s the Department of Defense.
Q Right --
MR. EARNEST: It’s essentially the Department of Defense that will render a verdict on this, right? But I think what is beyond question is that it can be more efficiently done if the movements of these individuals are restricted, and they're limited to one area.
Q So efficiency -- as I originally posed the question to you -- is the overriding to do this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is obvious that it is more efficient to do it this way. What is motivating this decision is something that will have to be explained to you by the people who are making this decision.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to -- this is a decision that the Secretary of Defense is still considering, and when he makes an announcement, he’ll have a rationale for why he believes this policy makes sense in a military context.
The officials at CDC and HHS and governors in states across the country are responsible for figuring out what policy should be applied in a civilian context. And for that, I can answer the motivation about these policies. And in this case, it is wrong to suggest that applying the military policy would, in any way, make our civilian population more safe if it were implemented in the civilian context.
Q The day that Ron Klain was named I asked you a hypothetical question, and you took it and gave it an alternative answer. I said, would Ron Klain be someone who if a school district shuttered its doors in an abundance of caution and the White House thought that was a bad idea, would he call? You said, no, he would probably would get in touch with the relevant Cabinet agency and they would call. Since you opened the door to that hypothetical and now we have a real situation, can you, in the name of transparency, explain to the country how Ron Klain’s impact is being felt across the government? Tell us that when New York and New Jersey adopted this policy that clearly the CDC thought was either questionable or perhaps rash, that Klain told Secretary Burwell, get in touch with the New Jersey health authorities and resolve this situation in a way that is closer to the CDC guidelines that are about to be released. That seems like a completely logical implementation felt across the government process. Can you tell us that's what happened?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that officials at CDC and HHS and even here at the White House have been in regular touch with officials in New York and New Jersey. And that was true before Ron Klain got here --
Q Well, if Ron can’t cut this Gordian Knot, what is he doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I tried to describe that earlier to Jim. So, again –-
Q But blandly and generically.
MR. EARNEST: What I'm not going to be in a position to do is detail all of the conversations that have taken place between New York and New Jersey officials and officials in the administration other than to say there have been a lot of them and they continue.
Q When you were describing Mr. Klain’s activities, did you mean to suggest he’s briefing the President daily?
MR. EARNEST: I meant to suggest that he’s briefing him regularly. He did participate in the meeting that the President convened on Saturday -- I'm sorry, on Sunday. I don't know whether or not Ron had the opportunity to visit with the President on Saturday. So I guess he’s been here for seven days and he’s seen the President for six of them, I guess is the way I would describe it – that I know of. Maybe he saw him on Saturday, too.
Q Is he contributing to the PDB?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know how often this issue comes up in the PDB. But if I did know I probably wouldn't talk about the details of the PDB in here anyway.
Q And if I could pick at the thread that you declined to talk about much last week -- the union that represents citizenship and immigration service adjudicators has also questioned this purchase of green cards stock. Could that have been done without White House direction?
MR. EARNEST: Could that have been -- look, you should check with DHS. I assume so. I don't understand why the White House would have to weigh in on the purchase of paper. But --
Q That's an expenditure and a fairly substantial one, apparently. It's in the millions of dollars.
MR. EARNEST: But again, I would be surprised, but I've been surprised before, if the White House were involved in the purchasing of office supplies at the agency level.
Q There’s been some suggestion that this was purchased by virtue of the fact that the Senate has passed an immigration reform bill, the House could follow suit. Is that feasible?
MR. EARNEST: You should check with DHS for any questions you have about their purchase of office supplies and why and when they decided to make them.
Q But the White House did not direct it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Wendell, I would be surprised, as I mentioned earlier. I can take the question if you’d like, but I'd be surprised if the White House were in a position where we were having intimate discussions with agency officials about the office supplies that they’re purchasing. It just seems unlikely.
Q That's a no, the White House did not direct this purchase?
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q The Congressional Hispanic Caucus today endorsed Tom Perez for Attorney General. I'm wondering both your reaction to that -- I’m not entirely optimistic -- (laughter) -- but also I was wondering if the President has had any conversation with lawmakers as he’s working through this decision.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that the President has consulted any members of Congress about the decision that lies ahead. There’s no doubt that Secretary Perez has distinguished himself as a particularly effective member of the President’s Cabinet. He did a tour at the Department of Justice prior to serving as Secretary of Labor. He continues to do very good work there. But as it relates to any sort of personnel announcements in the Department of Justice, I don't have anything for you at this point.
Q Last week, White House officials confirmed that the President had spoken to Kathy Ruemmler about the position. Since that's a precedent that's been set, can you say if he’s spoken to Tom Perez about this?
MR. EARNEST: To be honest with you, I don't know if he’s talked to him about it or not.
Q And then on the Ruemmler decision to withdraw her name, do you know if part of the reason that she decided to do so was the controversy that was raised over The Washington Post report about her handling of the investigation into whether a member of the White House advance team -- or volunteer on the White House advance team was involved in some way with a prostitute during the trip to Colombia?
MR. EARNEST: Right, and the question is?
Q Whether that was an aspect of her decision or something that she or the President raised when they were discussing the job.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I haven't talked to her about the decision that she made in terms of her announcement, but I'd be surprised if that contributed to it in any way.
Q I wanted to follow up if I could on my friend Bob’s valiant attempt on these conversations that are going on, on the CDC guidelines. And I know that you said that they’re following the science and that's what’s leading these policies. Is there also guidance coming from the Justice Department about what steps are allowed to be taken when you try to quarantine somebody who’s coming back? In other words, could the CDC try to make a recommendation and the Justice Department raise concerns that perhaps that’s unconstitutional?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that that instance has occurred. You could check with the Department of Defense about it. But most of these governors are making decisions -- and I know that Governor Christie is in this category -- the decisions that he’s making related to his state’s quarantine laws are quarantine policies related to state law, not federal law.
Q I was talking about the -- I know you don't want to talk about the situation in New Jersey. I get that. I'm only saying, more broadly. Like yesterday we got additional guidance from the CDC, right, so they updated based on the best available science, on conditions on the ground. Are there conversations happening with the Justice Department as these new guidelines are being discussed and implemented?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I know of, but you should check with the CDC on that.
Q And one other question I had. Why are these governors’ races so important to the President?
MR. EARNEST: That is a good question. In many of these cases, we are finding that governors are playing a very important role in implementing federal law, and so whether it's raising the minimum wage, or expanding Medicaid, that there is an important role that governors are playing in furthering the kinds of policies that the President advocates.
This also applies to voting rights, as well, that many governors do have an important role to play in states to protect the right of eligible citizens to participate in elections. So the stakes are high in these governors’ races, too. And I recognize that this is a subset of the Washington press corps and so we're focused on the federal races, but the outcomes of these statewide campaigns are significant as well and are worthy of the President’s attention, and in some cases they do have significant consequences for the successful implementation of policies that the President has worked very hard to pass.
Q More so than the outcome of the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's different. Obviously the role of governors is quite different than the role of individual senators. I think it's hard to assess sort of whether or not one is more important than the other. I think that they are significantly different.
In the back, I'll give you the last one.
Q A question on Mexico. Is the President aware of the latest crisis in human rights that is taking place in Mexico in the last few weeks, the disappearance of 43 students from the Guerrero? What does he think about it? Does he share the idea that this situation is going out of the hands of the President of Mexico?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have not talked to the President about this. I'm not in a position to share any personal feelings that he may have on this matter. But obviously, the reports of the situation are concerning. But in terms of the role for the United States government in the situation, I don't know of any. But I'd encourage you to check with the State Department who may be able to provide additional insight about any communications that may have occurred between the United States and the Peňa Nieto administration on this matter.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:00 P.M. EDT