Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/4/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
See below for a follow up to a question (marked with an asterisk) posed in the briefing.
*The President has viewed the video of the interaction between police officers and Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York.
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST:Good afternoon, everybody.Good to see you all here.Before I get to your questions, I actually have several announcements to do here at the top.A couple of them relate to the President’s schedule.
The first is, tomorrow morning, here at the White House, the President will host an event to announce his nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense.We’ll have a little bit of information about the exact timing and logistics, but that will be here at the White House tomorrow morning.
The second thing is, next week, on Tuesday, the President will travel to Nashville, Tennessee, which is home to one of the fastest-growing immigration populations in the United States.With the number of foreign-born residents more than doubling over the past decade, Nashville has actively worked to welcome new Americans.Through community-based programs and government initiatives, the city is empowering and engaging new American community leaders, and the city’s actions are paying off.In fact, Nashville has been a leader in job growth among cities throughout the South and across the country.
In Nashville, the President will deliver remarks on his recent executive actions to fix as much as possible -- to fix as much of our broken immigration system as possible while urging Congress to pass a comprehensive bill to get the job done.
The President will speak at a community center called Casa Azafran.It’s home to a number of immigrant-related non-profits that’s located in Nashville’s most international and socially diverse district.That should be pretty interesting.
As you heard the President mention at the college opportunity event earlier today, he spoke with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to receive an update on the city’s efforts around the grand jury decision yesterday, as well as discuss how he and the mayor -- or how he and the administration can be helpful to the mayor moving forward.
The two leaders also discussed how this is not just a problem in New York City or Ferguson, Missouri, but a problem that extends to far too communities across the country.As the President of the United States and as the mayor of its largest city, the two pledged to work together to help strengthen the trust and bond between law enforcement and the local communities that they serve, as well as continue to raise awareness of injustice that is seen in far too many cities.
And finally, in the -- what can only be described I think best as the “news you can use” department, the Department of Health and Human Services put out a report today about the cost structure of the health plans that are available in the marketplace.As you all know, we are in the early stages of the open enrollment period for 2015, and there’s some interesting data that was yielded today about what returning customers will find if they go back to the websites to shop.So these are individuals who signed up for health care through the marketplace in 2014.They have an opportunity in this open enrollment period to go back to the marketplace for 2015.
What those returning customers will find, if they return to the website, is that they will find that they can purchase a premium at the same level essentially with the same amount of benefits for lower costs.Seven out of 10 returning shoppers will find that they can actually purchase a plan with comparable benefits at lower cost if they return to shop at the marketplace.
In total, after accounting for the applicable tax credits, nearly eight in 10 of those who return to the marketplace will find that they will be able to get coverage for $100 or less per month.So one of the things that we are encouraging people to do is to be aware of this open enrollment period; that certainly is relevant information for people who do not currently have health insurance.But it’s also important for people who signed up for health insurance through the marketplace last year to understand that they can go back to healthcare.gov, and for the vast majority of people who do that they’ll find that an even better deal awaits them.
So one of the goals of the Affordable Care Act was to lower costs for families and small businesses.We’ve talked quite a bit about how we have made a lot of progress in limiting the growth in health care costs -- that’s still true, but for even a large number of people and a large percentage of people who return to the website after signing up for last year will actually find that their costs are going down.That’s good news and so I want to commend that full report to your attention when you get an opportunity.
So with that, Julie, do you want to take it away?
Q Well, yes, and I want to follow up.It seems like you’re glossing over another piece of that report, which also said that premiums for the most popular types of plans will go up an average of 5 percent.So people who are on those plans will then have to go and shop around, pick a new plan, go through another process.So are you just trying to put a positive spin on what actually looks like it’s a cost increase on plans?
MR. EARNEST:I welcome your attention to the report because this is actually a second piece of good news that I’m happy to talk about some more, too.Prior to the Affordable Care Act taking place, we saw double-digit increases in health care costs in this country.Those were routine.And the fact that we are now seeing that many people who go back to the website will now find that their costs are limited to only 5 percent on average --
Q But still a cost increase.
MR. EARNEST:Yes, but a much lower cost increase than was in place before the Affordable Care Act.And, again, for the vast majority of people who do go back, there is a comparable plan for the same level of benefits that will cost them less.That is good news, unvarnished good news, and it’s an indication that the Affordable Care Act continues to deliver benefits to millions of people across the country.
Q I just wanted to follow up on the first scheduling announcement you had.Can you confirm that the nominee that the President will announce tomorrow is Ash Carter?
MR. EARNEST:The President will announce for himself who his nominee is.
Q This has been widely reported.Administration officials have commented on it.
MR. EARNEST:I’ve read about it.
Q I don’t see why, at this point, if this is going to be your nominee, why you would have to hold off another 24 hours on officially confirming that.
MR. EARNEST:It’s a good question, Julie.It’s actually the President’s nominee and he will announce it when he does an event tomorrow.
Q All right.On the situation in New York.When the President spoke yesterday, he clearly was trying to avoid weighing in on the legal aspects of this, but what’s gotten so much attention is the fact that we have this video, and it’s resulted in a lot of visceral reaction from people.Has the President seen the video?Has he commented at all on what’s on that tape?
MR. EARNEST:I don’t know if he has seen the video.I assume that he has.This is obviously a video that has gotten a lot of attention, and I think for good reason.I don’t know, however -- I can’t confirm necessarily that the President has seen it because I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has.And I think it certainly is what contributed to what I think were some pretty heartfelt remarks from the President both last night and today in discussing this issue.*
Q Can you check if he’s seen it and get back to us on that?
MR. EARNEST:I will.I will check on it.
Q He said that -- when he talked to de Blasio, they pledged to find ways to work together over the coming weeks.There was some response after the President’s meetings here on Monday that things like task forces and commissions -- as the President even alluded to -- these happen all the time, they don’t really result in anything.Is he thinking about anything beyond what he talked about Monday in terms of a broader national effort to address some of these issues that we’ve seen?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Julie, I think the President was, as you point out, was pretty insistent that what he was announcing on Monday was not just another set of task force recommendations --
Q Well, we hear that -- any time someone announces a task force, they never say, oh, this is just going to be a run-of-the-mill task force.Everyone thinks their task force is going to be the one that actually gets something done.
MR. EARNEST:Right.So considering that the task force was announced four days ago, I do think that it is worth -- I think the President certainly deserves at least a little benefit of the doubt here in terms of insisting that the task force that he set up is actually going -- is going to be one that’s going to produce results that can then actually be implemented in a tangible way and have an impact on communities all across the country.
So I think the skepticism that you’re articulating here is skepticism that the President acknowledged three days ago when he announced this task force in the first place.But I would ask you to reserve judgment and evaluate the effectiveness of the task force after they’ve actually had the opportunity to do their work.
Q And does he feel the need to go to any of these communities that have been involved in some of these recent incidents?Ferguson, Cleveland, New York?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I certainly wouldn’t rule out future presidential visits to any of these communities.I know that the Attorney General is in Cleveland today and intends to continue to visit other communities that have exhibited evidence of some mistrust between local law enforcement agencies and some of the communities -- predominantly minority communities that they serve.But I don’t have any specific presidential trips to report out at this point.
Again, the President believes that what’s required here is a sustained commitment from people at all levels, including at the federal government, to trying to get at some of these issues and helping people to succeed in building trust between law enforcement and the communities that they serve.
That’s important for a variety of reasons.One is, as long as there is a perception of injustice in this country, as the President alluded to earlier today, we all have a responsibility to try to address that injustice, and the President feels strongly about that.And that is the kind of value that’s unique to America, and it certainly is a value that has -- that the President has found to be a pretty significant motivator of his career in public service.
I think the second thing is that what we have found -- and I think this is a pretty intuitive thing to conclude -- which is that law enforcement agencies are going to be more effective if they are operating with the trust and confidence of the people that they’re trying to protect.So it is in the interest of both the residents of these communities and the local law enforcement agencies who -- local law enforcement officers who work there to try to make progress in building this trust.
Finally, men and women in this country who put on a law enforcement uniform and walk out of their house every day to go serve and protect the community in which they’re working is taking a significant risk.They have taken an oath, and they have assumed the responsibility for putting their lives on the line, or at least putting themselves in very dangerous situations, to try to protect the public.
That is a noble profession, one that is worthy of our respect.And certainly the people who undertake that profession are people who are worthy of our respect.And the fact is, the vast majority of people in this country who take on that job serve honorably, and they do so with the gratitude of the people in their community and the gratitude of the President of the United States.And that only serves to underscore how important it is for us to have the federal government play a role where they can help build bridges between local law enforcement agencies and the communities that they serve so that there can be greater trust and understanding and transparency as those local law enforcement officials do their very important work.Okay?
Q Josh, we’re seeing this statement about the rescue operation in Yemen.Are there links between this group in Yemen and the Islamic State group?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I do have a statement on this, so let me do this first and then I’ll try to answer your question.
Steve, we are aware of a video showing Luke Somers, a U.S. citizen, held hostage by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.Last month, the President authorized an operation to rescue Luke, who has been held hostage by AQAP in Yemen since September of 2013, and a number of other hostages.As soon as the U.S. government had reliable intelligence and an operational plan, the President authorized the Department of Defense to conduct an operation to rescue Mr. Somers.Regrettably, when the operation was executed, Luke was not present, though hostages of other nationalities were present and they were rescued.
The mission was coordinated with the Yemeni government.It was undertaken by U.S. and Yemeni forces.We have a strong, collaborative relationship with the Yemeni government, and we’ll continue to work together to counter the shared threat that we face from AQAP.The details of the operation remain classified, so there’s a limit to what I can discuss here.The overriding concern for Mr. Somers’s safety and the safety of U.S. forces who undertake these missions made it imperative that we not disclose information related to Mr. Somers’s captivity and the attempted rescue.
The Department of Defense has acknowledged the fact of the operation now, in order to provide accurate information that is being given -- in order to provide accurate information given that this is being widely reported in the public domain.
The President could not be prouder of the U.S. forces who carried out this mission, and the dedicated intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic professionals who supported their efforts.Their effort should serve as another signal, a clear signal to those who would do us harm, that the United States will spare no effort to secure the safe return of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.
At this difficult time, our thoughts remain with the Somers family and with the families and loved ones of every other U.S. citizen being held hostage overseas.
As a general matter, Steve, we have talked quite a bit about how ISIL does have a number of legacy connections to al Qaeda core and to other al Qaeda affiliates.I don’t have any intelligence information to share at this point about direct links between ISIL and AQAP, but there is ample evidence to indicate that ISIL has a legacy connection to al Qaeda and has articulated goals that are consistent with, if not the same as, those goals that have been articulated by al Qaeda and affiliates of al Qaeda, like AQAP.
Q When exactly was this operation?And how many hostages were rescued?
MR. EARNEST:Steve, I’m not able to get into the details of the operation.It is a classified mission.And so at this point I can’t go beyond what I’ve read so far as it relates to the specific mission.
The Department of Defense is the agency that carried out this mission, and if they determine that it is appropriate to discuss that information, they’ll do so.So you can ask them.
Q And lastly, Senator McCain just put a hold on Tony Blinken’s nomination.What are you doing to get him freed?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I think principally we’re relying on the facts.And the fact of the matter is that Mr. Blinken is somebody who has a distinguished record of service and decades of foreign policy experience both inside the U.S. government and in the private sector.From Europe to the Middle East and beyond, Tony has a wealth of knowledge and practical experience on all of the major diplomatic challenges and opportunities that the United States faces today.
Tony has served at the highest levels of government, including his start at the State Department in the Bureau of European Affairs.He served seven years in senior positions on President Clinton’s national security staff.He spent six years as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and six years in the Obama White House -- first, as the National Security Advisor to the Vice President, and now as Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama.
So this is somebody who has -- who knows the world, who’s got ample experience representing the United States of America, and has done so with distinction.
Q On the rescue mission, you said the President authorized the operation as soon as there was enough reliable intelligence and an operational plan.But just to be clear, was there any delay in the rescue mission that might have given AQAP time to move Somers?
MR. EARNEST:Well, it’s difficult for me to get into the details because the details of this mission are classified.But I can tell you that once there was concrete information and a plan in place, the President promptly authorized this mission both to -- because of his concern for the safety of our U.S. men and women in uniform, but also for the safety of Mr. Somers.
Q And just on another topic, The Washington Post has a report out today on the White House’s renewed efforts to court favor with Democrats, including handing out invitations to the White House, rides on Air Force One and the like.
MR. EARNEST:It’s interesting that they published that story on the same day that the President met with the Senate Republican leader.
Q Has the relationship --
MR. EARNEST:It’s not lost on me.I don't know if it was lost on the readers.It wasn’t lost on me.
Q Has the relationship with Democrats been neglected in recent years?What do you hope to achieve by reviving some of these perks?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that.I’m sure that there are -- I’m sure any of you could find Senate Democrats or House Democrats who would tell you that there is more attention that they would like to receive from the President and from the White House.
But I can tell you that the President and his team have made a concerted effort to work closely with our friends on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, who share the President’s priorities when it comes to keeping the country safe and expanding opportunity for the middle class.
And I think the fact that, even just if you looked over the last couple of weeks, the President convened a bipartisan meeting of the House and Senate leadership where they discussed -- just two days after the election -- the agenda for the lame duck period and for the legislative session that will commence at the beginning of next year.That's an indication that the President is willing to work with anybody on either side of the aisle who is interested in making progress on the priorities that the President has laid out.
The President has been just as clear that there are going to be some areas where we disagree.The American people voted for a divided government, and there are going to be some Republican priorities that the President does not share.Republicans, for instance, are very interested in trying to cut taxes for the wealthy and the well connected.The President doesn't think that's a good use of time and energy.The President believes that we should be focused on expanding opportunity for middle class.I do think that there are some Republicans who share that view.And the President is interested in policies that we can put forward to make progress along those lines.
So the President stands ready to work with Democrats and Republicans.That's been the case in the past, and it certainly will be the case in the future.
Q Hi.The announcement of a federal investigation into the Garner case comes after a lengthy grand jury investigation.So did the Ferguson case, and Trayvon Martin investigation came after -- I mean, the guy went through trial and was acquitted.That's been almost three years.So doesn't the continued opening of federal investigations send something of a message that the process of justice in this country can't really be trusted, or that there’s something wrong with it, and the message that other people might not necessarily have reason to trust it?
MR. EARNEST:Well, that's a good question, Michelle.I think that there -- I think there’s been ample evidence over the last several weeks and certainly even longer than that for some people in this country to register their concerns with the justice system.It has prompted some people to wonder.The President has articulated this idea -- to sort of wonder whether or not the justice system in this country is consistently applied fairly to every single citizen in this country.And the President has been clear about a couple of things.
One is we need to make sure that we are properly and fairly enforcing the law.The President does have complete confidence in his Justice Department to do exactly that.At the same time, we also have a responsibility to build confidence in people’s perception that the law is being applied fairly to everybody.And that is an important, worthwhile goal as well.And the President has been the first to admit and to acknowledge that this country has made tremendous progress over the last several decades.There were communities in this country in the middle of the last century where there was a systematic effort to apply the law differently to some citizens and some communities of this country.
What we see now is different, and that is an indication that we have made important progress in this country.But as long -- and, again, the President has talked about this a couple of times, too.As long as there continue to be people out there that have significant concerns about the fair application of the law, there is more that we need to do to redouble our efforts to build trust between local law enforcement officials and the agencies that they’re sworn to serve and protect.And that serves a variety of functions.One is, building that bond of trust is going to make these local law enforcement officials more effective, and many of the communities that are expressing concerns about the justice system are the same communities where the crime rate is the highest.That means that they would benefit the most from an effective, professional, consistent application of law enforcement resources and criminal justice.
So these are complicated issues and no one should -- these are not issues that are going to go away overnight.But at the same time, we’ve also made tremendous progress in addressing many of them, but the President is not going to be satisfied until we go a lot farther and do a lot more to ensure that we are living up to the rule of law and the standard of equality that we continue to consider to be a core value of this country.
Q So this investigation was open not only because of questions over the policing, but also questions over the grand jury process?
MR. EARNEST:Well, for questions about why this investigation was opened, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.I’m not in a position to talk about any individual cases, particularly any individual cases that are currently under review by the Department of Justice.I was just speaking as a general matter.
Q Okay, but the White House has placed itself as really central to all of this, and the President himself has said it’s his job to do this and to follow through and see that it happens.So the why of the federal investigation, you have to think that that’s coming from the highest levels.
MR. EARNEST:Well, no, the law enforcement decisions are made, as they should be, by the law enforcement officials at the Department of Justice.And they do that without any sort of political interference.There is a long tradition of that in our country, and that is a tradition that is continued in this administration.There are rules that govern those sorts of interactions, and those are rules that we have followed assiduously.
What I am talking about and what the President has talked about is something that is not specific to a particular case, but is relevant to a sentiment that is held by a number of people in communities all across the country who have questions in their own mind about the fair application of justice.
Q So do you know whether the Trayvon Martin investigation will be finished soon?And why hasn’t there been a result of that?
MR. EARNEST:For an update on that investigation, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.It’s just not something I can talk about while it’s ongoing.
Q Okay.Thanks, Josh.
Q Josh, does the President believe the grand jury in Staten Island made the wrong decision?
MR. EARNEST:I haven’t asked him that question, Steve, and I do think that the President is somebody who acknowledges that there is a system where these kinds of things are adjudicated.Part of that adjudication is the federal jurisdiction that’s relevant in this case, and we did see the announcement from the Department of Justice that they were going to conduct an inquiry into this matter based on the federal laws that are applicable here.That’s where we are right now.
Q The protestors who demonstrated last night, I think most of them would tell you that -- they tell us -- that they believe that the grand jury did make the wrong decision.President Obama spoke out last night and again today, and I’m just wondering if he feels the same way.
MR. EARNEST:And I’m telling you I haven’t had that specific conversation with him.
Q Josh, thanks.There are calls for the evidence presented to the grand jury to be made public.Does the President think that it should be?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Kristen, this is the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice investigation, and so I’m going to reserve comment on matters relating to the specific case.
Q And you also have lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- Elijah Cummings, Cathy McMorris Rodgers -- calling for hearings on Capitol Hill.Does the President think there should be hearings about this on Capitol Hill?
MR. EARNEST:Well, that’s obviously a decision for members of Congress to make.
Q Would he support that?
MR. EARNEST:Well, if they’re going to have hearings on some of these matters, hopefully that means that they will give careful consideration to the budget proposal the President has put forward to commit significant federal resources to try to address some of these underlying issues:issues related to better and more training for local law enforcement; resources that could be used by local law enforcement to try to apply best practices in their communities to build trust between law enforcement officials and the communities that they serve.There’s been a lot of talk about body cameras and the value that they could add to this; that will require a significant commitment of resources.There is a way for the federal government to help here.
So we certainly would welcome congressional discussion of all of these issues.But again, as long as we’re going to be focused on results and not just studies, as the President himself has said, then we hope that Congress will act quickly on this.
Q And I want to ask you about the body cameras -- President Obama calling for $75 million for those body cameras, and then in this case, you actually have videotape and yet the grand jury chose not to indict.Is the President rethinking that commitment at all?Does he still have confidence that body cameras will make a difference?Because in this case, it certainly didn’t seem to.
MR. EARNEST:Well, the officers in this case were not wearing body cameras.
Q Well, there was video, though.
MR. EARNEST:There was video.
Q The point is there was a video.Does he think that video -- does he still have confidence that having video would make a significant difference?
MR. EARNEST:There is some scientific studies -- there are some scientific studies that indicate -- that are preliminary, that do indicate that body cameras do have an impact; that there are a number of studies that indicate that -- at least in one study that was conducted in Rialto, California, it found that officers who did not wear body cameras were twice as likely to use force as those who were, and that there were initial results from another study in Mesa, Arizona, that suggest that 65 percent fewer complaints were filed against officers who wore body cameras.
And I think the difference is a couple of things.The first is, I don’t know whether or not the officers in this case knew they were being filmed.And I think at least some of the social science here indicates that there might be a difference in the way that police officers confront these kinds of situations if they know they are being filmed.And if they’re wearing body camera, then they obviously know that their interaction is being filmed.
I think it’s also important to point out that these kinds of body-worn cameras can also perform an important function of enhancing the safety of law enforcement officers themselves.If the individuals that are having a confrontation with the officer know that they, too, are being filmed, that also might affect the kind of interaction that this individual has with the police officer.So these studies are preliminary, so I don’t think that a final judgment has been passed on this, but I do think that there is at least some evidence to indicate that body cameras could make some difference.I don’t think there’s anybody who is suggesting that having police officers -- every police officer wear a body camera would entirely solve the problem.Nobody is making that case.The President doesn’t believe that.
But let me just say one last thing.Included in the funding proposal that the President put forward, his community policing initiative, it included $55 million to actually study the effect of body cameras being worn by police officers.So to the extent that members of Congress, again, are interested in this issue and are interested specifically in this issue of body cameras, this seems like a worthwhile line of inquiry.
Q And let me just ask you one slightly broader question.One of the things that’s so striking about this moment is that you have conservatives and liberals, many of them on the same page.They’ve looked at this video and they are expressing surprise and disappointment in the grand jury’s decision not to indict.Does the President see this as a turning point?And given the fact that you’re seeing that broad agreement, going back to Julie’s question, is there not some discussion going on behind the scenes here about a broader, more robust response from the U.S. government?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I’ll say a couple things about this.The first is that the -- I think what we all have seen -- and, again, I can’t talk about a specific case, so I’m not talking about this case or any other, but I think as a general matter that the pace of justice sometimes is not as fast as we would like.And there have been some profound changes that this nation has undergone that have moved us in the direction of more fairness and greater justice.But there is more distance that needs to be traveled here, and sometimes the pace of that travel doesn’t move as quickly as we would like.That’s why it’s hard to assess whether one specific case is a turning point.
But we certainly -- but I do think that what you have seen, because of this notion that moving in the direction of justice is something that requires a concerted effort, that’s why you’ve seen the President demonstrate, or at least articulate here on the front end, a sustained commitment to these issues.And I do think that because these are issues that the President has worked on throughout his career -- I talked the other day about how when the President served in the Illinois State Senate, he was instrumental in crafting the kind of compromise proposals that bridged some disagreements between law enforcement officials in Illinois and civil rights officials in Illinois about issues related to racial profiling.
So the President has worked on these issues for quite some time, and I am confident that he will demonstrate the kind of sustained commitment that we know is necessary for us to make progress on these issues.
Q Thanks, Josh.On the Luke Somers hostage tape again.Isn’t this another sign the President’s efforts to take out al Qaeda inside Yemen have been failing?
MR. EARNEST:Ed, there are a number of efforts that have been undertaken by this administration, and using our military and intelligence officials, our diplomatic officials who have worked to hammer out a constructive arrangement with the Yemeni government to have a significant impact on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.There is still important work that needs to be done and you can tell that they still remain dangerous, but there are -- it’s been widely reported that there are a number of plots that have been disrupted because of the efforts of our men and women in the military and our intelligence officials.And that’s an indication that on a daily basis, at the direction of the President of the United States, our men and women in uniform and our men and women at State Department and in the intelligence community are taking actions every single day to try to counter the threat that is posed by AQAP in Yemen.
Q Right, but the Wall Street Journal has a long story today saying the President’s idea of using airstrikes to go after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and try to build up the Yemeni forces has not worked.The government has collapsed; the Yemeni forces, despite years of training, hundreds of millions of dollars, are not ready to stand up.I remember a couple of months ago you called Yemen a success story.How can it be considered a success story for the President when this kind of violence continues?
MR. EARNEST:I don’t think those are the words that I used.I think that the way that we talked about Yemen is that it has served as a useful template for a strategy that has effectively taken the fight to AQAP in a way that has degraded their ability to hurt the United States of America.Now, in this instance -- and it is a tragic one -- they have taken an American hostage.And I think the President has demonstrated, by ordering this raid, that he is willing to go to great lengths to try to rescue this American hostage.The fact that this mission was carried out with Yemeni military personnel is an indication that there is a solid, constructive working relationship between Yemeni soldiers and American security officials.
And the fact that the raid did succeed in recovering some hostages is an indication that this is a mission that they were able to carry out successfully.It did not, however, result in the rescue of Mr. Somers.
But there is no question that even an impartial observer would note that the capability of AQAP to threaten the United States of America has not been eliminated, but there is no question that it has been significantly degraded.And that's not by happenstance, it’s not by coincidence.It’s because of the vigilance of this President and the men and women in our military and in the intelligence community who work for him.
Q A couple other quick ones.Yesterday, in his remarks at the Business Roundtable, the President mentioned Vladimir Putin who gave a state of the union speech today where he used some perhaps unexpected religious imagery saying that Crimea is Russia’s spiritual ground, “our Temple Mount.”What’s the U.S. government’s reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST:I didn't see that specific line.I can tell you as a general matter, though, that President Putin has repeatedly attempted to shift blame for the bloodshed in Ukraine and the internal problems that Russia is experiencing away from his own policies -- both in his speeches and his government-funded propaganda -- that has disseminated not only inside Russia but beyond its borders.
President Putin’s revisionist narrative of the crisis in Ukraine is deeply troubling, but utterly unconvincing.If President Putin is looking for the cause of the current suffering of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country, he need look no further than the actions of his own government which initiated this crisis by waging a covert military operation first in Crimea, then in the eastern part of Ukraine.He can look to the weapons and fighters Russia has sent into Ukraine, and to the financing and direction his government provides to the separatists it backs.
We have made clear repeatedly that it is in response to these destabilizing actions that the United States and the broader international community have exacted a significant cost on the Russians and on the Russian economy.We’ve also made clear that if President Putin is willing to end this aggressive behavior and find a lasting settlement to the conflict in Ukraine, within the context of the Minsk Agreement, that these sanctions could be rolled back.
But if Russia continues to violate the commitments it signed up to -- if Russia continues to violate the commitments it signed under the Minsk Agreement, the costs on Russia could potentially rise.
Q Last one on immigration.The Department of Homeland Security has posted about a thousand job openings, dealing in part, it appears, with the President’s executive actions on immigration.Some of these positions, they're listed as permanent positions making up to $157,000 a year.I thought the President said that --
MR. EARNEST:Been scanning the classifieds?
Q Looking around a little.Why not?(Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST:Ed, seems to me you've got a great job.
Q Thank you very much.In all seriousness --
MR. EARNEST:Yes, sir.
Q These are permanent positions, some making up to $157,000 a year.I thought the President said that these were temporary executive actions, not the kind of actions that you would need government employees working many years on.I assume they have other responsibilities beyond implementing the executive actions.But is there some reasonable estimate for U.S. taxpayers on how much it’s going to cost to implement the President’s executive actions?
MR. EARNEST:Well, many of the executive actions that the President has directed the Department of Homeland Security to implement are actually funded by the fees that are paid by individuals who pay for this application process.So it’s a fee-funded operation.I can't speak to all of the --
Q Applications.But then -- so that's what I’m really trying to get at.But if you're hiring a thousand government workers, it seems that maybe the fees might not cover all of that.I mean, you’ve said many times the fees cover the paperwork, the applications.I’m just trying to get at -- and if you want to come back to us, fine -- I’m just saying -- because I understand you’re not going to be scanning the DHS web ads, as you say.But in all seriousness, the question here -- the President said this was a temporary implementation, temporary measures.A thousand government jobs is not small chump change.
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, though, we’re talking about -- I haven’t seen the jobs listings, but for those individuals that are hired to process the applications, the reason they’ll be hired is because we’ll get more applications, which means that we’ll have more fees, which means that we’ll have the revenue that’s necessary to put these -- to pay the paycheck for these individuals to do this important work.That’s the nature of a fee-funded agency like the USCIS.
So I can’t speak to all of the job openings that are available at DHS, but I can have somebody call you if you’d like.But the point is that it’s difficult for me to assess exactly what those openings are, but many of these executive actions that the President has called for would be implemented by a fee-funded agency, which means that the costs that are associated with processing those applications would be paid for by the individuals who are filing those applications.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST:Steve.Nice to see you.
Q Nice to see you.There are reports out of Turkey that Turkey and the U.S. have taken into custody a suspect in the Benghazi attack, and he’s been turned over to U.S. officials.Do we have this person, and where is he being held?
MR. EARNEST:Unfortunately, Steve, I have seen those reports, but these are reports that I’m not in a position to comment on at this point.
Q The second question, on the immigration vote in the House today, what’s the White House think of that?
MR. EARNEST:Well, you may have seen the statement of administration proposal that was put out -- I’m sorry, the statement of administration position that was put out earlier today.This is on the piece of legislation that was sponsored by Congressman Yoho from Florida.
The statement of administration policy I think does summarize the significant objections that the Obama administration does have here.I think the most significant one that I’ll try to describe to you is that the proposal that’s put forward by Mr. Yoho and appears to have the strong support of the Republican conference in the House of Representatives would actually roll back some of the President’s proposed reforms to our immigration system in a way that would actually devote law enforcement resources to deporting DREAMers -- these are individual who are brought to this country as children through no fault of their own.Many of them are American in every way but their paperwork.Many of them go to school with our kids, they worship in the same churches that we do.
And the President does not believe that it is an efficient or effective use of law enforcement resources to try to separate these individuals from their families.The President believes the most effective thing that we should do is take our limited law enforcement resources and focus them on criminals, others who pose a threat to public safety, and to those individuals who may pose a threat to national security.That’s the best way that we should use our law enforcement resources.
And the President believes, however, that we should have a broader reform of our immigration system so we can confront these challenges in a more systematic way.I would also point out that in terms of these limited law enforcement resources, the Senate bill that was supported by the President and by a significant number of Republicans in the Senate would actually make a historic investment in border security and other resources that could be used to safeguard our communities.
So, again, to the extent that -- the other irony here -- this will be the last thing.I know I said I was going to keep it short and I've been going on for a while here, but I promise this will be the last thing here.It's ironic to me that you have House Republicans blocking out the time and energy on their very limited legislative calendar to pass legislation that would undo reforms to our immigration system that even they acknowledge is broken while suggesting that they don't have time to take up a bipartisan proposal that has already passed the Senate, that would become law, that would actually fix our broken immigration system in a way that would enhance the border security that House Republicans themselves say they care so much about.
So it's a little nonsensical for them to be pursuing this course of action, but not inconsistent with their previous strategy.
Q Thank you.Josh, what are the most immediate challenges that will be confronting the next Defense Secretary?
MR. EARNEST:The next Defense Secretary?
MR. EARNEST:Well, there are a number of things.In no particular order, there obviously are significant -- is a significant commitment of military resources right now in East Africa -- or West Africa to confront the Ebola outbreak.That is something that is critical to our national security.The President has identified it as a top national security priority.
The next Secretary of Defense will obviously spend a significant amount of time working closely with the President and with the coalition of more than 60 nations that are confronting and engaged in a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
There also is a report that was released by the Department of Defense today about the efforts that are underway inside the Department of Defense to counter sexual assault.This is a priority that the President has identified.The President has spoken pretty powerfully on this issue, that even one sexual assault in the finest fighting force in the world is something that the Commander-in-Chief finds thoroughly unacceptable.And this will be near the top of the agenda of the next Secretary of Defense as well.
So those are a couple of matters off the top of my head.I'm sure there are others, but that is certainly enough for the first day.
Q A lot of the reporting on Hagel’s departure and the relations between the White House and some of the previous Pentagon chiefs have pointed to problems with micromanaging from here.Is there any kind of an agreement between the President and the next Defense Secretary that that won't happen?Or in your opinion, has it happened?
MR. EARNEST:Well, without confirming who the next Secretary of Defense is going to be --
Q I didn’t ask that.
MR. EARNEST:I know.I can tell you that whoever that person is, it will be very clear about what the chain of command is and they’ll understand that the President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief and sits atop the chain of command.That means the President bears significant responsibility for what happens at the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense.That's been true of previous Presidents as well, of course.And that's why the kinds of stories that have gotten a little more attention in the last couple of weeks about some friction existing between the White House and the Pentagon are not new and not unique to this administration.
I will say that the President is incredibly proud of the men and women who serve in leadership roles at the Pentagon.He believes they obviously have very important work that he’s been very focused on himself, and he believes that they have served the country and our men and women in the military very well.
The last thing I'll say -- and I mentioned this the other day -- as it relates to micromanagement, the civilian and military authorities at the Pentagon have made clear to the United States Congress about the kinds of budgetary reforms that they believe are necessary to strengthen our military and ensure that we are focusing our resources on those missions and programs that are critical to national security.Unfortunately, we have seen Congress not undertake those reforms even though they come at the specific urging of the civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon.
Now, I don't think you could do -- I'm not sure there’s much more that you could do to try to imagine a scenario in which the Pentagon is hamstrung by micromanaging than to have a United States Congress unwilling to take basic budget reforms that the leadership of the Pentagon themselves are saying are critical to the success of the Department of Defense as they undertake the important work of keeping us safe from threats across the globe.So when it comes to micromanaging, I think Congress has once again taken first prize.
Q Josh, Governor-elect Abbott of Texas is one of those who is supposed to be here tomorrow.I know it's mostly economics, but do you think they’ll have a chance to talk about the lawsuit that Texas and others have filed on immigration?
MR. EARNEST:I don't know if they’ll have an opportunity to discuss that.I wouldn't be surprised if Governor-elect Abbott chose to raise that himself in the meeting.We'll try to get you some kind of readout of the meeting.I think, since you mentioned it, the law here and the precedent here is pretty clear as it relates to the legal authority that the President invoked to carry out the executive action he announced a couple of weeks ago.
And we've heard from the Supreme Court, who has examined this issue and ruled that federal officials have “broad discretion” over priorities in enforcing immigration law.The United States Congress, in fact, not too long ago directed the executive branch to set enforcement priorities.In creating the Department of Homeland Security, Congress charged the department with the responsibility for “establishing national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.”That's exactly what the President has talked about in the course of this executive action.
You’ve seen the memo from the Office of Legal Counsel who said that the President’s decision to set enforcement priorities “falls clearly within” -- I’m sorry -- “falls within the scope of DHS’s lawful discretion.”And you've also seen the letter that we put out from more than a hundred constitutional scholars, immigration law experts and former top lawyers at INS and USCIS who have said that they are all of the view that the actions that the President announced are “consistent with governing law and with the policies that Congress has expressed in the statutes that it has enacted.”
So there is a long track record of individuals in every branch of government indicating that the executive actions that the President announced are clearly within the confines of the law.
Q One thing that Office of Legal Counsel memo talked about was that there still has to be a case-by-case review.You can set out broad parameters, broad guidelines, but it can't be a blanket exemption.Is that the way that the administration is looking at this order?
MR. EARNEST:Well, it certainly would explain part of Ed’s question about why there is an application process, that individuals have to come forward, describe who they are and describe their circumstances so that they can then be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to determine if they would qualify under the guidelines that the President has laid out pretty clearly.
Q So those 4 million people, they still have to really be checked out one by one?
MR. EARNEST:Well, there are clear guidelines that the President has laid out, and there is an application process that they will have to go through to demonstrate that they qualify for the program.
Q Josh, a couple of questions.I want to ask you procedurally, how did the issues of Trayvon Martin’s death, Michael Brown’s death, Eric Garner and even 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland rise to the occasion to come to the White House and then be dispersed within this administration?Is it from community leaders calling in and saying there is a problem here?Or is it hearing the community through communications, through calls to the White House?Or is it just watching the pulse of a nation through the media?How does it rise to the presidential level?
MR. EARNEST:Well, April, I think it arrives at the presidential level through a variety of means.The first is, certainly these are cases that have attracted significant attention in the news media -- both the mainstream media, but also in some aspects of specialty media, as well.
These are also cases that have attracted the attention of the broader civil rights community, and certainly civil rights leaders have a close relationship with senior members here at the White House.Many civil rights activists have identified these cases and this issue more broadly as a top priority.
But, April, I’ll tell you, I think probably the most important thing is that when we're talking about these issues, these are issues that the President himself feels very personally.And in hearing the President talk about the case of Trayvon Martin or even some of these more recent examples, I think it’s clear to most people that these are issues that the President feels in a very personal way based on his own previous experience as a private citizen, but also based on his notion of fairness and justice and other values that are central to the founding of this country.These are the kinds of values that have motivated the President since the earliest days of his career in public life.
So there are a variety of ways in which these urgent issues attract the attention and become designated as a priority for the President.But the most important of those is based on the President’s own personal human response to these issues.
Q The next question.On the body camera issue, there are various sides on the body cameras.And when it comes to concerns, some of the concerns include questions of when will the video be disposed of because of storage space issues.The cameras may not simply just be turned on, because like the dashboard cams, they have to be turned on.They're not automatic.And then there are questions of camera uniformity throughout police forces throughout the nation.What do you say to those concerns?And can you address each of those three specifically?
MR. EARNEST:I’m not steeped on the details.There clearly is -- there clearly are going to be some implementation issues as we move forward.And that's something that the Department of Justice I’m sure will be keenly aware of.It’s why we want to make sure that we’re working closely with local law enforcement agencies as they’re implementing these policies, and that’s what the policy itself contemplates, right, that there is essentially a cost-sharing mechanism here where the federal government would say, we’ll pay for half the cost of these body cameras if you’ll make the investment for the other half of the cost, and then the federal government will work with you to implement the procedures governing the use of these cameras.
So these are details that will have to be worked out as the program is implemented.
Q But on the issue -- and I understand all that -- but on the accountability issue when it comes to actually having the video, what if something were to happen beyond a 72-hour period, and someone comes in saying, look, this happened to me, and the video was disposed of, there’s no accountability there.What happens?
MR. EARNEST:Well, these are the kinds of issues that they’ll have to work through in implementation.There are some law enforcement agencies that do have body-worn cameras that their officers use, so you could certainly consult with some of those law enforcement agencies about how they confront some of the legitimate problems that you’re raising here.
Q Any further consideration to having the President visit Ferguson or Staten Island, or is he simply going to let what he has said stand?
MR. EARNEST:I think what the President is focused on, what everybody here is focused on is following through on the commitment that the President made earlier this week to ensure that these task force recommendations don’t just gather dust on a shelf but they actually end up being useful best practices that can be communicated and implemented in communities across the country.
I wouldn’t rule out a future presidential visit to any of these places.But I would say that, for now, the focus here at the White House is actually focused squarely on making sure that the action matches the rhetoric.
Q So he won’t go anytime soon is what you’re saying.
MR. EARNEST:I don’t see any sort of trip coming up in the immediate future, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out a visit to one of those communities sometime in the days and weeks ahead.
Q Thanks, Josh.On gas prices, we saw gas dip below $2 a gallon in some places yesterday, and of course production is at the highest level ever in the U.S.Is there any talk, given those two factors, of lifting the ban on exports of crude?
MR. EARNEST:I know that there are people on both sides of this issue that -- it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the mainstream media, but this is something that has been closely watched by those in industry and other interested observers.
I don’t have any announcements along those lines to make at this point.I can tell you that the President is very mindful of the all-of-the-above approach that we have pursued under his leadership in this country that has yielded -- or at least is in part responsible for the significant progress that we’ve made in expanding production of both oil and natural gas, but also in generating energy through -- from renewable sources like wind and solar.
While the production of oil and gas is at an all-time high, we’ve seen that the production of wind and solar are higher than they’ve ever been also by a factor of three or higher.So we’ve made tremendous progress in terms of production.
Another thing that’s responsible for that success is also the fact that we have made a lot of progress on efficiency.And this is thanks to some of the rules that the President has put in place, including the efficiency rules around motor vehicles, and these are rules that are paying dividends to consumers at the pump right now, and those dividends will only increase as more fuel-efficient cars get on the road.But we certainly are pleased with the amount of progress that’s been made.
Andrei, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh.Thank you for recognizing me.On President Putin’s address that you’ve dismissed in the briefing, the foreign policy part of it is probably maybe five pages long.What is the chance that President Obama may actually read it himself -- the foreign policy part of it?And if he doesn’t, then who does read it?I recently was in a public presentation by your chief intelligence analyst, Mr. Brennan, and he was talking about how hard it is for you guys to understand what’s in the mind of Russian leaders.And I asked him if people read those speeches here.He said, I agree with you totally -- nobody reads them here.So my question is, what is the chance that the President actually reads the speech?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I’m confident that the President will be made aware of what’s in the speech.And I think because of what’s in the speech, there’s ample reason for us to be pretty skeptical of the sentiments that are expressed.At the same time, Andrei, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that there are certain situations -- outside of the situation in Ukraine, clearly -- where the United States government and Russia have successfully been able to cooperate on some mutually shared national security priorities.
So certainly Russia has been a constructive participant in the P5-plus-1 talks with Iran to try to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.We have talked quite a bit about the level of cooperation that yielded the elimination of the declared chemical weapons stockpile in Syria.That would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Russians.There are also -- even on matters that are less directly related to foreign policy, the United States and Russia continue to cooperate effectively when it comes to our space programs; that we have Russians and Americans that are currently orbiting the Earth together within the confines of the International Space Station.
So this is an indication that the United States and Russia can find common ground, and we are certainly pleased to find common ground where we can in a way that advances the priorities of people in both countries.But when it comes to the kind of rhetoric that we saw from President Putin around Ukraine, there’s no question that that kind of rhetoric damages his credibility, both here and around the world, I might add.
Q Josh, I’m glad to hear that you are open for cooperation, because he is too.He mentioned that in his speech.Speaking of that, there is, as you know, legislation pending in Congress that will legally bind you to sanctions for God knows how long.It’s the same as it was with Jackson-Vanik, which bound you to measures linked to Jewish emigration long after the issue had ceased to exist.So my question to you about that one:What is the chance of the President actually vetoing that legislation if it ever lands on his desk?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Andrei, I haven't seen the legislation that you're referring to.But the President himself has said that if President Putin and the Russians are willing to live up to the commitments that they’ve made under the Minsk Agreement, the United States and our international partners are prepared to take steps to roll back these sanctions that have had a significant impact -- negative impact -- on the Russian economy.
The problem is President Putin has not lived up to the agreements that he committed to in the context of the Minsk Agreement.That is why that sanctions regime remains in place.That's why it has had a terrible impact on the economy and on the economic outlook in Russia.And it's why, as Russia continues to flout those commitments that they themselves have made, that they put themselves at risk of greater isolation and of further sanction.
Thanks, everybody.Have a good afternoon.
2:09 P.M. EST