Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/12/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:25 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Mercifully, it’s Friday. And it’s nice to see all of you. I did come bearing a week ahead, which we’ll do at the end. I don’t have anything at the top, Jim, so if you want to get us started with questions, let’s do it.
Q Thanks, Josh. So I wanted to ask you about yesterday’s developments and the drama. Was there a way that the --
MR. EARNEST: On which topic? (Laughter.)
Q Take your choice.
MR. EARNEST: I was going to say -- that does not -- only sort of narrows it down. It was an eventful day here at the White House.
Q Omnibus. Could the White House have avoided that last-minute drama by declaring a little earlier where it stood, perhaps right after the deal had been announced to voice the White House’s support for it, and thus Democrats would have known where the President stood right off the bat and you wouldn’t have had that back-and-forth that delayed the vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s an open question and difficult to assess. I can sort of explain to you a little bit about our thinking.
There were a couple of different things that drove the decision related to the timing of that announcement of the President’s overall support for the compromise proposal, despite some concerns about individual provisions. Two specific things: The first is that it did require some time for our staff to review the proposal. It was 1,600 pages long, and while we had been in regular touch with House and Senate negotiators as they were brokering this agreement, you never really know what’s included in the agreement until you’ve had an opportunity to read the agreement. And that is why it would not have been wise for the White House right out of the box to offer up a position on a piece of legislation that we hadn’t read yet. That’s the first thing. I mean, I do think it’s notable that less than 48 hours after the 1,600-page bill was released, we did articulate a position on it. So it’s not as if there was an extensive delay.
The second thing is -- and this represents our efforts to coordinate with Democrats on the Hill as they broker this kind of an agreement -- as soon as the White House declares a position on a specific legislation, and at least in this case to support the overall legislation, it does undermine the negotiating leverage of Democrats. So it’s also easy to imagine a scenario, Jim, where we’re standing here on Friday morning where you were asking me, wouldn’t [have] Democrats on Capitol Hill, in the House and Senate, benefited from the White House withholding their statement until they had reached the point where they determined that they could no longer exact any changes in the negotiations -- or changes as a result of the negotiations?
So there’s always going to be a little second-guessing about sort of how this played out. But given the conclusion of the vote last night around 9:45, I think that’s a pretty strong endorsement of the legislative strategy that the White House pursued as it relates to this legislation.
Q It still seemed that the White House was taken aback at these by the way that things unfolded yesterday, or even late Wednesday, with the opposition to those two particular provisions that had been at the center of this -- the push-out on derivatives and the campaign finance requirement. Should the White House have been aware of that? Were you not aware of it? And did you not discern at the time that it could cause a problem if you were aware of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, it’s hard for me to account for all of the conversations that took place between White House and administration officials and negotiators in the House and Senate as they were trying to carve out this agreement.
But what I can say as a general matter, that last year, when at least this Wall Street reform provision was moved through the House as a standalone provision, the White House was clear about our strong opposition to that proposal. We continued to --
Q No veto threat though.
MR. EARNEST: But a pretty unequivocal declaration that this was a provision that was opposed by the administration. That was opposition that was restated when it became clear that this provision was included in the compromise proposal. And I can tell you that even though it’s passed the House of Representatives, the administration continues to oppose that specific provision. However, this is the essence of compromise -- that there are going to be individual provisions in this bill that the President doesn’t support. Had he the opportunity to write this legislation entirely on his own, I assure you it would look quite a bit different and would not include the provision related to Wall Street reform that we've been discussing here.
So this is the essence of compromise. But I think, on balance, the President is pleased with what was included in this proposal, from funding for our Ebola response to the funding that's necessary to support our men and women that are leading the effort against ISIL. There are a range of domestic policy proposals that are funded at an appropriate level in the legislation, including the agencies that will be implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan, including the increased funding for early childhood education.
And there are two areas where Republicans had identified as opportunities to try to roll back progress on a couple of the President’s top domestic priorities. And when it comes to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the implementation of the President’s executive actions to reform our broken immigration system, on neither measure were Republicans able to significantly undermine our ability to implement those initiatives, and continue to make progress on them. That is a clear win for Democrats and a clear win for the President.
And that ultimately is why the President believes that this particular compromise proposal merited bipartisan support in the House. He believes that it merits bipartisan support in the Senate. We hope that the Senate will act quickly and in bipartisan fashion to approve it. And the President is hopeful that he'll have the opportunity to sign it into law.
Q And last, going forward, does the President have a management challenge with the left wing of his party?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, that's a very different question than many of you have been asking over the course of the last four or five weeks. Many of you have written or observed and quoted Republicans saying that in the aftermath of the midterm elections, that the President was running to embrace the progressive wing of his party; that by making bold announcements on climate change and moving forward with immigration reform proposals, using his executive authority, that declaring a clear position when it comes to net neutrality -- that this was all evidence that the President was only interested in working closely with the left wing of his party because these were -- the more progressive elements of the party were the strongest supporters of these decisions.
And I think what this episode over the last couple of days illustrates, and I think what over the course of the last several weeks illustrates, is that the President is determined, even when there are Republicans in the majority in the House and the Senate, to move forward on policies that are going to benefit middle-class families in this country. And that's what the President is going to continue to be focused on.
He’s hopeful that there will be opportunities to work with Republicans in furtherance of that goal, but where there isn't, the President is not going to hesitate to use his own authority to move forward. And I recognize that some people are going to interpret that as a move to the left, some people are going to interpret that as a move to the right. The President interprets this as a move forward for the country and for the middle class.
Q Josh, the President and Leader Pelosi have always been very close. Are there now some strains between them that you’ll need to address?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, you're right that it's hard to think of anybody that the President has worked with more closely or more successfully on Capitol Hill than Leader Pelosi.
There are two reasons that their relationship has been so strong. The first is that Leader Pelosi is someone who is a champion for middle-class families and for basic American values. And that makes her someone who shares -- has the same priorities as the President.
The second thing is -- and I think that even Republicans would acknowledge this -- she is as an effective a leader and more persuasive an advocate for the members of her caucus than I think probably any other leader in either party in recent history in Congress. And that makes her not just a good partner, it makes her a really effective one. And I think that is why she and the President have had such a fruitful relationship.
And I alluded to this yesterday when -- after eight years, when all of you and historians take a look at the President’s long list of domestic legislative achievements, I think it will be fair to say that none of them -- at least none of those listed at the top -- would have been possible without the leadership and effectiveness of Nancy Pelosi.
So I continue to be confident, and I know that the President is confident that the strong working relationship and the effective productive working relationship that we’ve had over the last six years will continue for the next two.
Q Well, has he reached out to her and tried to patch things up over this latest bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific presidential-level calls to read out to you. But I will just say that the President has always had not just a good working relationship, but an open line of communication with Leader Pelosi. And that didn't change yesterday, and it’s not going to change in the future.
Q And lastly, the President had a meeting with the Saudi minister today. Could you tell us about that a little? Did they talk about oil prices? Did they talk about arming the Syrian rebels on Saudi territory?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, what I can tell you is that the President did meet with --
Q Training them, sorry.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Training the Syrian army.
MR. EARNEST: Right. The President is meeting with the Saudi Interior Minister today. The two leaders intend to consult on regional issues, including coalition efforts to counter ISIL, efforts to undermine and delegitimize ISIL’s extremist ideology, our efforts to share -- I’m sorry -- our efforts to counter the shared threat of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and support for President Hadi’s efforts to bring stability to Yemen.
I do anticipate that we’ll have a slightly more detailed readout of the meeting. We have said publicly -- and the Saudis have acknowledged -- that they are supportive of the broader international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. One way that they are contributing to that effort is that they have agreed to host training missions in Saudi Arabia, where U.S. and coalition personnel will be training moderate Syrian opposition fighters to take the fight on the ground to ISIL in Syria. We certainly welcome and compliment the Saudis on this contribution to this important effort.
Q Just a quick one on Nancy Pelosi. If she’s such a critical player in everything the President has accomplished on Capitol Hill, why was she frozen out of the negotiations on the spending bill? I mean, she wasn’t part of it at all; it was Republicans, it was the White House, it was Harry Reid.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you’d have to talk to her office about to what degree that her office was aware of the conversations that were ongoing there. It’s hard for me to weigh in. This is ultimately a negotiation between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. The White House was in the loop but was obviously not writing out the agreement. To what extent congressional negotiations kept her and her office in the loop, you’d have to ask them.
Q Okay, and switching to the other -- something else that happened this week. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passing an authorization of military force on the battle against ISIS or ISIL. This passed on party lines, 10 to 8, only Democrats supporting this authorization. It’s going to have to be brought up again in the new Congress, Republicans are in charge. What does this say about the level of support that you have on Capitol Hill and your ability to get an authorization, which you want, through a Republican Congress if this authorization couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, we do believe that the language that was passed through the committee yesterday by Democrats does serve as a useful starting point for negotiations about what that language should look like. And we would hope that that’s where the committee would start when they return after the first of the year. We’ve also been pretty clear on the front end that we do believe it’s important for Congress to weigh in, in bipartisan fashion, on this particular issue because it demonstrates clearly to the American people, to our allies, and even to our enemies, that the United States of America is completely united behind the strategy that the President has laid out to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
So we certainly are eager to have that kind of bipartisan show of support for the strategy, and we’re going to be working on that at the beginning of next year. I think there are some indications, and we’ve seen some comments from some Republicans, that they are interested in working with the administration on this. So I think there is a reason to think that that’s something that is in the realm of the possible, but we’ll have to see how that plays out.
Q Okay, so you think it was a good starting point, but would you have supported that, or do you support that? It’s not a theoretical; it has passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Does the White House support that specific authorization with its time limit and its limitation on ground troops?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that I can say about this specific proposal. I don't think I can say whether or not the President would have signed it, because there still were a number of steps that it would have to go through. It would have to pass the entire Senate, and would obviously have to go to the House too.
But I can say, as a general matter, a couple of things about it. The language that was passed did not include a geographic limitation. And we believe that's a wise decision. It would not be prudent to telegraph in advance, frankly, where ISIL leaders could establish a safe haven that would not -- that would allow them to avoid military action by the United States or our coalition partners. So we certainly believe that that element of this proposal is one that we would support.
It did, however, include some concerning language that would limit the flexibility of the Commander-in-Chief to deploy a military strategy in this situation. And there were some constraints in there that we believe were -- did not fall within the category of reasonable limitations that we could support.
Q Such as?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this sort of -- now you're asking me to sort of -- like, what are the kinds of things we could support. And I think that's something that we’ll work out with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill.
Q But this did include a limitation on ground troops, which we heard from Secretary Kerry that the administration did not want. So, I mean, is that -- you don't want to see --
MR. EARNEST: When I’m referring to the language included in this proposal limiting the flexibility of the Commander-in-Chief in a way that we wouldn’t support, that's what I’m referring to.
Q To use ground troops?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the position of the administration has not changed. The President has been unequivocal about this. The President does not foresee a scenario and does not support sending ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or in Syria. He doesn't believe that that's in the best interest of our national security. He doesn't believe that that was going to guarantee the success of our strategy. And, frankly, it’s against the wishes of the leader of Iraq. So nobody believes that that would be a good strategy.
Q And yet you want an authorization that would allow you to use ground troops.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we want --
Q You would be opposed to an authorization that would codify that, that would say no ground troops.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but let’s talk about why. The reason is we're talking about flexibility here. The President has been unequivocal about his strategy, and that strategy does not include the use of ground troops in a combat role.
However, there is a situation where ground troops have been put in a combat role on the ground in Syria. As you all have reported, the President did authorize a mission that involves U.S. military personnel being on the ground in Syria to try to rescue American hostages. That's an indication of the need for the Commander-in-Chief to have flexibility to protect our national security interests. That does not reflect the change in policy, but it does reflect a need for the Commander-in-Chief to have the kind of flexibility to respond to situations that, frankly, right now are impossible to foresee.
There’s one other element of the proposal that we should discuss that is something that we also have some concerns about. The language that was approved by the committee does include a three-year limitation on it. A three-year limitation is something that we would be open to, subject to provisions for extension. The way that it was written -- based on my layman’s understanding of it -- is that it essentially would have been a three-year sunset subject to reauthorization. And we actually believe that there should be some provisions included for an extension.
Again, how that works would be something that we would work with Democrats and Republicans on next year.
Q Extension without another vote.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that's something that we would discuss with members of Congress next year.
All right. Ed.
Q Josh, do you have any comments on these emails among a Sony executive and a Hollywood producer that are widely being interpreted as being basically racist about the President?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen a few of those reports. It’s my understanding that the Sony executives -- or at least one of the Sony executives whose emails were made public has apologized for the contents of those emails. I certainly think that was appropriate.
Q Quick schedule thing, and then I want to go to cromnibus. There were some reports saying the President and the First Lady were going to have the Four Tops and Temptations over for lunch today? Is that true? Didn't see it on a public schedule, so just curious.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that that's part of the plan. But I can -- we’ll look into that for you.
Q Just thought there might be a performance here that we might be able to --
MR. EARNEST: Well, you wouldn’t want to miss it, would you? (Laughter.) I don't think I would either.
Q Okay, let’s get to cromnibus.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q This seemed to the first real test of the President’s juice after the election with his fellow Democrats. And most House Democrats, despite everything you said before about victories, most House Democrats rejected the President, despite phone calls, visits from Denis McDonough, phone calls from Vice President Biden. Why did so many Democrats reject him?
MR. EARNEST: Ed -- I think, Ed, most people would understand that the measure that we had in place was not getting every single Democrat to support it, but getting enough Democrats to support it that it would pass. And that's exactly what we got done.
And I think that there was, understandably, healthy skepticism in this room about whether or not the President had the juice to get that done, and he did.
Q But it wasn’t done because of Democrats, right? It was done by well over 150 Republicans supporting it, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it was done because Democrats and Republicans were able to work together. Even though neither side got every single thing that they want, they were able to focus on what the essence of a compromise is, which is to recognize that both sides got enough to be able to support a piece of legislation that for different reasons they believed would be in the best interest of the country. And that, frankly, is the way that the President believes these kinds of things should be resolved.
Q Given that's the way he believes it should be resolved, why do you think so many Democrats voted to shut down the government yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think that's how they would describe their position, because I think that Speaker Boehner was pretty --
Q But last year when Republicans voted that way, and they said it was a principled stand on health care, and yesterday Democrats said it was a principled stand on rolling back Wall Street reform, a year ago, the President, Jay Carney and others said they were hostage-takers, they were terrorists, basically.
MR. EARNEST: Because they shut down the government, Ed.
Q Well, Democrats tried last night. Might not have succeeded, but --
MR. EARNEST: What Democrats said was that -- Democrats said that they would not be willing to support this compromise proposal because they had concerns about specific provisions. The President disagreed with that.
But what they would have done, and what Speaker Boehner said that he was prepared to do, was to put on the floor a three-month continuing resolution that would have preserved the government being open, and continued the negotiations early next year. The reason the President didn't support that is he believes that that would have -- that Democrats heading into next year, into those negotiations would have even less leverage as they try to get a bill that they feel like they could support, that they feel like would be in the best interest of the country.
Q I wanted to ask one last thing about -- something to follow up on yesterday. I asked you about why criminal charges have not been pressed over the CIA situation, enhanced interrogations. And after seeing your answers, an attorney from the ACLU emailed me this morning and said that the ACLU, which generally supports this White House, is surprised that you continue to just refer various reporters to the Justice Department. Specifically, they say, lawyers for victims of the CIA torture -- according to the ACLU -- stated that their clients were never interviewed by the Justice Department, and the Justice Department refused to answer whether the criminal investigators interviewed any of these victims at all.” And the U.N. has spoken out on this and said the Justice Department didn't talk to any of the detainees. Is that a reasonable criminal investigation to not even talk to the alleged victims of what you call torture?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, what is reasonable is that career federal prosecutors should be making decisions about their investigation absent any sort of political interference from anybody at the White House. And that's exactly what has happened. And they could -- look, the President does have complete confidence in the professionalism and the thoroughness of career federal prosecutors, but no one is going to stand here and look over their shoulder and second-guess who they’re going to interview or what should be included in their investigation. We expect them to live up to the standards of professionalism that I think that all of us -- that inspires some confidence --
Q Is that real professionalism, to not even interview any of the detainees and find out what really happened?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, to find out the details of their investigation, you should talk to the Department of Justice.
Q So you think it was a credible investigation?
MR. EARNEST: The President and everybody here at the White House does have confidence in the investigation that was conducted by career federal prosecutors at the Department of Justice.
Q Are any of the people who are known to have been involved in what the President has described as torture still working for the federal government?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, in terms of those kinds of personnel questions, I’d refer you to the CIA. You’re asking about a classified program and individuals whose identities have not been known publicly.
Q I’m not asking for names, I’m just wondering if the President would be comfortable with someone continuing to work for the federal government who participated in activities that he describes as torture.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll tell you what the President’s expectations are. The President expects that everybody in the federal government live up to the policies that he has established. And as you know, on his second full day in office, the President established a policy that unequivocally bans torture, and he expects everybody in the administration to follow that and all of the other policy guidelines that he has laid out.
Q But if someone was still working for the federal government because those guidelines didn’t go into place until --
MR. EARNEST: And I’m telling you, I don’t know if that’s the case. I’d refer you to the CIA about that.
Q Let me ask you about the repeal part of Dodd-Frank. Because as you have said before, this is something the President did not support, but you also said that the President feels strongly that he has to move forward with the Republicans on things that benefit middle-class Americans. And of course, the Democrats who felt that this was a reason not to support this bill did it because they believe that it’s not good for middle-class Americans. What does the White House believe the real-world consequences are of this decision, particularly as it relates to Dodd-Frank?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. One of the things -- there are a couple of provisions that are in the overall bill that are good for Wall Street reform. There are double-digit increases in funding for both the CFTC and SEC. These are two independent regulatory bodies that have a critical role in implementing Wall Street reform.
Republicans were not successful, in an effort that they have undertaken on previous occasions, to try to attach ideological riders that would undermine the authority of the CFPB. The CFPB is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and this is an organization that was created by the Wall Street reform legislation. This was something that the President championed and insisted be included in the bill, and this would essentially ensure that consumers have a voice in Washington, D.C. when it comes to these matters.
We know that Wall Street banks and other large businesses have well-connected lobbyists that can look out for their interests. The President believed it was important for there to be an independent voice in Washington, D.C. that was looking out for middle-class families and consumers. The President strongly supports the CFPB that’s led by Richard Cordray, and we are pleased that there were no ideological riders included in this legislation that would significantly undermine the authority of the CFPB.
The other thing that I will say about this is that there does seem to be a difference of opinion in terms of -- well, there isn’t consensus about the true impact of what this specific provision would do. And there are people who know a lot more about the mechanics of financial reform that could talk to you about this. But --
Q So is your suggestion that for consumers, given the new funding for a couple of things, that this is a net gain?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there’s probably somebody who knows more about the details of this that could give you a better assessment of that. What I’m merely saying is that there are several provisions in this legislation. And at least one thing that’s not in the legislation that we believe are good for Wall Street reform and good for advancing the goals of Wall Street reform to essentially ensure that we have proper oversight of the financial system and that never again will taxpayers be on the hook for bailing out banks who make risky bets. And that’s one of the reasons, in addition to some of the other things that I mentioned earlier, that the President signed this piece of legislation.
But for a specific assessment of this provisions that, again, that we oppose, I’d refer you to some of the people who have spoken out on this.
Q And one more thing just related to Sony generally. And obviously this isn’t the latest case of hacking -- whether it was Americans’ credit cards and the nightmares they’ve gone through, up until this -- and we know that there are many companies who are obviously reassessing their own cybersecurity as well as individual Americans who may be monitoring what they write in an email going forward. Can you just talk a little bit about, given this series of hacking incidents, the level of seriousness as you see it? And are there any plans that are being considered that would in some way address what is generally considered to be a growing problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, you’ll recall that back in 2011, the administration put forward a very specific cybersecurity legislative proposal that we wanted Congress to act on. There were a couple of other pieces of legislation that passed last night after the omnibus situation was resolved, and that included a couple of important pieces of cybersecurity legislation that will help the government better protect its networks and enhance its ability to work with the private sector.
The White House, as I mentioned, has long called on Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation to equip the nation with the tools it needs to continue facing increasing cyber threats. The President made clear earlier this year with the release of the administration’s cybersecurity framework that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers that the United States faces. And our critical infrastructure continues to be at risk from these threats, as does the personal information of millions of Americans. And the administration will continue to take aggressive action to protect our nation from these kinds of threats.
That said, there’s certainly more that we -- that Congress can do and that we expect that Congress can do -- that Congress should do. And we certainly will be pressing them to take that kind of action next year.
Q Josh, I want to ask about some differences between things that you’ve said, that the President has said, and Director Brennan said yesterday. He went pretty shy of calling the enhanced interrogation techniques torture. In fact, when asked directly about that, he declined to do so. He said he would leave it to others. Why is there some sunlight between the President and his CIA Director on that specific issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I saw most of the news conference -- I don't think I saw that aspect of the news conference that Director Brennan convened yesterday at the CIA. I'll tell you that the President’s position on this has been really clear. He stands by his previous comments on this topic, and he has been pretty clear that that sharply influenced his view that those kinds of tactics should be banned. And that's why he did it on his second full day in office.
Q Do you think this is something that he should get the CIA Director on board, to get him to agree that this is torture?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm glad you asked it that way, because the Director was very clear yesterday in saying that he “fully supports” the President’s decision to prohibit the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. So I think that is straight from the Director a clear indication that he strongly supports the policy that the President put in place on his second full day in office while, I might point out, Director Brennan was serving here at the White House as the President’s top counterterrorism advisor.
Q Another thing that Director Brennan fully supports -- and he actually mentioned his service here at the White House in the context of this -- is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, in the counterterrorism effort. And my question is, could you foresee a future administration -- just as this administration has said that drones are effective, but torture is not worth it -- could you imagine a future administration saying that unmanned aerial vehicles, because of the damage that they do to our moral authority around the world, should not be used, they are not worth it, as well?
MR. EARNEST: No, I would not envision a scenario where that would occur, for a couple of reasons. I mean, the first is that lethal operations -- lethal counterterrorism operations are only conducted as a last resort. And the President has emphasized that extraordinary care needs to be taken to ensure that these counterterrorism activities are carried out in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and are consistent with U.S. values and policy.
Q But there’s thousands of more civilian casualties -- 40 times the number of people affected directly than were held in Guantanamo. Is the animating principle here that if the President does it it's not illegal?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think the animating principle here is the President is committed, in fact, to upholding both American and international law and ensuring that all of the actions that are taken are consistent with our values and our policy. Those values are what uphold our moral authority around the globe, and that's why the President is determined to ensure that our counterterrorism operations are consistent with those values, because he believes that protecting our moral authority is important to protecting the national security of the United States.
Our moral authority around the globe is one of the most important and powerful tools that we have in our arsenal to protect and advance our interests around the globe. And that's why the President has expended such significant effort to rebuild that moral authority over the last several years.
Q And you don't think there’s any aspect of the drone program that undermines this administration or this country’s moral authority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, as I mentioned earlier, great precautions are taken to --
Q You don't think it undermines the moral authority?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q I had a couple I wanted to ask about, but first I wanted to kind of unpack your answer on Nancy Pelosi. You praised her and said a big reason that she’s been so effective working with the President is that more than any other leader kind of on Capitol Hill, she’s kind of been able to rally and whip her party. And I was struck that you said that because, of course, yesterday 57 Democrats voted against her and with the White House. And so I'm wondering if we had a readout of that, whether your guys’ understanding is either that Leader Pelosi wasn’t really sincerely kind of against this bill, that it was a bit of Kabuki theater that was going on, or if there’s concerns that she’s been an effective leader that's been able to kind of hammer her party in the past but now we're starting to see cracks and division in the House Democrats.
MR. EARNEST: I think there is a lesson that we have learned here at the White House and I think it's a lesson that everybody around Washington has probably learned at some point or another during Nancy Pelosi’s tenure in Congress, which is people who underestimate Nancy Pelosi do so at their own risk. And I don't think that there is any doubt that she continues to be the kind of effective leader in this Congress and will be in the upcoming Congress that she has been over the last six or eight years.
Q Well, then I guess just generally on some of the divides that we’ve seen in the Democratic Party over the last couple weeks -- a lot of red-state, purple-state Democrats lost in the midterm elections. The Democrats who will be coming back to Capitol Hill in January are far more liberal, and we’re starting to see sort of that progressive strain on the party flex its muscles increasingly on Capitol Hill. Is that going to pull leaders like Nancy Pelosi, like Harry Reid to the left in a way that’s going to make it hard for the White House to negotiate with Republicans, which you guys have kind of said is your priority in the next two years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what our priority is over the course of the next few years is to make progress on a whole range of common-sense policies where there should be bipartisan agreement, because they would advance the President’s top goal, which is to expand economic opportunity for middle-class families. I recognize that not every Republican shares that goal, but I think every Democrat does and I think that there are a lot of Republicans who do, as well. And I do think that looking for pieces of legislation where we can get a large number of Republicans and match them up with a large number of Democrats to make progress is certainly a template for success that the President hopes to follow.
But, again, each of these issues we’re going to evaluate on the merits. Let me give you another example. A couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t long ago that we were discussing the fact that there were behind-the-scenes negotiations up on Capitol Hill involving Democrats and Republicans that would have given a significant and costly tax break to well-connected corporations without looking out for the interests of working families. That violated a core principle of the President. He spoke out strongly against it, as did other members of the Democratic caucus, including some of those who are the more progressive elements of the Democratic caucus.
So as recently as two weeks ago, you had the President working seamlessly with the more progressive members of the caucus to advance the goals that he has laid out. Last night, you saw the President working closely with Republicans and several dozen Democrats to advance a legislative proposal that he believes actually would be good for middle-class families. And I think this is the kind of approach that the American people expect from a President who is willing to put ideology aside and actually focus on the results. And in both of these situations, we feel like we got a result that’s clearly in the best interest of middle-class families all across the country.
Q And then a last one just to kind of shade off of that, I mean, one of the progressive voices that I think you were alluding to was Elizabeth Warren, who both on the cromnibus and this ongoing fight over Treasury nominees has been kind of an antagonist to the President and the White House. And so I’m wondering if you can kind of describe where the President’s relationship with her is right now -- she obviously was somebody who played a big role in his first term here -- and whether there’s been any outreach between the President and her staff here or to her, to sort of talk out kind of the issues that have been bubbling up lately.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I can’t read out any calls that may have taken place in the last couple of days, but certainly the White House was in touch with Senator Warren in the immediate aftermath of the President making clear -- or at least those of us here at the White House making clear that the President intended to veto the emerging deal around so-called tax extenders. And, again, the President opposed that emerging agreement because it would look out for well-connected corporations and not do nearly as much for working people. That is a principle that Senator Warren agreed with. And I saw that shortly after there was that statement from the White House indicating that the President strongly opposed this legislation and would veto it, you saw a strong statement from Senator Warren echoing the same sentiments and announcing her opposition as well.
Q You feel like the relationship is still good between the White House and Senator Warren?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And I continue to believe that Senator Warren and the President have the same kinds of goals and priorities that we’ve discussed quite a bit. Certainly one of those is around Wall Street reform. Wall Street reform is going to go down as one of the signature domestic achievements of this presidency, and the President certainly benefited from the advice and counsel that he got from Elizabeth Warren in that effort. And they worked together to set up the CFPB. And again, I think that is indicative of the shared values that they have, and I think that that will -- that those shared values will be on display over the next couple of years as well.
Q On the same subject, given that a compromise bill means compromise, what do you make of some of that outright anger from some of these Democrats and some of the impassioned speeches that we heard about them giving? Like that now is the time to take a stand and we have to do this now, that we have to stand on principle -- the implication is that the White House supporting it with that measure isn’t standing on principle. I mean, is your view that the effect of it overall is less extreme than some of them think it will be? And do you see this as sort of -- that there’s going to be less willingness to compromise on other things moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: Michelle, it’s the view of those of us here at the White House that this is a difference over tactics, not a difference over principle. The fact is, the President opposed -- has opposed this provision for a number of years -- or at least a couple of years -- and he opposes this provision now. But the fact is, the President did have to make a fundamental decision about whether this omnibus proposal was in the best interest of the country. And because it included funding for our fight against Ebola and our fight against ISIL, because it included funding for early childhood education and for agencies that are going to be implementing the Climate Action Plan, and because it did not include Republican proposals to gut our ability to implement the Affordable Care Act or implement the President’s executive actions that would reform our broken immigration system, the President believed that this was a legislation worthy of his support.
Q So you think they were making too big a deal out of that one part of it?
MR. EARNEST: I think that they were voting their conscience and I think that they were making their views known. But, again, this is a difference over tactics, not over principle. The President shares their view and their concerns about this individual provision. But the fundamental decision that we made here, Michelle, is that had a three-month continuing resolution been passed by the House and the Senate to keep the government open, which is something that the President would have signed, would actually only reduce the leverage of Democrats as they try to broker this agreement; that we would start over in the negotiation of this agreement. And when we returned three months from now, there would be 12 more members of the House in the Republican Conference and nine more members in the Republican Conference in the Senate. So that would have only weakened the hand of Democrats as we tried to broker an agreement that we believe would be in the best interest of the country.
So that’s why the President was pleased to support this compromise proposal. He understands that he wouldn’t support every provision in the bill -- he doesn’t -- but he does believe that on balance, this is the kind of proposal that’s in the best interest of the country.
Q Okay, and on cybersecurity, it seems like whenever there is something done -- whether it’s a sit-down with a foreign leader or something legislatively -- a week later, there’s another big cyber-attack and sometimes coming from the same countries that were just discussing it. Do you think something much more aggressive needs to be done? And, if so, what would that look like?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly do believe that there is much more that can be done to bolster our cyber defenses in this country. This administration has put forward a very clear cybersecurity framework, but it’s also going to require congressional action to put in place the kind of template that we believe is necessary to protect the government’s computer networks but also to do more to allow us to coordinate with the private sector and ensure that private sector networks, including those that relate to core infrastructure, are protected as well.
So this has been a priority of this administration for some time and it’s going to continue to be.
Q Okay, and on sort of on a lighter note on this Friday, do you have any reaction to the Vice President saying that as a child he threatened to kill a local bully? Is that surprising?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see those comments. Where did he make them?
Q He gave a speech and he said that he was the hero when it related to a local bully, and that he slammed his head on a counter and said that he would kill him. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure why that was introduced as a question on a lighter note. (Laughter.) I guess that’s my first reaction. But I would encourage you to check with the Vice President’s office. They may be able to better explain what the Vice President was trying to communicate in that situation.
Q Josh, Monday is the sign-up deadline for the policies under the ACA. I realize you don't have the final figures yet. What’s your sense at this point as we're approaching this deadline as to how this year’s sign-up has gone? Presumably better than it started out last year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, no question about that. That's certainly a low bar. And we are pleased that the website has performed so well in this open enrollment period.
Let me see -- I do believe that I have some statistics in here. More than 1.3 million consumers have selected plans in the 2015 open enrollment period. You're right, we are approaching a deadline. December 15th would be the last day that individuals could sign up for an insurance policy that would be effective on January 1st.
We also are encouraging people who signed up through the marketplace last year to go back and visit the site, because what we have found is that more than 7 in 10 -- so more than 70 percent of those who signed up for plans last year, if they shop online this year, if they do a little shopping around, they can actually save money, that they’ll be able to find a cheaper option in the marketplace for 2015 if they go back and examine the options that are available to them. So we're strongly encouraging people to go back to the marketplace, even if they signed up last year, to go and see what their options are. They may be able to find something cheaper even at the same level of benefits.
Q When this open enrollment season closes, do you think this year will have made a substantial advance in decreasing the number of Americans who are uninsured?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this certainly is an ongoing process, and we do believe that we will continue to make progress toward expanding coverage. We also believe that we're going to continue to make progress in reducing costs. And that is another core component of our strategy here, has been to lower costs -- or at least to restrain the growth in costs.
Prior to the Affordable Care Act, we were seeing double-digit increases in premiums. And there is lots of evidence out there to indicate that we're having a lot of success in restraining that growth in a way that's good for middle-class families, in a way that's good for businesses, and ultimately in a way that's good for the federal government.
We're seeing a significant positive impact on the deficit as a result of the Affordable Care Act. So we’ve got some more work to do, and we certainly want to encourage people who are considering signing up through the marketplace to send some time this weekend checking out their options.
I can report that the website is preforming much better than it did last year, and that it is a good place for people to check and see what’s available for them.
Q Will this year’s figures end the debate?
MR. EARNEST: I doubt it. (Laughter.)
Q I’m going to try one more on the Dodd-Frank thing. I hear everything you said about all of the other provisions that helped out middle-class families and that the President was opposed to this change. Does he think that the people who spoke out so forcefully against it, who said that this was a major change and gutted Dodd-Frank in a significant way, were they wrong about that? Or does he think that they were right, but that needed to be accepted?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that there is not a consensus over exactly what impact this specific provision would have. What I can tell you is that fundamentally this is not a difference over principle, it’s a difference over tactics. And the President believed that it was important for us to pass an agreement that was on the table now rather than kick this can down the road for three months and take it up again when Republicans had more leverage. And that ultimately is the substance of the disagreement.
There are some Democrats who felt like it was worth it to vote down this bill in an effort to try to send a message. And that's not an unprincipled position. It’s just a position that the President didn't share.
Q But what’s his position on how much of an impact this actually has on Dodd-Frank? Does he feel like it’s significant? Even if it’s an acceptable level, but is it significant?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the impact that we expect it will have on Wall Street reform is negative. That's why we oppose the provision, and that's why we opposed it before and we oppose it now.
As it relates to the technical details about how much of an impact it would have, frankly, I don't have the kinds of inner working -- the knowledge of the inner workings of our financial system to give you a good assessment of that. And it’s my understanding -- the reason I’m hesitant to wade into that is because I do think that there is some disagreement about that.
But again, the President is certainly sympathetic to those who say this is a terrible provision and we oppose it -- because the President himself has concerns about the provision and opposes it. But the President did make a strategic decision about the wisdom of signing the agreement that was before him, as opposed to kicking the can down the road and trying to broker an agreement in which Republicans had more leverage.
Q Just a broader question. A lot of people have called this a do-nothing Congress. They passed this last night. Does the President feel like this changes that overall tenor of the Congress, that it’s actually gotten things done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a short answer to your question is no, that there are still a lot of other things that need to get done, and that we’ll be eagerly awaiting congressional attention when they return at the beginning of next year.
But that said, we certainly were pleased that this bipartisan proposal was reached and that it’s passed the House. And we believe it merits bipartisan support in the Senate. I do think it is -- I think you could accurately describe it as a bright spot in terms of the legislative session of this Congress. And the President is hopeful that he’ll have the opportunity to sign it.
Q Can I just clarify what you were saying to Isaac about Dodd-Frank? You're saying that the President is sympathetic to those who think it’s a bad provision, right?
MR. EARNEST: Because the President thinks it’s a bad provision.
Q And he’s opposed -- right. But are you saying also that he’s sympathetic to those who think it’s not a negative, it is not an onerous change to the law? You're saying both.
MR. EARNEST: No, no, because there are some on the other side of the aisle principally who believe that this would be a positive change to Wall Street reform. The President doesn't agree with that. It actually would water down a reform that's included in the Wall Street reform bill. The President has been a strong advocate for the Wall Street reform bill. As I mentioned earlier, it will go down as one of his signature domestic achievements. And he’s going to oppose any effort to try to water it down, and that's why he opposes this provision. But again, this is ultimately not a difference over the value of the provision, it’s a difference -- at least among Democrats -- over the strategy here.
Q So let me just follow up and ask, I was expecting you to maybe say the President would look for opportunities going forward to see if this could be corrected or it could be changed. Are you saying that as far as the President is concerned, this is going to -- this change is going to be in the law forever?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if there is an opportunity, if there is an opportunity to strengthen Wall Street reform, including by rolling back this provision that would water down one element of Wall Street reform, then we certainly would support that.
I guess the reason that I’m displaying some reticence here is that we're also realistic about the fact that you have large Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate that strongly support watering down Wall Street reform. This is a fundamental difference between the two parties.
For all of the hope that we have about being able to work with Republicans on areas where there is common ground, I don't hold out a lot of hope that we're going to be able to work with Republicans to strengthen Wall Street reform. Unfortunately -- and this, again, is a clear difference between Democrats and Republicans -- a lot of Republicans believe that we should actually be working harder to look out for the interests of big businesses. The President disagrees. He believes we should be working harder to look out for the interests of middle-class families. There is just a difference in approach of the two parties. And that may be an area where we may not be able to make much progress over the next two years. But if we can make progress in this way, we certainly would welcome the opportunity to do so.
Q One other element of this is DHS. It’s not that many weeks away when DHS in February will run out of its funding. Can you describe the President’s strategy in reckoning with that come February?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is ultimately -- like this legislative proposal for the budget, this will be the responsibility of Congress. And as I mentioned I think on a couple of occasions now, it’s difficult for me to envision a scenario where Republicans want to have a public argument about the fact that they're going to withhold funding for border security, for criminal background checks and for other elements of our broader strategy to protect the homeland just out of personal pique over the President’s executive action to reform our broken immigration system. They’re welcome to make that argument if they would like, but I don’t think that they will.
Q Well, just to tie those two things together, Josh, there is going to be a negotiation over DHS funding in a couple of months. That is an opportunity to bring up other issues. Can you commit yourself today to trying to redo this particular element of Dodd-Frank in the context of something that is going to have to be dealt with sooner rather than later?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the omnibus proposal hasn’t even passed the Senate yet, so I’m going to hold off on firing the starting gun on the negotiations about sort of the next round of this. So we’ll have our debate, we’ll do what we can, but like this proposal, this will ultimately be something that has to be negotiated among leaders on Capitol Hill. I’m confident that the administration will be in the loop on those negotiations and we’ll be making our views known, but ultimately this is something that they’re going to have to work out.
Q But you’ll have less leverage on this than we discussed yesterday with the overall funding of DHS?
MR. EARNEST: That’s true. And, again, that’s purely a matter of the arithmetic here.
Q Meaning you’ll have less leverage on Dodd-Frank and this particular --
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And, again, that is a function of the arithmetic. We’ve got 12 more Republicans in the House and nine more Republicans in the Senate, and that necessarily means that Republicans are going to have more leverage when they approach these negotiations. And, again, it’s just going to place an even greater premium on our efforts to try to find common ground where we can.
Q I understand that you can’t weigh in on the technical details, but on the big question -- Elizabeth Warren said on the Senate floor this provision will put taxpayers on the hook to bail out firms that swap derivatives backed up by government funds. Is that wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there --
Q No, no, that’s not a technical thing. It’s just she said -- because you said only a few moments ago taxpayers are protected from bailing out large financial institutions and that is a signature element of Dodd-Frank and that remains to be true. Elizabeth Warren says that’s not going to be true once this provision is signed into law.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that there is a -- there is not a consensus about the true impact of this specific provision.
Q What does the White House believe?
MR. EARNEST: And I’m not able to speak to the details or to describe what we believe to be the actual impact of this specific provision other than to say we believe that the impact is going to be negative and we strongly oppose it.
Q Senior U.S. officials who have spent several days looking at the reports and whatever available evidence have now confirmed to us that a longstanding al Qaeda target, Adnan el Shukrijumah, was killed in an operation by the Pakistanis earlier this week. Can you confirm that? And do you have any comment from the U.S. government on what appears to be a significant development in that this was not a U.S. operation, this was a Pakistani operation, and what that may suggest about cooperation between not only our two countries but our intelligence services, which as you no doubt know, have a complicated -- to put it mildly -- history?
MR. EARNEST: That last part is certainly true. What I can say is that I’m not in a position to confirm those reports. I’ve seen them.
Q Do you have any reason to disbelieve them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m going to have to take the question and to see if we can get you some greater clarity about our understanding of this specific matter. We’ve certainly -- but, again, we have seen these reports and we do value the strong counterterrorism relationship that exists between the United States and Pakistan. And that cooperation and coordination between our two countries has made citizens of both our countries safer. And we are interested in strengthening that relationship even further.
But as it relates to this specific report --
Q Would this raid mark a turning point of advancing that level of cooperation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we would hope that we can continue to strengthen that relationship. And if this mission does serve to strengthen that relationship, then that would certainly be a good thing. It would be a good thing for our national security and it would be a good thing for the citizens of Pakistan as well.
Q A couple moments ago you said it was appropriate for Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin to apologize. Why?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that a lot of people who have read those emails -- maybe not everybody but I think a lot of people -- cringed a little bit when they were reading them. And --
Q Because they were what? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Hmm, Mr. Garrett may think it’s my first day here. (Laughter.) Look, I think that there were a lot of people who did have a personal reaction that caused them maybe to cringe a little bit when they read those emails. And I think --
Q Did the President have a personal reaction since they were about him?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to him about it.
Q What do you think?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure what his reaction was.
Q What do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I, like a lot of people --
Q Do you think they were racist?
MR. EARNEST: When I saw those emails -- and, again, I’ve only seen some of the reports -- but I certainly think that the decision that Ms. Pascal made to apologize was the appropriate one, based on my reading of those emails.
Q Thanks. A couple questions on the Russia sanctions bill. Am I correct in saying that the White House has indicated to the Hill that the President would sign that, presuming it reaches his desk?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. What I can tell you is that we’re looking at it right now. There were a couple of different iterations of this legislation as it bounced between --
Q I’m talking specifically about the House version that passed yesterday, not the dead Senate version.
MR. EARNEST: Right, that is why we still need to take a look at this piece of legislation before we’re going to articulate a specific position on it. But I can tell you that like many members of Congress, the administration remains deeply concerned about the aggressive actions of Russia in Ukraine, including the occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea and support to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The administration has built a broad coalition of countries to impose tough sanctions that impose real costs on Russia for its aggressive acts, and send an unmistakable signal condemning Russia’s actions while mitigating the spillover impact on American businesses, international energy markets, and the global economy.
Look, our goal here overall, Angela, has been to try to maintain a united front with our allies and partners in this effort. I mean, as we’ve talked about on a number of occasions as it relates to Iran, the key to success when you’re implementing these kinds of sanctions is to get other countries to go along with it, particularly when you’re talking about a nation like Russia that does a whole lot more business with our partners in Europe than it does with the United States.
And what that means is that if it’s only the United States that’s imposing these sanctions unilaterally, the sanctions regime is not going to have as powerful an impact. But by being able to work closely with our partners in Western Europe in particular, we have succeeded on multiplying the economic impact of the sanctions regime on the Russian economy, and there are a whole range of ways to evaluate that. From the significant weakening of the Russian currency, we have seen that projections about the future economic growth in Russia have gone from positive to negative since the sanctions regime was put in place. We have seen significant private capital flight out of Russia because there are concerns that are being expressed by global investors about the state of the Russian economy, and about the stability of the Russian economy.
And this has put Russia in a place where they’re isolated from the international community, and it means that the Russian President faces a pretty fundamental choice about whether his destabilizing actions in Ukraine are worth the significant cost to his nation’s economy. That economic cost only increases as the days go by, and Russia’s isolation only increases as the days go by, and we want to make sure that as we implement this sanctions regime that it keeps our coalition unified, that it optimizes the costs that are imposed on Russia, and that at the same time it minimizes the impact it has on American businesses.
So this is delicate work, and that’s why we’re going to review the legislation and determine whether or not the President can sign it.
Q Is there concern that the coalition would not be unified, that this would put the U.S. ahead of the EU?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are some concerns about earlier versions of the legislation along those lines, so we’re going to review this one. And again, there is a clear strategy that we’ve put in place that we’ve been pretty candid about, in terms of making sure that our sanctions regime is closely coordinated with our Western allies. And we’re going to continue -- we want to continue to pursue that strategy because it has succeeded in imposing such a significant economic toll on Russia.
Viqueira, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you very much. Jamie Dimon. Did the White House facilitate his calls in any way last night?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Did the White House try to stop his calls in any way last night?
MR. EARNEST: No. No.
Q Was the White House aware that he was making calls last night?
MR. EARNEST: When we read about it in the news reports.
Q What does it say that, on one side you have President Obama, John Boehner and Jamie Dimon, and on the other side you have Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. This is a man who is a leader of an industry that’s symbolic; everything that’s happened to the economy since President Obama took office. Drove the economy in a ditch, one of the fat cats. What does it say that the debate divided up that way, its core Democratic base versus the President and a Wall Street type?
MR. EARNEST: I can understand why you would see it that way, but I think the more sophisticated understanding of the scenario is that the President and many Wall Street executives have a starkly different view of this specific provision. Presumably, although I was not able to be read in on the calls that Wall Street executives may have been making, presumably they were encouraging people to support the bill because the provision was included. The President was encouraging people to support the bill, in spite of the provision. So I think it would be -- so that’s why I don’t think it's accurate to describe the President and anybody from Wall Street being on the same side of this issue.
Okay, let’s do the week ahead.
On Sunday, the First Family will attend Christmas in Washington at the National Building Museum.
On Monday, the President will travel to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, in the great state of New Jersey, to deliver remarks expressing his gratitude for the service and sacrifice of our troops and their families. Further details about the President’s travel to New Jersey will be made available over the weekend. Certainly around the holiday season is an appropriate time for us to show our gratitude to our men and women in uniform and their families for their service and sacrifice.
Q Some will be back from Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: That’s my understanding, yes. So we’ll get you some more details on that.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President will host two Hanukkah receptions here at the White House. The First Lady will also attend and there will be some press coverage of those receptions.
On Thursday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
And then on Friday, the First Family will depart the White House en route to Honolulu, Hawaii -- a flight that I know the President himself is eagerly looking forward to.
Q News conference next week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything like that on the week ahead, but we’ll keep you posted if we -- (laughter) --
Q (Inaudible) perhaps Thursday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we have more information about the President’s schedule next week we’ll let you know.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: All right, have a great weekend, everybody.
Q Not bad for your first day.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. (Laughter.)
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