Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Hope you’re feeling as rested and recharged as many of us here at the White House. I know that I am.
Some of you are -- although I don’t see too many tan faces in the audiences, just on the side. So --
Q Happy New Year.
MR. EARNEST: Happy New Year to you, Goyal. So I don’t have anything to start, Julie, so let’s go straight to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. Happy New Year. Congress comes back tomorrow with Republicans in charge, and I’m wondering if the President has spoken to Mitch McConnell or the Republican leaders either while he was in Hawaii or since he’s been back, and if he has any plans to meet with them this week.
MR. EARNEST: Julie, I don’t know of any presidential calls that occurred while the President was in Hawaii. I believe that both the President and the incoming Senate Majority Leader were spending some downtime with families over the holidays. But I would anticipate that the President will have an opportunity to sit down with congressional leaders in the first couple of weeks that they’re back here. I don’t have a specific date at this point, but I would anticipate that that’s something that will happen if not this week, then the week or two after that.
Q He’s occasionally spoken to Republicans at their retreat; that’s in Pennsylvania this year. Do you know if he has plans to travel to that? Has he been invited?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether or not he’s been invited. I am aware that those are their plans, but I don’t know yet whether or not the President will attend.
Q Okay. One of the first things that McConnell has said that he plans to bring up is the Keystone pipeline. There’s going to be a hearing on it on Wednesday. The House plans to vote relatively soon. The President was pretty non-committal in his end-of-the-year press conference. When he was asked about a veto, he said we’ll take that up in the new year. We’re now in the new year, we know that this is coming up. If Congress sends him a bill forcing him to move forward on the Keystone pipeline, will he veto it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m going to reserve judgment on a specific piece of legislation until we actually see what language is included in that specific piece of legislation. I will say, as you noted, Julie, he did discuss this at his end-of-the-year news conference a couple of weeks ago, and he did note that the pipeline would have I think what he described as a nominal impact on gas prices in this country. But he was concerned about the impact that it could have on carbon pollution and the contribution it could make to carbon pollution, the negative impact that that has on the public health of people all across the country, and the impact that that has on our ability to build communities across the country. As we see weather disasters worsen, as we see in the form of wildfires or more severe hurricanes, that only adds to costs. So the President does harbor those concerns.
The other concern, frankly, that we have is that this is a -- that pipeline projects like this in the past had been resolved in a fairly straightforward administrative way; that there is a process that is conducted by the State Department to evaluate a project and determine whether or not it’s in the national interest of the United States. That’s how previous pipelines like this have been considered, and we believe this one should be considered in that same way too.
The last thing I’ll say about this is there also is an outstanding ruling that we’re waiting on from a judge in the state of Nebraska to determine what the route of the pipeline would be if it’s built through the state of Nebraska, which means there’s actually not a finalized plan on the table yet for final sign-off. So we don’t want to put the cart before the horse here, and that is why in the past we’ve taken a rather dim view of legislative attempts to circumvent this well-established process.
So all that said, I’m not prepared at this point to issue a veto threat related to that specific piece of legislation, but we will take a careful look at it with all those things in mind.
Q Is it fair to say that the President would be urging Democrats to vote against the legislation approving the pipeline?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll see what the legislation actually includes before we start urging people to vote one way or the other.
Q Okay. And if I can just ask on one other topic, just on something that came up while the President was in Hawaii. Representative Steve Scalise apologized for speaking to a white supremacist group 12 years ago. Does the President believe that Scalise should stay in leadership?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, it is the responsibility of members of the House Republican conference to choose their leaders. And I’m confident that in previous situations we’ve seen members of the conference actually make the case that who they choose to serve in their leadership says a lot about who they are, what their values are, and what the priorities of the conference should be. Now, we’ve also heard a lot from Republicans, particularly over the last few years, including the Chairman of the Republican Party, about how Republicans need to broaden their appeal to young people and to women, to gays and to minorities; that the success of their party will depend on their ability to broaden that outreach.
So it ultimately will be up to individual Republicans in Congress to decide whether or not elevating Mr. Scalise into leadership will effectively reinforce that strategy.
Q So far, Republican leadership seems to be standing by Scalise. Does the President feel that’s appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he believes that it’s ultimately their decision to make. But there is no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference’s priorities and values are. I mean, ultimately, Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as David Duke without the baggage. So it will be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference.
Q Josh, the Afghan President said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States should consider reexamining its timetable for taking U.S. coalition troops out of Afghanistan. Is that something that the White House has discussed with him? And is it something that the U.S. would consider at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, what the President has been really clear about is what our strategy in Afghanistan is; that after the end of the year, we are now in a situation where the combat mission in Afghanistan for U.S. military personnel has ended. The Afghans are now solely responsible for the security of their country.
There is an enduring U.S. military presence and NATO coalition military presence in Afghanistan to carry out two other missions. The first is a counterterrorism mission. We continue to see remnants of al Qaeda that do have designs on destabilizing the region and U.S. interests. We also continue to see a need for U.S. military personnel to play an important role in training and equipping Afghan security forces to continue to take the fight to those terrorist elements and to preserve the security situation in the country of Afghanistan.
There are a lot of hard-won gains that have been made in Afghanistan as a result of the bravery of U.S. military personnel and our coalition partners. Much of that work -- many of those accomplishments are due to the effective coordination between United States military and Afghan security forces, and we want to see that kind of coordination continue, even as Republicans take on -- Republicans -- even as Afghans take sole responsibility for their security situation.
Q Freudian slip? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: We’re all sort of working out the cobwebs from the layoff.
Q What was your reaction then, or the White House’s reaction, to his comments in that interview?
MR. EARNEST: Well, and I guess this is the other part of the answer that’s also important is the fact that we continue to have military personnel in Afghanistan to carry out these two missions. The counterterrorism mission and the training mission, the training of Afghan security forces, is indicative of the ongoing commitment that the United States has to the government of Afghanistan; that we built a strong working relationship with the unified government there and the United States and countries around the world who have invested so much in Afghan security continue to be invested in the success, both political and economic, of the Afghan people.
And the United States is prepared to continue that partnership. But as it relates to the strategy associated with our military footprint, we’ve been pretty clear about what that strategy is. More importantly, the Commander-in-Chief has been clear about what that strategy is.
Q On a separate topic, oil prices continue to fall with some resulting falls in the stock market today. Is the White House concerned about this trend? And are you watching it? What is your reaction to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is, I’m always very hesitant to draw any conclusions or offer any analysis about movements in the stock market. I know that there are some who have observed -- this is a little of a chicken-and-the-egg thing -- that some of the fall in energy prices is a direct response to a weakening economy and a fall in the stock market. So it may not be that one is causing the other; there could sort of be a reinforcing effect there.
What I will say more broadly is that we’ve talked before about why we believe that falling gas prices are, as a general matter, pretty good for the economy and it certainly is good for middle-class families that are being pinched. And when they go to the pump and they see that the prices at the pump are up to a dollar cheaper than they were last year, that certainly means more money in the pocket of middle-class families. That’s good for those middle-class families that the President believes are so critical to the success of our economy.
It also is a testament to the success that the U.S. has had over the last several years, in part because of the policies put forward by this administration, to increase production of domestic oil and gas. It also is a testament to some of the policies this administration put in place five years ago to raise fuel-efficiency standards.
Q But, Josh, I understand all these things that you want to list, but is the White House concerned about the economic implications of these falling oil prices?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that we’re always monitoring. I believe we talked about this a little bit at the end of last year. But we’re always monitoring the impact that any sort of policy area would have on the economy, so it’s certainly something that we’re watching. I think that as a general matter, speaking broadly, the impact of falling energy prices has been good for the U.S. economy.
Q Any response to these recent statements by North Korea? And are you surprised by the nature of some of them -- that they’re coming from a state, even though that state is North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: They’re not particularly surprising. We’ve seen comments from the North Koreans in the past. As it relates to the subject that’s received so much attention in the last few weeks, the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the administration spoke pretty clearly at the end of last week by putting in place a new economic sanctions regime against three North Korean entities and 10 individuals as part of our proportional response to that specific hacking incident.
Q And the speculation that’s been out there from some analysts that it actually might have come from somewhere else besides North Korea, does the administration see no merit to some of those sort of statements out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is an investigation that’s being conducted by the FBI. They’ve obviously devoted significant resources to this. They have their own area of expertise when it comes to these matters, and they have come to the conclusion, based on the evidence, that North Korea was responsible for this. And I don’t see any reason to disagree with the conclusions that they’ve arrived at. If you have questions about why they’ve arrived at that conclusion, you can direct it to them.
Q And the President called this incident an act of “cyber vandalism.” But we know that there is a review going on as to whether North Korea should be on the list of state sponsors of terror. So does that mean that there’s a possibility the President is going to reconsider what he called this hack? Or is that review of North Korea possibly being on the list based on purely other activities by North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: It does not mean that the President is reconsidering the way that he talks about this, but what is prudent is that our national security team is always reviewing the actions, particularly of nations like North Korea, to determine the proper policy response, and in some cases, whether or not that includes including them on the state sponsor of terrorism list.
Now, there are -- I will say that there is a very specific technical definition for how states, or why individual countries, should be added to that list. And so we will work very carefully to determine whether or not the actions that have been taken by North Korea meet that very specific technical definition.
Q And I mean, the fact that North Korea is not on that list, Cuba is, both are under review -- that doesn’t say a lot about that list and its weight.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I actually think that it might actually say quite a bit about the weight of that list. The fact that we take so seriously those nations that do sponsor acts of terrorism, that they are in a very small club. But that is a list that you don’t want to be on, and it’s a list that we take very seriously as we formulate a foreign policy that protects the national security interest of the United States.
And the fact that we make a very -- take a very deliberative approach to determining whether or not a country should be added to the list or removed from the list I think is an indication of just how serious a matter a state sponsor of terrorism is.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Move around a little bit. Justin.
Q I want to go back to Mitch McConnell. He, in an interview this morning -- from the Washington Post, said that the single best thing that the Republican Congress can do is not mess up the playing field for 2016, the Republican presidential nominee. So I’m kind of interested in the inverse of that question, which is, is that President Obama’s kind of number-one priority headed in for the last two years? Or to what extent is preparing the Democratic Party for the 2016 elections and the leader that would presumably continue his vision a priority or something that’s on your guys’ agenda? And conversely, to what extent are you guys trying to foil Mitch McConnell’s plan to sort of -- he wanted the Republicans to seem less crazy, I guess --
MR. EARNEST: Scary, I think is the --
Q Scary, yes.
MR. EARNEST: Typically, the beginning of the year is a time for optimism, where we set our sights high, where we really pursue our grandest ambitions, we make New Year’s resolutions for ourselves about how much we’re going to read more books or go to the gym more often. And suggesting that they’re going to be less scary is not exactly the highest ceiling I can imagine for their legislative accomplishments this year, but a worthy pursuit nonetheless.
What I will say is that the President does have, in the vein of ambition, a lot that he wants to try to get done this year. And over the course of this week even, you’ll hear the President talk quite a bit about steps that he can take to strengthen our economy, particularly to benefit middle-class families. The President believes our economy is strongest when we’re growing from the middle out. And I do think you can hear the President -- expect to hear the President talking in detailed fashion about some of the executive actions that he can pursue and some of the legislative proposals that he’ll put forward that he believes deserve bipartisan support.
And this is something -- this is a little different than what we’ve done in the past -- this is an opportunity for him to talk about the State of the Union address as we get closer to the date where he’ll actually give the speech. So a little bit more of a preview than we’ve seen in previous years.
And I do think it is indicative of the kind of energy that the President is feeling, and, frankly, even optimism that the President is feeling; that we can build on the kind of momentum that we’re seeing in our economy right now to put in place policies that will be good for middle-class families and be good for the broader U.S. economy.
Are Democrats and Republicans going to agree on every aspect of the President’s strategy? Probably not. But are there some things where we feel like we can work together to get things done that will be consistent with the ambitions of both parties, and consistent with a strategy that will be in the best interests of the country and middle-class families in the country? Yes, I think we can. And whether it’s -- I also noted in that same interview, Senator McConnell talked about finding new ways to invest in infrastructure. He talked about policies we can put in place to open up markets for U.S. businesses. And he talked about tax reform.
So these are all areas where there does stand the potential for bipartisan agreement, and the President is certainly going to pursue them. The President is also going to pursue some other things that Republicans may not like that he can do on his own.
Q So I mean, I recognize I kind of teed you up there to talk about the next week, but I am actually interested in the sort of 2016 question, the extent to which this is starting to enter your guys’ kind of calculations. Politically, obviously the President’s time in office is waning, but his legacy and -- will be extended and especially influenced by his successor.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, as you may have heard from some of my colleagues after the last midterm election, that the way -- the President sees it a little bit differently; that essentially, today marks the beginning of the fourth quarter of his presidency. And as the President, an avid basketball fan, has observed, a lot of really important things happen in the fourth quarter. And I think the President believes that’s true not just in an NBA basketball game, it’s also true of a presidency. And he wants to make it true of his presidency.
And that I do think is why you will see the President pretty energized when he appears later this week, that he’s going to have a pretty ambitious list of priorities that he wants to achieve. We’re going to look for opportunities to work with Republicans to make progress on those priorities. And where Republicans don’t agree, you’re going to see the President take decisive action to make progress on his own where he can.
And that is, I recognize, not a significant departure from the strategy that we have employed in the last couple of years, but I do think that you’re going to see the President be even more energized and even more determined to make progress on behalf of middle-class families. That’s, after all, the reason the President ran for this office in the first place. And the President is going to spend a lot of time focused on that here in the fourth quarter of his presidency.
And I guess -- so I guess the last part of that is -- and all that is to say, that means that the presidential election in 2016 is quite a ways off still. And the President believes that we should be focused on the kinds of policy priorities that are going to benefit middle-class families. There will be plenty of time for politics.
Q And then just on Steve Scalise, I know that you talked a little bit about it with Julie, but I’m wondering, did the President have a reaction to hearing that he had attended these rallies or the statement that you attributed to him? Have you had a conversation with him about it? Or does he think Steve Scalise should resign over this? Are there those sorts of kind of feelings or sentiments coming from --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t spoken to him directly about this specific issue. I can tell you that -- but I do feel confident in relaying to you that the President does believe that ultimately it’s the responsibility of individual members of the House Republican conference to decide who they want to elect as their -- as the leader of their conference. And certainly, who those elected leaders are says a lot about who the conference is and what their priorities and values are. And they’re going to have to answer for themselves whether or not elevating somebody who described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” sort of reinforces the kind of message that the House Republican conference wants to project.
Q Yes, thanks. Just on the legislative agenda, do you see the omnibus as sort of the model where you’re going to start seeing legislation that may have some things that you really don’t like but you’re going to sign it anyway because it’s probably the best compromise you’re going to get?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I would anticipate that anything -- that the most substantial pieces of legislation that we hope to get done will necessarily be compromises. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those pieces of legislation will include things that we strenuously oppose, it just may be that there are pieces of legislation that we feel like don’t go quite far enough but are certainly a positive step in the right direction.
But I think either of those scenarios fits what would be an acceptable definition of a compromise. And I would anticipate that when we’re operating in an environment where we have Republicans in charge of the Congress and a Democrat in charge of the White House, that compromise is going to be the name of the game.
And I certainly will hope, and the President certainly hopes, that Republicans are in -- will pursue our work together in that spirit.
Q Josh, the country’s largest police union today said the national hate crime statute should be expanded to include attacks on police officers. Does the President agree?
MR. EARNEST: I hadn’t seen that statement. I think that’s something that we’ll have to consider. Obviously, we certainly condemn in the strongest possible terms any sort of violence against police officers. And just a couple of weeks ago in New York we saw a brazen act of violence that really shook that community in New York. And even here a couple weeks later, the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House, including the President and First Lady, continue to be with the families of those two officers who were killed in that terrible attack.
So I think the question, though, is ultimately, what are the kinds of things that we can do to make it safer for police officers to do their important work. And this will be among the things that will be considered by the taskforce that the President appointed at the end of last year. They’re going to be holding their first public meeting next week. They’ll hear from the representatives of law enforcement organizations. Because the President does believe that building stronger bonds of trust between the community and the law enforcement officers who are sworn to serve and protect that community is in the best interest, both of the police officers and the citizens of those communities.
So trying to find that common ground and putting in place policies and looking for best practices where other communities have been able to identify that common ground is going to be part of the very important work of this taskforce and the President is looking forward to their findings.
Q Back to North Korea. Given that there have been some doubts raised about -- private-sector analysts looking at this and raising doubts about whether or not North Korea was actually responsible for the hack, is there some consideration to declassifying the evidence that shows that, in fact, North Korea has done this to give some confidence in the finding of the FBI on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were a couple of private-sector organizations that have endorsed the findings of the FBI. So there are some people who have looked at the evidence and come down on a couple different sides of this. Obviously what they’re dealing with here is something that’s pretty sensitive. The evidence that they have reviewed and obtained by making it public does give a pretty strong indication to the North Koreans and, frankly, to other bad actors about the techniques that we use to investigate and to attribute these kinds of attacks.
So it’s a tricky business here. I wouldn’t rule out in the future that the FBI may be able to be more transparent about their findings. But I’d refer you to them in terms of what they feel like they can comfortably release without undermining some of the strategies that they use, both to protect our infrastructure but also to investigate intrusions.
Q And by using the phrase or the word cyber vandalism to describe this, is the President downplaying the significance of it? Cyber vandalism, or the word “vandalism” sounds a lot less serious than the word terrorism, as some others have suggested.
MR. EARNEST: I think it sounds less serious, but the President certainly believes -- takes this incident, this attack, as something serious. It had a serious financial impact on this American company. It obviously had a serious impact on some of the values that we hold dear in this country about freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
So it was not the President’s intent to downplay this at all. I think the President was looking for a way that most accurately described exactly what had occurred.
Q Okay. Two other topics. One, the news over the weekend that Boko Haram has taken over a Nigerian base on the border with Chad. How much confidence does the White House have in the ability of the Nigerian government to deal with this threat? How significant do you think the threat of Boko Haram is, and what’s the United States -- is there any role for the United States to do anything about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about this, Jon. The first is, there obviously is a counterterrorism cooperation relationship between the United States and a number of countries in Africa, including Nigeria. And that kind of cooperation has been valuable in the past in trying to help central governments in Africa and other places in the world, frankly, combat some of these extremist elements in their countries.
So that counterterrorism relationship is ongoing. The clearest manifestation of that cooperation is the deployment of some military personnel that are on the ground in Nigeria to try to help recover those girls who were kidnapped from that school relatively early last year. So that work is ongoing, but this is very difficult work and we’re going to continue to cooperate with the Nigerians as they try to do a better job of securing their country.
Q But isn’t this an indication that that cooperation is not working at all? I mean, first of all, the girls haven’t been rescued. That’s on one side. The other side, Boko Haram seems to be on the march. I mean, they’ve actually overtaken a military base that was set up, in large part, to fight Boko Haram. I mean, doesn’t this show that whatever cooperation we have with the Nigerians just isn’t working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it shows that there is -- that they face a very serious threat in Nigeria. And the United States, it does have this relationship with Nigeria that we value, it’s a military-to-military relationship. We also share some other intelligence assets that have been deployed to fight Boko Haram. But this is certainly something that we’re concerned about.
Q And just one last question on the Cuba deal. Part of it was the Cuban government agreeing to release 53 political prisoners. Do you have an update for us on how many of the 53 have been released? Have they all been released, and who they are?
MR. EARNEST: For a specific update -- I’m going to have to take the question and we’ll get back to you -- it’s my understanding that not all of them have been released at this point. But as part of the agreement that was brokered that this prisoner release that the Cuban government decided to undertake on their own in the context of these discussions would take place in stages.
Q so you’re confident they’re going to follow through on this? I mean, there’s also been reports that the Cubans have arrested some additional political prisoners.
MR. EARNEST: What I would say is, at this point, there is no reason to think that they are walking back any part of the agreement. But we’ll see if we can get you some more details.
Q How concerned is this administration and how closely has this administration been and how closely has this administration been monitoring what is going on in Wall Street right now where the Dow has gone below 300, and the Euro has reached its lowest mark in nine years? The concerns are the instability of the Greek government and new elections there; that Greece will, in fact, abandon the Euro. What is the situation? How does the White House look at this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, I can tell you that we’re always monitoring movements in the financial markets. But in terms of sort of ascribing what may be driving those fluctuations in the market, I wouldn’t speculate on that. But obviously this administration has been working very closely with our partners in Europe as they’ve worked to deal with some of the financial challenges that they faced over the last several years, both as it relates to some members of the EU, but also as it relates to the broader economic trends over in Europe.
You’ll recall that the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, spoke at this podium a couple of weeks ago, and he discussed some concerns about headwinds from Europe, that their weakening economy is certainly in the best interest of the U.S. economy. But at the same time, the strength of the U.S. economy is due at least in part to some of the very important and difficult policy decisions that the President made early on in his presidency.
Q Gas taxes, Josh. For the new year and of course the plunging oil prices and plunging price of the gallon has renewed the talk of raising gas taxes to help pay for infrastructure. In the past, you guys have said that’s not on the table. Is it on the table now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not something that we have proposed, and that’s been our policy. We have put forward our own very specific proposal for how we believe we can make the investment that’s needed in infrastructure in this country. That’s typically what the gas tax revenue is dedicated to, is investing in infrastructure. And we have put forward our own specific plan for closing loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations, and using the revenue from closing those loopholes to investing in badly needed infrastructure upgrades.
There are some in Congress that have different ideas, including raising the gas tax. That’s certainly something that we’ll take a look at it, but it’s not something that we have considered from here.
Q Okay. I ask because, among those proposals, Bob Corker and Chris Murphy have wanted to raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years, I guess it is; you say there are others. Two questions: Are you, A, ruling a gas tax increase out? And, B, is the President going to say something specific on infrastructure and gas taxes in the State of the Union speech?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything to preview at this point about -- from the State of the Union on this specific topic. But we may have more in advance of the speech, so stay tuned.
As it relates to specific proposals from Congress, we’ll certainly consider proposals that are put forward, particularly bipartisan proposals like that one that you mentioned. But we’ve been really clear about what we think is the best way to get this done, and that is simply to close loopholes that benefit only the wealthy and well-connected corporations, and use that revenue to make badly needed investments in infrastructure that everybody benefits from. I recognize that there are some other ideas out there, and we’ll consider those too, but we’ve been really clear about what we support.
Q Just to follow up on that -- the gas tax is a kind of permanent, ongoing way to fund infrastructure. What you’re talking about is a one-time-only closing of loopholes to get some money for infrastructure investments. Do you think, as others have suggested, that the gas tax as a funding mechanism for infrastructure is broken and should be replaced by another mechanism?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not saying that, although some have pointed out that the fact that we have -- that our vehicles that are on the road are becoming more fuel efficient, which means they’re using less gas, which means that there’s likely to be less revenue from a gas tax. But what we have said is that we believe there is a very specific way that we can close some loopholes that will generate revenue that will allow us to make some badly needed investments in infrastructure.
Q But that’s not a permanent funding stream for infrastructure. That’s just a one-time-only --
MR. EARNEST: Well, it could be, because we’re talking about permanently closing the loopholes.
Q And that amount of money --
MR. EARNEST: That would be a change in the tax policy. It could be.
Q I know. But do you envision it as something that funds infrastructure over time? I don’t really understand how that becomes a permanent infrastructure funding source.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re not suggesting that we abolish the gas tax, right? But there is revenue that could be gleaned from reforming the tax code, and generating revenue that could be used to invest in infrastructure. And so that’s what our strategy is.
I recognize that there are other people that have other ideas, and we’ll certainly consider those ideas as they put them forward.
Q Is there reluctance to talk about the gas tax because you believe gas prices trending downward are likely to reverse in the not-too-distant future and you don’t want to mess with anything in the price market or taxes for fuel?
MR. EARNEST: I think the reluctance that you’re perceiving from me is that we believe, frankly, that we have a better idea for how to do this, which is that by closing loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations we can actually invest in the kind of infrastructure that will create jobs, stimulate economic growth and put in place modern infrastructure that we can all benefit from. So we’re open to these other ideas that others have put forward, but we believe our idea is better. But I’m not willing to --
Q But no matter what the price of gas is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, this is a position that we’ve had for some time, right?
Q I know. And there are a lot of energy economists who have said, well, look, this is a different -- this is a time for a different conversation, because the prices are down and there is more room within what people used to budget, and the infrastructure needs of the country haven’t gotten any better, they’ve become more pronounced, if anything; and it’s time for a fresh look at this. And I hear from you, you’re not inclined to give it a fresh look, and I’m just trying to figure out why.
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m trying to say is that we continue to remain open to giving it a look if somebody wants to put forward their own proposal. Again, this sort of goes to Cheryl’s question, in some ways, about compromise. We don’t believe that the best way to fund modernizing our infrastructure is to raise the gas tax, but some people do. And we’re willing to consider those proposals. We believe that the best way to do that is to close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected corporations.
Q And interpreting your comments earlier that you may or may not have a meeting -- the President may or may not have a meeting with congressional leaders on the Republican side this week, it sounds like he probably won’t, looking at the schedule. Is it fair to say that that is a lesser priority than getting out on the road and sort of previewing the State of the Union and displaying the President’s energetic pursuit of his own agenda, and not treating the new congressional Republican majority as a secondary item, but not as important as his own rhetorical flourishes for this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we’re less focused on rhetorical flourishes and more interested in substantive policy ideas that will get our economy moving and benefit middle-class families. That’s what we’re going to be focused on on the road, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on in our conversations with Democrats and Republicans who are in leadership positions in Congress.
Look, the President met with congressional leaders a couple of times during the lame duck session, and I’m confident that he’ll do it again early this year.
Q Right, but it’s just a different crew and a different power structure than during the lame duck. I mean, I know this is many of the same participants, but they’re --
MR. EARNEST: Pretty much all of the same participants, isn’t it?
Q Right, but they have different levels of power, and their proximity to them is completely different.
MR. EARNEST: But even in the context of those meetings that they had in the lame duck, they were talking about this -- everybody knew what was going to happen after the first of year, right? Everybody knew that the President wasn’t just meeting with the Senate Minority Leader, he was also meeting with the incoming Senate Majority Leader.
So I don’t think that that will substantively change the kinds of conversations that they’ll have early this year, which the President believes is important and he’ll do, but certainly there’s no reason we can’t do both, right? What the President wants to do is he wants to make progress by debating and putting in place where possible substantive economic policy ideas that will benefit the middle class. Some of those he can do on his own and he is going to do it. Some of those he is going to require cooperation with Republicans in Congress to get it done and he is eager to do that, too.
Q Right. I know you don’t want to preview the State of the Union but the last time the President gave an address like that there was no war against ISIS. There was no ongoing airstrike and a coalition to confront in two different countries. Now there is. So two questions. To what degree will the President use the State of the Union to give the country an assessment of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done? And how does the ongoing conflict influence the Defense budget that’s being put together and the ongoing discretionary cap limits that have one more year to go in a full budget cycle after this?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the State of the Union hasn’t been written yet, so I wouldn’t want to speculate --
Q Yes, but Cody has been working on it, as you and I both know.
MR. EARNEST: He is -- he has been -- but ultimately he’s not the author of it, even he has been working on it.
Q No, I know, but it’s not like there’s a bunch of blank pieces of paper hanging around.
MR. EARNEST: No, but it’s not as if the final words that are on the page are going to be the ones that will be read by the President of the United States on January 20th.
Q But you know these things get blocked out. What I’m just trying to figure out is how much does the President feel it’s necessary or worthwhile to assess what is a not-insignificant national --
MR. EARNEST: You’re asking a very legitimate question. I’m just trying to make it clear that those are -- we’re still having those kinds of discussions about what actually is going to be included in there and to what extent it will be included. But I am confident, as a general matter, that the President will use the opportunity of that national address to talk about the threat that we face from ISIL and what the United States continues to do by leading this broader international coalition of more than 60 countries to degrade and ultimately destroy them. This is a multi-front strategy that includes airstrikes that were taken in support of troops on the ground; it involves combatting foreign fighters; it involves counter-finance, which you’ve heard David Cohen from the Treasury Department talk about from here. It talks about important work that needs to be done on the humanitarian front. And it continues -- it also includes the efforts that we have undertaken, working closely with our allies, to counter ISIL’s message in the Muslim world. So this is a multifaceted effort and I am confident that you’ll hear the President talk about this a little bit at least.
As it relates to the second question about the Defense Department budget, there obviously are -- there is an impact on the Defense Department budget as a result of these ongoing efforts. It’s one of the reasons that our priorities for the lame duck was getting some increased funding so we could ensure that we had the necessary resources to carry out this strategy. And one of the other things that we talked about in the context of the omnibus was how disappointed we were that Congress didn’t act on the kinds of budgetary reforms that both the civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon said were desperately needed.
And so I would anticipate that all of that -- maybe not discussed in that much detail in the State of the Union, but it certainly will be a priority as we talk to Congress about the FY16 budget.
Q And during the holiday break, several more detainees were repatriated from Guantanamo. And the indication is that that’s going to be something that will be rather common in the next three or four months. Would you be willing to say that this is something that this administration intends to accelerate in the early part of 2015 -- to move as many detainees as are moveable out of Guantanamo in the early part of this year?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have, frankly, a lot of insight into what the short-term plans are in terms of who is -- and sort of what sort of agreements are being contemplated and what troops are up for transfer in the short term. I can tell you that it continues to be an important priority of this administration to ultimately transfer all of the detainees out of Guantanamo.
Q But the President has conceded publicly that’s not possible. That some of them are too dangerous, it can’t be tried.
MR. EARNEST: Well, which is why we need Congress to take some action to remove some of the obstacles that are preventing the President from doing something that he believes is clearly in the national interest, which is closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q One last thing. David Cameron said over the weekend that the President calls him “bro.” Is that true? And is there any other pet names he has for world leaders? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, to paraphrase a local baseball player here in Washington, D.C., that’s a clown question, bro. (Laughter.) I’m just teasing.
Q You don’t mean that.
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t. Mostly because I just wanted to use “bro” in my own response. (Laughter.) I am not able to give much more insight about the private communications between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom other than to --
Q Having been revealed publicly, do you have any reason to doubt the Prime Minister’s assertion?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t because, as you know, they have a special relationship. (Laughter.)
Q Given Mitch McConnell’s unusual admonition to the Republican majority that they should not be scary, I want to get a sense from you right now. Does the President think the American people should be scared of a Republican governing majority?
MR. EARNEST: That’s an interesting question. (Laughter.) I think the President has been pretty clear that there is a pretty stark difference of opinion about which policies are actually in the best interest of the country, about which -- what kinds of policies are going to be in the best interest of middle-class families. That is, after all, the President’s priority. And I think by some of the policy choices we’ve seen some of the Republicans make, they don’t share that priority. And that certainly is a strong difference of opinion.
But, ultimately, I guess we’ll have to sort of see whether or not members of Congress choose to abide by the admonition of the new Senate Majority Leader.
One example I guess I can think of is the prospect of defaulting on the debt for the first time in our nation’s history is a scary prospect. Hopefully it’s not going to come to that. But we’ll have to see.
I guess I would say it this way. The President does believe that there are some areas where we can cooperate. So setting aside whether or not they’re scary or not, we do believe that there may be an opportunity for us to find some areas of common ground where Democrats and Republicans can come together to open up overseas markets for American businesses or to reform the tax code in a way that would actually make it more simple and more fair, and close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and the well-connected. So there may be some things that we can do to cooperate and actually make some progress for the American people.
Q We know mayor -- back to law enforcement and New York City Police Department but police departments nationwide, some of which have indicated the rank and file, they feel betrayed by the President, by Attorney General Eric Holder. Earlier you indicated that the President basically feels -- certainly feels a sympathy for the loss experienced by the families in New York, but does the President feel a sympathy with those police -- members of police departments right now who feel targeted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President believes is that it’s clearly in the best interests of people who are living in communities that have legitimate concerns and clearly in the best interests of law enforcement officers that have legitimate concerns to come together and try to strengthen the bond of trust between law enforcement officers and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect. And that is a pursuit that is important and would benefit communities all across the country. And it certainly would stand to benefit law enforcement officers who do the heroic work every day of getting up and putting on a blue uniform, and putting their lives on the line to protect the community that they work in.
And that is a calling that the President believes is worthy of our honor and respect. And if there are things that we can do to make it safer for them to do that important work while at the same time inspiring greater trust in the communities that they are sworn to serve and protect, that that’s a good thing, that that is a laudable goal and ultimately it will have the effect of fighting crime in communities all across the country.
Q Mayor Bill de Blasio is going to speak in a matter of moments -- when we leave this briefing, we’ll hear some of his remarks given the latest that’s been taking place up there. Recently, Police Commissioner Bratton has called it very inappropriate that the officers turned their back to the mayor during the eulogy for officer Ramos. Does the President agree with Bratton?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t spoken to the President about it. I do think that Commissioner Bratton did have I think an important view that he expressed on this. He described -- this is a letter that he sent to police precincts all across the city of New York. And he said, “It was not all officers, and it was not disrespect directed at Detective Ramos. But all the officers were painted by it, and it stole the valor, honor and attention that rightfully belonged to the memory of Detective Rafael Ramos’s life and service. That was not the intent, I know. But it was the result.”
Q So I guess, simply, even if -- broadly speaking, does the White House think that action is inappropriate?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I will say is that the part of Commissioner Bratton’s letter I think that resonates most strongly here at the White House is that those who are attending those funerals are there to pay their respect for the service and sacrifice of the two officers who were being laid to rest. And certainly the President has -- believes that their service and their sacrifice is worthy of celebration and respect, and should be afforded all of the outward symbols of honor that they’ve been given. And I think that’s what the vast majority of the people who attended those funerals, including police officers who attended those funerals, actually gave.
Q Digressing very briefly, we just learned a short time ago that two aspiring U.S. ski team members were killed in an avalanche in Austria. That information is just coming to us, I don’t know whether you guys have been made aware or if the President was aware or had any thoughts, given that tragedy to U.S. aspiring Olympic athletes.
MR. EARNEST: Peter, I was not aware of that report. Obviously, the President has on a number of occasions had the opportunity to welcome Olympic athletes to the White House, both as they’re preparing for competition and after they have competed. And, obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with those who were apparently lost in this specific incident.
These are young men and women who make our country proud, and certainly they dedicate their lives to their pursuit and their calling and their passion, which is the performance in their sport. And so I am not aware of this specific report but certainly if it’s true it is a tragedy.
Q Josh, another update over the holidays would be these recommendations to reform the Secret Service. And I wonder, has the President actually been given some sort of a report or a briefing? And where is the White House specifically on this increased speculation that we might see the security fence outside raised? That was one of the recommendations. So where specifically is the President, White House staff on that?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question, Ed. I don’t know whether or not the President has received this specific briefing but we’ll follow up with you on this. And as you’ll recall, the President did have interest in reviewing this report.
Q Right. I just wanted to get it on the record.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll follow up with you.
Q Specifically working with Congress, following up on both Julie and Major on the meeting -- not just the meeting itself, but why not meet with Republican leaders this week. But you and others are giving this impression the President is ready to work with Republican leaders but no meeting this week probably. Instead, he is going out on the road on his own and he did this interview with NPR over the holidays where he said, I’m ready to start vetoing a lot more stuff and there’s going to be a lot more executive action. So aren’t you saying he’s going to work with Republicans, but his actions are actually speaking louder than those words?
MR. EARNEST: Well Ed, I think the President’s action to invite Congressional leaders, both Democrats and Republicans to the White House just a couple of days after the midterm elections, and talk about where that common ground is, I do think that speaks to the President’s -- the priority that the President places in working with Republicans to make progress for the American people. But you’re also right that the fact that the President is going to start the new year by announcing some new executive actions and some new policy proposals that will benefit middle-class families indicates that he’s most focused on results. He’s mostly focused on substantive policy ideas that will benefit middle-class families.
Q But they haven’t even been sworn in yet, and you’re already talking about, he’s moving forward on executive action. He’s going out on the road to go directly to the American people -- he’s free to do that but they haven’t even been sworn in yet, and you’re saying he’s getting ready to do more executive action.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, he is. And the President is determined to make progress where he can on his own. As the President has said many times, particularly in the aftermath of the midterm elections, we can’t allow a disagreement over one thing to be a deal-breaker over all the others. So, I have no doubt that there will be some Republicans who are going to be critical of policy proposals that the President pursues on his own to benefit middle-class families. That may be an area where an honest disagreement exists.
What we’re mostly focused on when we have conversations with Republicans, though, is figuring out, where is there common ground? Where do we agree? And the disagreements may be more plentiful, but that’s all the more reason we should spend a lot of time looking for that area of common ground and the President will do that. He did that at the end of last year, he’ll do it as this year gets underway as well.
Q Last thing. Republicans talking again as they have many times before about trying to change the President health care law. And I want to ask you specifically, not about that, but about this new book from Steven Brill, because this was not a quick drive-by. He spent I believe 19 months interviewing a lot of people around here and from what I’ve seen of it so far, he points out the good of getting millions more people insurance, but both in the book and some of his early television interviews he’s indicating that he believes -- this is after studying it very closely -- it's a raw deal for taxpayers; that a lot more people are getting insurance but the taxpayers are picking up that tab. And that the health care costs are not coming down because of the law itself, despite what was promised.
MR. EARNEST: Well let me say a couple things about that, Ed. The first thing is it's important for people to remember the Affordable Care Act substantially reduced the deficit, which is good for the economic health and the fiscal health of the country, and also good for taxpayers. And we have seen that the growth in health care costs has been lower than at any other time in recorded history -- in almost 50 years since they’ve been measuring that specific statistic.
We’ve also seen the average premium for employer-based health care coverage -- these are individuals who are essentially not really affected by the Affordable Care Act and certainly aren’t getting health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act -- they saw that their premiums only went up 3 percent, even though in previous years it had been going up by double digits every year.
So one of the goals, as Mr. Brill points out in this book, has been to limit the growth in health care costs and the numbers indicate that very early on, that there has been very important success associated with the Affordable Care Act in doing exactly that. And that’s something that we’re going to continue to do in addition to expanding coverage and getting more people covered with health care; in addition to putting in place the kind of patient protections that the President has long advocated -- everything from ensuring that men and women can get the kind of preventative health care maintenance, annual checkups and things; that those can be covered free of charge; that you can’t be discriminated against because you have a preexisting condition. We can put in place all of those things and we can actually limit the growth in health care costs, and that’s what the Affordable Care Act has done.
Q And he also has this conclusion that from talking to the President own advisors, that people in the West Wing believe that the real chief of staff is Valerie Jarrett, and that when the author pressed the President himself in an interview, he just wouldn’t comment on that. Why wouldn’t the President knock that down, why wouldn’t he say Valerie Jarrett is not my chief of staff?
MR. EARNEST: I think because everybody already knows that. And I think that Ms. Jarrett obviously plays a very important role here in the West Wing and in advising the President of the United States, but I think even she would tell you that she’s not the chief of staff and doesn’t want to be.
Q Josh, can I follow up? I have two quick questions. One is a personnel question. You had anticipated that the President’s Counselor, and maybe his senior advisor -- I'm talking about Podesta and Pfeiffer -- might leave in a few weeks. Can you update us on whether they’re going to be departing the White House soon?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates on any personnel matters at this point.
Q You can’t say whether John Podesta will indeed be leaving?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can say -- I mean, we said that when he started last year that he would essentially be serving through the end of the calendar year. He’s going to stay on at the beginning of this year to help with the State of the Union. I don’t have an exact date for his departure though.
Q But maybe February?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any guidance on that, but we’ll keep you posted.
Q Ok. And you don’t want to say anything about Dan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d say lots of things about Dan. (Laughter.) But in terms of any personnel announcements associated with Dan I'm not aware of any.
Q The second question is, at the end of the year, the percentage of people who said that they approved of the job that the President was doing went up. And lots of people have analyzed the polling numbers and why that is, and I was just wondering if the White House could share its own interpretation of why that percentage went up at the end of the year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, like financial markets, it’s always a tricky, risky business to try to analyze what’s actually driving fluctuations in poll numbers. I can tell you that -- I think what I’d rather do is sort of convey to you why so many people in this building felt really optimistic heading into the holidays at the end of last year, and that is because we did feel like over the course of the last six weeks or so of last year that we had been able to make a lot of progress on a variety of important policy priorities that the President had identified. In some cases, we were able to work with Republicans to make progress. In some cases, we had to take -- the President had to take executive action over the objection of Republicans.
But I do think it serves as a pretty useful model for the kind of approach that the President envisions for the fourth quarter of his presidency. We were able to work with Republicans to pass an omnibus proposal that would provide the certainty in government funding for just about every single federal agency. That’s going to be good for the economy, it’s good for businesses as they’re planning. That is a priority that you’ve heard those of us here at the White House talk about. It’s also a priority that you’ve heard Republicans on Capitol Hill talk about. That’s a good example of the kind of common ground that we hope we’ll be able to find as it relates to other measures.
Of course, there are other steps that the President took that were not so warmly received by Republicans. But whether it was reforming our broken immigration system and finally adding some more accountability to that system, or moving to naturalize -- normalize our relationship with Cuba, that these are steps that the President believes are important to moving the country forward. And even though congressional Republicans didn’t support those measures, the Chamber of Commerce was strongly supportive of both of those things.
So in some ways, just because Republicans in Congress oppose them doesn’t mean that they’re partisan, it just means that they don’t happen to fit the priorities of congressional Republicans, even though there are a lot of other prominent Republicans that do happen to support those steps.
So I do think that as this fourth quarter plays out, you’re going to see the President pursue a strategy that does look for areas where we can work with Republicans and take steps on his own where we can’t. And hopefully we’ll continue to see that trend in the poll numbers, too.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Zeke, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Going back earlier to your conversation with Jon regarding Boko Haram, you had indicated that U.S. troops were still there trying to look for the missing school girls. Except in the War Powers Resolution letter that the President sent to Congress in December, it mentioned that the ISR mission in Chad to find these girls had ended; that only a small security cooperation force remained in Chad separate from that mission. So has something changed since December? I was hoping you could clarify that a little bit.
MR. EARNEST: I can have somebody follow up with you who has some more knowledge of these details. I know that the ongoing cooperation that has been underway for some time to work with the Nigerians to try to find the girls is still underway. I know there are some reports to the contrary in the last few weeks. But in terms of helping you understand how that policy fits with this War Powers letter, let me get somebody from the National Security Council to give you a call.
Q And following up on the Scalise conversation earlier, you said that if Republicans were to continue his position in leadership, it would say a lot about the conference’s values and their priorities. What would it say exactly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that’s for them to decide. An,d again, that’s not necessarily me making an assertion that they would disagree with. I think all of them, as they consider who they want to be -- to serve in their leadership, do so knowing that their leaders are going to have -- are going to be more prominent and will send a pretty clear signal about what their priorities are, about what their values are, and what their conference represents.
And so they’ll have to decide for themselves what kind of message it sends to elevate somebody who said that they were “David Duke without the baggage.”
Q Are you saying when you said that you didn’t have anything in mind about what it would say?
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying they have to decide for themselves exactly what that message would say. I’m sorry?
Q Well, you’re a political professional, a communications professional -- what message do you think they’re risking sending?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve got plenty of my own thoughts but they’re irrelevant in this case, because what matters -- I don’t have a vote in the House Republican conference leadership elections. If I did that would certainly be interested, but I don’t. (Laughter.) So they’ll have to make that decision for themselves. And I’m sure that part of that decision will be what kind of message it sends.
Look, Chairman Priebus at the Republican National Committee says that Republicans need to do more to broaden their appeal to women, minorities, gays and others; that success of their political party depends on it. And so they’re going to have to --
Q From your point of view, is keeping Scalise inconsistent with that?
MR. EARNEST: They’re going to have to decide for themselves that exact question.
Q Josh, one more thing on that. So given that you’ve quoted Scalise as saying he’s “David Duke without the baggage” --
Q It seems like you’re saying that’s what he says.
Q But just to -- would somebody described as thus be welcome here at the White House? So you’re saying -- is “David Duke without the baggage” -- quoting as saying -- calling himself “David Duke without the baggage.” Would somebody who fits that description be welcome here at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’ll say is that the President will meet with who the Republicans choose to serve in leadership positions in their conference. The President is willing to work with Republicans to get something done, and if the Republicans make the decision to keep Mr. Scalise in his leadership position, then the President will meet with him in pursuit of trying to get some things done for the middle class.
Thanks, everybody. See you tomorrow.
2:31 P.M. EST