Press Gaggle Aboard Air Force One en route Andrews AFB, 01/22/15
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base
2:28 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Well, good afternoon, everybody. You’ve already heard from the President today, so we'll go straight to your questions.
Q Can we start by wishing you a happy 40th birthday? Many happy returns, and congratulations on reaching this milestone.
MR. EARNEST: Well, thank you. I'm at the stage to acknowledge that I've reached a birthday that people finally count as a milestone. But, thank you. The only thing I want for my birthday is a short gaggle. (Laughter.)
Q We can arrange that. Yemen -- do you have any reaction to the events there today and President Hadi resigning?
MR. EARNEST: I can give you a little bit on this. The United States has seen the reports of President Hadi’s resignation, the resignation of other senior government officials in Yemen. We're still assessing the implications for that announcement on Yemen’s political transition. We continue to urge the parties to pursue a peaceful political transition led by Yemen’s legitimate political institutions.
I would also at this point reiterate the United Nations’ condemnation of violent tactics, including abductions. At this point, however, our top concern continues to be for the safety, security and well-being of American citizens in Yemen, particularly American diplomats.
I can tell you that our State Department officials continue to assess on a real-time basis the security situation in Yemen. The President is being regularly briefed on that security situation as well. At this point, it's been determined that there is not a need to change the posture at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, but we'll continue to monitor developments on the ground and if changes in that posture are necessary, we have all of the capabilities that are necessary to make those changes.
Q On another foreign policy question, we talked about yesterday about Israel. Now it sounds like the Prime Minister has changed the date for when he’s coming to the United States, and the White House has already said he won't be meeting with the President. Can you tell us a little bit of the back story on how that change happened and whether the White House or the President has been in touch?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates in terms of additional communications between the White House officials and their Israeli counterparts. I can tell you that the reason that we have indicated that the President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his March visit to the United States is that we have a longstanding practice of not meeting with democratically elected officials shortly before their election. And the reason for that is we want to avoid even the appearance of any kind of interference with a democratic election.
Many of you will remember that just last week, Prime Minister Cameron visited the President at the White House. That visit was scheduled for January because the official campaign season in the United Kingdom begins on March 30th. So to avoid even the appearance of the President interfering in that election, we scheduled the Prime Minister’s visit for well in advance of the campaign season.
It's my understanding that the Israeli elections are actually scheduled for about two weeks after Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the United States. So that's the -- so consistent with our longstanding practice and pretty well-established principle, the President won't meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu on this visit.
That said, as I mentioned yesterday, the President has spent more time talking with and meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu than any other world leader. And that does reflect the depth of the United States’ commitment and the depth of the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel’s security. This is the closest ally that we have in that region of the world. And the President will -- and certainly that commitment has not changed.
And that's why I can assure you that after the elections take place, the President will be meeting with, at some point thereafter, with the elected leader of Israel -- because the strong commitment -- or the strong alliance between the United States and Israel transcends partisan affiliation in either country. And that's been the truth -- that's been the case for quite some time and it's still true today.
Q Why was the date of his visit changed? Did the White House put pressure on him? Yesterday, the question was not about being close to an election but him coming and speaking to Congress without having notified you first.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any information about the scheduling that went into Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit. As we mentioned yesterday, that schedule was apparently arranged based on conversations between the Prime Minister’s office and the Speaker of the House. And while that is a departure from protocol, it's not -- it's why I can't give you much insight into what date was chosen or why it was chosen or why it was changed.
Q You said yesterday you were going to withhold judgment. Has judgment now -- are you ready to give judgment now on that initial decision?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any judgment to render beyond explaining why the President will not meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu during this visit to the United States.
Q The President’s meeting with the Prime Minister would amount to interference in Israeli elections. Does it amount to interference for the Speaker to invite him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't know that it constitutes interference, but I do think that it would constitute the appearance of interfering in a democratic election. Because even if a meeting were to occur, I'm sure that we’d go out of our way to make clear that the President wasn’t taking sides in an election, but to avoid even the appearance of interfering in that election, the President won't be meeting with the Prime Minister on this upcoming visit.
But as it relates to the decision of the Speaker of the House to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to the Congress, I’d leave it to them. I don't have a judgment on that decision at this point.
Q Yesterday you talked about the departure from protocol. Can you clarify, is it Netanyahu that has departed from protocol? Or has the Speaker of the House departed from protocol?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, I guess in some ways, it's both, because the well-established protocol is that the leader of a foreign country would be in touch with the leader of this country about a possible visit. That didn’t occur yesterday. But, again, our position on this is rooted in the well-established principle of not wanting to even appear to interfere in a democratic election.
And so we'll leave it to Prime Minister Netanyahu to determine his own travel plans and to determine what he wants to do while he’s traveling, but in this case, the trip won't involve a meeting with the President of the United States.
Q Yesterday we discussed the AUMF, and you said that at some point, the White House would send something to Congress. Do you have a sense of timeline on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an updated timeline on that. Obviously the Obama administration has been in frequent consultation with interested members of Congress on this issue for several months now. So I don't have a time frame to put on it. We do, however, prior to submitting that language, want to be sure that we've gotten some input and had robust consultations with members of Congress in both parties because we want to be sure that that language reflects our best shot at getting bipartisan support for that AUMF.
And the reason is we believe it would send a powerful signal to the citizens of this country, the citizens of our allies, and to our enemies that here in the United States all of our citizens are united behind the President’s strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q Senator Bob Corker is saying that the reason that it is not forthcoming and it has not come quickly is because there’s a divide within the administration about how to proceed. Can you comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: I can't comment on that, mostly because I'm not sure exactly what he’s talking about. There certainly is no divide about whether or not to submit language. The President is committed to doing that and that's what we'll do.
Q I think it's about what the language would say.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, I think what’s most important is that we want to build -- I'm confident that we're going to be able to build the necessary support in the administration for the language because the Commander-in-Chief is going to sign off on it. But what’s most important is to make sure that we've got members of Congress who are going to have to vote on this issue signed off on it, because we want to build bipartisan support for this AUMF.
So to the extent that there is any difference of opinion inside the administration -- and on an issue that’s this complicated, there might be -- but those kinds of differences are pretty easily resolved when the Commander-in-Chief weighs in. What we’re focused on right now is trying to reconcile as many differences that we can among Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Again, because we want the outcome of that vote to include both Democrats and Republicans in the yes column.
Q Can you just briefly talk about the YouTube interview today and what the President hopes to accomplish from that, and the context? Is it still more SOTU -- rolling out more SOTU -- or is this moving on to the next phase or something?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is -- over the last several years, a couple days after the State of the Union address, the President has traditionally sought out the media among Google and YouTube, and other online social media sources to do an interview or to talk about the State of the Union. You’ll recall that a couple times the President has done a Google+ Hangout. This is a variation on that strategy. And essentially it involves having conversations with particularly popular YouTube content creators to have a conversation about his State of the Union address. And it simply is an effort to try to engage as many Americans as possible in a variety of venues to discuss the President priorities.
And that’s what will take place today. I know they have a rather intricate setup in the East Room this afternoon where they will be doing this series of interviews. It is my understanding that it will be broadcast live on YouTube.
Q Is it just those three YouTube creators that are doing the questioning?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, just those three.
Q Let’s go back to Yemen for a second and talk about what effect the fall of the government has had on U.S. terror operations over there and whether or not there’s been any change in strategy.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don’t have any changes in strategy to convey. I can tell you that the United States and the Obama administration continues to be vigilant about the threat that is posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a threat that we’ve been focused on for quite some time. We have long acknowledged that AQAP is one of the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliates out there. And we're very cognizant of the threat that they pose to the United States and our interests around the globe.
So the American intelligence community and other national security officials continue to be vigilant about that threat, and we’re going to continue to use every element at our disposable to apply pressure to those AQAP leaders. And there are a number of AQAP leaders who have been taken off the battlefield because of the efforts of American national security professionals.
And we’ve seen clear indications that the AQAP leadership is extraordinarily cautious about their public movements and their appearances in public. That caution is a wise move on their part, because we’re doing our best to track them, to find them, and when possible, to take them off the battlefield. We’re very cognizant of the threat that they face -- of the threat that they pose.
Q Quickly, on the DOJ’s decision not to go after -- not to prosecute officer -- sorry, I’ve lost his name here -- Darren Wilson -- can you just talk about that for a minute? Is there any response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those news reports, but I have not seen an official announcement of any kind from the Department of Justice at this point. So when there is an update on that investigation it will come from the Department of Justice. I don’t have anything to say about it from here.
Q On Israel, yesterday you said the White House only knew about the invitation just before it was publicly announced. I'm wondering, considering what you just said about the protocol involved, has there been any communication with the Speaker’s office about this invitation? Do you think the Speaker owes the President an explanation about what he was thinking in terms of this invitation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that there was some confusion on this yesterday so I appreciate the opportunity to clarify it. We did learn of this invitation shortly before it was announced. We were informed of the invitation by the Speaker’s office. So it was not the Israeli government that had contacted the administration, it was the Speaker’s office.
The President speaks frequently with Speaker Boehner. I don’t have any specific conversations to read out. I think we’ve made our views on this topic pretty clear based on the conversation that we have had here over the last two days. I don’t know that it necessarily warrants additional communication between the White House and the Speaker’s office, but if it does, I'm sure we’ll have those conversations.
Q -- commented on the agenda of the Republicans so far in this new Congress. I wonder if you have a reaction from the White House to their decision last night to pull this 20-week abortion ban from the floor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have made pretty clear what our opposition was to that piece of legislation that would have significantly curtailed the freedom of women to make their own decisions about their health care.
I did note overnight the comments of Republican Congressman Charlie Dent, who expressed some frustration about the performance of his fellow Republicans in the first three weeks of this new Republican-led Congress. He noted that there was some disarray around the election of the new Speaker of the House. And he noted the rather fracturing debate around this particular issue.
We’ve mentioned before and I’ve mentioned in other settings earlier this week that we do think there is a pretty clear contrast between the agenda that’s been put forward over the last couple of weeks by Republicans in the House of Representatives and the middle-class-focused agenda that the President has been discussing over the last several weeks. We have seen Republicans really focused on undermining the Affordable Care Act; trying to force the President to put in place the Keystone pipeline even before it’s been completely evaluated by the federal government to determine whether or not building the pipeline is in the national interest in the first place. While at the same time, the President has been focused on some more pocketbook, middle-class issues, like ensuring that middle-class families have access to a college education; that middle-class homebuyers can save a little money on their mortgage payments; or today, that middle-class families have access to quality child care.
So we’re pretty satisfied with that contrast and how it makes pretty clear the difference in priorities that exist between the Republicans in Congress and the Democrat who sits in the Oval Office.
Q On trade, Senator Reid came out today and said the he was skeptical of the fast track authority. What are you doing to reach out to Democrats? And is there actually a difficulty within the Democratic Party getting the support that you need to advance what the President said was clearly on his agenda?
MR. EARNEST: Look, it’s no secret that there are many Democrats in Congress who are, on principle, skeptical of trade agreements. But this President I think delivered a pretty forceful case in the State of the Union about why he believed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was particularly important.
The first is that there are significant geopolitical consequences. If the United States doesn’t robustly engage other countries in Asia, it will allow China to step into that vacuum and start writing the rules of engagement. That clearly would not be in the interest of the U.S. economy, and clearly not in the interests of American workers. We know that the Chinese, if given that opportunity, would not have in place the kind of fair labor standards and environmental standards that we believe are important for the country and important for the planet.
So by leveling the playing field and raising those standards, we can ensure that American businesses and American workers have an opportunity to compete on a level playing field. And the President is confident that when American businesses and American workers have an opportunity to compete on a level playing field, they’re going to do really well.
And that’s why the President has chose to pursue this. And I readily acknowledge that there are some Democrats who are skeptical. But we’ll have -- I mean, I’d also note that there are some Republicans who are skeptical of this as well. So this is going to require a genuine bipartisan effort to build support for this.
And I would hope that the President’s credibility when it comes to fighting for the middle class in Washington, D.C. would advance this argument. Because when the President says he’s not going to sign a trade agreement that’s not in the best interest of middle-class families, he means it. He takes that responsibility seriously. And I think his commitment to policies that benefit middle-class families is well documented.
Q Josh, I think part of the skepticism some Democrats have noted is that they don’t know what’s in the trade deals that are, granted, currently under negotiation. Is the White House committed to, or would it be open to, making those public before a fast track vote would happen? Or will the fast track vote have to happen before details of those agreements are released to the public?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t make a commitment like that from here at this point. But I can tell you that the administration is interested in having conversations with members of Congress who have questions about the negotiations. It's certainly understandable that they might raise questions or concerns about the status of those negotiations, and, you’re right, that a lot of the details haven’t been worked out in terms of that trade agreement.
As so often happens when it comes to trying to broker these kinds of international agreements, the most difficult, vexing challenges or sticking points in the negotiations are put off until the end. So I would expect that a lot of the issues that are the most challenging are also the issues that are most interesting to members of Congress, but those are also the issues in which we can’t -- we don’t have a lot of clarity because we’re still trying to broker some agreements.
But, look, we remain committed to having conversations with members of Congress in both parties about this agreement. We’ve been clear about what our priorities are, and we’re willing to have detailed discussions with members of Congress as they consider their support for our ongoing efforts.
Q To put a fine point on it, though, do you want a fast track vote before those deals are reached, or after when those things are available for view?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I haven't made a commitment either way on this. But we have been clear that a vote in advance of a final agreement could be helpful in building momentum toward a final agreement. That is the case. But we have not said at this point -- or at least not insisted at this point on a vote taking place at a specific time.
Q And lastly for me, has the President called Harry Reid?
MR. EARNEST: Today, he has not.
Q Since his injury?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that he has, actually. I believe that he has.
Q Has the Japanese government reached out to the U.S. in terms of the threat Japan is facing from the Islamic State and the hostages that are threatened with death by tomorrow at some point?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any, Darlene, but you should check with the State Department. That’s probably where that communication would occur. So they can -- to the extent there have been any conversations, they can give you some more insight into that.
All right? Okay. Enjoy your lunch, everybody. Thank you.
2:50 P.M. EST