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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/29/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:15 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I apologize for the long delay in starting today’s briefing.  Let’s just do a couple of things at the top and then we'll get to your questions.

As you know, the President is looking very much forward to speaking at the House Democratic Issues Conference this evening in Philadelphia.  You can expect him to discuss advancing the middle-class economic proposals from his State of the Union address. 

As we noted this morning, the President will announce that his budget will reverse harmful sequestration cuts, and instead show how we can invest in his vision for middle-class economics by making paychecks go further, creating good jobs here in the United States, and preparing hardworking Americans to earn higher wages. 

The President will also make it clear that Congress needs to pass a full year of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and expressed his support for the Democrats’ firm position in holding Republicans responsible for fixing this problem of their own making.  Republicans have shirked their responsibility to fund one of the government’s most critical agencies charged with protecting our homeland, securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws, in favor of a political stunt.  And it's now time for them to put their games aside so the men and women of this agency can focus on their important mission, which is keeping the country safe.

As Secretary Johnson noted this morning, the Homeland Security budget should not be a political football.  As all three former DHS Secretaries, two of whom are Republican, have also written in a letter to lawmakers today, they said, “We cannot emphasize enough that the DHS’s responsibilities are much broader than its responsibility to oversee the federal immigration agencies and to protect our borders.  And funding for the entire agency should not be put in jeopardy by the debate about immigration.” 

So it should be a lively session with the President and House Democrats today.

One other note about an event later this week.  In his State of the Union address last week, the President said, “I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine, one that delivers the right treatment at the right time.”  And that's why, tomorrow, the President will host an event here at the White House that will include patients, researchers, clinicians, and leaders in government and industry to announce details of his new precision medicine initiative.  At the event, the President will highlight key investments in his 2016 budget aimed at improving health and treating disease through precision medicine. 

We'll have more information about the President’s announcement following today’s briefing.  So that will be something to look forward to tomorrow.

So, with all that, Jim, do you want to get started with questions today?

Q    Thanks, Josh.  A couple subjects.  I wanted to start with the budget.


Q    As you noted, the President is asking for restoring money that had been sequestered to the tune of $74 billion, equally divided between domestic and defense.  He says -- the White House says that this will be accomplished by closing loopholes and ending wasteful programs.  I wonder if you could give us some examples. It seems that closing loopholes has been part of different programs offered by the White House, from tax reform to paying for some of your initiatives.  So can you tell us which loopholes you're isolating for this purpose, what wasteful spending you're isolating?  And if there is wasteful spending, why not just end wasteful spending, period, and not use it in this particular matter.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, we certainly welcome your questions.  It will be much easier to announce on Monday once the President has presented his budget.  And in fact, you may not have questions anymore because you’ll be able to look at tables themselves.

But you are right, the President has put forward a variety of ideas about ways that we can make our tax code more fair and more simple, by closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.  The best example of this is a proposal that we rolled out just before the State of the Union, so a little over a week ago, where the President proposed closing the trust fund loophole.  This is something that would save the U.S. government more than $200 billion over the next 10 years.  So we're talking about a sizable recovery of revenue.

Q    But that goes to the $320 billion that you want to use for both middle-class tax relief, community colleges, and -- so is that all part of that mix?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the point is that -- what we have been clear about, though, is that closing the trust fund loophole and some of the other tax reform proposals that were rolled out before the State of the Union would certainly pay for all of the middle-class tax cuts that the President proposed that would make it easier to save for a college education, that would offer a tax cut to two-earner families to make their -- to make it easier for them to stretch their paycheck -- that all of those proposals would be paid for by the tax reform proposals the President put forward and then some, that there is revenue left over that can go to other priorities.

And what you will see in the budget when the President presents it on Monday is a series of important investments that will benefit middle-class families, a restructuring of the tax code without deviating from the path of declining deficits that the President has also made a priority -- that over the course of the last five years, we have succeeded in actually reducing the deficit by two-thirds.  This is the fastest sustained deficit reduction since World War II. 

And the President believes that it’s possible -- and, in fact, I think that he’s proved that it’s possible -- for us to make smart decisions with the budget to make our tax code fairer and more simple, and do it all in a way that’s fiscally responsible.  And you have some very good detailed questions that we’ll be able to answer on Monday when we present the budget.

Q    As you also noted, this is one for one, half of the spending would be domestic, half would be defense.  Assuming that this is kind of the beginning of a negotiating process with Congress, is it fair to assume that -- and knowing that Republicans want to increase defense spending -- that the President will not veto that unless it’s matched equally dollar for dollar for increased domestic spending whatever the final number is?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that certainly is consistent with the kind of agreement that’s been reached in previous budget negotiations over the last several years, and that certainly seems a principled -- it seems worthwhile.

Q    And factor in those budget negotiations -- and, as you know, the deficit has been going down -- but part of the reason for that is, in addition to perhaps a better economy generating more revenue, tax increases on the wealthiest, but it’s also partly because of sequestration, cut spending.  You argue that at the height of -- or during the recovery, that was not a good policy to have.  Now you’re arguing that it’s not a good policy to have even though you’re saying that the economy is strong.  When is cutting spending a good policy in order to lead to lower deficits, if not then and if not now?

MR. EARNEST:  What we have said, Jim, is that certainly cutting spending makes sense when it’s in the context of not undermining the kinds of programs that are so critical to the success of middle-class families.  And the reason for that is simple:  The President’s philosophy is that our economy is going to be strongest when it’s growing from the middle out, which is why we shouldn’t be cutting funding for programs that we know benefit middle-class families. 

And in fact, what we have said is that there is a better way -- and the truth is, even looking back, we believe that there is a better way that we could have succeeded in reducing the deficit that would have asked those at the top of the income scale to pay a little bit more, for us to ask the big banks on Wall Street and the large financial firms on Wall Street to pay a little bit more, that that would have been a fairer way for us to reduce the deficit.

But Republicans had the majority in the House of Representatives and it required us striking some compromises.  And even as difficult as it has been to work with Republicans to find agreements on these issues, that reducing spending and the President succeeding over Republican objections to win -- or at least over the objections of the vast majority of Republicans -- to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a campaign promise that the President made back in 2007, that all of that is a strategy that while it’s not exactly the way that we would have scripted up, it’s a strategy that has succeeded in reducing our deficit and, as you point out, over the last couple of years we’ve actually seen some pretty strong economic growth. 

Now, what you would also hear me say is that had we followed the strategy that the President advocated, that our economic growth would have been even stronger.  But in some ways, those are debates for the past.  What we want to talk about now is the future.  And I do think that the strategy that the President has laid out -- focusing on middle-class families -- is one that certainly deserves strong bipartisan support in the Congress.  It does have strong bipartisan support across the country.

And I think it’s also clear that the President has some credibility around these issues now; that he inherited a terrible financial crisis -- the worst financial crisis that our economy has sustained since the Great Depression -- and because of some of the -- because of many of the policies that this President put in place, even some policies that were politically unpopular, our economy has come roaring back.  And the President is determined to make sure that now that we have laid a strong foundation that we can now ensure the longer-term economic success of this country now that we have bounced back from this crisis.


Q    On another subject -- the deadline that Islamic terrorists had set for Jordan releasing a prisoner in exchange for the Jordanian pilot has passed.  Do you guys have any information as to, one, the status of the Jordanian pilot and the circumstances -- current circumstances in that faceoff?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t, Jim.  I know that the Jordanians have indicated that they are engaged in some conversations with ISIL to try to secure the Jordanian pilot.  But for any questions about the status of the pilot or the status of those negotiations, I’d refer you to the Jordanian government and the Japanese government -- the two governments that are involved in trying to recover their citizens who are being held hostage by ISIL.

Q    And the Banking Committee today passed the Menendez-Kirk bill by a big bipartisan vote, 18-4.  Are you guys supporting that bill?  I know you realize that -- concede that it’s better than what you had before, but are you supporting it? And what does it mean about what happens on March 24th?  If circumstances are such, will the President request another delay if negotiations seem to be perceived in a way that you thought was positive, like you have in the past?  Or is March 24th a hard and fast bright-line deadline for you?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I can just say as a general matter that we are pleased that Democrats have put forward a statement indicating that they would hold off their support for legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran until the end of March.  And that is a positive development, because the President has made the case -- as is evidenced by the letter sent by Democrats -- pretty persuasively that additional sanctions being put in place against Iran right now, in the midst of ongoing negotiations, could threaten the overall deal.  And this is a deal that has brought the Iranians to the table, that has caused them to voluntarily take the verified steps to roll back their nuclear program in a substantial way -- or at least in a meaningful way, and to present a diplomatic opening that could resolve the broader international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.

Q    But how different is this than what they were proposing in the first place?  Those would have been sanctions that kicked in once negotiations failed.  They weren’t going to be imposing new sanctions now.  And all they’re saying now is that they’ll impose new sanctions once that deadline passes.

MR. EARNEST:  And I guess the point is, is that the way that this legislation would have been interpreted by the Iranians, but, frankly, more importantly, by the international community, I think could reasonably be construed as the United States moving forward with putting in place additional sanctions while the talks are ongoing.

I recognize that the legislation stipulated that the sanctions wouldn’t kick in until the end.  But I think a reasonable observer to this process, particularly an observer to this process that has worked closely with the United States to put in place the sanctions regime and, in some situations, at significant economic cost to their country, would say, why are you doing that right now?  Right now we have an agreement with the Iranians that they’re going to roll back certain aspects of their program and engage in good-faith negotiations with the international community.  Why would we move forward with additional sanctions at this point in time?

What the President has said is that if the Iranians make it clear that they will not agree with the international community to come into compliance with international expectations of their nuclear program, then the President will be the first person to go to Congress.  And I think that we are optimistic about our success in getting Congress to move quickly to put in place additional sanctions on Iran.  And then we can go to our partners, who have been so critical to the success of the strategy, to implement the sanctions regime in a coordinated, comprehensive way that will only apply additional pressure on Iran.  But we can do all of that if it’s necessary and if the talks break down.  Right now there are ongoing negotiations, and it’s not necessary right now to put in place additional sanctions.

Q    So the President is supportive of this particular language as it passed the committee today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President believes that we should not be a position of putting in place additional sanctions while there are ongoing talks.  And it is now clear that there are a significant number of Democrats in the Senate who share that view, and we are pleased to have them onboard with our strategy. And it is clear that Congress will not pass additional sanctions at this point in time, and that is a good thing for the negotiations.  It improves the possibility of success for those negotiations. 

And the reason I say that is not because our assessment of the likelihood of success has changed; the President has said on many occasions that it’s at best a 50/50 proposition that those negotiations will bear fruit.  It’s just that the likelihood of the success of those negotiations would have been diminished significantly had additional sanctions been put in place.


Q    Josh, back on the budget.  What do you see as the likelihood that this will pass?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there is a Republican majority in Congress.  They will have an opportunity to put forward their own ideas.  And what we have been clear about is that for significant pieces of legislation to pass the Congress and be signed into law, they are, by definition, going to have to be bipartisan. 

So this is, I think anybody would acknowledge, and anybody who’s sort of observed this process even for a short period of time would acknowledge that this is the beginning of a negotiation, but it’s important.  Budgets are important because they’re a way that we can codify our values and our priorities.  And what the President has codified in his budget that he’ll release on Monday is that we need to be making investments in middle-class families; that now that we have laid a solid foundation for our economy, we’ve bounced back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we now have an opportunity to get back to the fundamentals and to make sure that we’re putting in place policies that are focused on the middle class because our economy is going to be stronger over the long term if it’s growing from the middle out.

Q    And the sequester is unpopular on both sides, but --

MR. EARNEST:  So you’d think we’d be able to find some bipartisan agreement around ending it, right?

Q    Well, that’s actually my question for you.  Is there a way of proposing something that would end the sequester that doesn’t include tax hikes -- which is the way the Republicans view it, and which they have rejected consistently and have done also to the comments and the announcement that came out this morning.

MR. EARNEST:  There could be.  We’re certainly open to ideas that Republicans have.  But here’s the --

Q    Why not propose it from here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, because what the President has put forward is what he believes is the best way for us to move forward.  And that’s what his budget reflects.  It reflects the President’s view that we can make important investments in policies that benefit middle-class families.  A tax cut for a family with a mom and dad who are both working, that giving them a $500 tax cut is a way that we can stretch their paycheck.  That’s just one example of the kinds of investments in middle-class families that we would like to make.

We can do this in a fiscally responsible way.  And we can make our tax code a little bit more fair by closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.  And those are the principles the President has been following, and I think over the course of the last five years, the President has -- there is a proven track record here that indicates this actually is in the best interest of the country and of our economy. 

But Republicans will have an opportunity to make clear what their vision is, and then we’ll have a robust debate about it.  And nobody is sitting here -- no President has ever put forward a budget with the expectation that Congress is going to pass it in its current form.  That was even true when there was a President whose party controlled both Houses of Congress.  Congress is a branch of government -- in fact, the founders of our country made it clear in the Constitution that the Congress would actually have the responsibility of maintaining the budget of the United States government.

So this is an important announcement because it codifies the President’s values and vision for the country.  But Republicans in Congress will certainly have their say and we look forward to seeing what they put forward.

  Q    Okay.  And following up on Iran, can you clarify your position on the Corker-Graham bill as well?  Is there a reason why the White House wouldn’t support giving Congress a say in the Iran sanctions once they’ve -- if a deal is reached? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  The first is that Congress has had a say, and this is actually -- for all of the talk that, admittedly, that you even hear from me, about how difficult it is to deal with Congress, this would be one area -- our efforts to put in place a sanctions regime against Iran -- where the administration and Republicans in Congress have worked effectively, together. 

And it’s only because of the legislation that Congress put in place and the success that this administration has had in implementing those sanctions and working diplomatically with our partners around the globe that we have succeeded in putting significant pressure on the Iranian regime and forcing them to the negotiation table.

And throughout those negotiations, the administration has kept members of Congress in the loop on the status of those negotiations.  And so my point is, Congress has had a say.  And we welcome their input and their contribution to this broader effort.  But as it relates to the Corker-Graham legislation, this is legislation that the President would veto simply because it would -- much like the Kirk-Menendez bill -- negatively impact our ability to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program and to implement a future deal.

The Corker-Graham legislation would set a harmful precedent. This administration, as I mentioned, is committed to being in close touch with the Congress, whatever the outcome.  But a congressional vote on a nonbinding instrument is not required by law and could set an unhelpful precedent for other negotiations that result in other nonbinding instruments.

As we’ve said all along, if we reach a deal, its strength will stem from the enforcement and verification measures.  We're not going to be in a situation where we're taking Iran’s word for it.  This President, this country, and the international community will insist that Iran agree to verifying its compliance with the broader agreement.  And these are verification measures that can be implemented by the IAEA, by an independent body of experts who can verify that Iran is living up to its commitments.

And the President has also been clear that if Iran does fail to live up to those commitments, that we’ll be in a place where we can snap sanctions back into place very quickly to continue to ramp up the pressure on Iran if they don't live up to the terms of the agreement that they reach.  And Congress will have a role to play in lifting sanctions, but only after Iran has clearly demonstrated that it is following through on its commitments to roll back key parts of its nuclear infrastructure.

Q    Just lastly, the Keystone bill passed through its last major hurdle in Senate committee today.  Does the White House have a reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, our position on the Keystone legislation is well known.  And if in fact, the legislation that passed the House also passes the Senate, then the President won’t sign it.


Q    The President won’t?

MR. EARNEST:  Will not sign it. 

Q    Will veto it?

Q    Will veto it?

MR. EARNEST:  That's correct.

Q    Oh.

Q    And, Josh, getting back to the other issue that you mentioned, the Homeland Security budget, the continuing resolution that is going to expire by the end of February.   Obviously Republicans insisted on that as a form of leverage in the hopes that the President might alter his executive action on immigration.  Will the President change that executive action in any way in order to secure funding for the Department of Homeland Security?

MR. EARNEST:  No, that's not going to happen.  The funding for the Department of Homeland Security is not a political football, and the Republicans shouldn’t treat it as one.

The fact is -- and I know that my colleague may have mentioned this yesterday -- that Republicans for the last six years aggressively campaigned all across the country to the American people about why they should be put in charge of the United States Congress.  And we have seen now that they’re in charge of the United States Congress, and less than a month later, they’re threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security. 

They’re threatening to say, we’re going to withhold paychecks from the people who are on the front lines keeping America safe.  These are transportation security officers, Border Patrol officials, and others who have an important role in enforcing our immigration laws and doing the other kinds of things that are critical to our homeland security.  Now --

Q    So what happens to the Department as --

MR. EARNEST:  But let me say one other thing about this, which is there was a lot of coverage at the very end of last year and the beginning of this year, particularly from Republicans, who were talking about how important it was for political leaders to stand up for law enforcement; particularly in the aftermath of the terrible, tragic shooting of those two police officers in New York City, that we saw some very aggressive rhetoric from Republicans suggesting that it’s important for our men and women in uniform to know that their political leaders have their back.

I’m not sure what you could do to more undermine the relationship between political leaders and law enforcement than to threaten to withhold their paychecks even while they’re doing their job.  That’s not the proper way to show their support for them.  And we’re hopeful that before the end of February, Republicans are going to come to their senses, show some responsibility, and actually fully fund the Department of Homeland Security.

Q    And let me turn to Cuba.  Yesterday in Costa Rica, the conference down there, the Cuban President, Raul Castro, laid out some demands that he would like to see before normalizing relations with the United States.  He called for a return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba.  He called for an end of the embargo.  He called for an end to Radio, TV Marti broadcasts, and compensation for what he described as economic damages caused by the embargo. Is the United States willing to do any of those things?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, Jim, what his comments highlight is that there is a pretty clear difference between reestablishing diplomatic relations and carrying out the longer process of normalizing relations.  It’s clear that there are a wide variety of disagreements between the United States and Cuba, and, more directly, between the U.S. government and our values and the Cuban government and the values that they so often fail to codify -- that there are a variety of concerns that we have with the way that the Castro regime treats political dissidents, the way that they treat individuals who are trying to freely express their views, even the way that they treat some reporters.

So this is not consistent with the kinds of values of this country, and so it’s clear that we have a large number of disagreements with the Castro regime. 

Q    Are there any second thoughts about what the President laid out?

MR. EARNEST:  No, not at all.  And the reason for that is simply the disagreement that we have with some people on Capitol Hill is about the strategy for confronting Cuba about those significant disagreements.  And the strategy that has been employed for the last five decades of trying to isolate Cuba is one that has not resulted in any of the kinds of changes that we’d like to see.  And the fact is that after the President reached this agreement with the Castro regime to begin the process of normalizing relations, we actually did start to see some small progress with the release of 50 or 55 political prisoners that were being held in Cuba.  That’s a small step, and only the first step, in a much longer journey, but it does reflect progress.

And the President continues to be optimistic that by engaging Cuba and by removing this distraction from our broader relations with other countries in the hemisphere, that we can actually focus more attention on the failure of the Castro regime to live up to the expectations that we have of governments, particularly when it comes to respecting basic human rights.  And there’s some evidence to indicate already that we’re making some preliminary progress on that measure.

Q    And is Loretta Lynch going to be an independent Attorney General?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that certainly was the --

Q    Or was there concern up on Capitol Hill that -- they kept asking her, are you going to be another Eric Holder, and so forth, and I think the criticism that’s implicit in those questions is that Eric Holder was not sufficiently independent.  Is the President’s expectation that Loretta Lynch will be an independent Attorney General?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about this.  The first is, I think that yesterday, Ms. Lynch demonstrated to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the people of the country exactly why the President nominated her to be the next Attorney General of the United States.  She performed extraordinarily well in a hearing that stretched for seven or eight hours.  She handled a wide variety of legal questions, some of them that could be described, I think fairly, as esoteric. 

But what we saw is somebody who is more than qualified to take on the responsibilities of being the nation’s top law enforcement officer. 

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person that was impressed. People who actually have a say in the matter seemed to be particularly impressed.  I noticed that Senator Grassley said that there’s no question about her competence.  I noticed that Senator Graham said that he thought she was “very impressive,” and that he’s inclined to support her.  Even Senator Hatch said that he was going to be a strong supporter for nomination.  And Senator Perdue from Georgia said that he was very impressed with her career and wanted to thank her for upholding the law in her career.

The thing that all these gentlemen have in common is not just that they serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that they’re all Republicans.  So what we hope is that the committee will act quickly to schedule a vote for her so that she can be passed from the committee and she can move to the floor of the United States Senate and be confirmed before they go on the next recess.


Q    Just a clarification on -- try to get an answer to what Jim asked you.  I believe he asked you if the March 24th deadline to get a framework deal with Iran is a bright-line deadline.  You know the complaint by many that are critical of this negotiation process that it will drag on, the Iranians will use this to buy time.  So it's already been extended before.  Are we through with extensions?  Is this a real deadline, March 24th? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, first of all, that argument is bogus.  And the reason that argument is bogus is that in previous negotiations, Iran has succeeded in using the cover of diplomatic negotiations to try to advance their nuclear program.  But in this case, in the context of these negotiations, Iran has taken steps to actually roll back elements of their nuclear program.  And their steps to roll back elements of their program have actually been verified by the international community. 

Q    They continue to enrich uranium now, right -- the enrichment in Iran continues to go on. 

MR. EARNEST:  But at a very low level that does not advance their efforts to build a nuclear weapon.  And that’s what’s important.  And that's why I don't think that anybody who takes a look at this with an impartial view is particularly persuaded by this notion that the Iranians somehow benefit from continuing negotiations.  They don't.  They’re still subject to a withering sanctions regime that has had a terrible toll on their economy and they’re not advancing their nuclear program.  So if they’re trying to strain negotiations, I don't know why they would do that.

Q    Well, isn't it true -- isn't there’s a financial *incentive?  Don't they get about -- what is it -- $4 billion a month for every month that this goes on, in assets that have been frozen in the United States they get unfrozen?  They’re getting billions of dollars every month these negotiations go on.

MR. EARNEST:  First of all, that is money that they’ve already earned but don't have access to because of the sanctions regime.

Q    For very good reasons, right?

MR. EARNEST:  That's right, for very good reasons.  And that represents a miniscule percentage of the overall impact of the sanctions regime.  So there is no benefit to the Iranians in stretching out these diplomatic negotiations. 

But let me get to your question, which is a fair one, which is what’s going to happen if there’s no deal by March 24th.  And all I'd say is, we'll see.  If the Iranians --

Q    You're open to an extension.  You're open to extending this process on past March 24th, even if they don't --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I'm saying is I'm not willing to prejudge the outcome at this point.  We've made clear why there is some reason to be at least a little pessimistic about being able to reach a deal, because these negotiations have been going on for some time and we haven't seen the kind of breakthrough that we would like to see.  But there’s no question that the pressure on the Iranians is only increasing.  And that's why we believe -- we're going to pursue this diplomatic opening that exists and we’ll see where things stand in March.

But let me say one other thing, which is that I am confident that if the Iranians have made clear that they're not serious about these negotiations, the President, as he himself has said many times, will be the first person to stand up with Congress and say let’s move on additional sanctions against Iran.

Q    Okay.  And then yesterday I had asked about the Jordanian effort to exchange -- make a prisoner exchange, hostage exchange with ISIS.  One of the questions was whether or not the review that you announced back in November I believe of our policy on dealing with hostage situations like this has been done, or when it will be done.  Is there a status update on that? Can you tell us roughly when you think that review will be completed?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't know when that review will be completed, Jon.  But let me see if we can get you a status update on that.

Q    And then the other question.  I asked for verification, yesterday -- it was said that the United States government, that the White House does not consider the Taliban to be a terrorist organization.  I’m just wondering how that's consistent with what I believe is the designation that the Treasury Department has on its list of specially designated terrorist groups, which clearly list the Taliban.  So does the administration consider the Taliban a terrorist organization or not?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, the reason that the Taliban is listed on the -- this description that you have put forward here is for two reasons.  One is they do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism.  They do pursue terror attacks in an effort to try to advance their agenda.  And by designating them in the way that you have described does allow the United States to put in place some financial sanctions against the leaders of that organization in a way that's been beneficial to our ongoing efforts against the Taliban.  Now, what’s also true, though, Jon, is that it’s important to draw a distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Taliban has resorted to terror tactics, but those terror tactics have principally been focused on Afghanistan.

Now, the reason that we're concerned about that is there obviously are a significant number of American personnel, including American military personnel in Afghanistan, that are in harm’s way.  The Taliban is a very dangerous organization.  And what the President has pursued is a clear strategy for building up the central government of Afghanistan and the Afghan Security Forces so that they could be responsible for security in their own country and take the fight to the Taliban. 

That, however, is different than the strategy that we have pursued against al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization that has aspirations that extend beyond just the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Al Qaeda and their affiliates around the globe have sought to carry out terror attacks against Americans and American interests all around the globe.  And that explains the difference in classification.

But there is no doubt that both of these organizations are dangerous and have drawn our attention.  After all, there are a large number of Taliban fighters that have been taken off the battlefield thanks to U.S. efforts and thanks to the courage and bravery of our servicemen and women.

Q    So if I’m hearing you correctly, you're saying that the Taliban engages in “tactics akin to terrorism,” but you don't actually consider them a terrorist group.

MR. EARNEST:  They have a different classification.  They have a classification that does allow us to pursue financial sanctions against them, that has succeeded in limiting their capability that have been effective.  And it’s --

Q    And you don't call them a terrorist group?

MR. EARNEST:  And that is different than an organization like al Qaeda that has much broader, global aspiration to carry out acts of violence and acts of terror against Americans and American interests all around the globe.

Q    Okay, and just one last thing.  The New York Times has a story about a senior administration official calling the Times to complain about the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Mr. Dermer, Ambassador Dermer.  Does the White House publicly make this argument, as well?  Do you think that Ambassador Dermer has acted inappropriately, specifically with the action of inviting -- of arranging for Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, I did see the story that you’re talking about and I think I’ve said on a number of occasions that that invitation to the Prime Minister that was conceived of and executed by the Speaker of the House and the Israeli Ambassador was a departure from protocol.  But what we have said on many occasions is that the United States commitment to our strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, transcends partisan politics.  And I think people on both sides of that relationship understand this and understand why it’s important. 

And I think it’s even consistent with the sentiment that’s been expressed by people like Shimon Peres and Ambassador Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, both of whom have been pretty critical of the Prime Minister accepting the Speaker’s invitation. 

But the point is that this relationship between the United States and Israel is bigger than any single diplomat.  In fact, it’s an alliance that shouldn’t be turned into a relationship between two political parties.  It’s bigger than that.  It’s about the strong bond between the United States and Israel and our people, and our firm commitment to common interests and common values are the basis of that alliance.  And it’s important to the national security of both our countries.  And all of this certainly reflects the President’s approach to this relationship and our policy in the Middle East.

Q    Do you believe Ambassador Dermer has been acting like a political operative in this?  Is that the implication?  You said it’s not a relationship between two political parties.  I mean, this was the complaint that this, again, unnamed administration official who apparently contacted The New York Times to make this case was that Ambassador Dermer is acting inappropriately.  You’ve obviously made your point about the invitation being a departure from protocol, but do you believe Ambassador Dermer is acting in a way that is more political than in his traditional diplomatic role?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, the reason that we have made clear that the President will not meet with the Prime Minister when he travels to the U.S. just two weeks before the Israeli elections is that it would leave I think reasonable people with the appearance that the United States is attempting to interfere or meddle in an ongoing political process in Israel; that to meet with him just two weeks before an election could leave some people with the impression that we’re interfering in those elections.  And that’s something that the President wants to avoid, principally because this is not about -- this is more important than partisan politics.  This is about the foundation of an alliance that reflects our strong commitment to common values.


Q    Just to clarify something that Jon asked you about.  The attack on the Pakistani school that killed 140 kids -- was that a terrorist attack?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think we’re -- yes, it was a terrorist attack.

Q    And that was the Taliban.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I believe that was actually the Pakistani Taliban, and that is an organization that is classified as a terrorist organization, and these are two different groups that we’re talking about here.

Q    Okay.  The other question about Corker-Graham --

MR. EARNEST:  Let me just say one thing about that, which is I think that the Pakistanis are still trying to determine precisely who is responsible for carrying out that terrorist attack, so I don’t want to prejudge whatever investigation or conclusion they may arrive at.  If they conclude that it was the Pakistani Taliban that would certainly be consistent with their classification as a terrorist organization.

Q    Okay.  And when you say that Corker-Graham would set a harmful precedent, the President would veto it because it has to do with a non-binding instrument, do you mean something that’s not a treaty?  Is that how that translates?  That Congress shouldn’t be in the business of approving or disapproving negotiations?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.  That’s right.

Q    Okay.  So this is an executive power issue.  Is that the principle at stake here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, it’s just a different -- not necessarily.  I hadn’t really thought about it that way.  Maybe you could describe it that way.  But this is simply something that -- this is an agreement between not just the United States and Iran but basically Iran and the broader international community in negotiations that are essentially led by the United States and our P5-plus-1 partners.

Q    It doesn’t blow up the talks.  It’s not like your objection to Menendez.  You’re objecting to this on different grounds.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, we’ve been pretty clear that this also has the potential to undermine the ongoing negotiations.

Q    Just Congress asking for a chance to approve or disapprove it?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, because we’d be in a situation where the United States would agree to something at the negotiating table that would be conditional.  We certainly wouldn’t tolerate a situation where the Iranians were to say, we totally -- we’ll sign onto this agreement pending confirmation by some politicians back home in Iran.  That’s not something that we would be a party to.  We wouldn’t have confidence that that’s an agreement that would eventually go into effect.

And I think people make reasonable assumptions -- and when I say “people,” I mean not just the Iranians but the broader international community -- would have questions at least about whether the United States could back up their commitment if they knew that it would be subject to congressional confirmation, particularly from a Congress that has not been one that’s been particularly willing to work with the administration.

Q    Okay.  And a question about Cuba. Is it the President’s intention when he finally does close the Guantanamo facility to give back the actual territory to Cuba?


Q    No.  He wants to hang on to Guantanamo even after he empties the prison.

MR. EARNEST:  The President does believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be closed down.  And the reason for that is, is that only -- that serving -- that continuing to operate that prison there only serves as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other extremist organizations around the world.  And it’s in the view of the President and the previous administration clearly in the best interests of American national security to close the prison.

Q    But the naval base itself --

MR. EARNEST:  But the naval base is not something that we believe should be closed.

Q    And that’s not part of -- because Raul Castro’s comments suggested that there’s not going to be any normalization of relations with the U.S. unless you give that back.  So that has not been part of the President’s discussions with Cuba?


Q    Okay.  So you want to hang on to that. 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct. 


Q    Hi. 

MR. EARNEST:  Hi there.

Q    So it sounds like the President, in Philadelphia, will rally Democrats around this -- lifting the sequestration spending.  But what about some of the tougher subjects?  And trade specifically comes to mind.  Do you anticipate that he is going to make sort of full-on case there for Democrats to get behind the trade strategy?  And is that going to be like a tough-love talk, or kind of a sweet talk?  And what’s the case he’s going to make, and how hard does he push today on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Margaret, I would not anticipate that the President’s opening remarks will include a robust discussion of his view that our economy is stronger when we put in place agreements that open up fair access to overseas markets for American businesses.  But I would not be surprised if a member of the Democratic caucus decides to ask the President about that, and I would anticipate that the President will give them an answer that’s, frankly, pretty consistent with the answer that the President has talked about publicly.

Q    Will we be able to hear that part?

MR. EARNEST:  You may not hear it in person, but I do think that there’s probably a way we can get you a good sense of how the exchange goes down, if you will.

Q    So if I can just recap, what you’re saying is he’s not going to say that in his great-to-see-you remarks, but it’s likely to come up behind closed doors?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, his great-to-see-you remarks, and let’s work together to make sure the Department of Homeland Security is fully funded.  (Laughter.)  But after those two things --

Q    So even though it will not be in the part for public consumption, but he is going to -- but you do anticipate that this is going to come up, and that when it does he’ll be pretty forceful about what he wants and when he wants it?


Q    Do you have any better read now -- it’s been a little bit of time since the State of the Union -- about how to get there on trade and how -- really how big the opposition is?  Like, what are you working with?  What are your chances in terms of the Democratic caucus and so forth?

MR. EARNEST:  There are probably people that have a better understanding of how the politics of this break down on Capitol Hill.  What’s clear to me is that it’s going to require supporters of this policy to overcome objections from both Democrats and Republicans, that there are people in both parties who have some reservations.

Q    Harry Reid will.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there are well-known Republicans who have articulated their opposition to some of these policy ideas as well.  And the President will make a case, and he will make this case to both Democrats and Republicans, and we’re going to be relying on Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill in leadership positions to carry some of this water, too.  But the President will make a firm commitment to Democrats and Republicans that he will not present a deal to Congress for approval that does not clearly represent the best interests of the American middle class, American workers or American business owners.

And the whole point of entering into negotiations and striking agreements like this is to benefit the American economy. Now, the President believes that we can strike an agreement like this that’s good for the American economy, that also happens to be good the economy of some other countries, too.  That’s the reason they would sign on to the deal.  But where it starts with the President is reaching an agreement that’s in the best interest of the American economy. 

Now, the other part of this -- and this is part of the case that the President made in the State of the Union, and for those who are fortunate enough to be in the room when the President answers the question today, they’ll hear a little bit more on this -- which is, specifically, the President does not believe it’s in our best interest to not engage with other Asian countries as it relates to international commerce.  That if we essentially cede that ground to the Chinese, that they will enter into broader agreements with other countries in the Asia Pacific region that actually lower labor standards, that lower environmental standards, and actually make it harder for American businesses to compete and to get access to those overseas markets.

So it’s not just that we’re going to reach an agreement that is in the best interest of American workers.  It’s that failing to reach an agreement and essentially sort of withdrawing from the region would have a negative impact on the American middle class and on American workers and on American businesses.  And that will certainly be part of the case that you’ve already heard the President make, but that will be part of the answer that he delivers today as well.


Q    I wanted to ask about sanctions about Ukraine.  The EU has indicated that they’re going to move forward to extend and expand their sanctions against Russia over what’s been going on in Ukraine.  Obviously there’s been a lot of calls between the President and European leaders, and he’s meeting with Secretary Kerry today.  So I guess the question is are you guys teeing up additional sanctions against Russia?  And do you plan to match whatever sanctions that Europe I think is expected to vote on in a couple weeks?

MR. EARNEST:  Justin, I don’t have any specific announcements to make about our plans at this point.  But you know from having covered this issue pretty carefully over the last year that what we have sought to do is to work in coordinated fashion with our European partners to implement these sanctions; that we can maximize the impact if the sanctions regime is effectively coordinated. 

And that’s what we’ve done.  And the impact that we’ve seen on the Russian economy just in the last year I think is testament to the fact that by working in coordinated fashion, we have forced the Russian regime to encounter some costs as it relates to their policy in Ukraine; that if they’re going to violate this core international principle about the sovereignty and integrity -- territorial integrity of their neighbors, that there are going to be economic costs associated with that. 

And there have been on a number of occasions where, based on international negotiations with our partners in Western Europe, principally, and with our observation about the ongoing situation there, where we have taken steps to ratchet up that pressure and increase the amount of sanctions that were put into place.  So certainly, based on the kind of activity that we’ve seen from the Russians in the last several weeks, one might reasonably conclude that the United States and our partners are considering additional sanctions on Iran. And I think that’s reflective of the negotiations out of the EU.

This is obviously a situation that we continue to watch closely and we’re in very close touch with our EU partners, including at the highest level.  You saw that the President, I guess it was earlier this week -- it seems like a long time ago -- but earlier this week, the President had a conversation with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on this very subject.

So we continue to be engaged and there is a reason that the EU is considering this, and that’s because they continue to be, as the United States is, extremely concerned about Russia’s continued provocation in Ukraine. 

Let me say one other thing about this -- two other things about it -- I’ll keep it short, I promise.  The first is, you’ll recall that the administration has put forward a request from Congress to pass an additional loan guarantee, a $1 billion loan guarantee, early this year for Ukraine.  Ukraine has also suffered economically from the instability in their country and doing what we can to support them is important. 

It’s also why -- and this is the second thing -- it’s also why we want Congress, as we have for some time now, to act on IMF reforms that would significantly enhance the ability of the IMF to offer some economic assistance to Ukraine.  And so we hear a lot of talk on Capitol Hill from Republicans who say that we need to be doing more to support Ukraine.  Well, one really important step they could take is to pass the IMF reforms that would have very little impact on our budget but actually would do a lot to increase the assistance we can offer the Ukrainian people.

Q    One other thing about legislation that’s brewing up on Capitol Hill.  The AUMF -- Representative Shiff put forward his proposal yesterday.  I know that you guys, earlier this month in talks with leadership, have said that you planned to put something together, you want to consult congressional leadership. I’m wondering if you can put a timeline on that.  I mean, it seems like there’s a bit of a hot potato going on, where you guys don’t want to stamp your name on an AUMF because then it’s your responsibility or your war without congressional authorization. And Congress wants you to do that so that it’s kind of pinned on you guys.  And so I’m wondering, obviously you want to consult with Capitol Hill, but at what point do you just say this is what we want?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t entirely agree with your characterization, but I think it’s a reasonable observation.  And so let me try to give you a better sense of how we see this situation.  In the President’s conversations with leaders on Capitol Hill, they have indicated a desire to weigh in on the strategy as well.  So it’s not just a situation where the President is looking to absolve himself of responsibility for this military strategy.  He’s the Commander-in-Chief; he knew what he was signing up for when he ran for the job.  So he’s ready to take responsibility for this. 

I mean, he has also taken responsibility for a strategy that seems to be working.  We built this international coalition of more than 60 countries.  We have enjoyed some success in taking strikes against ISIL targets that have diminished their capacity. There are reports that significant progress has been made in the last few days to try to push ISIL out of Kobani.  So there are important successes here to note, but there’s a lot of work that remains to be done. 

The President’s view is that our strategy is stronger when we can demonstrate to the international community -- to our allies, and to our enemies -- that there is broad bipartisan support for the strategy that the President has laid out.  And that’s why we want Congress to weigh in.

Now, the President has committed to putting forward legislation that we write and submit to Congress.  The President has also been clear, though, that he wants to make sure that whatever request we make and whatever language we put forward is the kind of language that can attract bipartisan support.  And that’s why we’re eager to get Congress to sort of weigh in at least privately with us on the front end, so we can be sure that whatever we put forward is something that enjoys the support of Democrats and Republicans. 

I might add that Democrats and Republicans who are interested in voting for an authorization to use military force have said the same thing -- that they want to have a chance to weigh in on this language so that it’s language that they feel like they can support and advocate for.

Q    Doesn’t that suggest that you don’t feel like right now you’ve got language that has bipartisan support, since you haven’t put something forward?  And so I’m wondering what the sticking points are.  Where are you struggling to win over either Republicans or Democrats on this issue and work through that?  Or is it just kind of you guys are happy because you have authorization and you think things are working so --

MR. EARNEST:  No -- I’m glad that you raised this because I don’t want people to be confused about the fact that we haven’t sent up legislation yet, or legislative language yet is an indication that we’ve made a decision to not try to seek an authorization to use military force or that we’re somehow losing our appetite for that.  That’s not true.  This administration definitely wants Congress to act in bipartisan fashion to pass an authorization to use military force.  And we are being careful to craft language that we are confident can be passed in bipartisan fashion once we send it up.  And trying to find bipartisan agreement on some of these issues is difficult.  I won’t soft-pedal that.

Q    -- last year that passed through the Senate committee, right, with bipartisan support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think -- at the very end of last year? I thought that that passed along party lines.  I think it did.  And that reflects why we want to try to work with Democrats and Republicans on the front end here to get some bipartisan support on the back end.  And I know that’s a sentiment that’s shared by Republicans and Democrats on the Hill as well.  So this is an area where there’s an opportunity for us to work together, and I’m reasonably optimistic that we’ll be able to do so, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.


Q    Josh, to Jeff earlier you reiterated the President’s position on Keystone, that he would veto a bill, but what’s the President’s message to Senators Bennet, Carper, Casey, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, McCaskill, Tester and Warner -- Democrats -- a fifth of the Democratic caucus in the Senate who voted to move this legislation forward? 

MR. EARNEST:  His message to them is the same as the message that I have to deliver to you, which is the President believes that the best way for us to resolve the -- for us to determine whether or not building the Keystone pipeline is in the national interest of the United States is to allow the well-established administrative process to be carried out, and that will allow experts in the field of the environment and of energy policy to carefully examine the route of the pipeline, the potential impact it could have on communities that are along that route, and to determine whether or not it’s in the national interest.  And based on that determination, the project will either go forward or not. 

Q    Yes, but you, from the podium, and the President’s State of Union characterized this focus on the Keystone project as a waste of time.  You've said almost that exact phrase from the podium.  The President said that we could be focusing on other projects and get things done at the State of Union.  Does he think that these Democrats are joining Republicans in wasting the American people’s time by --

MR. EARNEST:  I think that's -- a waste of time is your characterization.  I didn't say that. 


Q    Yes, I wanted to follow on your earlier answer to Jeff. When you hear the cries of “dead on arrival,” does that change your approach to the budget in any way?  When you realize that both houses of Congress are hostile to specific things, do you use the budget for broader message-sending or setting the agenda? How do things change?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly are never pleased to see Republicans unilaterally rule out making any progress on policies that are beneficial to middle-class families, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that they’ve done that.  They’ve done that many times, maybe even daily over the last several years.  And the President, by scratching and fighting tooth and nail for the middle class, has enjoyed some success in putting in place policies that benefit the middle class.

The best example of this is in the context of the fiscal cliff negotiations at the end of 2012, that for years -- for decades, in fact, Republicans have prided themselves on blocking all efforts to raise taxes.  Well, after fighting for four years and following up on a promise that he’d made as a presidential candidate, the President succeeded in getting Congress -- with Republican support -- to pass legislation that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans and protected tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans, including all middle-class families.

So that is one example of Republicans pronouncing something “dead on arrival,” and then the President, through sheer determination and some political persuasion, did succeed in getting that policy across the finish line.  And we’ll probably have to do that again.  But there’s no -- the President has plenty of energy and appetite for a fight over policies that are going to benefit middle-class families.

Q    But does your approach to the budget change in any way given the changed reality on the Hill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no.  And the reason for that is simply that the budget is the responsibility of the President to lay out and to codify in clear dollars and cents what his priorities and values are.  Republicans will be responsible for doing the same thing. 

And as I mentioned, there’s never an expectation on the part of any President that the Congress is going to pass every single element of his budget.  That was even true when Democrats were in charge of the Congress.  And that was true when Republican President Bush put forward a budget proposal to a Republican-led Congress.  He didn’t have the expectation that it was going to be passed in whole by the Congress, but yet it would serve as a clear enunciation of that President’s values and priorities, and I think often does reasonably serve as a starting point for negotiations.

And we’ve been clear about the fact that any significant legislation that passes through the Congress will, by definition, have to have bipartisan support, because it’s going to be passed by a Republican majority and signed into law by a Democratic President.  And certainly when it comes to issues of the budget, we’ll be looking for common ground and bipartisanship there, too.


Q    Josh, thanks.  I want to go back to Congressman Schiff’s AUMF legislation.  It includes language that would prohibit the use of ground troops.  I know that Secretary Kerry a while back, he said that that shouldn’t be part of the AUMF language.  Does the administration still stand by that?  Are you still opposed to legislation that would prohibit the use of ground troops?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kristen, I’m not going to be in a position to negotiate the language from here.  We are having private negotiations with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill about what should be included in the agreement.  But --

Q    But that seems like a very basic tenet of any piece of legislation.  I mean, the President has said multiple times that he’s not going to send U.S. troops -- put U.S. troops on the ground.  So is that something that you would be opposed to?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, this is something that we’ll have to work out with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.  But I appreciate your raising what is a principle that the President has established from the very first day he started talking about ISIL, which is that he does not believe that it’s in the best interest of the United States for us to commit a significant contingent of American ground troops in a combat role to fight ISIL.  He believes that the best way for us to do this is to put American troops in a situation where they can use their skills and expertise to train up local forces that can take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country.

Q    Let me ask you about Yemen.  There were some protestors who were beaten back by the opposition forces in Sana’a on Wednesday.  Do you have any reaction to that?  And have you been in contact with any of the opposition forces?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kristen, what I can tell you is that the people of Yemen deserve a clear path back to a legitimate federal and unitary Yemeni government, consistent with the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and Yemeni law, with clearly defined timelines to finish writing a Yemeni constitution, to hold a referendum on the constitution and then to launch national elections.

The point is, we believe that the transition that’s underway in Yemen should be a peaceful one, and we certainly would not condone or approve of any act of violence.  And we believe that ultimately the government in Yemen, after going through what would be a difficult and time-consuming process, is one that should reflect previous agreements that have been made and, more importantly, should reflect the will of the Yemeni people. 

And that’s difficult work.  As we’ve been talking about here in the context of some of these other things, democracy is messy, but we do believe that the Yemeni people will benefit from having a government that reflects their will.  And we would encourage all of the parties in this ongoing dispute here to subscribe to that principle.

Q    And I guess what I’m trying to nail down, though -- has anyone from this administration been in contact with the opposition forces, with outgoing President Hadi?  Who are you in contact with there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that in the context of all of Yemen’s communities and parties to this dispute, we’ve been in touch with many of them about the latest political developments and to try to ensure the safety of the American personnel that are still in Yemen.  But I don’t have any specific conversations to read out.

But certainly we’re interested in engaging at a political level to try to advance our interests in that country, and to encourage them to pursue and resolve their differences peacefully in a way that’s in the best interest of their people.

Q    And then just trying again at one -- and I know you’ve gotten this question before -- but the President has been insistent that U.S. counterterrorism operations aren’t going to be impacted by these new opposition forces who are now in control.  But how is that possible in the long term?  I know that there were reports of recent drone strikes there.  But how can that be possible in the long term if you don’t have the cooperation of the party in power there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  I have seen the reports that you’re referring to about some drone strikes in Yemen.  I don’t have any comment on those.  I can neither confirm nor deny their existence.  But what I can is I can tell you that we do continue to have an ongoing security relationship with the national security infrastructure in Yemen, some of which -- much of which is still functioning.  So there are still coordinated efforts underway to apply pressure on AQAP leaders in Yemen and to diminish their operational capability.  And that’s something that requires a lot of vigilance and a lot of work, and it’s something that continues to this day.

That said, we have also been pretty forthright about the fact that our security efforts there, our counterterrorism efforts there are enhanced when we have a good partner in the central government and it’s a central government that reflects the will of the people.  And that’s one of the reasons that we have an interest in the peaceful resolution of this ongoing political dispute in Yemen, is that it will enhance our ability to coordinate with that government and carry out counterterrorism operations that are in the best interests of American national security.

So the point is, we do want these problems to be resolved.  It will be in the best interest of the United States.  But our ongoing counterterrorism efforts against AQAP continue to this minute.


Q    Josh, thanks.  How concerned is the White House at the plight of congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle facing the specter of sequestration, knowing that they may have to make incredibly difficult choices that could impact national security, holding the line on the budget and yet making sure the Pentagon is properly funded?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, this is one of the reasons that the administration is going to put forward a budget that actually raises the caps on sequestration, that we believe that important investments in non-defense programs that benefit the middle class are important, but so are programs that will benefit our national security. 

And you’ve heard any number of our military leaders articulate the concerns that they have with sequestration and the impact it has had on the ability of our men and women in uniform to keep the country safe.  Let me just read you one quote from the Chief of Naval Operations.  He said that, “With each year of sequestration, the loss of force structure, readiness and future investments would cause our options to become increasingly constrained and drastic.”  The Chief of Staff of the Army, General Odierno, said that “Sequestration is the single greatest barrier to the effectiveness of our armed forces.”

So this administration has been very clear, as have our military leaders, about the fact that sequestration is a bad policy.  It’s certainly been bad for our economy, and it’s bad for our national security as well.  And that’s why the President proposes to end it.

Q    And that will come primarily from tax cuts -- taxes?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the way that the President believes that we should pay for some of these new investments that are needed is by closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy and the well-connected.  The President believes that if making the investments that are necessary to the national security of the United States means that some of our financial firms on Wall Street have to pay just a little bit more, the President believes that’s a good policy choice, and it’s one we’ll pursue.

If Republicans disagree with that they’re welcome to do so, but it certainly means that their policies and their values and their priorities deserve some scrutiny.

Q    Let me ask you something that happened on FOX News last night on Special Report with Bret Baier.  House Speaker John Boehner made the suggestion that the Republicans will offer an alternative to Obamacare, for lack of a better description.  I’m just curious, can you tell me what you think about that possibility?  And is this good for the dialogue, to have the Republicans offer up something that would be an alternative to the Affordable Care Act?

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll believe it when we see it, Kevin. 


Q    To follow up on my colleague’s question, there’s been

-- can you tell us whether or not you believe that Iran is directly or indirectly involved in the Houthis insurgent activities in Yemen presently?

MR. EARNEST:  We have expressed some concern in the past, J.C., about the links between the Houthis and the Iranian military and some of their security apparatus.  We do have concerns about that.  At this point, we do not have any indication that Iranian military leaders, or any Iranians, frankly, are exercising any specific command-and-control functions, but we do continue to be concerned about the influence and some of the connections and ties between the Houthis, their leaders and Iran. 


Q    Yes, thanks, Josh.  The Army concluded its investigation into Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance several months ago.  When is that report coming out?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a question that you should direct to the Department of Defense.  They can give you a sense of the status of that negotiation -- or the status of that investigation.  That’s obviously an independent investigation that’s being conducted by the United States Army, so I don't have any insight into the status of it.

Q    On a related note, if it’s patently false that they're going to charge him with desertion, why was he not at the State of Union?  Allan Gross was at the State of Union.  He was someone else who was in a prison for five years and released in a prisoner swap.  So why was Bowe Bergdahl not at the State of Union?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what my colleague over at the Pentagon said was patently false was that the Army -- or that the Army investigator had made a decision about his case.  It’s my understanding -- again, according to the comments from my colleague over at the Pentagon -- that that investigation is still ongoing.  And so when they have an update in terms of that status, it will come from them, not from us.

Q    And lastly, really quickly, the Prayer Breakfast, is Obama going?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has in the past attended the National Prayer Breakfast.  I haven’t looked at his schedule for next week, but I’d be surprised if he didn't attend.


Q    Josh, I have a quick budget question.  There are budget groups and members on the Hill who will be reading the President’s budget document, looking at how he treats long-term debt and the problem of mandatory entitlement.  If reading that, in reading the President’s budget, he does not have any explicit proposals of his own to deal with that particularly problem, whether it’s chained CPI for Social Security or Medicare changes, should we interpret that as his being open to negotiations with the Hill as the budget is developed later on?  Or is it because he’ll be saying that that really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed right now because of the Affordable Care Act or other initiatives?

MR. EARNEST:  That's a very creative way to ask the question.  And so even though my instinct is to dismiss it and say we’ll be able to speak in greater detail about this on Monday when the budget is released, I will, however, point out a couple of things that I think are relevant to the question that you've asked. 

The first is that there are, as you point out, a number of policies that this administration has put in place that will have a positive impact in our deficit picture, things like the Affordable Care Act, that there are significant government savings associated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  Those savings only get bigger in the out-years.  So when we're talking about reducing our long-term deficit and debt, the effective implementation of the Affordable Care Act is an important part of that.  And it will have significant and positive impact on our long-term deficit picture.  That's the first thing.

That's also true of some of the other policies the President has been advocating for, including immigration reform, that there are billions that we could save by reforming our broken immigration system.  But Republicans who profess to support deficit reduction and be concerned about our debt have blocked that common-sense bipartisan proposal, much to our consternation.

The last thing I’ll say is that the President, of course, is open to having a conversation with Republicans about what we can do to address our longer-term debt picture.  That said, the President is not going to reduce our debt solely on the back of our seniors and our middle-class families.  He’s not going to do it.  The President -- that's been a core principle since this President took office.

We have succeeded in reducing our deficit dramatically since the President took office.  And we’ve done that without making seniors and the middle class bear all of the load.  And we're certainly not going to impose that kind of burden on seniors and the middle class to reduce our longer-term deficit.

Q    Let me follow up on Mara’s question to you about Guantanamo, the naval base.  A few weeks ago when you were asked about this, you said you knew of no -- if I recall, you said you knew of no concept or proposal.  And you're much firmer today.  And I just want to know is it because you went and checked, and it turned out we don't have any plans?  Or is it because that was sort of in the atmosphere, and then the President has now decided that is not going to happen?

MR. EARNEST:  No, this is, in my undying effort to try to provide you with more information about the views of the administration, I was able to obtain additional information that allows me to conclusively rule out any discussion about returning the military base in Guantanamo Bay to the Cubans.


Q    I have a follow-up on Guantanamo.


Q    How, with your Republican Congress, can the President close Guantanamo?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have been clear about the fact that Republicans in Congress -- and this is true of some Democrats, too -- that they have put in place obstacles that are making this process very difficult.  And that is not in the best interest of our national security.  The President believes that that prison should be closed.  And if we got cooperation from Congress, that's something that we could do in relatively short order.

But because of legislative obstacles that have been thrown up repeatedly by members of Congress, this effort has become much more difficult.  But the President is determined to try to make progress and we're going to continue to work on this.  And this I think would sort of be an example of the President scratching and clawing to try to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the country, even over the objections of some members of Congress.

Q    Can the President do an executive order to close Guantanamo?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think at this point the President is doing everything that he can and is going to consider any new ideas that anybody has to try to continue to make progress on this.

Q    An executive order?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have anything to preview at this point.


Q    How can the Afghan Taliban not be considered a terrorist organization for purposes of the rest of the U.S. government, when the Treasury considers it, and when it has a long history of terrorist acts -- why?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, Bill, because what we have done is it’s clear that there is a difference between the ambitions that are expressed by the Taliban and the ambitions that are expressed by al Qaeda.

Q    So it hangs entirely on the fact that they are local and al Qaeda is international?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it certainly makes clear that their aspirations are different.  It means that they’re a threat to the American people and our interests are different.  The Taliban is very dangerous and we have expended significant sums of money and American servicemembers have given their lives fighting the Taliban because they do pose a threat to American interests and to American servicemembers inside of Afghanistan.  And we have used some financial sanctions instruments to try to limit the capacity of the Taliban by imposing the sanctions against them.  But there’s no doubt that the threat from the Taliban is different than the threat that is posed by al Qaeda.

Q    Yes, but it may be smaller in scope but what is the real difference?  I mean, why?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the difference, Bill, is simply that the threat that they pose is different; that the threat from the Taliban is acute if you are a servicemember serving in Afghanistan or if you are a U.S. diplomat or a contractor that is working in Afghanistan.

Q    So why aren’t they terrorists?

Q    But isn’t every terrorist group a little different from every other terrorist group?

MR. EARNEST:  They are, but in this case, there is a clear difference between the aspirations that have been articulated by the Taliban and the way that they carry out -- or the way that they resort to some of their terror tactics and the terror attacks that are carried out by al Qaeda. 

There’s no denying the fact that these are very dangerous organizations.  And that’s why the United States government, under the leadership of this President, has devoted significant resources to defeating them.  And we’re going to continue to implement our strategy in Afghanistan that has now turned over the responsibility for the security in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces and their central government.  And we’re going to continue to support them as they take the fight to the Taliban.

This is not a situation of underestimating the Taliban.  The President is keenly aware of how dangerous this organization is. And it’s why we are forthright about the fact that American personnel serving in Afghanistan continue to face a threat.  And we have not ruled out that there would be some situations in which U.S. servicemembers would still carry out operations in self-defense against the Taliban or other terrorists who are operating in Afghanistan.

Q    Are you suggesting that the Afghan Taliban doesn’t operate outside of attacks on our personnel in Afghanistan --

MR. EARNEST:  No, in fact --

Q    -- therefore they’re not terrorists?

MR. EARNEST:  In fact, Bill, the Taliban in Afghanistan have actually carried out more attacks against the Afghan people than they have even Americans, which is why we support the Afghan central government in trying to defeat them.

Q    But why aren’t they terrorists?  We’re just asking, why aren’t they a terrorist group?  Simply, why aren’t they a terrorist group?

MR. EARNEST:  Right, and what I’m saying is that we have been very clear about what our strategy is to defeat them.  And it’s different than the strategy --

Q    But that’s not what we’re asking you.

MR. EARNEST:  But that’s different than the strategy that we have employed against al Qaeda.

Q    Is it because we don’t negotiate with terrorists and yet we negotiated for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Bill, we’ve been clear about the fact that the conversations with the Taliban were executed through the Qatari government and that that’s the way that that release was secured.

Q    There was a quid pro quo.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know if that Latin phrase is appropriate in this situation but there was an agreement to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl and it was predicated on a core value, a principle that this Commander-in-Chief subscribes to, which is that somebody who signs up to serve in our Armed Forces is not going to get left behind.

Q    And, by the way, how is that any different from the Jordanians possibly trading for their prisoner?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a reasonable question, but it’s a question that you should ask the Jordanian government.


Q    Josh, just following up on Margaret’s question about the event later today in Philadelphia and trade issues.  Just this week, Republican committees or -led committees in the Senate and House had hearings on the President’s trade agenda with Mike Froman there, and at those hearings, they’re suggesting that they may go forward with a bill that could give the President more authority to sort of do some of these trade deals.  But they said specifically the President needs to get on the phone and make the case to fellow Democrats to get this across the finish line, to get those final votes we need.  The President not making sort of a proactive statement today on this issue, is that to imply that he doesn’t think his voice is important to carry the day and to keep that message out there?  Is the White House really just going to answer questions rather than sort of proactively push for this?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  I guess I would say that for those who wonder why the President doesn’t pick up the phone and make the case directly to Democrats, I’d actually say that he’s doing them one better.  He’s going to go get on an airplane, fly to Philadelphia, go to where the House Democrats are meeting, and make the case to them in person. 

I think the reason that -- the President’s proactive case in the beginning will be focused on some other topics, but the President, I think by virtue of the fact that he mentioned in his State of the Union address, cares deeply and does consider this to be a priority.  And he’s looking forward to a conversation that he can have with Democrats on this issue.

At the same time -- and it’s important not to overlook this -- there is well-chronicled opposition among some members of the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate who are opposed to any sort of trade agreement.  There’s also opposition in the Republican rank and file in the House and the Senate.  So as we consider building this bipartisan coalition to give the President the authority to negotiate an agreement that would be in the best interest of American middle-class families to open up markets overseas for American businesses, that that’s going to require work on both sides of the aisle.  And the President is going to, no doubt, do his part to bring Democrats along, but we’re going to be counting on Republican leaders to do the same thing on the Republican side of the aisle. 

Q    But wouldn’t the President’s voice today be able to sort of sway opinion in a party that’s very conflicted about trade, maybe opposes it?  He can make a different here really talking about that.  Why not talk about it proactively?  It’s just too much time on these other topics that are --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, yes, the President wants to go and have a conversation with the issues that are of most interest to them. And there are a couple of things that he’ll mention at the top.  He’s going to keep his remarks relatively short, as those of you who are traveling today will see.

But the President would welcome the opportunity to have a discussion with them to talk about why the President supports trade promotion authority.  And again, it’s trade promotion authority that would be in support of an agreement that the President would only sign if he believed it was clearly in the best interests of American middle-class families.


Q    Back on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit for a minute. I know you said this relationship is bigger than any one person. But just to clarify, does the President share the view, do people at the White House share the view that the Israeli ambassador is more concerned with the Prime Minister’s politics than the U.S.-Israel relationship?

And then given the importance of the relationship, has the White House or anyone in the administration communicated with the Prime Minister or with the Israeli government any desire that he be reprimanded, removed, that anyone should take any action given that he is sort of the pivot point of this important relationship?  He is the main conduit between the two in this country for Israel.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I do want to be clear about one thing, which is that there’s no -- no one in the administration is contemplating taking some sort of action against Ambassador Dermer.  And we should be clear about that.  And the reason for that simply is the principle that I laid out before, that this relationship extends far beyond just one diplomat.  And it should extend far beyond just the relationship between two political parties -- one in this country and one in the other.  In fact, what we want to do is we want to make sure that our alliance, as it has for decades, rests upon the common values and our common national security interests.

And that's certainly been reflected in the way that this President has implemented our policy when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.  That's why the President has advocated aggressively for funding for certain Israeli national security programs.  So as recently as last summer, the President called on Congress in short order to pass hundreds of millions of dollars to resupply the Iron Dome program in Israel that was protecting innocent Israeli citizens from rockets that were being fired by extremists in Gaza.

And that's why even Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has noted that the security cooperation that the nation of Israel has received from the Obama administration is unprecedented.  And that I think is a reflection of the President’s determination to not allow this important relationship between our two countries to get bogged down in partisan politics.

Q    Is there any concern here at the White House that the speech and the way in which it came together is going to undermine the bipartisan support that all those steps you outlined, as well as many others, have had historically in Congress in terms of keeping the U.S. commitment to Israel strong?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I can say is that the President is determined to make sure that we don't see our relationship with Israel reduced to just a political relationship, that that relationship is too important both to the people of Israel but also to the people of the United States.

And that is why the President has taken the step and made this decision not to meet with the Israeli Prime Minster when he’s here.  And it's rooted solely in his desire to not leave anybody with the impression that he’s trying to meddle in an Israeli election that’s scheduled for two weeks later.

The President’s willingness to make that kind of decision and publicize it, even though it is subject to some criticism, again, along party lines, I think is a reflection of his determination to ensure that our relationship rises above any sort of partisan squabbling.  Our relationship with Israel can’t just be reduced to the relationship between two political parties.

For generations of Israeli leaders and American leaders, the strong bond between the U.S. and Israel has transcended partisan politics.  And the President believes and he’s certainly conducted himself in a manner that illustrates that he believes that tradition should continue. 

John, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  You sent out the readout yesterday of the President’s conversation with Prime Minster Tsipras in Greece, and two things.  First, are any plans underway for the Prime Minster to visit the United States any time soon and meet with the President here?  Second, the President rarely, if ever, comments on the politics in any country individually, as you just made clear.  However, Greek voters did send a shock out with the third place showing of the Golden Dawn party, which is openly anti-immigrant, in fact, wants to deport all immigrants in Greece.  Did the President express any thoughts about that at all when he talked to the Prime Minster, or on any other occasions?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any travel plans to announce.  I'm not aware of any travel plans that the Prime Minster has, but you can check with his government to see if he’s planning to visit the U.S.  As it relates to Greek politics, I don’t believe that they were focused on Greek politics in that conversation.  It was mostly focused on the kinds of steps that Greece can take to put in place the economic reforms that are going to be in the best interest of their people. 

And the President made clear, as we said in the readout, that we’re going to continue to work closely with Greek leaders and the Greek people to put in place policies that are in the best interest of that country, and the best interest of the broader European and global economy. 

Thanks everybody.

2:35 P.M. EST