Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/3/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for being here today.
I just want to do two quick things before I go to your questions. The first is you've had an opportunity to hear from the President about the recently released video from ISIL. This is something that the intelligence community is continuing to work to authenticate, as the President alluded to. As they have been for some time, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the family of Lieutenant Kasasbeh and with the Jordanian people. The Jordanians have been stalwart members of this broader international coalition that's executing a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And we're going to continue to stand with them even in this very difficult, tragic time.
One other thing I want to also mention is I want to commend to your attention a statement from the President’s top counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco. She made reference to the fact that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence put forward a report today. This is a report that was directed by the President in Presidential policy guidance -- or Presidential Policy Directive 28, related to signals intelligence activities. This report was issued at the President’s direction to make public the progress that the intelligence community is making on reforming some of our signals intelligence activities.
This is a process that's been informed by experts both inside and outside of the government. And what the report indicates is that the progress the IC is and will continue to make on these reforms will help chart a path forward that should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are protected, while preserving important tools that keep us safe, and addressing significant questions that have been raised overseas.
Now, there are two other things that I want to make clear about this. The first is, now that this report has been made public, the President wants people to take a look at it, particularly those who’ve expressed a strong opinion on it. And the President intends to meet with some of the experts that he met with last year to discuss the findings of the report and to discuss additional steps that can be taken to make further progress on these reforms.
The second thing is this is not just the first report from PPD 28 -- as my friends in the national security bureaucracy call it -- it’s actually going to be the first annual report, that the President intends for them to be some important follow-through here and that in having an annual evaluation of the progress of these reforms, the President believes is important to holding the national security apparatus accountable for striking the appropriate balance between protecting our national security and protecting the civil liberties of the American people, and obviously recognizing the significant questions that have been raised about people overseas.
So I would certainly commend to your attention the statement from Ms. Monaco, as well the report itself that's been put out today.
So with that, Nedra, why don't we get to your questions?
Q If the Jordanian pilot was, indeed, killed by ISIL, does that change or impact the hunt to rescue the American woman and other hostages that are still being held there?
MR. EARNEST: It does not, Nedra, and for one simple reason, which is that the President has already ordered his team to devote all of the available resources that we have to trying to locate anybody -- but particularly Americans -- who are being held hostage by ISIL. And we have made clear that the President is willing to devote significant diplomatic intelligence, even military resources, to trying to secure the release of our citizens that are being held against their will. And that is an effort about which we continue to be vigilant and the President receives regular updates on the progress of those efforts, and we're going to continue to be.
You already know that White House officials are in close touch with the families of those who are being held against their will in Syria by ISIL, and we’ll continue to be. And certainly our thoughts and prayers are with them, as well. They're going through what is I think an unimaginable tragedy, and our thoughts are with them, as well.
Q Since the President weighed in on Sunday encouraging parents to vaccinate their children, other elected officials have also spoken about this. Does the President think it’s irresponsible for elected leaders not to be definitive about the need to vaccinate children?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think that -- I know that this has been bandied about a little bit in the context of some presidential politics for 2016, and I'm not going to avail myself of the opportunity to weigh in on the comments of others. I think the President’s views on this are clear, and if given the opportunity to do so, he will repeat his urgent guidance that parents across the country have a responsibility to get their kids vaccinated against the measles.
And the reason for that is failing to do so only puts at risk those families that have small children who can't be vaccinated against the measles until they’re 12 months old, or also puts at risk those children who have compromised immune systems that also can't get the measles vaccine.
So that's why the President believes that parents do have a responsibility here, and it's a responsibility not just for their own kids but for kids in their community.
Q Because of that risk to the vulnerable population, does he believe that it's time to revisit state laws that allow some parents to opt out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there has been substantial litigation around this, too. I think in the mind of the President -- I did have the opportunity to visit with him shortly before the briefing on this very issue -- the President believes it shouldn’t require a law for people to exercise common sense and do the right thing. And again, this is the right thing for them to do both by their own children, but by also other children in the community. They have a responsibility to do this.
And the fact is the only reason that people would even consider the option of not getting the measles vaccine for their children is that we have actually succeeded in making the measles virus very rare, that they feel like they are not at risk at catching measles so that's why they don't have to get the measles vaccine. But the truth of the matter is the only reason that the measles virus is relatively rare is because everybody has been getting the vaccine.
So there is an element of common sense that needs to be applied here because the science and the expert guidance that we get from our public health professionals is crystal-clear.
Q And just one other topic -- does the President plan to sign the bill to improve mental health services at the VA?
MR. EARNEST: This is the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention --
Q Right. That's right.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. This is something that the administration strongly supports and the President will sign it.
Q Josh, back on ISIS. The King of Jordan, King Abdullah, is in town today. Will the President or anyone else from the White House be meeting with him?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that he was slated to have lunch with the Vice President today. I don't know whether or not -- I believe it was scheduled to take place right now. I don't know if the King’s schedule has changed or not. But obviously the President and the Vice President both value the strong personal relationship they have with King Abdullah, and the strong partnership that the United States has with the nation of Jordan.
As I mentioned, there are 60 nations that are part of this broader international coalition that is executing a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. Jordan has made substantial contributions to that international coalition. In fact, the reason that we're discussing the welfare and the apparent killing of this one Jordanian military officer is that there are Jordanian military pilots that are risking their lives to carry out airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria. And they are doing it alongside American military pilots. And that is an indication of the substantial contribution that Jordan is making to this effort.
Q Given what’s just happened with this hostage, would that be something that might be added to the President’s schedule since the King is in town?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any changes in the President’s schedule at this point, but if something like that does occur, we'll let you know.
Q Can you describe how and when he was informed about the video?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know exactly how. I know that he was shortly before all of you saw him.
Q On a separate topic, can you give any more details about the administration’s thinking about Ukraine and what kinds of weapons you might be considering sending to the opposition?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question, Jeff, and there has been, I know, some coverage of this in the last few days. I will say a couple things about it. The first is some of that coverage leaves some with the impression that there’s not been military assistance that's already been provided by the United States. And it's important to note that the United States has already provided $118 million in security assistance to help Ukraine in their ongoing efforts.
That security assistance includes a wide variety of things, everything including body armor, helmets, vehicles, night and thermal vision devices, heavy engineering equipment, advanced radios, demining equipment, portable explosive ordinance disposal robots, patrol boats, counter-mortar radars, and other items that are required to sustain Ukraine’s defense and internal security operations. So there already is substantial military assistance that has been provided to Ukraine.
The question that some people have raised -- and even, I think, the suggestion that some have raises -- is that that military assistance should be augmented. And what we have said throughout this situation in Ukraine that's been going on for almost a year now is that we're continually evaluating our strategy and our response with essentially two goals. One is to isolate Russia’s political leadership for the decisions they’re making to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, and also to take steps to support our friends in Ukraine that are going through a very difficult time.
And that support takes a variety of forms. It includes the military assistance that I detailed. It also includes economic assistance in the form of loan guarantees, some of which have already moved through Congress. And you’ll recall that just a couple of weeks ago the administration called on Congress to pass an additional $1 billion in loan guarantees that could benefit the Ukrainians. Their economy has taken a hit from this instability as well, and we want to do what we can, working with the international community, to try to offer them some needed assistance. But if there is more that we can do that makes sense in the context of our strategy, then we’ll consider doing that.
Ultimately, it is the view of the United States that this situation will be resolved diplomatically, that the idea that somehow the United States can offer enough assistance to the Ukrainians to put their military on par with the large Russian military is unrealistic. So what we ultimately need to do is we need to have put enough pressure on Russia’s political leadership, do enough to support our friends in Ukraine to ultimately bring about the kinds of diplomatic negotiations that are capable of resolving the instability in that country.
Q Okay. Just one more on a final topic. The EPA weighed in with its assessment of the Keystone pipeline today, saying that it would, indeed, have effects on climate change. Doesn’t this basically show that the President’s test on whether or not to approve Keystone will not be fulfilled?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did see the letter that the EPA put out today. I'm not going to comment on this process, or at least the substance of this process until the State Department has concluded their broader review to determine whether or not this project going forward is in the national interest.
So certainly the President has laid out his own clear criteria about how he believes the project should be evaluated. And as part of the process of collecting input from relevant agencies across the federal government, the EPA put out their own supplemental environmental impact study and that will be a part of this ongoing process at the State Department. But I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of that process until the State Department has had an opportunity to evaluate the input from all of the federal agencies.
Q But the veto threat remains on that bill as well, right?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And the reason that that veto remains in place is because it would circumvent this well-established process for determining whether or not this project is in the national interest.
Q Okay. And back to ISIS. We heard the President say today, I think it will redouble the vigilance and determination on the part of the global coalition to make sure that ISIS is degraded and ultimately defeated. Redoubling the efforts of the coalition. Why would the President say that in relation to this latest video? And is it because you see this as some kind of ramping up in ISIS’s violence or propaganda?
MR. EARNEST: Tragically, Michelle, this is the kind of violent act that we’ve seen all too many times in recent months from ISIL. These kinds of acts only expose the bankrupt and depraved ideology of the leaders of that terrorist organization. And it is acts like this that only serve to galvanize the international community and redouble our commitment to the strategy that we’re employing to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q So we will see more on the part of the coalition -- is that what he’s saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly adding more to the coalition is always an option. I think the President was mostly referring to, though, the international community’s commitment and determination to working together to solve this problem. And when I say solve this problem, I mean degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Okay. And the timing of this is interesting given the visit of the Jordanians here today. Do you have reason to think that ISIS is watching these moves and acting because of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s hard for me to possibly imagine why anyone would resort to a tactic like this, let alone filming it and releasing it. And so I wouldn’t pretend to understand what’s going through their minds.
What I can tell you is if it is part of an effort to weaken the international community’s resolve, I feel confident in standing before you today and telling you that the release of this video is going to have the opposite of that intended effect; that the international community and certainly the United States -- and I’ll let the other members of the coalition speak for themselves -- that our determination is only strengthened.
Q And timing as well -- the Jordanians say that this pilot was actually killed on January 3rd. Were you aware of any of that possibility before? And what does that say about the hostage negotiations and attempts that had been going on and those attempts in general?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, this video is something that is still being evaluated by the intelligence community, and certainly questions about when this video might have been recorded will be among the questions that will be considered by the intelligence community, and so I wouldn’t want to get ahead of their assessment.
Q Okay. Quickly, because vaccines came up, it was 2008 that the President said that the science was inconclusive. So the difference now -- does he believe something has changed in the research that would make that not the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we do know that at the time that the President was speaking, there was a study that has since been debunked that indicated that there might be some connection between autism -- or increasing rates of autism and vaccines. But, like I said, since that time -- I believe this was in 2010 -- that study was retracted because it was completely undermined based on additional scientific data that had been presented. So, in the mind of the President, this is an issue that science has settled and that it is clearly the responsibility of parents all across the country to get their kids vaccinated for the measles.
Q In Lisa Monaco’s statement this morning on the report, she refers to another report that would be coming out in the coming days on big data. Is that -- can you give me any timeline on that, what that means, any preview?
MR. EARNEST: You can look for that sometime before the end of the week, but I wouldn’t preview it at this point.
Q Sure, back on vaccines. It’s been reported that people who have dug through the budget found that the so-called 317 program on immunizations has been cut in the President’s proposal by 8 percent, some $50 million. If the President believes that everybody should get vaccinated, why would he cut that program?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, I’m glad you asked that question. And the reason is that we can take away funding for that program because of the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act actually guarantees that every citizen in this country has access to free preventative care, including the measles vaccine. So we no longer need to provide additional government funding to ensure that those vaccines can be administered. This is a great example of how the Affordable Care Act is actually cutting costs not just for families and businesses all across the country, but also for the federal government.
Q And yet the CDC, in its recommendation on the budget, asked for not less money but more money. Are they unaware of the beneficial effects of the Affordable Care Act as you’ve described them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’d have to ask them about why they believe additional funding is necessary. But the fact of the matter is no longer -- to the extent that anybody was using money as an excuse to not get their kids vaccinated, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, they don't have to worry about that anymore; that people who are covered under the Affordable Care Act through essentially getting health insurance through the marketplaces, we have required that those insurance programs include free preventative coverage, including vaccinations like those against measles. So that is one of the other benefits of the Affordable Care Act -- both in terms of reducing costs, but also in terms of making people healthier.
Q Does the President think this should be federally mandated, vaccines across the country for this set and other sets of childhood diseases?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, we do have a tradition and there’s a long track record in this country of these kinds of health issues being administered by state and local officials. This is something that we went through at the end of last year related to Ebola, that the monitoring that was in place was something that was strongly recommended by federal public health officials at the CDC, but ultimately, we are relying on state and local partners to carry out that monitor.
And that is a good indication of how federal public health officials and state and local public health officials work together; that the federal government can be relied upon for good scientific advice -- there’s a whole wealth of institutional knowledge that's contained at the CDC, that there are significant resources that are devoted by the federal government to doing the kind of research at the NIH and other places where we can make sure that the best scientific advice that is known to man can be made available to state and local public health officials -- and ultimately that's the way that this system has operated for generations.
Q Should it change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I also know is true is that there is a lot of case law around this, and this is something that people have challenged I think on both sides of this issue. And as I mentioned earlier, I did have a chance to speak to the President about this issue shortly before the briefing, and he was clear that we don't need a new law, we need people to exercise common sense.
Q The federal government does not need to establish a mandate for vaccines, just recommendations and advice to states and parents on the facts?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President is saying is we shouldn’t have to, that the science is clear. And it is irresponsible for people to not get their children vaccinated -- not only because it puts their children at risk of getting the measles, it also puts at risk other children in their community, if it’s infants who are too young to get the vaccine, or children who have compromised immune systems that they can't get the vaccine. So people need to take responsibility -- not just for their kids, but for the kids in their community.
Q Let me follow up on Jeff’s question on Ukraine, because when you said if the issue is to put the Ukrainian military on par with the Russian military, that's unrealistic.
MR. EARNEST: It is.
Q That's the general sense -- that's what you said.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q There are those who would argue that's sort of a straw man, that that's not what those who are recommending an increased allocation, or an initial allocation of lethal military aid to the Ukrainians are proposing. They're not saying you need to make the Ukrainian military as strong as Russia. You just need to make it formidable enough to inflict costs in the area where the civil strife is occurring to get the Russians to think differently about their actions. So I’d like you to evaluate the question on that basis. Where does the administration come down on that particular piece of advice that serious people, who are friends of this administration, are giving to you in stronger words than they ever have before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think that there are people who are making a variety of recommendations to the administration. So there are -- it’s not just a straw man to suggest that there are some people who say we should just arm the Ukrainian military so they can push back the Russian military. And it is the assessment of our national security team that the Russian military is large enough and sophisticated enough that the idea that we're going to put the Ukrainian military on par with the Russian military is unrealistic.
Q But is that the only option?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no. There clearly is advice that we're getting from others -- they're making that advice public -- about other strategies that we could implement. And this is consistent with the kind of reassessment and revaluation that's always ongoing here. So certainly we're going to take that kind of advice to heart. It’s not the first time we’ve heard it, and it’s not the first time that it’s been considered.
What is also true, though, is that we also have a sanctions regime that is in place that so far has not succeeded in prompting the Putin regime to change their behavior in Ukraine, that they continue to destabilize that situation. They have not taken the necessary steps to deescalate the situation in Ukraine. But what’s also true is that every day that goes by, the costs associated with that sanctions regime only increase. And the isolation that Russia suffers as a result of their behavior only increases.
So it’s not as if our only option moving forward is to augment our military assistance. What is also true on a daily basis is that the costs that are imposed on Russia increase every single day that Russia fails to live up to the commitments that they have made to deescalate the situation.
Q Since this is getting a fresh assessment or reassessment here, talk to us about the risk involved that the administration sees of lethal aid to the Ukrainians, that it could provoke an even greater, more hostile, more aggressively military response from the Russian separatists being financed and directed and resupplied by Moscow.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first thing that we always consider in these situations is providing additional military assistance could and is likely to have the effect of increasing the bloodshed. That's actually the thing that we're trying to avoid. So we want to try to bring both sides to the negotiating table so this can be resolved.
And that's the only that this is going to get resolved, because, as I mentioned earlier, a military resolution in which the Ukrainian military is built up sufficiently to push back militarily Russian forces across the border is not realistic. And so ultimately that means we're going to need a diplomatic resolution to this situation. That means negotiations, and those negotiations will be predicated on trying to stabilize the situation there and to end the bloodshed. And there is a risk -- I think a very real risk -- that adding additional military resources only expands the likelihood of bloodshed there.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Jon.
Q Back to this question of vaccinations. I understand the President’s position is clear, everybody should get vaccinated. It’s common sense. But there are -- is a significant percentage of families that are not getting their kids vaccinated, and an increasing percentage. So the question, which I’d like to follow up Major’s very direct question, see if I can get a direct answer, is does the President believe that it should be mandated by law, whether state or federal? Does the President believe it should be mandated by law that parents get their children vaccinated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have not in the couple hours we’ve been discussing this here this morning had the opportunity -- when I say discussing it this morning, I mean discussing it among our staff, not in this context. But when we’ve been discussing it, we haven’t had an opportunity to sort of -- I at least haven’t had the opportunity to review all of the built-up case law over this. Again, I think that there are people on both sides of this issue who have filed lawsuits and suggested that -- made arguments to the court that the federal government does have this authority. Some have made arguments that the federal government doesn’t.
I think in the mind of the President, this is something that’s pretty simple. And the truth is -- this also goes to Nedra’s original question -- this shouldn’t be about politics. This is something very basic and fundamental about science and about the need for American citizens to act responsibly to protect their own kids, but also to protect the kids in their community.
And so, again, I think in the mind of the President, this isn’t something that should come down to whether or not a federal law should be passed. This comes down to a simple question about whether or not parents across the country are going to act responsibly and do the thing that science tells us will better protect their kids and kids all across the country.
Q But what has brought this up in a political context is you’ve had a couple of prominent Republicans who have said that, yes, everybody should be vaccinated against measles but parents should have a choice. So the question is that second part. Because in the first part they agree entirely with the President. Should parents have a choice, or should they be forced because of a larger public health interest to have their kids vaccinated?
MR. EARNEST: I think in the mind of the President, this shouldn’t be a difficult choice. The science is really clear about what we need to do to protect our kids and to protect kids all across the country. And, again, this isn’t about politics. This is about common sense, and the President believes strongly that parents should exercise that common sense in a way that ensures that their children get vaccinated on time so that we can make sure that kids across the country -- particularly those kids that are still under the age of 12 months and they can’t get vaccinated for the measles, there are some kids who are undergoing cancer treatments that prevent them from being able to get vaccines -- the thought that a child who is already suffering from cancer and is fighting cancer and therefore can’t get the measles vaccine would contract measles because of the irresponsibility of another child’s parent is unthinkable. And I would hope that we would have enough sense all across the country that we would take politics out of this and we would focus on the science to do right by our kids.
Q Okay. And then just one other topic. You may have noticed there was a story in The New York Times today about a prominent governor who received some rather lavish gifts from a foreign leader. And I'm just wondering, as a principle, what the White House’s position is on whether or not foreign leaders should be able to give -- or it is wise for prominent political leaders in this country to accept rather lavish gifts from foreign leaders.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are, as you point out -- I guess as you alluded to, Jon, that there is a federal law that prevents federal officials from taking gifts from foreign leaders. I think, again, each individual person who is being gifted something by a foreign leader, regardless of the position that they hold in the state and local government, will have to decide for themselves whether or not it's appropriate to accept gifts like that.
Q Thanks, Josh. Yesterday the President said a couple times during his speech that -- calling on Republicans not to endanger national security with the DHS funding. These employees -- of course, I can see how someone would find that objectionable to make Border Patrol agents work without paychecks for a while. But does this really endanger national security? Because they will still be working.
MR. EARNEST: Fred, I think it's a very difficult for anybody to make the case that it's actually good for our national security to not fully fund the Department of Homeland Security. And the case that the President was making is similar to an argument that you heard from one of my colleagues at the briefing we did on the budget just yesterday -- that failure to provide the kind of certainty that leaders at the Department of Homeland Security need to invest in new programs and to invest in equipment does have an impact on national security. And so we certainly are mindful of that, and that’s why we’re hopeful, again, that Republicans will not withhold funding from the Department of Homeland Security just in a fit of pique over the President taking executive action to add some accountability to our immigration system.
So I also certainly think it would be pretty tough for anybody on the Republican side to say that not paying our law enforcement officials is in any way good for those law enforcement officials, and I'm not sure that you could really make the case that that’s good for our national security either.
Q Right, not good, but does it actually harm if we --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security who could explain to you how the short-term nature of the funding that Congress has been providing to the Department of Homeland Security does have an impact on their ability to plan and to invest in other new programs -- that if they’re only getting funded 30, 60, 90 days at a time, that that’s not the kind of certainty that they need so they can plan to deploy -- well, so they can implement the budget in a way that will maximize their ability to keep the American people safe.
And again, I have a hard time imagining what kind of case Republican would make to say that withholding funding from our federal law enforcement officers is good for national security. It's not.
Q If I could just get some clarity on what you were talking about earlier -- I apologize if you already made it clear -- but as far as Chris Christie, Rand Paul were saying that they’re for these measles shots, they question the mandate. You haven’t made totally clear whether you support a mandate. So where does the President -- specifically, where does he differ from Governor Christie and Senator Paul?
MR. EARNEST: And I’ll leave it to those two gentlemen to articulate their own position. It's the President’s position here that we shouldn’t need a federal law; people should just use common sense.
Q So the President doesn’t support a mandate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’ve been as clear as I possibly can be on all this.
Q Josh, thanks. How would you describe the President’s level of concern for the millions of Americans who will be facing a looming tax bill because of Obamacare? And what do they think can the administration do to provide relief or help to those people who are probably going to be hit in a way that they don’t expect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I don’t think it's accurate to suggest that millions of people are going to get a tax bill as a result of this. The fact is millions of people all across the country have gotten a tax break that has made their health care more affordable -- or their health insurance more affordable. That is a benefit of the Affordable Care Act.
And the vast majority of Americans, more than three-quarters of Americans, are just going to have a box to check on their tax form to confirm that they have health insurance. And so the impact that we’re talking about here is very small and for the vast majority of people has been very positive.
Q But for the millions that will?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t know what statistic you’re citing when it comes to millions. I don’t think that that’s accurate at all. I can certainly cite for you the statistic that indicates that millions of people have gotten a tax break to make their health insurance more affordable.
Q Let me go at it a different way then. As Congress considers once again to chip away, or at least make a stand -- albeit one that will likely end up like the previous stands -- do you at least recognize why they continue to do this, why this continues to be such an important element in their leadership as they try to once again pull back the reins on what they think is runaway government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the Affordable Care Act is a reform of the private health care system. So I recognize that Republicans make think there’s a political benefit to saying things that just aren’t true about the health care system in this country, but that’s a conclusion they’ll have to arrive at on their own. The fact of the matter is Republicans who want to vote for the 55th time, hoping that they’ll be more successful this time -- 54th or 53rd or whatever it is -- to repeal the Affordable Care Act should understand exactly what they’re taking away.
They’re taking away tax credits from millions of working families who are trying to afford their health insurance. They’re taking away common-sense protections that ensures that people can get preventative care like the measles vaccine for free. They’re taking away protections that prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people that have preexisting conditions. So I'm not really sure why Republicans think that that’s a good idea. I certainly don’t.
Q So you were saying, again just to make sure I'm clear, it's not millions that will be impacted with a tax bill. Whatever that number is, there’s nothing the administration can do to help those people?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm saying is that millions of people have gotten a tax break that has made their health insurance more affordable thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
Q Let me just follow up really quickly on the ACA. If it's not about politics, it's about common sense, then does common sense dictate that, especially given the outbreak of measles, that children who have not been vaccinated should not go to school?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there are a variety of state laws all across the country in which some states do mandate that, that children are required to get the measles vaccine before they’re allowed to attend school. So, again, this is a state and local issue. In the mind of the President and certainly in the mind of the scientific experts in the federal government, every child should get the measles vaccine.
Q Let me follow up again on the coalition and this latest ISIS video and your position obviously that was expressed by the President just a short time ago, that this is, in fact, not going to weaken the coalition, it will in fact embolden it. But what do you base that on? And is there concern that, whether through public pressure in those countries or just the horror, that there will be a weakening of the coalition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that certainly here in the United States there’s been no weakening in our resolve to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q But we’re talking about the coalition.
MR. EARNEST: And each of those countries should speak for themselves. But I feel confident in certainly indicating that the vast majority of the members of this coalition share the values of the United States. And they understand that the depraved ideology that’s being advanced by those in ISIL is one that the international community needs to confront, degrade, and destroy.
And this vivid illustration of just how bankrupt their ideology is I think only steels the resolve of every member of the coalition. But they should all speak for themselves. And I certainly think that if there are doubts about that, that you can ask them to find that out. But I feel confident in saying that this is a pretty clear illustration of why it is so important for the international community to take this as serious as we do and to act accordingly.
Q I don't want to parse words, so I just want to make sure -- you used the phrase “the vast majority.” Would that suggest that you are aware that there are some concerns that could --
MR. EARNEST: It just suggests in my mind that those countries should speak for themselves. But I feel very strongly that -- you can ask them. But certainly here in the United States and under the leadership of this President, our commitment is only steeled when we see illustrations like this.
Q I have a couple for you. First, does the President think that skepticism in vaccines is in any way related to skepticism about climate science?
MR. EARNEST: I think in the mind of the President -- well, I didn’t ask him this question, so let me just speak for myself, which is I’m not really sure why people would suggest that it’s a good idea for their kids not to get the vaccines, particularly a vaccine for a disease like the measles that is highly contagious and one that’s very dangerous. And the fact is we have made tremendous progress in not eradicating that disease but certainly in limiting the number of people in this country, at least, who are affected by it. And that is a testament to the progress that we’ve made through scientific exploration and it certainly is an endeavor that has had significant benefits for people all across the country.
But as long as there is a population of people who don’t get that vaccine, that disease becomes more dangerous and it puts even more children at risk. And that’s why it’s just common sense.
Q And then one related to the announcement where you called the intelligence bureaucracy or national security bureaucracy -- I was recently at the --
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t mean that in the pejorative way that you might. (Laughter.)
Q I was recently at the Spy Museum, where an exhibit on bugged phones is illustrated with a portrait of Angela Merkel. (Laughter.) I was wondering what today’s announcement means for particularly foreign leaders who might be concerned that the United States is peeking into their emails or listening to their phone calls.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the report itself for those kinds of details. I wouldn’t want to say something that I shouldn’t say.
Q First, I just want to maybe do the foolhardy thing and swing back to what Rand Paul and Chris Christie said. I understand that you don’t want to make this into a political issue, but I am wondering from kind of a public health standpoint if it’s counterproductive for top elected officials, people who on TV and in prominent positions to be saying things like what we heard from Rand Paul yesterday.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly does believe that this is not about politics, and he believes it’s the responsibility of everybody to do right by their kids and to do right by the kids in their community, and that is to get the measles vaccine for their kids. And the science on this is clear. That’s what should guide these kinds of the decisions, not political positioning.
Q Is the reason that you’re kind of sidestepping that question concern from the White House that your statements on this could kind of polarize this on partisan grounds?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that -- I think there are a variety of reasons why I’m reluctant to go in the direction that you are suggesting that I should go. (Laughter.) But I think the most important one is I would not want anyone who is watching this briefing or reading the transcript or, more likely, reading the coverage of our conversation to come away with the impression that there is somehow a Democratic and Republican divide about the wisdom of getting your kids vaccinated for the measles. There is not. The science is clear and it is common sense.
And it is up to people across this country to do the right and responsible thing by their kids and by the kids in their community, and that’s to get their kids vaccinated for the measles on time.
Q And one quick thing on Jordan. I know that you guys are going to -- you’ve said that after the video that you’d develop more resources to finding hostages held by ISIS. And I’m wondering what’s new about that or what’s different about that from --
MR. EARNEST: Well, actually, I think what I said in response to Nedra’s question is that there’s not necessarily anything different that we’re going to do because we’re already devoting every element of our influence and power as the greatest country in the world to try to track down Americans who are held against their will by ISIL. The President has dedicated significant diplomatic resources, intelligence resources, and even occasionally military resources to rescuing American hostages who are held against their will. And that’s ongoing.
Q On a slightly lighter note --
MR. EARNEST: Okay. It has been a little heavy today. (Laughter.)
Q I thought you would appreciate it.
MR. EARNEST: I do.
Q The Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky are having an event tonight at the Willard Hotel -- this is real. You’re looking at me like I’m making it up.
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not, just that I haven’t heard about it.
Q Okay. Well, they are sending bourbon up to Washington. And if you’ll just allow me to read a quote from the Lieutenant Governor: “Let’s just offer wishes that the contents of this barrel thaw the cold ranks of partisanship” -- I can’t even say it -- “and serve as an elixir that heralds a new day of progress in our Nation’s Capital.” They’re calling it the “Bourbon Barrel of Compromise,” and they’re doing it because they got the idea from the President and Senator McConnell talking about the “bourbon summit.” So I wondered -- I guess you hadn’t heard about it -- if anyone from the White House was going and what you thought of it.
MR. EARNEST: Well --
Q Do you think that’s lighter? (Laughter.)
Q Lighter than vaccinations and videos.
MR. EARNEST: I think my first reaction is that somebody clearly spent a lot of time writing that statement. (Laughter.) And that’s time well spent. They did an excellent job whoever that was.
I don’t know of anybody at the White House who is planning to attend, but maybe there is somebody that’s higher on the food chain than me that got invited. And so if I hear of anybody at the White House that attended, I’ll see if I can get a readout of the event early to you tomorrow.
Q And your thoughts on trying to -- and on a little serious note here -- I mean, they have asked -- I don’t know about the White House, but they did ask people on Capitol Hill to come, both parties, trying to break the ice a little bit. Thoughts on --
MR. EARNEST: No pun intended? Get some ice broken there as they drink the bourbon. (Laughter.)
Q No respectful person would put ice in bourbon. (Laughter.)
Q Breaking the ice, bipartisanship?
MR. EARNEST: I think if there’s anything, even if it is lighthearted and social, like an event like the one you described is an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to shed their partisan warrior gear and spend some time, even lightheartedly, interacting with one another, I think that can only be a good thing. But I wouldn’t --
Q When is the bourbon summit?
MR. EARNEST: -- as I’ve said on previous occasions, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that one sort of social event is going to cause a bipartisan breakthrough to occur, but it certainly can’t hurt. We’ve got to work on getting the “Bourbon Summit” on the books.
Q Thanks, Josh. Shortly before the briefing began, AP reported that there was a compromise reached in the talks with Iran. Can you comment on that? And presuming that’s the case, does that increase the chances from the President’s 50/50 projection for a deal being reached?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those reports actually, so we’ll have to check and see if we can get you a comment on those by folks who have had a chance to take a look at it.
Q And then going back to Jeff’s questioning on King Abdullah, why wasn’t the President on the King’s schedule in the first place when he was coming to town? I understand he was having lunch with the Vice President, but he often is a visitor here at the White House. Why wasn’t he --
MR. EARNEST: He is. And the King was just here at the White House at the end of last year when the President did have the opportunity to meet with him then.
So I’m not sure exactly sort of what went into trying to coordinate the schedules of those two busy world leaders, but this time there has not been a plan for the President to meet with him. I have seen some reporting to indicate that the King is planning to attend the National Prayer Breakfast tomorrow, and as you know, the President is planning to attend, so there’s a possibility they may see each other there. If that’s the case, we’ll let you know about that, too.
MR. EARNEST: Thursday. I keep saying tomorrow. Wishful thinking on my part.
Q Josh --
MR. EARNEST: Paul.
Q Just to follow up on what Major was saying about aid to Ukraine. You said the possibility that there could never be enough aid to match what the Russians have. Back during the 1980s that very same argument was made after the Soviets went into Afghanistan. That argument was actually dismissed and they sent in with the Stinger missiles and such. And the theory was that it would be enough to at least make the Soviets uncomfortable about the presence that eventually it would work. Why do you think your strategy now is better?
MR. EARNEST: Well, given all that we’ve been going through in Afghanistan over the last decade and a half, I think it’s hard to make the case that what anybody did in Afghanistan has worked, at least when it comes to advancing our national security interests. That’s my first reaction.
The second one is simply I don’t think there’s any quibbling with the fact -- and I think even the people who are making the case that Major cited, that even those individuals acknowledge that this will ultimately be resolved diplomatically. And that is the strategy that this President has chosen to pursue, and it’s one that’s in the best interest of our national security and, frankly, it’s in the best interest of the Ukrainians as well. And so there’s a variety of ways that we can offer our support to them both economically and militarily, including the provision of some important military equipment.
Q But the Russians were not pushed diplomatically last time. They were pushed by military force. Again, the question is, why is it different and better, your strategy now?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not sure that there is anybody who would hold up Afghanistan, particularly given all that we’ve gone through over the last decade and a half, as a model for confronting the Russians. But I do think that what it -- the strategy that we have in Ukraine is one that is predicated on protecting this core principle, which is respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries. And the United States has worked effectively to mobilize the international community to stand up for this principle. I guess this would be the other difference between the situation that we face in Afghanistan and the situation we face now.
The situation in Afghanistan broke down along the battle lines of a Cold War in which you had a variety of countries that were allied with the then-Soviet Union and a variety of countries that were allied with the United States. Right now you essentially have the broader international community allied with the United States and the Ukrainian people as they confront the isolated Russia. And I think that materially changes the dynamic of that specific confrontation.
I think the other thing that is clear is that our strategy of isolating them and putting economic pressure on them has yielded results in that it is very clear to President Putin and other members of the political leadership in Russia that their activities in Ukraine have had negative consequences for their economy -- significantly negative consequences for their economy. And every day that goes by that Russia fails to live up to their agreements those costs economically only increase.
Q His latest approval, though, is 85 percent. So where’s your evidence that his position has softened?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the evidence that I have is that you have -- there’s a lot of evidence, most of it economic in nature, and I think most of it with numbers that are probably more reliable than a public poll in Russia.
The best -- the most recent data is this ruling -- or this decision by the central bank in Russia to lower interest rates substantially just a week or so after raising interest rates substantially. This is an indication that the Russian economy is in significant turmoil, if not chaos. And again, that's the result of a lot of things, including the lower price of oil, but it has certainly been worsened by the sanctions regime that's been put in place by the United States, working closely with our international partners.
Q And one more real quick.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Why does the President think that an economic embargo against Cuba hasn’t worked after 50 years, but sanctions against Russia -- a large and pretty much self-independent country -- will succeed? What’s the difference?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess there’s a big difference between 50 years and nine months. I think that's the first difference.
The second difference is we have succeeded in building a broader international coalition to put in place a sanctions regime against Russia in a way that isolates them. But the United States’ efforts to isolate Cuba were not successful because just about every other country in the Western Hemisphere had relations with Cuba, so the fact is we had a scenario where the United States and our policy towards Cuba was only interfering with our ability to build strong relations with other countries in the hemisphere.
And by dropping -- or moving to normalize our relationship with Cuba, we’ve removed that distraction and now only increased the pressure on Cuba in a way that will isolate at least a scrutiny of their policies of not respecting the basic human rights of their people.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about Social Security. In the President’s budget proposal yesterday, he proposes moving money from the Social Security retirement fund into the disability fund because it’s running out of money even faster. This is something House Republicans have said they will not do. So, first of all, how willing -- how far are you willing to take that disagreement this year with them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple things, Dave. Making that one minor change to the Social Security program would ensure its solvency for another 15 or 20 years, up to like 2033, I believe.
The second thing is this is a change that Democrats and Republicans have acted in bipartisan fashion many times to protect the solvency of the Social Security trust fund. And that is something -- I think there are 10 or 11 times that we can point to just in the last 20 years or so where that change has been made, and it’s one that we would expect Democrats and Republicans would act together on this time, too.
Q And also, in previous years, the President has proposed measures that would extend the life of the retirement fund, like chained CPI. No proposal like that this year. Why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're certainly open to that conversation with Republicans if they want to have a genuine conversation about strengthening Social Security. That's something the President has been committed to since he ran for this office. But, frankly, we’ve not gotten a lot of serious willingness on the part of Republicans to engage in that conversation. But if there are some Republicans who decide they did want to have a conversation about what we can do to strengthen Social Security, then we’d be happy to have that conversation.
Q Thank you, Josh. As you know, there’s a conference on countering terrorism, which is set for February the 18th, I think. It’s countering extremism.
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q And I’m curious, in the wake of the terrible video that has come out today from ISIS and the instances of other public -- at least seen on video -- executions that we’ve seen in the past few weeks, with those Japanese hostages, will the focus of this conference be on violent Islamic extremism?
MR. EARNEST: John, the focus of this conference will be on ensuring -- there is this persistent problem that the President has been concerned about for some time, this issue of foreign fighters and the success that organizations like ISIL have had in radicalizing people all across the globe. And we want to work -- there are communities in this country where law enforcement officials have worked successfully with community leaders, many in the Muslim community, to counteract those efforts to radicalize vulnerable young people, in most cases. And so this would be an opportunity, a forum where the President could discuss those efforts with community leaders and law enforcement officials from across the country so they can share those kinds of best practices with leaders in other communities.
There also will be an opportunity for representatives from foreign countries to participate because, after all, it is a broader international effort to counter this issue -- or the threat of foreign fighters.
You’ll recall that just for the second time in the history of the United Nations the President convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. And it’s specifically because he wanted other world leaders to come and sit at the same table literally to talk about what they could do as an international community to present a united front and prevent foreign fighters, individuals who have been radicalized, from traveling to Syria, getting training, getting access to weapons, and then returning home to carry out acts of violence. And there is important international cooperation and coordination that needs to take place, and there was a good venue for discussing that at the United Nations Security Council last fall, and the President is looking forward to that discussion continuing at the summit that we’ll be convening here at the White House next week -- or two weeks from now, I guess.
Q So just so I’m clear, as it relates to this upcoming conference, will the focus -- the primary focus be on the issue that I just spoke of, the violent Islamic extremism? Will that be the primary focus?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, we certainly have significant concerns -- and they are well-justified -- about the kind of radicalization efforts that are being targeted at the Muslim community, and that there are Muslim children, in particular, who are at grave risk. But they’re not the only ones at risk. We’ve talked about other violent extremists who are not Muslim who have carried out acts of violence in this country and we’re interested in countering those as well. And I’d be surprised if anybody thought that was not a worthy endeavor.
Q Josh, going back to the budget and ISIS. You’ve been asked by several people today about increasing the effort against ISIS, but in the President’s budget released yesterday we saw a decrease in the amount of funds directly toward that particular mission. So two parts of this question. When was the book closed on this? I’m guessing like most of the items in the budget, several months ago, so maybe it reflects an older understanding of the threat in Iraq and Syria. So when was that closed? And will the President’s AUMF, whenever he does put it to Congress, reflect different numbers? Should we expect to see different numbers going along with the authorization?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, you’ll recall that at the end of last year, we had a long discussion about the need for Congress to pass additional funding for our ongoing efforts against ISIL. I’d encourage you to check with OMB, based on the calculations that you’ve cited. I’m not sure that it’s entirely accurate to suggest that we’ve reduced funding somehow for ISIL, but there may be an element to this accounting that I’m not aware of because it may be an issue where there were investments that were made this year on the front end that don’t necessarily need to be continued because that early investment was made.
But I’d encourage you to check with OMB on this. I can tell you that our strategy and our resolve is certainly not diminishing or is diminished in any way.
Q Do you have any expectation of a timeline for when that authorization will be sent to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any timeline to share with you at this point, but it continues to be the subject of active, ongoing conversations here inside the administration and with members of Congress in both parties who are interested in this issue.
Q And one more quick one on the vaccines. I know a lot of people have taken a crack at this, but you had a conversation, you said, with the President just before the briefing. If the President could give -- and obviously we’re speaking to you today, he’s had a few chances -- but since we’re not asking the President questions right now on this today, what would be the President’s direct message to parents who are considering not vaccinating their children or who have not vaccinated their children? As Jon mentioned earlier, that’s an increasing number every year.
MR. EARNEST: Use common sense. Follow the science. Vaccinate your kids.
Q The Washington Post’s editorial page said the administration has passed on the gas tax, evidently unpersuaded by what Jeff Zients had to say yesterday.
MR. EARNEST: I thought he gave a great answer. (Laughter.)
Q I know that’s not your preferred option for funding the infrastructure, but could you talk a little bit about why you don’t think it’s a good time for a gas tax hike, given the drop in gas prices?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, a couple of things. One is, first of all, we believe that we just have a better strategy, that closing corporate tax loopholes and using that money to invest in the kind of infrastructure that we all benefit from I think makes a lot of sense. It has a lot of appeal, I think, certainly to the President and to other people in the administration.
I think the second thing is we also just need to be aware of the challenges associated with trying to fund infrastructure through the gas tax. Thanks in no small part to some of the initiatives that the President has put forward, we’re finding that the fleet that’s on the road right now is more fuel-efficient, which means that they’re using less gas, which means that the gas tax is a less reliable source of that kind of funding.
So we have put forward a pretty aggressive strategy that would fund a strong six-year investment in our infrastructure that would go 30 or 40 percent over and above current plans for infrastructure investment. And this would have a significant benefit in terms of creating jobs. It would arguably have an even more important benefit of putting in place the kind of modern infrastructure that our economy will need to succeed for decades to come. So the President believes that this is a worthy investment.
The good news is there is bipartisan agreement that investment in our infrastructure is a worthy investment. That all said, what Mr. Zients said yesterday bears some repeating, which is that the administration has not put forward and does not plan to put forward a proposal to increase the gas tax. But there clearly is building bipartisan support for doing that and we’re going to keep our eyes open and consider ideas that are put forward by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill -- even if it’s not the elegant, wise solution that the administration has put forward.
Q Your former Transportation Secretary floated an idea of dealing with the deficiency by maybe taxing driving by miles instead of by the gallon and that got shot down in about a nanosecond.
MR. EARNEST: It did. By him, I think.
Q No, I think by your predecessor. (Laughter.) I think “check back with him” I think is what Robert Gibbs said. (Laughter.) But does the administration just have a soft spot when it comes to taxing driving? I mean, is that just politically toxic for you guys?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that this has much to do with the politics because the idea of investing in infrastructure is something that has bipartisan support; there are different ideas for how exactly to pay for it. And this administration has put forward an idea by essentially closing a loophole that allows corporations to benefit from stashing some of their profits overseas.
Q Corporations who don’t necessarily use the roads or bridges.
MR. EARNEST: Well, yes, but I think in some ways this is also an issue of fairness. Middle-class families don’t have the benefit of being able to stash their profits overseas. Middle-class families have got to keep them in a bank account here in the United States and they’re subject to taxation. And we believe that just out of a matter of fairness, corporations should have to do the same thing.
I also would make clear that this is the context of a broader business tax reform proposal that would also serve to remove the incentive for corporations to stash profits overseas in the first place. And there’s a likelihood that that would have good benefits for the economy, too. It certainly would make our tax code more fair, and that is something the President is very interested in.
Thanks very much, everybody.
1:56 P.M. EST