Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/18/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:04 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry for the brief delay in getting started today. Let me just mention one thing that I think many of you are already aware of. But today, the President has selected Mr. Joseph Clancy to serve as the permanent director of the United States Secret Service. Director Clancy, who is a 27-year veteran of the agency and a former Special Agent in Charge of the Presidential Protective Division, has served as the Acting Director since October 1st of last year.
Many of you will recall that Director Clancy stepped into that roll at the special request of the President at a rather difficult time for the agency. And over the course of the last several months, Director Clancy has demonstrated the kind of leadership that, frankly, many of us expected him to demonstrate. He is somebody that has, based on his long track record with the agency, a lot of credibility built up inside the agency, and he used that credibility to put in place reforms that were recommended by this outside panel that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson had convened.
So he’s got a lot of important work still ahead of him, but we’re certainly pleased to see that his leadership thus far has been recognized with this permanent appointment.
So with that, Jim, do you want to get us started on questions? And I do have a pretty hard out at 2:00 p.m. So if you can help me stay on time, I would appreciate that. Thank you.
Q On your announcement, Josh -- when the outside group that reviewed and made recommendations for the Secret Service recommended fairly strongly that the White House hire outside, or this administration hire an outsider for this job. In fact, it stated that, “Only a director from outside the Secret Service, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment this will require.” Why did the President stick with Mr. Clancy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’d point out a couple things about this. The first is, anytime you’re making a personnel decision like this, you’re going to weigh somebody’s personal attachments inside the agency with their ability to take a cold-eyed assessment of what actually needs to be changed in that agency so that they can live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves.
And Mr. Clancy, over the last several months, has demonstrated that he was willing to conduct a candid, clear-eyed assessment of the shortcomings of that agency and to look at needed reforms and implement them. And that precisely is why he has been promoted to this permanent role.
His willingness to use his credibility within the agency to implement these reforms in some ways is the best of both worlds. That’s not just the assessment of the President, that’s actually also the assessment of at least one member of this outside panel. Tom Perrelli, who you’ll recall was a senior Justice Department official earlier in the administration, said that “Acting Director Clancy is a dedicated public servant who’s made important changes since he began the job, and has started the process of reforming the Service. I look forward to working with him as he continues to implement the panel’s recommendations.”
So I think that’s a pretty clear indication that at least one member of the panel, who has spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of changes are needed at the agency, recognized that Mr. Clancy was the right person for the job because he had the kind of credibility within the organization to implement successfully the kinds of changes that at least this outside panel believes are necessary.
Q Did the President consider other candidates, or was Mr. Clancy, once he became Acting Director, essentially going through a job review to see if he could carry out and become permanent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to get into sort of the inner workings of this personnel process, but I can tell you that it was not at all a foregone conclusion that when Mr. Clancy was given the acting position, that he would necessarily be asked to stay on as the permanent director. But certainly his solid performance over the last several months in implementing needed changes at the agency I think certainly served him well as he was considered for that position.
Q On another subject. Is the administration limiting the amount of information that it’s giving to Israel regarding the Iran nuclear talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’ve certainly seen some reports to that effect, and I know that there were some initial reports that indicated that the United States was no longer communicating with our allies in Israel about the ongoing negotiations with Iran. That obviously is false. There are any number of meetings that have taken place in recent weeks and are scheduled for the weeks ahead that indicate the continued close communication and coordination between U.S. national security officials and their Israeli counterparts.
For example, I can tell you that Phil Gordon, who’s the White House Coordinator for the Middle East at the National Security Council, met on Monday with Israel’s Minister of Intelligence. The focus of that discussion was principally on the Iran negotiations. I can tell you that the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, here at the White House, maintains regular contact with her Israeli counterpart, Yossi Cohen. And in fact, I understand that Mr. Cohen is actually expected to be at the White House later this week for consultations with Dr. Rice.
I can tell you that the Under Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, who is the sort of principal negotiator for the United States in these talks with the P5+1 in Iran, has repeatedly met with the Israeli National Security Advisor as well as the Israeli Minister of Intelligence on a number of occasions. And those kinds of consultations are going to continue.
At the same time, we’ve also been very clear about the fact that the United States is not going to be in a position of negotiating this agreement in public, and particularly when we see that there is a continued practice of cherry picking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the United States. So there is an obligation when you’re participating in these kinds of negotiations to ensure that those consultations and that those negotiations are carried out in good faith. And that means giving negotiators the room and the space to negotiate.
But at the same time, I can tell you that there’s -- that at least based on one assessment that I’ve heard -- there’s probably, I would acknowledge, not a real precise way to quantify this, but I think you could arguably make the case that there’s no country that is not participating in the negotiations that has greater insight into what’s going on at that negotiating table. And it's not a coincidence.
You could also make a pretty strong case that there is no nation who is not represented in those negotiations who has a clearer stake in the outcome of these negotiations. And that’s principally why -- I guess not principally why, but it's an important reason why the President has pursued this diplomatic opening. The principal reason is because he believes it's clearly in the national security interest of the United States of America for Iran not to obtain a nuclear weapon. And the most effective way for us to do that is to get the Iranian regime to voluntarily, and in a verifiable way, give up their pursuit of a nuclear weapon and make it clear that they’re not going to obtain a nuclear weapon, and put in place a monitoring regime to ensure that they don’t acquire one.
And that is the goal of these negotiations. The United States has a clear stake in this outcome, but so does Israel, and that’s why we’re going to continue to consult with them about these talks.
Q So you are consulting, but you are worried about cherry picking? So does that still limit the information that you provide during those consultations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I obviously am not going to be able to get into the details of those conversations, I think for obvious reasons, but I think it is fair to say that the United States is mindful of the need to not negotiate in public and ensure that information that’s discussed at the negotiating table is not taken out of context and publicized in a way that distorts a negotiating position of the United States and our allies.
Q And you think that distortion and cherry picking has occurred -- has been done by the Israelis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate. There’s no question about that.
Q Quick question on the immigration lawsuit. How does that decision by Judge Hanen affect the DHS funding debate in the White House’s mind?
MR. EARNEST: In our mind, all along we have made clear that the Republican leadership in the United States Congress has a responsibility to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security is properly funded. You’ve heard me say on a couple of occasions it’s hard to imagine that there is a good time to muck around in the funding of the Department of Homeland Security, but now seems like a particularly bad time to do it.
And the other thing that I’ll point out is that Senator McConnell himself indicated at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year that Republicans finally had an opportunity to demonstrate that they could be what he described as a responsible right-of-center governing majority. It is completely irresponsible to allow a political dispute to interfere with the ability of the United States Congress to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
And it certainly is not going to be good for the ongoing efforts to protect the American people. And it certainly isn’t fair to the hundreds of thousands of Department of Homeland Security employees who a couple weeks from now may be facing the prospect of going to work to keep the country safe but not getting a paycheck for it. That doesn’t seem fair and it certainly isn’t in the best interest of the United States of America.
Q So in terms of this lawsuit, I mean, first of all, will the administration seek an immediate emergency stay of that decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our legal strategy going forward is something that’s going to be determined by the Department of Justice. And they’ve indicated that in the next couple of days they’ll have more information about how we will pursue that strategy. But that strategy will certainly include an appeal of this ruling because we don’t believe that it’s a fair, accurate reading of the law.
Q But you could proceed with an appeal and the injunction would remain in place so that you wouldn’t be able to implement the program. So why not wait until the whole process is completed before you --
MR. EARNEST: The questions that you’re raising are exactly the kinds of questions that the attorneys at the Department of Justice are considering right now. And within the next couple of days, I would anticipate that we’ll have some more information about the way forward here
Q Josh, the President said yesterday that DHS will still be preparing to implement this program because he believes that the administration will prevail in court.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q What is the White House’s assessment of how long this is going to take?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is another question for the attorneys at the Department of Justice to evaluate, is what is the strategy that we can pursue that will resolve this legal process as soon as possible because we’re confident that when this is resolved in the legal system that the position of the government, the position of the administration will prevail.
That’s because the steps that the President announced at the end of last year are entirely consistent with the kinds of steps that previous Presidents have taken -- previous Presidents of both parties I might add. So we're confident that there is a solid precedent here, there is a solid legal foundation for the actions that the President announced. More importantly, we're confident that the actions the President announced are the right thing for the country.
Q But for the millions of people who were getting ready to apply and are now sort of in limbo, there’s no way of telling them how long that's going to last?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would hope that we can move as quickly as we can through the legal system so that that situation can be resolved and that we can move forward with implementing a set of decisions that are, again, clearly consistent with the law and clearly in the best interest of the United States.
Q Two other topics. Do you have any reaction to the foreign policy team that was announced by Jeb Bush and his campaign today?
MR. EARNEST: I don't.
Q You sure?
Q I was hoping you would. (Laughter.)
Q Lastly, what does the White House make of what’s going on in Argentina? A prosecutor has died who was bringing up some issues against the President. The opponents are charging that the government is interfering with the judiciary. And now Argentina has reached out to the United States, asking them -- asking Washington to bring up claims up about Iran and killings there in its negotiations. What’s your take on what’s going on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I think just as a topline matter, I can convey to you that obviously the nation of Argentina is a significant economy and a significant player in our sort of relations throughout the Americas. The President has on a number of occasions, or at least on a couple of previous occasions had the opportunity to meet with the leader of Argentina because there are deep ties between our countries.
We certainly are concerned any time that in a country like Argentina, with whom we have a strong relationship, where questions are raised about the rule of law and of justice. So I don't have anything specific to say about sort of where things stand in that process, or whether or not there is an appropriate role for the U.S. government to play in all of that. But it is certainly something that we continue to monitor closely. And it’s a reflection of the way in which we value the relationship between the United States and Argentina.
Q Is it hurting your relationship?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s somebody who may be a better or more close observer of U.S.-Argentina relations who could answer that question. At this point, this continues to be a situation that we're going to monitor.
Let’s move around. April.
Q Josh, a couple of questions. Back on the Secret Service, now that you've named Joe Clancy as the head -- the permanent head, could you talk to us about what has transpired since the firing of the former head of the Secret Service and the firings of the top tiers of a lot of the people in the Secret Service? Can you talk to us about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I could tell you that you named some of the specific reforms that Director Clancy has implemented since taking over the leadership of that agency. And again, this all occurred within the last few months.
Since taking office as the Acting Director, Mr. Clancy has conducted a comprehensive, top-to-bottom assessment to determine the root cause behind the recent shortcomings in the agency. He’s directed all personnel who -- all Secret Service personnel who operate on the White House grounds to undergo additional classroom and practical training. He’s sought additional funding for training and equipment for Secret Service personnel. And as you mentioned, he swiftly implemented some of the personnel changes that were recommended by the blue-ribbon panel.
Q Can you quantify the number of firings that happened? Because I’m hearing that there was quite few.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have the specific numbers in front of me, but you can certainly check with the Secret Service, and they may be able to give you some more information about that.
But this is consistent with what Director Clancy has also done in terms of trying to engage more deeply with rank-and-file officers throughout the agency. After all, we're talking about men and women who on a regular basis are willing to put their lives on the line to protect the President and the First Family, to protect the White House grounds, and to protect all of us who work here on a daily basis. So we certainly are appreciative of their service.
And what that agency has done is set a very high standard of service and professionalism. And there have been some instances where they’ve fallen short, even by their own acknowledgement. And Director Clancy has to do the very important work of ensuring that that agency, and the men and women who serve in that agency, live up to that very high standard. And certainly those of us who have had an opportunity to watch Director Clancy as he’s done his job understand that he holds himself to a very high standard of professionalism, and we certainly would anticipate that his style of leadership will have a positive effect on the agency, and that he will continue to implement the reforms that are needed to ensure that they live up to that high standard.
Q Can I ask you on another issue? On immigration reform, since the judge’s ruling in Texas, we understand that immigration is not just about one group of people in this country, it’s about different groups of people in this country. How does this ruling affect particularly African and Caribbean immigrants coming into this country? Because the NAACP and many other organizations worked with many Hispanic organizations to help push through immigration reform; they said they had a stake. So what does this do for African and Caribbean immigrants as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess there are a couple of things about this most recent court ruling, April, that are important for people to keep in mind. The first is that it does not apply to the action that the President took back in 2012 to grant some relief to DREAMers. These are immigrants of this country who came to this country as children; they were raised essentially as Americans -- American in every way except their papers. And the ruling does not apply to that exercise of executive action.
The ruling also does not apply to the direction that our law enforcement officers have received from the Secretary of Homeland Security about prosecutorial discretion. And this is something that the President feels strongly about, that it’s important that the agency use their limited resources to focus on those who pose the most prominent threat to communities across the country.
This means that law enforcement officials at the Department of Homeland Security, and particularly as it relates to the agencies that handle immigration, that they’re focused on people who might pose a threat to national security, people who are involved in conducting -- or people who have been involved in criminal activity. Essentially, that the actions of those law enforcement agencies should be focused on felons, not on families. And that is something that will remain in place even after this most recent court ruling.
But I think some of the questions and issues that you’re raising, April, can be best addressed by Congress actually taking the kind of legislative action that’s long overdue, and that’s legislative action that would bring about common-sense, bipartisan reform to our broken immigration system. And that means not just dealing with the millions of people who currently live in the shadows, but also putting in place some much needed reforms of our legal immigration system. And that is why, even though the President has taken these executive actions that will have a positive impact on the immigration system, will have a positive impact on our economy, that we’re going to continue to call on Congress to take the steps that only they can take to address some of these problems.
Q In the ACA, you got 11.4 million people. But in that number, did you get the minority groups that you wanted to focus it on? This White House made a really strong push for African Americans and for Hispanics. Did you get those numbers that you were looking for in this latest enrollment period?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, the more granular detail about the numbers included in this latest enrollment period will be available later from HHS. I don’t believe that they’ve crunched the numbers in that way. But I can tell you that in the last enrollment period we did have some success in driving down the uninsured rate in the African American and Latino community, much as we did among people all across the country.
I can tell you that one of the most important steps that we could see states take that would have an impact on these numbers would be for the remaining states that have blocked Medicaid expansion to follow through and actually expand Medicaid to cover a whole lot more people -- not just African Americans and Latinos, but Americans of all races. And it certainly would have a very positive impact in trying to drive down the uninsured rate in this country.
Q -- quantify the number, you said (inaudible) number?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that they reduced the uninsured rate in the last enrollment period by 6.8 percent in the African American community, and 7.7 percent in the Latino community. And when we have updated numbers, we’ll release them.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about the ISIS beheadings in Libya. What is the administration’s reaction? And to what extent are you concerned about ISIS in Libya? Where does this fit into the broader fight against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, there was a statement that we put out from the President over the weekend, responding to this situation. I can tell you that, in general, that we strongly support the efforts of the United Nations and the Special Representative to the Secretary General to facilitate formation of a national unity government and bring a political solution to the ongoing political security and institutional crisis in that country.
What we have seen, Kristen, is that we have seen extremists try to capitalize on instability in a country to carry out acts of violence. And that is why we continue to be concerned about the situation in Libya, and it’s also why we believe that the best way to get the situation in Libya under control is to try to stabilize a representative central government in Libya. And there’s a special representative from the United Nations that’s working on that task right now, and we are strongly supportive of his efforts.
Q And have you been in contact with -- have top officials here been in contact with their counterparts in Egypt? And is there any discussion about sending aid, support -- military support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any conversations specifically to read out. The President was pretty forceful in condemning those killings, not just over the weekend, but also including in the op-ed that was published in the L.A. Times today. So we certainly have an important military-to-military relationship with the Egyptian government. They play an important role in some of our counterterrorism activities in that region of the world. But in terms of any specific conversations or any specific requests have been made, I don’t have any information about that.
Q And you bring up the President’s op-ed. One of the criticisms of this summit is that it is dealing with the root causes of violent extremism. Does it need to deal with the situation on the ground more, and actually the strategy of the United States and its Western partners and Arab partners?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s a good question, Kristen. The summit that we’ve convened over the course of this week is not a summit to discuss our comprehensive strategy to eradicate extremists who pose harm to the United States. We do have a strategy for that, and one component of that strategy is ensuring that we are countering violent extremism; that we want to mitigate the ability of extremists to capitalize on social media to try to recruit others to their cause.
But there are other critically important elements of our strategy, not the least of which is the military strategy that this President has led. The best example of that is the success we’ve had in wiping extremist terrorist leaders off the battlefield in every place from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia, to even Iraq and Syria. So there is a military strategy.
A couple of months ago I invited David Cohen, the Under Secretary of the Treasury -- or the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury -- I think I just gave him a promotion -- to come and talk about our efforts to counter financing of terrorist organizations, including ISIL, and that we’ve seen that being able to shut off their financing is a critical way that we can reduce their ability to fund their ongoing efforts.
Q But are there any tangibles that can come out of this summit, Josh? Or is this more of a meeting of the minds and to discuss different ideas?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the way that you phrased your question, that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I think there will be a number of things that are important about this summit. I think the thing that I find most interesting is that there are already, in local communities across this country, coordinated efforts to counter extremist messaging that’s aimed at vulnerable youth in communities across this country.
So we’re going to hear in the context of this summit from law enforcement, political and community leaders, from Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. These are three communities that have devoted significant time and effort to trying to counter that radical messaging in communities in their cities. And to the extent that they can talk about some of the success that they’ve had and to the extent that local leaders in other communities can apply those lessons in those communities -- I think those are real, tangible results and real, tangible ideas that other leaders can employ to make sure that they’re protecting people in their communities.
Q And quickly on DHS. It seems like a likely resolution to the funding problem is a short-term extension of DHS funding. Would the President sign that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure that anybody knows exactly what the outcome of this situation is going to be. I mean, we just saw the Speaker of the House go on television over the weekend and declare that he was certainly comfortable with not funding the Department of Homeland Security. I’m not sure what kind of analysis leads you to that conclusion. It’s certainly not in the best interest of the country and I’m not sure that it’s really in the best interest of anybody’s political calculation, at least one that I can see. But, yet, he said it nonetheless, and I think that does raise some questions about whether or not this new governing Republican majority in Congress is committed to actually being responsible and acting in the best interest of the American people.
One of the things that Senator McConnell said at the end of last year was that one of his goals was to make sure that Republican leadership didn’t appear scary to the American people. And when I saw that, I came out here and had a little fun with that, that he was setting the bar really low. It looks like right now congressional Republicans are prepared to wiggle underneath that bar.
Q But what if it emerges as a short-term extension, would the President sign it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to see what emerges out of this process. What clearly should emerge is a clear plan from congressional Republicans to fund the Department of Homeland Security before the impending deadline.
Q Josh, let me pick up right there. If they don’t get an agreement on funding for Department of Homeland Security and there’s a partial shutdown of the department, will this be a national security risk? In other words, will American be less safe if Congress cannot come up with an agreement to fund the department?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Homeland Security has put out some specific information about the impact that this would have on their operation, so I’d refer you to them to talk about it. But let me just say, I don’t think that there is anybody who would be comfortable with making the case that refusing to pay our men and women on the frontlines of Homeland Security actually enhances our national security.
Q Yes, and the reason why I asked the question is because obviously I’ve looked at the information the department has put out, and they’ve got a large number of essential employees, that most of them will actually still be going to work. So I’m just trying to gauge how big a threat, or is it a threat, to the safety of Americans if this funding agreement is not reached.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t think there’s anybody who can stand here and make the case that it would be good for our national security. I certainly don’t think it would be good for our national security.
Q But will you make the case that it’s bad for our national security, that there’s a risk here that we could -- a greater risk of a terrorist attack? Or not protecting --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would leave it to the Department of Homeland Security to sort of offer up a specific assessment about the impact that this would have. I don’t think there’s anybody who could make the case that it would be good, and I don’t think there’s anybody who could make the case that it would be fair.
The President gave a State of the Union speech that was focused on middle-class economics. And he talked about a wide range of things that we can do to strengthen the middle class in this country. And the fact of the matter is, people who are working for the Transportation Security Administration and trying to safeguard our airports, those are good middle-class jobs. Those are also American patriots. And I'm surprised that we would have congressional Republicans who are suggesting that they should go ahead and go to work and do it without getting a paycheck.
Q So can I get you to respond to what the Speaker of the House said on this? He makes the case that the House has passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security; that that bill is now before the Senate, that it is Senate Democrats that are filibustering that bill. Would you respond to that? And would you encourage the Senate Democrats to drop their filibuster so that the bill can be passed, and then you can have negotiations the old-fashioned way -- how a bill becomes a law? I mean, in fact, the Speaker said this probably 10 times in that interview, that the House has passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they passed a bill that won’t pass the Senate. And so --
Q Because Democrats are filibustering it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, because Democrats don’t support a piece of legislation that would actually undo the kinds of administrative reforms that the President has put in place to solve our broken immigration system. So here’s the thing: If Republicans want to have a negotiation about trying to fix our broken immigration system, we would welcome the opportunity to have that negotiation. We’ve wanted to talk to them about immigration reform for, literally, for years. We had a good conversation about that with Democrats and Republicans of the United States Senate. We actually got a bipartisan piece of legislation that congressional Republicans blocked for more than a year and a half.
So, again, I'm not really sure exactly what the Speaker’s point is. I would assume that his point would be that he understands the responsibility that he has for making sure the Department of Homeland Security is funded. And we’re hopeful that he’ll get that done before the deadline.
Q Okay. And one other very different topic. I wanted ask you about a report in the Wall Street Journal that the President has received communications back from the Ayatollah in Iran -- two letters back, one in 2009, and another just in the past few weeks. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: John, I'm going to decline to get into any sort of specifics about conversations that the President may have had -- or communications the President may have had with the leaders of the Iranian regime.
We’ve been very clear about what our priority is there. And our top priority is resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program. But there’s a long list of other concerns that the United States has with the way that the Iranian regime has supported terrorism around the globe; the way that they continue to promote anti-Semitism and even to wish ill on our allies in Israel. So there’s a long list of concerns that we have with the Iranian regime, but the conversations that we’re having right now about trying to resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program, right now is what we’re focused on.
Let me just also say one thing. We’re also concerned about the status of a handful of Americans that are currently being detained in Iran wrongly and against their will. And we’re continuing to work for the release of those Americans as well.
I'm sorry, Jon, go ahead.
Q But, Josh, the President himself has acknowledged in the past that he has written to Ayatollah Khamenei. So all I'm asking you is if you can confirm whether or not the Ayatollah has responded back to the President. I'm not asking you to give me details on that letter. Can you at least confirm that the President is in receipt of a letter or letters in response to what we know that the President has written?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to do that from here, but let me see if I can get you some more information on this.
Q And then, to follow up on that, eventually -- I understand you’re in the middle of negotiations, you want to keep this correspondence confidential -- but will you commit to eventually releasing those letters? Obviously, it’s of great interest whether or not the leader -- the real leader of Iran, somebody who considers the United States the “great Satan,” whether or not there’s been a letter chain back and forth with the President. Will you commit to eventually releasing those to the public?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point I’m not willing to commit that those letters exist. But let me see if we can do a little work and get you some more details on this.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Summit on Violent Extremism is going on right next door. And the President and the Vice President yesterday have gone to great lengths to not say that it’s a summit about Islamic extremism. They say it’s broader than that. But if you look at the groups that are participating, most of them -- most of the community groups are related in one way or another to the Muslim community. How do you square the message with the participants?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Angela, I think what I would say is that we're very mindful of the fact that a particularly virulent strain of extremist ideology has tried to insert itself in the Muslim community. There’s no question about that. That's true in the United States; that's true in other places around the world. And that will be the subject of extensive discussion at the summit.
At the same time, we also recognize that there are other forms of extremism that have prompted others to carry acts of violence even on American soil. We’ve talked on a couple of previous occasions about the violent extremist who carried out an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; or the radical ideology that prompted someone to go and open fire outside a Jewish community center in Kansas.
So there are -- extremism has taken a variety of forms in this country in a way that has had violent results. And we want to be focused on making sure that we're countering all of that. But that does not diminish in any way the concern that we have that some extremists have made some inroads into some Muslim communities in attempting to inspire them to carry out acts of violence or to join their fight. And we have worked very hard and very diligently with the Muslim community here in this country, with local law enforcement, and with political leaders to counter that ideology and to counter that messaging. And that is something about which we remain vigilant.
And today’s summit, or this week’s summit provides a good venue for talking about some of the successes of that strategy and to identify some of the additional steps that we can take to further safeguard the American people.
Q Are there any groups you can point to that are there participating in the summit that are targeted at other groups?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer you to the National Security Council. They will be able to provide you some more information about other individuals who are participating in the summit.
Q Does the United States support the Egyptian request that the international coalition airstrikes should include Libya too?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that right now what we have said is that we are supportive of the ongoing efforts of the U.N. Special Representative and his efforts to try to facilitate the formation of a national unity government, that we believe that that is sort of the next appropriate step here. But we are certainly mindful of the fact that there are extremists that are trying to establish or at least capitalize on the instability in Libya to carry out acts of violence.
And we saw over the weekend this brutal killing of 21, I believe, Egyptian Christians in that country. And that obviously is something that we strongly condemn, something the President condemned over the weekend. And we certainly are going to coordinate with the international community to try to bring about some stability in Libya and make that a much less hospitable place for extremist groups to carry out acts of violence like this.
Q On Syria, does the President think that some Syrian rebels should be able to call airstrikes and they could be as effective as the Peshmerga was in Iraq calling airstrikes on ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said in general is that the United States and our coalition partners are prepared to back up the efforts of local fighters on the ground with airstrikes. And many have noted that the track record of some local fighters in Syria against ISIL is not particularly good, that in battle after battle ISIL has succeeded in defeating those rebels. But we would anticipate that, with better training and better equipment, that those rebels would perform better. That's why there is this American-led effort, in close coordination with our partners in the region, to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition fighters.
We've also indicated that we would expect that with better training and equipment and the backing of sophisticated military airstrikes, that their performance on the battlefield would improve. So we certainly would envision a time in which military airpower would be used to back up the efforts to fighters on the ground.
You may be asking a more specific or even --
Q The ability to call in those airstrikes.
MR. EARNEST: For the way in which those local ground forces would interact with coalition military aircraft, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense on that and on exactly how that communication would take place. But part of our strategy here is predicated on the idea that military airpower could be used to enhance the performance of Syrian opposition fighters on the battlefield.
Q Josh, a couple things. And it his op-ed about the summit, the President -- you mentioned this a couple times -- the President wrote, “Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process.” When it comes to groups like ISIS, what legitimate grievances do you think they have that should be taken through the democratic process??
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think when we're talking about ISIL leaders, there is nothing that they could possibly use to justify the brutality that we’ve seen them carry out; that this is an ideology that is totally bankrupt and is impossible to justify. And that's why I think you haven’t just seen a strong reaction from the United States to counter their efforts, you've actually seen a strong reaction from more than 60 countries around the world that have joined with the United States to take the fight to degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q So given that, what would the legitimate grievances of either ISIS or any other extremist group be?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I don't have the op-ed in front of me. But I believe that that's actually a reference to the efforts of the administration and obviously local law enforcement and other community leaders here in this country to prevent ISIL from succeeding in recruiting and inspiring people to join their fight.
And one part of that strategy is trying to remove grievances that those individuals may have. And that is part of why so much of the outreach that we're doing to communities across this country isn’t just through law enforcement, but through community leaders that also have an interest in trying to protect their youth and making sure that they are aware of the kinds of support and opportunities that exist in their communities.
Q But the full quote was, “Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process.” So I’m just struggling to understand. So to be clear, ISIS doesn't have any legitimate grievances. Are there any extremists that have legitimate grievances?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Ed, the point of that element of the op-ed is to make clear that there is not just a need but also a benefit to ensuring that countries that are carrying out counterterrorism operations within their borders do so with proper respect for universal human rights.
One example of a country that I didn't cite earlier in terms of places where we’ve been working to try to counter terrorism and extremism is in Nigeria. And there have been elements of assistance that the U.S. government has offered to the Nigerian government to aid their efforts. But each time we’ve talked about that, we’ve also been mindful of the need to remind the Nigerian government that it’s important to respect those basic universal human rights, even as they carry out those counterterrorism operations.
Q Boko Harm does not have legitimate grievances.
MR. EARNEST: No, they don't. But what we want to do is we want to make sure that Boko Haram doesn't have a fertile recruiting ground in Nigeria that only is enhanced if you have a Nigerian government that runs roughshod over the basic human rights and values of their citizens.
Q A couple other quick things. In answer to Kristen’s question about the 21 Christians being killed this weekend, you said the President put out a strong statement this weekend. The statement on Sunday was from you. It said “Statement by the Press Secretary.” Just to be clear, it was not a statement from the President.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I misspoke on that.
Q I just want to be clear. And then in that statement -- that's why I want to ask you -- because you put it out, under your name -- you talked about the murder of 21 “citizens.” And I’m curious why didn't you mention it was 21 Christians killed by Muslims? Is that relevant?
MR. EARNEST: It sure is, because the ISIL extremists who carried out this attack indicated that the reason that they were killing them wasn’t just because they were Egyptian, but also because they were Christian.
Q Right. So --
MR. EARNEST: And I think the President has been very clear that it is -- the President talked about this actually in his prayer breakfast speech that he gave earlier this month, that there’s a responsibility of people of all faiths to stand up and speak out when individuals try to use faith and distort faith to try to justify an act of violence.
Q So given that, why were you not clear on Sunday? It went out under your name. Why didn't you say 21 Christians were killed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I’ve tried to be clear here. I can't account for that specific line in the statement. But we’ve been clear there that we condemn this murder. The President was clear in the op-ed that was published today, and on a variety of occasions I think I’ve been pretty clear here, that we condemn the outrageous killing of these Egyptian citizens because of their Christian faith.
Q Okay. And last one. Two days earlier, on the 13th, you put out a statement under the President’s name about the tragic deaths of the three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina. And in there, the President said, “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” Why was their Muslim faith relevant in that statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think as we’ve indicated, the situation in North Carolina is still under investigation. And local law enforcement authorities there are trying to determine exactly what the motivation of the individual who has been charged with this crime was. And so that is still under investigation.
But what is clear is that there is this principle that exists, regardless of the faith of the individual in question, that people should not be targeted because of their religion, and what they look like, or what their last name is, or how they worship. That is true --
Q Is there any evidence that in that North Carolina case they were targeted because they were Muslim?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that's still under --
Q People are saying it was because of a parking space. We don't know. It’s a local law enforcement investigation right now, as you said. So why was their faith invoked in the President’s statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think it is important for the President in this case, as he has in many others, to articulate a pretty clear principle. And I think it’s the kind of principle that the vast majority of Americans should be able to support, which is that people should not -- regardless of their faith -- be targeted because of what their last name is, what they look like, or how they worship.
Q But we don't know that they were targeted because of their last name or their faith.
MR. EARNEST: So I guess, Ed, what you could -- and I think that's acknowledged in the statement, as well. And we have also acknowledged that this is an issue that's under investigation in North Carolina. But I think as a principle, this is the kind of thing we should all be able to agree with.
Q Back on the summit. What exactly is the take-away that you anticipate from this? There’s no executive action. There’s no governmental action. It’s a talking shop. What is the point?
MR. EARNEST: Ed -- I’m sorry, Bill. (Laughter.) I meant that as a compliment. (Laughter.) I hope that's the way you took it.
Q I’m sure I will after I think about it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I think the real take-away here is this is an opportunity for us to make sure that people all across the country understand what kinds of effective strategies are being put in place in places like Los Angeles and Minneapolis and Boston to try to safeguard communities all across the country.
And so there are effective strategies that they’ve used in those communities to counter the radical messaging and ideology that extremists can propagate on social media. And we want to make sure that communities all across the country are aware of the tools that are available to them. And I think that is a worthwhile exercise, and I think it’s certainly something that local leaders from across the country will benefit from.
But again, I guess what I would encourage you to do is, before you pass judgment on the summit, is let’s wait until the summit concludes. And then I’d encourage you to follow up with those who participated to see whether or not they found it to be worthwhile.
Q The extremists you mentioned are mostly Muslim, of course, but you won’t say that -- even though that is the subject of much of the discourse here today.
MR. EARNEST: I think I did in answer to Angela’s question, that we are particularly concerned about the success that some extremists have had in inhabiting some dark corners of the Muslim world to try to distort the tenets of that religion in a way that justifies their radical ideology and their violent acts. And that's something that we strongly condemn. And we devote significant resources here in this country and in local communities across the country to countering that messaging. And that will certainly be an intense focus of conversation in the context of this summit, but not the only focus.
Q You just won’t call it militant Islam or anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, I think we’ve been very clear about what we call it and why we approach this challenge in this way.
Q Thanks, Josh. New York Times reporter James Risen said yesterday that the Obama administration is the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation, and that he plans to spend the rest of his life fighting to undo the damage to press freedom done by Barack Obama and Eric Holder. Those are awfully strong words from a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Can I get you to react?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think that over the last couple of years, you've seen the Attorney General in particular take some very important steps to try to make sure this administration was striking the right balance between law enforcement’s need to protect national security and to respect the freedom of the press, a freedom that the President believes is critically important to the success of our country. So the Attorney General has made clear that he doesn’t believe that journalists should be prosecuted or put in jail just because they’re doing their job.
The Attorney General, in reaction to this situation, has convened meetings with well-known and influential journalists from across the country to discuss some of these issues about striking that appropriate balance. And the feedback that he has gotten out of those meetings has been very positive; that even the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said the Justice Department had “turned a corner.” And the Washington Post Editorial Board said, “There has been a welcome evolution by Attorney General Eric Holder on these issues.”
So this is certainly the kind of work that the administration believes is important. It’s also the kind of work that’s always ongoing; that as we consider striking a balance between two important competing -- in some cases, competing priorities, that we’re always going to have to evaluate what steps are being taken to strike the right balance. And we certainly are pleased with the kind of progress that we’ve made.
Q And I know this occurred while the briefing was underway, but Jeb Bush had some awfully harsh words about the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He said the administration talks, but words fade, that you draw red lines but then erase them, and that you’ve shown a reckless disregard for the long-term interests of the country. Could I just get you to react?
MR. EARNEST: Probably not today.
Q Finally, any details on the Chicago trip tomorrow? Will the President be making an appearance with Mayor Emanuel or any more information?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have some more details on the Chicago trip out before the end of the day today, so we’ll follow up with you on that.
Q How could he not go to Chicago and meet with Rahm? Are you saying that that’s not going to happen? (Laughter.) Can I go back to some of the questions about the summit?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely.
Q Are you hoping that by the end of the summit that you’re going to find ways to enhance surveillance in Muslim communities? Is that one of the goals of this summit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we’ve talked about the fact that as we address some of these challenges in communities all across the country, that it can’t be solely a law enforcement response; that obviously local law enforcement has a particularly important role to play. And those local law enforcement agencies that have worked hard to build strong relationships in the communities that they serve and protect can be particularly effective in helping us counter this messaging.
But that’s not the only tool in the toolbox. We also need to enlist the support and participation of community leaders, of teachers, and of others, even religious leaders, who also have an interest in trying to protect their community and trying to insulate particularly vulnerable young people from this kind of radical extremist ideology.
And that’s a particularly difficult thing to do now, and even in some ways you could argue that it's more difficult now than it has been in the past. You have extremists that are operating even in remote locations of the world, but because they have access to the Internet they can widely propagate their extremist ideology in ways that can be heard by people all around the world.
That means that we have to be even more vigilant and creative as we try to counter this messaging, and there are a variety of ways that we can do that. Some of it involves law enforcement, but also it means that it's important for us to mobilize other influential, well-respected members of the community. In some ways, the best way to counter this radical ideology is for people who are members and leaders in that community to stand up and say that it's wrong.
Q For all the flack that you’ve taken over not using the term Islamic extremism, or Islamic terrorism, there are members of the Muslim faith who believe that you’re picking on them. And how do you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that this -- I think there are a couple things about that. The first is, it's important for the leaders of any community to not feel as if anybody is picking on them. This sort of goes back to the value statement that Ed referred to earlier. It's important that people understand that we are going to be committed to and protective of the notion that people should not be targeted because of what they look like or how they worship. And that is just a basic value that is central to the founding of this country. So there’s that part of it.
The second part of it is that --
Q But you are, in a sense, isolating a particular faith in one respect in that -- I mean, as Bill Plante and others have asked the question, Angela asked the question -- I mean, by and large, this summit is focusing on these communities. I mean, that’s just -- it's in black and white, it's in the list of participants that you’ve submitted to the press. There are Islamic-American groups who are going to be protesting outside the White House today because they are concerned that this is the focus of the summit. So why not just say it? Just that it is what it is?
MR. EARNEST: Why not just say what?
Q That concerns about extremism in Muslim-American communities or Muslim communities around the world is the focus of this summit. It just seems like you’re tiptoeing through the tulips here.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think I'm tiptoeing anywhere. I think we’ve been pretty clear about exactly what we’re trying to fight here. This is the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, and there is no question that radical ideologues around the globe have sought, and in some cases succeeded, in infiltrating some elements of the Muslim world to propagate their ideology and to try to distort that religion to justify their terrible acts of violence.
At the same time, Jim, they would love nothing more than for the United States to engage in a -- the United States or the West to engage in a religious war with them. But the fact of the matter is, that is not what this is. This is not a religious war. This is not a war on Islam. And those individuals do not represent Islam; the leaders of Islam say as much. And there are a variety of ways that we can assess this. Let me just give you one good example.
In the operation to recover and bring to justice Osama bin Laden, our operators also recovered a treasure trove of material from his residence where they were able to evaluate some of his ongoing communications and even some of his thinking about the state of al Qaeda. And in those writings there is clear evidence that he was frustrated; that Osama bin Laden was frustrated that al Qaeda was being recognized and acknowledged and fought, not as a religious organization, but as a terrorist group.
He even contemplated, in those writings, changing the name of al Qaeda to try to more closely identify it with Islam. He felt like that would be helpful to their flagging recruiting efforts. That is an indication that our efforts to be crystal-clear about what it is that we're fighting and what we're not has not just been successful, but actually frustrated the efforts of our enemies.
And so I guess I'll just end it by saying this. You noted that there has been some flack that we've taken. It's worth it if that's what we need to do to make sure that we're going to continue to succeed in countering this radical ideology and making sure that we can succeed in mobilizing the international community to take the fight to them, and in the case of ISIL, to degrade and destroy them.
Q You don't mind that flack? You welcome it?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q And on ISIS, I'm just curious, in following up on Kristen’s question about what happened in Egypt -- or excuse me, what happened in Libya -- what is the best sense of this White House as to how far and how wide ISIS has spread? And how many countries in ISIS now operating, in the view and assessment of this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what we are focused on right now is the threat that ISIL poses in both Iraq and in Syria. And that is the place where they are trying to establish, based on their own aspirations that they’ve communicated publicly, where they’re trying to establish their own Islamic state. And because of the efforts of the United States and the other members of our coalition, we have succeeded in blunting their progress and, in many cases, even rolling it back.
There are others around the world who have occasionally popped up and indicated that they have claimed an association with ISIL. We're certainly mindful of the desire of ISIL to try to spread and propagate their ideology. But where we're focused right now and where we believe ISIL is most dangerous is in this area of Iraq and in Syria, and that's why we're focusing our efforts there.
Q The President said that he believes that ISIS is on the defensive. He said that last week. But it seems that they are spreading to more and more countries, and we're seeing evidence of that almost every week.
MR. EARNEST: I would caution you about that, Jim, because I think it's important for us to differentiate between the spread of ISIL and individuals who are trying to attract attention for themselves by claiming an association with ISIL. Those are two very different things. And I think the best example we have of this is the situation that we saw in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago, where an individual who claimed to be affiliated with ISIL -- as I mentioned, I think, at the time -- that had less to do with ISIL’s success in propagating their ideology and spoke more to the kinds of internal divisions that we're starting to see in the Taliban right now.
So, again, we're obviously going to be very cognizant of and closely monitor any of this radical ideology and any of the efforts that ISIL makes to try to spread it around the globe, even to other countries. But our focus right now is where they’re most dangerous, and that's in Iraq and in Syria.
Q And we shouldn’t let the briefing end without asking you about Russia. The NATO Secretary General said that the cease-fire has not been respected in Ukraine. If the cease-fire is dead, what’s the next move?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what I know is that I know that the leaders of these four countries -- France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia -- are supposed to have a conversation again today, I believe via telephone, to talk about the status of the Minsk implementation plan. And obviously, we believe that it's important for all sides to live up to that agreement. It's also crystal-clear that the Russian-backed separatists and Russia themselves have not lived up to their commitments that they made in the context of those negotiations. Their failure to do so does put them at risk of greater costs. And they should be mindful of that as they consider their next steps.
But we continue to believe that the way that this situation can be resolved is around the negotiating table, and that's why we're going to continue to support ongoing negotiations. But you're right if you point out that those negotiations are only going to be successful if the people who participate in those negotiations are willing to live up to the commitments that they have made. And it is clear that thus far -- at least in the last few days -- the Russians and the separatists that they back have not done that.
Q And arms to the Ukrainians -- that's still on the table as an option?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update beyond how the President discussed this last week.
Q I have two quick questions. I wanted to follow up on what you were saying about the flack you’re getting. The phrase that everybody wants to use is “radical Islam,” and the narrative is that if you don't use the secret password, “radical Islam,” that you can't possibly defeat ISIS. And I've heard this sort of spreading out beyond conservative circles, and I'm wondering -- because I've heard you describe in so many words what is radical Islam, which is like the hateful ideology and all that -- has there been any thought given to just disarming this whole thing by just throwing the phrase into maybe the President’s remarks or something, even if it's in a sentence in which you make clear the distinction you’ve been trying to make? Do you know what I mean? Sort of stop giving them something to hit against -- just say it, yeah, radical Islam, and it's not all of Islam.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tommy, I guess this does sort of go to what I was saying to Jim, which is that -- at least I'll speak for myself -- I'm not particularly concerned about the flack. I just want to make sure that we're pursuing the most effective strategy. And again, anybody who wants to evaluate that strategy can do so by taking a look at the way that Osama bin Laden himself described the state of al Qaeda and his frustration that our ability to prevent him from succeeding in declaring a religious war between Islam and the West was frustrating his efforts to advance his radical agenda; it was frustrating the efforts to that organization to recruit new members; and it even prompted him to even contemplate changing the name of his organization to try to get people to identify them as a religious organization as opposed to what they are, which is a terrorist organization.
So I think that’s a pretty clear indication that our strategy is making progress and, like I’ve told Jim, it’s worth the flack.
Q My second question. The conservative media is sort of flipping out over comments that Marie Harf made this morning. She was talking, again, about radical Islam and trying to explain that this summit is about other forms of extremism, and she brought up Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as an example of -- the phrase she used was Christian militant -- or a “militant Christian organization.” So I’m wondering if you can explain the difference between calling Kony’s LRA a militant Christian organization and using a term like radical Islam. How are you not -- in other words, how are you not avoiding the thing with Christians that you are avoiding with Islam?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did not see my colleague’s comments on this topic earlier today, so I don’t want to sort of weigh in and try to explain what she meant if I didn’t actually see them. So why don’t you check with the folks at the State Department? They may be able to explain what she was discussing there.
George, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I wanted to go back to Ed’s question for a second. You do seem to be tiptoeing around who the victims are. And last week, when Jon was questioning you, you didn’t want to say they were Jewish victims in Paris, and then your statement didn’t mention Christian victims. Assuming this isn’t coincidence, is it the administration’s belief that it’s counterproductive to stress the religion of the victims?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s an interesting question. So let’s just do it this way. We’ll put an end to the tiptoeing -- to the extent that there’s been any -- and if people assume that I’ve been tiptoeing, let me just try to be as clear as I can and we’ll see how this works.
As I tried to make clear to Jon last week, and as I made clear in a tweet following, there is no doubt about the motivation of the individual who carried out this attack against a Kosher market in Paris. He was motivated by anti-Semitism, and he went to that market hoping that he could kill Jewish people, and he was targeting them because they were Jewish.
The public statements of the ISIS militants, or the people who claim to be affiliated with ISIS in Libya, indicated that they were killing these Egyptians because of their Christian faith. And we have been crystal-clear in the statement that we put out from the President on Friday and the President’s prayer breakfast remarks earlier this month that it is wrong and completely unacceptable and unjustifiable to target people, particularly with acts of violence, because of who they are, because of who they worship, because of what their last name is, or because of what they look like.
And this is a value that we have carefully subscribed to and ardently defended, not just in this country but around the world. And that is why you have seen the United States take military action in Iraq, for example, to try to protect the Yazidi people who were threatened by genocide, by the Islamic militants -- or the ISIL militants in Iraq when they were making progress in that country earlier this summer. The United States took action to defend them. And there is a long history in this country, and a proud history in this country, of the United States taking action to protect people who are being targeted because of what they look like or because of who they worship. That is a proud tradition of this country.
To sort of blend this with the debate that we had at the end of last year, it strengthens our moral authority around the globe and it strengthens our national security when people look upon the United States as a country that’s willing to stand up and protect the people who are being targeted because of what they look like or who they worship. And that is something -- that is a value that we believe certainly applies in this country, but we believe it's a value that applies around the world. And it is why when the President goes and visits with foreign leaders around the globe, he makes clear how important he believes it is for those leaders to uphold the universal human values, and uphold those universal human rights, and to protect their citizens to ensure that they can exercise those universal human rights.
And this is a subject of -- this is work that’s going to be ongoing, but its work that the United States has long been committed to, and that commitment is not flagged under the leadership of President Barack Obama.
All right. Thanks, everybody. Have a good day.
2:11 P.M. EST