Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/27/15

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/27/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:40 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I apologize for the delay.  Let me just do two quick things at the top before we get to your questions.

The first is that President Obama will host Afghan President Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah, and key members of their unity government for meetings and a working lunch at the White House on Tuesday, March 24th.  The two Presidents will discuss a range of issues, including security, economic development, and U.S. support to the Afghan-led reconciliation process.

This marks the first meeting between the two Presidents at the White House, following the 2014 presidential election, which produced the first democratic transfer of power in Afghan’s history.  While in Washington, from March 22-25, President Ghani and his delegation will also engage in high-level strategic dialogue hosted by Secretary Kerry at Camp David. 

President Ghani’s visit highlights the importance of continuing bilateral cooperation and the American commitment to our U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership to reinforce regional security and sustain the achievements of the last 13 years.

So that will be something to look forward to about three weeks from now. 

The other thing is we're going to mark another departure here in the White House Briefing Room.  Today is the last day for Larry Downing, photographer from Reuters.  I don't see him in the room right now.  But he has served here in the White House for 38 years.  And he is somebody whose career has been recognized not just for its talent but also for the way that he conducts himself as a true professional.  There he is.  (Applause.) 

So, Larry, thank you for your service, and congratulations on retirement.

MR. DOWNING:  Thank you.

MR. EARNEST:  You're welcome. 

All right, Darlene, now that we have the festivities out of the way we can go to your questions.

Q    Josh, will you say whether the President would sign a three-week extension of funding for DHS if Congress sent that to him?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Darlene, it's, first, important for us to recognize that there actually is one piece of funding legislation that has passed the Congress, at least the United States Senate, with bipartisan support just today, and that piece of legislation was a bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of this fiscal year.  And it is a bill that was negotiated between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill last year with the input of the administration.  It sets appropriate funding guidelines for this critically important agency.  And it has earned strong bipartisan support in the United States Senate. 

It is now sitting on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.  And the Speaker of the House now has one fundamental question:  Is he going to put that bill up for a vote?  If he does, it will pass with bipartisan support, and the agency that is responsible for protecting the homeland of the United States will be fully funded for this fiscal year. 

The Secretary of Homeland Security has made clear just how important this is.  Members of Congress in both parties have made clear how important it is for that agency to be funded for the full fiscal year.  The question is whether or not the Speaker of the House will deliver. 

And before I came down here -- I was actually delayed because I was printing out something that all of you have read.  On the day after the election, the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and the Senate then-Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that apparently was ironically titled, “Now We Can Get Congress Going.”  So I think they’ve made pretty clear today -- well, I guess the Speaker has a chance to pull the fat out of the fire here, but we'll see if he’s willing to do it, and willing to live up to the promises that he made to the American people on the day after the election, when Republicans, with a lot of fanfare, took the majority of both the House and the Senate.

Q    What happens if he’s not willing to do that?  Where does it go from there then?

MR. EARNEST:  Darlene, you’re so pessimistic today.  Well, listen, if the President is faced with a choice of having the Department of Homeland Security shut down or fund that Department for a short term, the President is not going to allow the agency to shut down. 

But let’s remember how exactly we got here.  We got here because back in December, the Speaker of the House had on his desk a compromise proposal that had bipartisan support to fund the entire federal government through the end of the fiscal year, through September 30th.  And he made a strategic calculation that he would fund the entire government through the end of the fiscal year except for the Department of Homeland Security.  And he said we’re going to hold back the funding for the Department of Homeland Security until we can figure out how to maximize our political advantage; we want to figure out the best way that we can actually score some political points with the passage of that budget.

Now, here we are, two months later -- a little over two months later.  It is the day of the self-imposed deadline, the deadline that was imposed by Republicans.  And apparently, over the course of the last two months, they have not yet figured out how to maximize their political advantage.  And it exposes the danger of playing politics with our homeland security, and it represents an abject failure of leadership on the part of the new Republican majority to not get this done.

So the truth is, if the President is faced with a choice between a short-term extension and shutting down the Department of Homeland Security, he will sign the short-term extension.  But the good news is that’s not the choice that’s facing the Speaker of the House and it’s not the choice that should be facing every member of the United States Congress.  Right now, the choice the Speaker is facing is, are we going to fund the agency for three weeks, or are we going to fund it for the full year, and are we going to do it at levels that are agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans as clearly in the best interest of the American people.

So the truth is, the choice for the President is a little difficult, but the choice for the Speaker of the House is really easy.  Let’s hope he makes the right one.

Q    On another subject, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been taking some heat for comments that some have interpreted as comparing members of organized labor to Islamic State terrorists. Does the White House have any reaction to what he said or the comparison he was making?

MR. EARNEST:  We do not.

Q    Labor union members are a big constituency that the White House has supported over the years.  You don’t want to come to their defense?

MR. EARNEST:  I think they’re more than capable of defending themselves in this instance.

Roberta.

Q    Back to the visit that you talked about at the top.  The Afghan President has asked President Obama to address the timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and I’m wondering whether the President has made a decision on that.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President has made a decision in terms of what he believes our strategy should be.  And the strategy that the President has laid out is a steady, responsible drawdown of our military presence in Afghanistan.  And he’s going to do that in a way that’s coordinated very closely with our NATO allies that have themselves made a significant military commitment to Afghanistan.  He will also do that in coordination with the Afghan government as they assert more control and demonstrate more success in repelling some of the extremist elements in their country.

The mission for the U.S. military personnel that are currently in Afghanistan is a mission that’s focused on two things.  One is counterterrorism and taking counterterrorism strikes that will protect our military presence in Afghanistan.  They also are engaged in an effort to continue to train, advise and equip the Afghan security forces.  And that’s the focal point of their efforts right now.

The President has said all along that he’s going to continue to monitor the implementation of this drawdown strategy to ensure that it reflects the priorities of American national security, but also one that reflects the security situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

So the President is going to continue to listen to his military commanders.  He’s going to continue to listen to senior members of his national security team.  And he’s also going to engage in a dialogue with our partners in the Afghan government about the proper pace of this drawdown.  But we certainly -- the President certainly intends and we continue to be on track to fulfill his promise.

Q    So does he plan to address that pace during the visit? Is that something that’s going to be on the agenda for discussions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess as you alluded to, President Ghani has indicated that that is something that he wants to discuss with the President and has been discussing with American officials.  So I’m confident that President Ghani will bring it up, and I’m confident that there will be a discussion of it.

Q    And on DHS funding, on Monday, President Obama told governors that a shutdown would have a direct impact on the economy and a direct impact on national security.  And I’m just wondering, given the importance, why he hasn’t been sort of more engaged -- outwardly engaged in discussing the impact and trying to find a resolution.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, first of all, I haven’t heard many people, at least with any credibility, question the impact or question the importance of ensuring that the Department of Homeland Security is funded to the extent that anybody has raised any doubts about that.  The Secretary of Homeland Security himself has, every day this week, I believe, been walking the halls of Congress talking to members -- Republican members, principally -- about the importance of getting this done.

And principally, this has been a dispute over the last several weeks between Republicans in the House and Republicans in the Senate -- again, certainly not consistent with the headline on their op-ed from the day after last year’s election.  But fortunately, we did see a large number of Republicans come around to the idea -- the reasonable conclusion that the Department of Homeland Security needs to be funded for the entire fiscal year at appropriate levels, at levels that were negotiated in bipartisan fashion with the administration, to ensure that we were maximizing the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to protect the American people.

So this has principally been a dispute between Republicans on Capitol Hill.  And now that we are moving toward a resolution through the passage of this bipartisan bill in the Senate, again, this is a common-sense test of leadership for the Speaker of the House, and it’s up to him –- and my guess is he’s feeling a little pressure right now, as he should.

Q    But what kind of leadership has the President been showing in terms of finding a resolution?  In the past 24 hours, has he been calling people on the Hill?  What’s he been doing?

MR. EARNEST:  The good news, Roberta, is the President demonstrated leadership at the end of last year to ensure that we could negotiate a DHS budget that would have strong bipartisan support and that would maximize the ability of that agency to protect the homeland.  So that’s the hard work here, trying to set levels, figuring out which programs should be funded and at what level, and doing all that in a fiscally responsible way.  That’s hard work that requires negotiation.  It requires compromise.  It requires a cold-eyed assessment of what programs are working and what aren’t.  It requires an evaluation of what kinds of threats are facing the country.  It requires some decisions to be made about what kind of technology to invest in to protect our cybersecurity. 

All of these are core functions of the Department of Homeland Security.  And because of the President’s leadership and because of the hard work of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, and because of the success of our experts here inside the administration, we reached a bipartisan agreement.  And it’s the responsibility of the leaders in Congress to make sure that that agreement passes.

And the good news is we have also succeeded in building a bipartisan majority in both Houses for this bill.  The question now is just whether or not the Speaker of the House is simply going to allow it come up for a vote.  So it’s not a question of negotiating the contents of the legislation.  We’re not in a situation where we’re trying to figure out the legislative mechanics.  We’re not even in a situation where we’re out there trying to twist arms and count votes.  All of that’s been done.

The only thing that remains in place now is whether or not the Speaker of the House is going to put it on the floor for a vote.  The Speaker could even vote no if he wants.  It will still pass, and we’ll still make sure that we’ve got the necessary funding to protect the American people.

Michelle.

Q    On the upcoming Netanyahu speeches, there’s so much attention focused not only on the one in Congress but also AIPAC. Is this just going to turn into a situation of sort of dueling speeches between what he says on Iran versus what Susan Rice and Samantha Power are going to try to put out there for the administration?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I certainly hope not.  I know that the focal point of the remarks that the National Security Advisor and the U.N. Ambassador will be delivering will be focused on the importance and strength of the relationship between the United States and Israel. 

The President has pursued a policy that reflects how important it is to U.S. national security for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our strongest ally in the Middle East. He has done that.  He hasn’t just talked that talk, he’s walked that walk.  And that is something that is easy to demonstrate. Whether you evaluate the success of the Iron Dome program, an American-funded program that has shielded innocent Israeli citizens when they are being targeted by extremists and their rockets -- even the Prime Minister himself has said that the level of security cooperation between the Netanyahu administration and the Obama administration is unprecedented.  That certainly reflects the dangerous environment that Israel is operating in right now, and it also demonstrates the commitment of this administration to protecting and standing closely with our closest ally in the region.

I will also say that the dogged determination that this administration and this country and our international partners have demonstrated in bringing Iran to the negotiating table to try to resolve the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program isn’t just in the clear national security interest of the United States; it’s also clearly in the best interest of Israel.

So time and again, whether it is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, or taking the kinds of actions that are consistent with the national security interests of both of our countries, the President has aggressively led in the right direction.  And that will be the focal point of their remarks, and I think it is worthy of the kind of relationship that the President has sought to cultivate and continue and strengthen between our two countries.

Q    They could just use what you said right there.

MR. EARNEST:  They could.  They could.  I wasn’t invited to speak at AIPAC, but maybe next year.

Q    So Netanyahu’s coming now at this –- you could call it a critical time again in the process.  Is it bad for the negotiations?  I mean, him going before Congress and possibly even asking them to enact sanctions or something like that -- is that bad for the negotiations?

MR. EARNEST:  I think the short answer to that is I don’t think so.  And the reason is simply that there is a real opportunity for us here, and the President is hopeful that we are going to have an opportunity to do what is clearly in the best interests of the United States and Israel, which is to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program at the negotiating table. 

And it is true that the Prime Minister has been critical of that effort to date, but he was also pretty critical of the Joint Plan of Action, which was essentially sort of the first stage of these talks.  In the context of the Joint Plan of Action, the Prime Minister characterized that agreement as a “historic mistake.”  His administration predicted that Iran would get upwards of $50 billion in sanctions relief, and he warned that Iran had a dangerously large stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to 90 percent -– or to 20 percent. 

But the fact is, if you go back and look at the agreement, the agreement has actually succeeded in eliminating that stockpile.  That stockpile no longer exists.  Some of it has been dispensed with and some of it has been turned into a form of uranium that’s difficult to weaponize.

And the other thing that is also true is that the amount of sanctions relief that they predicted that Iran would get didn’t come to fruition.  In the first six months of the Joint Plan of Action, a small fraction of the sanctions relief was provided -- so on the order of like $6 billion or $7 billion, not $50 billion.  And, ultimately, the Joint Plan of Action we know has been a useful document because Iran has come to the negotiating table and engaged in serious discussions because of the Joint Plan of Action, because they’ve been held accountable for their actions.

And we also know that over the course of those negotiations, because of the inspections regime, we know that Iran has not only not made progress on their nuclear program, in fact, they’ve actually rolled it back by destroying –- as I mentioned earlier
–- their 20 percent uranium stockpile.

Q    Sort of the argument that’s out there that his doing this, even though it might not have any immediate effect and anything that he tries to persuade Congress to do could be vetoed anyway, but that it could put the U.S. in a better bargaining position anyway, with this happening here.  Do you buy that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t heard that analysis.  I suppose you could make the case that that’s true, but I’m not quite sure exactly what that case would look like.  And the reason I say that is what has been so critical to our success thus far is the unanimity of opinion across the international community.  We have put in place a very strict sanctions regime against Iran, one of the toughest sanctions regimes in history.  And that effort has been successful because we have persuaded essentially the rest of the world to go along with it.  And some countries have even made a pretty substantial economic sacrifice to do so.  There are other countries that are much more reliant on Iranian oil than the United States. 

So they did have to make a sacrifice by standing with the United States to impose these economic sanctions.  And that is part of why we continue to be concerned about this rhetoric that new sanctions should be imposed now, because it would cause that coalition of countries around the world to start to fray.  And the truth is, that has been critical to our success so far, so we’re hopeful that we’re going to continue to hold this coalition together.  We’re going to hold Iran accountable.  And we’re going to engage in negotiations, and we’ll see if they’re willing to make the difficult decisions necessary to resolve the international community’s concerns. 

And again, what we’re aiming for is an agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and allow the international community to verify it for themselves; for us to have independent inspectors not just in their nuclear facilities, but at all levels of their nuclear program’s supply chain to verify that they are living up to their terms of the agreement.

So again, this is why the President believes it’s clearly in the best interest of American national security for us to drive toward this solution.  And it’s clearly in the best interest of Israeli national security too.

And I’ll end with this:  The Prime Minister has also not presented an alternative option.  The fact is, if you take away these efforts to reach a diplomatic solution, you take away the limitations on their nuclear program, you take away the inspections regime that has verified that they have not made any progress.  And you essentially take away any of their options to deal with their nuclear program, other than the military option. 

And that is why the American Commander-in-Chief is so focused on pursuing a diplomatic option that, again, in the view of this administration, is actually more effective than the military option.  The military option is one that would of course set back the Iranian nuclear program, but only until it can be rebuilt.  And I think any logical observation would be it would only steel the resolve of the Iranians to rebuild it -- as opposed to a negotiated, diplomatic settlement in which they’re making commitments and choosing of their own volition to restrain their program and to verify for the rest of the international community that they’re not seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Q    Ukraine, Josh.  Both sides appear to have moved at least some heavy weapons back from the front lines today.  That appears to be something of a change in the situation on the ground.  What’s your reaction to that?  Is there any indication that this is going to be more than just a temporary lull in what’s been going on there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mark, we have noted in media reports that both the Ukrainian forces and separatists appear to be withdrawing some heavy weapons.  But we remain concerned by ongoing violations of the Minsk Implementation Plan by Russian-backed separatists.  The pace of attacks in eastern Ukraine has, as you said, declined for now, but it is clear that Russia continues to arm and equip the separatists, including with tanks and artillery.

We’ve also seen that Russia and the Russian-backed separatists have blocked access of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, who is supposed to be able to verify that both sides are taking the kinds of steps that are consistent with the Minsk Agreement.

So we certainly are -- have noted those reports, and we certainly want both sides to live up to their agreement, including withdrawing their forces.  But we continue to be concerned that the Russian-backed separatists are being armed and equipped by Russia, and they are preventing the OSCE monitors from verifying that Russia is living up to their side of the agreement.

Q    Where does that leave sanctions?  Do you suppose it’s a coincidence that this happens just at the point that you’re starting to have fresh discussions with the allies about new sanctions?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s a good question.  I think it’s hard to tell exactly how President Putin is making these decisions in terms of the way that he’s sort of evaluating his next steps.  I think one thing that we have learned is that we need to closely watch their actions and not just listen to their words.  I think we’ve also learned that -- there have been a variety of situations in which I’ve come out here with guidance in my book that suggests that things might be getting a little bit better in Ukraine, only to have the Russians reverse course a day or two later and ramp up their destabilizing activity.

So we’re watching their actions very carefully, and not willing to express much relief based on the actions that take place in one day.  What we’re looking for is a sustained commitment to the agreement that they signed in Minsk.

Isaac.

Q    So going back to the Israel situation for a moment.  Did you see the tweet that the Israeli embassy put out yesterday? It was a mock New York Times front page that had -- it was from 2025, and it said -- it was a headline, “How We Duped The West,  -- P5-plus-1:  We have regrets.”  Does the White House have any reaction to that tweet from the embassy or what it represents?

MR. EARNEST:  I did see it.  I’m not really sure what message they were trying to portray. 

Q    You don’t think they were trying to portray that you guys are going in for a bad deal here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess what I would say to that -- if that is, in fact, what they were trying to portray, I guess I would say that that’s the same -- as I mentioned to Michelle, that’s the same thing they said at the beginning of the Joint Plan of Action.  They said that the Joint Plan of Action would be a historic mistake and a sweetheart deal for Iran.  It certainly hasn’t turned out that way.  In fact, we’ve rolled back their nuclear program because of the Joint Plan of Action.  We’ve verified that they haven’t made any progress because of the Joint Plan of Action.  And we’ve verified -- we’ve noticed that Iran is engaged in serious discussions with the international community because they’re being held to account by the Joint Plan of Action.

So the fact is, their early predictions that the Joint Plan of Action would be a bad deal have, importantly, served the interests of both the United States and Israel.  So I think that’s why we should -- I guess I would encourage all of you to be a little skeptical when they’re saying bad things in the early stages, again, about a deal that hasn’t even been completed.

Q    But that it’s gotten to this level, that they’re tweeting out things like this, is this like electioneering going on on Netanyahu’s behalf?  Is it concerning that it’s reached this level?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, it’s unclear to me exactly what message they were trying to send, and I think it’s even more unclear why they’re trying to send it. 

Q    On another topic -- on Tuesday, the President said, we’re going to be as aggressive as we can on appealing the ruling blocking immigration orders.  The same day, the judge involved said he’s in no hurry to rule on the stay and he’d take at least a week to move on it.  It’s Friday.  “We’re going to be as aggressive as we can.”  Why have we gone this whole week without any movement from the White House?  Can you speak to that?  Is that consistent with being as aggressive as we can?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I would point to, to demonstrate our aggressiveness in pursuing this through the legal process, is the fact that we filed for an emergency stay; we pushed the judge to rule in the middle of this week.  He said that he wanted to hear from the plaintiffs by the beginning of next.  So it’s taking a little bit longer than we would like, but at the same time, we’ve also sought an expedited appeal at the Fifth Circuit on the merits of the case.

So I think it is fair to say that we’re doing everything we can at this point to try to advance this through the legal process.  We do that because we believe the strongest legal arguments are on our side, and we do that because eventually, implementing these executive actions are clearly in the best interests of the United States, our economy and our security.

Q    Is there any decision about holding off on this while the DHS funding fight is going on?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.  Again, because we have made pretty clear as often as we could that we consider these to be two entirely different issues; that the objections that Republicans have raised about the President’s efforts to reform our broken immigration system are ones that we’re happy to discuss and, like I’ve mentioned before, we’re not just happy to have those meetings, we’re happy to host them here at the White House, to talk about what we can do to reform our broken immigration system.  But the effort to try to score politics and to sort of find a colorful way to try to show people that you’re standing up to the President of the United States is no excuse for not funding the Department of Homeland Security. 

Olivier.

Q    Josh, a couple for you.  One -- you may have answered this when I was out of the country -- but can you banish any confusion about what the actual Iran timeline deadline is, what date you want to deal by?

MR. EARNEST:  The end of March is what we have said.

Q    The end of March?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.

Q    But that’s deliberately not the 31st or the 25th or whatever, it’s just the end?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes. 

Q    Okay.

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, there are days after March 25th that are still in March.

Q    Thank you.  (Laughter.)  I will note that.  And then I listened to your announcement at the top that John Kerry will be holding an event with President Ghani at Camp David.  Will the President be part of that event?  And if not, why hold it at Camp David?

MR. EARNEST:  The President will meet with the Afghan President and other senior Afghan officials who are part of the unity government here at the White House.  There are a longer series of meetings that the Secretary of State will convene, and they’ll do that at Camp David.  At this point, I don’t know that the President has planned to participate in those talks.  But obviously, the opportunity to visit with the President of the United States at the White House will be the focal point of their visit.

Q    So what does the Camp David setting add to this process that, say, doing them at State or doing them somewhere else wouldn’t bring?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it’s just an opportunity to really -- to dig into these negotiations and to do it in a way that limits outside distractions.  And I think it also sort of reflects the unique nature of this engagement; sort of this longer period of diplomatic talks here in the United States with our partners in Afghanistan I do think reflects our nation’s commitment to that country, that we continue to have an enduring partnership with them.  And I think it reflects how serious the administration is about engaging with the Afghan leadership in trying to move forward with a sense of unity and a sense of purpose as they confront the challenges in their country and as we deal with the national security threat that continues to exist there.

Q    Camp David has fairly extensive telecommunications abilities.  Any plans to dial in a third country, say Pakistan, to this process -- you have a broader meeting than just the United States and Afghanistan?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any current plan like that, but obviously as we get closer to the meeting we’ll be able to talk about what their plans are in a little bit more detail.

Jim.

Q    Across town a few blocks away, Cubans and the Americans are meeting again.  I’m told that one of the -- that the most difficult part of showing any progress right now in opening embassies or anything else is the terrorism list, taking Cuba off the terrorism list.  What is right now the timetable that you see as far as any action on that so that the rest of everything can progress?  And as part of that, do you see that as well as the big holdup as far as any progress is concerned?

MR. EARNEST:  I would not see that as an obstacle to our efforts to try to normalize the relations between our two countries, and certainly when it comes to reestablishing diplomatic ties, we would see these operating on two separate tracks.  And reestablishing those diplomatic ties is the center of the negotiations that are underway at the State Department right now.

And the President has made a commitment to reevaluate the propriety of including Cuba on that list.  The way that it’s been explained to me is that there is a formal process for reviewing an individual country’s status on that list.  The process is run by the State Department, but they deliver a recommendation to the President.  I don't know what the status is of that ongoing review.  You can check with the State Department about that. 

I think the President was pretty clear when he was talking about this in December that he hoped this review could be done in relatively short order.  But it's also something that the administration takes pretty seriously, so a careful, thorough look at this is warranted.  And once that review has been completed, it will be evaluated by the President and we'll have a decision to announce.

Q    You say it's two separate tracks.  But from both sides we hear, from both administration officials and from officials in Cuba, that in order to open an embassy they have to have banking; and in order to get banking, they have to be off the terrorist list, because no bank will, in fact, do business with Cuba -- no U.S. bank will do business with Cuba, and they can't open up their embassy without banking.  So it's not two tracks.  One is prohibiting the other. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I'm not seeped in the details of these negotiations, so you might check with the State Department on this.  I know that there has been an effort to try to allow the establishment in opening an operation of a U.S. diplomatic facility in Cuba and a Cuban diplomatic facility in the United States.  And part of these negotiations is trying to remove the obstacles to the successful completion of that goal.  And to the extent that those kinds of things need to be unwound, I'm sure that that's part of the discussion that's underway at the State Department even as we speak.

Q    Do you know whether the United States is willing to assure banks that they will not be sanctioned if they do business with the Cuban government at a new embassy while still waiting for the terrorist list to be decided?

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not aware of any guidance like that that's been given to American financial institutions, but I believe you should check with the Treasury Department about that.

Kevin.

Q    Josh, thanks.  Do you believe, does the administration believe that Iran is a safe haven for al Qaeda and ISIS and other groups?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, Iran, as you know, is a Shiite-led country that has their own vigorous differences with al Qaeda and Sunni extremists.  In fact, there’s been a lot of talk about how Iran and Iraq have been coordinating some of their efforts to try to counter those Sunni extremists, particularly the ones that are part of ISIL in Iraq right now. 

So we've got lots of concerns about Iran and the way they conduct business around the globe, including their support for some terror groups.  We do have those concerns, but they’re not related to al Qaeda.

Q    So you don't believe some of the documents that were released in the course of the trial underway in New York that suggest that Osama bin Laden and some of his outfit were actually getting safe haven in Iran?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven't reviewed those documents.  Again, we have a long list of concerns with Iran.  At the top of that list is their nuclear program.  But we continue to have concerns about their support for terrorism around the globe.  We continue to have concerns about the threats that they lob toward Israel on a regular basis.  Israel is, of course, our closest ally in the region and we certainly do not approve of the way that Iran conducts their relationship with Israel.

We've got a number of concerns about Americans who are detained or have gone missing in Iran.  These are all concerns that we raise on a regular basis with the Iranians, but we do so on the sidelines of negotiations to try to resolve our top concern, which is their ongoing efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and our efforts to resolve the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program.

Q    A couple more.  How would you characterize the Iranian threat to the U.S. and our interests abroad?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, we have a long list of concerns with Iran, and at the top of that list is Iran’s nuclear program. These are concerns not just held by the United States but by the broader international community.  And the principal concerns is that Iran, for a number of years, has been trying to surreptitiously develop and acquire a nuclear weapon.  And the concern that we have is essentially twofold.  The first is if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon, it would likely set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  That region of the world is already volatile and dangerous enough.  We don't need to add a nuclear arms race to the mix.

The second thing is that Iran on a number of occasions has used anti-Semitic rhetoric and threatened the nation of Israel.  That is our closest ally in the region and to think that somebody -- or a country like Iran that directs those threats towards Israel would acquire a nuclear weapon would not be good news, to say the least.

But we also have concerns about Iran and their support for terrorist organizations around the globe.  We have concerns about Iran and their detention of Americans, and that there’s at least one American that has gone missing in Iran that the Iranian government has failed to explain. 

So we have a long list of concerns.  They are substantial.  But what we're focused on right now is the one at the top of the list, and that is the one that we are focused on.  But we’re very mindful of the others and each interactions that we have with Iranian officials.

Q    So it’s not counterintuitive to sort of extract one problem from the greater problem, which is your perspective that Iran does pose a very serious threat not just to the U.S., but our interests abroad.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think the fact that we have a long list of concerns is an indication that this is something that we focus on a lot, and it is an indication that we take seriously the risks that are posed by Iran not just to the United States, but to our allies and to our broader stability in the region.  So it is something that consumes a substantial portion of the national security team’s time and thought and advice to the President.

Q    I’m wondering if you can talk about Jihadi John and what’s next, what’s going to done, and also about the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of counterterrorism.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as you may have seen yesterday, I was asked specifically about the reports that purported to identify that individual.  I’m not in a position even today to confirm or deny those reports, but I am in a position to restate to you our strong commitment to bringing to justice those individuals who are responsible for the murder of American citizens. 

And there continues to be a very active investigation underway right now.  We’re working closely with our counterparts in the U.K. who have been very good partners in this effort, and those efforts continue.  I don’t have a lot of light that I can shed on that investigation.  But as it continues, and if our investigators decide that sharing additional information would be advantageous to their efforts, then they’ll make that decision about whether or not to discuss it in more detail.

Fred.

Q    A follow-up on the big topic from yesterday.  Would you anticipate that Samantha Power and Susan Rice -- either/or -- would be interacting with the Prime Minister during AIPAC?  Maybe some side conferences?  Not necessarily a photo-op per se. 

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of anything like that that’s planned right now, so I don’t think so.

Q    But you wouldn’t necessarily think that they would avoid an interaction?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  I don’t know that they’re going to be there at the same time.  I haven't seen the entire itinerary for the day as it were, in terms of at least the roster of speakers and when they’re going to speak.  But I don’t know of any sort of informal meeting on the sidelines of the AIPAC Convention.

Q    And also, just a real quick one -- would the White House have any comment on the resignation of the U.N.’s IPCC Chairman from earlier this week?

MR. EARNEST:  I will have to -- let me follow up with you on that.  We may have a statement on that.  We’ll get it to you.

Lalit.

Q    On Afghanistan, but on a slightly different issue.  What is the President’s reaction to the celebrations which are going on in Afghanistan right now after the cricket team won their first match in the World Cup Cricket tournament?  It’s usually Australia or New Zealand.

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve heard a little bit about this, some of the news coverage of it.  It is a historic moment for the Afghan people, and we certainly do want to compliment and congratulate them on defeating Scotland in the Cricket World Cup.  I can’t say that I necessarily understand all the rules, but I do understand that they won, and the people in Afghanistan are pretty excited about it.

I do think it reflects that that is a country where they’re starting to stabilize the security situation.  And to have the opportunity to focus on things like an international cricket match I think is a sign of -- at least one sign of some progress that that country is making.

Q    I’m not sure if you know it or not -- the first international cricket match was played in New York between the U.S. and Canada in 1884.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s some good cricket trivia right there.

Q    I have another question on Raj Shah.  He is the highest-ranking Indian American appointed in any administration. He left USAID last week.  How does the President see his role in the last five years in leading USAID?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that Administrator Shah is somebody who performed admirably under very difficult circumstances.  You’ll recall that he was thrust into that job in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti.  And since then, he has been dogged in representing U.S. interests around the globe, and trying to meet the needs of people around the globe who are in terrible circumstances. 

And he’s somebody who drew on this own professionalism and leadership, and own expertise; he was a medical doctor, as you know.  And he used those skills and that training to great effect.  And he certainly is somebody who led the agency at USAID extremely well, and we certainly are sorry to see him leave the administration.  But my guess is that, at least for all of us in this room, it’s not the last time we’ve heard of Dr. Raj Shah.

Tamara.

Q    Can we expect to hear from the President at all today about the Homeland Security funding matter depending on what the House and Senate do?  Is there any sort of conversation, plan -- anything we should be waiting for?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can say that currently there is no plan for the President to make a public statement about this.  But if we’ve learned anything about the cliffhanger moments in Congress over the last few years, it’s that the unpredictable can happen, and it may necessitate a presidential statement.  So stay close, and we’ll keep you posted.

Toluse, I’ll give you the last one, and then we’ll do the week ahead.

Q    All right, thanks.  I wanted to ask about the sort of back and forth that’s been going on between the White House and Senator Warren on this trade issue.  From her op-ed in The Washington Post, there’s a blog post from the White House that she made some comments to Politico.  Is the White House reaching out directly to Senator Warren to kind of make sure that she feels comfortable with this trade deal?  She seems to be very concerned that it's not in the best interest of the middle class.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll make a couple of observations about that.  I did not see her comments in Politico, so I can’t react to anything that she may have said.  But I will say a couple of things.  Obviously the administration has and will continue to work very closely with Senator Warren on those areas where we do agree.  And you’ll recall that -- it seems like a long time ago -- but just on Monday, the President appeared at an event over at the AARP headquarters to talk with Senator Warren about the conflict of interest rule that he’s put in place. 

This is a rule that as it goes through the regulatory process, when it's enacted, could stand to save a lot of middle-class families a lot of money from their retirement.  And it's a common-sense rule, it's a rule that is strongly opposed by a lot of Wall Street interests that I'm sure are lawyering up as we speak to try to fight this in the halls of Congress.

But it's something about which Senator Warren feels very strongly and it's something about which the President feels very strongly.  So I think you can continue to expect the administration to work closely with Senator Warren in pursuit of issues like this that have a direct impact on middle-class economics.

But you are asking me about a situation in which there is a little bit of a disagreement about the benefits of opening up access to overseas markets.  The President is determined to ensure that whatever kind of agreement is reached, if we’re able to reach one with countries in the Asia Pacific that it would clearly be in the best interest of American workers, American businesses and the American middle class. 

And what we have asked, even for people like Senator Warren who have expressed at least a little skepticism about the deal, we’ve have asked them to try to keep an open mind; that right now she is being harshly critical of an agreement that has not actually been reached or signed. 

And she certainly is somebody who has her own opinion on these issues, as she should, but this is the case that we’re making to Democrats and Republicans in Congress to take a look at the agreement.  And particularly somebody like Senator Warren who shares the President’s commitment to middle-class economics, I think the President has earned and is entitled to the benefit of the doubt.  Once we have an agreement to show to members of Congress, that if they take a look at the core priorities around which we’re negotiating, that she and others will get a sense that this is what the -- that the President clearly believes this is in the best interest of the American middle class. 

But look, we anticipate that there are a lot of Democrats who are not going to agree with the administration on this.  And so far, Senator Warren has chosen to align herself with that camp, and I think that’s not at all surprising to anybody who has been following American politics over the last few decades.  But it's why we insist on trying to work in bipartisan fashion with Democrats and Republicans to advance trade promotion authority through the Congress.

Q    Does the President have a reaction to the new Congressional Budget Office director that’s been named?  What’s the President’s take on that? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that the White House continues to believe that the CBO plays an important role in the legislative process, and we value that organization’s objective non-partisan analysis.  So certainly, we here at the White House congratulate Keith Hall in his appointment, and look forward to working with him.  But it is not our practice to comment on congressional personnel decisions.  Even if it sounds like I probably just did.  (Laughter.)

Q    And finally, has the President seen the dress, does he have an opinion as to whether it's white or black?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to him about that, specifically.  But I did compliment my colleague, Jen Friedman, on her white and gold outfit today.  (Laughter.)

With that, let’s go to the week ahead -- (laughter) -- quickly.

On Monday, the President will meet with members of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing to discuss their recommendations on how to strengthen community policing and strengthen trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. 

On Tuesday, the President and First Lady will deliver remarks at the White House about expanding efforts to help adolescent girls worldwide attend and stay in school.  These efforts will build on the investments we have made and the successes we have achieved in global primary school education by elevating existing programs in public and private sector partnerships. 

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the President is planning to attend meetings at the White House. 

And then, on Saturday, the President and First Lady will travel -- I think as many of you know -- to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches.  This visit will also highlight the President and his administration’s overall efforts to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And we’re going to have some additional details about the President’s travel to Alabama early next week. 

So with that, I wish you all a good weekend. 

END
2:30 P.M. EST