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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/11/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:32 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It's nice to see you today.  Let me do a quick thing at the top and then we'll get to your questions.

Over the course of the day today -- and this is a continuation of activity that has taken place across the week -- the President and his team have worked hard to amplify the middle-class economics theme that was laced throughout the President’s State of the Union address.  And that seems in pretty stark contrast to the priorities that we've seen from Republicans on Capitol Hill over the last few weeks -- from Republican senators getting together and writing a letter to the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or try to play politics with funding for the Department of Homeland Security, or even engaging in an effort to convince governors across the country to not cooperate with our efforts to fight climate change.

The President’s priorities, however, are quite clear and it is focused on an effort to expand opportunity to the middle class.  And that strategy has yielded some benefits already.  We've seen that in the latest jobs report that was released the end of last week that over the course of the last 12 months our economy has created more than 200,000 jobs in each of those months.  That's the first time that we've had a streak like that in 37 years.  And that's an indication that this strategy of focusing on the middle class is paying off.

The point of all this is that we're doing a lot of that today.  This afternoon, the Vice President will be giving remarks at the Hamilton Project Policy Forum at the Brookings Institution on expanding employment opportunities for the middle class.  Also this afternoon, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, will be delivering a speech at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.  He’ll be discussing the President’s FY2016 budget proposals and talk about how we can strengthen our middle class and support hardworking families -- while ending the harmful cuts known as sequestration -- that actually strengthen our economy and improve our fiscal outlook.

I'd also commend to your attention an op-ed that ran in the Wall Street Journal also this morning from the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman.  The headline of that op-ed was, “The Ingredients for Getting the Middle Class Back on Track.”

So what you see here is a pretty concerted effort by this administration to prioritize our policies that will expand economic opportunity for the middle class.  And that stands in pretty stark contrast to the priorities that are being displayed by our Republican friends on Capitol Hill.

So with that, Nedra, why don’t you get us started with questions today.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I’d like to jump to a few issues in the news today and leave the follow-ups to my colleagues here.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  I’ll try to keep up.  (Laughter.) 

Q    First, the helicopter crash off the coast of Florida -- is there any indication of what might have caused that?

MR. EARNEST:  Nedra, let me start by saying that the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were killed in this accident that occurred, apparently, overnight.  I can tell you that this morning the President placed telephone calls to Major General Joe Osterman and Major General Glenn Curtis.  General Osterman is the Commander of Marine Special Operations.  General Curtis is the Commander of the Louisiana Army National Guard. 

In those telephone conversations, the President expressed his condolences to the families, fellow servicemembers, and communities of the seven Marines and four Army National Guardsmen from Louisiana who were involved in this tragic incident.  The President reassured the commanders of the nation’s deep appreciation for the many sacrifices that our men and women in uniform and their families make to protect and defend our country.  The President also expressed confidence that there would be a detailed and thorough investigation into this incident and what caused it.

Q    And how does the President view the Iranian-backed militias that seem to be taking back Tikrit today?  General Dempsey was, in testimony, expressing concern about whether Iran’s involvement could eventually further destabilize Iraq.  Does the President share that concern?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, first and foremost, it’s important to recognize that this is an Iraqi operation.  This is an operation that was undertaken at the direction of Iraqi military leaders and in consultation with Iraq’s political leaders, including the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mr. Abadi. 

As this military operation was being organized, the Iraqi leadership, as they should, took great care to ensure that this would be a multi-sectarian effort. And we do see the involvement of Iraqi security forces; we also see the involvement of some Sunni forces that are located inside this province of the country.  That’s an indication that there is clear follow-through on Prime Minister Abadi’s commitment to unifying that country, his diverse country, to face down this threat posed by ISIL. 

And a commitment to that unified effort is something that we want to see not just in the political leadership, but also in the execution of this military operation.  And Iran’s involvement in this military operation should not change that in any way.  We have been clear, and Prime Minister Abadi has been clear, that this military operation should not and will not be used as an excuse for exacting sectarian revenge.  The Prime Minister has been clear, and he’s said publicly that the operation should prevent the abuse of civilians at all costs, and needs to abide by international norms, avoid fueling sectarian fears, and avoid promoting the sectarian divides that have actually weakened Iraq over the last several years.

There’s no doubt that this Tikrit operation is a major front in the fight against ISIL, and we are pleased to see that Iraqi forces have been advancing, and we are aware of reports that ISIL fighters are actually withdrawing from the area in the face of this offensive from Iraqi security forces. 

We’ve also seen the pressure that’s being applied to ISIL forces in this area has caused some ISIL forces to even desert their posts.  And there are reports that commanders, ISIL commanders are actually resorting to executing their own troops to prevent them from deserting.  This is an indication of the significant pressure that’s being applied.

The other thing that I would note -- and this is also a welcome development -- is that we have seen the positive input of Grand Ayatollah Sistani -- this is a leading Shiite cleric in Iraq -- who has urged the Shiite militia that’s involved in this operation to act with restraint as they advance.  And again, he is also mindful that this military operation should not be used as an excuse to exact sectarian revenge.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that we are pleased that this operation seems to be advancing.  That’s a positive development.  But we want to continue to make clear that it's the priority of the United States and our coalition partners -- that it needs to continue to be a priority of Prime Minister Abadi and other leaders in Iraq to ensure that this is an operation that advances their efforts to unify that country to take on ISIL.

Q    On the Islamic State AUMF, Senator Corker opened the hearing today by noting that not a single Democrat in Congress has signed on to the President’s proposal.  Is the President doing anything to try to line up support, or does he really feel like this is out of his hands now that he’s made that proposal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nedra, you’ll recall that before the administration even sent language up to Capitol Hill that there were a substantial number of conversations, including at the presidential level, with Democrats and Republicans in the Congress about what language they would like to see included in an Authorization to Use Military Force against ISIL.

We certainly welcome the engagement that we’ve seen from Congress.  The scheduling of this hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is one example of that engagement.  This ultimately is a legislative process that should be driven by members of Congress to weigh in on this matter. 

The President believes that having Congress participate in this by signaling their support for the President’s strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL would be a positive development; that it would send a clear message to the American people that the country is united, it would send a clear message to our allies and coalition partners that the United States is united behind this strategy, and, just as importantly, it would send a clear message to ISIL and even people who are contemplating joining ISIL that the United States is determined and united behind a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy that organization.

Q    And finally, we’ve heard now from Secretary Clinton on her emails, and I wonder if you can update us on whether, in addition to her public statements, she’s given any explanation to the President or spoken to him about it.

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not aware of any conversations between President Obama and Secretary Clinton in the last couple of weeks.  Okay? 


Q    I'm going to follow up on the last one that Nedra asked. 

MR. EARNEST:  Okay. 

Q    Is the President or the White House concerned that Secretary Clinton deleted tens of thousands of emails that she would have sent while she was Secretary of State?

MR. EARNEST:  It's my understanding, based on what Secretary Clinton has said, is that she was describing personal emails, and that she went through her personal email system to ensure that all of the personal emails that related to her official role as the Secretary of State were properly transferred to the custody of the State Department, so that they could be properly maintained and archived and actually used in response to legitimate requests from the public and from Congress.  And I understand that the State Department has already taken steps to use that material to respond to congressional inquiry. 

But, frankly, the Secretary’s handling of her own personal email and the maintenance of her personal email inbox is something that I'm not going to comment on and not particularly interested in.

Q    But, I mean, human error could occur when deleting emails.  Isn’t there a possibility that she may have even not deliberately deleted some emails that would have been related to the administration, would have been related to her government job?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’d refer you to Secretary Clinton’s team for the details on the process that they undertook to review a substantial number of emails, to send 55,000 of them to the State Department to ensure that they could be properly catalogued and maintained and archived, used in responses to legitimate requests from the public.  That’s consistent with the requirements of the Federal Records Act. 

Q    So you’re not concerned about the deletion of other emails that --

MR. EARNEST:  Again, when you describe other emails you’re talking about emails related to her personal business -- at least that’s the way that she has described them.

Q    Deleted the ones that she hasn’t submitted to State, in any case.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but again, deleted emails that she said were personal in nature and not related to her official work.  And again, it was her responsibility and the responsibility of her team to make that determination and to conduct that review.
Nobody has marshalled in the evidence that I’ve seen at least to indicate that they have fallen short of what they said they did. But if you have questions about that process you should direct them to them.

Q    You’ve talked about the President’s emailing habits and his address.  Can you clarify, is the email address that he uses a .gov address?

MR. EARNEST:  Jeff, I'm not going to be in a position to talk about the President’s email address, for a variety of reasons, including and related to the security of that email address.

But what I will make clear, as I’ve done on previous occasions -- but you’re raising a -- this goes to an important point, which is the President does take very seriously the requirements that he is under, based on the Presidential Records Act.  That’s different from the Federal Records Act that governs the archiving of records of other government employees.  At the White House, there is a Presidential Records Act in place that has different requirements for the handling of records.  And I can tell you that all of the emails that the President sends are governed by that act and are properly maintained in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. 

Q    All right.  And lastly, on Ukraine.  What does the announcement this morning about the non-lethal aid to Ukraine mean about the President’s decision about lethal aid?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let’s do the first part first.  There was an announcement from the administration today that an additional $75 million in military assistance would be provided to the Ukrainian military by the United States.  This is a continuation of military assistance that has already been provided by the United States -- some $100 million or $120 million in assistance has already been provided to the Ukrainian military and this is obviously a substantial supplement. 

That assistance includes a wide variety of things.  It includes radios and secure communications equipment.  It includes some unmanned aerial vehicles that can assist in the defense and protection of Ukrainian forces and will significantly enhance their communication and command-and-control capability.  The assistance also includes counter-mortar radars that provide warning and protection against mortar and artillery fire. And it also includes significant medical equipment, including first aid kits, medical supplies and military ambulances.

And I think this is reflective of the partnership that exists between the United States and Ukraine, and is consistent with our commitment to supporting Ukraine as they face this destabilizing threat on their eastern border.

As it relates to the ongoing questions about providing lethal support to the Ukrainian military, we've talked quite a bit, and the President has -- more importantly, the President has talked quite a bit about the consequences of doing that.  The President is continuing to watch the efforts by both sides to implement the agreements that were reached in Minsk, both back in September but also last month. 

And we do continue to have concerns about the commitment of the Russians and Russian-backed separatists to live up to the commitments that they made in Minsk; that there is still evidence that Russian military personnel are fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists.  There continues to be evidence that Russia is continuing to transfer weapons and materiel across the border into Ukraine in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.  And there are continued reports that Russian-backed separatists are preventing OSCE monitors from getting access to those areas of the country that are necessary to verify compliance with the Minsk Implementation Plan.

So we do continue to have concerns about the commitment of Russia and the Russian-backed separatists living up to that agreement, and that failure on their part only puts Russia at greater risk of facing additional costs.  And it does leave open this question about providing additional military assistance to the Ukrainian military.


Q    Just to follow up on that --


Q    I understand that you believe that no matter what kind of assistance you give to the Ukrainians, Russia, if it wanted to, could take over in two weeks.  Do you think that giving lethal aid to the Ukrainian government would cause Russia to do something that they’re not doing now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are a couple of consequences that we have talked about of providing additional lethal military assistance to the Ukrainian military.  The first is that it's likely, I think almost by definition, to lead to greater bloodshed.  And the fact is our engagement here and our support for these ongoing diplomatic negotiations is that we're trying to avoid greater bloodshed.  So that is one thing that the President is mindful of. 

The second is that the President is mindful of the fact that there is not a military solution to this problem; that it is unreasonable to suggest that the United States would be able to provide enough military support to the Ukrainian military that they could overwhelm the military operations that are currently being backed by Russia.

And I guess the third thing is that it could result in some escalation, that if the capability of the Ukrainian military substantially escalates that that could prompt an escalated response by the Russians and the separatists that they back.  And, again, that bloodshed is something that we’re trying to avoid and deescalate.  So the President is very mindful of the potential risk that’s associated with providing additional lethal military assistance to the Ukrainians.

Q    Well, you talk about raising the consequences for Russia if it doesn’t abide by its agreements, which you just said they’re not.  I guess, why not raise the consequences for them or the cost for them by making them take more casualties in their fight with Ukraine?  I mean, that’s what lethal military aid would do.  It would raise the price for Russia to continue to use aggression.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that is certainly one potential outcome. But, again, the goal here is to get the Russians to abide by generally accepted international norms when it comes to respecting the territorial integrity of another sovereign country.  And we are attempting to engage in a diplomatic process that would bolster support for that generally accepted international norm and deescalate the situation in Ukraine.  And more intense fighting between the two sides would lead to the opposite; would lead to greater escalation and more violence and bloodshed, and a temptation on the part of the Russians to more forcefully resupply Russian-backed separatists.

So, again, those are the risks associated with providing additional military -- lethal military support to the Ukrainians. And these are risks that the President has to weigh against a whole series of other factors. 

And I guess the other point that I want to make here is that there are other costs that can be imposed on Russia aside from just the military toll that could be taken on their forces.  Many of the costs that we’ve imposed thus far have been economic in nature; that by putting in place sectoral sanctions in close coordination with our European partners has had a strong and negative impact on the Russian economy.  There are all sorts of metrics that you can evaluate the devaluation of the Russian currency, the evidence of substantial private capital flight away from Russian markets, substantial downward revisions of Russian economic growth projections.  So there are a lot of ways that costs can be imposed, and the costs that we have imposed thus far have been substantial.  But they have not yet resulted in the kind of change in strategy that we’d like to see the Russian government make. 

Q    So is it fair to say that the diplomatic process and these economic sanctions have not succeeded yet?

MR. EARNEST:  They have not, because we continue to see the Russians act in a destabilizing fashion in Ukraine and continue to fall short of the commitments that they clearly made in the context of their conversations with the Ukrainians, the Germans and the French.  So we do have continued concerns about Russian behavior in eastern Ukraine.  And it is why the potential of increased costs only goes up.


Q    Would you say, based on what Secretary Clinton said yesterday, to the satisfaction of the White House, this matter is closed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, ultimately I think it will be up to all of you to make your own determinations about sort of how Secretary Clinton has resolved this matter.  As it relates to compliance with the Federal Records Act, Secretary Clinton and her team say that they have taken all of the personal emails that were related to her official business as the Secretary of State and provided them to the State Department so that they could be properly archived and maintained.

There’s ongoing work there to process those records and make sure that they’re properly stored, to make sure that they can be properly provided to Congress in response to requests.  I know that some of that work has already been done because some of those records have already been provided to Congress.  There also is work underway at the State Department to comply with Secretary Clinton’s request that those emails be made public.  So there’s ongoing work on this matter.

So I guess the fact that people are still working on it might be an indication that this is still going on.  But this is work that we believe is important --

Q    Is the White House satisfied with the answers that Secretary of State Clinton gave yesterday?  And would it consider that approach to emails a model for other Cabinet Secretaries?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, I think we’ve been really clear about the guidance that we have offered to all agency employees, from Cabinet Secretaries on down.  And that guidance has been clarified in recent years, particularly with the President’s signature on a piece of legislation at the end of last year that provided more specific guidelines for how personal email that relates to official business can be properly archived and maintained.  So those guidelines have been made clear, and they’ve been further clarified over the last couple of years as the President has taken steps to do exactly that.

Q    So she would not be a model?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, I think we’ve been very clear about what the guidance is, and that was true last week and it’s true this week, too.

Q    On Ukraine, can we conclude, based on the announcement today, that after repeated requests from the Ukrainians themselves, the publication of a report by people this administration take seriously on defense policy advocating lethal aid to the Ukrainians, that that issue is essentially resolved in the negative; this administration is never going to send lethal arms to the Ukrainians? 

Because it seems, after several months of them lobbying directly, other participants of this administration take seriously and the think-tank community here lobbying for that, and the administration announcing today it will not do that -- it seems very difficult to come up with a set of circumstances in which the administration would come to a different conclusion than it had repeatedly on this question and has again landed on today.  This administration is not going to send lethal arms to Ukraine, is it?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s not necessarily accurate.  The fact is the administration and the entire government continues to watch the situation in eastern Ukraine and continues to monitor Russia’s willingness to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the Minsk Implementation Plan.

Q    I’m taking seriously the answer you gave to Mara -- and I do.  What condition would change to change what you just described?  Russia will always be more militarily powerful.  The risk of escalation will always be there.  The threat that that would pose to a diplomatic resolution will never go away.  All the things you described in your answer to Mara appear to be baked into this situation.  None of them are going to go away. And I’d be curious if you believed they would go away under a circumstance other than what we have now.  So if all those things are going to stay the same, if they’re all risks that argue against providing lethal aid, can’t you just say this issue is settled?

MR. EARNEST:  I can’t, because the President, I think, in his own mind, is continuing to evaluate the situation in eastern Ukraine and continuing to assess the risk that’s associated with providing additional lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military -- that this is a situation that we continue to monitor.

And we’ve also been clear about the fact that as the Russians continue to fail to live up to commitments that they’ve made that the risk associated with additional costs being imposed on them also goes up.  So there are a number of risk assessments that have to be evaluated.

Q    But when you describe the risks, all on their side of the ledger, what other conclusion could they come to that you’re not going to do this?

MR. EARNEST:  That we’re not going to --

Q    Provide lethal aid.

MR. EARNEST:  The point is, Major, that the costs to them do go up as they continue to -- as these sanctions remain in place, that they have further bite the longer they’re in place.  And that is part of the risk assessment that the Russians themselves are doing.  They themselves have to evaluate, can our economy continue to take this hit as we interfere in eastern Ukraine.

So there is a risk assessment that’s being made on the other side, too.  So I’m not going to prejudge the outcome when we are in a situation where there are a whole set of risks associated with a possible U.S. action, but there are also a large number of risks associated with Russia continuing to move down the path that they’re on right now.

Q    One last thing on Iran.  Is the administration offended by the timing of the Tom Cotton letter or its actual contents?  Because in their defense, Republicans say all we’re saying in that letter is what legislation that other Democrats have signed onto incorporates, which is an idea that at some point, this should be brought to the Congress for its review.  Now, lots of Democrats have signed onto that.  They’ve peeled off in the last week; I understand that.  So is this a question of timing?  Or do you have a genuine sense of offense about the entire concept of Congress reviewing a deal?

MR. EARNEST:  I think based on the reaction that we’ve seen across the country, and based on the reaction we’ve seen from Capitol Hill from both Democrats and Republicans --

Q    That's actually --

MR. EARNEST:  I know, but let me finish.  Based on the reaction that we’ve seen from editorial boards across the country, based on the reaction that we’ve seen from members of Congress in both parties in reaction to this letter, there are a long list of reasons why this letter was the wrong thing to do.

It does come at an inappropriate time; that attempting to sandbag the President of the United States in the midst of negotiations that he’s engaged in not just with Iran but with our international partners is not just unprecedented but inappropriate.  It does undermine the President’s ability not just to conduct foreign policy but to advance our national security interests around the globe.  That’s the first thing.

The other thing that I would say, the other concern that we have -- and again, it’s a long list -- is that this is the wrong strategy; that the strategy that’s being advocated by Senate Republicans is to essentially throw out the window the prospect of trying to resolve the situation around the negotiating table, which means that they are leaving only a military option on the table. 

And what I described earlier this week as a rush to the military option is not consistent with the best interests of American foreign policy.  It certainly is not the way to inspire the confidence of our allies, both in the region and around the world.  And it is consistent with the kind of decision-making that was made in the previous administration that was so roundly condemned and criticized by people all across the country.

Q    -- he says the option is more sanctions.

MR. EARNEST:  And what I have made clear, and what others have made clear, too, is that, A, a deal has not even been produced.  So you have critics of this approach who are criticizing a deal that doesn’t yet exist.  The President himself was on television on your network over the weekend indicating that the likelihood of even achieving a deal was less than 50 percent.  So that’s the other part of the timing of this that is suspect. 

The other thing that I’ll point out -- and again, this is something that has also attracted a lot of criticism -- the signatories to the letter were 47 Republicans.  This isn’t a bipartisan letter.  And I think that on its face is an indication that this is an effort to inject partisan politics into a very serious foreign policy matter, something that the President has identified as one of the most significant foreign policy challenges facing the country right now. 

And I will say that that's also why I was surprised to see that while there may be some Republicans who suggest that the letter was something that was sent on principle, that there are at least two anonymous Republican aides on Capitol Hill who, separately, described the letter as “cheeky.”  And another individual who was described as a top Republican Senate aide indicated that the President -- or that the administration “has no sense of humor about this.”  They’re right; I don't think this is a particularly amusing matter.  We're talking about the nuclear weapons program of an adversary of the United States that on a daily basis violently threatens our closest ally in the region.  So it's not a laughing matter.  And it's not one that this administration takes lightly, despite the comments of some of these Republican aides.


Q    Josh, did the White House know that Hillary Clinton was deleting 30,000 emails that she sent as Secretary of State?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, I can tell you that I was not aware of the personal email habits of the Secretary when maintaining her personal email inbox. 

Q    I'm not talking about her habits while she was Secretary; I'm talking about what she did just a few months ago, which was deleting 30,000 emails that she sent as Secretary of State without anybody determining except for her and her team, and her and her team alone, that those emails didn’t need to be part of the public record because they had determined they were strictly personal.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Jon, this was a decision that was made by Secretary Clinton and her team.  And what we're talking about are emails that she described as personal that relate to what she described as a variety of her own personal arrangements, whether it's her daughter’s wedding or the personal things of that nature. 

So, again, I'd refer you to Secretary Clinton’s team about the decision that they made on that, but, again, we're talking about a decision that she has made related to her own personal email, and that falls outside the purview of the federal government.

Q    Can the White House assure the public that Secretary Clinton deleted only personal email and she didn’t delete any email that would relate to official business?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, the White House did not review Secretary Clinton’s personal email.  Her team did.  And her team was the one who was responsible for reviewing those emails and making sure that the 55,000 or so of them that related to her official work as the Secretary of State were turned over to the State Department.  And the White House does have an interest in making sure that those personal emails that are related to her official work are properly archived and maintained, that the State Department is properly using them to respond to legitimate congressional inquiries.  And that is what the State Department is doing.

Q    So you have no way of knowing whether or not she deleted official -- emails related to official business?

MR. EARNEST:  The federal government did not review Secretary Clinton’s personal email.  Secretary Clinton’s team did that.  And so if you have questions about the process that they went through to catalog that email then you should direct them to them.

Q    I have questions about whether or not the White House took any steps or has any way of knowing whether or not official records were destroyed.  And I guess the answer is no, you have no way -- all you can do is all we can do, which is take her word for it.  Is that correct?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, it is not the practice of this administration to review the personal email of federal government employees.  I don’t know of any previous administration that’s done that either. 

Q    Do you know of another employee of this administration that has used only personal email for official business?  Anybody?  Not even a Cabinet Secretary -- do you know of any employee of this administration that has had the same email arrangement that Hillary Clinton had?  I mean, is there a single employee --

MR. EARNEST:  Individual agencies are responsible for maintaining their individual email system. 

Q    But do you know of anybody in this administration that operated the way she did?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, it is a responsibility of individual agencies to determine how their email records will be maintained and archived.  And so for questions about their email habits, you can certainly consult with individual agencies about the habits of their employees. 

Q    Our friends at the Associated Press are suing because they’ve had a number of Freedom of Information Act requests that have gone to the State Department that have been unanswered.  This President, over and over again, has said that he has the most transparent administration in American history.  Did the State Department live up to that standard under Hillary Clinton of being the most transparent in American history? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, I don’t have them in front of me, but I can get you the metrics about the way that this administration has substantially improved the Freedom of Information Act request process, both in terms of the volume of process -- volume of requests that are processed, but also in terms of our track record of making information publicly available that was previously withheld.

Q    I have some numbers here, some metrics for you.  From the State Department, according, again, to our friends at the AP, the State Department takes 450 days to turn over records that it considers complex requests.  That is 30 times longer than what the Treasury Department takes, and seven times longer than how long the CIA takes on similar requests.  Does that live up to the standards of transparency that this President has set out -- 450 days to get an answer?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll get you some additional metrics about the performance of this administration when it comes to improving the process for making requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Q    Okay.  But my question is more specific than that.  It’s did the State Department live up to this administration’s -- to this President’s promise of transparency?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, for questions about how the State Department processed their FOIA requests, I’d refer you to them. And I’ll see if there’s some additional metrics that we can provide you on that. 

Q    But my question -- just to be specific, so they’re going to go back from -- my question is not how the State Department did it.  My question is whether or not the White House, the President, is satisfied with how the State Department has done that.

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  But at the root of your question is how the State Department processed those requests, and I’d refer you to them. 

Q    Okay, but it was the President’s promise, it wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s promise. 

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  Do you have anything else, Jon?

Q    No.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay. 


Q    I have a couple questions to follow up on the email problem.  As you know, it's been recorded that the Attorney General has three aliases that he uses for email.  And we know that the former EPA Administrator used aliases.  We know that Secretary Napolitano said she never used email.  We know that Secretary Clinton used her personal email.  So my question is a White House question, and that is, to keep up with this tangle, did the White House, through the Chief of Staff or any other official -- the Counsel’s Office -- keep a menu of email addresses so that the White House, the West Wing could communicate with the Cabinet?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I want to clarify one part of your question.  It’s important for your reporting to reflect the fact that each of those agencies have confirmed that those aliases did not affect the ability of the agency to respond to legitimate congressional requests or legitimate requests under the Freedom of Information Act.  Essentially the lawyers who are responsible for responding to those requests were aware of the proper email address of the Cabinet Secretary and could ensure that those records were searched and produced consistent with the requirements of the law.

And I guess if you’re asking, does the White House know of the correct email address for every Cabinet Secretary, the answer to that is yes.

Q    So the exception to what you just said as way of an answer would be Secretary Clinton, right?  The exception to being able to respond to FOIA requests, Freedom of Information requests, for her was hampered at the State Department because they did not have access to her material, correct?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but that’s different, because you asked about aliases that existed on government networks.

Q    I know.  I’m asking a follow-up question.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  But just for those who are -- there are some key facts that I feel obligated to repeat because they’re not included in your question, and that’s fine, but that’s what I’m going to do.

Q    I’m in a hair-split because you made a generalization and now I want to be specific.  So now we’re getting to Secretary Clinton.  So the State Department could not respond to Freedom of Information requests because they did not possess her material, except for the ones that would have been copied and that they could retrieve from someone else who was a recipient, is that right?

MR. EARNEST:  Which Secretary Clinton described as the vast majority of the emails that she sent as the Secretary.

Q    So as we know, because of the lawsuit that AP and others are contemplating and AP just executed, and because of the pending request, we know that the State Department responded to some of those Freedom of Information requests by saying that they did not have material responsive to the request.  But they did not have the material at all, right?  In some cases, they did not have the material.  So my question to you is, does the President -- is he requesting that the State Department go back and expedite all those pending FOIA requests where they got responses that they did not get material because the material was not in their hands, it was in her server?

MR. EARNEST:  What you’re asking is a legitimate question, but it has to be directed to the State Department.  Ultimately, the request of --

Q    No, I asked about what the President is directing.  Does the President want that?  That’s what Jon is asking you.  Does the President want that?

MR. EARNEST:  And what I’m saying, Alexis, is you’re asking me a very detailed and specific question, but not an illegitimate one, about the State Department’s efforts to fulfill FOIA requests.  And so I’m not steeped in the details of that process. I will look and see if I can get some additional information about it.  But ultimately you’re more likely to get a fruitful answer to this question is you contact the agency that’s responsible for handling it.

Q    Okay.  And I have one other follow-up.  In the summer  -- or when the State Department felt that it wanted to retrieve this information, they executed letters to four previous Secretaries of State, right, for personally possessed material.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s my understanding, yes.

Q    My question to you is did anyone in the White House direct or instruct that those letters be sent out as a way to retrieve that material, or was anyone in the White House at that time consulted about the problem?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of all the conversations between the State Department and the White House.  I know that responding to FOIA requests and ensuring that these records are properly maintained is the responsibility of the agency and it’s one that the State Department takes seriously.  And I think that’s evidenced by the fact that they sent the letters that you just described.

I would not rule out that there may have been a conversation between a lawyer or two about the fact that those letters were being distributed.  I’m not aware of any of those specific conversations.  And I’m confident that this is a process that is run and maintained by State Department lawyers. 

Q    Can we get any additional information about the communications that went back and forth between the Department and the West Wing about consulting with four previous Secretaries of State?  That’s not a normal thing.  That’s not common. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you mean sending letters to other Secretaries of State, or conversations between State Department lawyers and White House lawyers?

Q    For the Department to say, we have this problem, we want to address this problem this way.  Usually there’s conversation that goes back and forth.  You just said that’s possible.  Can we get more information about that?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll see if I can provide additional information on that.  I’m not going to guarantee, though, that I can provide a lot of insight into conversations between attorneys on this matter or, frankly, any other.  But I’ll see what I can do on that.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  On the ATF shelving its armor-piercing ammo ban, I know last week you called this a common-sense step that could protect law enforcement.  There was a wave of pushback from the gun rights groups.  And I was wondering if that’s what changed the administration’s thinking on this and led to the decision to shelving?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the decision on this matter was made by the ATF, so I’d encourage you to check with them. 

Q    Well, does the White House have a response to Democrats on the Hill who have accused the administration of caving to pressure from the gun lobby?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, the President’s commitment to putting in place common-sense rules that will protect Second Amendment rights, but also prevent those who shouldn’t have firearms from getting them, is as strong as ever.  And the President is committed to that effort, and I think the President’s own personal conviction on this matter has been pretty evident to those who have watched his public comments on this matter. 

But as it relates to this specific decision, I’d refer you to the ATF because it was their decision that was made as it relates to implementing this rule and considering whether or not that balance was appropriately struck. 


Q    Josh, does the President and this White House trust Hillary Clinton when she says that of those 30,000 -- I’ll put it even more simply -- does the President trust Hillary Clinton when she says that all 30,000 of those emails were personal, none work related?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Peter, there has not been any evidence that’s been produced to raise any doubts about that. 

Q    But no one can produce evidence because she deleted them.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess the point is, Peter, that it is the responsibility of a government official, in this case Secretary Clinton, to ensure that all of the personal email that related to her official government work was properly maintained by the State Department.  And that information has been provided to the State Department, and the State Department is doing what they should in terms of ensuring that the information is properly categorized and maintained and provided in response to legitimate requests from either Congress or the public.

Q    So, very simply, does the White House -- yes or no -- does the White House trust that Hillary Clinton did what your expectation is that she should have done?

MR. EARNEST:  And, Peter, the answer that I would say is that there is no evidence that’s been marshaled thus far to demonstrate that there should be a lack of trust in that regard.

Q    Very simply, does the White House consider emails about an employee’s family foundation to be personal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, that is a decision that Secretary Clinton and her team made as they were reviewing the emails.

Q    For any employee.  For any employee that may have a family foundation or a family organization of any --

MR. EARNEST:  So any federal employee that might have one?

Q    There are many others.  (Laughter.)  But the point, very simply put though, is that -- I mean, do you consider a family foundation that deals with other companies that have conversations, interactions with employees of this administration, is that work-related or is that personal?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, you’ll have to consult with Secretary Clinton’s team about her personal emails and the content of them.

Q    Finally, I know you don’t want to speak specific to President Obama’s emails as President, but when he was the U.S. senator from Illinois did the President use a address?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  I don’t know whether or not he has.  But I know that this is a question that’s been asked of many members of Congress, including some who are making their views known rather pointedly on this topic.   I mean, I did observe that the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, one of the committees that’s responsible for monitoring this process, has on his official business card a email address. 

So while there are pointed and legitimate questions that have been asked of Secretary Clinton, I think many of those pointed and legitimate questions should be asked of those who are making the most direct accusations in this regard. 

Q    If you can just ask of your boss so we can have the record set of what he used when he was the U.S. senator. 

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  I’ll see if I can follow up on that. 


Q    Josh, thanks.  Forty-seven GOP senators signing that letter sent to the Iranian leadership -- does the White House consider that a violation of the Logan Act?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, I know that this is something that a lot of commentators have speculated on, including some with a lot more legal knowledge than I do.  For a determination like that, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.  It ultimately would be their responsibility to make that kind of determination.

But, again, I know that there’s been a lot of speculation about this, but I'm not aware of any conversations about the Logan Act and its relation to this specific matter that have taken place here at the White House. 

Q    Secretary Kerry today said that any deal would not be legally binding -- an executive agreement technically would not be legally binding.  Is that the proper read from the White House’s perspective?  And if so, to the American people who would say, well, then what are we doing, what should you say?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I would say is that the President will be expecting Iran to make very specific commitments and very serious commitments as it relates to limiting their nuclear program to only peaceful purposes, to coming into compliance with generally accepted international standards for a peaceful nuclear program, and submitting to a historically stringent set of inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement.  So we’re making very specific commitments that Iran will have to make in the context of these conversations.

Q    Well then is it fair to say that some GOP lawmakers, and maybe even Benjamin Netanyahu were right, that any deal could just sort of just go away as soon as the President leaves office?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  The administration has made clear that the whole purpose of these inspections is to ensure that Iran is living up to the commitments that they make in a deal, a deal that at this point has not yet been struck. 

Q    Right.

MR. EARNEST:  But the whole purpose of these historically intrusive inspections is to verify Iran’s compliance with the deal.  And if these inspections -- if Iran doesn’t coordinate or cooperate with the inspections, then the President and the international community would have the opportunity to take a whole range of steps.

If the inspections unearth evidence that Iran is not living up to the agreement, then the President and the broader international community will have a whole series of tools available to them for pressuring Iran, or taking steps to get Iran’s compliance. 

And that’s what’s important about all of this, is that even if a deal is reached -- and again, the President has said that it's less than 50/50 that a deal would be reached -- that even if a deal is reached and we do determine that over the course of a number of years that Iran doesn’t live up to any terms of the agreement, then we’ll be back in the situation that we are right now, which is that we’ll still have tools available in terms of additional sanctions that could be applied on Iran, and we’ll still have a military option at the table if it should come to that. 

The point that the President has made is that any sort of diplomatic opening that we have to pursue to try to resolve our concerns is one that’s worth pursuing because it actually will be more effective than the military option.  The military option is essentially the one of last resort. 

And the other two benefits of a deal that are worth noting here is, currently, the assessment of some experts is that Iran is only -- that Iran’s breakout period is only two or three months away from getting a nuclear weapon.  Now, I call it a breakout period because right now they’re not advancing toward a nuclear weapon, but if they decided to make the decision to go and pursue a nuclear weapon, they could get one in two to three months.  In the context of any agreement, we would ensure that that breakout period was significantly lengthened, that it would be lengthened to about a year. 

The other thing that we would do is by putting in place this historically stringent set of inspections, we would have a lot of access and transparency to Iran’s nuclear program.  And that would put us in a much better position to deal with any effort that Iran made to break out of the agreement and to develop a nuclear weapon.  We’d have more insight into their nuclear program, and we would actually put them farther away from their goal.

So the benefit here is that by reaching an agreement, if one can be reached, is we can put Iran farther away from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we can give the international community greater insight into their nuclear program, and yet we’ll still have all of the tools on the table, including the military option, available to use to ensure that Iran lives up to their commitments.

Q    Lastly, Secretary Clinton, is she the only one to your knowledge, to the White House’s knowledge, that actually had a server among Cabinet members during this administration?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, what I have said is that the individual agencies are responsible for maintaining their email systems and for maintaining those records.  I think a lot of you in this room have made calls to agencies to inquire about those agencies’ email systems.  So for questions like that, about how individual Cabinet members handle their email, I’d encourage you to contact the agencies that they lead. 


Q    Thank, Josh.  Acknowledging that State Department IT rules are different, could you walk us through what the rules and policies are for White House staffers getting email on their personal device?  Are they allowed to access their personal emails through their government-owned smartphones?

MR. EARNEST:  Byron, I can tell you that here at the White House -- again, thank you for noting that it’s different than individual agencies who are responsible for setting their own rules in this regard.  But here at the White House, we are not allowed to use government BlackBerries or government smartphones to access our personal email. 

I will tell you that at the beginning of the administration we were also not allowed to use our personal smartphones to access government email.  Since the beginning of the administration, though, however -- I believe it was in January of 2012 -- there is software that has been developed and is used by some White House staffers to, again, gain access to their official government email through their personal smartphone.  And there is a way that they can use that software to keep their personal email wholly separate from their work email.  But that is the system that we have in place here at the White House.  But, again, each agency handles this differently. 

Q    Given that the White House has made cybersecurity such a priority and an issue of concern recently, yet seem to have a Secretary of State that was running her own email server at her own home with sort of unknown security, and this is permitted but discouraged under the guidance from what you said, does there need to be different guidance?  Do their need to be stronger rules for dealing with situations like this with high-ranking Cabinet and government officials?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Byron, a couple things I would say about this.  The first is that we have seen over the years, since Secretary Clinton took office as a Secretary of State, that the guidelines for managing email have been updated and clarified across the administration.  The President has signed a couple of presidential memorandums -- memoranda with language clarifying exactly how these records should be maintained.  And you’ll recall that the end of last year, the President signed into law a piece of legislation that offered clearer guidance for agency employees about how they should ensure that government records created on their personal email can be properly archived and maintained.

So I guess the point is that those guidelines have been clarified since Secretary Clinton first took office.  And what has not changed, however, is this administration’s commitment to ensuring that everybody in the Obama administration lives up to the terms of the Federal Records Act.  And by providing all of her personal emails that relate to the conduct of official business, Secretary Clinton has done that.

Q    The White House has directed a lot of questions about IT rules at the agencies back to the agencies, so it seems there’s not a whole lot the White House knows about the internal IT practices of those agencies.  Can the White House still maintain the claim that it’s the most transparent administration in history, sort of given the questions that have come up about different agencies’ practices and rules?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  And the reason for that is that there are a large number of ways in which reporters and the public have access to the administration -- to the decisions that are made at the administration.  And everything from releasing WAVES records -- which is something that the previous administration had fought tooth-and-nail in the court system, that gives you insight into the people that come to the White House complex for meetings -- to trying to make the process of making a FOIA request more efficient, those are just two examples of how the administration has worked to make the federal government and the Obama administration much more transparent.

Q    And one last one.  Did the President email with any other Cabinet members at a private email or a personal email address?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t reviewed all of the President’s email, but the thing that I can assure you of is that every email that the President has sent as President of the United States, related to his official work as the President of the United States, has been properly maintained, consistent with the President Records Act.


Q    Will the President meet Raul Castro in Panama, when he is going to go to Panama?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry, say that one more time.

Q    Will the President meet Raul Castro when he is going to go to Panama in April?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t yet know the President’s itinerary for the Summit of the Americas.  I don’t know of any meeting like that that’s planned at this point.

Q    And on ISIS, do you have a reaction to the latest video involving the killing of a hostage and probably two French citizens, among them a kid who is 12 years old killing this hostage?

MR. EARNEST:  Laura, I have seen reports about the video; I haven’t seen the video itself.  But I can tell you that this is an abhorrent and unjustifiable action.  The apparent compelling of a child to execute another individual is but further testament of ISIL’s disregard for all human decency. 

I would note that ISIL chose to broadcast the video at this time that we’re also hearing more and more reports of internal dissent within its ranks.  We’re hearing more reports of individuals being executed for fleeing the front and attempting to defect.  We’re hearing foreign fighters return and tell harrowing tales of the time that they’ve spent with ISIL.  This is indicative of the broader pressure that ISIL is under right now, and that is part of the strategy that this administration has engaged in with our coalition partners.

And whether it’s the success that the coalition had in supporting Kurdish fighters as they took back Kobani, an operation that resulted in about 1,000 ISIL fighters being killed, we understand that those Kurdish fighters are continuing to advance across the countryside in Syria against ISIL.  There are ongoing operations by Iraqi security forces in places like Tikrit, which we mentioned earlier, but also in Fallujah and Kirkuk.  The latter two are locations where Iraqi security forces are being supported by coalition military airpower.

U.S. officials now estimate that ISIL has been rolled back by up to 25 percent of the territory that they previously maintained; that in at least 25 percent of those areas that were previously occupied by ISIL, ISIL forces no longer have freedom of movement in those areas.  And these aren’t just broad swaths of the desert that we’re talking about; we’re talking about populated areas where ISIL had previously essentially ruled.

This is an indication that the “degrade” component of the President’s strategy is working.  And that has led to increased dissension within the ranks.  It has led to ISIL commanders resorting to executing their own fighters to prevent them from deserting their positions.  And we are hearing more and more stories about individuals who return from their fight with ISIL to tell harrowing stories of that experience.  And that is an indication that we’re continuing to apply pressure to ISIL in a way that actually is succeeding in degrading their ability to wreak havoc in that region of the world.

Q    And this morning, Secretary Kerry said that ISIS is al Qaeda -- they just changed the name.  Do you agree with this statement?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, back over the summer when we were talking about why the 2001 AUMF would apply to the military operations underway against ISIL, we noted that ISIL’s roots extend back into al Qaeda, that they share the same ambitions of al Qaeda.  ISIL obviously deploys many of the same tactics that we’ve seen from al Qaeda.  And we have also seen that ISIL has tried to coordinate and even win over the allegiance of some al Qaeda-backed groups.  We saw this latest communication from ISIL talking about how al-Shabaab should align themselves with ISIL.  So that is an indication that we’re talking about groups that do have not just an historical affinity that dates back a number of years but that their ambitions and that their tactics are very similar.


Q    If the Iran issue is so important and so significant to national security and the future, as you’ve described, why not engage in these negotiations on a level that would lead to a treaty or something that is legally binding and that would require a vote in Congress?  Why not that level?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that, Michelle.  The first is, the negotiations that are underway seek very serious and firm commitments from the Iranians and would build in precautions in the form of historically intrusive inspections to ensure that Iran is living up to their commitments.  And to be clear, these are commitments that Iran would not be making just to the United States, but commitments that they would be making to our allies, like France and Germany and the UK, but also to our partners in these negotiations in Russia and China.

This is the international community that is unified as we confront Iran over its nuclear program and seek specific commitments from Iran to verify that their nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.  This would be a forceful commitment.  It’s consistent with other arrangements that the United States has used to advance our national security interests around the globe.  An agreement that’s similarly structured allows the United States to work with the broader international community to interdict weapons shipments -- illicit weapons shipments on the high seas.  There are commitments with the same amount of weight that are struck between the United States and our allies, like Korea and Japan, when it comes to basing agreements about keeping U.S. troops on their soil. 

These are agreements that are forceful because they relate to the ability of our men and women in uniform to do their jobs and to do them safely.  So this is an impactful, forceful commitment, and it’s consistent with the way that the President of the United States has advanced the interests of this country for generations now and it is appropriate to this matter as well.

Q    So if that’s enough and that would take care of it, in your view, so that Congress doesn’t need to vote on it --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is the one part of my answer that I want to follow up on, which is that the administration, despite the claims that are made by some in Congress, does acknowledge that Congress at some point will, by law, have to vote to remove the statutory sanctions that Congress put in place against Iran.  The real difference of opinion that we have with Congress is that the President does not believe that those statutory sanctions should be removed unless or until Iran has demonstrated over the course of a number of years that they’re actually living up to the commitments that they’ve made with the United States and the international community.

The Congress is suggesting that they should take a vote on these sanctions far earlier in the process, and the President doesn’t think that that’s wise.  The President thinks, frankly, that we should be tougher on Iran than that.

Q    Okay.  And we’ve heard from -- many in Congress have said that the administration hasn’t included them at all in its --

MR. EARNEST:  That is just not true.  There are a large number of conversations that have taken place between senior administration officials and members of Congress in both parties to keep them continually updated on the Iran negotiations.  And this is something that the President and his team takes very seriously.  The President understands that Congress needs to be a partner, and that is why we have gone to great lengths, even in a classified setting on a number of occasions, to keep them updated on the details of our ongoing negotiations with our international partners and the Iranians.

Q    Okay.  And you also were pretty descriptive in what the administration thinks of that letter that was sent.  Is there any indication that it has had an impact or a change on Iran’s view of the negotiations or their commitment going in as they continue?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know it’s had an impact on at least the signers of the -- at least one of the signers of the letter.  I saw that Senator McCain just last night said that it was maybe not the most effective thing that they could do.  So it certainly has had an impact at least on some of the individuals who have signed the letter, the reaction. 

We’ve also seen a number of other Republican senators, who had the wisdom not to sign the letter, say things that -- indicate that they didn’t think it was appropriate.  Both Senator Flake and Senator Collins said that.  We saw Senator Corker say that he did not think that the letter was something that was going to help get us to an outcome.  So we’ve seen a lot of Republican criticism of this letter.

We’ve also seen -- and we can get this around -- a large number of editorials from newspapers across the country condemning this letter.  What’s interesting about that is some of these editorial boards have previously been skeptical of the administration’s approach to Iran.  So the point is, it’s not just allies of the administration that are being critical of this letter and those who signed it; it’s even Republicans in Congress and even some editorial boards that have not previously been on our side when it comes to these talks.

But to take your question on more directly, our view of the most direct impact that this letter has had has been on our allies around the globe; that for years, our allies have dealt with the United States of America knowing that when it comes to advancing America’s national security interests around the globe, that that’s the responsibility of the President of the United States. 

And right now, that confidence on the part of our allies in the United States of America has been undermined by the partisan tactics of Republicans in the Senate.  And that is unfortunate, particularly when you’re talking about the generations of credibility that the United States brings to the negotiating table any time the President of the United States, regardless of who he is or has been, is there to represent the United States.  That people understand -- that countries around the world understand and, most importantly, our allies understand that when they make commitments with the executive branch of the United States of America, that they’re making commitments that the country is going to live up to.  And to have that undermined as a part of a partisan tactic by Republicans is damaging.

Mara, go ahead.

Q    Just, is it the White House belief that if this deal doesn’t happen, the sanctions regime -- which up until now has had cooperation from all sorts of people who usually aren’t cooperative, like Russia and China -- would fall apart, or in the Republicans’ view and Netanyahu’s view, the sanctions could just be ratcheted up if this deal doesn’t work?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is a good question and here is why:  If the negotiations do not yield an agreement, the international community will step back and evaluate why that agreement was not reached.  The fact of the matter is the United States and our international partners have, as the President described it, made a very reasonable suggestion to the Iranians, which is, if it’s true that your nuclear program only exists for peaceful purposes, then all we’re asking you to do is to comply with generally accepted international standards for that peaceful nuclear program, and submit to a set of very intrusive inspections to allow the international community to verify that.  That should be a reasonable thing if, in fact, it is true that Iran is only interested in a peaceful nuclear program.

If Iran rebuffs that deal, the international community will recognize that the reason that the talks did not succeed is because Iran was being so unreasonable.  And that means that they will support the international community, led by the United States of America, in placing additional pressure on Iran to get them to come to the negotiating table and actually engage in constructive negotiations.

And that is why you’ve heard the President say to our partners in Congress who have said that they want additional sanctions right now -- the President has said, well, let’s see if we can get an agreement by the end of March.  If we can’t, the international community will ascribe that blame to the Iranians, and will work with the United States of America to put additional pressure on Iran in the form of additional sanctions.  And that’s something that the President has said that he will seek.

The concern that exists now -- and this is another way, Michelle, to answer your question -- now this letter from 47 Republican senators accusing the President of not negotiating in good faith with the Iranian leadership, now you might have an excuse for some of our allies or some of our partners like Russia and China to say, well, the Iranians were a little unreasonable, but we saw 47 Republican senators in the United States of America stand up and throw sand in the gears of the diplomatic process, maybe the United States isn’t after all acting in as good a faith as they should to try to reach this agreement.

And that is another risk that’s associated with this letter; that the United States, because of the actions of these 47 Republican senators, does call into question the willingness of this country to negotiate in good faith.  And that would have a very detrimental impact on the success that we’ve enjoyed so far in building a genuine international coalition to confront the Iranians over their nuclear program.

So that has consequences not just for our alliances around the globe, but it actually does have consequences for our ability to resolve one of the most significant foreign policy threats to the United States of America.

Angela, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I want to touch on one other topic here -- trade.  With the TPP talks ongoing now in Hawaii, the AFL-CIO came out today and said that they’re going to suspend their PAC donations in favor of using that money to fight the administration’s trade efforts.  Will that make it harder for the White House to find Democratic support on the Hill for a fast track?

MR. EARNEST:  Angela, I had not seen that announcement from the AFL, but I will tell you that it’s not inconsistent with the view that we’ve articulated on a number of occasions, which is that we understand that there are some groups that have traditionally been aligned with the Democratic Party that are very skeptical of any sort of trade deal. 

But the fact is the President has made a firm commitment to both Democrats and Republicans that any sort of trade agreement that he signs on to will be one that he firmly believes is clearly in the best interest of American businesses and American middle-class families.  And that is not going to change.  And there may be some who are so skeptical of any sort of an agreement that they’re not willing to look at the details and will be instinctively and reflexively opposed to these kinds of agreements. 

The President is doing his best to persuade as many Democrats as he can, and some Republicans, to evaluate the agreement once it’s been produced, and to take a look at the details and evaluate for themselves what impact this would have on the country.  And we’re confident that if people do this, it doesn’t mean there’s going to be unanimous support for the agreement; there may be some people who arrive at a different conclusion.  The President, however, will be confident of the benefits that it has for middle-class families.  And the President is confident that a majority of the United States Congress will support it.

But that’s what we’re going to have to prevail upon people to do, which is to take a good, close look at the agreement once it’s been produced.

Thanks, everybody. 

1:42 P.M. EDT