Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/16/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
12:57 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the White House on this glorious Monday. I don't have anything at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, would you like to get us started?
Q Sure. Thank you. I have a couple questions on the report today on the Affordable Care Act -- 16 million Americans signed up since the law --
MR. EARNEST: Good place to start.
Q Well, I thought you were going to start with that. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I considered it, but given the late beginning here.
Q Given all the positive numbers in that report, why do you think it is that the debate over the Affordable Care Act is not settled?
MR. EARNEST: I think principally it’s because we've seen tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by the President’s political opponents to distort the facts about the true impact of the Affordable Care Act. So this is money, plain and simple. And what we have said is that the more that the American people understand the benefits that are associated with this law the more people will approve of it, or at least the more that the approval of this will show up in polls.
But frankly, we're not concerned about the numbers in the polls. We're concerned about the numbers that demonstrate the impact of this law. And whether it's 16 million people being -- uninsured people getting access to health care coverage since the law went into effect, that's a pretty good number. The decline in the overall insurance uninsured rate dropping 35 percent, that's a pretty good number. The historically low growth in health care costs since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, that's a good number, too.
So that's what we're monitoring, and that’s why the President has placed such a premium among members of his team on the implementation of this law. And we're only building momentum and we're certainly pleased about the progress that we've seen so far. But there continues to be a lot of work that needs to get done. And I think probably the best example of that that I can highlight for you is the continued resistance that we've seen in some quarters to the expansion of Medicaid.
There continue to be Republicans across the country who are blocking the expansion of Medicaid in a way that literally prevents individuals in their states from getting badly needed health care coverage that would be 100 percent paid for by the federal government. And for the life of me, I can't understand why anybody would reach that conclusion. But some Republicans in this case are quite literally putting their political ambition against the lives of some people in their state. And that's a shame and that's unfortunate, but it's consistent with the kind of political opposition that we've seen from Republicans to what in many cases is a pretty common-sense implementation of the law.
Q The report shows that those states that went ahead and expanded Medicaid are doing better in terms of covering uninsured people than those states that haven’t. Given what you just said about the Medicaid expansion, do you think the report will somehow encourage some of these other states to go ahead and get on board?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly hope so. And that's certainly what the data would show, that there is a positive impact on the health of citizens in these states when Medicaid is expanded. There certainly is a positive impact on health care providers in these states, because *Medicare [Medicaid] ensures that their uncompensated care costs are reduced. These are -- individuals who don't have access to health care, aren't able to pay their medical bills, automatically those bills are assumed either by the government or by those of us who are paying insurance premiums. But because of Medicaid expansion, you have a role for the federal government to step in and take care of some of those costs and make sure that these individuals are getting health care before their conditions get too bad.
The other thing that we’re seeing is we’re seeing that the costs to states themselves are alleviated by this as well. So whether it’s health benefits, benefits for the economy, or benefits for the bottom lines of these state governments, the impact of Medicaid expansion is very positive.
Q On another subject, we haven’t heard the White House respond yet to Senator McConnell saying yesterday that Loretta Lynch’s nomination may be delayed further.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly a disappointment that after 128 days since being nominated to be the next attorney general that Loretta Lynch, a professional, independent, career prosecutor, has not yet gotten a vote in the United States Senate. It’s an unconscionable delay. Ms. Lynch has submitted to more than eight hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She answered more than 600 written questions from senators, to say nothing of the countless other conversations that she has had in more private settings with individual members of the United States Senate.
She is somebody who has distinguished herself over the course of her career as a tough, fair, independent lawyer. She has developed strong relations with law enforcement because of that reputation. She is somebody who has successfully prosecuted terrorists who targeted the Federal Reserve Headquarters in New York as well as the New York City subway system. She is somebody who has gone after public corruption and has brought charges against public officials in both parties. She is somebody who has secured billions in settlements from some of the world’s largest banks who are accused of fraud. And she has jailed some of New York’s most violent and notorious mobsters and gang members.
So this is somebody with a demonstrated track record of law enforcement who is up for the top law enforcement job in the country. There is not a single legitimate question that has been raised about her aptitude for this job. Instead, all we’ve seen is a bunch of political obstruction from Republicans that, again, does not speak well of Republicans’ efforts to run the Senate in an effective fashion and certainly not in a way that’s in the best interest of the country.
Q Senator McConnell laid out a timeline yesterday that suggests that it could be mid-April at the earliest before her nomination goes to the floor. Is that a timeline the White House would be willing to accept? And if not, what is the alternative or how do you get her nomination voted on earlier?
MR. EARNEST: Look, this is the responsibility of the United States Senate to vote on the President’s nominees. And as I mentioned before, there has not been a legitimate question that’s been raised about her aptitude for the office. So the delay is unconscionable; it’s unexplained.
And the thing that I think warrants mentioning here is you’ll recall that, as I pointed out, Ms. Lynch has been waiting 128 days to get a vote in the Senate. The reason that that time period has been so long is because the President nominated her back in November for this job. And at that time, we saw Senator McConnell himself say that Ms. Lynch, A, will receive fair consideration -- I think he’d be hard-pressed to say -- to make the case that he lived up to that promise -- but, B, he also said that her nomination should be considered in the course of -- or, I’m sorry -- should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.
So, essentially, you had Senator McConnell in the position back in November telling the President that he should delay submitting her up to Congress until Republicans were in the majority.
Now, I’ve gotten asked a number of times since November about whether or not the President trusts Senator McConnell, whether or not Senator McConnell and other members of the Republican leadership -- whether their word is good with the President. So Senator McConnell, back in November, was saying that her nomination should be considered in the new Congress. But yesterday, when Senator McConnell was asked on CNN about whether or not he was going to act quickly to confirm her, and to explain the delay, he said the nomination hasn’t taken that long if you consider when it was actually taken up, which was this year. He continued to say the Democrat majority back in December had a chance to work on the nomination earlier, but decided to delay until this year. He failed to point out that that delay was at his request.
And now he’s in the position of delaying her nomination even further despite the fact -- and I’ll say it again -- no legitimate question has been raised about her aptitude for this office, despite the fact that she has submitted to more than eight hours of testimony, and despite the fact that she has answered more than 600 written questions.
So there is no question that Republicans are playing politics with the nomination of the nation’s top law enforcement official, and it should come to an end.
Q Thanks. The State Department is saying after Kerry’s comments over the weekend that Assad should be included in talks to work out negotiations in Syria that they’re still keeping with their same policy, saying that he has to leave. So what motivation does Assad have to come to the table if he also would have to leave? And what pressure is being used to bring him into such talks?
MR. EARNEST: As the State Department has said -- and I had the opportunity to see some portion of Secretary Kerry’s interview; he was referring to the fact that the Assad regime will have to be at the negotiating table with elements of the moderate opposition to try to broker an arrangement about the political transition in Syria.
As far as Assad’s motivation goes, it’s difficult to understand his motivation. What would cause somebody to drop barrel bombs on innocent civilians? What would cause somebody to so disrupt the very fabric of their country that he would allow ISIL to run roughshod over significant portions of the country that he’s supposed to be governing, and slaughtering some of the citizens that he’s supposed to be serving?
So I have a difficult time trying to speak to his motivation. What I can tell you is the United States is going to continue to work actively with the international community to try to bring about some resolution to the political situation in Syria. But what is, I think understandably, at the top of our priority list is dealing with the threat that is posed by extremists who are capitalizing on the chaos inside Syria right now. There is no question that Assad is responsible for that chaos. It’s a reflection of his failed leadership that we see extremists who are attempting to establish Syria as a safe haven to carry out acts of terror around the globe, certainly around that region. And that’s why you’ve seen such a vibrant international response. And ultimately, all of this rests at Assad’s feet.
And we are optimistic that as we move forward we’re going to be able to succeed in working with the international community to limit this threat, to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL as an organization, to take out other extremists that may be operating inside Syria, and hopefully, that once we’ve been able to make some progress as it relates to the security situation, we can also make progress on the political situation inside Syria, too.
Q Okay. And on the cyclone that hit many South Pacific islands, we haven't heard from the President on that. What’s his response, and is he going to offer any kind of aid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that we offer our condolences to the people of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands, and Kiribati as they cope with the devastating impact of Cyclone Pam. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones.
In the wake of this cyclone, the United States government immediately issued disaster declarations from our U.S. embassies in the region. And we’re working closely with our NGO partners and other nations in the region on the most effective ways to deliver our relief response. The USAID has sent an assessment team to Vanuatu to coordinate our response. So for details on that ongoing effort I’d refer you to USAID and to the Department of Defense that often can provide logistical support in these kinds of situations.
Q I wanted to circle back on the Lynch nomination first. Mitch McConnell said that the reason that he’s holding it up is this human trafficking bill.
MR. EARNEST: I saw that, too.
Q Eric was asked about it last week and he didn’t really weigh in from you guys. And so what I’m wondering is whether you guys have a position on whether the bill should be passed as is. And specifically, there’s been a lot of controversy over an anti-abortion provision in the bill, whether that’s something that you guys would veto were it to pass the Senate.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, right now it doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate. Over the course of last month, we spent a lot of time talking about the efforts of congressional Republicans to pass funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and I observed at the time it was difficult to think of a more common-sense measure that should be able to earn bipartisan support in the United States Congress than funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
Well, sure enough, a month later, I think I’ve found a more common-sense measure that Democrats and Republicans should be able to get together to support, and that is an effort to concentrate federal resources to stop child sex trafficking. But you’ve got to hand it to Republicans that they’ve taken even a measure as common sense as that and turned it into a partisan controversy.
That is not a reflection of a flaw in the bill, it’s a reflection of inept leadership; that surely, Democrats and Republicans should be, in regular order, able to work together to advance legislation that would allow us to concentrate our efforts to focus on and crack down on individuals who seek to traffic in children. But yet, Mitch McConnell and Republicans in Congress have succeeded in turning this into a partisan controversy.
And again, I also noted last month that Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell got together the day after the election and they wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. The headline of the op-ed was “Now We Can Get Congress Going.” Well, hopefully, Leader McConnell can get Congress going on passing a piece of legislation that would stop child sex trafficking.
Q Well, how are they turning it into a partisan issue?
MR. EARNEST: Hold on. Justin, you have anything else?
Q You can --
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Mara, go ahead.
Q How are they turning it into a partisan controversy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now you’ve got a whole bunch of Democrats on the other side of the aisle saying they’re not going to support it because of a provision that Republicans have inserted in this widely supported bill. So again, if Republicans are going to be in a situation where they want to -- to use their words -- “get Congress going,” surely, they should be able to find a way to build bipartisan support for a bill that is going to counteract child sex trafficking.
Q Why isn’t that just Democrats and Republicans having their usual partisan difference over abortion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because you have a situation in which you have the Republican majorities setting the tone for what bills are going to come to the floor and what bills are going to be voted on and what bills are going to be passed. So the fact that Leader McConnell can’t build bipartisan support for a child sex trafficking bill I think is an indication that his leadership here in the majority is not off to a very strong start.
Q I just had two quick ones. There’s a hearing this week in the Senate on the crude oil export ban. This is something that you guys have said that you’re looking at before, and also, the idea here is that it would fund the Highway Trust Fund, which is obviously a priority for the President. So I’m wondering, has that evaluation process moved on at all? Do you have any feelings on whether or not you’d support this legislation?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update in terms of our position on this. These rules and regulations are administered by the Department of Commerce, so if there’s any change, it will be announced over there.
And as it relates to investing in infrastructure, we’ve put forward what we believe is the best way to do that. That is closing loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations, and using that money to invest in the kind of infrastructure that everybody benefits from. So we believe that that’s the best way to invest in our infrastructure. But if there are other ways that members of Congress have for trying to fund those efforts, then we’re open to considering them. But as it relates to this specific change, I’d refer you to the Commerce Department. There is no change in our policy at this point.
Q And then one last one on Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu said earlier today that if he were to be reelected, that he didn’t envision the creation of a Palestinian state during his time in office. I was wondering if you guys had a reaction to those comments.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, you've observed that I have worked assiduously to avoid commenting on the claims made on the campaign trail by American politicians. That rule, at least in this case, applies to Israeli politicians, too.
Q Well, this one, I mean, obviously has a pretty severe foreign policy implication for your guys’ hopes. It’s been a central kind of public -- Secretary Kerry and his time in the State Department. So --
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is true that our policy is that we believe that the situation should be resolved with a democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state. That is our policy. That is something that we are going to continue to work with the international community to achieve diplomatically.
We believe that a resolution along the lines of what I just described is clearly in the best interests of the Israeli people, our closest allies in the Middle East, but it also happens to be in the best interests of the Palestinian people, as well. And that's why we have worked with other countries around the world to try to reach this outcome, and that continues to be our policy.
Q Would the election of an Israeli prime minister who did not share that goal be a setback or a problem for that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the Israeli people will be responsible for choosing their next prime minister, and they’ll have that opportunity as early as tomorrow.
Q You promised to April.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. I’m sorry, April. I get confused with the whole Mara-Justin thing. (Laughter.)
Q I mess it all up. (Laughter.)
Q Okay, it’s okay. (Laughter.) So, Josh, I want to go back to the issue of Loretta Lynch. And you just said it was unexplained and unconscionable for this delay. But Democrats on the Hill are saying that her confirmation hearing is being held up, she’s being a political pawn and she’s being held up for this trafficking issue. What do you say about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Ms. Lynch was nominated 128 days ago. That is ample opportunity for the Senate to perform their responsibility to evaluate her candidacy for this job. And the fact is no one in that 128 days has raised a legitimate concern about her aptitude for the job.
The fact is she is an independent career prosecutor who has a long track record of success that spans three decades or nearly three decades. She is somebody who has been previously confirmed by the United States Senate to serve at the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. In that role, she successfully prosecuted terrorists. She successfully prosecuted gangsters and mobsters. She successfully prosecuted white-collar criminals in New York. She is somebody with a strong track record, and it’s what has earned her the strong support of law enforcement.
So there is no good reason that she has not been confirmed. I guess the one thing that differentiates this situation from the DHS funding situation is that if Congress didn’t act on funding for the Department of Homeland Security, then it would raise concerns about the Department of Homeland Security to plan for the future, to be able to pay their employees. In this situation we have the current Attorney General who is serving in office, and while this delay is unconscionable and I think very difficult for anybody on the Republican side to explain, we do take some solace in the fact in knowing that we have a very aggressive, a very capable Attorney General in Eric Holder who remains in that office, and is getting up early and is working late, and using every authority that he has in that office to do the right thing for the country.
Q Do you agree with other Democrats, again, on the Hill who are saying that she’s a political pawn? Her vote, her confirmation vote is being held up because McConnell is upset because trafficking did not happen when it was supposed to happen. Do you agree with the Democrats? Does this White House agree?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think I’ve described the scenario that I think is going on up there, and it’s unconscionable that a career prosecutor with a track record like this would be treated this way by Republicans in the Senate.
Q What’s the plan B? The vote is so close, it’s very tight. What’s plan B?
MR. EARNEST: There is no plan B. This is a career prosecutor who deserves strong bipartisan support, and she should get it.
Q All right, and one more question. On ACA and the numbers of -- the decline in the numbers of African Americans and Latinos who are uninsured.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. That’s the other aspect of the report that Darlene referred to at the top, that the decline in the uninsured rate that we saw after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is something that has been true across all race and ethnic groups as well. So the overall decline in the uninsured rate has been from a little over 20 percent to just above 13 percent.
We’ve seen an even larger decline in the African American community, that the decline has been 9.2 percentage points. That has allowed 2.3 million Americans to gain coverage. In the Hispanic community, the improvement has been even more substantial. The uninsured rate has dropped 12.3 percentage points, and 4.2 million Americans have gain coverage.
So we’ve very pleased about the impact that this has had in expanding coverage for more Americans. That’s good for the health care of these individuals, obviously. It’s also good for the bottom line of state and local governments. And it happens to be good for our economy as well.
Q Just a quick follow first on Loretta Lynch. You do have a plan B in that Attorney General Holder has said he would stay on. Is there any limit to how long he’s willing to stay?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Attorney General Holder is a dedicated public servant and he is somebody who has been extraordinarily effective in the office of the Attorney General and using the authority of that office to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights. And he’s going to keep doing that as long as --
Q As long as it’s necessary.
MR. EARNEST: -- as long as it’s necessary. And look, he is somebody who has a reputation for his work ethic. So he’s getting up early in the morning, he’s staying late at night, and he’s doing everything that he can do while he’s in that office to protect the American people.
Q I understand. He works hard. Do you find it a little ironic that the effect of the Republican delay on Loretta Lynch is to keep Attorney General Eric Holder, somebody Republicans in the House held in contempt, to extend his term as Attorney General?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s an interesting observation. I will tell you that despite his work ethic, I think Attorney General Holder is looking forward to the day when he can hand the keys to that office to Ms. Lynch. She is an extraordinarily qualified nominee. And while he is dedicated to his job and he’s going to work hard at it, he’s also looking forward to the day when she’s going to take that office.
Q So, on Iran, you’ve suggested to us repeatedly that the end of the month deadline was a real deadline, with the possibility of extending it is pretty remote, that it’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen. Would you really walk away from these talks if there is no deal by the end of the month? Or do you now see the possibility that it could be a slight extension?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I think the President has spoken to this, so I’d encourage you to look for the words that he used. But I can characterize them as we’ve been negotiating for more than a year, and the President and our international partners who are participating in this negotiation have been very clear about what our expectations are -- that we want to have resolution to the idea that Iran will come into compliance with the international expectations about their nuclear program and take the extraordinary step of submitting to historically intrusive inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement.
That is the best way for us to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. And that’s what will be part of a deal -- essentially, shutting down every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon and allowing intrusive inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. And if that’s not something that Iran is able to agree to after more than a year of negotiations, then, yes, the President and our international partners will walk away will seek to ratchet up the pressure on the Iranians.
But the fact of the matter is those negotiations are still underway and we should allow the negotiators the two weeks that remain to try to hammer out that political agreement. Now, what we’ve also said is that there are a lot of i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed in terms of the technical annexes, and we would expect for that to take a couple of more months, probably until the end of June.
Q Well, you’d have a second deadline for the details. But you still think in terms of the general framework agreement that the end of March is the real deadline and we’re highly unlikely that we see an extension?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, again, Jon, we’ve been doing this for more than a year and the President -- despite our commitment to protecting the confidentiality of the negotiations, we’ve been publicly clear about what our expectations are. And these are expectations that are not just held by the President; these are expectations that are held by our international partners as well.
Q How is this done, by the way, when you have a deal? Is there going to be a big ceremony? Are we going to see a handshake? I mean, what happens when this deal is done? What’s the choreography of it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a good sense of that. But I do know that the administration, as the Chief of Staff indicated in his letter to Senator Corker over the weekend, is committed to sharing information with Congress, as we have throughout this process, about what that deal looks like.
Q And then just one question on emails -- and I’m going to go beyond Hillary Clinton’s emails here. You saw late last week we learned that the State Department actually hadn’t been routinely saving State Department emails. I’m not even talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails -- State.gov emails. The Inspector General said that they have a special program for choosing which to be saved, that only about 60,000 out of 3 billion in 2011 were saved. Are you concerned? And I know you’re going to tell me this is up to the State Department, this is up to the agencies. But, I mean, if you have a situation where you have one of your departments routinely not preserving their emails, as clearly required by law, I would think -- wouldn’t there be an interest in the White House of kind of taking a look, having an independent look at this and say, fix this mess?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that. Let me slightly quibble with the premise of your question, that I think that the precise way to describe this is -- and the State Department has acknowledged this -- that they did not have a system in place to automatically save the emails. There is some evidence to indicate that at least some State Department employees were routinely saving their emails.
Q Yes, but a pretty small percentage, though.
MR. EARNEST: The point is that we do know that thousands of them have been provided to Congress in response to inquiries from Congress. But, look, what the State Department has also indicated is that they are seeking to update and improve this process and they’re working with the National Archives and Records Administration to institute a process that would make it automatic that those emails are saved and that is what they should do.
Q I’ve got a couple for you. First, the upcoming Afghanistan summit -- I asked you before whether Pakistan would have a seat at the table and I want to circle back on that. And then I want to ask you whether the President is going to use this summit to announce any changes to the timetable of the American withdrawal.
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, I still won’t have much information to share about possible Pakistani involvement in these talks. If we get greater clarity about that we’ll share that information with you.
As it relates to the President’s strategy for reducing our military footprint in Afghanistan, I can tell you that the President, as has been publicly reported, has been closely consulting with his national security team and with his commanders on the ground, as he has over the course of the last several years that this strategy has been executed, about the proper pace of that military drawdown. We do have military personnel that continues to serve in Afghanistan. They are there both to carry out some counterterrorism missions that don’t just protect the American people but also protect the military personnel in Afghanistan. They also are engaged in an effort to train and advise and support Afghan security forces as they have taken security responsibility for their country.
The President and our military take very seriously this partnership that the United States has with Afghanistan, and the President will listen carefully to the advice that he is getting from his national security team and his military commanders on this matter -- that is the pace of the drawdown.
What I can tell you continues, however, to be a firm part of the strategy is that by the beginning of 2017, the President envisions a scenario where our military presence in Afghanistan has been further and substantially reduced to a Kabul-centric presence that’s focused on protecting the embassy and is focused on some of the military coordination and cooperation that I described before. And that would represent a substantial drawdown in the number of troops then from what our presence looked like even just a couple of years ago.
Q And finally, there’s a news report out there that the White House is getting advice on how to take on the Islamic State from former General David Petraeus. I’m wondering if you can confirm that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, obviously, General Petraeus is somebody who served for a number of years in Iraq. He commanded a large number of American military personnel in that country. Over that time, he developed strong relationships with some of his Iraqi counterparts and with some of Iraq’s political leaders. He is, I think, legitimately regarded as an expert when it comes to the security situation in Iraq, so I think it makes a lot of sense for senior administration officials to, on occasion, consult him for advice.
Q And any particular security precautions that you take in this situation, given his legal entanglement?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Is it the position of the administration that Congress cannot change an executive agreement of the type that is contemplated in the Iranian nuclear negotiations? This references the letter from Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is the position of the administration that it is the proper role of the President of the United States to represent the United States in the international community, and to advance our national security interests around the globe.
And what has been true of this President and every President that has come before him is that they have used that authority that is given to them under the Constitution to execute broad executive agreements with other countries. These take a wide variety of forms, but many of them have substantial consequences for American national security. This is everything from basing agreements with our allies to even the agreement that this administration reached with the Syrians and with the Russians to dispose of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.
Q So you’re saying that, contrary to what members said in the letter, that an agreement could not be reversed by the next President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we are saying is that it would be hard to imagine that if Iran were living up to the terms of a good agreement that we have reached –- that is assuming that we are able to reach an agreement -- but if we are able to do so, it’s difficult to imagine another President coming into office and reversing all of that progress in the face of the international community when we have actually found a way to ease the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
So, again, if Iran is living up to this agreement, then it’s hard -- I think it would be hard to explain why another President would come in and back out of it.
Q Well, still, that’s not the same as saying he couldn't do it.
MR. EARNEST: No, I recognize that it’s not the same.
Q Well, one other thing. Does anybody in the White House have any knowledge as to whether to two Secret Service agents involved in the incident earlier in the month were under the influence of alcohol at the time?
MR. EARNEST: I’m certainly not aware of that, Bill. But I know that this is an issue that is being investigated by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security. And so for questions about their inquiry, I’d refer you to that office.
Q You’re saying you don’t know?
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying that I don’t know, but it is being investigated by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security.
James. Nice to see you today.
Q Josh. Thank you, nice to be here. Just on Iran first --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q Can you confirm that in the most recent dialogues taking place amongst the P5+1 in Iran that a representative from Iran actually cited the Cotton letter and raised that as an issue during the discussions?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of those reports. I’m not going to be in a position from here to discuss the confidential negotiations that are currently underway in Switzerland, so I’m not in a position to confirm that.
Q Without asking you to do that, are you in a position to tell us whether or not, in some form or fashion, the Cotton letter has served even in some appreciable way to damage these talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, James, what we have said about this is that our biggest concern is about the signal that it sends to our allies that by having this partisan letter out there, a letter that was signed by 47 Republican senators, it might -- and I think understandably -- would raise questions in the mind of our allies about whether the United States can live up to agreements that we make about whether or not we can live up to international agreements that we make.
Q But apart from whatever signals it may or may not send to our allies, the question put to you here is whether you have any evidence that the Cotton letter is already doing some kind of appreciable damage to the talks themselves.
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on the fact that many of our allies are involved in these conversations, I can certainly stipulate that we do not believe that this letter was helpful to the process and it did seek to undermine the President’s ability to engage in these negotiations. That was, after all, a stated goal of the senators who signed the letter in the first place.
Q Is it the position of the administration that in order for the P5+1 talks to reach a successful outcome, the parallel track between Iran and the IAEA, which concerns longstanding questions unresolved about Iran’s work in the possible military dimension, must also be successfully resolved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, James, what we have indicated is that we’ve got these very specific concerns about Iran’s nuclear program that we want to see resolved that specifically would shut off the four pathways to obtaining a nuclear weapon. That would be augmented by a historically intrusive set of inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. We would envision a scenario where the experts at the IAEA would be involved in conducting those inspections to verify their compliance.
But even if an agreement is reached, it will not resolve all of the wide variety of concerns that we have with the Iranian government’s behavior. And that includes some of the behavior from their military. It includes some of their menacing of our ally in Israel. And it includes the unjust detention of some American citizens behind bars in Iran.
Q So the answer is, no, the IAEA-Iran track does not have to be successfully resolved in order for the P5+1 track to reach what you regard as a successful outcome?
MR. EARNEST: But it does not mean that all of our concerns would go away. The concerns that have been raised by the IAEA would continue to be concerns that we would take seriously. But we’ve been very clear about what the scope of this agreement is, and if we are able to reach an agreement, it certainly would not ease the long list of other concerns we have about the behavior of the government of Iran.
Q Just quickly on Kerry, and then I have one question about the emails controversy. If I understand the position of the administration correctly following Secretary Kerry’s remarks this weekend, it is that President Assad should report to some mutually convenient negotiating table for the presence of ending his own rule in Syria, correct?
MR. EARNEST: No. What Secretary Kerry was saying is that he does believe that it’s appropriate for representatives of the regime to sit down with members of the moderate Syrian opposition to try to make some negotiated decisions about the political transition in Syria. Secretary Kerry was referring to Assad as essentially a proxy for the regime. He did not envision a scenario where Assad would himself participate in those conversations.
Q Lastly, on the emails controversy, a published report over the weekend in a leading New York newspaper asserted that White House counselor Valerie Jarrett played some role in the disclosures about Secretary Clinton’s emails. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: It’s utter baloney.
Q I’ll leave it there.
Q Very specific answer. Let me ask you, if I can go back to the letter, does the White House see, in terms of their concern about the impact, an appreciable difference between that and Democrats who have come up very publicly in support of review power over the nuclear deal? What’s the level of concern about the message that sends?
MR. EARNEST: Well, speaking of baloney, there are a number of members of Congress who have --
Q Do we speak of anything else? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Maybe other cold cuts for tomorrow’s briefing. (Laughter.)
Q Corned beef tomorrow.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. We’ll do that.
There have been a number of members of Congress who have repeatedly attempted to suggest that the administration does not envision a role for Congress in consideration of a deal that is reached with Iran if one is reached. And we have said from the beginning that the only way that the sanctions regime that Congress has put in place against Iran can be removed is if Congress votes to remove them.
What’s also true, however, is that when Congress passed legislation to put these sanctions into place, they included in that legislation presidential authority to waive some of those sanctions temporarily if the President concluded that it would be in the best interest of the country.
Now, the reason that waiver authority is beneficial is it means that if we determine that -- well, there are two reasons. One is, we do not envision a scenario where we would want to automatically, once Iran has signed on the dotted line -- if they sign on the dotted line -- we do not envision a scenario where one of our most powerful weapons against them is immediately taken off the table. What we could envision is a presidential effort to slowly relax them in exchange for Iranian compliance.
The benefit of that is, if we determine that Iran is not complying with the agreement, then we can snap those sanctions back into place with the stroke of a pen. Within a day, those sanctions can be quickly put back into place.
Now, the other thing, though, is that surely Iran would want the certainty of seeing those sanctions not just waived, but totally removed. And the negotiating point here is the administration believes that in order to keep pressure on Iran to ensure they live up to the terms of the agreement that we should keep those sanctions in place for a while, and that after Iran has demonstrated a commitment to complying with the agreement -- not just over the course of days, not over the course of weeks and not over the course of months, but over the longer term -- has demonstrated a willingness to comply with the agreement, then Congress could take what would be the reasonable step of considering whether or not those sanctions should be removed.
But for now, and certainly in the early days of an agreement, if one is reached, the administration believes we need to keep pressure on Iran and we should keep those sanctions in place, which is why we don’t believe that Congress should vote on this right away.
Q Is there any concern about 60 days to approve or reject any bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, something like that would have the effect of raising questions in the minds of the Iranians about whether or not, when the President reaches an agreement with them -- if we’re able to reach an agreement -- about whether or not our commitment is good. We can’t have a situation where you have some people in the Congress backseat-driving. What we need is, we need the support of Congress, as we have enjoyed all along in continuing to consult with the administration as the talks are ongoing. And we absolutely -- again, to get back to the baloney -- we absolutely do believe that there is a responsibility for Congress, after Iran has demonstrated sustained compliance with the agreement, to weigh in and make a decision about removing those sanctions. But again, they should not do that until Iran has demonstrated over the long term compliance with this agreement.
Q If I can go back to Loretta Lynch for a second. Did the Democrats make a mistake in not pushing for a vote on her last year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, in an effort to try and find some good faith with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, acceded to his request to allow the new Senate to consider her nomination.
But as I mentioned earlier, I get asked a lot about whether or not Senator McConnell is a man of his word and whether or not he’s lived up to commitments that he makes to the President of the United States. And for him to suggest that, well, it hasn’t been that long because Senate Democrats delayed in introducing her until after the first of the year, that’s not a very good sign of faith.
Q You mentioned the inept leadership you thought that this represented. And as you well know, McConnell has suggested that it was the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who unanimously vote for the trafficking bill to send it out; that suddenly it’s sort of a doubling back by the Democrats, rather than Republicans who are using this to delay. Why did they all vote for it if they had trouble with the wording?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’d have to ask Senate Democrats about what their position is. My understanding is they have serious concerns about the inclusion of this controversial element of what is otherwise a common-sense piece of legislation to try and stop child sex trafficking. So this is a common-sense piece of legislation. I don’t really understand why the Senate Majority Leader wouldn’t say to himself, if there is some objection that somebody has to this common-sense bill, let’s remove the objection so we can get it passed and get it signed into law. This is a worthy goal and this is a worthy effort to try to focus the efforts of the federal government and our law enforcement resources on ending child sex trafficking. But again, that’s going to require somebody to demonstrate some leadership in the Senate.
Q And saving the most important for last: When can we expect the President’s bracket? Has he filled it out yet? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: He has not yet, but I would anticipate you’ll see it before tipoff on Thursday morning.
Q Was the President pleased to see Vladimir Putin resurface? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I haven't talked to the President about the reappearance of President Putin.
Q Did the White House have a way to get in touch with the Russian President if it needed to during this time when he was out of the public eye?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any efforts to contact President Putin while he was not in the public eye over the last week.
Q Getting back to Syria. Does the President still believe that Assad should go?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. That continues to be the policy of this administration. It is because of President Assad’s failed leadership that we’ve seen the chaos in Syria that has allowed ISIL to flourish. It is because of the chaos fomented in Syria by Assad’s failed leadership that there are other extremist groups that are seeking to establish a safe haven inside Syria and strike targets in the West and around the globe. So we absolutely hold Assad responsible for that.
We certainly hold him responsible for the atrocities that he and his military have committed against the Syrian people. And it is why we continue to believe that he has lost the legitimacy to lead that country.
Q And you don't think that he could come in handy some day in terms of taking on ISIS? That component has not been reevaluated in some way?
MR. EARNEST: It has not been reevaluated. The administration believes that President Assad has lost legitimacy to lead. We are not in a position of coordinating militarily with him as we strike ISIL targets. In fact, we have gone to some lengths, as has been documented, to ensure that President Assad and his military do not interfere with our efforts to carry out these military airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria.
Q And on the letter that Denis McDonough sent to Senator Corker over the weekend, at one point in the letter the Chief of Staff says, “let us complete the negotiations.” And he mentions the end of this month, but he also mentions June, which is the deadline for the more comprehensive agreement to be reached. Is he saying that the Congress should wait until June -- until after June to weigh in with any kind of legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what he is saying very clearly is that Congress should not interfere in this process while negotiations are ongoing. And what we have said is that we would expect by the end of March we would expect to be in a position to present a political agreement that has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 partners. And if we cannot, that would be an indication in our minds that Iran is not being reasonable. After all, we’ve been negotiating this for more than a year. And we would be interested in getting together with Congress and with our allies to figure out what more pressure we could apply to Iran to have them participate in these negotiations in a constructive manner.
But what is also true is that if a political agreement can be reached by the end of March, two things would need to happen. The first is, there are -- as you would expect -- a lot of very specific technical details that need to be reached in terms of essentially codifying this political agreement into a set of very technical expectations about how Iran will come into compliance with the agreement, and we would expect that the experts will need some time to negotiate on those matters. So we would anticipate that negotiation over those technical matters would continue after the end of March.
But the second thing is I would anticipate that if we’re able to reach an agreement at the end of March, the administration and our -- or the United States and our international partners would be in a position to start talking about that political agreement. That’s the other interesting nature of the debate that we’ve been having here, is that there’s not an agreement yet, and for all the hyperventilating that we see on Capitol Hill, there is no agreement that has been reached, and that if we are able to reach an agreement before the end of this month, we will have an opportunity to talk about the details of that political agreement in a way that will allow not just members of Congress but the American public to evaluate the terms of that agreement.
Q But you want any legislation that might be discussed to be held off until June?
MR. EARNEST: There would continue to be --
Q Is that realistic to expect Congress to wait that long -- another three months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned, Jim, Congress will have an opportunity to evaluate the political agreement that has been reached, if one is reached, before the end of March. But, yes, we would expect that Congress would not interfere with ongoing negotiations if we reached the state of engaging in the kinds of technical negotiations that are required to implement the political agreement.
Q Two British leaders within two months’ time -- on Thursday, His Royal Highness Prince Charles will be here in the Oval Office with the Duchess of Cornwall. Will the President be following up any of the discussions he had with Prime Minister Cameron two months ago in terms of defeating ISIL, in terms of the P5+1, et cetera, or will this be more of a social visit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have not yet seen the agenda for the meeting that they’re planning, but I would anticipate that we can get you some more details around their meeting tomorrow.
Q A quick one on the trafficking bill, just to follow up on what Justin was asking. What is the President’s position on this abortion language? I mean, I didn’t hear a veto threat from you, so if the Republican leadership were to be able to advance this bill, would the President sign it in its current form?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, what we have said is that we’re going to see if the Senate can pass the child sex trafficking bill. And, again, it seems like a pretty common-sense measure. I think Democrats and Republicans can strongly agree that the federal government should be concentrating our efforts to counter child sex trafficking. And the fact that this has become a political partisan controversy in the Senate is a shame, but is entirely consistent with the kind of leadership style that we’ve seen from Senate Republicans in the first eight or so weeks that they’ve been in the majority.
So we’ll see what’s going to pass the Senate. Right now, they don’t have the votes to pass it through the Senate.
Q Right, but you haven’t been shy about issuing veto threats to legislation that have provisions the President just won’t accept, and this is something that, as you mentioned, a lot of Democrats have felt is inappropriate. So why wouldn’t he weigh in one way or the other?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President believes is that we should be able to agree -- Democrats and Republicans -- on a piece of legislation that would allow the federal government to concentrate our resources and actually do a good job of fighting child sex trafficking. There’s already a lot of work that the President has implemented unilaterally, using his executive authority, to use technology and other law enforcement resources to concentrate this effort. But we certainly welcome legislation that would supplement this ongoing effort.
And, again, this is something that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on. So if what is necessary is for Republicans to take out the controversial provision just so that we can do the good, common-sense work of passing legislation that would fight child sex trafficking, the President would, of course, sign that into law.
Q But you’re not saying that he wouldn’t sign it otherwise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is that this is something that Democrats and Republicans should be able to come together around in the Senate. And if the Republican leadership in the majority is willing to demonstrate the leadership that it takes to get this bill passed, then the President would sign it into law, assuming that, again, what Senator McConnell is going to have to do is remove the controversial provision.
Q Just back on Iran for a second. Can you just clarify -- you talked about -- Jim was asking about June and the actual negotiating deadline, but you were talking about a much longer period of time that I think you’re saying the White House feels should pass before Congress should take a vote on any agreement after you’ve been able to ascertain whether Iran is abiding by the terms, and sanctions should be lifted altogether. I mean, that seems to envision a vote much longer down the line. Is it the White House’s position that Congress should wait until later this year, maybe even next year, to vote on an agreement that’s being negotiated right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is the White House’s view that what Congress should do is they should -- if a political agreement is reached before the end of the month, they will have the opportunity to review it. But there should be no interference from Congress while negotiations are ongoing. And we have been pretty candid about the fact for a number of months now that if a political agreement is reached in March, it will require additional technical negotiations to ensure that that political agreement can be properly implemented.
Now, when it comes to Congress weighing in on this agreement, what we envision is a scenario where the statutory sanctions, the congressionally passed sanctions against Iran remain in place for some time -- that that is the way that we’re going to continue to pressure Iran alongside sanctions, to ensure that they’re complying with the terms of the international agreement. And that means that it is not necessary for Congress to weigh in on this until Iran has demonstrated not over the course of weeks or months, but over the long term, a willingness to comply with the terms of the agreement.
Q So then how do you square that with you and the President both saying that Congress has a rightful role to play here? I mean, this agreement would have long since been solidified and finalized before Congress would ever have what you’re talking about as their input, their rightful input that the White House believes they should have.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that, just going back to the Chief of Staff’s letter from over the weekend, that the White House, the Departments of State, Treasury, Energy, Defense and the intelligence community have conducted more than 200 meetings, hearings, classified briefings and calls with members of the House and Senate. More than half of those, more than 100 of those meetings and hearings and calls have taken place just in the last two or three months. So this is an indication that there has been extensive congressional input in this process, as there should be.
Again, we do hear a lot of rhetoric from Capitol Hill that the administration is somehow trying to prevent Congress from being involved in this process and, as I mentioned earlier, that’s baloney. The fact is there is a role for Congress to play; there has been from the beginning. And there will be an opportunity for Congress to vote after Iran has demonstrated compliance with the terms of the agreement if one is reached. And the reason for that is simply rooted in the fact that this a really powerful tool that Congress has passed, and they have given the President the authority already to waive those sanctions when he believes it’s in the best interest of the country. But the President can’t remove those sanctions -- that’s something that only Congress can do. And the fact is the President doesn’t believe that Congress should do that until Iran has demonstrated compliance with the agreement over the long term.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple months ago you were talking about the possibility of the President and Senator McConnell having a bourbon summit, and today you’re talking about Senator McConnell like he is barely qualified to manage a popsicle stand. Is your extra-heavy criticism today --
MR. EARNEST: Let the record reflect that that’s Dave’s observation about Senator McConnell’s leadership, not mine.
Q Is that baloney? (Laughter.)
Q Does your extra-heavy criticism today have anything to do with the fact that McConnell signed that letter to Iran last week?
MR. EARNEST: No, it has everything to do with the fact that Senator McConnell himself suggested that the President not nominate or begin the process for considering Ms. Lynch’s nomination to be attorney general of the United States until after January. But Senator McConnell himself is now using that as an excuse for not acting more promptly on Ms. Lynch’s nomination. And I do think that that calls into question several aspects of his leadership.
Q One other question. Do you have a more comprehensive explanation than Eric gave us last week about why the President and the First Lady flew separate planes to Los Angeles on the same day to appear on separate talk shows?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s my understanding that they flew into different airports. It’s also my understanding that the First Lady actually left to get back to Washington, D.C. before the President even arrived in California. So I think that’s a clear indication that their itineraries didn’t link up -- to say nothing of the fact that the President the next day, while the First Lady was in Washington, the President spent a day trip in Arizona before returning to Washington.
Q For the purpose of the taxpayers’ expense, couldn’t they have arranged it better and saved some money?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Dave, I’m not -- again, it does not appear to me that based on the fact that they didn’t fly to the same airport -- she left before he arrived, and she spent the day in Washington while he spent the day in Arizona -- that it was possible to make their schedules align and allow them to travel together.
I do feel confident in saying that if it had been possible for them to travel together, I’m sure that’s what they would have preferred to do.
Q Thanks, Josh. One follow-up on Iran. It seems like a stretch that the Republican Congress would vote to lift sanctions on Iran, even if the negotiation, the deal was put into place. Are you concerned that down the road that could be a stumbling block for this agreement -- that it could be put into place, the sanctions and enforcement could sort of start happening but then the deal could fall apart if the sanctions on the U.S.’s behalf aren’t lifted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a good question, Jordan. I mean, obviously members of Congress will be in a position to determine for themselves whether or not the sanctions regime should be removed. But the President doesn’t think that it would be a good idea for us to do that unless and until Iran has demonstrated over a longer period of time a commitment to actually living up to the terms of the agreement.
And so, no -- I guess the point is that if Congress were asked right away to remove the sanctions that are in place against Iran, I don’t think a majority of members of the Senate would vote -- or members of Congress would vote to do that. But here’s the thing: The President wouldn’t support doing that either. The President believes that before we contemplate removing the statutory sanctions against Iran, we need Iran to demonstrate over the long term a commitment to living up to the terms of the agreement.
So that is why it’s structured this way and I would anticipate that if, over the long term, Iran does demonstrate a willingness to shut down every path that they have to a nuclear weapon, does cooperate with intrusive sanctions that verify their compliance with the agreement, and their continued cooperation in this regard was dependent upon Congress removing the sanctions in the context of the agreement, I do think that would have an impact on the decision that’s made by members of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans.
But that’s an awful long way down the line, and there will be -- the point is, there will be ample opportunity for members of Congress to both evaluate the political agreement in the short term, to consider the technical agreement that is supposed to be reached by the end of June, and then not over the course of weeks and not over the course of months, but over the long term, evaluate Iran’s commitment to complying with the terms of the agreement.
Jessica, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. A couple of just little ones on Iran. With respect to the U.N. portion of the sanctions, does the President support a lifting of United Nations sanctions against Iran -- beginning the process at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, that is something that, again, as with so many of these technical questions, or detailed questions at least, that’s the subject of ongoing negotiations among our P5+1 partners and Iran.
In addition to sanctions that Congress has put in place against Iran, the United Nations has put sanctions in place against Iran, and the United Nations will at some point have to consider removing those sanctions as well, assuming that will be part of the negotiated agreement with Iran, if one is reached. So, at some point, there likely will have to be action taken at the United Nations, but that’s something that’s still being negotiated into the agreement, and it is the same reason, frankly, that Congress will have to take -- will have to weigh in and be heard on this matter.
Q So you’re not willing to say whether the President supports the idea of the U.N. lifting them? Inherently, keeping up the U.S.’s and P5+1’s end of the bargain, they would have to go.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’re talking about, well, if they do this, then they have to do that. That’s exactly what’s being negotiated in Switzerland right now between Iran and the United States and our P5+1 partners.
Q What about this idea that’s been circulating that lifting the U.N. sanctions could in some way circumvent Congress’s ability for the necessity to lift sanctions. What’s the White House view on that?
MR. EARNEST: The White House view on that is it is very clear that there is only one way to remove sanctions put in place by Congress, and that is for Congress to vote to remove them.
Q And lastly, just from a technical perspective, is there any estimate or working estimate on how long? And there’s so many layers, and so even once you start the process, it could take -- I mean, I’m wondering if there’s any estimate on how long it could take, because there’s multiple layers just on the U.S. alone -- the U.N., executive orders, congressional sanctions, agency -- Treasury sanctions -- on how long it would take to unravel all the sanctions that the U.S. --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again the pace of -- obviously, the kinds of commitments that Iran is willing to make when it comes to shutting down every path they have to a nuclear weapon and submitting to historically intrusive inspections will be an exchange for sanctions relief. And so this is the essence of the negotiation, is what steps will Iran take and for how long will they maintain those steps, in exchange for the pace of sanctions relief.
And the President’s view is that the congressional sanctions that have been put in place are one of the more powerful tools that we have in this whole rack-up. And the fact is, the President doesn’t believe that we should take that really powerful tool off the table on the front end. He believes that we should do that nearer to the end, after Iran has demonstrated over the course of a sustained period of time a willingness to live up to the terms of the agreement.
Q So when you talk about Congress’s permission within the sanctions language for the President to temporarily waive them, there’s that ability, but then there’s also these executive-level implemented sanctions. So when you’re talking about the concept of the President waiving anything, are we talking about both sort of pots of sanctions relief that are being contemplated, or are we just talking about the temporary waiving of the congressional ones?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re right, those are two different things. And again, this will be part of the negotiations. Again, Iran is going to commit to taking some steps. Iran is going to commit to intrusive inspections, and they’ll do so in exchange for some sanctions relief. And we’re not going to give them all the sanctions relief at the beginning. We’re going to wait over a period of time so that Iran can demonstrate their sustained compliance with this agreement. And as Iran, over the course of time, commits to these -- or fulfills these commitments, then the international community will respond by following through on the commitments that we have made to offer sanctions relief.
But the onus in this situation is going to be on the Iranians to demonstrate their willingness to comply with the terms of the agreement. And in exchange, the international community will start to take steps in a phased pattern of offering sanctions relief. But again, that’s not something that we envision happening in the short term; that’s going to happen over the long term as Iran demonstrates sustained compliance with the agreement, if an agreement is reached.
Q If I can just press you -- I think that point is amply made, but what I haven't heard from you is these executive-level, can he waive -- I mean, they’re executive-level sanctions, so he could take those off the table.
MR. EARNEST: If they’re executive sanctions that the President has the authority to waive, then that will be part of the negotiated agreement. And as you point out, the legislation that Congress passed, putting in place the sanctions, included in there presidential waiver authority. It did give the President the authority, in the context of that legislation, to waive the sanctions if the President believed that it was in the best interest of our national security.
And in the context of an agreement, that’s what the President would contemplate doing. But he would not envision a scenario where we would remove those sanctions until Congress has had the opportunity to vote on it. And the President doesn’t believe that we should remove those sanctions, and he doesn’t believe that Congress should vote on it until Iran has demonstrated sustained compliance with the agreement, if an agreement is reached.
Mara, did you have something else before I go?
Q I just wanted to clear up one thing. You keep on referring to it as a political agreement, and last week Kerry said this is not a legally binding agreement. Is there anything that the President can negotiate on his own that is legally binding, other than a treaty, which has to be approved by Congress -- the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the thing that’s important is for us to recognize that the stakes for Iran and their compliance with the agreement, if one is reached, are sky-high. The sanctions regime that’s been put in place has had a decimating impact on their economy. And we’ve already seen the evidence that indicates that Iran’s leadership is under pretty serious political pressure inside their country to get sanctions relief. That is the leverage that the international community has to get Iran to comply with the terms of any agreement that they sign.
The point here is that in the eyes of Iran, when it comes to the commitments that they make, I assure you the Iranians feel like the commitments that they’re making are very binding, because their failure to live up to the terms of the agreement would result in this sanctions regime that has decimated their economy from snapping immediately back into place.
Q But what about from our point of view? Because he said it wasn’t legally binding in answer to the letter suggesting that another President could overrule it if they wanted to. If there anything the President can do on his own, short of an actual treaty, that is legally binding?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that’s a pretty technical legal question. But I think the point that I made to Bill is relevant in answer to your question, which is that if we do see a scenario where Iran does reach an agreement with the international community, they satisfy the international community’s concerns as it relates to their pathways to a bomb that they satisfy the international community’s concerns in terms of allowing inspectors regular access to their nuclear facilities.
We will essentially resolve the international community’s concerns with their nuclear problem, and will, for the foreseeable future, as those inspections remain in place. I would be very surprised that an incoming U.S. President would want to unravel all of that -- I guess I would be very surprised if an incoming U.S. President wanted to unravel all of that.
Q Even though they could legally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that’s a question for a lawyer. They can explain to you what sort of legal authority they have. But I think as a purely practical matter, if the international community has reached this agreement with Iran, and we can verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, and the international community is onboard with the enforcement of that agreement, then I would be very surprised that an incoming U.S. President would unravel all of that. All right?
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Mark. Last one.
Q Then why not pursue a treaty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of the legal difference between all of these things, I’m far outside my field of expertise on that front. I think the point is that the United States can obtain the commitments that we need from Iran, in partnership with the international community, without a treaty. And for the reasons that I explained to Mara, they’re making very serious commitments, and I assure you that Iran’s leadership understands the stakes if they don’t live up to the terms of the agreement. They have already come to the negotiating table to try to get the international community to relieve the sanctions regime that’s in place.
So I know that there’s been some talk about sort of this notion of what’s legally binding, but I assure you that Iran’s political leadership understands the consequences of breaking this agreement.
Q Josh, you’ve said in your answer to me earlier here today, you essentially sketched out a scenario whereby if an agreement is reached it satisfies everyone’s concerns about these different pathways to a bomb, and yet these outstanding questions about the possible military dimension of their program are left for some future resolution, and we’ve already been at that for almost a decade.
When you say to us, gee, we’ve been negotiating for a year, we should have a good idea of whether it's going to come to fruition, shouldn’t we have a good idea, A, that it’s going to come to fruition on the IAEA PMD track? And also, you cannot satisfy everybody’s concerns about the pathways if that IAEA PMD track is left out there unresolved.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that under the kind of agreement -- well, let me say one thing. The first is, we can certainly evaluate that argument if we’re able to reach an agreement. And we can look at the terms and determine whether or not we’ve succeeded in resolving the international community’s concerns -- if we’ve shut down the pathway at Natanz; if we’ve shut down the effort at Iraq, the heavy water reactor there that’s using plutonium; if we have succeeded in shutting down the pathway to a bomb at Fordow; and if we’ve put in place these intrusive inspections that would allow us to -- that would ease our concerns about a covert path to a nuclear weapon.
The point is we’ll have an opportunity in the context of the agreement to evaluate whether or not people’s concerns have been met when it comes to their nuclear program. But we’re going to have a long list of concerns about other things that Iran does that relates to their ballistic missile program, that relates to their continued menacing of Israel. I failed to mention earlier, their continued support for terrorism around the globe.
Q In other words, you’re saying we can meet all these concerns, but we can carve out the PMD. The PMD is not about Israel or ballistic missiles, or about terror or support for Hezbollah or Hamas. The PMD is on the nuclear program.
MR. EARNEST: Right. Well, we’ll have an opportunity once the agreement is reached to see what impact that agreement would have on the PMD track. But again, we haven’t reached an agreement yet, so that’s where we would go.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
2:10 P.M. EDT