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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 03/17/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:30 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I do see a fair amount of green in the room today, which is nice to see.  I’m wearing my green today not just to pay tribute to Saint Patrick but also to pay tribute to my alma mater back in Kansas City.  The boys’ high school basketball team won the state championship over the weekend, so they’re the AAA state champs in the state of Missouri.  So congratulations to Coach Thomas and the rest of the boys that made us so proud this year.

Q    Are their uniforms green?

MR. EARNEST:  They are.  They wore green jerseys, green and white.

Q    Well, they make up for the Royals.

MR. EARNEST:  This is the Barstow School in Kansas City.  So the AAA state boys’ basketball champs.  So good news.

Let me do one other thing and then we’ll get to your questions.  As many of you have seen, Republicans in Congress have rolled out their budget proposal today and I want to make a couple of comments on that before we get started.  You heard from the President, who alluded to this in his remarks with the Taoiseach in the Oval today, but there are a couple of important differences between the proposal from Republicans and the President’s budget that he put out I guess about six weeks or so ago now.

While the President’s budget includes pro-work tax reforms designed to support working families, promote job creation and strengthen the middle class, House Republicans start their deficit reduction plan by promising large, expensive new tax cuts to high-income households.  In fact, the only specific tax proposals in the House Republican budget are tax proposals that benefit the wealthy.

Secondly, the House Republican budget fails to provide for our national security or our economic security in this country in 2016 by failing to reverse harmful sequestration cuts and then tries to balance the budget in part by further slashing middle-class investments after 2016.  This is an approach that even some Republicans have been critical of, particularly when it comes to defense spending. 

Senator McCain, who is also the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has previously described efforts to plus-up OCO contingency funding to pay for defense as essentially as a slush fund and as a gimmick.  And Paul Ryan last year called emergency spending increases “a backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the budget process.”

Finally, and this is consistent with previous Republican budget proposals, House Republicans would end Medicare as we know it, transforming it from a guarantee that seniors can count on into a voucher program.  Their budget also contains steps that would undermine the Affordable Care Act; that, of course, is not new, either.  The fact of the matter is the President’s budget would actually strengthen Medicare with proposals that increase value and prove long-term sustainability of the program. 

So there will be an opportunity for us to have a robust debate in the coming weeks about the Republican priorities that are codified in the House Republican budget and the kinds of investments that the President believes are so critical to middle-class families all across the country.

So with that long windup, Jim, why don’t you get us started today?

Q    Thank you, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you.  You too.

Q    May the road rise to meet you.  (Laughter.) 

What you just said about the budget, the President just earlier said, what we’re seeing right now is a failure to invest in education, infrastructure and national defense.  You mentioned national security as well but, in fact, this House Republican proposal, the one thing that it does do is provide money for national defense -- in fact, more so than the President’s own budget would.  So how do you square that?  What is the difference that you’re trying to draw here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, what the Republican budget does is it actually does abide by the sequester caps that they themselves say are bad policy.  And what they have tried to establish in order to, frankly, give themselves political cover is to put in place -- establish this fund on the side that essentially is no different than a slush fund.  And, again, that is the kind of gimmick that Senator McCain himself has previously criticized.

Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Republican Budget Committee, the Chairman -- the Republican, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee last year called emergency spending increases a “backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the budget process.”

So the fact is the President does the responsible thing, which is suggest that we should actually make increases both on the defense and non-defense side of the budget, above and beyond the sequester caps.  This is consistent with the proposal that Democrats and Republicans worked on together a couple of years ago.  This was the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray proposal to fund the budget at appropriate levels, ensuring that there were dollar-for-dollar increases on the defense and non-defense sides.  The President believes that’s the appropriate approach.  And what’s also included in the President’s budget are very specific ways that we can pay for those kinds of increases.

So what we can do is it means that we can make the investments that are needed in our national security to keep the country safe.  We can make investments that are so critical to the success of the middle class in this country, and we can do it in a fiscally responsible way. 

The Republican approach is different, which is that they have basically said, we are not going to raise revenue; we are going to abide by the sequester caps; and we are going to bring the budget into balance over the course of the next 10 years, which means that if you are not going to cut defense spending any further than they already have and if you’re not going to raise taxes, then that means that you are going to utterly decimate the kinds of investments that benefit middle-class families, and that’s everything from education to research and development, job training, and a bunch of other proposals that have contributed to the strong economic growth that we’ve seen over the last couple of years under the President’s leadership.

Q    But, correct me if I’m wrong, I believe the President’s defense spending, at least in his budget, relied on Overseas Contingency Operations that had been assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, and he was counting on the drawdown to provide money to help his defense spending.  Is that not right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll have to get into how the policy decisions that the President is making lead to sort of the arcane budgetary reflections that are on paper.  But the way that you described it --

Q    You guys are also saying the OCO account that you called a slush fund that the Republicans are increasing --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the way that you’ve just described it is that we’ve reduced the amount of money that goes into the slush fund and actually put it on the books in terms of increasing the sequester caps while Republicans are, again, in a pretty disingenuous way, saying that they’re abiding by the sequester caps but increasing the funding that’s in the slush fund in a way that, frankly, is as Paul Ryan himself said, is really just a backdoor loophole that provides them political cover but doesn’t actually make the smart investments that we know we need in our national security.

Q    I wanted to ask you about Iran.  Iran’s top nuclear official today said that disagreements over a nuclear deal have pretty much been resolved, and declared himself optimistic that the deadline for a framework could be met by the end of the month.  And I’m wondering if the White House shares that assessment, whether you’ve improved your odds from 50/50 to something better.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in the mind of the President, the odds have not moved.  We are in a situation where we are, at best, it’s a 50/50 proposition that a deal will be completed before the end of March.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  The first is, the President is driving a very hard bargain and Iran is going to have to make some very tough and specific commitments as it relates to resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program as well as agreeing to a set of extraordinarily intrusive inspections.  And that’s the only way that we’re going to get to an agreement, and that’s why the President is realistic about how difficult it will be to arrive at an agreement.

The second thing is that -- well, and let me just clarify, which is the only way that this is difficult -- or let me say it in the affirmative, which is that the way that this is a reasonable approach, as the President has previously described, is that if Iran is true to their word, that they only seek a nuclear program for genuinely peaceful purposes.  If that’s the case, they shouldn’t have any concerns with the kinds of significant changes that would be made to their nuclear program, and they would be willing to readily submit to the kinds of intrusive inspections measures that the international community is going to insist upon. 

The second reason that we continue to believe that our odds of reaching this agreement are at best 50/50 is that it is going to require the Iranian leadership, including those who aren’t at the table, to sign on to this agreement.  And the fact is, from our vantage point it's difficult to predict what exactly they’ll conclude.  And so that is an X factor in these negotiations.

Q    Can’t the Iranians make the same argument about the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Except they’re dealing with the President of the United States who does have the ability to reach this agreement with our international partners and with the Iranians. And the President has been very clear about what exactly our expectations are.  And for as clear as we’ve been about them in public, we’re obviously being even more candid and specific about what our expectations are around the negotiating table.  And the Iranians and the international community can have confidence that when the President lays out exactly what his expectations are, that he will stick to them.

Q    So bottom line is, you don’t agree then that most of the issues have been cleared?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it's possible to -- there’s no doubt that they’ve made substantial progress over the course of the last year.  And that is an indication that Iran took very seriously their participation in these negotiations.  But what is also true in the context of these negotiations is that as they encounter stumbling blocks, they just delay them to the end, which means that in the context of these negotiations some of the most difficult issues, some of the issues that they’ve been struggling with for the longest period of time, are the issues that have yet to be resolved.  So that is how it's possible that we’ve made substantial progress while acknowledging that significant gaps remain.

Q    I wanted to ask you last about a decision by the White House to exclude the White House Office of Administration from the Freedom of Information Act.  And the White House Office of Administration has been subject to FOIA by previous administrations.  Doesn’t this in effect make you the least transparent administration if you’re closing that one office that has been open to FOIA requests in the past?  And it strikes many as incredibly ironic that you chose to do this during Sunshine Week.  And I wondered if there was a message behind that decision at that particular time.

MR. EARNEST:  No.  I can tell you that no one, certainly in my office, was involved in the decision that was made as it relates to the timing of this announcement.   So I think the -- but let’s go to the substance, because you’ve raised something that’s really important for people to understand.  The administrative change that was announced this week has no impact on our compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.  This is entirely consistent with the policy that’s been in place for quite some time now, for a number of years. 

And the fact is, this change in the regulations is merely an effort to comply with a court ruling that was issued almost six years ago.  So this was actually a court decision that indicated that the Office of Administration was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act request.  And the regulations were merely updated to reflect that court’s decision.

So this is a matter of just cleaning up the records that are on the books.  It has no impact at all on the policy that we have maintained from the beginning to comply with the Freedom of Information Act when it's appropriate.  It also has no bearing on the Office of Administration and the role that they do play in ensuring that the administration is the most transparent administration in history.

It is the Office of Administration, for example, that is responsible for releasing the WAVES records on a quarterly basis. These are the records that for the first time give the American public insight into who’s actually visiting the White House.

You will recall that at least one previous administration went to the Supreme Court to prevent the release of those records, but yet it's this administration through the Office of Administration that voluntarily releases those records.  The Office of Administration, you’ll recall, is also responsible for on an annual basis releasing the list of White House employees and their salaries. 

Again, this is consistent with the transparency measures that other administrations have abided by, but it's certainly one that this administration has updated by making that information available electronically and in a form -- in essentially a machine-readable form. 

So this is cleanly in line with the kind of priority that this administration has placed on transparency.

Q    So the bottom line is the Office of White House Administration will continue to review FOIA requests, and be responsive accordingly according to the spirit of the act?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the Freedom of Information Act request does not apply to the Office of Administration.  That is not a decision that was made by the administration; that was a decision that was made by a judge.  And updating those regulations was something that was done to ensure that those regulations were consistent with the judge’s ruling.  They don’t have any bearing on the way that the administration responds to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Q    So you will -- we can still get information from them?

MR. EARNEST:  The Office of Administration, as I pointed out, does continue to extensively distribute information related to the workings of government.  But what has not changed, and what has never been the case since we’ve been here -- the Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  That is what a judge has said and that is what the regulations were updated to reflect. 

But the Office of Administration will continue to be a source of information for reporters and for the public who are seeking to obtain information about the White House and about the federal government.

Q    Is that on its terms, or based on requests that can still be submitted to the Office of --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, people are certainly welcome to submit requests, but there should be no mistaking of the fact that -- I just want to be clear with you -- the Office of Administration, since the President has took office, has not been subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  And that is because of a court ruling.  And the rules that were updated were updated simply to reflect that judge’s ruling. 

So requests can be made of the Office of Administration, but the fact that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the Office of Administration has also not changed.

Q    But in 2009, Eric Holder in a memo to federal agencies said, abide by at least the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, even if you’re not legally bound to do so.  So how does that apply in this case?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, in terms of how they’re going to respond to individual inquires, I’ll have to take that question and I’ll see if I can find that out.  But across the administration, we actually do have a lot to brag about when it comes to our responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests. 

And just today, the Department of Justice did release records, or metrics related to Fiscal Year 2014.  The administration, in Fiscal Year 2014 alone, processed 647,142 FOIA requests, and over 91 percent of those requests resulted in the release of either some or all of the requested records.  That is the sixth year in a row in which more than -- at least or more than 91 percent of Freedom of Information Act requests were complied with in a way that included response of either or part or all of the requested records.

Q    What was the number again?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry?

Q    What was the number again?

MR. EARNEST:  Which number?  91 percent?  Or the total number -- just for Fiscal Year 2014 was 647,142. 


Q    Thanks.  So several European allies announced today that they’re going to be joining the Chinese-led Asian Investment Bank, seen as a rival to the World Bank.  How is the administration responding to this?  Do they see it as a diplomatic blow, especially considering the President’s strategy to rebalance our relationship?

MR. EARNEST:  The U.S. position on the AIIB remains clear and consistent, particularly with respect to my objection to AIIB being a terrible acronym.  (Laughter.)  But the United States believes that there is a pressing need to enhance infrastructure investment around the world, and we believe that any new multilateral institution should incorporate the high standards that the international community has collectively built at the World Bank and at other regional development banks.

It will be important for prospective members of the AIIB to push for the adoption of those same high standards, including strong board oversight and other safeguards.  The international community has a stake in seeing the AIIB complement and work effectively alongside the existing development architecture.

Q    Would the U.S. ever consider joining?

MR. EARNEST:  Our policy right now is that we do not have a specific plan to join at this point.

Q    Also, Clancy was on the Hill today talking about the Secret Service and said that it was known that many -- not many, but some agents have been known to abuse alcohol.  Is this something the President was aware of?  And how does he feel about agents with a known problem with alcohol serving at the Secret Service?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julia, the specific matter that Director Clancy was discussing on Capitol Hill is one that continues to be under investigation by the DHS inspector general.  And obviously Director Clancy has access to some of the information about that ongoing investigation, and he was able to speak to it at the congressional hearing that he attended today.  I’m, frankly, not privy to the information that’s included in this investigation.  And because it is the subject of an ongoing independent investigation, I’m reluctant to comment on it at this point.


Q    Josh, just to follow up on that -- Director Clancy testified that he was not told about the March 4th incident until the following Monday, five days later.  Is that acceptable to the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, this is an incident that is under investigation, and part of that investigation I’m sure will include a review of how information about the incident was transmitted to other members of the agency, including the leadership at the agency.

So, at this point, I would reserve comment on it until the DHS inspector general has had the opportunity to do his job.

Q    He indicated he was pretty upset about.  He said it led to a stern conversation.  It just sounds --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I can understand why he might feel that way, but I’m reluctant to be in a position of commenting on a matter that is the subject of an ongoing DHS inspector general investigation.

Q    Is the President still confident that Director Clancy can change the culture there?  He indicated during the hearing that he would like to see the culture change but that it may take some time.  The President is confident that Director Clancy can change the culture at the agency?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Directory Clancy is somebody who is held in very high regard not just by the President of the United States, but by the individuals who work for him at the Secret Service.  And he is somebody who certainly is capable both as a leader and as an example for the members of the agency about how to serve the agency, serve the President, and the serve the country. 

So the President absolutely believes that Director Clancy is the right person for this job.  But there is nobody around here and I don’t think there’s anybody in Director Clancy’s office who underestimates the size of the task.  This is very difficult work, and going in and reforming an agency like this will be challenging.  But somebody like Director Clancy, who has the skills and the character to implement these kinds of changes, will be critical to the success of that agency.  And the President has complete confidence in Director Clancy’s ability to implement those changes in a way that will allow the agency to live up to the high standard that they’ve set for themselves, but also to ensure that they’re properly serving the country.

Q    And on the Israeli elections, does the President believe that he can repair his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu if he is to remain the Prime Minister there?

MR. EARNEST:  Jim, the President has no doubt that the strong ties between the United States and Israel will endure far beyond this election.  And that has been true for generations now, that the U.S.-Israel relationship is not one that has been subject historically to partisanship and not one that has been subject to intense, partisan political debate.  But rather, because of our deep cultural ties, because of the deep ties between our people, because of our shared interests when it comes to national security in the Middle East, that the strong relationship between the United States and Israel will endure far beyond this upcoming election, or the election that's being held today.

Q    And what kind of relationship does the President have with Isaac Herzog?  He’s kind of a young -- maybe not so young, but an up and coming fresh face in the Israeli political scene.  He hasn’t been around in Israeli politics for very long.  Do they have a relationship?  Have they spoken?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't know about any previous conversations between the President and Mr. Herzog.  But I can tell you that the United States -- that President Obama remains committed to working very closely with the winner of the ongoing elections to cement and further deepen the strong relationship between the United States and Israel.  And the President is confident that he can do that with whomever the Israeli people choose.

Q    And I just want to ask one quick follow-up question to the President’s interview with VICE.  During that interview, he was asked about ISIL, and the President said that ISIL was a direct outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of an invasion -- an example of unintended consequences.  He seemed to be blaming former President Bush for the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Is that what meant to say there?  Is that the message he was conveying in that interview?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President was documenting the history that we know exists about ISIL and their roots in the -- among the extremists in that region of the world.  I think those are well-known facts.  And they certainly do reflect the sometimes and often unintended consequences of foreign policy decisions that are made by the Commander-in-Chief.  And that certainly is why this President, as previous Presidents have, sought to think very carefully about the use of military force, and to carefully weigh the long-range consequences of those decisions.

Q    But his reaction to the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is also, wouldn’t you say, partly responsible for the strength of that terrorist organization in that country right now?  The President did not respond as quickly to the growth of ISIS when they were showing some gains not only in Syria but in Iraq, gobbling up territory.  The President -- and I know we’ve gone through this many times -- referred to ISIS and other groups like it as “the JV team.”  But in this interview, he talks about ISIS as being something that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it did.

Q    -- with the outcome of --

MR. EARNEST:  It did.  Anybody would tell you that, and that's something that we’ve said on many occasions before.

Q    Right, but he’s sort of giving himself a pass there, isn’t he?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I’m not sure that that's the way that most people would look at this.  It certainly isn’t the way that I would look at this.  I think what the President is acknowledging is that dealing with extremism in the Middle East is something that previous Presidents have had to do, and it’s certainly something that future Presidents will have to do.  The President has been candid about that, as well.

And what he wants to do is he wants to make sure that we're making decisions about confronting that extremism in a way that, of course, protects the national security interests of the United States, but also takes into account the long-range consequences of those actions.  And the best way I think in the mind of the President to respond to this extremism is to ensure that we are building up the capacity of our partners and allies in the region to deal with this threat.

So when it comes to ISIL and the threat that they pose in Iraq, that's why the President insisted that Iraq’s central government govern that country in a way that would unite them to face the threat that's posed by ISIL; that if we put the United States on the hook once again for guaranteeing the security situation on the ground in Iraq, it is going to have negative consequences for our national security, both in terms of the substantial investment of blood and treasure in that endeavor, but also in terms of the impact that that's going to have on our allies and partners, and even in some cases, our adversaries in the region.

So that is the difficult decision-making matrix that's in front of the President as he confronts this decision, and that's why you've seen him exercise our military force very judiciously; that we’ve maximized the impact of the use of American and coalition airpower to take strikes against ISIL targets, while at the same time working closely with the Iraqi security forces to build them up, to improve their training, to offer them advice, to offer them some assistance so that they can take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country.

And that is the kind of measured but forceful decision-making that the President has applied to this situation in a way that has yielded significant national security benefits for the United States and has already, in just a few months of applying that strategy, has rolled back the amount of territory that ISIL has that ISIL originally controlled.

You heard me talking about this last week, that there are some measurements that indicate that up to 25 percent of the territory that was previously under ISIL control is no longer an area where ISIL can freely move.  And that's a reflection of some important progress, while I would be the first to acknowledge that much important work remains to be done.


Q    Yesterday, you mentioned you would be giving us some more information in His Royal Highness Prince Charles’s visit on Thursday. 

MR. EARNEST:  That is true.  (Laughter.)  I have some of that information for you.

Q    All right, thank you.

MR. EARNEST:  The Prince and the Duchess will visit the United States this week.  They’ll be here at the White House on Thursday, and they will meet with the President in the Oval Office.  In the course of that conversation, they will engage in activities and conversations to promote the U.K.’s partnership with the United States in such key areas as combating climate change, creating opportunities for youth, encouraging corporate social responsibility, and preserving historical and cultural ties between our two countries.  That will be the purpose of the Prince and the Duchess’s visit, but it will also be the subject of conversation in the Oval Office when they meet with President Obama.

Q    Would you imagine there will be any conversation following up Prime Minister Cameron’s visit here two months ago in terms of combating the various issues like ISIL, et cetera?

MR. EARNEST:  I would anticipate that the conversation is actually going to focus on some of the key areas that I mentioned, including combating climate change, creating opportunities for youth, encouraging corporate social responsibility, and preserving the deep cultural ties between our two countries.

Q    Thank you.

MR. EARNEST:  April.

Q    Josh, I have three subjects I want to ask you about.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, ma’am.

Q    I want to go to the Secret Service.  When there’s a culture that goes on in an organization and you lop the head off, and the culture still continues, does that mean that there could be an opportunity for a commission -- an independent commission to watch or keep an eye on the Service and Service members, and maybe offer some sort of punishment that has teeth?  Is there an opportunity for something like that, as we're seeing continual information that's negative about this group?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that, April.  The first is that you change culture from the -- culture starts at the top.  And Director Clancy is somebody who has a sterling reputation inside the United States Secret Service, but also outside.  And he is somebody who has set a very high standard for himself in terms of his service to the country and his service inside the Secret Service.  And that positions him well to serve as a leader for that organization, and to implement some of the changes that he has acknowledged are badly needed.

Now, Director Clancy is also not all talk.  He has taken some decisive steps in his own right to try to begin implementing some of the needed reforms of that agency.  The first, you’ll recall, is that there were a number of members of the senior leadership at the United States Secret Service who were moved out of their leadership positions.  Some were transferred to other DHS components, others took retirement.  And that is an indication that he is willing to shake things up at that agency. And he did that by making a change at the leadership level with the Secret Service.

He’s also conducted a comprehensive, bottom-to-top assessment to determine the root causes behind some of the recent security incidents that have been the responsibility of the Secret Service.  He’s also sought additional training for Secret Service personnel that operate here on the White House grounds.

Director Clancy has also worked closely with the independent advisory committee that DHS Secretary Johnson established at the end of last year to take a look at the actions, policies, and procedures of the Secret Service and made a whole host of recommended changes.  Director Clancy is responsible for implementing those reforms.

So he has demonstrated, I think, a commitment to the kinds of reforms that are necessary at the Secret Service.  He takes very seriously the responsibility that he has as the director to influence and reform the culture at that agency.  And he talked about that in his testimony today.  And I think that is a very clear indication that he’s the right person for this very difficult job.

Q    All right, on another subject, any movement on anything when it comes to issues of Loretta Lynch and that -- I guess it’s 129 days now that she has not been up for a confirmation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, April, I think that brings me to what I would describe as my stat of the day.  The stat of the day.  Is everybody ready for this?  I was --

Q    Is this going to be daily?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s daily for today.  And this is the statistic:  Ms. Lynch has now been waiting 129 days for confirmation.  That reflects the number of days that the previous five AG nominees waited combined in the United States Senate for their vote.  So those previous nominees were Eric Holder, Michael Mukasey, Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft and Janet Reno.  So there are both Democrats and Republicans in here.  And all five of them have now -- if you add up the number of days that they waited for their confirmation vote, that is the number of days that Loretta Lynch alone has waited for her confirmation.  And that speaks to the kind of unconscionable delay that we’ve seen in the United States Senate that I referred to yesterday.

That's pretty good, right?

Q    That's tweetable.  I’m tweeting it now. 

MR. EARNEST:  There you go.

Q    Okay, all right, and next on the next issue, Ferguson. Ferguson, I guess right now, is ground zero when it comes to race relations in this country in 2015.  And you have a movement afoot by many of the black lawmakers here on the Hill to try to make the government there reflect the community, meaning adding more  -- or electing more African Americans or other minorities on city council and other electable positions.  What is the thought of this administration with that move to try to make the city government, the elected officials look like the community more so?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s the view of the administration that it’s the people in the community of Ferguson that should make the decisions about who is leading that city.  And I have read some anecdotal accounts that we are seeing enhanced civic engagement in that community in the aftermath of some of the violence and strife that has racked that community.  That's a good thing.

There is an opportunity for people to get involved and engaged in our democracy in a way that can tangibly influence the leadership of their communities.  And so the fact that we are seeing more people declare their candidacy for local office in a place -- in a community like Ferguson, the fact that we're seeing more people outwardly encouraging their friends and neighbors and others in their community to participate in the election process is a good thing.

The President continues to be incredibly confident that if the American people are willing to get engaged in their local government, that they can exact the kinds of changes that they want to see in their communities; that citizens in a community like Ferguson do have the power to bring change to their communities.  And that is a good thing.  That is an important lesson that the President believes is important not just for the citizens in Ferguson, but for citizens all across the country. 

And the President talked about this a little bit at the speech that he delivered in Selma a week and a half ago, that the lesson to take away from the historic events that took place in Selma, Alabama is that average people, when they band together and seek to change the country that they love, can be incredibly powerful, even against very entrenched forces. 

And that should be a cause for optimism for people all across the country.  It’s not a reason to despair, but should be a reason that people can be optimistic that they do have the power to change their communities in a way that better reflects their ambitions and their will and, frankly, the high standards that they’ve set for the community in which they live.


Q    Josh, a couple of quick ones.  One, I’m wondering if you might be able to give an answer that we’ve been unable to get out of the State Department.  Do you know if Secretary -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the OF-109 Separation Statement Form that all State Department employees are supposed to sign?  Because apparently, State has not been able to answer that question?

MR. EARNEST:  I have no idea, but I’m sure that either Secretary Clinton and her team can get that answer for you.

Q    Not yet, I tried. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but I don’t happen to know the answer to that question.

Q    How about more broadly?  That is specifically for the State Department and USIA.  But as I understand it, similar separation statement forms are required for other agencies.  Do you know if it's routine for Cabinet secretaries to not have to do that, and that would just be something for lower level?  Or and when previous Cabinet secretaries left, have they been required to sign some more statements? 

MR. EARNEST:  My guess is that that’s going to vary by agency.  I can tell you that at the White House that -- while I have not gone through the separation process here at the White House, some of my colleagues have, and there is a lot of paperwork that’s involved, including signing some documentation related to their tenure here at the White House.  But I don’t know what that process is at the State Department or other agencies.

Q    But that’s not something that senior officials would be able to just say, yeah, I'm not going to do that, it's only for lower levels?  It's generally something that applies to everybody who is leaving -- at the White House. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, my understanding at the White House that that applies to everybody that serves at the White House.  I don’t know whether it applies to the President and the Vice President, I guess.  But in terms of staff who work here, I do know that they have to sign those kinds of agreements. 

Q    Okay.  And then a quick one on the Israeli elections.  I know you’ve been very careful not to show any favoritism towards either side, obviously.  But isn’t it rather obvious that Isaac Herzog would make it easier for the President to sell the Iran deal, obviously.  He’s been on record saying that he trusts the President to get a good deal, whereas Netanyahu came all the way over here to rather extensively criticize the emerging deal.

And then, of course, you have the question of the Palestinian State, which now Bibi Netanyahu is saying that he would not be in favor of. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, as we speak, there are Israeli citizens going to the polls right now.  And so I'm reluctant to talk about, in much detail at all, about the individual candidates that are on the ballot there.

So at this point, I'm going to refrain from opining on that admittedly relevant observation.  But after the polls are closed and we do a briefing in here next, then maybe we can have a little bit more discussion about that. 

Q    Okay.  And then one last quick one on the budget.  Of course, you mentioned the House Republicans were out with their budget today.  It does, they claim, lead to have balanced the budget at the end of 10 years.  You might say there are some gimmicks in there, but they have put that as a goal, and they claim to get to that point after 10 years.  The President’s budget does not do that.  Does the President view a balanced budget as a goal, as something that should be strived for?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, one thing that is important about the Republican budget is that it does include some gimmicks, as you pointed out.  But it also does not specify the kind of draconian cuts that would be required in a lot of programs that benefit the middle class in order to attain the goal that they aspire to. 

So that is one element of their budget proposal that is a little questionable, to say the least -- which is that they’re willing to say and tout the benefits of their proposal without being candid about the kind of significant sacrifices that would be required in order to attain that goal.  In this case, sacrifice means essentially sacrificing so much of the interests of the middle class in this country in a way that in the mind of the President would be detrimental to the country and detrimental to our economy.

When it comes to deficit reduction and the President’s budget proposal, a couple of things merit pointing out.  The first is that, since the President has took office, we have succeeded in reducing the deficit by nearly two-thirds now.  So when the President talks about deficit reduction, he’s somebody who has the credibility and the record to actually discuss it because he’s done it. 

The second is -- and I would admit on the front end that he’s done that in some situations by working with Republicans.  In some situations it's by working against Republicans successfully in the matter of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to make sure that they’re paying their fair share in terms of deficit reduction.

Early in the presidency when there was a lot of talk about what was needed to try and stabilize our rising debt and deficit, there was a lot of talk about the need to ensure that our deficit-to-GDP ratio was down to 3 percent.  And for the last couple of years we’ve actually seen that ratio down below 3 percent.  And because of the fiscally responsible proposal that the President has put out, over the next 10 years our deficit-to-GDP ratio would remain below 3 percent over that period of time.

And what our economists, and presumably some accountants tell us, is that the key to stabilizing our debt is making sure that that ratio stays at 3 percent.  And the fact of the matter is, because of the wise choices that the President has put forward, we could actually keep that ratio below 3 percent.

Q    So does that mean -- given what the economists and accountants you’re citing say, does that mean that an actual balanced budget is no longer a goal, or should not be a goal of fiscal policy in the White House here?  A balanced budget.  I’m not talking about getting down to percentage of GDP and all that -- but a balanced budget, is that something that is not actually important?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s not how I would describe it.  I think what I would describe it is our priority is on making sure that we are dealing with our deficit situation, and one way to do that is to make fiscally responsible decisions about how to keep the ratio -- or that percentage below 3 percent.  And that’s exactly what the President is does.

Q    -- continuing deficits, not a balance? 

MR. EARNEST:  But those continuing deficits would be stabilized under the policy decisions that this administration has put forward.


Q    In his testimony earlier today, Director Clancy referred to a video which he described as showing events somewhat at odds with the information that is out there.  Has anybody in the White House seen the video of what happened at the East Entrance that night?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any White House personnel who have seen that video.  There may have been some.  But this is a video that I’m confident has been turned over to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security that is conducting an independent investigation into this matter.

Q    And for the record, does the President retain full confidence in Director Clancy?

MR. EARNEST:  Without a doubt.


Q    Back to the Iran situation a little bit.  Now, I’m confused by the widely divergent perspectives on the status of talks right now, the Iranians saying that things are moving along at a good pace and that they expect to meet this deadline for a framework, you, on the other hand, I think you said a 50/50 shot --

MR. EARNEST:  At best.

Q    -- at best.  Are you increasingly hobbled by congressional action on this thing?  The Corker bill, specifically, now has six Democratic supporters -- cosponsors, Menendez, Kaine, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Nelson, Bennet, King.  Ten Democrats have apparently signed onto the bill if Mitch McConnell agreed not to fast-track it, which he has apparently done so.  You're right at the cusp now of a veto-proof majority.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Doug, we have been pretty clear about the fact that the President would veto a legislative proposal like the one that you described because it would interfere with the ability of the executive branch to negotiate this agreement alongside our international partners with the Iranians.  And the President has been very clear about the important role that Congress has and will continue to play in these negotiations and the implementation of this agreement.

I mentioned this yesterday and I still read a couple of news reports that insisted, somehow, unbelievably, that the administration continues to insist that Congress doesn’t have a role in this agreement.  And that’s just flat-out wrong.  We have been crystal-clear from the very beginning that Congress had an important role to play on the front end in terms of passing statutory sanctions against Iran that, because of the wise implementation of this administration to coordinate those efforts with the international community, we have compelled Iran to the negotiating table. 

And throughout the negotiations, the administration has been aggressive in making sure that our congressional partners are aware of the status of the talks.  And what the President envisions is using the authority that Congress has already given him in the context of that sanctions bill to waive some elements of those sanctions as a part of this broader agreement.

But the President does not believe that Congress should vote to take away those sanctions.  That would be going easy on Iran. To vote to take away those sanctions right away would be a bad thing.  Because what the President believes is that we need to make sure that Iran is demonstrating sustained compliance with the agreement not over the course of a few days and not over the course of a few weeks, not even over the course of a few months  -- over the long term.  We want to see that Iran is demonstrating a genuine compliance with the terms of the agreement, that they are submitting to the inspections as they agreed to in the agreement.  And if they do that over the longer period of time, then Congress should step forward and play their rightful role, and make a decision about the wisdom of removing that sanctions regime.

Q    Is the administration tweaking the agreement in the negotiating process in any way because of Congress’s increased flexing of its muscle?

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, candidly, no.  This is an agreement that we are still working closely with our international partners and closely, obviously, with the Iranians who are sitting on the other side of the table.  And what we are determined to do is to ensure that we find an agreement that shuts down every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon and codifies with a lot of clarity exactly how intrusive these set of inspections will be to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.  And if Iran is not able to come to terms with those expectations, with those commitments, then there won’t be an agreement; that the President has been very clear, his National Security Advisor has been very clear that the President won’t sign a bad deal, that he’ll walk away, that no deal is far better than a bad deal.

But if we can reach an agreement where we shut down their path -- every path they have to a nuclear weapon and make sure that we’ve got intrusive inspections in place, and over the long term, we can verify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement, that would be a good deal for the United States and it would avert the kind of nuclear arms race that we’re concerned could precipitate if Iran is able to continue making progress toward a nuclear weapon.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  I want to go back to the hearing today, and there did seem to be some bipartisan frustration with some of the answers given by Director Clancy, whether it was the five-day delay in him learning about what happened, the lack of him personally getting involved, and, finally, one member of Congress suggested you can’t just punt this to the inspector general.  Is there a sense that, no matter what, that the buck stops here?  Or is the White House comfortable with this being handed off completely to the inspector general, which seemed to be the impressions the members of Congress got today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, listen, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the testimony, but describing the Director’s decision as punting to the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security is a curious notion.  The Inspector General exists to have the resources necessary to conduct an investigation -- an independent investigation that isn’t subject to political interference, to get to the bottom of what exactly happened.  They’re vested with resources and professionals inside that office so that they can conduct a tough but fair investigation to determine exactly what happened.  That’s why the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general exists. 

So it does reflect the Director’s commitment to getting to the bottom of what exactly happened that he has asked the DHS IG to step in and conduct this investigation.  And so I think that speaks to his willingness and determination to get to the truth.

Q    Would Director Clancy asking questions of the agent fall under the category you call political interference?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, not necessarily.  But in the minds of some, including in the minds of some people he was testifying before in Congress, you could imagine that it might.  I mean, it’s much easier for me to imagine that he is sitting there in front of the congressional committee that has oversight over the Secret Service and having them asking him why he didn’t refer it to the inspector general.  After all, they would say, the inspector general exists to conduct independent investigations like this.  So it strikes me as curious that somebody would be criticizing him for taking this very prudent step that is rooted in his commitment to making the changes that are necessary at that organization. 

Q    If I can ask you just really quickly about Loretta Lynch, and obviously about Corker and Lamar Alexander saying that they’re not going to vote for her.  And I just wonder the level of confidence at this point about her confirmation, and ultimately, if she is confirmed does the margin by which she is confirmed make a difference?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me just say that if Ms. Lynch were not confirmed by the United States Senate, it would be an astonishing display of partisanship.  Particularly given the fact that not a single member of the United States Senate has raised a legitimate concern about her aptitude for that office. 

This is an independent career professional who has successfully prosecuted terrorists in New York.  She has successfully prosecuted public figures for breaching the public’s trust.  She has succeeded in securing settlements with some of the largest actors on Wall Street for the actions that they took at the height of the financial crisis.  This is somebody who has a sterling reputation with law enforcement because of her commitment to toughness and fairness.  And that is why she has earned strong bipartisan support in the United States Senate.

Now, it's the responsibility for each of these senators to make their own decisions, but if the outcome were to be that she were denied confirmation for this seat, it would be astonishing.

Q    Well, in his statement, Lamar Alexander said that this is an opportunity within the Senate rules -- in his words -- “to express my disapproval of the President’s abuse of executive authority and it's an opportunity I intend to take.”  Do you take any issue that he is working within senate rules, or is his right to use that vote the way that --

MR. EARNEST:  So he’s acknowledging that he’s playing politics with the nation’s top law enforcement officer.  I think that is -- I guess I have got to hand it to him for his honesty and for his candor, but I can’t imagine that many Americans are going to think that the confirmation of a well-qualified attorney general, a historic attorney general, is an opportunity for partisan politics.  Again, I don’t think that’s a notion that many Americans are going to agree with.

Q    And is the White House looking at the margin or do you just want the confirmation?  It’s irrelevant what the margin is?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we believe that Ms. Lynch should be confirmed in bipartisan fashion and she has already waited far too long.

Okay.  Cheryl. 

Q    Thanks, Josh.  A few weeks ago the President and the Department of Labor proposed a new fiduciary standards rule for retirement plans.  In the interim, a major industry group has come and said the approach is flawed and especially the CEA’s report is flawed.  What is your response to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess my first response is that it's not particularly surprising that an industry-backed study is raising concerns about a proposal that would crack down on the industry.  I think that’s the first thing. 

The second thing is it is undeniably true that the rules that this administration has put in place would protect the retirement savings of millions of Americans in a way that would actually lead to preventing $17 billion of losses. 

Now the fact is, all we are suggesting is that rules should be put in place that govern the way that financial advisors make decisions; that there are some financial advisors who are not required to put the best interest of their clients ahead of their own personal financial interests.  This seems like a pretty common-sense thing, and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of financial advisors are honest brokers -- no pun intended -- and they are individuals who are genuinely vested in the success of their clients.  All the more reason it’s just common sense that we should put in place very tough rules of the road that requires every single financial advisor to abide by this standard when it comes to offering advice to middle-class Americans that are trying to figure out how to do the responsible thing, which is wisely save for their retirement. 

Q    So you stand by the CEA’s approach then?

MR. EARNEST:  Without a doubt.  And in fact, the criticism from the securities industry is I think evidence that we’re probably on the right track here. 

All right.  Tommy.

MR. EARNEST:  Thanks, Josh.  I have two questions for you.  First of all, over the weekend Secretary Kerry said in an interview that the letter from the 47 Republican senators was unconstitutional.  I wanted to know if the White House agrees with that assessment and if so what can be done about that.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you can check with the State Department for a more detailed accounting of his comments, but my sense is that he was referring to the fact that, for centuries, the responsibility of the President of the United States to conduct foreign policy for the country is a well-established principle.  It's one that’s described in the Constitution and it's one that Presidents in both parties have abided by. 

Q    Do you think it's more a violation in spirit than the letter, maybe? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, maybe so.  I'm not an attorney, so it's hard for me to sort of draw those conclusions.

Q    All right.  Secondly, there’s been a report on Fox News that a source with knowledge says that the Senate is launching an investigation into allegations that the administration interfered with the Israeli election.  Do you have a reaction to that report?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no -- primarily because it doesn’t sound like it's particularly well-sourced.  But the -- I'm sorry?

Q    That’s a reaction. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, maybe.  But I guess I think the broader point is just to remind you and others who may be interested in this story that the administration, since earlier this year, has gone to great lengths to demonstrate our commitment to not interfering in the Israeli elections. 

And the truth is there are -- that is a stance that has garnered some criticism.  But the fact is, this is a principle that the President believes is really important because it goes to the nature of the strong relationship between the United States and Israel that we should not subject that kind of critically important alliance to partisan bickering.  And the President has gone to great lengths to ensure that he didn’t leave anybody even with the appearance of interfering with those elections.

All right. John.

Q    Thank you, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  You’re welcome, John.  (Laughter.)

Q    And happy Saint Patrick’s Day.  Two questions.  First, could you elaborate a little bit on the role that the President has played in the last few weeks in Greece renegotiating its laws from the institution, so to speak, and particularly talking to Chancellor Merkel, and a conversation -- in the White House with the Athens government urging them to negotiate?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, John, I don’t have a lot of additional detail to provide to you about the kinds of conversations the President has had with Chancellor Merkel.  We have acknowledged in the past that it's not uncommon for economic issues on the continent to come up in their conversations.  Obviously the United States is very interested in the financial and economic health of one of our largest trading partners. 

But it's principally the Department of Treasury that has been the point of contact for monitoring that situation and engaging in conversations with their financial counterparts both throughout the EU and in Greece as those two entities work to resolve their differences.

Q    My other question, just following up on Tommy’s question on the 47 senators -- I'm sure both the President and you have seen the historical precedents that have been provided, the case of a Congressman of New York meeting with the German foreign minister in August 1939 to say we needed better relations with Berlin, to the 10 Democratic House members in the ‘80s writing Commandant Ortega, voicing disagreement with the Reagan administration’s policy.  Do you think these are accurate historical analogies for the letter of the 47 senators sent?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, John, I am not steeped in the details of those previous engagements that have been described by some as a precedent for the letter written by 47 Republican senators.  I will say that it's telling that those who are scrambling to explain and defend their signatures on the letter have to go back decades -- in one case, it sounds like eight decades -- to try to find a precedent.  I think that might be an indication they might be just a little bit defensive.  And I think that’s understandable given the kind of bipartisan criticism that they have received.

But as it relates to those specific matters, I'm not steeped in the details, but I guess my point would be it doesn’t matter how relevant those previous examples are.  What matter is that there’s a clear principle at stake.  And I do think that it's true that any time you have 47 senators from the same party that are writing a letter to one of the chief adversaries of the United States, that’s probably not a very good idea and probably is doing more to serve the interest of the party than it is serving the interest of the country.


Q    Thank, Josh.  I’ve got a couple questions about Syria.


Q    Does the White House have any response to reports that the Assad regime carried out a chlorine gas attack in northern Syria yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  I do.  The United States is aware of these reports and the videos that are circulating on social media.  We are seeking additional information and cannot at this point confirm the details.  But if these allegations are confirmed, this would, tragically, be only the latest example of the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people.

The regime continues to inflict daily terror through air strikes, barrel bombings, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, murder, starvation, and the use of chemical weapons.  We continue to take all allegations of chemical weapons use, and in particular, these recent allegations regarding the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon, very seriously.  And we have long held that any credible allegations of chemical weapons used must be investigated, and we support the OPCW’s fact-finding mission in this pursuit.

Q    So are you saying that if this is confirmed, that these videos are confirmed, you would place blame on the Assad regime?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, there is additional information that we need to learn in this matter, and if they were confirmed, we obviously would have very significant concerns about the situation. 

Q    And presumably, though -- you mentioned the Assad regime in your response, not anybody else, not any other parties in this conflict.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the point is that’s the accusation that’s out there, and that’s what I'm responding to.  And this is an accusation that we need to learn more about.

Q    And related to this, the U.N. on Friday passed a resolution that was drafted by the U.S. that would impose Chapter 7 military responses, potentially, if the use of chlorine gas or other chemical weapons is confirmed.  So what actions would the United States press for if this is confirmed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll wait until it's confirmed before we start availing ourselves to those kinds of Chapter 7 options.

Q    And one more, actually.


Q    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded yesterday to what Secretary Kerry said, and he seemed to think that the comments were directed, in fact, at Assad himself, not the Assad regime, and he said that he wants to see actions before anything happens.  So I'm just wondering what’s the White House’s response to that? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, just that we’ve -- I think we’ve tried to be very specific about what Secretary Kerry was referring to, which is that he does not envision a scenario where President Assad pulls up a seat at the table because, frankly, President Assad has lost legitimacy to participate in those kinds of negotiations.  But what is true is that resolving the unstable situation in Syria through a political transition will require substantive, meaningful negotiations between the moderate Syrian opposition and some elements of the regime.  But we do not envision a role for Assad either in those talks or in the future of Syria.


Q    Thank you.  Josh, the leader of Israel has come out against a two-state solution.  Where does that leave the peace process?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple things about that.  The first is, I’ve gone to great lengths to try to avoid leaving anybody with even the appearance or even the suggestion that the United States or anybody here at the White House is putting their thumb on the scale in favor or against any candidate that's participating in the Israeli elections.  The stakes for doing that are even more significant when the polls are actually open and people are casting their votes.  So at this point, I would refrain from commenting on the substantive claim that was made by one candidate in the Israeli elections.

But as I mentioned yesterday, the policy of the United States about the two-state solution remains.  And we continue to hold that position because we believe it is in the best interest of our close allies in Israel.  We also believe it's in the interest of the Palestinian people to resolve the situation in that manner, and that successfully resolving their difference would be a way for us to ease tensions throughout the region.  And it continues to be a priority of this administration.

Q    You went out of your way to note that these comments were made in the context of an election, an imminent election, an election ongoing at this very hour.  Is that reason, in the administration’s view, not to take it as seriously as you might take it otherwise?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think you can be assured that the administration takes very seriously everything that the leader of one of our closest allies says in public. 


Q    Just to clarify on Syria, I thought that you and the President have said in the past that Syria gave up its chemical weapons and that was one of your foreign policy accomplishments.

MR. EARNEST:  The accusation at this point is that the Assad regime has used chlorine weapons in this specific attack.  The chemical weapons that were destroyed that were previously maintained by the Syrian regime were things like sarin gas and other weaponized chemicals that were used for attacks.  Things like chlorine do have legitimate commercial purposes, but they have no legitimate use in a war context like this.

Q    The chlorine wasn’t counted as a chemical weapon?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, chlorine is a --

Q    I mean for the purposes of your effort to get him to get rid of his chemical weapons.

MR. EARNEST:  The point is that when chlorine is used as a weapon it is a chemical weapon and one that we condemn.  We did not seek to rid the nation of Syria of chlorine gas because there are legitimate uses for chlorine.


Q    I wanted to ask you about the Republican budget.  There are -- the Republican plan, you basically described it as -- you said it's a gimmick.  You said it's a slush fund.  You said it's a backdoor proposal.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be clear, Senator McCain and Chairman Ryan described it that was as well.  So not just me.  I'm in good company.

Q    More generally, on the actual amount, the Republicans have increased the defense spending more than what the Obama administration has.

MR. EARNEST:  But, again, this goes to Jim’s question -- I don't mean to interrupt you -- but just that the only way they can reach that calculation is through establishing this set-aside slush fund.  Again, “slush fund” is the way that Paul Ryan had previously described it and John McCain had previously described it -- as a “backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the budget process” is exactly what Paul Ryan said.

Q    I'd like you to respond to the idea that folks like Senator Cotton have said that the White House is shortchanging defense; at this time when we have problems in Ukraine, the Middle East and China, that the White House is not spending enough on defense.  Can you respond to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess I'd say a couple of things about it.  The first is the President has put forward a plan that is consistent with the recommendations that he has received from his civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon.  So Senator Cotton is certainly entitled to his opinion, but it stands in contrast to the expert advice that the President has received from the uniform and military and civilian leadership at the Pentagon.

The second thing is Senator Cotton is certainly welcome to put forward his own proposal.  What he should not do is resort to a gimmick, as some other members of his party have, in terms of setting up a slush fund to set this policy.  If Senator Cotton feels strongly about this, then what he should do is he should put out his own proposal about what level these programs should be funded at.  He should be mindful, though, of the principle that is well established, a bipartisan principle that increases in defense spending above sequestration levels should be paired dollar for dollar with increases in nondefense spending -- that we're not going to be in a situation in which we shortchange the middle class and programs that they benefit from to pay for our national security; that if we're going to make investments in our national security, we need to make investments in our economic security, too.

And this is a principle that Chairman Ryan and Senator Murray agreed to a couple of years ago, and it is the way that they were able to work in bipartisan fashion in the past to ensure that our budget was funded at appropriate levels.  We’d welcome a return to that kind of endeavor, but I suspect that's not what Senator Cotton has in mind.

Q    I have another topic, on Tikrit.  The Iraqi forces have sort of experienced a bit of a setback there, pausing their counteroffensive against ISIS.  How big of a -- you did call this a dress rehearsal for Mosul.  How big of a setback is this?  And there are also calls for the U.S. to bring airstrikes.  Is that something that's on the table?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the first thing I'd say is the way that Iraqi security forces have described the situation outside Tikrit right now is that they are in a position where they are being resupplied and getting fresh personnel and materiel and equipment to carry on the fight.  So for questions about their current posture, I'd refer you to Iraqi security forces.  As we've pointed out, U.S. military forces are not involved in that particular effort.

Second, I think that's the reason that I would not describe the offensive against Tikrit as a dress rehearsal for the offensive against Mosul.  I think that there are some commentators who have said that; I'm not aware that the administration has described it that way.

The other thing that I would point out is that we know that ISIL fighters have sustained significant losses in that battle and that we are seeing signs of significant internal dissension within the ranks as they try to defend that city.

The other thing that we know is that Iraq’s political leadership has succeeded in ensuring that that operation continues to be the effort of a multi-sectarian force that includes elements of not just Shia militias, but also Sunni tribal fighters, as well.  And we know that so far there are not widespread reports of those fighters trying to use that operation as cover for sectarian revenge. 

This is something that we were concerned about at the beginning.  We took a lot of solace in the public pronouncements of Prime Minister Abadi and other Sunni leaders who showed support for this operation.  They apparently, based on the report, based on what we know now, have lived up to that standard.  And we certainly would encourage them to continue to do so.  That is going to be critical to the long-term success of Iraqi security forces in taking the fight to ISIL in the country. 
As it relates to any conversations about U.S. military involvement, I will tell you that the United States military in Iraq continues to be in very close touch with Iraq’s political leaders and with the leaders of Iraq’s security forces.  And we do so to discuss all of the efforts that are underway by Iraq’s security forces against ISIL on the ground.  And there are a number of communities and a number of regions of the country where Iraq’s security forces are having success in pushing back ISIL.

We continue to be supportive of those efforts, and we're going to continue to have conversations with them about all of their efforts.

Q    One last thing on -- I want you to respond to what Mitch McConnell said.  He basically said that the administration has not lifted a finger to move this human trafficking bill, which is stopping Loretta Lynch’s confirmation.  Is the White House doing enough on that specific bill?  And then on more generally, we kind of saw the same type of White House response when the DHS issue was happening.  We didn't really see you all getting into the ring with Congress.  You sort of say Congress needs to figure this out on their own.  Is that the sort of new strategy with this Republican-led Congress, for you all to sort of allow them to work things out on their own, even when there are some security issues that are being held up?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Toluse, I did not see the Leader’s comments on the floor, but I take you -- assuming that what you've told me is accurate, and it usually is when you relay these kinds of comments.  I have to admit, though, I’m actually surprised that a seasoned, veteran leader of the United States Senate like Mitch McConnell would need the assistance of the President of the United States to pass a common-sense piece of legislation like a child sex trafficking bill.  I’m surprised that he would need help to get that done.

This seems like a pretty common-sense thing.  And if we're just focused on the policy and focused on common ground and working in bipartisan fashion to get things done, I’m confident that Senator McConnell should be able to move that through the United States Senate.

There’s one thing that -- there are a couple of pieces of this -- and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to talk about this -- there are couple pieces of this that I think are relevant here.  The first is that the House of Representatives, which typically is regarded as the more partisan body based on their election schedule and based on the rules that govern their floor procedure, has actually passed a version of this legislation with strong bipartisan support.  And the Republican sponsor of this legislation, a gentleman named Erik Paulsen from the great state of Minnesota -- when asked about the specific provision in the Senate bill that Democrats find -- many Democrats find objectionable, said, “There is no reason it should be included in these bills.”  This is the Republican congressman who sponsored the House version of bill.

He said that this objectionable provision -- that there is no reason it should be included in these bills.  “This issue” -- meaning combating child sex trafficking -- “is far too important to tie it up with an unrelated fight with politics as usual.  To me, this is about saving lives.”
So much was made of my rather forceful argument about this yesterday, but it’s entirely consistent with the argument that's being made by the Republican sponsor of the bill in the House.  So Senator McConnell doesn't need the help of the President of the United States to pass this bill.  He just merely needs to ensure that he’s taking on this very important issue in genuine bipartisan fashion. 

That was the solution to the DHS fight -- that the reason that Republicans got bogged down in trying to pass funding for the Department of Homeland Security was because they tried to do it along party lines.  That didn't succeed.  But when Republicans -- or when the leaders in both the House and the Senate turned to a bipartisan approach, they succeeded in passing a full year funding bill that had bipartisan support.  And they got that done.  That is the recipe for governing in the current environment.

When you have Republicans who are in charge of the Congress, and a Democrat sitting in the White House, it places a premium on both sides succeeding in acting in bipartisan fashion.  By definition, it’s going to have to be bipartisan.  It’s going to be passed by a Republican-majority Congress and signed into law by a Democratic President.

So as soon as Republican leaders are ready to start acting in bipartisan fashion in working with Democrats to get things done, I’m confident that they can be productive -- even when it comes to something as common-sense as trying to fight child sex trafficking.

Connie, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thank you.  Two questions.  Vanuatu -- beyond what you said yesterday, what sort aid is the U.S. giving to Vanuatu and the other islands?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the USAID has been designated at the government agency in that region of the world that will be the point of contact for our ongoing efforts there.  So I know that they're working in close concert with other countries in the region, including Australia, as they try to help the people of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and other places that have been affected by this terrible cyclone.

Q    Will the Prince have a press conference?  Or is that beyond him, beneath him?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry?

Q    Will Prince Charles have a press conference?  Or is that beneath him?

MR. EARNEST:  Oh, I don't know if that's what he’s planned. But you can check with his folks to see what his plans are to talk to reporters while he’s in the U.S.

Q    That story about South African nuclear stockpiles -- is the U.S. in active talks with South Africa about their nuclear stockpile, or are you concerned about it?

MR. EARNEST:  Connie, I haven’t seen that story.  We’ll have to take the question.

Q    Hey, Josh, real quick to breaking news just from Jen Psaki over at State.  She says they have no record -- they’re fairly certain -- that’s a quote -- that she did not sign a separation statement, that Secretary Clinton did not sign the Separation Statement.  And pressed further, Psaki said, “We don’t have a record of it at the State Department.”  Neither do they have a record of Secretary Rice or Powell’s signing of the separation agreement.  Your reaction?  Did she break the law?

MR. EARNEST:  If previous Secretaries of State didn’t do it, it doesn’t sound like she did.  But, again, for those kinds of questions, the State Department is the right place to get the answer.

Thanks, everybody.  Have a good day.

1:47 P.M. EDT