Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/20/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:27 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. TGIF. It’s nice to see all of you today. I will just note before we get to your questions that the mood of the weather is indicative of the mood here at the White House, for today is the last day for White House Communications Director Jen Palmieri at the White House.
So many of you know Jen well. She started here at the end of 2011, and over that course of time has served at the White House during the President’s reelection campaign and during a very busy period here at the White House over the last couple of years. So she is somebody who has earned the respect and admiration of so many people here at the White House, not just for her obvious skill at what she does, but really the way that she does her job I think has really -- has many people sad about her departure today.
So that said, I’m confident that she has a very bright, professional future, and I think it’s possible that while today is her last day in this White House, it may not be the last time that she serves at the White House. So we’ll see.
Q I thought you didn’t want to talk about 2016.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) With that not so oblique reference to the future, Nedra, why don’t we get to the questions.
Q Today we have another Islamic State affiliate claiming an attack -- for a very deadly attack today in Yemen, after Tunisia earlier this week. What can you tell us about those claims?
MR. EARNEST: Nedra, let me start by saying that the United States strongly condemns today’s suicide bombings that killed well over a hundred, and left hundreds of others wounded. We express our condolences to the families of the victims. We deplore the brutality of the terrorists who perpetrated today’s unprovoked attack on Yemeni citizens who were peacefully engaging in Friday prayers in their places of worship.
Political instability threatens the wellbeing of all Yemenis and denies them the opportunity to live in safety, peace and prosperity. Today’s attack on the mosques in Sana’a underscores that terrorism affects all Yemenis, and no one political group alone can confront the challenges facing Yemen.
As it relates to your specific question, however, I can tell you that we cannot at this point confirm the veracity of the claim of these extremists that they are affiliated with the Islamic State. We have seen these kinds of claims in the past from other extremist groups. It does appear that these kinds of claims are often made for a perception that they have that it benefits their propaganda efforts.
There is not at this point clear evidence of an operational link between these extremists in Yemen and ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria. A similar thing could be said about the claims of ISIL’s role in the attack in Tunisia earlier this week.
But what is clear is that the United States and our coalition partners are very aware of just how dangerous the ideology and tactics of ISIL are. And we have taken -- we have built this coalition and taken the action that we have that includes a very robust military component for the safety and wellbeing of the American people and citizens across the West. But what is also true, as is evidenced by today’s attack, is that the people in the region, including Muslims, are also in danger because of ISIL’s extremist ideology and brutal acts of terror.
So that is why we have succeeded in building such a diverse coalition that includes governments from the region to take the fight to ISIL and to limit the kind of threat that they pose not just to the United States, but to countries around the world.
Q We haven’t seen Islamic State supporters claim responsibility for such a major attack in Yemen before. So what does that say about the President’s goal of degrading and eventually defeating the Islamic State? That doesn’t really seem to be a good sign.
MR. EARNEST: Well -- but again, Nedra, it seems -- it's plausible that the reason -- and again, we’re talking about this incident just hours after it took place. We have seen other groups claim affiliation with ISIL, purely for its propaganda value. And we’re still investigating to determine whether or not there are actually command-and-control structures in place that may provide some evidence to substantiate the claim that ISIL was involved in these attacks.
At this point, there is no indication that there is an operational link, but that’s something that is still being investigated by our national security professionals.
But there is no doubt that the kind of extremism that is a part of ISIL is endemic in other places in the region. What we are seeing, at least in this case, is we are seeing extremists try to capitalize on the chaos and instability inside of Yemen to carry out these acts of violence. And that is why the United States has been so deeply invested in trying to work with partners on the ground in countries across this region of the world, to try to help those countries build up the capacity to ward off the threat that is posed by these extremists.
And there has been a substantial investment made in Yemen to try to bolster the central government there, but there is no doubt that there has been a lot of political instability in Yemen that has only worsened and that has created some chaos and does make it easier for these kinds of extremist groups to capitalize on that chaos and carry out acts of violence, and to spread their hateful ideology.
So there’s no doubt of how dangerous this is, but there’s also evidence to indicate that these kinds of extremists are under continual pressure from the United States and our allies. And the latest piece of evidence that I can point to is that the Department of Defense has now confirmed that a U.S. military strike did take off the battlefield an al-Shabaab leader who was responsible and did have some operational control over the terror attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
The Department of Defense has confirmed that that individual was killed by a military strike. And that is -- Somalia is another country where we have seen extremists try to capitalize on the political instability inside the country to use it as a safe haven to plot and carry out attacks around the globe. And we obviously have a lot of work to do to eliminate the threat that exists inside Somalia.
But what is true is that the kind of pressure that we’re applying to these extremists, even in places like Somalia, is yielding benefits for the world but also for the interests of the United States.
Q Can you tell us some more about the President’s call with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday? Did he raise the discrepancy between the Prime Minister’s comments on a Palestinian state before and after the election? And also, what did he say to him about how he will go about reassessing options for Middle East peace?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, I don’t have a whole lot of additional details to provide beyond the written readout that I believe that you saw yesterday afternoon after the call was completed. But what I can tell you, though, is I can tell you that the kind of public reaction that you have heard from me is entirely consistent with the private conversation that the President had with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let me give you one example.
The first is, you’ve heard me say on a number of occasions now that the outcome of the election has had, and will have, no impact on the commitment of this administration and this country to invest in a strong security relationship with Israel. That means that the military-to-military relationship between our two countries remains strong; that the intelligence community relationships that exist will continue to be characterized by regular sharing of intelligence and the exchange of information that only enhances the security of Israeli citizens and American citizens.
These kinds of relationships are critical to the security of the Israeli people, and those kinds of relationships and that kind of cooperation will continue. That is something that I have said on a number of occasions over the last two or three days. That is something that the President repeated in his phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I’ll point out that that is something that the President said to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the very beginning of their conversation. And I think that is an indication that that's where our relationship starts.
But you've also heard me raise significant concerns that we have here about some of the divisive election-day political tactics that were deployed by the Prime Minister’s political party on election day. And you've also heard me raise concerns about the Prime Minister indicating withdrawal of his country’s commitments to a two-state solution. And those are views that we’ve discussed at some length in this venue over the last day or two, and those were topics that the President raised directly with the Prime Minister in that phone call, as I said that he would.
Q How does the White House view Speaker Boehner’s plans to travel to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly not uncommon for members of Congress in both parties to travel to Israel. I’m not aware of all of the details of the trip, but it’s not -- it doesn't come as a surprise to anybody here.
Q So you've said that the U.S. is reassessing its approach on the two-state solution issue. And when you say that, is the President actually looking at specific actions to take to pressure Israel on that? Or is this just kind of some kind rhetoric?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, what it is, is it is a -- it reflects the situation that we find ourselves in. Again, as I pointed out on a number of occasions not even in the context of the most recent election, but in the context of questions that I’ve received about the U.S. posture at the United Nations, we have been very clear about the fact that it is the policy of the United States that the best way for the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences is at the negotiating table, with the ultimate goal of trying to establish a two-state solution. This two-state solution essentially looks like a democratic and Jewish State of Israel, living side by side in peace and security with an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.
That is the goal of U.S. policy. And that pursuit has essentially been the foundation of U.S. policy toward the region not just in this administration but also under the previous administration, as well. I would point out that this policy is one that is strongly supported by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well. And I made reference yesterday to the fact that the House of Representatives by voice vote, without objection, passed a resolution, just last December, that articulated support for that strategy.
So when Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated a weakness in his commitment -- and I think that’s putting it charitably -- indicated a weakness in his commitment to a two-state solution, he was indicating a difference of opinion not just with President Obama but with the policy that was pursued by President Bush and the policy that is strongly supported by Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress.
So the rhetoric that you’re hearing from the administration is consistent with the views that are expressed -- that have been expressed by the previous administration and expressed by Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. So if that policy foundation has been the driver of policy decisions that are made at the United Nations, it’s important for us to reconsider those kinds of decisions now that our strongest ally in the Middle East has withdrawn from its commitment to that policy goal.
So if that is the underpinning of all of these decisions that we’re making, it means that we need to reassess the foundation of our policy. Now, that will not include a reassessment of our strong and close security cooperation with Israel; that will endure. And we will do that because that is clearly in the interest of American national security for us to ensure the safety and security of our closest ally in the region.
I’d also point out that if we’re going to reach a two-state solution, it’s going to require a democratic and Jewish state of Israel that is able to defend itself. I don’t think there’s anybody who would expect that the successful completion or enactment of a two-state solution means that all of the problems in the Middle East would be solved -- they wouldn’t. It would continue to be a dangerous and volatile region of the world, and you would continue to see steps from the administration to support the nation of Israel as they defend themselves.
So I guess the point is that this kind of security cooperation also makes it easier for us to accomplish this goal of a two-state solution.
Q So what are the impending opportunities for the reassessment to take effect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that any sort of policy decisions have been made. What I want you to understand is that as we’ve made these kinds of policy decisions in the past, they’ve been predicated on this principle of a two-state solution. But now that our closest ally in the region and one of the two parties who would be responsible for negotiating a two-state solution has withdrawn from their commitments to that ideal, it means that we need to rethink the kinds of policy decisions that we’re going to have to make going forward. So what those policy decisions are is not something that I would speculate on at this point because no policy decisions have been made. But what is clear is that the basis for making those decisions has changeds as a result of the comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu just a day or two before a critically important Israeli election.
Q Just quickly on the Ex-Im Bank, there’s a bipartisan plan in the Senate to extend the bank’s term until 2019, and the agreement would overturn limits on coal-fired power plant projects, which I know is important to this administration. I’m wondering what the White House makes of this compromise.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the specific proposal, but we can look into that for you and try to get you a response.
Q Can I follow up on Boehner and the trip -- the timing of this trip coming right as the negotiations are coming to a climax? You were pretty blunt about the invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu as interfering with the negotiating position on Iran. You don’t suspect of him doing the same thing here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the concerns that we had about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trip were rooted more deeply in the fact that there was an upcoming Israeli election, and that there was a concern -- I think one that in hindsight was entirely justified by the administration -- that the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States would be shrouded in partisan politics in Israel because it came just a couple of weeks before the Israeli election.
And the President believes strongly that the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been well served by ensuring that our bilateral relationship is not subject to partisan debate. And that’s the reason the President chose not to meet with the Prime Minister when he was in the U.S. earlier this month. Obviously the circumstances now are different both in that the Israeli election has been completed.
I also understand, however, that based solely on news reports, that the Speaker’s office has indicated that this is a trip that had been in the works for a number of months now.
Q Just going back to the Prime Minister’s comments on the two-state solution. He said in a bunch of interviews yesterday that he didn’t actually mean to be retreating from the position that he has laid in the past. So why not just take him at his word on that? Is there a reason that the White House --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the question is, which one?
Q His latest. I guess my question is, is the trust between him and the President at such low point that the President is not willing to take him at his word that he did not mean to call into question his support for the two-state solution?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think that it’s the position of the United States that we do take him at his word. But he was quite clear that he did not envision a scenario where a Palestinian state would be established while he was the Prime Minister of Israel. And that I do think that calls into question his commitment to a policy objective that has been in place for a number of years now -- a policy objective that continues to be supported strongly by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, a policy objective that this President believes is in the best interest of U.S. national security, and a policy objective that was supported by this President’s Republican predecessor.
So the point is that even the divergent comments of the Prime Minister legitimately call into question his commitment to this policy principle. And his lack of commitment to what has been the foundation of our policymaking in the region means that the United States should rightfully reevaluate the kinds of policy decisions that we make as it relates to the Middle East. And that’s what the President has said he will do.
Again, I’ll just reiterate one more time, because it is important: The President does not envision reiterating -- or reassessing our commitment to security cooperation with Israel. We understand, the United States understands, how important that cooperation is to the security of the Israeli people. And that will continue to be another bedrock principle of our relationship, which is a close and enduring intelligence-sharing and security-cooperating relationship between the United States and Israel.
Q A number of pro-Israel groups here in the United States reacted positively to what the Prime Minister had to say yesterday, and I wonder whether anyone at the White House or the President feels like there’s work that needs to be done at this end to try to repair some of the relationship that we’ve seen deteriorate in the last few weeks and months before the election, and whether you think that can happen while Ron Dermer remains his ambassador.
MR. EARNEST: Obviously the decision about appointing an ambassador is the responsibility of the leaders of the country. And so obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu will decide who is the person who is best positioned to represent his country in the United States. And I would not anticipate that -- well, and so what the President and his team will do is we’re going to continue to have an open line of communication with our allies in Israel. And that certainly will be true when it comes to security cooperation; that will continue to be the priority.
But as we move forward and as we reassess some of our own thinking about our policy in the region, we’re going to continue to have an open line of communication. That’s true of the President and others at the highest level, but that will also continue to be true among other senior members of the President’s national security team.
Q Yesterday you were asked about Denis McDonough’s plans to speak to the J Street Group on Monday. You said you hadn’t seen sort of a draft or anything yet. And I just wanted to follow up -- have you spoken with Denis a little bit more about the message that he wants to convey both to that group and to the world who may be watching?
MR. EARNEST: I have not had a chance to have a detailed discussion with him about the speech. He and I have talked about the fact that he’s delivering it on Monday, but I have not talked to him in detail about what message he intends to deliver. I know that there is still some work that he wants to do on his speech.
But as we make some additional progress on that, we’ll see if maybe over the weekend we can get you a preview of his remarks.
Q I know, of course, that the White House is focused on policy and not politics, but I was just wondering --
MR. EARNEST: I was trying to make that clear.
Q But I was just wondering whether you see this as a potential issue that could cleave the views of Jewish Democrats in terms of what the position of this White House and future White Houses should be -- whether you expect Denis to talk about that. Should the White House give any assurances to Democrats, or do you think you should stay completely out of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- that's a hard question. I don't want to be in a position of sort of ascribing the views of Jewish Democrats as being somehow monolithic. My guess is that there are a lot of different reactions that people have had to this particular situation. And I think what we have tried to do, and I think what we will do in the days ahead is make it clear that the strong security cooperation between the United States and Israel will continue. Prime Minister Netanyahu has previously described that security cooperation under President Obama’s leadership as unprecedented. That unprecedented cooperation will continue.
What is also required, though, at this point is a careful reassessment of our decision-making moving forward when it comes to Mideast policy. And again, that's simply -- and there’s only one reason for that. And that reason is that our closest ally in the region and in these talks has indicated that they're withdrawing from their commitments to the pursuit of this goal.
And again, when that is the foundation for so many decisions that are made at the United Nations and other policy decisions that come up, it means that we need to rethink what our strategy is going to be and how those policy decisions will be made. And we’ll do that in coming days, and we’ll continue to keep an open line of communication with the Israelis as we do that.
Q If you’ll just indulge me for a secretary -- the President doesn't have to stand for reelection again, so in the second half of a second term he’s freed up to make maneuvers at the U.N. that maybe he wouldn’t have made in 2012 or whatever. But it could affect the next Democratic nominee or someone who is planning to be the next Democratic nominee -- maybe it’s Hillary Clinton, maybe it’s somebody else. I guess that’s what I’m asking -- not whether Jewish Democrats are monolithic, but obviously they’re not. I mean, you don’t want to drive an entire half -- an important part of your base over to the other party, and I’m wondering how you thread that needle while you’re trying to focus on policy and national security concerns.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what will be the focus will be the policy. And, frankly, I think this will be -- I do anticipate that this will be the subject of some debate in a political context, and I think that’s an appropriate thing to happen. When you’re talking about an election for President of the United States, it’s worthy of some debate about what our policy should be in a whole wide variety of areas, whether that’s domestic policy or foreign policy. And there will be an opportunity for the candidates to articulate their views. But as you point out, President Obama will not be one of those candidates. And so that’s a discussion that those candidates can and probably should have.
The President will continue to make the case that his foreign policy is guided by what he believes is in the best interest of the United States, and that’s certainly true in this situation. That’s why the security cooperation with Israel will continue. It’s also why we’re going to spend some time reevaluating what our policy should be to the region. But our priority will continue to be the best interests of the United States’ national security.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about Iran. Obviously the deadline is getting very close for reaching a framework for a deal. I know that the State Department knocked down reports that there was a framework potentially in place. Can you update us, though, on how close negotiators are to actually reaching a framework? I know that they have suspended the talks for the weekend for a number of different reasons.
MR. EARNEST: I know that there was a lot of hard and difficult work that was done in the context of negotiations that have taken place over the course of this week. I would hesitate at this point, though, to give you a detailed assessment about just how close they are. I know that the readout that you got from the State Department was that there was some progress that was made. I know that what the Secretary of State plans to do next, though, is to consult with our European partners.
And so this weekend, Secretary Kerry will travel to Europe, where he will meet with his German, British and French counterparts. I also know that today the Secretary intends -- if he hasn’t already -- to speak directly with his Chinese and Russian counterparts as well. Again, all of these countries are participants in these talks with Iran. And the kind of unity that we’ve seen in the international community to pressure Iran to come into compliance with international expectations about their nuclear program has been an extraordinarily powerful tool in this effort. And at this state of the negotiations, the Secretary believes that it's appropriate for him to spend some time talking to the other participants on our side of the table, frankly, as we get close here to the last 10 days or so of these negotiations.
Q How does President Obama see his role? Obviously he released the video message and some Iranian officials were concerned that that was putting pressure on the talks, potentially undercutting the talks. How does he see his role? What can we expect from him in these final days?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you have seen, the President is obviously quite interested in these ongoing negotiations, I guess to put it mildly. The President continues to get regular -- daily, frankly -- and they come in more than once a day -- updates on what’s happening in these conversations. The President has had the opportunity to speak to Secretary Kerry on more than one occasion to get updates.
Q Have they spoken today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether or not they have spoken today. And I would anticipate that the President would also be in touch with some of his counterparts, as well. I don’t have anything to preview for you, but stay tuned on that.
So this is something that the President is very interested in and obviously this is a priority because it has significant consequences for our own national security, and the President will be deeply engaged in this.
Q And I just want to be clear. Secretary Kerry indicated there is not going to be an extension, and obviously this is the deadline for a framework of a deal with the goal of reaching a broader deal in June. But would the President be open to an extension? In other words, what happens at the end of the month if they can’t reach an agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has made this clear, too. The President has observed, I think rightfully, that these negotiations have been going on for more than a year and the time has come to strike an agreement if one can be reached. And that is why we’ve seen the negotiators, both on the Iranian side and on the side of the international community, working hard on this.
One thing I do want to clarify about one aspect of your question, though, is what we would anticipate at the end of this year is essentially -- or at the end of this month, pardon me -- at the end of this month, we would anticipate a political agreement. And what that means is it means some very specific commitments from the Iranians about their nuclear program and about how some of their nuclear facilities are run. It would also include very serious commitments by the Iranians to agree to a set of historically intrusive inspections.
And the details of those agreements are what we would expect we could have locked down in terms of the commitments that they’re making. What, however, we’ll be required though is then for the technical experts to get together and to talk about how those political agreements are technically implemented.
And I think, understandably, that the United States is keenly interested in making sure that the technical details of this agreement live up to the commitments that were made in the political context. And so what we have said is that we would anticipate that those technical negotiations and discussions would also take a little bit of time too, but that we would anticipate that those kinds of technical conversations would be resolved by the end of June.
Q And just one more question, shifting gears. The arrest of the African-American student at UVA. Obviously there’s this video. I want to stress it’s still under investigation. But has the President seen the video? Does he have a response, particularly given all of the discussion that this nation has had about the tensions between minority communities and law enforcement?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen -- I haven’t spoken to the President about the video. I would anticipate that as somebody who consumes a fair amount of news, that he has at least seen some of the reporting about this issue.
Because of the fact that it is under investigation by local authorities, I would hesitate to comment on this specific matter. But I would just say more generally that it does underscore the President’s view that we need to place a priority on helping local law enforcement agencies in communities all across the country build trust with the communities that they serve and protect.
And there are a large number of -- in fact, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies and the officers who work in them understand why this is a priority and do an excellent job of serving that community and earning the trust of the citizens that they are protecting and serving. In fact, many of these officers actually live in these communities. And so there is no doubt about that.
What is important is that these law enforcement agencies are doing everything that they can -- and many of them do -- to do what they can to build that trust and to do even more to earn that trust -- because we know that as law enforcement officers are deeply embedded in these communities, they can be more effective in fighting crime. And that means that these communities are safer, which has obviously strong benefits for the people who live in these communities, but it also means that these law enforcement officers can do their jobs more safely.
And I think as the President said rather memorably in the State of Union, that the wife or spouse of a law enforcement officer has a right to making sure that their husband or wife comes home safely after a day of walking the beat. And that needs to be a priority. This is an honorable profession, and the vast majority of law enforcement officers do an excellent job at this and take their responsibilities very seriously. And all the more reason that if we can give law enforcement agencies across the country tools to promote better understanding between the law enforcement officers and the communities that they serve, that the work of law enforcement agencies across the country can be enhanced if that's done.
Q Josh, before, I was struck, when you were asked about Ambassador Dermer, you said that’s basically the Prime Minister’s choice, you're not going to interfere with that.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q So why is the U.S. second-guessing the Prime Minister so much about his policy choices? It’s not rare that politicians in the U.S. or Israel flip-flop on positions. Why are we telling him what he should -- how he should feel or approach an issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think what we’ve made clear is the President believes -- and this was the view of President Bush, as well -- that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. I know that is a view that is also shared by every single member of Congress -- Democrat and Republican. And that has served as the foundation of U.S. policymaking in the Middle East for a number of years now.
But now that our closest ally who is participating in these negotiations has indicated that he is no longer committed to that solution, it means that the United States needs to rethink our approach to these issues. And that's what we're going to do.
I’m not standing here and saying that the Israeli Prime Minister isn’t entitled to his own opinion. Of course, he is. That said, it is the view of the United States, it’s the view of the President that it is in the best interest of the Israeli people for a two-state solution to be pursued and ultimately achieved.
Q A follow-up on Kristen’s question about the video that the President sent -- basically an open letter, if you will, an open video to the Iranian people. Since you were so critical of the Republican senators for sending an open letter to the Iranian leadership that might interfere with this potential deal, how can you say that this video might not interfere because the President is essentially attacking hardliners in Iran and saying they don’t want a deal? Couldn’t this also interfere?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate that it will. The President, on a number of occasions, has I think every year on Nowruz, has issued an open message to people around the world who are celebrating Nowruz.
Q This one specifically talks about the deal and why they should be supportive of it.
MR. EARNEST: Right, but the point is, is that there are people all across the world, throughout the Caucasus and Afghanistan and other places who celebrate Nowruz. The beginning of the message is actually -- even notes that many Americans celebrate Nowruz. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, I think a message to people around the world who are celebrating Nowruz is entirely different from an open letter to the hardliners in Iran. The third thing I’ll say is that there was I think a pretty obvious partisan tinge to the letter from 47 Republican senators to the leaders of Iran. And this one is obviously -- it wasn’t as if the President sort of tried to gather support only among Democrats for this message. So I think that makes a difference as well.
Q He has addressed the Iranian people about the deal; why hasn’t he addressed the American people and talked about the stakes and talked about the details, and been transparent about what’s on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think in the context of interviews and including one the President is scheduled to do later today, and in the context of news conferences, the President has talked quite a bit about what our priorities are in terms of trying to resolve diplomatically the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. But what’s also true is that there isn’t a deal. And if we are able to reach one by the deadline at the end of this month, I am confident that there will be ample opportunity for the President to speak publicly about why this agreement, if one is reached, is clearly in the national security interest of the United States of America.
Q Two other quick ones. Obviously you mentioned Secretary Kerry’s critical role here in trying to finalize a deal. Can you talk a little bit about what Secretary Clinton did in the first four years to try to open the door and kind of set things in motion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, at that stage, early on, you’ll recall that when President Obama took office, that there was unity of opinion inside of Iran about how important it was for them to develop a nuclear weapon. And there was a lot of dissension across the international community about what sort of approach could be taken to try to prevent that from happening.
And because of the leadership of the President and because of some of the important diplomatic work that Secretary Clinton did, we’ve actually seen that dynamic completely reversed. The international community is united behind the principle that Iran needs to come into compliance with the international community about their nuclear program -- that’s evidenced by the fact that we have the Brits and the Germans, the French, the Chinese and the Russians sitting at the table with us, negotiating with Iran.
The other thing that has been -- was an important part of Secretary Clinton’s work in this regard is the congressional sanctions. You’ll recall that at the end of 2011 we put in very tough sanctions against Iran. And what Secretary Clinton did is that she did the very difficult, diplomatic work of coordinating with the international community to implement these sanctions as well. And that meant that there are some countries in Asia, particularly, who rely on -- or who at least previously relied on Iranian oil. And Secretary Clinton did the difficult, diplomatic work that was required to get some of our allies in the region to cooperate with the broader international community to prevent the importation or at least limit the importation of Iranian oil.
And that is what maximized the pressure that has compelled the Iranians to come to the negotiating table. And I think that is a testament to her diplomatic skill that we have reached a point where we could convene serious negotiations like the ones that are currently taking place.
Q Last one. You started the briefing by congratulating Jen Palmieri, as everyone does. But everyone knows she is going to the Clinton -- possible Clinton campaign. (Laughter.) And you said she may be coming back to the White House. Is that a signal that people here, not just the people who are joining that potential campaign, but that people around this building are rooting for her to get in and win?
MR. EARNEST: The only signal that I was trying to send is my strong support and affection for Jen Palmieri. That’s really it.
Q Thanks. A bunch of questions, actually. So now that the House and Senate budgets are out, especially looking at defense spending, there appears to be some differences and especially in levels and also uses of the Overseas Contingency Fund. Do you see an area for compromise there? Or what’s the next step here?
MR. EARNEST: Cheryl, you rightly point out that there really is a strong difference of opinion among Republicans in Congress about the best way to fulfill our defense priorities and make sure that we’re funding our defense priorities at an adequate level. Coming in the aftermath of Republican efforts and struggles, frankly, to fund the Department of Homeland Security and the challenges that Republicans have faced in trying to pass a child sex trafficking bill, that we’ve seen Republicans in the Senate fighting with Democrats about trying to pass this bill at the same time that the Republican sponsor of the bill in the House says that this controversial measure doesn’t even need to be in the bill in the first place.
And now we’re seeing Republicans fighting over whether or not to use basically an accounting gimmick to try to cover up the fact that they’re underfunding our defense priorities. There’s been a lot of talk about the upsets in the NCAA tournament yesterday, but it appears that March Madness has actually broken out among congressional Republicans. They are so busy and consumed with fighting one another that they --- they are so consumed with fighting one another that even simple things like making sure that we’re adequately funding our defense priorities can’t get done without extensive controversy inside the Republican Party.
And that certainly runs counter to the President’s view that defense spending should be a pretty obvious area of bipartisan cooperation. Of course there are going to be differences, and I wouldn’t suggest that there might not be some differences of opinion about the wisdom of funding certain programs. But surely we could all agree -- and I think we all should agree -- and it certainly would be consistent of some of the campaign rhetoric that we saw in 2012, that trying to fund our defense efforts at sequester levels is not in the best interest of the country.
That’s why you saw Chairman Ryan and Senator Patty Murray a couple of years ago work closely in bipartisan fashion to try to come to a bipartisan compromise about how to adequately fund both our defense priorities and our priorities for the middle class. And rather than try and cobble together some kind of slush fund to obscure the appropriate funding of our defense priorities, Republicans should just be a little bit more straightforward and have an honest discussion with Democrats about the proper funding levels for the defense department. That is in the view of the President, and I think in the view of most members of Congress, a level that is higher than the current sequester levels. And we should adhere to the very clear principle that has been in place for a number of years now, that increases in defense spending above the sequester level should be matched dollar for dollar by increases in investments on non-defense priorities as well.
And that’s what, again, Chairman Ryan and Senator Murray were able to do, and that should serve as a pretty effective template for finding bipartisan common ground around budget priorities this year as well.
Q So do you think we should have a budget summit? (Laughter.) How does this process --
MR. EARNEST: Those haven’t proved to be particularly effective in the past, sadly. I think what is most effective would be for Democrats and Republicans -- I mean, well look, here’s what I would say. The most effective template that we’ve seen in recent history has been Republican leaders in the House sitting down with leading Democrats to find a compromise. And again, that’s what Senator Murray and Chairman Ryan did, and I think that some template like that -- we don’t have to put the onus on just those two people -- but this could serve as a model for resolving these kinds of situations moving forward.
Q Since you opened the door to March Madness, Josh, the head coach of the Georgia State Bulldogs yesterday said he hopes the President makes better decisions in the real world than he did picking against his team. On behalf of the President, would you like to apologize to the Georgia State Bulldogs? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that I just saw some of the highlights of the game, and I did see that the young man from Georgia State certainly rose to the occasion.
Q He is the coach’s son.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. That was a great shot there at the end of the game. I think there’s no question that that kind of high level of performance when the chips are down is certainly the kind of spirit that the President would hope to summon in the context of his job, too.
Q Very good. Just following up on Ed’s question. It’s a serious matter. You mentioned things, and I don’t want to tread on Jen’s last day --
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q -- but three people who work prominently for the President and the First Lady are going to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Does the President anticipate her announcing a campaign soon? Does he wish her well? Is he going to endorse any Democrat before the convention?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any special insight into the possible campaign planning of Secretary Clinton. There’s obviously extensive speculation. Some of it’s done rather publicly, but I wouldn’t do that from here.
There is no doubt that the President wishes both Jen Palmieri and Secretary Clinton well in the future.
Q And John Podesta.
MR. EARNEST: Right. And others who --
Q The First Lady’s press secretary.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there a number of people who -- I don’t think it's particularly a surprise that there are people who are close to either President Clinton and Secretary Clinton, who have also spent some time working for President Obama as well. They obviously have a lot of overlapping interests and values and priorities. So there is no doubt that there have been people who have worked for either President Clinton or Secretary Clinton who have also worked for President Obama.
As it relates to the President’s intentions to wade into a Democratic primary, that’s not something that he often does, but I wouldn’t rule it out at this point. But we’ll see. A long way until the Democratic convention.
Q I want to continue the conversation we had a little bit yesterday about Afghanistan and see if I can get you to be a bit more precise, maybe flesh out some of the conversations I’ve had with people here in this building about the aggregate number of troops. Will that change post-2016? Or is the President contemplating, or has he already decided to slow down the pace of withdraw in Afghanistan between now and 2016 but keep the promise to withdraw all but 1,000 military personnel for essentially diplomatic security purposes by the end of 2016?
MR. EARNEST: What we have said, Major, is that the --
Q I’d like you to say something new. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think what I’ve said in the past is -- (laughter) -- fair point. Well, I’ll take a shot at that.
Q Okay, good.
MR. EARNEST: What is true is that the President has identified essentially the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017 as a pretty clear endpoint for our military drawdown. And what he has said is that by early 2017 he would envision a military footprint that would be consistent with the kind of military footprint that we see in other countries where there is obviously a priority placed on protecting the embassy, and where there also would be a presence that would be consistent with our presence in other countries where there is a strong military-to-military relationship between the United States and the host country.
And so preserving a footprint that would allow us to maintain that coordination would also be important. And this -- yes -- I don’t know that we’ve said the 1,000 number, but I think experts have indicated that what the President is talking about is along the lines of about 1,000 troops to fulfill those two purposes -- again, to promote military-to-military cooperation and to protect the embassy. And that’s been the policy that President Obama put in place a number of years ago. That hasn’t changed.
What is currently under discussion is the pace of the troop drawdown between now and then, and importantly -- and I think this is something that would be new -- the sequencing of base closures between now and then. Obviously those two things are related. As we sequence the base closures in Afghanistan, that will allow us to responsibly draw down the number of troops. You obviously need the minimum troop level to keep open some bases.
So the President has been hearing from his national security team and commanders on the ground about the proper way for us to manage the pace of the drawdown and the proper way to sequence base closures in light of the security situation in Afghanistan. And I think it’s common sense that we would make these decisions about our troop presence relative to the security situation.
And the United States is no longer responsible for the security situation in Afghanistan, but the United States is interested in making sure that we have a troop presence that can protect our forces that are on the ground. We want to make sure that we can continue to have some counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan because there are still extremist elements operating in Afghanistan that do pose a threat to our interests. And we want to continue to have the robust training, and advising, and equipping the operation that is ongoing for Afghan security forces.
So given all of those variables -- the security situation, some of the priorities or missions that the President has identified, and the flexibility between now and the end of 2016 -- it means that there are some decisions to make about the precise pace of the troop drawdown and the precise sequence of base closures in Afghanistan.
And that’s what’s driving this decision, but this is a decision about any flexibility that exists between now and this endpoint that we’ve identified as the end of 2016, beginning of 2017.
Q On Iran. There are some reports that the ending of sanctions is a big remaining sticking point to a deal. If the Iranians insist that sanctions be repealed on the front end, is that a deal breaker or is there some flexibility there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to speculate on what the actual deal may or may not look like if we’re able to reach an agreement, but there is a very important principle in place and I do think that I can answer your question without going into those details.
The President does not believe that it makes much sense for there to be -- for us to remove a large number of sanctions at the front end of this agreement. The President believes -- and I think with some justification -- that we need to see the Iranians demonstrate some sustained commitment to implementing the agreement before we talk about removing all of the sanctions.
So what is the subject of ongoing negotiations -- and this is something that they have covered over the course of this week -- is what does the phased waiving of sanctions look like; how long does it take; what sort of verification do we need to see from the Iranians before sanctions start to be waived.
Now, the other thing that we’ve said about this is that one of the most powerful tools that we have in these negotiations are the congressional sanctions that Congress has passed. Those are some of the toughest sanctions that have ever been put in place against any country by the United States. And the President believes that we should leave those sanctions in place not just for a few weeks to verify Iranian compliance; he doesn’t believe that we should leave those sanctions in place just for a few months to verify Iranian compliance. He believes that we should leave those sanctions in place over the longer term and that the President can use the waiver authority that Congress has already given him to relax some of those sanctions, again, for two reasons.
One is that so we can phase the withdrawal or the waiving of those sanctions consistent with Iranian compliance, but also so that if our intrusive inspections detect that Iran is not living up to the terms of the deal, that we can quickly snap those sanctions back into place.
And this is the way the President believes that we can both protect U.S. national security interests, but we can also give Iran an incentive to continue to live up to the agreement. If we are in this situation where we can continue -- again, over a sustained period of time, make clear to them that if they don’t continue to live up to the terms of the agreement, that this sanctions regime that we’ve temporarily waived can be snapped back into place in an instant. And that will put enormous pressure on Iran once a deal has been reached -- if a deal is reached -- to continue to live up to the terms of that agreement over a substantial period of time.
Q And on a different topic. The sale of a well-known home in Hawaii has once again -- (laughter) -- sparked rumors that the President and the First Lady may have purchased property. Apparently, it was bought by a Chicago attorney who has some ties to the First Family. Any truth to this? Are the Obamas behind this purchase?
MR. EARNEST: They are not.
Q Josh, back to the reassessing with Israel policy towards Israel. You keep mentioning the United Nations in your responses. The practical matter of that is that in the past few years the United States has lobbied long and hard against any resolution that would call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Can you say, unequivocally, that that’s still going to be the position of the U.S.? Can you say it may not be the position of the U.S. in the future, that that’s where the pressure may be? And wouldn’t that then let the United Nations at least come up with a two-state solution?
MR. EARNEST: The reason that the United States on a number of previous occasions has opposed a resolution like the one that you’ve described is that we have made the case to the international community that a solution shouldn’t be imposed on the outside because the two parties should come to the table and reach a negotiated settlement face to face that results in a two-state solution that allows a democratic and Jewish nation of Israel to live side by side in peace and security with an independent, sovereign Palestinian state. And we have said that the best way to resolve this is at the negotiating table.
What’s now changed -- and again, that is a view that isn’t just the view of President Obama; that is the unanimous view of Congress and was the view of the President’s Republican predecessor. So the only thing that’s changed is that our ally in those conversations, Israel, has indicated that they’re not committed to that approach anymore. And so if that’s the case, it means that we need to sort of rethink what our approach is going to be in the United Nations and other areas where we confront this question about how to resolve the differences between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people.
Q But it still sounds like you’re saying that the U.S. would still be opposed to a U.N. resolution.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I'm saying is that our justification for that opposition has been undermined based on the comments made by the Israeli Prime Minster. So that is why we have been pretty candid about the fact that the administration now needs to reevaluate what our policy will be in this area. We will continue to believe that a two-state solution is in the best interest of our own -- of the United States. We also happen to believe that it's in the best interest of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people as well, but that is a view that’s not shared by the Israeli Prime Minster, or at least it's unclear whether or not he holds that view anymore.
And so that certainly changes our justification for some of the decisions that we make at the United Nations, and that’s why those kinds of decisions will be reevaluated.
Q But would you agree that there may be more pressure now on bringing up such a resolution again, in the United Nations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would not pretend to be an expert about the diplomatic pressures that exist at the U.N., so I'm not sure about that. I know that there has been in the past, and continues to be, interest in the international community about a U.N. Security Council resolution. But the likelihood of something like that coming up, or in the timeframe in which it would is something you could ask the State Department about.
Q But the Prime Minister has said three times now in post-election interviews that he does believe in a two-state solution. Why isn’t that good enough?
MR. EARNEST: Because, Jim, he said earlier this week that he wasn’t. So the point is that --
Q Politicians don’t say things before elections? That may not be where they are, it may be just political expedience? Why isn’t that not the case? I mean, the President has said things that he has had to reverse himself on over the years.
MR. EARNEST: I think the point is, Jim, the verb that you’re using is “may.” There now is doubt about whether or not this is what the true view is of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the government that he will form.
Q Did the President tell or did the Prime Minister tell the President that he believes in a two-state solution in this phone call?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you can ask my Israeli counterpart about what the Prime Minister said in this phone call.
Q Well, don’t you know what the President heard?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not saying I don’t know, I'm just saying that I will allow my Israeli counterpart to describe the views that his boss conveyed in that phone call. I’ve done my best to try to convey to you what President Obama said in that phone call. But if the Israelis choose to discuss what the Prime Minister said, then that would be up to them to decide.
Q But if the Prime Minister had said that during the phone call, and the President got that message, you’re still coming out here and saying, well, we still believe what the Prime Minister said earlier this week and not what he’s saying now.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, words matter. And when the Israeli Prime Minister just days before an election, when the world is watching, comes out and makes a promise indicating that a Palestinian state will not be created as long as he’s Prime Minister, that, I think, raises obvious doubts about his commitment to the kind of two-state solution that has long been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the United States and, frankly, has long been supported by previous Israeli political leaders.
And he’s indicating a departure from that commitment, and it does raise questions about what kinds of decisions the United States will have to make moving forward as a result.
Q And before the Prime Minister’s election, you, the President and others said that he didn’t want to meet with the Prime Minister in the context of the campaign or that close to an election. I assume that now that that's out of the picture the President is willing to meet with the Prime Minister moving forward.
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't rule out future meetings between the two leaders. And some of that is because we have a lot of shared interests. Certainly the importance of our security cooperation is paramount and one that the President takes very seriously. And that is -- on occasion, when they have an opportunity to meet, that is something that they spend a lot of time discussing. But there are other issues of mutual interest. We know, for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated he’s very interested in the international community’s efforts to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. So I wouldn't rule out that there might be future conversations about that matter. And this is part of what allies do.
Q We’re sort of joined at the hip, so to speak.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no doubt that there are very strong bonds between our two countries. And those strong bonds do transcend individual political leaders, there’s no doubt about that.
Q And can I ask you about Loretta Lynch?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q What is the President doing to fight for her confirmation? Is he making phone calls up on Capitol Hill? Is he meeting with lawmakers? What’s he doing to see that this nominee is confirmed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been some presidential-level conversations about this. I won't get into a lot of detail about that. But there is no doubt that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate understand that the confirmation of Ms. Lynch is an administration priority.
I will point out once again that she has now been waiting, I believe, 131 days for her confirmation vote. That is more than the amount of time that the five previous nominees for attorney general have waited for a vote. That is an unconscionable delay. And it's particularly ironic that that delay continues even though no one has raised a single legitimate concern about her qualifications or ability to do the job.
And, again, I think this is another example of how Republicans, frankly, have not lived up to the commitment that they made in the Wall Street Journal on the day after the election, where the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and the incoming Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, indicated that now we can get Congress going. That was the headline of the op-ed that they wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The fact that a well-qualified nominee that has bipartisan support has now been waiting 131 days for a vote I think is an indication that they are struggling mightily to live up to that promise.
Q And has the President talked to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific conversations.
Q And do you believe that she will be confirmed?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly understand that she has bipartisan support and she deserves to be confirmed. But I'll just point out that while she waits, the United States can take some solace in knowing that the current Attorney General continues to serve, that he will remain in that office and he will do what he has done for the last six years, which is he will show up to work early and he will stay late, and he’ll use every element of authority that he has to implement the policies of this administration and fight for fairness and justice for the American people.
So we take some solace in knowing that he continues to remain on the job. But I know that even he is looking forward to the day when he can hand over the keys to the office to Ms. Lynch.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about this tragic incident in Mississippi. I know that this is under investigation, but I'm wondering, is the President aware of it? Has he been briefed on it? And do you have any updates on what that investigation has pulled up so far?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen the news reports about this. I don't know whether or not the President has received a briefing, but I would anticipate that he has seen news reports about this as well, although I've not talked to him about it. I know that there are federal officials who are involved in the investigation, so I'd refer you to them for any updates they may be able to provide.
Q Josh, I understand that you don't want to speak for Prime Minister Netanyahu about yesterday’s phone call. Can you say whether President Obama tried to clarify Netanyahu’s position on a two-state solution in the phone call?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can just say is that the chief purpose of the call was to congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu on his party’s victory. The President also began the call by reiterating the commitment of the United States to ongoing security cooperation with Israel for the benefit of the Israeli people, and the President, as I have publicly, raised the concerns that I have about some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments in the days leading up to the election.
Q So that the phone call did not clarify for the President Netanyahu’s position, is that what you're telling us?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that was not the result of the call.
Q Two questions. First is about the Japan Prime Minister Abe’s state visit to the U.S. Japan’s media report that he will come to the U.S. on April 26th for eight days and deliver remarks in the Congress. So what is President Obama’s expectation about his visit and also his remarks in the Congress?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update. I've seen those reports. I don't have an update on them at this point. But I'll see if I can have somebody follow up with you on that.
Q And also, on AIIB, after all G7 European countries join AIIB, Japan today also indicates, according to Reuters, that they could be part of AIIB. If Japan did, would the U.S. consider to join?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said is that I don't have any decisions to announce about the U.S. policy toward the AIIB
-- you're better at that acronym than I am. What we have indicated, though, is that international multilateral organizations like this, financial organizations like this, need to live up to very high standards. And we've certainly seen the World Bank do that, and we believe that that would be necessary for the success of an organization like this one. But other than that, no policy decisions have been made on the part of the U.S. government.
Let’s do the week ahead. On Monday, the President will host the 2015 White House Science Fair and celebrate the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and math competitions from across the country. This year’s science fair has a specific focus on diversity and includes many students from underrepresented backgrounds who are excelling in STEM and inspiring the next generation with their work.
That afternoon, the President will host and deliver remarks at the SelectUSA Investment Summit at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. SelectUSA, which many of you know was created in 2011, is the first-ever federal effort to bring job-creating investment to the United States, promoting the United States as the world’s premier business location, and providing easy access to federal-level programs and services related to business investment. The 2015 SelectUSA Investment Summit aims to connect investors from around the world with representatives from nearly every U.S. state and territory.
On Tuesday, as we discussed a little bit earlier, the President will host Afghan President Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah, and key members of the Afghan Unity government for meetings and a working lunch at the White House. The two Presidents will discuss a range of issues, including security, economic development, and U.S. support for the Afghan-led reconciliation process.
Q Press conference?
MR. EARNEST: I'll have to get back to you on that.
This marks the first meeting between the two Presidents at the White House following the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan, which produced the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.
On Wednesday, the President will deliver remarks at a kickoff meeting of the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network, which aims to bring public and private sector actors together to build on the Affordable Care Act’s efforts to move health care toward a system that provides the best care for patients and pays providers based on the quality rather than the quantity of care they give patients.
On Thursday, the President will travel to Birmingham, Alabama, to deliver remarks on the economy. We'll have some additional details about the President’s travel to Alabama in the coming days.
And then on Friday, the President will wrap up his week by attending meetings at the White House.
Thanks, everybody. Have a great weekend.
1:34 P.M. EDT