Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/23/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:56 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you all had a good weekend. Let me do a couple of quick things before we get started. The first is, we got some sad news over the weekend that Jerry Warren, who had served as the Deputy Press Secretary for both President Nixon and President Ford, passed away over the weekend.
He was somebody who had garnered a reputation for really trying to build a strong relationship between the administration and the White House Press Corps, and he obviously did that at a very challenging time in our nation’s history and in the context of one administration had a difficult relationship with the Press Corps. But that was something that he had really dedicated his time here at the White House to, but also something that he had dedicated his life to. So our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Mr. Warren today.
The second thing, on a happier note, today is the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act becoming law. And to mark the occasion, I thought I would share with you five key numbers -- the Affordable Care Act by the numbers, if you will.
The first number is 16 million. And that’s the number of Americans who have gained health care coverage since the Affordable Care Act became law.
The second number is 50. Fifty years ago was the last time that we saw health care price growth this low.
The third number is 50,000. That’s the number of deaths that have been prevented due to improvements in the quality of care in hospitals. That includes fewer medical errors and infections.
The fourth number is 1,800. 1,800 refers to how much lower the average family premium is in an employer plan due to the slower growth in health care costs. So we often talk about how the Affordable Care Act did so much to offer assistance to those families that don’t have access to health care. Here’s a good example of how the average worker who gets health care through their employer has benefitted from the Affordable Care Act.
The fifth and final number is 76 million. And that’s the number of Americans who are benefitting from preventative care coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act. And that’s preventative care coverage that individuals can receive for free, so a pretty good deal.
So we’ll have some more -- obviously we put out some information on this last night, but thought I would just offer up a little primer.
So, with that, Josh, do you want to get us started today?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. The presidential campaign for 2016 kicked off in a rather big way this morning with Senator Ted Cruz making his announcement and laying out a campaign vision that is rather antithetical to a lot of what President Obama has stood for. In particular, in line with what you were discussing about the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, Senator Cruz said, “Imagine in 2017 a new President signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare.” So I wanted to get your thoughts on the start of the presidential campaign and what a Ted Cruz candidacy would mean.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I don’t have a direct response to anything that any of the candidates have to say right at this point. But I will just say as a general matter that I would anticipate that over the course of the next presidential campaign -- and I think this is something that we can hope to be true -- that there will be a robust debate about the future of the country. And the President certainly is pleased about the substantial progress that we’ve made over the last little over six years.
There’s a lot more that the President hopes to get done in his remaining two years in office. And that would certainly use -- or would certainly serve as a useful foundation that the next President can build upon. And the President is certainly mindful of that in our two remaining years here, and I anticipate that there will be a pretty robust debate about that and how best to use the progress that we’ve made to move the country forward.
And there will be some candidates who will offer up substantial changes from what the President has done, but this will be an opportunity for all the candidates to debate it, and ultimately, the American people will cast a vote accordingly. But all that is more than a year and a half away, and there’s a lot of important pressing business that we’re focused on here at the White House.
So this is a worthy debate that has, some would say, started shortly after the midterm elections, but there is a reason to be talking about it today. But I’ll let others engage in that debate while we’re focused on the very difficult task and the very exciting opportunities that also lie ahead over the course of the next year and a half or so.
Q Switching just for a minute to the other primary -- Hillary Rodham Clinton is in town today doing a few public events while she’s here. Does the President have any plans to meet with her? And if he does, would you be able to open that up to some level of access, considering the circumstances of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I don’t have any additional details to share about the President’s schedule today. But obviously, the President and Secretary Clinton have a number of occasions since she left the State Department, have had an opportunity to get together. But I don’t have any meetings to share with you from here.
Q And I wanted to ask you in Yemen, where the situation has been deteriorating, and particularly with the news that these last remaining U.S. Special Forces that have been in the country have been removed. How does that change the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I can tell you that the United States did make an announcement over the weekend indicating that all U.S. personnel had been temporarily relocated from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation inside that country. That was a step that the United States took in close coordination with the Hadi government. The United States continues to believe that President Hadi is the rightful leader of Yemen. That was a sentiment that was echoed in a United Nations statement that was issued over the weekend as well.
We have talked a lot about our counterterrorism strategy in this region of the world. It has been predicated on -- or at least a core component of it is close coordination with central governments and our efforts to try to build up the capacity of central governments to assume security responsibility for their own country. Obviously the situation in Yemen is a dangerous one, and the President and his national security team made a decision to relocate military personnel from Yemen for that reason.
I will say that there continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the United States and the national security infrastructure of the Hadi government. That will continue to be valuable coordination. The United States continues to have assets and resources in the region that will allow us to take steps where necessary to continue to apply significant pressure to extremist targets and to keep the American people safe.
But it is true that that coordination would be more effective if there were U.S. personnel in the country. It doesn’t mean that that coordination has been eliminated, but it would be more effective if U.S. personnel were allowed to remain in that country. That is why the United States will continue to support the broader international community as we pressure both sides to try to resolve their differences politically and to promote the kind of dialogue that’s necessary to stabilize the country, to stabilize the central government.
And I’ll just say -- I do want to commend to your attention the statement from the United Nations that voiced the unanimous opinion of the international community that President Hadi continues to be the rightful leader of Yemen; that the Houthis -- Houthi insurgents who have obviously advanced on the capital, they undermine the efforts to achieve a political resolution to this situation by continuing to occupy government institutions and to take unilateral actions that are not constructive to that process. And the United States, alongside the broader international community, hopes that they will stop doing that and participate in the U.N.-led effort to try to resolve the differences of all the parties there.
Q So I know you mentioned coordination and resources the U.S. has elsewhere in the region, but is it fair to say that at the current point in time, with the security situation being as it is, that the U.S. does not have an active counterterrorism campaign taking place in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: I would not describe it that way, Josh. And the reason simply is that it is true that U.S. officials had to relocate from Yemen because it’s a dangerous country. But I’ll tell you that as of today, Yemen remains a dangerous country for extremists as well.
The United States has demonstrated a capability to take extremists off the battlefield in Yemen when they pose a threat to the United States. Those efforts continue, and our capabilities to carry out those kinds of actions persist to this day as well.
Q And lastly, it wasn’t too long ago that the President was holding up Yemen as somewhat of a model for counterterrorism strategies in Iraq and Syria and other places. I’m wondering, does the President still see Yemen as a model for success in fighting terrorism that can be applied elsewhere in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the case that we have made is that Yemen did serve as a template for the kind of strategy that we would employ and have employed to mitigate the threat from extremists around the world. And in Yemen, the United States did, on occasion, take steps to remove some extremists from the battlefield. Those were steps that were carried out using U.S. capabilities, but they were done in coordination with a central government and with national security forces inside that country.
Ultimately, our goal here is to build up the capacity of local countries so that they can assume responsibility for their own security situation. And that has both the effect of stabilizing the country so that extremists can’t use it as a safe haven to plot and carry out attacks against the West, but it also means that these countries can better provide for the security situation inside them so they aren’t vulnerable to extremist actions on their own.
There are a couple of I think other relevant examples here. One is we talked a little bit last week about the fact that in Somalia, where the United States does not have a significant military presence, U.S. military forces, however, did undertake an action that took one of the masterminds of the Westgate Mall attack off the battlefield. That was a success that will enhance the security of the United States and our allies around the world. We continue to be very mindful of the threats that are posed by extremists in Somalia, but that is an indication of how dangerous Somalia is for extremists as well, because the United States has sustained pressure on them. But that is an effort that we continue to be vigilant about and we continue to be keenly aware of the threat that emanates from Somalia.
I’d also note, as a second example, that it’s been quite some time before the acronym AQIM has been brought up in this room. The reason that we haven’t brought that up is not that AQIM is no longer a violent, dangerous group; they are a violent, dangerous group. But because of the efforts of the United States and, most importantly, our partners, the threat from AQIM in North Africa has been mitigated but certainly not eliminated. This is thanks to the efforts of our French allies, who have made a substantial commitment of forces to try to stabilize the country of Mali. The United States continues to work with the Mali government as they try to stabilize their country and to eliminate the threat from extremists that are operating there.
And the last example that I would cite is actually one that we do cite frequently, which is Syria. There’s no U.S. embassy in Syria. There’s no U.S. military personnel inside of Syria. But yet, the United States has the capability and the wherewithal to carry out strikes against extremists inside of Syria, not just ISIL but even other extremist groups that have a more immediate -- or that pose a more immediate threat to Western interests. And the United States has the capability and has demonstrated a willingness to apply pretty intense pressure to those organizations as well, even though there is no U.S. military or diplomatic footprint inside Syria.
Q Josh, how dangerous is the situation in Yemen to the United States, given the presence of al Qaeda there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, Yemen has been dangerous for quite some time. And as I mentioned in response to Jeff’s question, we would prefer a situation where Yemen was at least stable enough where the United States could maintain some diplomatic and military facilities there. That would enhance our coordination and cooperation with the national security infrastructure of the Hadi government that would allow us to more effectively mitigate the threat from these extremist organizations.
But at the same time, we do still have capabilities nearby that can be used to apply significant pressure to the leaders of these organizations. And that’s why, as I mentioned to Josh, that Yemen is a dangerous country, it continues to be. The administration made the decision to withdraw U.S. personnel from Yemen because it’s a dangerous place. Yemen continues to be a dangerous place for the extremists that are operating there, too, and that’s because the United States does retain the capability to take them off the battlefield and that is a capability that we’ll continue to use.
But we continue to be very mindful of the threat that is posed by AQAP. And this is work that we are engaged in around the clock to try to protect the American people and our interests around the world.
Q Do you have any sense of a timeframe for when personnel would be able to go back?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timeframe to share with you from here. Obviously there is a lot of important work that needs to be done before that can take place. And the good news is, we have seen that the international community is engaged in this process, and trying to resolve the differences between the Hadi government and the Houthi insurgents is something that we want to resolve diplomatically if possible. But this kind of political work and diplomatic work takes a lot of time. But we have seen the investment that’s required from the international community, and the United States is certainly supportive of that process.
Q Moving on to another international crisis of sorts. In Germany today, the German Chancellor and the Greek Prime Minister are meeting. Does the United States, does the White House have any advice for Chancellor Merkel or for her Greek counterpart about the bailout program and the discussions that they’re having?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I can tell you that the United States, as we have for a number of years now, [has] been in close touch with our European allies and partners about some of the financial insecurity on the continent. And we continue to be mindful of that. It is in the best interest of the United States and our economy for those differences and for that instability to be resolved.
The good news is, I think, that each of the members of the EU recognizes that they each have their own interest in trying to resolve this situation. And my counterparts over at the Treasury Department could probably provide you some more insight in the kinds of conversations that the United States government has had with our counterparts in Europe on this matter.
Q And lastly, there’s been a lot of fluctuation in the last few days and weeks in the currency markets with the dollar and the euro. Is this something the White House is watching? And are you worried about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, there’s a long tradition in the U.S. government of only the Treasury Secretary talking about the value of the U.S. currency. So I will say that the President and the rest of his economic team are regularly updated on the financial markets. But for any sort of comment on those movements that you’ve observed as well, it sounds like, I’d refer you to the Secretary of the Treasury.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. The President has had a very gracious policy of calling people in other countries when they lose elections, as well as the winners. And I cite, for example, President Sarkozy in France, Prime Minister Noda in Japan, and General Shafi’i in Egypt when he lost their election in 2012. Did he call Isaac Herzog after the Israeli election, or around the same time he called Prime Minister Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: John, I don’t believe that he did, no.
Q So there was no contact between them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t know that he placed a telephone call to him after the election, no. I think that there are a couple of occasions in recent years where the President has had an opportunity to meet Mr. Herzog. But I’m not aware of any recent conversations between the two men.
Q The other question is that, this coming weekend, the world’s eyes will be on Nigeria for their election, and polls show a dead heat. If General Buhari is elected, he has a controversial past, which includes expelling 700,000 immigrants, as well as use of hardline tactics in getting people show up for work on time, and secret trials. Is the administration going to have any problem recognizing a government in Nigeria if General Buhari is elected?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, I’m going to refrain from commenting on any of the candidates, but I will note that the President just did today release a video message to the Nigerian people. I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to see this, but the President did so as the Nigerian people look ahead to the presidential elections that are scheduled for March 28th. The President called on all leaders and candidates to make it clear to their supporters that violence has no place in democratic elections, and that they will not incite, support or engage in any kind of violence before, during or after the votes are counted.
The President called on all Nigerians to peacefully express their views and to reject the voices of those who call for violence. But you can take a look at that video for yourself, John, and see the message that the President had for the Nigerian people as they prepare for the election.
Q Josh, I had a follow-up on Nigeria, on another subject -- the Nigerian girls, the missing Nigerian girls. When they went missing we were hearing calls, “Bring our girls home.” As we mark the days further away from when they were captured by Boko Haram, is there still hope that these girls will be found collectively safe and unharmed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I don’t have an update for you in terms of that ongoing effort. What the United States has done is we’ve deployed U.S. personnel with a variety of capabilities to Nigeria, to assist the Nigerian government as they try to root out the extremist elements that were responsible for that kidnapping and try to return those girls to their homes. But I don’t have an update for you on that progress at this point.
Q And could you tell us about John Podesta’s conversations, when he was here, with those in the Nigerian government about the efforts to bring the girls home? Because we’re understanding that the further the days are marked that they’re not found, that it doesn’t look as promising.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously continue to be concerned about the situation in Nigeria as it relates to Boko Haram, and the United States has offered extensive support to Nigerian security forces. We recognize that there’s also an important role here for regional military forces to play in trying to combat the spread of this extremist element. And the United States continues to be supportive of those efforts.
We have been mindful of encouraging the Nigerians at every turn to recognize the responsibility that they have, even as they’re carrying out these dangerous missions, to respect the basic human rights of the population. And that’s going to be an important part of their counterterrorism efforts, as well.
Q On another subject -- talking about Loretta Lynch. There was a thought prior to her confirmation hearing process that there could be a delay. Some in this administration understood that the layout of the land, that the politics will be played and there could be a delay, but they didn’t expect a delay like this. What are your thoughts about this delay? And are you now looking at the fact that a confirmation hearing may not happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she did testify before Congress, so she has had a hearing. What she has not gotten, however, is the vote -- and that is what she deserves. She is a career prosecutor with an impeccable record. She is somebody who has taken on and convicted would-be terrorists in New York City. She is somebody who has prosecuted and negotiated settlements that yielded billions of dollars for the taxpayers and holding accountable some unscrupulous financial institutions. She is also somebody who has a record of trying to stand up for the public trust and holding public officials accountable for openness and transparency and honesty.
So she is somebody who has the strong support of law enforcement because of her record as a tough, but fair, independent prosecutor. She is somebody who no doubt deserves strong bipartisan support in the Senate. The continued delay is unconscionable.
And again, the President had the opportunity when he first nominated her back in November to have her nomination be considered by the Democratic Senate in the lame-duck session. And out of deference to the incoming Republican leadership, and listening to promises from the incoming Republican leadership that she would be considered in a timely fashion and that she would be treated fairly by the incoming Senate, there is no doubt now that her delay has extended beyond that previous description of a confirmation in a timely fashion, and that has been grossly unfair to her and to the American people.
Let me just say, though, that at the same time, while she waits for her confirmation, Attorney General Eric Holder continues to work very diligently in that office to protect the American people, to advance the cost of justice, and to use every lever of authority that rests in that office to do the good work that’s expected of him.
And he’s somebody with a tremendous work ethic and he is going to stay on that job until she’s confirmed. But I know that he is very much looking forward to the day when he can hand off the keys of that office to Loretta Lynch.
Q One last question. I guess there’s irony -- today is the fifth anniversary of the ACA and you're telling all the numbers, and you have Ted Cruz talking about announcing his run for the Oval Office and using the ACA as, I guess, one of his points of his presidential run, looking at possible repeal, signing legislation that would repeal it. What does this White House feel about the fact that the ACA, your legacy piece, is now, I guess, smack dab in the middle for all the takers from the GOP side as it comes to them running against the next Democratic candidate for President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there was a presidential candidate who ran in 2012 promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and that campaign pledge didn’t work out very well for him.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President will be at the SelectUSA conference here in a little while. Will he be addressing the trade or trade promotion authority, or do you have any updates on the progress of that, of trade agreements?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update in terms of the ongoing discussions on Capitol Hill about this specific issue. I can tell you the President is very much looking forward to speaking at the SelectUSA Summit. It will be an opportunity for him to reiterate once again the critically important role that exports play in strengthening our economy and creating jobs here in the United States. The President continues to be convinced, and the data bears this out, that when U.S. businesses have an opportunity to compete around the world on a level playing field that U.S. businesses tend to do very well. And that has had benefits both for our broader economy but also for the workers who are employed by those businesses.
So this is something you’ll hear the President talk about a little bit more this afternoon.
Q Josh, over the weekend, Ayatollah Khomeini gave a speech and during that speech there were people in the crowd chanting, “Death to America.” And the Ayatollah responded back to them, according to various translations, “Of course, death to America.” Do those comments give this White House any pause about moving forward with a nuclear deal with that country?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I can tell you that I think that those kinds of comments -- I didn’t see them firsthand, but I'll take your word for them -- those kinds of comments only underscore why it is so critically important that the United States and the international community succeed in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is sitting down at the negotiating table and getting Iran to make very specific commitments that would prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and getting Iran to make commitments as it relates to a set of historically intrusive inspections that would allow us to verify that Iran is abiding by the agreement and therefore not in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon.
The other thing that we have been steadfast in repeating is that if we are successful in reaching an agreement with the Iranians by the end of March -- that's the deadline for a political agreement -- that it would not at all resolve the long list of concerns that we continue to have with the Iranian regime. We've seen the Iranian regime utter disgraceful threats toward our closest ally in the region, in Israel. We have seen Iran actively engaged in supporting terror activity around the globe. And we know that Iran continues to wrongly detain American citizens inside of Iran.
So we have a rather long list of concerns with Iran and their behavior. And even if we are able to reach a nuclear agreement, those other lists of concerns won't go away. In fact, what we have said is given that long list of concerns, it's all the more important that we succeed in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q And do you feel like you can negotiate in good faith with a Supreme Leader who is calling for “death to America”?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, what we have seen is we have seen the Iranians sit down at the negotiating table and demonstrate a willingness to have constructive conversations. But what is just as true is we are going to insist in the context of those negotiations that Iran agree to historically intrusive inspections so that we can verify their compliance with the agreement. The national security advisor I think said it best when she said that our approach to Iran is distrust and verify.
Q Okay. And on a related note, 367 House members, bipartisan group, signed on to a letter saying that Congress must be convinced before there is permanent sanctions relief for Iran as part of any nuclear deal that may get hammered out. And is there any objection to that letter? You have it right there.
MR. EARNEST: I do have it right here. And I guess great minds are thinking alike today. I underlined exactly the same sentence of the letter. The sentence says, “Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from congressionally mandated sanctions would require new legislation.” That's the line that you just recited. That is --
Q -- it’s an important line.
MR. EARNEST: It is, and it is an important one for a variety of reasons. One is that it reflects the role that Congress has to play in this process, and that is a role that the United States -- that the administration has repeatedly acknowledged. That is why you see the administration going to great lengths to make sure that we are briefing members of Congress about the status of the talks. I happened to see that the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did an interview over the weekend in which he said that in recent days he’d heard from both the Vice President and the Secretary of State. I think that is an indication of the kind of commitment that the administration has to consulting with Congress throughout this process. And --
Q So no objection to that letter? The same objections that you have with the Cotton letter, for example?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a variety of differences. The first this is a bipartisan letter; the Cotton letter was a letter that was signed by 47 Republicans. The second is, the letter from Senator Cotton was one that was directed to our adversaries in the Islamic Republic of Iran; this is a letter that members of Congress signed and sent to the President.
The other thing is Senator Cotton and many of the other people who signed that letter made clear that the goal of the letter was actually to undermine the talks. And the second line that I underlined in this letter notes that “the signatories remain hopeful that a diplomatic solution preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon may yet be reached, and we want to work with you to assure such a result.” That’s an indication that they have a keen interest in the agreement. We would certainly expect that Congress would, given the significant consequences that an agreement like this would have for our national security. And we would anticipate that Congress would play its rightful role in considering, after Iran has demonstrated sustained compliance with the agreement, a measure that would, down the line, as they described, offer permanent sanctions relief from congressionally mandated sanctions.
Q And what did you make of these death threats from ISIS that specifically mentioned 100 U.S. troops? Some of these troops may have met with the President; some can be seen in photographs in various press releases and named in various press releases from the U.S. military over the last several months. What is the White House reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we obviously take the safety and security of our military personnel very seriously. At this point, there is no indication that there was a data breach involved here. It appears that the information that was distributed by ISIL was information that was freely available through social media on the Internet.
The administration has been in touch with the branches of the military to ensure that steps are taken to notify personnel, and the United States is working with the FBI, who is the lead investigator here, to determine the validity of any potential threats that may arise from this posting.
Q And on President Ghani, I'm just trying to figure out, by the end of his visit and by the end of this press conference tomorrow, are we going to have a firm sense from the President as to how many troops will be removed from Afghanistan, on what timetable? And will they all be -- or nearly all be pulled out before the end of 2016? Are we going to have a firm understanding of all of that before President Ghani leaves town?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I described last week, the goal that the President has set for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017 is one that we've been pretty clear and firm on, which is that the President does envision a scenario where the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by that point, by early 2017, reflects the need to protect the substantial diplomatic presence that the United States will maintain in Afghanistan, as well as the establishment of a security cooperation office. The links between Afghan security forces and the U.S. military are significant and they will endure, so we would anticipate that there would be a presence for that reason, as well. But that obviously -- we're talking about in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,500 troops.
At this point, the United States troop presence is around 10,000 in Afghanistan, and the question is how much flexibility is there in the drawdown between where we stand today and that endpoint in early 2017. That will be the subject of some discussion with President Ghani. President Ghani has indicated a desire to bring that up and discuss that personally with the President. This is an issue the President and his national security team have already been talking about for some time, but I don’t have anything to preview in terms of any announcements that may or may not be made tomorrow.
Q The leaders of the Oversight Committee have written a letter asking the Secret Service Director to have four officers testify when he testifies tomorrow before their committee. Would the White House support having these officers who were witnesses to the incident on March 4th testify?
MR. EARNEST: Bill, actually, this is the first I’m hearing of the letter. I can tell you that what we would expect is for the Secret Service to cooperate with two things. One is legitimate congressional oversight, but also with the ongoing DHS inspector general investigation into this matter. So I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about whether or not these individual officers should appear before Congress.
But I think the fact that the Secret Service Director is testifying before Congress for the third time in a week or so I think is an indication of that agency’s interest in cooperating with congressional oversight. And the fact that the director himself asked the DHS IG to step in and investigate this matter I think is a commitment that is indicative of the commitment that he has made to getting to the bottom of this matter.
Q But there’d be no mutually exclusive reason for them not to testify before Congress, even though they’re cooperating with DHS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it would be hard for me to speak to that. I’d refer that question to the Secret Service.
Q Thanks, Josh. First, I want to ask you about Denis McDonough’s speech to J Street. I know some critics have noted that McDonough outranks the two administration officials who were sent to AIPAC to speak, and so I’m wondering if there was any message being sent there from the White House about their speaker selection to these pro-Israel groups.
MR. EARNEST: No, no message that’s trying to be sent here. There were two U.S. officials who were sent to speak to AIPAC, and I think having the national security advisor and the U.S. representative to the United Nations -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations speak at that conference I think reflects the seriousness with which we consider the AIPAC organization.
Q And just a follow-up on -- I don’t know if you’ve seen the reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu said today that he regrets the comments that he made about Israeli Arabs voting. I don’t know if you had seen that or if you have any reaction to those statements.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those comments, but I think we’ve made pretty clear the serious concerns that we had with those comments. So if that’s what he said, then it certainly seems appropriate for him to make that acknowledgement.
Q Thank you, Josh. Just a few on Yemen, one or two on Iran, and then one final subject. You keep referring to the Hadi government. And I just wonder, what is the U.S. government’s assessment as to whether what you’re calling the Hadi government is, in fact, a functioning government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no doubt that they are hobbled by the kind of instability that we see inside of Yemen. But the United States stands with the international community -- and I’d point you to this statement from the United Nations over the weekend that indicates the international community’s commitment to supporting the Yemeni people and the legitimacy of President Hadi to continue to run that country.
Q But as a practical matter, who is in charge of the capital and the operations of government in Yemen right now, as far as you can see?
MR. EARNEST: Well, such as it is, right? I mean, the President had to flee the capital, so we have seen that the Houthi insurgents continue to occupy some of the government institutions in that country, including in the capital. And the international community has called on the Houthi insurgents to leave, to vacate those government facilities so that the government can come in and can function, and so that we can also facilitate a diplomatic process for resolving the current concerns that have been raised by the Houthis about their government.
Q Because you had said earlier that the Houthis had advanced on the capital, but the fact is they advanced on the capital, they’ve seized the capital, and they’re running the capital, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Mm-hmm.
Q Do you regard the Houthis as a terrorist organization?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know of any sort of specific designation that may have been made by the State Department, but what we have been focused on are the serious concerns we have about the destabilizing activity of the Houthis. And we would encourage both sides, including the Houthis, to put an end to the violence and come to the negotiating table. The United States and the United Nations will certainly participate, in terms of facilitating those agreements to try to broker differences so that we can end the bloodshed, that we can end the violence, and try to bring some stability to this nation that’s been racked by so much instability over the years.
Q Do you have an assessment of the relationship between the Houthis and the regime in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that there are links between the two. What is unclear is how much operational support is being offered by the Iranians to the Houthis. At this point, I still don’t believe that we’ve seen any evidence of any sort of command and control being exercised by Iranian officials over Houthi movements. That’s something that we’ve said for a few weeks -- let me check and make sure that’s still true -- but I haven’t heard any different so far. But we’ll confirm that for you.
Q Do you have anything further than you did last week about the twin claims of responsibility by ISIS-related figures for the attacks, respectively, in Tunis and in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update on that. At this point, we still have not seen any evidence of ISIL directing those attacks or enhancing the ability of those individuals to carry out those attacks. What we have seen and what we suspect may be the case here is that individuals have cited an allegiance with ISIL merely for propaganda value to the extent that they determine there is some, not for any sort of operational value.
Q On Iran -- CIA Director Brennan, appearing on Fox News Sunday this past weekend, stated that the U.S. intelligence community has a pretty good idea of Iran’s nuclear facilities and programs, something he said by way of dismissing the idea that there may be some undeclared sites that are presently unknown to the United States government as we continue these negotiations. Given the track record of the U.S. intelligence community with respect to Iran and its undeclared sites, should the American people have confidence that we don’t, in fact, know about some undeclared sites right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do take the CIA Director at his word. John Brennan is somebody that I think does have a good track record in terms of serving the American people. And I do have confidence in his assessment that he shared with Mr. Wallace on his program over the weekend that he believes that we do have significant insight into their nuclear program.
The thing that I will say is -- and this is one of the reasons that the President has been dogged about trying to pursue a diplomatic resolution to our concerns about their nuclear program -- is that in the context of a diplomatic agreement, the United States and the international community would insist upon historically intrusive inspections. And that would give us even more insight than we already have into the details of the program, and that’s one of the reasons that the President believes that this is the better course of action.
So in response to an earlier question, you heard me describe our view that the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is at the negotiating table -- because if the United States or somebody in the international community had to resort to the military option, that would prompt the Iranians to kick out all of the inspectors and would reduce our visibility into their program, and therefore could make it easier for them to try to develop a covert option. That so-called covert option is one that is very challenging for them right now, and it would become only more challenging in the context of a negotiated solution to the situation with their nuclear program there.
Q And last, on Iran -- the President told the Huffington Post on Friday that, as far as he can see, the Iranians have not yet made what he called the “kinds of concessions” that would be necessary for a deal to be reached. I know there’s only so much you can say about what’s on the table in these negotiations, but of course you should feel safe in discussing that which the President has discussed publicly. And so what kinds of concessions -- what broad categories of concessions are they not making that the President sees as necessary?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he has a little bit more latitude to talk about these things than I do. So let me just repeat that what we will insist on is making sure that we cut off every pathway to a nuclear weapon that Iran has, and that they agree to and submit to historically intrusive inspections into their nuclear program. And if Iran is not able to make those commitments, then there will be no deal that’s reached.
Q In saying that they haven't made certain kinds of concessions, is he saying they haven't been reciprocal in the making of concessions; that the United States has made concessions, and just Iran has not?
MR. EARNEST: What we have made pretty clear is that this deal will be predicated on serious commitments from the Iranians about resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program, and commitments that they will comply with intrusive inspections. And those are the kinds of commitments that we’re going to insist on before we even contemplate any sort of sanctions relief. And what we would envision is a demonstrated commitment to compliance with the agreement before phasing the sanctions relief.
Q Last question -- and you’ve been very generous, as have my colleagues. In your gracious remarks at the top about the passing of Jerry Warren, you stated that he served in the Nixon administration, and you went on to say that that administration had, what you called, a difficult relationship with the press. Using whatever metrics you employ to make that assessment, would you say that the Obama administration has a difficult relationship with the press?
MR. EARNEST: No. I actually think that the Obama administration has worked hard to try to facilitate a constructive working relationship with the press. And as I’ve observed at this podium on many occasions, that necessarily means that there will be a little friction, because it is the responsibility of the free and independent press here in this room and across the country to push the administration to be more transparent and to give greater insight into the priorities here. And so that means that there’s always going to be a little bit of friction. But I am pleased with the kind of constructive, working relationship that I do think has benefitted certainly the journalists who are covering the White House, but, most importantly, I think it’s benefitted the American people.
Q Since the deadline is only a week away, I think it’s a fair question to ask, even though I doubt you’ll answer it.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll try.
Q Is the United States close to a deal with Iran on nuclear proliferation in that country? And what are the roadblocks if they’re not today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it would be hard to talk about roadblocks for some of the similar reasons that James raised. I can say that, as a general matter, we do believe that we have made important progress over the last few weeks. You’ve obviously seen that Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz, a number of other nuclear experts from the United States and the international community, have spent a lot of time around the negotiating table with their Iranian counterparts over the last few weeks. And I can say that we’ve made some important progress. But as the President acknowledged in his interview on Friday, there are still some substantial gaps that remain. And I wouldn’t change the assessment that we’ve offered earlier about the likelihood of an agreement.
Q And then just on Senator Cruz’s announcement today, along with the other things that I’m sure you disagree with, he said that he would abolish the IRS. I’d like to get your comment on whether or not the United States government could, in fact, work without the IRS.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to respond to anything that any of the candidates has made in the context of a campaign speech. So there may be somebody who previously worked at the IRS who could better answer your question and assess the kind of contribution that the IRS makes to the effect of running the U.S. government.
Q If I could just press on that, Josh -- this is a department that works for the White House, for your administration, and here is a candidate who says it’s totally unnecessary. There’s no response from the White House about whether or not the IRS is unnecessary?
MR. EARNEST: Only because I’ve worked pretty hard to be assiduous about allowing the candidates to make their own comments and declare their own views. At some point, we’ll reach a phase where I’ll be a little bit more willing to engage. But at this point, I’m going to let them have their day.
Thanks, Julia. Chris.
Q Well, if you don’t want to respond to what the candidates have to say, let me ask you to respond to something that California Governor Jerry Brown had to say yesterday about Ted Cruz.
MR. EARNEST: I think he speculated on a different scenario -- he himself might be a candidate.
Q He said that Cruz’s position on climate change makes him absolutely unfit to be running for office. Would the President agree that someone who doesn’t believe in climate change is unfit for your office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I’ll just say as a general matter that the President certainly believes that dealing with the causes of climate change is an urgent matter, and one the United States, as the leader in the international community on so many priorities, that the United States needs to lead on this one, too. And you’ve seen the President work -- make a significant announcement in China at the end of last year, demonstrating the sustained commitment of both the United States and China to reduce carbon pollution. There are a number of other steps that the President has taken to do two things. One is try to reduce our carbon footprint, but do that in a way that’s actually good for our economy by making investments in renewable energy like wind and solar, and investments in technology that will enhance energy efficiency. These are all things that could be good for our economy and good for the climate. And certainly the President intends over the two years that he has remaining in office to redouble the efforts of this country to lead on this important issue.
Q Well, you’ve said and the President himself has said on a number of occasions that this is the fourth quarter and a lot of things happen in the fourth quarter.
MR. EARNEST: Important things happen in the fourth quarter.
Q Important things happen in the fourth quarter. And I know you don’t like to get into political analysis, but what’s the conversation like in the White House about this very early start to this campaign? You have one Republican obviously who declared today, several more who may get in over the next month or two. And what that means for the President’s ability to get attention for what he still wants to get done in the fourth quarter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, those of us who worked on the 2008 campaign I think look back -- look at the start of this campaign with some envy. By this point in 2007, I was working on my second campaign and had been doing so for four months. So those who are just getting started today are getting off pretty easy in my book.
Setting that aside, I would anticipate that the -- as I mentioned earlier in response to Josh’s question, that we will over the course of the next year and a half or so, until the general election in 2016, have an opportunity to have a very robust debate all across the country about the direction of the country. And the President is very proud of the substantial progress that we’ve made so far, and between now and then he anticipates that we’re going to make some additional progress. And he is certainly very focused on that.
And there will be a debate in the context of the presidential election about when the President leaves office where to take the country from there. And I would anticipate that at some point down the line, the President himself might even weigh in on this debate. But this is a healthy part of our democracy and this will be something that all of the candidates and many of you will be focused on.
The President, however, has some very important work ahead of him. And when he was running for reelection, he wasn’t running for a two-year term; he was running for a four-year term. And he intends to make the best use of those -- of all four of those years that he can to move the country in the direction that garnered him majority support in the last presidential election.
Q And any reaction to the Supreme Court decision to deny a challenge to a Wisconsin’s voter ID law?
MR. EARNEST: I saw reports about that just briefly today. I think what I would do is just refer you to the President’s comments at Selma a couple of weeks ago, where he talked about how it should be the responsibility of the government and the responsibility of all of our citizens to try and put in place rules and laws that make it easier for eligible voters to cast a ballot and not harder. And that is certainly the view that the President has articulated, even at that rather poignant location in our nation’s history, and that’s certainly something the President will continue to advocate for.
Q Thanks, Josh. To follow on Jordan’s question, and it sounds like you haven’t seen the reports about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments, but would an apology to Israeli Arabs be enough to stop the White House reevaluation of Israel policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, let me separate those two things. Again, based on what Jordan said to me -- I did not see those comments -- but based on what Jordan said and what you have reiterated, it certainly seems like his comments were appropriate. But the statements that we have made over the last week about the need to reevaluate U.S. policy is actually predicated on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments that legitimately call into question his commitment to a two-state solution; that for years, under the leadership of both Democratic and Republican Presidents, the U.S. policy has been to advocate for a two-state solution that’s negotiated by the two parties.
And our explanation for intervening at the United Nations when there are some efforts taken by our allies to impose a solution from the outside, the United States has said we shouldn’t impose a solution on the outside because the two parties should sit down at the negotiating table and work this out for themselves. And the United States is willing to take a role in facilitating those conversations.
Now, there’s legitimate doubt about the commitment of our ally in those negotiations to participating in those talks. So it certainly calls into question what our policy can be if our ally is, at best, reluctant to participate in those conversations. So that is why -- that is what has prompted this reevaluation of U.S. policy.
Q Is there anything the Prime Minister can do to maintain the current policy? I mean, would a resumption of talks, would a restating of his commitment to the two-state solution be enough? Is there anything -- is there any action he can take to sort of keep the current Israeli-U.S. relationship and the policy at the United Nations intact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one thing that I can tell you will continue between the United States and Israel is the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security and the military and intelligence cooperation that we’ve seen now for generations will continue under this President. Prime Minister Netanyahu has previously described that coordination with the Obama administration as unprecedented, and the President certainly intends to keep it at that level.
As it relates to our diplomatic policy, however, the United States will continue to keep an open line of communication, starting at the top levels but also among other senior members of the Netanyahu administration as they form a government. And the Obama administration will continue to keep those lines of communication open and we'll continue to listen to our Israeli allies as they contemplate their path forward.
They obviously have some decisions to make as they form a new government, and we'll continue to consult with them about them. But I don't have any sort of benchmark to lay out from here other than to say the United States continues to be wedded to the principle of security cooperation and continue to keep an open line of communication between our two countries.
Q Thanks, Josh. Related to Israel -- in Geneva, with the Human Rights Council, the U.S. this year did not step forward in defense of Israel on item number 7. Does the White House have any comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: I do, Fred, and I appreciate your raising this. This is not the first time that the United States has refused to participate in the UNHRC discussion of Item 7. We do not participate because we remain deeply troubled by the Human Rights Council’s standalone agenda item directed against Israel and by the many repetitive and one-sided resolutions that have been pursued under that agenda item. We have coordinated our refusal to participate with Israel, which will also not participate in those discussions.
I would note that the Israeli government themselves have put out a statement saying every year the Americans stay away from this debate, which singles Israel out for censure, and they do so at Israel’s request. So this, I think, does underscore the kind of strong relationship that continues to exist between our two countries.
Q And regarding the ACA anniversary, a lot of the critics still point out that the promises made beforehand were that the cost would decrease, the President had said, by $2,500 at one point -- or several points, I think. And also, CMS in 2013 had said that the reason for the slower growth rate was because of the sluggish economy, not because of the ACA. I mean, at the point in which the economy starts to pick up, then the growth rate for health care costs will increase.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I guess I'd point out a couple of things, is that we have indicated that there are a number of things that have contributed to the historically slow growth in health care costs that we've seen. And when I say historic, I mean the slowest growth in 50 years. And certainly it seems that even the hardest-core critic of the Affordable Care Act would be hard pressed to make the case that it's just a coincidence that in the year after the Affordable Care Act, and in subsequent years, that the slowest growth in health care costs just happened to coincidentally occur in the first few years that the Affordable Care Act was implemented.
The second thing I would point out is that -- this was actually one of the numbers I did at the top -- that we have seen that the average family that gets their health insurance through their employer has put an extra 1,800 bucks in their pocket, and that's because of the kind of slower growth trends that we've seen in health care costs. That is real money. And there is some economic data to indicate that that money that employers are saving in terms of paying for the premiums for their employees is actually being redirected toward wages. And that is a good sign, and we certainly would like to see more of that in the future.
And I think that's a good example, as I noted at the top, of how individuals who already have health insurance are benefitting from the Affordable Care Act.
Q Thank you. Still less than 50/50 odds of getting a deal with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the likelihood of us reaching a deal, I would not offer up different odds at this point.
Q So what’s the change? It was less than 50/50 publicly up until recently.
MR. EARNEST: I think what I have said previously is that it's at best 50/50. So maybe I'm just feeling optimistic today. I don't mean to -- I guess the point is I don't mean to signal a change on this.
Q Okay. President Ghani says that ISIL is targeting his country. Under the terms of the authorization, the AUMF that the President -- the proposal that the President sent Congress, there are no geographical limitations. So the United States and coalition allies could conceivably enter combat operations in Afghanistan against ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, what we have said is that there are some very specific descriptions of what the AUMF would cover. And you're right that it does not note any sort of geographical limitation, but it does describe the kinds of forces that would be subject to the authorization to use military force. Just putting a sign on your front door that says this is the international headquarters of -- or the Afghanistan headquarters of ISIL doesn’t necessarily mean that you're going to be targeted by the U.S. government.
The authorization to use military force describes individuals who take up arms alongside ISIL. And I can point to you that there’s one high-profile example of a senior member of the Taliban who did declare his affiliation with ISIL, but that individual has been taken off the battlefield thanks to the efforts of the United States and our Afghan partners.
So the United States continues to be vigilant about this. And as I mentioned I think in response to James’s question, right now what we perceive is that there are some extremists who do seek some sort of propaganda value out of aligning themselves with ISIL. But we obviously are monitoring very closely those extremists who seek to do harm whether they’re affiliated with ISIL or not.
Q As we wait for a potential announcement on U.S. troop levels heading into this year and then 2017, perhaps tomorrow, I'd like you to respond to some of the criticism that we hear about the President’s timetable and that his ironclad commitment to have the United States remove all but those 1,000 individuals or however many out of Kabul has to do more with his fulfilling a commitment than it does with the military reality on the ground. Could you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is a commitment that the President made, Mike, and it does reflect what the President views as our core national security interests. Over the course of the next two years, until the beginning of 2017, we hope that we will continue to make progress in building up the capacity of Afghan security forces to provide for the security situation in their own country.
And what the President is mindful of is that making a substantial commitment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, again, is not in our national security interest. Drawing the United States into another land war in Asia is not in our best interest, and that our strategy here is to build up the capacity of the Afghan central government and the Afghan security forces to provide for the security situation in their own country and to do so in partnership with the United States.
One of the things that we envision creating in Kabul is an office that would facilitate military-to-military cooperation. That would enhance the security of the Afghan people, and it would serve the national security interest of the United States, but it's very different than making a substantial commitment of U.S. ground troops back into Afghanistan.
Q The Afghan government is evidently not there yet, right? So at least until 2017. Will there be an evaluation at that time, a reevaluation? Or is the United States just gone no matter what?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President I think has been pretty firm in describing what sort of plan he envisions for the United States based on his assessment of our national security interests in that country.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. And forgive me, I think I'm slow and math is not my strong suit.
MR. EARNEST: That’s usually not the case.
Q For months -- okay, well, wait for it -- For months, including I think at the year-end news conference, the President and you since then have said that -- used this 50/50 formulation of “that’s where we are on the talks, that’s the chance of...” How is it that we’ve had important progress and substantial progress but the odds are still the same?
MR. EARNEST: I think there are two reasons for that. The first is, I think as you would expect in the context of a complicated negotiation like this, that as they work through the issues, some of the more difficult issues get punted to the end. And I’ve described this phenomenon in the context of trade talks, but I think it applies in these conversations as well. The most thorny things are the things that get punted to the end. So that’s the first thing. While we’ve made substantial progress in resolving a lot of issues, there’s still some important ones that remain unresolved.
The second thing is that ultimately the decision about this agreement is one that will have to be made by the leaders of the Iranian regime, including the Supreme leader. And it will require Iran’s leadership to make a very difficult decision: to cut off all the pathways to a nuclear weapon and to agree to a historically intrusive set of inspections.
And the fact is, there’s not a lot of transparency into that decision-making process, and so the uncertainty about the willingness of Iran’s leaders to make and hold those kinds of commitments is what leads to some skepticism here about whether a deal is even possible.
But based on the constructive engagement we’ve gotten around the negotiating table, we asses that there’s -- on the good days, we assess that there’s a 50/50 proposition that will succeed in this.
Q So the progress has been substantial and important, but just not important enough to affect the odds?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that they have been important enough to get us closer to reaching the kind of common-sense agreement that the international community could agree to. But I think what remains to be seen is the likelihood that Iran’s leaders would agree to cutting off every path they have to a nuclear weapon and agreeing to a set of inspections that would allow us to verify their compliance with the agreement. That’s what remains to be seen.
And again, the Iranian regime is not particularly transparent about how these kinds of decisions are made, and I think that’s what adds some healthy doubt to the situation.
Q So when an Iranian official says the talks are within reach of a deal and other diplomats say it’s close, they’re wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what they -- I think what I'm trying to describe to you is a scenario that’s slightly more complicated than that. A handshake agreement around the negotiating table is obviously very important and would demonstrate substantial progress. There is a lot of doubt on the front end of this deal that the Iranians would even engage in this process constructively, so having us enter a situation where we could reach a handshake agreement around the negotiating table I think represents substantial progress. But what is still in doubt is whether or not the leaders of Iran would go along with this agreement. And because of the lack of transparency we have into that process, that’s why we continue to be a little skeptical that this is something that is possible.
But because it is possible, you’ve seen the United States and the international community engage very aggressively in this diplomatic process because it is, in the mind of the President, the best possible way for us to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.
Okay. Thanks, everybody. Have a good Monday.
2:05 P.M. EDT