Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/25/2015

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/25/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:46 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I apologize for the delay in getting started this morning.  A lot going on. 

Q    What is this?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry?

Q    There’s a lot going on.  What’s going on?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s a PBS crew that’s spending a little time getting a little look at the White House operations.

Q    And you, right?

MR. EARNEST:  A little bit of that unfortunately involved --

Q    And Schultz?  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  All right, so, Jim, we can go straight to questions, hopefully that don’t involve the television crew that’s following me around today.

Q    Well, we have some news out of Yemen today.  The President is on the run, apparently, at sea, on a boat.  On Monday, Josh, you said that there continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the United States and the national security infrastructure of the Hadi government.  Is there anybody that you guys can coordinate with now?  What’s the relationship today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, let me start by saying that the United States continues to strongly condemn the recent offensive military actions undertaken in Yemen that have targeted President Hadi.  The actions of the Houthis and former President Saleh have caused widespread instability and chaos that threatens the wellbeing of all Yemenis. 

The international community has spoken clearly through U.N. Council resolutions and in other fora that the violent takeover of Yemen by an armed faction is unacceptable, and that the only legitimate transition can be accomplished through political negotiations and a consensus agreement among all of the parties, based on the GCC Initiative and National Dialogue outcomes.

So we believe that there is a path here that can be pursued to try to resolve the differences among the parties.  However, that path cannot be pursued as long as you have the Houthis working with former President Saleh to foment a lot of instability in the country.  And so we would call on them to stop that instability and that violence, and cooperate with this U.N.-led process to resolve the differences among all the sides.

Q    Has there been any direct communication between the administration and the former President to communicate that directly?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any telephone calls to read out at this point.

Q    But again, to the question of what kind of coordination is taking place at all, is there any Hadi infrastructure left that the U.S. can deal with?

MR. EARNEST:  Jim, as I acknowledged when we talked about this earlier in the week, the kind of coordination that the United States has traditionally enjoyed with Yemeni security forces is certainly not enhanced by the temporary relocation of U.S. personnel from Yemen.  And we would prefer to be operating in that country, but we do continue to have the capability, based on ongoing communications with government personnel, but also based on assets and resources that the United States maintains in the region. 

We have the ability to continue to apply pressure on the extremists that are seeking to capitalize on the chaos in Yemen to establish a safe haven, and plan and potentially execute attacks against the West.

We are going to continue to apply pressure to those individuals.  And as I mentioned earlier in the week, Yemen is a dangerous place and it’s the reason that U.S. personnel were temporarily relocated from Yemen.  But Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremist leaders because they are still in the crosshairs of U.S. security forces and other security forces that are deployed to protect the American people and to protect American interests around the globe.

Q    I wanted to ask you about the Medicare doc-fix.  The President just a little while ago said, “As we speak, Congress is working to fix the Medicare physician payment system.  I’ve got my pen ready to sign a good, bipartisan bill.”  Was the President endorsing this specific legislation that appears to be headed to the House floor?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, what the President was articulating was his support for a genuinely bipartisan agreement that would address this vexing policy issue that for I think nearly two decades now Congress has been grappling with.

There does appear to be emerging a bipartisan compromise in the House, so we certainly would be supportive of a genuinely bipartisan effort.  You’ve heard me talk quite a bit over the last month or so about how Congress will not succeed in efforts to move important pieces of legislation along party lines.  But if Congress is willing to work in genuinely bipartisan fashion, Republicans will find that there are some Democrats in Congress who are interested in working with them to do the right thing for the country, and they’ll certainly find a Democratic President in the White House who is eager to work with them to make progress for the American people. 

So the President is supportive of the efforts to work in bipartisan fashion.  And if something bipartisan does emerge from the House, that would be good news.  We also understand that there is a bipartisan interest in the bill in the Senate.  There are some in the Senate who believe that the bill could be further improved beyond the current proposal, through the amendment process. 

Senator McConnell spent a lot of time talking about the importance of the amendment process, and we certainly would be supportive of individuals being given the opportunity to offer up amendments that are directed toward improving the legislation.  But we are going to be supportive of a bipartisan process, particularly if we can address a problem that leaders in Washington for two decades now have just sought to sort of kick the can down the road.

Q    The bill that Minority Leader Pelosi appears to be supporting in the House still has troubled some women’s rights advocates -- Planned Parenthood and NARAL -- because of some item in that language contained in that proposed bill.  Is that something that would trouble the President if that were included?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I am certainly not an expert on these kinds of issues that have sought detailed attention from legislators not just in the context of this legislation, but in the context of the legislative process for decades now. 

The good news is that one of those experts is Nancy Pelosi.  She is the Minority Leader of -- she’s the Democratic Leader in the House, and she is somebody that has an impeccable record of standing up for the right of women to choose and make their own decisions about their health care.

So I don’t have an administration view to share with you on that specific language, but we certainly put a lot of stock in the views of the Minority Leader on this. 

Q    And lastly, could you comment on the news that Senator Ted Cruz is looking at possibly obtaining health care insurance through a health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I will say is simply that if those reports are true, then what he will find is the same thing that millions of Americans across the country have found, which is that there are good, quality, affordable health care plans that are available because of the Affordable Care Act.  And these are plans that will ensure that people are no longer discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition.  These are plans that will ensure that individuals are not discriminated against just because they are women.  These are plans that will ensure that the recipients have access to free preventative services, like free mammograms and free birth control. 

And this is certainly the experience of millions of Americans across the country, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.  And it will be the experience of anybody that wants to go shopping on the D.C. marketplace as well.

Q    You don’t seem to be taking the bait for the ironic moment that this represents.

MR. EARNEST:  I have noticed that a number of other people have pointed out the irony.  I’m seeking to merely point out the common experience that it seems that the Cruz family may be sharing in.

Julia.

Q    Josh, can the U.S. confirm President Hadi’s whereabouts at this moment?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not in a position to do that.  But I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader.  I’ll rely on all of you to confirm the whereabouts of others. 

Q    Okay.  The Iraqi President said today that the U.S.-led coalition will soon begin airstrikes in Tikrit.  Is that -- can you confirm is the U.S. backing that?  And has the President made a decision to support that strike?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  The first is that the United States and our coalition, for I guess almost nine months now, has been engaged in an air campaign against ISIL in locations throughout Iraq.  And we have done -- we have taken those airstrikes, again, flying side by side with our coalition partners and closely coordinating those efforts with Iraqi security forces.  And that’s something that we’ve done in an impactful way in Iraq.

I can tell you that we have sought to coordinate our efforts at every turn with Iraqi security forces.  And in response to a specific request from Iraqi security forces, the United States has been providing ISR support to the ongoing mission in Tikrit.  So, ISR stands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- and that is an effort that we’ve been providing for a few days now.  But I don’t have any additional policy decisions to share with you about additional steps that we may be taking as it relates to the ongoing operation in Tikrit.

Tommy.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I have two questions for you.  First of all, Senator Ted Cruz -- I know you’ve been fielding a lot of questions about him.  He recently said that he wants to repeal Common Core, every word of Common Core.  Am I mistaken?  I didn’t think Common Core was a federal law? 

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen some others make that observation.  But, again, I have been pretty disciplined about not responding to the various claims of potential candidates for President.  I guess he is the first candidate for President.  And so I’m not going to be in a position to respond to any of those claims at this point.

Q    But, I mean, Common Core -- is that correct, Common Core is not something that can be repealed?

MR. EARNEST:  We can look into that for you.

Q    And on my second question -- also, the President was asked yesterday what Prime Minister Netanyahu could do in order to regain the President’s confidence in his commitment to a two-state solution.  The President didn't really give an answer to that.  And so I’m wondering, if the Prime Minister were to put forth a proposal for a two-state solution that included those things that are broadly agreed upon by the United States and others, would that restore that confidence?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Tommy, I don't want to go down the road of entertaining a variety of hypotheticals.  But what I will acknowledge is that the President has been clear -- as he was in his telephone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu -- about his commitment to ensure that the administration keeps open the lines of communication between U.S. officials and Israeli officials. 

And Prime Minister Netanyahu has begun the process of trying to form a government in Israel.  And this is part of the Israeli democratic process.  He is the leader of the party that got the most votes in the most recent election, and is now working to form a coalition government. 

And throughout that process, the United States will continue to keep open the lines of communication as Prime Minister Netanyahu makes decisions about forming that government, and then moves to beginning to implement policy under the guise of that new government to advance the country in the way that -- the interest of his country in the way that he sees fit.  And we're going to continue to stay in close touch with them as they do that.

Q    I guess what I’m getting at -- is there any hope, even a remote hope, that by continuing to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu on this issue, on his comments about there not being a two-state solution during his tenure, is there remote hope that in order to try and convince the United States and the world that he was just saying that to get elected or whatever, that that might bring him back to the table?  Is there any hope of that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, these are decisions that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself will have to make, and he will do that after he’s had an opportunity to form a government and after he’s had an opportunity to sit down with the cabinet members -- cabinet ministers in that government and begin to formulate a policy and begin to take some steps that he believes are in the best interest of the country.  But ultimately, those will be decisions that will be made by the Israeli Prime Minister based on what the Israeli Prime Minister believes is in the best interest of his country.

What he’ll continue to find in this President is one that is committed to cooperating when it comes to providing for the security of the Israeli people.  We know that the steps that the U.S. has taken in terms of sharing intelligence, in offering military support, are essential to the security of the Israeli people.  And the President has committed to ensuring that that cooperation continues unabated.

Justin.

Q    The President is headed down to Alabama tomorrow.  Local media is saying that he is expected to talk about payday lending.  Coincidentally -- maybe, maybe not -- the CFPB is slated to unveil its rules on payday lending for the first time tomorrow.  So I guess is there a connection between those things, to start off?

MR. EARNEST:  Stay tuned, Justin.

Q    Well, I’m going to go ahead and guess that they are linked.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Certainly a logical conclusion.

Q    And I wanted to ask you, actually, before he goes down about -- the CFPB is an independent agency, and there’s been a lot of questions and certainly accusations from Republicans of the White House politicizing it.  And right now Republicans in the Senate in their budget are proposing to actually move funding for the agency back in the congressional appropriations.  So is there a risk of the President going down there, touting CFPB announcements and politicizing what’s supposed to be an independent consumer agency?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I don't think there’s any basis for anybody to call into question the independence of the CFPB.  Obviously, it is possible for the CFPB to be completely independent, but also have the person who is responsible for the creation of the CFPB to be proud of their work.  And it is true that over the course of the last few years, the CFPB has lived up to its billing when it comes to being a forceful advocate for middle-class families and consumers in Washington. 

We know that corporate interests and other moneyed interests in Washington are well represented here.  And the President believed, as he was working in bipartisan fashion in the Congress to advance Wall Street reform, that it was important to create an agency that would be genuinely independent of the political process, but yet one that could be a forceful advocate for taxpayers and for consumers and middle-class families.

And the President went out and found somebody like Richard Cordray who, yes, was a Democratic officeholder in the state of Ohio, but somebody who cultivated a reputation as being tough but fair, and somebody who was able to work in genuinely bipartisan fashion.  And he brought his expertise to this job and has done a terrific job of ensuring that this agency stepped up to the plate and lived up to its billing.

And the President has been previously supportive of efforts that have been undertaken by the CFPB, but ultimately, Richard Cordray and the CFPB is responsible for doing what they think is best, not what the President thinks is best. 

But the President is certainly proud of their work.  The President is going to continue to look for opportunities, as he has in the past, to make sure that people understand that the work that they’re doing is important and isn’t important just because of the way that they look out for middle-class families, but important in the way that they act in the interest of our broader economy.

Q    A lot of Republicans criticized this effort in particular, saying that payday loans offer kind of a really helpful tool to people who are living paycheck to paycheck.  It's an opportunity for them to pay medical bills or emergency costs that come up.  Is there any concern -- or I guess more generally, can you talk about -- has the White House been concerned with how payday loans have been administered in the past and as a scenario where --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I will say a couple of things.  One is, I would encourage you to check with the experts at the CFPB because they will have a very well-informed view about reforms that could be in place to both protect the legitimate interests that some financial institutions have in providing helpful loans to consumers while at the same time making sure that the interests of consumers are not trampled in that process. 

And there have been, I think, widespread reports of concerns that have been raised about some of this activity.  And the President, who himself is an advocate for middle-class families, I think notices when those kinds of stories are told and when those kind of reports are filed.  But again, fortunately there is an independent agency that has expertise that’s taken a look at this issue, and you can ask them more about what they found and what they believe is the proper course moving forward.

Q    Last one.  Representative Cleaver, earlier today, again raised the specter of race playing a role in the delayed nomination of Loretta Lynch.  So I wanted to both ask if you had any update or any comment now that it seems all but certain that this is going to get punted, or at least until April.  But also, you know the President was asked about this in the Huffington Post interview, and he said, “I don’t know about that.”  So I'm asking if maybe you know what he meant by “I don’t know about that”?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what the President is focused on is making sure that a highly qualified career prosecutor with a record of service to this country as someone who is tough but fair, as somebody that has the strong support of law enforcement, gets confirmed to the job that she was nominated for, which is the top law enforcement job in the country.

Loretta Lynch fulfills that criteria.  There is nobody who has raised a legitimate question about her qualifications or aptitude for the job.  And the only thing that is standing in the way of her doing that good work is the partisanship of Republicans in the United States Senate.  And that’s a disappointment, but it’s also something you’ve heard me talk about quite a bit.  Those views haven’t changed. 

The one thing that I do know may have changed is that we -- I think we are now up to seven nominees for Attorney General who have waited for their confirmation.  If you add up the amount of time that they were waiting for their confirmation, they have now, altogether, they have waited less time than Ms. Lynch has waited to be confirmed by the United States Senate.

We are in the territory of a nearly unprecedented delay in the consideration of her nomination.  And there’s just no legitimate reason for it.

Q    Can I just press you a little bit on the race question, though?  I mean, we’ve had a lot of prominent Democrats at this point raise it as an issue, and every time you’re asked about it you kind of segue into explaining why you think she should be nominated.  But does the White House share the position of these congressional Democrats who think race is a factor here?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that the delay that we’ve seen from Senate Republicans is indefensible, and I think you’d have to ask them about why they think this delay is somehow in the best interest of the country.  I feel very confident in telling you that it’s not.

Q    Josh, just a quick one first on Yemen.  I know you’re asked this every time something terrible happens in Yemen.  But now that we have essentially complete chaos in Yemen, does the White House still believe that Yemen is the model for a counterterrorism strategy?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, the White House does continue to believe that a successful counterterrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country, and the United States can serve both to diplomatically offer up some political support to central governments.  We can offer very tangible support to local security forces in the form of training and equipping, and we can also support the operations of those security forces through whether it’s the deployment of ISR capability, or even in the case of Iraq, military airstrikes. 

And that is a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from extremists in places like Yemen and Somalia, and is a template that we believe can succeed in mitigating the threat emanating from Syria as well.

Q    I mean, that’s astounding.  You’re saying that you still see Yemen as the model?  That building up the central government, which has now collapsed; a President who’s apparently fled the country; Saudi troops amassing on one border; the Iranians supporting the rebels -- you consider this is a model for counterterrorism?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, Jon, what the United States considers to be our strategy when confronting the effort to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by extremists is to prevent them from establishing a safe haven.  And certainly, in a chaotic, dangerous situation like in Yemen, what the United States will do and has done is worked to try to support the central government, to build up the capacity of local fighters, and use our own technological and military capabilities to apply pressure on the extremists there.

Look, there’s no doubt that we would like to see a functioning central government in Yemen; we don’t see that right now.  And that is why we’re supportive of the U.N.-led process to try to put an end to the violence and instability, to bring all sides together to the table to try to resolve their differences; to build up the capacity of the central government; to build up the capacity of local forces and to continue to apply pressure to extremists.

What I will say is that we have not seen that kind of progress in terms of strengthening the central government.  I think you could make a pretty strong case that we’ve seen the opposite of that.  But we do continue to enjoy the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure that remains in Yemen.

Q    Do you think the security infrastructure still remains in Yemen?

MR. EARNEST:  There are elements of the Yemeni government that we continue to be in touch with that continue to further our efforts to apply pressure to extremists that seek to operate in that country.  And we continue to have the capability -- again, because of the planning and because of the relationships that we have in the region, we do continue to have the capability to take out extremists if they’re posing a threat to the United States.

Q    Let me move then to Iran.  A couple of quick ones on the talks.  First of all, there’s been some speculation -- some statements out of the Iranian leadership, including from the Supreme Leader, that the Iranians don’t want to sign an interim agreement.  Would the United States go along with an interim agreement that is simply an oral agreement, or does it have to be signed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, when the President was asked to talk about our ongoing efforts to reach a diplomatic political agreement with the Iranians before the end of March, the President made reference to the fact that we would see and that we, meaning the American people and Congress, would be able to take a close look at the terms of that agreement.

Now, the terms of that agreement are going to be -- it’s a political agreement, right, so they’re making certain commitments to do certain things.  The details of those commitments are extraordinarily important and there will be a process for hammering out those details.  But the President was clear that the kinds of commitments that we seek from the Iranians are the kinds of things that we would be able to show to members of Congress and show publicly to share with our allies, including Israel, about what kind of commitments Iran has made.

So I don’t want to prejudge the process here at all, or to prejudge sort of the outcome of the talks because there’s the chance that a deal is not reached.  But we certainly would want and expect that if a deal is completed, it will include tangible, specific commitments that have been made by the Iranians.

Q    But to make sure I’ve got the first part of your statement down -- given that you need to show something to Congress, this would have to be a written agreement and it would have to be an agreement that is signed by both sides.  You’re not going to take just some kind of a verbal, “yeah, sure, we’re going to do this.”  This has to be something concrete.  Obviously, details have to be worked out.  You’ve got a June deadline for doing that.  But this interim framework needs to be in writing and signed by both sides.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Jon, we’re going to seek very tangible commitments from the Iranians, and the President made a commitment to sharing those tangible commitments with members of Congress and with our allies.

Q    -- I’m just trying to understand what tangible means.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t want to get into where the talks are going to lead here, but we are going to seek --

Q    I’m just asking if it’s going to be written.  I’m not asking where they’re going to lead.  I’m just asking if it’s going to be something we can hold in our hands.

MR. EARNEST:  And what I’m saying is that you can -- that as we move through this process of negotiating with the Iranians and our P5+1 partners, we hope to be able to elicit tangible commitments that the Iranians have made that we can then share with our P5+1 partners, with our allies, and with the United States Congress, all of whom have a legitimate claim to understand exactly what kind of commitments Iran has made in this process, if they make them.

Q    And is March 31st the absolute deadline here still?  Is there any possibility of extending that deadline -- March 31st?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, we have said that the -- we have been negotiating for more than a year now.  And if Iran is going to be in a position to actually make these kinds of commitments, there’s no reason that we need to delay this any further.

Q    Okay.  And if there is not an agreement by March 31st?  If you fail?  I mean, the President has basically presented the alternative as basically being war in terms of taking on those that were critical of this process.  So if you don’t get an agreement March 31st, what next?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, hopefully it’s not going to come to that.  We’re going to have an opportunity to evaluate where things stand in the beginning of April and evaluate what steps are then necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.  Hopefully that means moving forward with trying to hammer out the details of a political agreement that's been signed.

The President has also talked about how if an agreement is not reached, that the President would be more than willing to work with Congress -- depending on the scenario -- to put additional sanctions on Iran and to work with the international community to implement them.  But we continue to believe that a diplomatic resolution to this situation is clearly in the best interest of the United States.  It’s also the best way for us to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.

April.

Q    Josh, I want to go back to the Loretta Lynch issue.  You have said, and many people up and down Pennsylvania Avenue -- Democrat and Republican both talked about how she is well qualified, but at the same time there is this delay.  Now, with that said -- and she’s been confirmed before.

MR. EARNEST:  Twice before, in fact.

Q    Yes.  All right.  So with that, why is it that she has not been confirmed in your estimation?   And you say partisan politics, but I want to get further in the weeds.  What part of partisan politics is it that's preventing her from having this confirmation vote?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the Republican leader of the Senate presides over the majority, and he determines what comes up for a vote.  And he evidently has made a determination that he’s not ready to bring her up for a vote.  And I don't think it is possible to defend the delay in her confirmation.  She is eminently qualified for this position.  She’s somebody that has bipartisan support.  We’ve seen Mayor Giuliani, for instance, even cite his support for her nomination.  So she is not a controversial figure.  In fact, she is somebody who is widely considered to be eminently qualified for this role.  And that's why the President picked her.

And it’s the responsibility of the Congress -- and, in fact, Senator McConnell made a promise to the President that he would consider her fairly and in a timely fashion.  And right now there’s an open question about whether or not he’s going to keep that promise.

Q    So, again, getting in the weeds, why is it that he doesn't want to bring her up for a vote?

MR. EARNEST:  Like I said, I think it is impossible to defend delaying her nomination further.  And why he is pursuing and why Republicans are pursuing this path, you’d have to ask them.  I frankly don't understand why they would.

Q    And as someone who understands words and the strength of words, you say it’s impossible to defend.  So at this point, understanding what you're dealing with, this historic timetable that we're dealing with, would you say race could be on the table -- issues of race could actually be on the table with this delay in the confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, for why this delay has occurred, I would encourage you to contact the Senate Majority Leader who is the person who has the ability to schedule this long-overdue confirmation vote.

Q    Well, understanding that any time that you bring race into something, when you have one topic and you bring race in, it kind of overshadows the topic.  But do you think that that is a legitimate conversation and concern that many Democrats have on the Hill that race could, indeed, be playing a factor, understanding some -- I’m talking from what I’m hearing from Democrats -- understanding some of the partisan politics that they’ve seen played against this President and this White House?

MR. EARNEST:  I know that there are a number of people who have tried to figure out an explanation for this indefensible delay.  There are a lot of theories.  I, frankly, don't have a lot of clarity about why we would continue to delay the nomination of an individual who has strong bipartisan support and who is eminently qualified for this very important job.

Q    So should race be taken off the table and just look at it as she is this qualified candidate who just has not had her time for a vote yet?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it is our view that the Republicans in the Senate have engaged in an unconscionable delay of her nomination.  She’s eminently qualified, and I’m no expert on Senate procedure, but it seems to me that if Senator McConnell were committed to keeping the promise that he made to treat her fairly and to consider her nomination in a timely fashion, that he should just bring her up for a vote today, and we can move about the important business of the country.

Q    So you do acknowledge she’s not been treated fairly?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Senator McConnell made a promise that he would treat her fairly and in a timely fashion.  And I think it’s pretty unfair to make her wait for as long as the seven previous Attorney General nominees combined.

Jim.

Q    Just to get back to Yemen and to follow up on Jon’s question.  Yemen is not currently a model that you would cite.  Is that a fair thing to say?  I mean, just right now Yemen is not a model.

MR. EARNEST:  What I would say is that Yemen is a place where the United States over time did build up a strong working relationship with the central government, did build up the capacity of local security forces, and backed them with U.S. military technology to effectively pressure the extremists that operate inside Yemen.  And that strategy did effectively mitigate, though not eliminate, the threat that is posed by AQAP.

And what I have acknowledged since the beginning of this week is that that cooperation with the Yemeni government and with Yemeni security forces was enhanced by having U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen.  There are no longer U.S. officials in Yemen because it’s become a -- because the security situation there has deteriorated.  So we would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen.  That would enhance our efforts.

But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen.  We do continue to have that capability.

So for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.

Q    I was going to ask you about that.  When you say it’s a dangerous place for extremists -- earlier, you said they were in the crosshairs -- are you referring to the Houthis, or are you just talking about AQAP?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m referring specifically to extremists that we know have in the past and are currently plotting and planning and would seek to carry out strikes against -- attacks against American interests, and maybe even the American homeland.  They have in the past.  I’m not making a reference to any sort of specific known plot now.  All I’m saying is we do know that there are individuals inside of Yemen that do harbor that ambition, and we have engaged in a strategy that has placed significant pressure on them and has mitigated their ability to plot and carry out those strikes.  And while our efforts don’t benefit from the current political instability inside Yemen, we do still have important capabilities that make it a dangerous place for those extremists to operate.

Q    Does the White House foresee a U.S. role in seeing President Hadi return to power?  And is there the potential for the U.S. to work with some sort of Houthi government, should it take hold and President Hadi leave the scene permanently?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, the United States believes that President Hadi is the legitimate leader of Yemen.  And we have seen violent efforts on the part of the Houthis and by others who are acting in concert with President Saleh to foment instability inside that country.  And we would urge them to stop doing that.  And, in fact, we would condemn their violent tactics and encourage them to buy into this U.N.-led process to try to resolve the differences among all the sides here.  And that is exactly what the United States supports at this point.

Q    And getting back to Iran.  The head of the IAEA told Washington Post that Iran has failed to provide access to inspectors.  He generally described their openness as being rather lacking.  What does that portend to their compliance, their potential compliance after a nuclear deal is reached, if one is reached?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the thing that’s important to differentiate in those comments is that the IAEA was not responding to compliance with the terms of the Joint Plan of Action.  So this is the interim nuclear agreement that required Iran to submit to some pretty tough set of inspections to ensure their compliance with the Joint Plan of Action.  And the IAEA has said that Iran has complied with the terms of those inspections.

There are another set of inspections that are related to possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, and this has been a subject of some dispute between the IAEA and Iran. 

Q    It sounds like you might get into a situation where --

MR. EARNEST:  Let me just finish this because this is important.  And so the point is this, is that those ongoing disagreements about Iran’s compliance with inspections related to the possible military dimensions of their program are something that we would expect to resolve in the context of these ongoing talks.

Q    So you expect to resolve these disagreements with the IAEA before an agreement is reached potentially?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think in the context of that agreement we would anticipate that we would be working through many of the disagreements that have arisen about inspections as it relates to the possible military dimensions of Iran’s programs.

Q    But you have to be concerned that post an agreement, that you may be engaging in these sorts of games, these compliance games with the Iranians, and I would assume that’s a situation you’d want to avoid at this point.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, absolutely, because there are -- we’ve been clear about sort of what the goal of this agreement is, and it is to shut off every path to a nuclear weapon that Iran may have.  And the second is to impose a set of historically intrusive sanctions to verify their compliance with the agreement.  So there is -- did I say that right?  A historically intrusive set of inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. 

And that is -- so you’re right that the Iran compliance with the agreement and Iran’s cooperation with intrusive inspections is critical to this whole thing.  And, again, this goes back to the phrase that the national security advisor helpfully coined in her speech to AIPAC, where she said that our approach to Iran is distrust and verify.  And these verification measures are critical to the success of the agreement, and we take that aspect of this agreement very seriously, and we’re going to insist that Iran takes that aspect of this agreement very seriously, otherwise we’re not going to be able to reach an agreement, frankly.

Q    And very quickly.  Ambassador Dermer had dinner with some members of Congress earlier this week trying to mend some fences, it sounds like.  Has it reached just a -- getting back to the President’s comments yesterday -- has the situation with Prime Minster Netanyahu and his team gotten to the point where it would just be best if Ambassador Dermer were to leave and there be a new ambassador brought in, or can that part of the relationship be repaired?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve been very clear that it’s the responsibility of the Israeli Prime Minister to determine who can best represent the interests of Israel in the United States, and that is true, and that continues to be true. 

Ed.

Q    Josh, on Yemen.  So as not to belabor it, why can’t you just say, you know what, we were wrong, it's not a model for success?

MR. EARNEST:  Because, Ed, we’ve tried to be very clear about what our strategy is as it relates to confronting extremists that seek to establish a safe haven in chaotic unstable countries with chaotic unstable governments.

Q    Despite that chaos which existed last fall, the President said it's a success.  He was wrong, right?  Just say -- why can’t you say he was wrong and we’re trying to fix it, we’re trying to figure it out?  It just seems like we keep going around and around, that it's still a model when it's not, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Ed, we’ve been very clear about what we think the strategy can be.  And that strategy, even in Yemen, despite all of the challenges that I readily acknowledge exist there, that we have put intense pressure on extremists inside of Yemen, and it has mitigated the threat that they pose to the U.S. and the West.

I want to be clear, it has not eliminated that threat.  We continue to be vigilant about the threat that these individuals pose.  And I would also concede to you that the ability of the United States to put pressure on these extremists is not helped by the fact that our personnel had to leave Yemen because the situation there has become so dangerous.

But we do retain the capacity and the capability to apply pressure to those extremists, and we will do that both by working with our partners in the region, by working with those elements of the Yemeni security forces that we’re able to work with, and we’re going to continue to be closely on the lookout for U.S. interests inside Yemen.  And that is where the core of those interests lie, which is pushing back against the threat that is posed by extremists that are operating in that country.

Q    Related subject of Afghanistan.  Yesterday, the President laid out that you’ve got to stretch out the timetable a bit more, leave more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in part because of the Taliban resurgence perhaps, but also ISIS.  President Ghani says they’re recruiting in his country.

It was only in January that General Campbell told CBS’s “60 Minutes” he didn’t see ISIS making it to Afghanistan.  This is just two, three months ago.  Again, how did the administration misjudge that?  And will you just acknowledge that ISIS has spread to Afghanistan   

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, as far as I know, there is one individual -- a senior Taliban commander -- who did cite his affiliation with ISIL, and that individual was promptly taken off the battlefield in Afghanistan.  So there’s one aspect of your question that I do want to make sure that people understand.  I know you understand this, but just for precision.

What the President determined is that he lengthened the timeline for a handful of -- well, for military personnel to remain in Afghanistan through this year.  But what has not changed is his intention to draw down our military footprint by the end of next year to reflect the need to protect the embassy and to carry out -- to maintain the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.  So the change in policy does not affect that endpoint.  And that's important for people to understand given sort of the long trajectory of the drawdown here, right?

It was only a few years ago that we had more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.  We're down to about 10,000.  We will remain at that about 10,000 level through the end of this year.  But by the end of next year, by the end of 2016, we’ll be down to about 1,000 troops, again, just to defend the embassy and to fulfill this security cooperation relationship.

Q    A couple of other quick topics.  We're talking about all these crises around the world, and it appears that the head of NATO is in Washington, has been calling the White House, saying he wants to meet with the President, and can't seem to get either his call returned or at least get a meeting with the President.  Why won’t the President meet with the head of NATO?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, Ed, those reports are entirely false.  We’ve been --

Q    Is there a meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  They are -- well, the report is that the President somehow -- or the White House is somehow failing to return the call to the Secretary General, and that's ridiculous.  We’ve been in regular touch with them.  In fact, the Secretary General is meeting with the Secretary of Defense while he’s visiting the United States.  And so I don't have any additional --

Q    The suggestion was that that was added because the President -- even though --

MR. EARNEST:  And that's wrong, too. 

Q    Okay, but he’s here for three days.  The President can't make a half hour at some point --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, my guess -- as you've seen the President’s schedule certainly over the day yesterday and over the course of the week, the President’s schedule is pretty full.  I would anticipate the Secretary General’s schedule is pretty full.  The President did meet with him just last fall in Wales.  And we're going to continue to be in touch with him about a presidential meeting.

Q    A very damaging report from the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security yesterday, suggesting the number-two official, Alejandro Mayorkas, gave “special access and favoritism” to politically connected people.

Two parts:  First of all, why is Mr. Mayorkas still employed by this administration after an independent IG says he gave special access to Democrats?

MR. EARNEST:  Mr. Mayorkas is still at the Department of Homeland Security because he is a decorated public servant and an effective leader of that organization.  And we certainly value the kind of contribution that he has made to the effective management of that department, and he has played an important role in implementing needed reforms in that department.

In fact, he was somebody who was leading the effort to try to strengthen the EB-5 program.  And there have been requests that have been made by members of both parties for assistance in trying to make that program work better.  And the Department of Homeland Security has been responsive to those concerns that have been raised by members of Congress, in particular in both parties.

But what we have seen is the need for additional reforms to be put in place, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, has directed his general counsel to develop additional reforms that can be implemented.  And certainly we would expect the department to do that under the leadership of Mr. Mayorkas.

Q    But what this independent inspector general found was that Mr. Mayorkas was going around the normal channels, going around career officials to basically give visas for foreign investors to people who were connected with Hillary Clinton’s brother, the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and his electric car company.  So how could you say this is a great public servant who is trying to reform a program that he basically gave special visas and access to politically connected Democrats?  How could you say he’s reforming it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be clear, Ed, the inspector general, who, as you point out, did take a close, independent look at this, did not suggest that these individuals weren’t deserving of a visa.  What he suggested is merely that the process didn't work very well.  And, frankly, that's exactly the problem that --

Q    -- “special access and favoritism.”

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  And what I’m telling you is, Ed, that the questions that were raised were about how effective this EB-5 visa process works.  And these are exactly the problems that Deputy Secretary Mayorkas was trying to address.  And there are additional reforms that are needed, and there will additional reforms that are implemented.

Q    (Inaudible) by letting Hillary Clinton’s brother jump to the front of the line?  And --

MR. EARNEST:  That's not the accusation, Ed.

Q    Favoritism and special access -- 

MR. EARNEST:  So again, go back to the inspector general report.  That is not what it said.

Q    So he’s actually trying to reform it, even though he --

MR. EARNEST:  I think that's what I’ve said.

Chris.

Q    If I can just follow up on Israel.  Yesterday, the President showed no sign of believing that Benjamin Netanyahu is genuinely for a two-state solution.  There has been more than a few analysts who have suggested that it’s working in the Prime Minister’s favor; that, in fact, it’s engendering sympathy.  And my question is, is the President or is the White House overplaying its hand on this?  And could it have an unintended effect of actually boosting Netanyahu’s standing?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, over the last several days I’ve stood at this podium and taken a variety of questions from all of you about the response and reaction here on the part of the administration to the Israeli elections.  We’ve talked about the impact that -- the outcome of the elections, and some of the comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu in the context of the elections would have on U.S.-Israel relations.  The President did an interview with the Huffington Post where he talked about this.  The President convened a news conference yesterday with the Afghan President where he was asked about this.  You saw the Chief of Staff at the White House deliver a speech at the J Street Conference talking about this.  So it’s clear what our position is.  And I think it’s also clear that that message has been received. 

But what’s also clear is that the President reiterated in his phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu his determination to ensure that the unprecedented security cooperation that exists under the leadership of President Obama with Israel continues.  The President is committed to that.  The President also demonstrated and -- or reiterated his commitment to ensure that the lines of communication between senior American officials and senior Israeli officials remain open, that that's in the best interest of both countries. 

And what’s clear is that the next step in this process is for the Prime Minister to go about the important and delicate work of forming a new government and brokering a coalition, and appointing Cabinet members; and then setting about, in the context of that newly formed government, establishing policies and making decisions that he believes are in the best interest of Israel.

Q    So what would the United States -- what would the President be looking for as he forms that coalition government?  Is there anything beyond what you've talked about today that would serve as a sign that there might be an opening?

MR. EARNEST:  Look, it’s the responsibility of the Israeli Prime Minister to form that government and to ensure that that government is pursuing policies that the Prime Minister believes is in the best interest of his country.

Q    Let me go back to the domestic question and the Medicare physician payment system.  Given that it seemed to be moving towards some sort of bipartisan deal but that Harry Reid had concerns about a couple of aspects of this, including abortion language and insurance for children, what’s the message for Senate Democrats and Harry Reid, who clearly could scuttle this bill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the President has -- and I think what the President indicated today is he wants members of Congress to act in bipartisan fashion to address this problem.  And there are signs that they’re having success in doing that in the House, and the President is hopeful that they will do that in the Senate.  And that means --

Q    Is he concerned Harry Reid is the holdup on the Senate side?

MR. EARNEST:  No, he is not concerned about that because he has confidence that Democrats will take a close look -- Democrats in the Senate will take a close look at this piece of legislation.  Part of the commitment to that bipartisan process would be for Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, to allow some amendments to be offered.  But ultimately, what we are going to ask Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to do is to set aside politics and focus on this piece of legislation.

Now, the other thing that I’ll point out is that any piece of bipartisan legislation is going to involve some degree of compromise, and that’s true in this case, too -- that this bill is not exactly the way the President would have written it.  It certainly isn’t the way that -- I’m sure Speaker Boehner would tell you that it’s not exactly the way that he would have written it, but it does reflect a reasonable compromise where both sides sought to find common ground, and that’s what they’ve done.  And that’s why the President is supportive of this process in the House.  He believes it should get careful consideration in the Senate, and that both sides will take a close look at this and do what they think is the right thing to do.

Q    And just really quickly -- yesterday, for the third time, Joseph Clancy went before a congressional committee three times in two weeks and got some intense questions on both sides, and there were a lot of questions raised about whether or not the President had made the right decision in not going with the recommendation of the report, which was to take someone from outside who could take a fresh look at the culture within the Secret Service.  And I know you’ve been asked this question before, but I will ask it again:  Does he have the President’s undivided support?  Is there any concern, especially given some of the questions yesterday about his decision not to allow other agents to testify yesterday, that the Secret Service is not moving in the right direction?

MR. EARNEST:  There is no doubt that Director Clancy is the right man for the job.  And this is a very difficult job.  This is a job that will require him to put in place very tough reforms in an agency that holds itself to a very high standard.  And there is very difficult work that is done on a daily basis by the men and women of the Secret Service to protect the President, to protect the First Family, and to protect those of us who work at the White House on a daily basis.  And we certainly are appreciative of their commitment to the task, to their professionalism, and the skill that they use to do that mission successfully. 

And that said, it is evident that there are some reforms
that -- some needed reforms that can ensure that the agency can live up to the very high standard that they’ve established for themselves.  And the President has confidence in the character and leadership ability of Director Clancy to lead that agency and implement the reforms in a way that best reflects the interest of the agency and will best position them to do the important work that they have to do.

Q    Last question.  So there’s no concern that these reforms aren’t moving quickly enough, which was the suggestion on both sides of the aisle yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, for the details of that, I’d refer you to the Secret Service.  But I think that Director Clancy has a very strong case to make in terms of the approach that he has taken to try to implement these reforms as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Bill.

Q    What’s the current status of the effort to possibly supply lethal arms to Ukraine? 

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have an update in terms of any decision that the President has made on this.  The United States continues to work closely with our allies in Europe who are seeking to deescalate the situation in Ukraine.  They are seeking to work in a diplomatic fashion because we know that the only way to resolve that situation is not on the battlefield, but around the negotiating table.  And trying to get both sides to come to the negotiating table and to, particularly the Russians, to live up to the commitments that they’ve made in the context of those talks, has been difficult work.

And that’s why you’ve seen the Russian economy be subject to very tough sanctions.  And those sanctions, every day that goes by, takes a bigger and bigger bite out of the Russian economy.  And so there are costs associated with Russia’s continued involvement in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s continued interference with the efforts to implement that agreement.

Q    Some people argue that the continued sanctions on Russia may actually work not to the West’s benefit by turning them in the direction which would make it more difficult.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the truth is, the Russians are facing -- or the Russian regime -- the Russian President is facing a lot of pressure from the international community.  And that pressure is going to continue until the Russians start to live up to the commitments that they’ve made in the context of the Minsk Implementation Plan and previous agreements that have been reached in Minsk. 

But this is something that our allies in Europe are very focused on, and we’re going to continue to support that ongoing diplomatic effort.

Q    I’ll see if this one is at the back of your briefing book.  Last August, the President ordered a review of the program to supply used military equipment to police forces around the nation in the wake of the use of such equipment in the Ferguson -- and others.  What’s the status of that review?

MR. EARNEST:  I know that they’ve made a lot of progress in terms of putting that review together, and I would anticipate that you would see the results of that review in the next few days.

Q    So you don’t have anything?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s an ongoing report; it's not done yet.  So I'm not going to read the details of their report, but I would expect that we would have something soon.

Q    Seems kind of slow.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think so actually.  I think this is something that was just ordered 90 days ago, and this is a detailed review --

Q    It was ordered in August.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think that’s right.  I think that the detailed review that was ordered was something that came out of the findings of the report that the President received earlier this year.

Q    So this is a review of the review?

MR. EARNEST:  So this will be a report that you will see very soon, and it will include very detailed recommendations about needed reforms. 

Q    This week?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t say this week, but soon.

Leslie.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  The RNC has sent a letter to the White House.  I think they only sent it today, but they’re asking about a number of questions about what they call a flawed agreement that was supposed to protect conflicts of interest involving foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.

MR. EARNEST:  It sounds like they made it their own conflict of interest in writing the letter.  They may have their own sort of special interest that may be something other than the truth and transparency and all that.

Q    Among the questions that they’re asking is whether -- you know that the foundation did receive money from foreign governments when she was Secretary of State, and they’re asking whether or not foreign governments that contributed were given special treatment.  Will you be responding to this letter?  And do you agree with them that the public has a right to know in terms of whether or not this agreement was followed and how it worked, who oversaw it?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m certainly not going to have a response to them from here, but I think that was a letter -- it sounds like that was a letter they sent to the State Department?

Q    No, to the White House.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  Well, you mentioned both the contents of the letter describing the Clinton Foundation and the actions of the Secretary of State of the State Department.  So I wouldn’t anticipate a response from here.

Q    But it was the White House that was supposed to have the agreement overseeing it.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, for questions about the actions of the Clinton Foundation, I’d direct you to the foundation that does very important work around the world.  But I don’t have a reaction to the letter.

Jordan.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I just want to follow up on the doc-fix one more time.  I know you said that you hope that Senator McConnell allows those amendments to be offered to the bill.  But would the White House oppose the bill if it includes a two-year extension of the CHIP funding?  This is something that Senate Democrats have said they object to in the legislation.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to speculate about what the final legislation may look like.  There is an emerging bipartisan compromise in the House, and we certainly are supportive of that bipartisan process.  But I’m going to withhold any judgment about the specific details of the compromise until it has advanced a little bit farther.

Q    And just one follow-up on the troop withdrawal.  You said that the level of the drawdown in 2016 will be determined later this year.  What are the criteria that that would be based on?  Is it conditions on the ground?  Is it demands from the Afghan government?  I think that part of the statement yesterday was a bit unclear to some of us.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me try to clarify it for you.  What the President announced yesterday was essentially an extension of the deployment of some military personnel through the end of this year, through the end of 2015.  And that means that we would anticipate that our troop presence will remain at a level around 10,000 troops through the end of this year.  At the beginning of next year, the process for drawing down our military personnel even further will continue, and that by the end of 2016 we envision a military presence that is sufficient to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul and to staff a military cooperation office in Kabul. 

Our expectation is that would require a deployment of about 1,000 to 1,500 U.S. military personnel, but all of the others would be withdrawn from the country.  And that reflects no change in the timeline that the President has laid out for a strategy quite some time ago, but it does reflect substantial progress that we’ve made in drawing down U.S. personnel from a high of about 100,000 just a few years ago to the level of about 1,000 or 1,500 by the end of next year.

Q    I guess what I’m asking is, next year, in 2016, how is it going to be determined how you get from 9,800 to that 1,000 number?

MR. EARNEST:  And that will be -- in the same way that the President made decisions about the pace of that drawdown this year, it will be done in consultation with our military commanders on the ground, first and foremost.  It certainly will include the input of other members of the President’s national security team back here in the U.S.  I’m confident that we’ll continue to have conversations with our NATO allies who are also participating and contributing importantly to this mission.  There will also be conversations with the Afghan government.  We are partners with them, and we will continue to be partners with them even after the end of 2016.

So there are a lot of people who will have input on this decision that will ultimately be made by the President of the United States that will be focused on the security situation in Afghanistan and the core national security interests of the United States.

Scott.

Q    Josh, the President pushed pretty hard for the formation of a standalone agency that would just look out for consumers in their financial transactions.  It’s something he was talking about all the way back at Cooper Union in his first campaign.  Can you just step back a little and say how this rule for payday lenders and car title lenders and so forth kind of fits into his vision of consumer protection?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Scott, I don’t want to be difficult but I know that there are, as Justin pointed out, some announcements that are planned for -- or that may be planned for tomorrow.  (Laughter.)  So I’m going to reserve judgment on that, but maybe tomorrow we can have more of a discussion about some of those details.

Q    Tomorrow would be a good day for those --

MR. EARNEST:  Why don’t you call me again tomorrow and we’ll see if I can be more helpful?

Francesca.

Q    Speaking about things that you probably will reserve judgment on, but I’m going to try anyway.

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll try to.

Q    Was the White House aware that the Army would release its report today on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and whether he deserted or not?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any plans for them to do that, but this is a process that’s being run by the United States Army, so I’d direct you to the Pentagon for an answer.

Q    Okay, thank you.  And another domestic policy question.  Going back to our conversation last week about the Secret Service, when you were wont a comment on whether or not they should be tossing out surveillance tapes after 72 hours because Director Clancy hadn’t had a chance to testify before Congress yet.  He’s obviously had multiple opportunities since our discussion to do that.  And so I again wanted to know if the White House thinks that that policy is appropriate, or if it's one of the reforms that should be made.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is obviously a decision that Director Clancy will have to make about what is the surveillance tape retention schedule that will best enhance the mission of the Secret Service.  So I’d refer you to them about this.  We would obviously allow him to make the decision that he believed was in the best interest of the United States Secret Service being able to carry out their mission.

Q    Okay.  And another quick one, since I seem to be striking out here.  Yesterday, President Obama described his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu as business-like.  Is it fair to say that in the White House’s opinion that they don’t have the same type of special relationship that he has with David Cameron, for instance, because he calls him “bro”?  So would it be fair to say that they don’t have the same type of friendship or special relationship?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it would be fair for you to take to heart what the President said about this yesterday, which is that there has been a lot of scrutiny of the personal relationship between the President and the Prime Minister.  And it's the view of the President, at least -- and I think the Prime Minister would share this view if you asked him -- that what’s even more important than the personal relationship of the two leaders is the relationship between our two countries. 

And the President takes very seriously the responsibility that he has as the President to conduct foreign policy consistent with our national security interests.  And he does believe that it is in the clear national security interest of the United States to extend significant security, military and intelligence cooperation to our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel.

And the President has pursued that kind of cooperation in a way that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself said was unprecedented.  We know already that the U.S. creation of and funding for the Iron Dome program saved the lives of a lot of innocent Israeli civilians last summer.  That is one clear illustration of how the commitment of this administration, and this country, to the security of the Israeli people has benefitted them. 

But the President made that decision not just because it benefitted the Israeli people, but because he believes that it benefits the American people.  And that is the kind of approach that the President takes to these matters, and it's why he continues to be committed to making sure that we are doing everything we can to not subject the U.S.-Israel relationship to a lot of partisan debate, but rather to ensure that we are living up to the generations-long precedent of bipartisan support for the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. 

And we’ve had a lot of opportunity to talk about the impact of Prime Minster Netanyahu’s comments, the outcome of the election on the U.S.-Israel relationship.  And those are certainly legitimate questions and we’ve gone to great lengths to answer them. 

I don’t think I have a better way to describe the state of those relations today than I have on any of the previous days that we’ve talked about this.  But I think in the mind of the President, what’s most important is preserving the very important relationship that exists between the United States and Israel.

Mike.  Go ahead, Mike.

Q    I guess that answer, though, has confused me since you guys have started issuing it for the last week.  So you can imagine a situation where you say the personal relationship between these two guys sucks, but we agree on all the fundamental policy -- we’re like in lockstep on policy, right? 

Or you could say, well, the personal relationship is great even though we don’t agree on a lot, but somehow they’re bros and so we make it work.  But you seem to be saying the relationship sucks and we don’t disagree on the fundamentals either, right?  I mean, that was his point was, on the most fundamental things -- two of the most fundamental pieces, Iran and the Palestinian peace process, you have fundamental deep divisions on policy too. So isn’t it the case that both things are bad?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think I would limit the extent of the U.S.-Israel relationship to just the two issues that you cited.  And I think that is the point -- that the extent of our relationship I think is predicated on -- the foundation of that relationship is the critically important, and yes, special relationship that exists when it comes to our security cooperation.  And Prime Minster Netanyahu has said this -- that there are countless ways that the Israeli people benefit from that relationship.  The President believes that the American people benefit from preserving and even enhancing that relationship as he has done under his leadership. 

So that, in the mind of the President, is where this starts.  And yes, that consideration is more important than the personal relationship between the two men.  And to be fair, the President described that relationship as businesslike, which is a different, maybe less colorful phrase than you have used.

But I think that is where we’re trying to get to.  And I don’t -- we’ve had ample opportunity to sort of dissect where the divisions lie when it comes to our efforts to resolve diplomatically our differences with Iran and their nuclear program.  A lot has been covered, and I think we’ve been pretty candid in trying to answer your questions about some of the differences we may have as we approach a two-state solution.

But the truth is, now Prime Minister Netanyahu is in the midst of trying to form a government.  He is in the process of appointing cabinet ministers, and then making some decisions that he believes are in the best interest of Israel about how to move forward and how to enhance their security.  And throughout that process, we’re going to continue to cooperate with them on security matters, we’re going to continue to keep an open line of communication with them.  And if the need arises for us to be clear about our perspective based on changing circumstances on the ground, then we’ll do that.

But as it stands right now, I think you guys have very keen insight into what our views are.

Q    But you would concede that the Palestinian situation -- the situation about peace in the Middle East vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the Israelis, and questions about Iran and security, are at the heart of the relationship between these two countries; they’re not side issues.  Decades have been spent where the Palestinian issue has been the primary foreign policy question surrounding these countries, and Iran’s security is at the heart of what you just said was the relationship, which is the effort to protect that country.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think you and I disagree on this.  I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that I'm trying to minimize those issues; those are obviously substantial.  And that’s the reason that, frankly, we’ve been talking about them so much over the last week, and I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be talking about them quite a bit in the weeks and maybe even months ahead depending on how things go in Lausanne, Switzerland.

But what is clear is that there is one critically important aspect of our relationship that is rock solid, and that is the commitment of President Obama to close and critically important security cooperation with Israel. 

I would just point out -- and we have in other contexts too -- that we don’t -- the differences that we have carefully examined in this room, scrutinized maybe even, on the two issues that you mentioned, those are differences that are related to our approach to those issues.  But part of our approach to those issues is informed by our view that our approach is clearly in the best interest of the Israeli people. 

Now, what’s always true is at the core is our concern for America’s national security interests.  But you could imagine a difference of opinion in which there might be some other issue where the Israelis would say, “well, that’s not in our best interest,” and we’d say,” well, we know, but we have to do this anyway because it's important.”  That’s not the case here. 

The case here is we’re pursuing these policy options because we believe that they go to the core of U.S. national security interests in the Middle East, but we also do happen to believe that they are in the best interest of Israeli security.  And again, that underscores the commitment to the relationship that the President has; that’s why I bring it up. 

But we’ll have an opportunity to talk about this quite a bit more, for better or worse.

Jared, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Since you mentioned the core interests of the American people, I wanted to just try one more time on this because if a plurality, as the President might say, of the Israeli people agreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu on election day the two-state solution was out of reach, and certainly that's the tenor of the answer that the President gave to the Associated Press yesterday, was that it wasn’t about a relationship between two men, it was about the belief that Israelis and Palestinians had when they went to the polls -- so if that's the fundamental issue, if the United States believes that X is in the interest of the Israeli people, but the Israeli people don't agree, then what is it going to take?  Is going to take another election for this reevaluation period to end?  Is that the terminal point of this reevaluation period by the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think what’s next is for the duly elected leader of Israel to form a government, to appoint cabinet ministers, and then to begin making policy decisions that he believes are in the best interests of his country.  And that is the next step.

And throughout that process, the United States will continue our unprecedented security cooperation because that cooperation is essential to the security of the Israeli people.  We're going to continue to keep an open line of communication, even at the highest levels, between the United States and Israel because that kind of communication and coordination is critical to the health and strength of our relationship.

But ultimately, the next steps here will come from the Israeli government and the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister, who has to form a government, appoint cabinet ministers, and being making policy decisions about what he believes is in the best interest of his country.

Q    In the spirit of transparency, does the White House have any guiding principles moving forward on releasing details before potential or official candidates for presidency in 2016 visit the White House and meet with the President?

MR. EARNEST:  Can you say that one more time?  I don't quite understand the question.

Q    Will we know before it happens if Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush or Martin O’Malley, or any of the people who may or may not be running for President -- will we know in advance -- what are the White House’s guiding principles about meetings with the President around the 2016 --

MR. EARNEST:  The guiding principle is that we are going to be very protective of the right of the President of the United States to have private meetings, but yet, where possible, and when we determine that we can, we're going to do our best to try to let you know what the President is up to.

And I think that is the principle that we applied on Monday.  We did not announce in advance that the President was going to spend some time with Secretary Clinton while she was in town.  But I was asked a very direct question about it in the briefing, and I had said in the context of that briefing if we had additional information we’d provide it.  And we had additional information, and it was provided.  And that will be the guiding principle moving forward.

Q    So from the White House’s perspective, these meetings, which are ostensibly 2016 meetings, are private meetings with the President?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, yes.  Thanks, everybody.

Q    But you’ll let us know if Ted Cruz or --

MR. EARNEST:  (Laughter.)  Exactly.  That's the meeting you want the details of -- the private meeting between Barack Obama and Ted Cruz.  I agree.  Thank you, guys.

END
2:00 P.M. EDT