Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 03/27/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Let me start by speaking for all of you when I say thank goodness it's Friday. (Laughter.) I don't have any openings, so, Darlene, we can go straight to your questions.
Q Thank you. Obviously we saw the President’s statement this morning on Senator Harry Reid, saying that he wasn’t going to run for reelection. Is there any reaction to Senator Reid coming out so quickly and endorsing Chuck Schumer to succeed him?
MR. EARNEST: I saw those reports. Obviously it's the responsibility of Democratic members of the Senate to decide who the Senate Democratic leader should be. There was a point in time when the President did participate in those kinds of discussions when he himself was a member of the Senate Democrats, but at this point, we'll leave that up to them to decide.
Obviously the President, as he’s indicated in his statement, has a deep appreciation for Senator Reid and all that they accomplished in working together over the last six years, and even before that, frankly. And the President is looking forward to continuing to have Senator Reid as a close partner with this White House over the remaining 22 months of this President’s tenure in office.
Q It seems, though, that the endorsement of Schumer comes at the expense of Senator Durbin, who is close to the President. He’s number two in the Senate behind Reid. Does the White House or the President have any thoughts on this apparent snub of Senator Durbin?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure that -- well, I'll just say that the President, obviously, has close relationships with a substantial number of members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate. That certainly includes the close working relationship that we value with both Senator Schumer and Senator Durbin. The President does not intend to endorse either man in what may be a contested race for the Senate leadership that will occur almost two years from now.
So, at this point, we are certainly looking forward to Senator Reid, the current leader of the Senator Democrats, as the President makes the most of his remaining time in office.
Q One question on Iran. With the talks sort of heading into this final weekend before the deadline, what is the confidence level of the White House that a framework agreement will be reached either this weekend or by March 31st?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, it's true that Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, Under Secretary Sherman, and others from the United States negotiating team are continuing to meet with members of the Iranian negotiating team in Switzerland. We do anticipate that some representatives from the EU will join those meetings. Those meetings will continue through the weekend and it's possible those meetings could continue even into early next week.
And as we've said in the past, in recent weeks, that important progress has been made, but this President is not going to stop short of -- this President will not accept an agreement that does not accomplish our goals, which is to cut off every pathway that Iran has to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and securing Iran’s commitment to cooperate with a set of intrusive inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement.
We've been very clear about what those general guidelines are, but it will require Iran to make substantial commitments and specific commitments. But I would say the odds of success in this endeavor have not appreciably changed over the last few weeks, because Iran will have to make some very serious commitments in order to reach an agreement.
Q Just following on that, does the President expect to be talking to other leaders this weekend ahead of those deadlines early next week on the Iran talks?
MR. EARNEST: It's certainly possible that the President could telephone world leaders either over the course of today or even over the course of the weekend. And if so, and if we're able to do so, then we will let you know.
Q On Yemen, I'm wondering how concerned is the White House that, amid the military action that's happening there right now and the underlying conflict, that AQAP will sort of thrive under those circumstances?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, we've been clear that we are always concerned when there are nations like Yemen that are gripped by chaos. And we have seen in the past that extremist groups that aspire to carry out acts of violence against the West, including the United States, often try to capitalize on those situations, establish a safe haven and use them as a base to plot attacks against the West. We continue to be concerned about that taking place in Yemen.
The fact is we've been concerned about those activities in Yemen for quite some time. And I've acknowledged over the course of the last week or so that the instability in Yemen does not enhance our counterterrorism efforts in that country, but we continue to have significant counterterrorism resources and abilities in Yemen. And that means that we are able to, based on resources that we have in the region and based on relationships that we have in the region, we are able to apply significant pressure to the leaders of extremist organizations that may be operating there. And that pressure has advanced our efforts to keep the American people safe, and we're going to continue to apply that pressure.
Q Have you had to put counterterrorism efforts on hold amidst the military operations that are going on there right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have an update on the status of our counterterrorism operations at this point other than to say that we continue to have capabilities in the region that allow us to apply pressure against extremist groups that are operating in Yemen and may be plotting against the West. We continue to have resources in the region, we continue to have relationships in the region that are beneficial to those efforts.
Q With Saudi Arabia now working ostensibly against Iran in Yemen, and the U.S. supporting Saudi Arabia, does that affect the working relationship in regards to the nuclear negotiations with Iran at all?
MR. EARNEST: It shouldn’t, simply because we’ve been clear about the fact that the list of grievances that the United States has with Iran are lengthy -- is lengthy. And there are -- whether it’s Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region, their support for terror around the world and their unjust detention of Americans, we’ve got a long list of concerns with Iran’s behavior. That concerning behavior includes menacing our closest ally in the region, Israel.
We have a long list of concerns, and what we’re focused on right now is trying to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that’s why we’re engaged in this diplomacy that’s focused on achieving that goal. In fact, what we believe here at the White House is that because of the long list of concerns that we have with Iran, it makes it all that more important that we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The President believes -- and there’s ample evidence to indicate why this is so -- that the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is to reach a diplomatic agreement. And that’s what we’re pursuing. And we are hopeful that that’s something we’ll be able to do in advance of the deadline. But it will require, as I mentioned to Darlene, Iran making very serious commitments. And we’ll see if they are able to do that.
Q But to have the U.S. and Iran working against each other now in Yemen, which is a shambles, that doesn’t increase tensions at the negotiating table or put further strain on what’s going on at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Michelle, the list of grievances that I have run through have existed for quite some time. They long pre-dated the beginning of these diplomatic negotiations and so I would not characterize as a significant increase in those tensions. Those tensions over those issues have been in place for quite some time, and they are serious. And they are certainly tensions that this administration takes seriously. In fact, they are part of what makes it so important that we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; that a nuclear-armed Iran would be more dangerous when they menace Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran would make it more dangerous when they support terrorism around the globe. A nuclear-armed Iran, when they engage in destabilizing activity, would only be even more destabilizing.
So that is why we have placed such a premium on succeeding in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q So the likelihood of a deal being reached, is it still less than 50/50?
MR. EARNEST: It’s still, at best, 50/50. That’s the odds that I have previously given to the likelihood of an agreement being reached before the deadline, and those odds have not changed.
Q Okay. And on Israel, we’ve seen the ambassador to the U.S. meeting with some Democrats, having dinner. We’ve heard the Israelis saying things like things have been blown out of proportion. Is the administration looking forward to a face-to-face meeting with someone high in that administration sometime soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any meetings to announce. Obviously, the President telephoned Prime Minister Netanyahu just last week, where they had a conversation, and the President, in the course of that telephone call, committed to keeping open the lines of communication both between the two leaders but also, just as importantly, between the national security officials in both countries.
That’s for a couple of reasons. The first is, the U.S. commitment, under the leadership of President Obama, to unprecedented security cooperation between the U.S. and Israel remains. And the President, as Prime Minister Netanyahu goes about the important work of forming a coalition government inside of Israel, wants to keep open a line of communication as that newly formed government begins to make policy decisions that the Prime Minister believes are in the best interest of Israel.
The President has also made clear that we’re going to continue to coordinate and communicate with Israel as the diplomatic progress with Iran is made or not made, as the case may be. We’re going to keep them updated on the talks. That will require conversations. And those kinds of communications are indicative of the close relationship between the United States and our allies.
And certainly, the alliance between the United States and Israel is strong and a priority for this administration. That’s evidenced by our ongoing security cooperation and our commitment to continued cooperation on issues of mutual interest.
Q So a high-level with Dermer or with Netanyahu, you don’t see that happening anytime soon?
MR. EARNEST: I'm just saying that I don’t have -- there’s nothing like that that’s been scheduled at this point, but I wouldn’t rule out additional high-level conversations.
Okay, let me move around a little bit. Olivier.
Q Thanks, Josh. At this point, with just a few days left before the nominal deadline on the Iran political framework agreement, would you characterize the President’s involvement day-to-day? How often is he being briefed? Is he being asked for input on any of the core issues, anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the President is receiving regular, at least daily, updates on the status of ongoing negotiations in Switzerland. This is a priority for him. And that’s why, again, I ran through the list of people who are participating in these talks. We’re talking about Secretary Kerry; Secretary Moniz, the Secretary of Energy; the Under Secretary at the State Department, Wendy Sherman -- so there are a lot of high-level U.S. officials who are engaged in these conversations and the President is being regularly updated on them.
Q Has he been asked to make a ruling -- I'm not going to ask you what specific issue, but has he been called upon to make a ruling on a point of contention?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of anything like that. I think that there is -- obviously those updates that he receives are substantive and there has been the occasion for the President to communicate with that team about his views of the status of the talks. So there is a useful back-and-forth, I guess, to the extent that these conversations aren’t just one way. So I would anticipate that that will continue over the weekend as well.
Q Last one for you. Timetable is still end of March -- in other words, Tuesday at midnight, whichever time zone we’re in? Or are you --
MR. EARNEST: Are you trying to set up a countdown clock or something?
Q Yes, absolutely.
MR. EARNEST: Those are pretty in vogue these days.
Q There all the rage. In all seriousness, as you get down to these very hard -- some of these are very hard issues to nail down. How open are you to extending this one day, two day, three day, and so on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, I wouldn’t want to prejudge the outcome at this point. We’ve been clear that the end of March is a firm deadline, and that’s simply because these negotiations have taken place over the course of more than a year; that should be ample opportunity for us to reach an agreement.
We’re talking about highly complex, very difficult issues, so I don’t think it’s a particular surprise that we would expect these kinds of negotiations to take some time. But surely more than a year should be enough time to at least reach a political agreement whereby all of the parties -- and essentially, in this case, we’re talking about Iran -- can make some pretty specific commitments about the framework for a broader nuclear agreement.
And we continue to be hopeful that that’s something that will occur, but the likelihood of success hasn’t necessarily changed.
Q You used the word, “specific.” Is one of the key issues here that the U.S. and the other five powers are wanting very specific language right now, and Iran is looking for fuzziness?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to characterize the nature of the conversations. But I will say as a general matter that the United States and our P5+1 partners who are participating -- and this includes our allies in Europe, it also includes countries like China and Russia -- and what we are all seeking are specific commitments from Iran that would shut down every pathway to a bomb that Iran has, and would seek Iran’s commitment to submit to intrusive inspections that can verify their compliance with the agreement. And that’s what we’re seeking and we want those -- we intend for those commitments to be specific.
Now, at the same time, we’ve also been clear that these conversations are highly technical. And to ensure that the agreement is being fulfilled, we’re going to seek some very specific technical commitments as well. So after this completed -- if a completed -- if a political agreement can be completed by the deadline, that would essentially establish a framework for the kinds of technical talks that will require a few additional months. And the deadline for those more technical talks would be the end of June.
But, again, this is a situation where the devil is in the details, and being able to pin down those details is important, but where we need to start is with the outlines of a political agreement, and that’s something that we are aiming to achieve by the end of March.
Q As a result of the call yesterday from President Rouhani and the letter that he wrote to the six world powers, and the talks with the foreign minister, and what we’ve been hearing from Ayatollah Khomeini, would you say that at this point we’re getting three messages that are the same, or are we getting three different messages from Iran of what they want in these talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t at this point characterize any of the kinds of conversations that we’re getting from Iran. We have confirmed that a letter was passed to the U.S. negotiating team that was intended for President Obama and was sent by President Rouhani. I would confirm that that letter was received by the U.S. negotiating team in Switzerland, but I don’t have any details to share with you about the contents of that letter.
What I can confirm for you, though, is that the P5+1 is united and the P5+1 is certainly speaking with one voice about what our expectations are about what a political agreement would look like if it can be reached by the end of March. And that international unanimity of opinion has been critical to our ability to apply pressure to Iran and will actively contribute to the likelihood of success here.
We have succeeded in bringing the international community together to pressure Iran and to bring them to the negotiating table, and to engage in constructive talks that will prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That’s no small feat.
You’ll recall that when the President took office, the international community was fractured over this issue and there was unanimity of opinion inside of Iran about the benefits of pursuing a weaponized nuclear program. Because of the leadership of this President and the steady diplomacy of his team, we have succeeded in uniting the international community around the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We were able to compel Iran to participate in serious negotiations because of the way that we implemented a very stringent sanctions regime against Iran that led to a lot of economic pressure being applied on Iran. And that has caused a lot of dissension within Iran about the wisdom of pursuing a nuclear weapon.
And that, I think, is a pretty substantial reversal. It’s a testament to the leadership of this President. And it’s the way that the President views is the best way for us to try to resolve this particular situation.
Q So you wouldn’t characterize it as France having a tougher negotiating position at this point than the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I would not. And that’s based on the conversation that President Obama had with President Hollande earlier this week in which they confirmed that they are of similar views about how to ensure that we are cutting off every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon and to ensure that Iran is making specific commitments about the kinds of intrusive inspections that will be conducted to verify their compliance with the agreement.
Q Has the Rouhani letter been received here?
MR. EARNEST: What I will say is I do feel confident that the team here at the White House is aware of the contents of the letter.
Q Including the President?
MR. EARNEST: Including the President.
Q How does that work when they get a letter over there? Do they put it in a diplomatic pouch? Do they open it up and email it? Is it in English?
MR. EARNEST: It’s an interesting question, and I have no idea. (Laughter.)
Q Can you get back to me?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe they send it over via Morse Code. I have no idea.
Q They could it tweet it, too.
MR. EARNEST: I guess they could do that.
Q Rouhani does tweet.
MR. EARNEST: Direct message? Yes, it’s possible that that’s -- I don’t know the way that that letter is transmitted. But I can tell you that the President is certainly aware of the contents of the letter.
Q And on Ambassador Rice’s meeting yesterday with Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, what did she tell him about the reason he couldn’t see the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they had a conversation about a number of policies that the United States is working closely with NATO to pursue. It was a useful discussion -- we put out a readout of the discussion. In the context of that discussion, the National Security Advisor extended an invitation for the Secretary General to return to Washington in May to have a meeting with the President of the United States.
I would also point out that the Secretary General had the opportunity to meet with new Defense Secretary Ash Carter, yesterday. And I think that’s a testament to the kind of intensive coordination that exists between the United States and our NATO partners.
Q We do know from some of the things that have been released and the phone calls, apparently, that Rouhani made that one of the things he wants is a quick removal of what he calls the “unjust sanctions.” And I know that the President has said on multiple occasions that it would be a much more gradual removal of those sanctions.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q Is there any wiggle room in that? Is there any consideration of changing that position?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to be in a position of negotiating this agreement from here. But I will just say as a general matter that what you said about our negotiating position is accurate. The President does believe that it would be unwise to, on the first day of an agreement with the Iranians, to take away all of the sanctions that have been in place for such a long time.
What the President envisions is a phased waiving of the sanctions. And there are sanctions that come from a variety of places. There are sanctions from the U.N, executive sanctions that have been put in place, and, of course, the very onerous statutory sanctions that Congress has put in place. And the President believes that we need to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement not just over the course of a few days, not just over the course of a few weeks, and not just over the course of a few months, but we need to see sustained, long-range compliance with the agreement before we start having a conversation about removing things like the statutory sanctions that have been so critically important to our success here.
What is built into that sanctions regime is the ability of the President to waive some of those sanctions. So there is a way for us to do this in a phased fashion over the course of time. But the benefit of that approach is that if we detect any sort of variance in terms of Iran’s compliance with the agreement, then we can snap those sanctions right back into place. And the President believes that we need to keep that framework for sanctions that Congress passed in place for a substantial period of time before Congress votes to remove them.
Q And if I can ask you just about the Middle East and the sharp rise in oil prices yesterday. Most analysts -- obviously, Yemen is not a big producer, but they’re a kind of small producer -- but there is some concern that long term, and the impact of instability in that region and the rising tensions could mean problems for oil prices. And I wonder what the assessment or concern is at the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t be well-positioned to give you a sophisticated analysis of the impact of the Middle East’s stability on the global oil markets. There might be some people who would want to take that role, but I wouldn’t want to be in that position.
I will point out that we’re keenly aware of this kind of volatility. In fact, we’ve seen a lot of volatility over the course of the last year that has prompted the price of oil on the global market to fall some 50 percent.
But this is obviously -- we’re mindful of the impact that this kind of instability has on -- could have on the oil market, and we’re aware of that. It’s one of the reasons that this President has worked hard to pursue an approach here in this country that diversifies our sources of energy, both in terms of our domestic production of oil and gas, which is at an all-time high.
We have, over the President’s tenure in office, increased the amount of energy that’s produced by solar by 10 times. We’ve tripled the amount of energy that’s produced by wind. And we have made a concerted effort to improve energy efficiency in this country, all of which helps to make the U.S. and our economy less susceptible to that kind of volatility in the global oil market. But it’s something that we continue to be mindful of nonetheless.
Q French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today announced at the U.N. that France would launch a new push for an Israel-Palestinian resolution that would, among other things, mentioned a two-state solution. You’ve said a week ago at this podium that the U.S. would reevaluate its position at the U.N. Would you be ready to support the French resolution on a two-state solution?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jerome, the thing I can say is that we’re obviously aware of the foreign minister’s comments. He was talking about his intention to move forward with a strategy at the U.N. But we have not yet actually seen the text of a resolution, so I’d reserve comment on a hypothetical resolution at this point.
Q Thanks, Josh. Why was there no inspector general at the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I know that at least one reporter at the Wall Street Journal has covered this issue closely. What I can tell you is -- that I don't have much insight to share with you in terms of nominations that were considered or not considered. What I can tell you is that there was a functioning and even active inspector general operation in place at the State Department during Secretary Clinton’s tenure there; that there were, as I recall, more than 400 inspector general reports that were issued during her time in office. And I think that is an indication that there was an active, functioning Office of the Inspector General that was open and doing its important work while Secretary Clinton was leading the department.
Q There were also questions raised by independent groups as well as members of Congress about the independence of that inspector general and his relationship with State Department leadership. Does that White House maintain that that was adequate enough oversight of the State Department at the time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, based on the fact that we saw hundreds of reports generated by the Office of Inspector General, I think that we can reasonably assess that there was a vibrant inspector general’s office that was operating there. And so whether that's -- there obviously are staff in that office that take very seriously their responsibility to be a good watchdog and to act independent of that agency’s leadership. That's their mandate; that's their responsibility. And based on the fact they issued hundreds of reports while Secretary Clinton was in office, it's apparent that they fulfilled that duty.
What’s also true is that Congress in previous scenarios, even involving the State Department, has not been particularly -- has not taken particularly seriously the conclusions of genuinely independent investigations that have been conducted. So I would remind you of the conclusions of the Accountability Review Board -- where you had somebody like Thomas Pickering, a very well-respected diplomatic, and Mike Mullen, who served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was nominated to that job by President Bush -- who conducted a review of that department in light of the attacks in Benghazi -- that was a review that was criticized, and I think taken pretty lightly, by congressional Republicans.
So I guess my point is, even if there had been an inspector general leading that particular office, I don't think there’s a lot of confidence we can have that that individual would have been respected by members of Congress in the Republican Party. That's why I'm a little skeptical of the notion that congressional Republicans are particularly concerned by that absence.
Q One more. Was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or any other State Department leadership official involved in any way in the decision not to put forward a nominee for five years?
MR. EARNEST: Again, you’d have to ask Secretary Clinton about her views on that.
Q Josh, I want to go back to an issue on the Hill and Harry Reid stepping down. I want to ask you what is this White House hopeful for and in need of when it comes to a replacement for Harry Reid?
Q Majority. (Laughter.)
Q That was a good one.
MR. EARNEST: White House spokesman Mark Knoller, everybody. (Laughter.)
Q Another softball.
MR. EARNEST: There’s no doubt that this White House would like to see a majority of Democrats in the United States Senate. (Laughter.) What’s also true is that Harry Reid has been a distinguished leader of the United States Senate. I understand that he’s one of the longest-serving Democratic leaders in the history of that legislative body. He is obviously somebody who served with remarkable distinction. You’ve heard me say in the past that so much of what this President has accomplished in Congress, particularly during his first two years in office, would not have been possible without the skilled leadership of Harry Reid.
And that is one of the reasons that when Harry Reid does eventually leave office at the end of 2016, he will have a very long list of accomplishments that he will be able to point to. And he should be justifiably proud of those accomplishments.
In terms of the next Democratic leader, that will be a decision for the Democrats in the United States Senate and hopefully -- to paraphrase White House spokesman Mark Knoller -- (laughter) -- hopefully they’ll have a Democratic President to work with, too.
Q Well, let me ask you this. In the past when the White House has somewhat from the sidelines chimed in and said what they were looking for in the next leader on the Hill for whatever position, they’ve looked for someone with strength to fight. Is that someone that’s needed in the Senate right now and in this climate -- this political climate? Someone who has the fortitude and the strength to fight against the GOP?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think if you look at the President’s statement about Senator Reid that we issued earlier today, that was the first line in the statement, was that Harry Reid is a fighter. And there is no doubt that his tenacity and his skills benefited the country when he served in that position -- and as he has served in that position. And over the course of the next 22 months, when both men continue to serve out the remainder of their terms, I'm confident that they’ll work closely together to advance the interests of middle-class families all across the country. And I'm confident that Senator Reid’s willingness to fight for his values and to fight for those priorities will benefit the country.
Q And lastly, I have to ask you this. Loretta Lynch, anything there?
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, no. I think we’re up to 139 days now. And again, that represents and unconscionable delay on the part of Republicans who previously promised to consider her nomination in a timely fashion and to treat her fairly. And on both those counts, I think that promise has been broken.
All right. Major.
Q Since you brought up the Senate majority, you have a lame duck President and now a lame duck Senate minority leader. To what effect will that have on the party’s ability to regain the majority in the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll leave the election analysis to you guys. I think that what we have seen, at least over the last several months, is a President who has really taken control of the United States Capitol and I think has been in a position where we have been driving the agenda in this town. And everything that we see from congressional Republicans is largely a response to actions that this President has taken to move the country forward. And I think that speaks to the power that is still being wielded by this President.
Q How much time will the President devote in his remaining years to creating a Senate Democratic majority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the President is interested in seeing a Democratic majority, he’s interested in seeing a Democratic President. But those elections are quite a ways off, and so we’ll have plenty of time to speculate about that.
Q On Tuesday, the President described his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu as businesslike. Did he mean that? Did he misspeak?
MR. EARNEST: No, not that I'm aware of.
Q The only reason I ask is because the only other person he describes a businesslike relationship with is Vladimir Putin. And I'm seriously asking you if the President views Benjamin Netanyahu in the same light that he views Vladimir Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to be in a position to try to dissect the relationship between the leaders of the United States and Israel. And I know that there is a lot of interest in this, in the media, and you guys are certainly welcome to consider that.
I think the President, when he talked about this on Tuesday, was pretty clear that he believed that the relationship between our two countries was even more important. And that relationship is characterized by open communication; it’s characterized by very close security cooperation; and it’s characterized by a commitment to shared values and ties between the people in our two countries that make Israel our most important ally in the Middle East.
Q Well, I’m just using the President’s own words. And you often admonish us to take the President’s words seriously and pay careful attention to them, and that’s why I asked you the question. Because his relationship with Putin has been strained, is strained, and is colored by an assessment of what Russia has done on the world stage. And for the first time on Tuesday he used that exact same phraseology to describe the reelected Prime Minster of Israel. So I'm just asking you if he equates the two, views them the same, views the relationship the same, because those are his words, not mine.
MR. EARNEST: Right, I understand. And the point that I'm making is all you have to do is examine the relationship between our two countries. The United States, as I just went through, has a very strong relationship with Israel because they are our closest ally in the Middle East, because we are committed to the kind of security cooperation that’s essential to the security of the Israeli people.
Our relationship with Russia is much different and in many ways much more complicated. We have serious concerns about the way that Russia has conducted themselves in Ukraine, but yet, we are working closely with Russia to hold Iran accountable and to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
So there’s a lot of interesting consideration of the kind of relationship that we have with Russia. But I guess I would make the case to you that that’s much more important than the -- or even more important at least than the relationship between President Obama and President Putin.
So, again, I can understand sort of the interest in that. But I think what we’ve been very clear about is when the President is having these kinds of conversations with world leaders, he’s doing so to advance the interests of the United States as it relates to our relations with these countries. And that’s what our primary focus is on.
Q Shifting to Iran, not in pursuit of a countdown clock but simply clarity. Is March 31st the absolute deadline, after which, if no agreement on a political framework is reached, all activity, all conversations cease?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have not talked at this point about what would happen if no agreement is reached after March 31st. The President has talked a lot about how if it is clear that Iran is unwilling to reach a specific agreement that he would certainly consider additional sanctions being placed on Iran. But all of that is going to require additional consultation with our P5+1 partners. It's going to require a consultation with our partners in the region and with our allies in the region. And it will require some consultation with Congress, too, about what the approach moving forward will be.
So at this point I'm not going to speculate on that other than to say that these negotiations have been going on for more than a year, and while the terms of this discussion are complicated and important, that surely this is a political agreement that if we can reach one is one that we should be able to reach by the end of March.
Q You helpfully described the three definitions of sanctions. You have U.N., you have executive, and you have congressional. Is it this administration’s positions that if you achieve a political framework none of those sanctions ought to be lifted until after the technical conversations have reached their conclusion at the end of June?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that the way that this is structured is that the Joint Plan of Action would remain in place even if a political agreement is reached until the technical annexes can be finalized by the end of June.
Q So no sanctions of any kind would be lifted until after that?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. Because what we would be talking about is just keeping in place the Joint Plan of Action. And the reason I’m saying this is because there are some sanctions that are waived under the Joint Plan of Action -- a very small amount -- but there are certain commitments that Iran has made in conjunction with that Joint Plan of Action. That agreement would remain in place -- if a political agreement is reached at the end of March, the Joint Plan of Action would remain in place until the technical annexes can be negotiated. And we would anticipate that those technical negotiations would be resolved by the end of June.
Q I’m going to try this one more time. Is March 31st a hard deadline? Yes or no? Because it certainly sounds like you’re not ruling out the possibility of an extension.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t mean to leave you with that impression. We are in a place where we believe that after more than a year of very difficult, complex negotiations, that agreement, if it can be reached, is one that should be reached by March 31st.
Q And earlier in the week, you were pretty firm in saying that Yemen remains a successful model for counterterrorism. Given the developments over the past few days, do you still believe that? Any revision to your comments?
MR. EARNEST: No, no revision to my comments. And let’s talk about why.
The strategy that the administration has pursued in Yemen is not a nation-building strategy, it’s a counterterrorism strategy. And if you evaluate that strategy over the last several years, you will see that because of the strategy that we have pursued, we succeeded in taking Anwar al-Awlaki off the battlefield in Yemen.
There are a whole host of other extremist leaders who are actively plotting against the West or the United States that are less famous -- or less infamous, but yet have also been taken off the battlefield because of the efforts of the Yemeni government, because of the efforts of the United States and our partners in the region.
There have also been a number of reports about plots that have been disrupted. There’s at least one plot that emanated from Yemen to use the international air cargo system to carry out attacks on the U.S. homeland. Because of the efforts of the United States and our partners and the Yemenis, that plot was disrupted. Because of the efforts of the United States, our allies and the Yemenis, there was another plot that was related to the sophisticated bomb-making techniques of AQAP that was also famously thwarted in Yemen. And I feel confident in saying to you that there are other plots that have not been reported that have also been disrupted because of the success of the strategy that this administration has put in place in Yemen.
That all said, what I also said earlier this week is that the significantly weakened state of the central government in Yemen does not enhance our counterterrorism efforts. And that is why the United States is supportive of the U.N.-led effort to try to bring all of the sides who are in pretty stark disagreement in Yemen around the negotiating table to try to stabilize the situation in that country.
And that’s also why, or part of the reason why the United States has been supportive of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries who have taken military action to try to bring the violence to an end in Yemen. But Yemen has been a chaotic place for a long time, including in that situation where our counterterrorism strategy was being pursued that did succeed in taking any number of extremists off the battlefield and thwarting any number of plots that were planned in Yemen with an attempt to strike against the United States and our interests around the globe.
Q How do you respond, though, on that point, to John McCain and others who yesterday said that this is an example of the Saudis taking a lead and the U.S. leading from behind?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, the U.S. involvement in the ongoing military operation that is being led by Saudi Arabia and their Gulf Coast -- or the Persian Gulf partners is a contribution that we’re making at the specific request of the Saudis. And the Saudis have a clear, vested interest there because they share a long border in the south with Yemen. They’re concerned about the security around that border, and they’re taking action to protect their border. And the United States, because of our close relationship with Saudi Arabia, is responding to a specific request to offer some assistance in that effort.
Q Earlier, I think to Michelle, you had suggested that there was no connection between Iran backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen and their position there, and the nuclear talks. If I’m quoting you right, you were saying that you have a long list of grievances against Iran and you’re not going to let them off the hook. But today, at those nuclear talks, Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister said, among other things, “We have condemned them” -- Saudi Arabia. “We believe they will only cause the loss of new life. They have to stop.” So he’s saying this at the nuclear talks, Zarif. Does that not suggest that the Iranians are tying the U.S. not getting more involved in Yemen, not pushing the Houthi rebels out? He’s tying that directly to the nuclear deal -- don’t push us here or you’re going to spike the deal?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not the way that I perceive his remarks. But again, we have been negotiating for more than a year. And if Iran is serious about making these commitments, then we’ll be able to reach an agreement by the end of March. And if they’re not serious about making those kinds of agreements, then we won’t.
And the President continues to believe that resolving this situation through diplomacy -- diplomacy that would result in Iran not acquiring a nuclear weapon -- is clearly in the best interest of the United States. It’s clearly in the best interest of our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. And it happens to be in the best interest of our other partners in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
The President believes that the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy, and that’s why we’ve been so serious about pursuing this diplomacy over the course of the last year.
Q Do you still believe that Bowe Bergdahl served with honor and distinction?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I don’t want to be in a position of commenting on an ongoing military justice investigation. There are obviously complicated issues related to the chain of command because I’m a representative of the Commander-in-Chief. So I’m not going to speculate on the ongoing investigation that’s underway.
Q Susan Rice is also -- she reports to the Commander-in-Chief here at the White House as National Security Advisor. And some months ago she went out and said he served with honor and distinction. So was that a mistake?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, she was obviously commenting before any sort of military investigation had been conducted --
Q There were allegations that he was a deserter at that time.
MR. EARNEST: And so at this point, now that there is an ongoing military investigation into this matter, I’m just not going to comment on it.
Q Also, in some of your comments over the last couple days, you’ve said obviously a key principle -- and the President said this months ago at various news conferences -- is not leaving an American soldier behind on the battlefield. That’s clearly true. What do you say, though, to the families of at least six American soldiers who are believed to have died -- who were killed trying to find someone who’s now accused of being a deserter? What do you say to their families?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say the same thing to them that I would say to all of the families across the country that paid such a dear price for the service of their loved ones in Afghanistan, which is that we deeply value their service and their commitment to this country. They serve as an inspiration to all of us -- their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country and for their comrade. And that is something that is worthy of our honor. It is worthy of our deep appreciation. And they certainly have that deep appreciation from everybody here at the White House.
Q Thanks, Josh -- just one question. Senator Rubio and Congressman Jordan offered a bill that would roll back much of the District of Columbia’s gun laws. If that bill reaches the President’s desk, would he veto it?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the details of the legislation. The President has been very clear about how he believes it’s possible for us to take a number of steps that would put in place measures that would prevent individuals who shouldn’t obtain a gun from being able to get one, while at the same time making sure that we’re protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. And that is what the President is committed to, and the President is willing to work with anybody of either party who is willing to move in that direction.
We have not, over the course of the last couple years, been able to make a lot of progress in that regard. And that is, I think as the President has indicated on a number of occasions, a source of some disappointment here at the White House, because this should be a pretty common-sense step that we believe we can take. But unfortunately there’s a majority of -- or at least a large number of members of Congress who don’t agree.
Q The District has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and this proposal would allow things like concealed carry. Would the White House support any changes to the District’s gun laws?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, gun laws that are made by the District of Columbia should be made by the District government. And again, that’s what we believe -- this is another principle that applies here, is that the home rule is important. And in this case, we believe the District of Columbia should be able to make their own laws.
Q The President is going to be meeting with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Do you have sort of a preview of what they’re going to be talking about today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t, but we’ll see if we can get you some more details about their conversation.
Q Secretary Lew is going to be going to Beijing on Monday to meet with Chinese officials. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is an issue that’s sort of isolated the U.S. from a lot of major partners that are joining the bank. Is there a sense that the U.S. might shift its position and maybe reconsider?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any change in our position at this point. But for more in Secretary Lew’s trip, I’d encourage you to contact the Secretary of the Treasury.
Q And another question on Cuba. At the upcoming Americas Summit there’s going to be several dissidents that are going to be there. There’s the expectation that the President is going to meet with or at least see Raul Castro. Is there any chance that he may also meet with some of these dissidents and civil society members who are going to be there?
MR. EARNEST: I am aware that some of those dissidents are planning to attend and participate in some of the conversations around the Summit of the Americas. At this point, I don’t have any details about the President’s schedule to share with you, though. But in advance of the trip, we’ll see if we can get you some more details on that.
Q Last one. Nigeria is going to be holding their elections tomorrow. Boko Haram is threatening to disrupt the polls. The polls have already been postponed once. I was wondering if the President has a plan for what might happen if, worst case scenario, there is violence that breaks out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just tell you that as Nigeria looks ahead to presidential elections tomorrow and gubernatorial elections on April 11th, the United States reiterates our support for a credible, peaceful electoral process, the results of which reflect the will of the Nigerian people.
We have been pleased to see the renewed agreement between President Jonathan and his primary challenger pledging not to resort to violence and to respect the outcome of a credible process. This agreement reiterates the agreement they signed in mid-January at the urging of the United States, our international partners and the Nigerian people.
It is very much in the spirit of the message that President Obama issued earlier this week to the Nigerian people, whom he called upon to express their views peacefully and to reject the voices of those advocating violence.
So we certainly continue to be gratified that Nigeria’s political leadership is encouraging the citizens of that country to participate in the election without resorting to violence. We hope that’s what they’ll do.
Q Back to the Arabian Peninsula, Josh. I have two questions. Yesterday, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters that there was evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives and Hezbollah fighters had embedded with Houthi rebels in Yemen. If this in fact is true, is this administration concerned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have an updated assessment about the situation on the ground in Yemen. We’ve expressed our previous concerns about the destabilizing impact that Iran is having on this particular situation. We continue to have those concerns.
Q And just one more. How pleased is this administration, and the President specifically, that there is in fact coming together a coalition of the willing, Arab nations -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE -- who are very focused now on fighting the extremism and the crisis in the Arabian Peninsula area, especially Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, what we are pleased -- or at least we understand, is that Saudi Arabia is taking this action because of the instability that’s along their border, that that poses a threat to their security. And it certainly makes sense that they would want to take action to try to enhance the security along their border.
As a close partner of the United States, they have asked for our support for that mission in light of unique capabilities that the United States can leverage in situations like this. The President agreed to that request, and there is some assistance that we’re providing that’s both logistical in nature but also relates to providing intelligence and giving them access to intelligence that might benefit their efforts.
Q And Egypt, as well, is now putting ships into the Gulf of Aden, as well.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there are a lot of Persian Gulf countries that are very mindful of the situation there. And the United States is offering the support that’s been requested by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Q Josh, let me try to take a line of questioning with some high-tech graphics, if you will.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q If you’re this close to an agreement with Iran -- (laughter) -- versus this close, wouldn’t you want that deadline to slide, especially since the Senate, I believe, is going to be out of town for a couple of weeks, and of course the critics are going to be scattered all over the country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bob, I don’t envision a -- as I mentioned a couple of times now, we’ve been negotiating for more than a year. And the United States and our partners all believe that if an agreement is able to be reached, it’s certainly one that we should be able to reach at the end of the month. And that continues to be our goal. It will require Iran to make some substantial, serious commitments in the context of those negotiations. And we’re waiting to see if that’s what they’re willing to do.
Q But the Senate is going to be away. You won’t have to worry about suddenly people trying to slam new sanctions through quickly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s true, that the Senate will not be in session.
Q Does it give you some buffer?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Does it give you some buffer, if you will, to slide?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if it does or not, but it’s our intention to hold all of the parties who are negotiating this agreement to the end-of-March deadline that we’ve set.
Jared, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Josh, what’s the President’s reaction to the law signed by Governor Mike Pence in Indiana yesterday, the religious freedom law that was signed yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have seen that there are a number of private businesses and non-profit organizations that have said that the signing of this law prompts them to reconsider doing business in the state of Indiana.
Q Including the Final Four next week?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, including the NCAA that isn’t just hosting the Final Four in Indianapolis, but actually has their headquarters in Indianapolis. All of those businesses and some of those who are considering having conventions in Indiana have raised concerns about whether or not all of their employees can count on being treated fairly in Indiana.
And so I think that is a testament to the kind of reaction I think a lot of people all across the country had, which is that this step certainly doesn’t seem like it’s -- the signing of this bill doesn’t seem like it’s a step in the direction of equality and justice and liberty for all Americans. And again, that’s not just the view of the administration; I know that’s the view of the Republican mayor of Indianapolis and a whole host of non-profit and private sector companies who have legitimate concerns about the impact of this legislation.
Q Does the President have a reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to him about it.
Q What about the proposed ballot initiative in California, Josh, that would allow the execution of a homosexual person? This is -- again, this is something that’s definitely not going to be constitutional, and it looks like Attorney General Harris is going to be against it. But has the President been made aware of this? Is it something that he has a reaction to?
MR. EARNEST: This is the first I’m hearing of it, so I’m not aware of it.
Q One last thing, Josh. This afternoon, Scott Kelly and a couple other cosmonauts are going up in space for a year. Is the President -- I mean, he’s meeting with science and technology people today, but I know this is usually the opportunity for the President to talk about science education. And is there anything like that? Is the President going to be watching the launch? Is he going to be following as Commander Kelly spends the next year in space?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President -- this is obviously a subject that the President has been very interested in, particular this mission. You’ll recall that Commander Kelly actually sat in the First Lady’s box during the State of the Union. And the President had the opportunity in the context of the State of the Union address to salute the heroism and courage of every member of this mission.
So the President is obviously very interested in this mission and their success. He’s proud of the accomplishments of these brave Americans who are engaged in this effort. I don’t know if the President will have an opportunity to watch the launch, but he certainly is aware of it and will be following the mission over the course of the next year.
This is an interesting opportunity for us to gain some new knowledge about the impact of prolonged space exploration on the human body. And this is -- that’s just one of the many things that they’re looking at in the context of this mission, and it should be interesting. And the President will certainly be following along like many Americans, I think.
Let me just do a quick week ahead and then we’ll call it a week.
Q Can I ask --
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry, Connie, I’m just going to do the week ahead, which is that the -- on Saturday, the President will be traveling to Florida. He’ll spend the weekend in Florida. I do not anticipate that the President has the expectation of making any news while he’s down there. He will be accompanied by the pool. And if news does occur, there will be colleagues of yours there to cover it. The President will return to Washington on Sunday evening.
On Monday, I think most of you know the President is planning to travel to Boston, where he’ll participate in the institute that’s being established in Boston in honor of Secretary -- I’m sorry, Senator Edward Kennedy. The President is looking forward to the events there. He’ll have the opportunity to deliver some remarks at that event.
The President’s schedule for the rest of the week actually remains pretty fluid. So as we get some more details updated on that early next week, we’ll get you those details.
MR. EARNEST: Just because we’ve got some more details on the schedule to hammer out.
Have a great weekend, everybody.
1:57 P.M. EDT