Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 04/01/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:02 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody.
Q Happy April Fools.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I don't come bearing any tricks today. Before we get started let me just mention one quick item, which is I know many of you are closely following the ongoing negotiations out in Lausanne, Switzerland; we are, too. As you saw, the President, prior to the conclusion of his day here at the White House yesterday, sat down with his national security team here in Washington and, via secure video teleconference, got an update from the negotiating team out in Switzerland about the latest on the talks.
The President has already been briefed again this morning. That briefing was required because the negotiating teams have been hard at work since early this morning Europe time. I do not have with me any sort of update in terms of the status of those talks or a schedule for those conversations. Updates along those lines are updates that you can expect from the team that's out in Switzerland.
So with that preamble, and some might even consider it a warning, I'll go straight to your questions. Julie, do you want to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. Yesterday you were able to at least describe the talks in terms of making progress -- making enough progress to continue on past this March 31st deadline. Are we in a place right now where that progress is continuing?
MR. EARNEST: The sense that we have is, yes, that the talks continue to be productive and that progress is being made.
I've observed several times over the last few weeks that we have been at this for more than a year now, and the time has come for the Iranian negotiators to begin to make the kinds of serious commitments that the international community, including the United States, will insist upon. Those are commitments related to demonstrating that they have shut down every single path to a nuclear weapon and indicating a clear commitment to cooperating with an intrusive set of inspections. And while the talks have been productive, we have not yet received the specific, tangible commitments that the international community seeks.
Q So yesterday when you described the productivity and the progress in the talks, you said as long as that continued you’d be willing to go into Wednesday, today. If the progress continues today and there’s no deal by the end of the day -- we're early evening in Switzerland right now -- are you willing to go into Thursday or later into this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any update on the schedule simply because it still is in the evening in Switzerland and they’re still working on this. I would not -- I think our approach to these conversations hasn’t changed, which is that as long as we are in a position of convening serious talks that are making progress, that we would not arbitrarily or abruptly end them. But if we are in a situation where we sense that the talks have stalled, then, yes, the United States and the international community is prepared to walk away, because we've been very clear about what kinds of commitments we expect and we've been clear about those kinds of commitments for in excess of a year.
At the same time, I don’t want to oversimplify what we’re dealing with here. This is a very complicated situation and we want to be sure that we’re clear about the details; the details in the situation matter significantly.
So those talks in Switzerland are ongoing and we’ll continue to monitor them from here. But for updates on the schedule, we’ll wait for those announcements to be made.
Q All right. I just want to make sure I'm getting it right, because it's just an important point. If we get to the end of today and there is no agreement, but there is still progress, will it extend into tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, any type of schedule update like that would come from the negotiators. And I am at this point reluctant to fast-forward to what would happen at the end of the day if an agreement is not reached, because they are still discussing an agreement right now as we speak. So I don’t want to get ahead of those ongoing negotiations.
But I do think it's fair for you to assume that the approach that we demonstrated yesterday is one that we’ll continue to demonstrate, which is placing a priority on the productive nature of the talks and trying to reach an agreement.
Q Can you give us any sense of what the President’s guidance or mandate was to Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz in the call yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t give you a lot of clarity about what the President provided to them simply because they had a pretty detailed, robust discussion about the ongoing negotiations with the Iranians. And so to give you insight into what instructions the President had would be talking about some of the core elements of the negotiations, which I have gone to great lengths to avoid doing. So we’ve avoided that for another year, so I'm going to try to avoid that for another day today.
Q All right. And if I could just get you quickly to give us any White House reaction to Governor Hutchinson in Arkansas coming out today and calling for changes to his state’s religious objections bill.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the piece of legislation that was passed by the Arkansas legislature tracked closely with the legislation that was passed by the Indiana legislature last week.
The kind of outcry that we saw in response to the Indiana legislation being signed into law by Governor Pence is similar to the outcry that we saw in Arkansas last night after the legislature passed that legislation. We saw pretty strong criticism, including from some pretty prominent business leaders in the state of Arkansas, expressing some concern about the impact of that law, and that that law could justifiably -- or could be used to justify discriminating against individuals because of who they love.
And that certainly is not consistent with the values that the vast majority of Americans subscribe to, and I think Governor Hutchinson is obviously responding to that outcry. But obviously the next step will be for the leaders in Arkansas to determine -- I think we’ve made pretty clear what our views are on that.
Q Josh, was the U.S. threat to walk away from the Iran talks real, or is that a negotiation ploy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, all I can do is reiterate to you what our position has been, which is that we’ve been very clear -- and when I say we, I mean the international community, the United States sitting at that table alongside our German, French, British, Russian and Chinese counterparts, making clear to the Iranians that they need to make some specific commitments. And if they’re unwilling to make those commitments, then, yes, the international community would be in a position where we would be forced to consider alternatives to the approach that we have demonstrated so far.
The President does continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Getting them to make commitments on their own to shut down every path to a nuclear weapon and to agree to a set of intrusive inspections is the most effective way for us to handle the situation. But it requires the Iranians to make some serious commitments. And they have -- those commitments at this point have not been finalized and agreed to yet. But that’s something that we’re hard at work on, and as long as we continue to make progress in pursuit of those commitments and those agreements, then we’ll do it.
Q And if diplomacy fails, what’s the next step? Sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is one of the reasons that the President has advocated pursuing diplomacy so aggressively in the first instance. That is to say that if in the unfortunate event that diplomacy is not successful, we will continue to have a wide range of options on the table. Those options include coordinating with the international community to put in place even tougher sanctions that would compel Iran to come back to the negotiating table, or to be more serious about the discussions. There is, of course, a military option that’s sitting on the table.
And this is -- again, in the unfortunate circumstance that we could find ourselves in, which is that we’re not able to reach an agreement, then the President will have to consider that range of options, and he’ll do so in close consultations with our P5+1 partners. The unity of the international community has been critical to the progress that we’ve made so far, but you certainly would also expect the President to consult members of Congress on this as well. I know that there are some members of Congress who have floated the proposition that the Joint Plan of Action, the interim agreement that many Republicans initially criticized, could be one that could be extended.
So there are a range of options that are available here. But I don’t want to get ahead of where we stand in the process right now, which is that talks are ongoing and we continue to make some progress.
Q There seems to be a little bit of discrepancy from the people involved in the talks about where the disagreements lie and to what extent there are still disagreements. The Russian Foreign Minister said all key aspects have been agreed. Others in the room are not saying that. Can you clear that up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I would observe is that if the agreement had been reached, we’d be having a different kind of conversation right now. I think that is a pretty clear indication, and one I’m willing to admit to, which is that there are gaps that still remain in terms of trying to reach an agreement, and that’s why the talks are ongoing. And as long as those talks continue to be productive, we’ll try and reach that diplomatic agreement.
Q Josh, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister said that it was his understanding that there was going to be a text that’s the product of this round, but that it would not have specifics in it. Is that an acceptable outcome?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to prejudge the --
Q Well, in general terms, whether you will be able to do something is really not specific.
MR. EARNEST: Well, in general terms, what I will say is that the President has already committed to discussing and sharing with Congress, with our allies, what sort of commitments Iran has made in the context of this political agreement. And again, those are commitments that would verify that Iran had shut down every path they have to a nuclear weapon and that they would cooperate with a set of intrusive inspections.
And so those kinds of commitments, that kind of an agreement is one that we would be interested in sharing with others who are interested in the ongoing talks. And that includes our allies, it includes our partners in the region. That certainly includes members of Congress, and I think that includes all of you who seem to be particularly interested in this as well.
Q But the work product would have to be specific and in writing?
MR. EARNEST: We would want to be as transparent as we could, and that means sharing a lot of details about what exactly Iran has committed to. The international community has worked closely with the United States as we’ve imposed the sanctions regime. And this is a very tough sanctions regime that’s compelled Iran to the negotiating table -- and that was the goal.
The goal of putting in place these sanctions was to compel Iran to enter into the negotiations and reach a diplomatic agreement, so we have an obligation to discuss what sort of agreement is reached with the international community. The same could be said of members of Congress who, on the front end, passed statutory sanctions that were then coordinated with the international community. So members of Congress who have been involved in this effort would have a legitimate interest in understanding what sort of commitments Iran had made. So we would want to -- and we will be, as the President has promised, sharing those commitments with Congress as well.
Q On the ground in Switzerland, who has the authority to walk away? Who has the authority to say, this is no longer productive? Or does the call have to be made back to the United States to the President for the people in Switzerland to walk off away from the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is very close coordination that’s ongoing between the President, members of his national security team here at the White House, and the leaders of the negotiating team out in Switzerland that include obviously Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz. So there’s very close coordination that’s ongoing, and the President has been apprised of where things stand in terms of the talks, and they’re working together as they plot the path forward here.
Q But the President obviously isn’t there. Does Secretary of State Kerry have the power or the ability on the ground to say the President has given me the authority at this point to walk away, this is not productive? Or does it have to be a break, and call back to the White House before that happens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’re sort of talking in hypotheticals at this point, because right now you could characterize the talks as making some progress. And I’m confident that if we were to reach the unfortunate point in this process where the United States had to make a decision to leave the negotiating table because Iran was not being serious, we of course would do that in coordination with the international community. And I’m confident that the President would be involved in making a decision like that.
But, again, that’s just a hypothetical because we haven’t reached that stage, but we’ll see.
Q Josh, separate from what may or may not happen in the next few hours, I want you to address something that Dennis Ross, who you know well, has just written in Politico, talking about his belief that what you’re currently negotiating -- and these are his words -- “does not reflect the objective we had hoped to achieve for much of President Obama’s first term.” By that, he means no large nuclear infrastructure within Iran; limited enrichment capability -- very limited enrichment capability; an international fuel fund providing fissile fuel for Iran.
What Dennis Ross now writes is that, “At some point, the Obama administration changed its objective from one of transforming the Iranian nuclear program to one of ensuring that it would not have a breakout time for a nuclear weapon of less than one year.” Is that a fair assessment of the way this administration has changed its own self-defiant benchmarks for what constitutes success in dealing with this question and the Iranians?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as far as I can remember -- and obviously Mr. Ross was involved in a lot of these conversations in a more detailed fashion than I was -- but it has been the clear principle of the United States since President Obama took office that Iran, while President Obama is in office, will not obtain a nuclear weapon. And it has always been our belief that the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy, where Iran voluntarily -- essentially on their own accord -- made some specific commitments that would make it clear to the international community that they’re not able to obtain a nuclear weapon. And that has been our policy from the beginning.
And I would also readily acknowledge that the success of that policy will be judged based on what sort of an agreement is reached. And so that's the reason I would hesitate to get too far out in front here, because everybody, including Mr. Ross, will have an opportunity to evaluate what kind of progress we have made in fulfilling that goal.
Q There’s no reason to doubt that he’s being accurate in his interpretation of what the early goals were?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think -- I haven't read the op-ed that he has published, and there may be people -- maybe we can follow up with you if there are specific aspects of the op-ed that don't reflect the recollection of others who work here. But I do think as a general matter, what is true is that our policy when President Obama took office was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and that the best way for us to accomplish that goal is through diplomacy. And that's exactly what we're seeking to do.
Q Right. But that being said, there is a qualitative argument here as to what remains within Iran and the separate question of obtaining a nuclear weapon, because a lot of infrastructure remains. The potential there is greater technologically, and the speed with which it can ultimately achieve that is less. And what I read from Dennis Ross, is saying the original objective was to essentially make that question far less pressing by transforming what Iran had and making it far less technically possible to achieve that possession of a nuclear weapon.
So in that sense, what he’s arguing is, in some ways the Iranians have already won at the negotiating table, achieved far more from their perspective than this administration would have originally been comfortable with.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would vigorously disagree with that conclusion, only because our principal goal, again, was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that the most effective way for us to do that was at the negotiating table. And everyone will have an opportunity once an agreement is reached, if an agreement is reached, to evaluate whether or not we've accomplished that goal.
But if we're able to get the kinds of commitments that we would like to see from the Iranians -- to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and to see their compliance with a set of intrusive inspections measures -- that would be accomplishing the goal that we set out to achieve from the very beginning in a way that is clearly within the best interest of national security interests of the United States but also in the best interest of our closest ally in the region, Israel, and our other partners that are important to our national security in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
Q Is it the President’s plan to communicate with the country once a decision has been made that he has communicated to the Secretary of State about whether to continue with these negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Are you asking if the President will --
Q Come out and talk to us --
MR. EARNEST: -- speak publicly after an agreement is reached?
Q -- whenever he’s decided about if an agreement is reached or if the Secretary of State to come home and reassemble the strategy to see what comes next.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I would anticipate that in either eventuality that you would hear from the President about it.
Q Would that be today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it depends on where the talks go. But that was a clever way to ask that question, though. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you. Josh, given the June 30th expiration of the agreement that's now in place, what is the drop-dead date for completing this phase of the talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, we continue to be in a place where the international community has been negotiating with Iran for in excess of a year, and there are very serious commitments that we're seeking from Iran, and we have essentially reached the ends of those negotiations. And it is time for Iran to demonstrate whether or not they’re willing to make those serious commitments. We’ve had an opportunity to explore all of these issues in great detail; that’s been done at very high levels. Obviously the Secretary of State has himself been personally involved.
It's also been involved -- these discussions have also been conducted at a very technical level too. We have Secretary Moniz who has been participating in these conversations for a number of weeks now. Secretary Moniz is one of the foremost nuclear security -- or nuclear energy experts in the world. He also happens to be the Secretary of Energy in the United States. So he’s well positioned to participate in these talks in a technical way. And they’ve had ample opportunity to do that.
And that’s why we are at a point where it's time for Iran to make these decisions that the international community is insisting upon.
Q You mentioned a couple of options if, in fact, the talks don’t succeed, if they fail. One would be, more sanctions; one would be, a military option, which you say is still on the table. If, in fact, you do have to walk away, how quickly would those sanctions be ratcheted up? Before June 30th, I believe?
MR. EARNEST: It's hard to say for a couple of reasons. One is that the Joint Plan of Action, this interim agreement that was struck over a year ago, would remain in place through June 30th. And so there would be a -- there already would be something -- an agreement between the international community and Iran that would have some limitations on their nuclear program already. And then --
Q -- need more stick between now and June 30th if you’re going to get them back to the table and avert a complete abrogation of the existing agreement?
MR. EARNEST: That’s certainly possible, but again, it will depend on the circumstances of where things stand. So it's hard to speculate about that now.
Q And finally, there was talk yesterday of perhaps a broader wording to an interim agreement that had been hoped for by many of the parties in terms of the specificity on things like the breakout time, the number of centrifuges, the amount of uranium, of the inspections, lifting of the sanctions, things of that nature. Is it a concern of the U.S. and your partners that Iran is trying to get away from these talks with something that’s broader, less specific, that would cause you problems here in Washington in a couple of weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the concern is that we have made -- we have been pretty insistent, in fact, about Iran making some serious commitments that would resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program in a way that would demonstrate that they’re not able to obtain a nuclear weapon.
And what we envision for essentially this week that we’re in now is Iran reaching a political agreement with the international community whereby they would make clear, sort of as a general matter, what sort of an agreement they’re willing to participate in. And that would provide a framework for a more detailed agreement that would have to be negotiated by the end of June.
And we would expect out of this political agreement some clarity about what exactly they are prepared to do. But I would not anticipate a scenario where each of these details has been locked down. The negotiations are structured in such a way that we can essentially get this topline political agreement that would impose a framework on the next round of negotiations that would delve into the technical details. And so it's that sort of overarching general framework that we’re seeking.
But at this point, everyone will have an opportunity when a deal is reached, if a deal is reached, to evaluate what exactly the commitments that Iran is willing to make in terms of that topline framework. But what I will -- I’m confident be in a position of saying then, if an agreement is reached, is that the details of this are important and the guidelines that we’ve set out make it pretty clear where we’re headed in terms of an agreement, but that we’re going to dig into the details and make sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed, and every decimal is not just rounded up or rounded down, but actually closely examined in terms of what sort of impact it would have on their nuclear program. And those will be painstaking detailed negotiations that I’m confident we’ll spend a lot of time talking about it over the course of the spring. So I’m sure you’re looking forward to that as much as I am.
Q Well, I’m becoming an expert.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Excellent.
Q Josh, thank you. With your indulgence and that of my colleagues, I’d like to pursue a short series on Iran, a short series on Iraq, and then one question of pure politics.
On Iran, forgive me for saying so, but I think that from this podium, both yesterday and today we’ve heard some divergent messages from you as to how long the administration and the P5+1 are willing to let these negotiations last. Yesterday, you stated -- I’m paraphrasing, but faithfully -- as long as these conversations continue to be productive, we’ll continue to have them. You also stated yesterday, however, that the U.S. and its partners would not wait until June 30 to walk away, if necessary. So right there are two divergent questions -- or two divergent statements, I should say.
So is it the case that you’ll have them as long as they’re productive, or there is actually some sort of ticking clock here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would try to help you understand, James, in terms of our position is that we do not envision a scenario where we would abruptly and arbitrarily end the talks that are productive. But at the same time, these conversations are not open-ended. We have been serious about the way that we believe it is most effective for us to structure these negotiations, and that is to structure these negotiations in a way that a framework agreement, essentially a political agreement, could be reached by the end of March, is what we said, and April 1st now, because we want to preserve ample time -- essentially, two or three months -- for the technical experts to then sit at the table and have a conversation about how the numbers are going to work inside this broader framework agreement.
And we believe it’s important to leave ample time for those conversations. And so that’s why I’ve been unwilling to set a definitive, though arbitrary, date -- but at the same time try to be clear about the fact that we’re not operating in an open-ended environment here.
Q So when you tell us -- and you said the same thing yesterday -- that it could be negotiated, the real fine, technical details, within a two- to three-month period, if that period is two months, that would give us room for another month of negotiations. Can we expect that you’re willing to go do this for still the whole month of April?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again I don’t want to speculate about --
Q You said two or three months.
MR. EARNEST: I did, I did.
Q So if it’s two months, that gives us the whole month of April.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have -- as I mentioned earlier, we have been at this for more than a year, and it’s very clear what kinds of commitments we’re seeking from Iran, and it’s time for them to make some decisions about whether or not they’re willing to make those commitments.
Q And last on this series. Did you mean to suggest, as I think you did earlier in this briefing, that one of the options available to the U.S. and the international community here is for the JPOA to be extended beyond June 30? Did you mean to suggest that that’s on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I have suggested -- what I meant to suggest is that there are some Republicans who, when asked what they would -- these are Republicans who are on the record --
Q I’m not asking about the Republicans. I’m asking about this administration and its desires. Is the JPOA being extended on the table, or not?
MR. EARNEST: The context in which I brought this up is the context of what would happen if diplomacy fails, if we’re not able to reach an agreement. And what some Republicans -- I’m speaking of the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
-- Senator Corker, a number of weeks back, indicated that one approach could be leaving the Joint Plan of Action in place -- this potential agreement.
So that is an option that could be in place if negotiations do not succeed. But right now, negotiations are underway in Switzerland and they’re making progress.
Q On Tikrit, can you please share with us the assessment of the United States government as to the state of the battle there, who is running the city, and the success of military operations there designed to repel ISIS from there?
MR. EARNEST: My colleagues at the Department of Defense can certainly give you some more details about this, but it is our assessment that Iraqi forces, under the command of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi central government, have advanced into the heart of Tikrit; that they have succeeded in taking the city center and other significant areas of the city from ISIL.
Now, we’re very mindful of the fact that in these kinds of military operations there could be a little bit of a back-and-forth. But what’s clear is that they’ve made important progress, even in just the last couple of days. And this is notable progress because you’ll recall that when this operation began, it did not include the support of coalition military airstrikes. And after a few productive days, this operation essentially got stalled in the outskirts of the city, and remained stalled for a couple of weeks.
Five days ago, the Iraqi military made a specific request to the United States to back their efforts with military airstrikes. And we’ve seen over the course of the last five days that the stalemate that has previously been in place for a couple of weeks had receded, and that Iraqi security forces that were multi-sectarian in nature -- these included Shia military; these included members of the popular mobilization force; these included some tribal fighters as well -- were able to advance into the city.
And this is, if you take a look at what’s happened over the last five days, I think a pretty compelling description of the successful implementation of our strategy. We have said all along that a multi-sectarian force that’s being led by the Iraqi military and a unified Iraqi central government, that that force would be effective but would be made even more effective when backed by coalition military airstrikes.
Q And Shia militia.
MR. EARNEST: And Shia militia. That’s what we’ve seen over the last five days. I’d point out that the Shia militia, though, is under the command of the Iraqi military and of the Iraqi central government. And that’s key. There are some Shia military units or Shia militia fighters who I think were at least ambiguous about whether or not they were under the command of the Iraqi military. And we saw that there were some Shia militia fighters who declined to participate in the operation once coalition military airpower was involved.
And, again, what the United States insisted on was an operation that was multi-sectarian and under the command of the Iraqi military. And, again, based on what’s happened over the last five days, I think this is a pretty clear piece of evidence that this strategy that we’ve laid out is one that has some potential in terms of driving back ISIL fighters.
Q In Mosul, too?
MR. EARNEST: Well, each of these situations is different. And there are certainly elements of this operation that could be useful in Mosul. This idea of ensuring that this multi-sectarian force is the one that’s carrying out the operation, making sure that every element of that multi-sectarian force is reporting to the military command and to the Iraqi central government, and that their capabilities are enhanced when they’re backed up by coalition airpower.
Now, what’s also true is that Mosul is a much larger city than Tikrit. There are also, based on some reporting that we see on the ground, there are also a substantially larger number of civilians inside Mosul than there have been in Tikrit. And that makes any sort of operation like this more complicated because we obviously go to great lengths to prevent innocent civilian deaths.
Q Final question. You’ve all been very patient and I appreciate it. This is the politics question. In his remarks at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute the other day, the President lamented that our politics today are not more purposeful and elevated, to use his words, and he also lamented that too often ideology gets in the way of basic respect. And those remarks struck me because this week we saw my CNN colleague, Dana Bash, do an interview with the Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, in which she asked him about his decision in the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign to take to the Senate floor and accuse Mitt Romney of him not paying his taxes, and demanding that Mitt Romney, in fact, prove he paid his taxes. And when Dana Bash asked him about this, she mentioned that some people considered it McCarthyite. And of course, no evidence has ever been produced to show that Mitt Romney failed to pay his taxes.
So I wonder if President Obama, who has lamented this incivility in our politics, this disrespect in our politics, has any view of Harry Reid telling Dana Bash in response to this question, well, Romney didn’t get elected, did he?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to the President about Senator Reid’s interview. Obviously Senator Reid is somebody who is going to decide for himself about what he says on the Senate floor and he obviously is a vocal supporter of the President and they have a partnership that will go down in history as a remarkably productive one. But ultimately, it’s up to Senator Reid to decide what he is going to say on the House floor. And there are a number of things that Senator Reid over the course of his career I think that he has said pretty proudly were independent of the views of anybody else, they represented only his own.
Q But it’s the President’s choice and his spokesman’s choice to call out conduct unbecoming of our highest elected officials when it is, in fact, unbecoming. Are you going to take that opportunity now?
MR. EARNEST: Not for something that’s three years old.
Q If I can just follow up on Tikrit very briefly. You said that obviously Iraqi forces are effective but are more effective with airstrikes. You’re not suggesting -- or are you suggesting that Tikrit could have been taken with those forces alone, without those precision airstrikes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s a counterfactual; it’s hard to know at this point. But what is clear is that we had seen an operation be mobilized by the Iraqi military with Iraqi security forces in conjunction with some other loosely affiliated Shia militias that had carried out an operation against Tikrit that essentially had stalled in the outskirts of the city, or at least on the outer edges of the city. And that had been stalled out for a couple of weeks, and it’s only in the last five days that coalition military airstrikes were carried out and that military forces under the command of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi central government did advance into the city. And that did cause, apparently, ISIL fighters to withdraw.
And again, there can always be a little back-and-forth in these kinds of military operations, but what is clear is that over the last five days, this strategy of backing up Iraqi security forces that are multi-sectarian in nature with coalition military airstrikes is a pretty potent combination.
Q Let me ask you really quickly about Iran. And you said that the President wants to be clear, he wants to be able to share with Congress, with the American people, be able to essentially make his case for this deal, if there is a deal. So would that suggest that whatever statement that might come out of this would have to have some specificity? Understanding it's not going to be completely detailed, but would it have to have some specificity and be a written statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we would expect -- again, I don't want to prejudge the outcome here, but we certainly would expect -- the whole point of this exercise has been for Iran to demonstrate their willingness to make serious commitments to the international community about their nuclear program and ensuring that they do not obtain a nuclear weapon. And so we would expect for those serious commitments to be made soon, because we've been doing this for more than a year now, and the President expects to be in a position to talk publicly about what sort of commitments Iran has made.
So in what form that takes, we'll have to see, if an agreement is reached, but that's what our expectation is.
Q So not necessarily a written statement that the Iranians sign off on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's hard to imagine the President going out and making the case that, well, this is just what the Iranians have told me they’re willing to do. I think you can certainly expect that the President would expect a more serious commitment from the Iranians than that in order to move forward.
Q And last question. Jason Chaffetz, late yesterday, issued subpoenas commanding the testimony from those two Secret Service agents who were involved in this recent incident where a bomb scene -- an active bomb scene was breached. Will the administration resist those subpoenas?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately this will be a decision that will be made by the Department of Homeland Security and by the Secret Service. The fact that the Director of the Secret Service, over the last couple of weeks, has appeared before Congress at least three times I think is an indication of their willingness to cooperate with legitimate oversight. That same Director has also referred this specific matter to the inspector general to ensure a genuinely independent investigation into what occurred that evening.
So I think that indicates a pretty clear commitment on the part of the leadership of the Secret Service to both cooperating with legitimate congressional oversight and actually getting to the bottom of what happened that night.
Q But as you know, part of the concern of some members of that committee has been that because the director said he didn’t want to interfere with the inspector general’s investigation -- he did not have all the facts, he did not do the questioning, he did not speak to all the people involved. So while he, indeed, as you have said, has gone before the committee, their argument is that they need to be able to speak to the people directly involved.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that it's not unprecedented for inspectors general to go before Congress and to talk about the results of their investigation. And in this case, there is an independent inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security that’s conducting this investigation. So that independent inspector general will conduct this investigation and that person will have to decide whether or not they’re prepared to testify before Congress about their findings.
Q Josh, I want to ask about a couple of subjects. On Iran, can you explain the military option as the United States is still trying to find out the arsenal -- the weapons arsenal that Iran has?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I'm not prepared to talk in great detail about what sort of specific military options the President would consider other than to say that a military option is among those that’s on the table.
One of the down sides, however, of the military option is that it would have less of an impact in terms of setting back Iran’s nuclear program than the kind of diplomatic agreement that we currently envision. We also know that the diplomatic agreement that we’re trying to reach is one that would include intrusive inspections that would give the international community great insight into the scope of Iran’s nuclear program.
And we know that a military action would have the opposite of that effect, right? That if Iran were in a position where they were subject to military action it seems very likely that they would kick all the inspectors out of the country. And that would, moving forward, have less insight into the size and scope of their nuclear program.
So that is why the President makes aggressively the case, as I have, that the diplomatic path is the most effective way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q I hear what you're saying, but I'm trying to marry the issue of potential -- what possibly could happen -- the military option is on the table, even though you say that it's not as effective as sanctions. But then you have an issue that you don't have the intelligence that we would like on what kind of weapons they have. Wouldn't a military option, a potential military option just cancel all of that out, because we do not know what they have?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, right now we do have more insight into their nuclear program probably than we ever have because of this Joint Plan of Action. This interim agreement, as you’ll recall, included wide-ranging inspections, and that has provided greater insight into the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program. That is, after all, the basis for a lot of these discussions, that as we sort of talk about what their nuclear program looks like now and what it would look like under a diplomatic agreement is rooted in the fact that we have some basic knowledge of their program.
And what we would envision is a diplomatic agreement that would, again, cut off every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, but also give intrusive access to international inspectors so that they can verify Iran’s compliance with that agreement.
Q And on another subject, the commutation letter that was issued yesterday from the White House. Many of those whose sentences were commuted, they were drug sentencing, drug convictions. Is this part of the President’s idea of bringing that disparity gap and sentencing -- particularly when it comes the crack cocaine versus power cocaine from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1
-- is this part of that effort that he’s employing trying to bridge the gap in sentencing disparity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can say as a general matter, April, that the people who received commutations from the President yesterday were individuals who -- or at least the vast majority of them -- were individuals who would have faced a different sentence had their sentence been considered under current law. And this is just one example of the kinds of disparities that exist in our criminal justice system, and it's why the President is working in bipartisan fashion on legislation that would resolve some of those inequities. And this would have consequences not just for the just way in which our laws are applied, but also have some consequences for public safety and even for the finances of our country.
So there are a lot of reasons for Democrats and Republicans to be interested in this issue, and the President -- foremost in the mind of the President is making sure that our criminal justice system lives up to our own commitment as a country to being one that's both impartial and fair.
Q Is this one of those gaps the President is trying to close? Like he said on the way to Selma when he talked to the black journalists on the flight down --
MR. EARNEST: You were one of them.
Q I sure was. And this is kind of going along with the question I asked and his answer. He said that his job now is to basically bridge the gaps of the racial divide that’s still going on in the country. Is this one of those gaps he’s trying to -- the racial gaps that he’s trying to close?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are certainly concerns, broadly, in our justice system about fairness, and some of them do relate to questions of race. And the fact is the President believes -- and, fortunately, there are Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill who also believe -- that there are some common-sense changes that we can make to our justice system that will make it more fair. And the President is interested in having that conversation and trying to advance that goal.
The tool of commutations is just one that the President can use to try to add some more fairness and justice to that system. But there are some legislative changes that could also be made that would have an even more profound effect on the system.
Q On this business of the deadline -- and I understand that you're saying that while progress is being made why bring it to a halt, but can you just explain the logic of not putting an end to this phase? Because there was a logic in making a deadline in the first place.
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q So why not give them until this amount of time to show that they’re serious about those commitments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Michelle, the reason for that simply is that the -- we're at the end of the negotiations as it relates to trying to reach a political agreement, and it is time for Iran to demonstrate whether or not they’re willing to make these serious commitments that the international community has been asking for. And it is, in the mind of the President and the broader international community, that this is the best way for us to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon, but it's going to require Iran to make some serious commitments. And after negotiating for more than a year, it's essentially time for Iran to make that decision.
Q But it sounds like they’re not serious enough to make that decision when we gave them an endpoint. And it seems like we're giving them leeway here -- no?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think what we are insisting on is we are insisting on a good deal. And if Iran is serious about fulfilling -- making these commitments and is serious about trying to reach an agreement with the international community around the negotiating table, the time has come for them to make that decision. And we'll see.
Q What we've heard from Iran publicly has been it wouldn't be the end of the world if no deal was reached. On the issue of their stockpile, they say, well, no, no, no, we're not going to move our stockpile. So it sounds like what they’re saying publicly is that there are certain points on which they’re not that serious. I know that you’ve said that what is said publicly is not the same as what goes on in negotiations. But are we getting a lot of indication from Iran that they’re just not that serious?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think we'll be able to evaluate whether or not they’re serious based on what an agreement looks like, if we're able to reach an agreement. I think that will be the best way for us all to judge. And hopefully we'll have that opportunity relatively soon.
Q Okay, quickly -- we heard from France this morning saying that Iran is not where they’re supposed to be at this point. They just sounded very pessimistic about the progress that has been made. They said, yeah, there’s progress, but not on those specific points. So can you just tell us why, on the progress that has been made, you sound much more optimistic than some of the other partners sound?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's hard for me to account for exactly the comments that were made, presumably in French, by the French foreign minister. What I'll say is what has contributed significantly to the leverage of the international community is our unity on this measure; that the international community broadly is united in insisting that Iran make serious commitments to resolve our concerns with their nuclear program and to verify that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon. And our negotiating position has been firm.
And I know that there is some reporting that indicates that, well, maybe the fact that we're a day past the deadline is an indication that the international community is really eager for an agreement. I actually would posit to you that the reason that we're a day past the deadline is because the international community is insisting on a good deal, and that we're going to drive a hard bargain and we're going to expect Iran to make serious commitments. And we're going to give them the opportunity to do so, but if they don't, the international community alongside the United States is prepared to walk away and consider some alternatives.
Q At this point, you're optimistic, even given where we are now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if I would go that far. I think what I would say is that we have made progress in recent days, but the reason that there’s not an agreement is because there continue to be differences on some important issues. And it's only through resolving those differences that we'll be able to reach an agreement. And time will tell whether or not that is possible, but based on the amount of time that has already been expended and dedicated to these negotiations, that time is coming soon.
Q Josh, one domestic question, and I want to follow up on what Michelle was asking you. What is the President’s explanation, or what explanation can you share for why the representatives from France, China and Russia departed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you’d have to ask them about what sort of scheduling matters they had to deal with. The one thing I will observe about the French foreign minister is that his flight to Lausanne is pretty brief, so it's much easier for him to go back and forth than it is for my American counterparts, who are doing yeomen’s work over in Switzerland.
Q But in no way does the President want us to believe that their departure signals a lack of progress?
MR. EARNEST: No, I would not interpret it that way. We continue to be in touch with all of our intelligence partners even if they are not represented at the foreign minister level in these talks.
Q And are there any other conversations that the President has had with heads of state regarding the Iran talks?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of today. But if there’s an opportunity for us to give you greater insight into that we'll let you know.
Q Okay. And one other follow-up on Iran, and I have a domestic question, and that is there was a lot of Twitter chatter last night that what today was going to be about was actually drafting. And I just want to clarify that the administration’s understanding about what’s happening in Switzerland is negotiating or drafting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would only -- because I'm reluctant to get into a lot of detail about what’s happening behind closed doors in Switzerland, I think I would only point out that there’s not a significant difference between those two verbs.
Q So it's possible that --
MR. EARNEST: It's possible to do both.
Q To do both?
MR. EARNEST: It's possible to negotiate as you draft, or to draft as you negotiate, I suppose.
Q Good to know. Domestic question -- the President is going to be visiting Kentucky and Utah, two nice states but not necessarily states that we’d expect him to advance his news and agenda. So can you lift the veil on what he hopes to achieve with his town halls in those two states?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have some more details about these visits, but certainly the President is looking forward to the opportunity to drawing a pretty stark contrast between his middle-class economics approach to expanding opportunity for everybody, and the approach advocated by Republicans, which essentially is a top-down approach. And I do think you can expect the President to repeat his concerns about at least one aspect of the Republican plan, which is the elimination of the estate tax.
Just a reminder to everybody, this is an estate tax provision that would essentially offer a tax break that’s targeted only at estates worth in excess of $11 million. And this is a tax loophole that Republicans are seeking to carve out that would actually cost $300 billion over 10 years. The President does not believe that that is a fiscally responsible approach. It’s particularly ironic that a day or two after Republicans proudly voted on a budget that they said balanced, that they’re prepared to blow a hole in the deficit just so they could extend tax breaks to people worth more than $11 million. That certainly is one way that the President could illustrate the difference in approach between Democrats and Republicans on economic issues.
Q And that’s Kentucky?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President will have an opportunity to make that point in both places, I believe.
Q Quick question on Iran and also RFRA. You said that if the talks fall apart you’d consult with your allies about tougher sanctions. I thought that the administration had argued in the past that if these talks fell apart, it would be hard to keep the international solidarity on sanctions together.
MR. EARNEST: The concern that we have had was if the United States could be blamed for the talks falling apart, then it would be hard to preserve international unity around the implementation of sanctions. But in this scenario, it’s pretty clear that we’ve given Iran every opportunity to make the kinds of serious commitments that the international community expects. And at this point, if we’re not able to reach an agreement, I think the international community would, understandably, hold Iran responsible for that shortcoming.
Q Okay. And on RFRA. In Arkansas, the governor sent the law back for a rewrite, basically, and then in Indiana, the governor has asked for clarification. Does the President, as a constitutional lawyer, believe that it is possible to allow private businesses to not perform certain services for gay couples without it being discrimination? In other words, is this a circle that can be squared, or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t had that discussion with him. I do think that in the mind of the President, the thought that we would have state legislatures in the 21st century in the United States of America passing laws that would use religion to try to justify discriminating against people because of who they love is unthinkable.
And that’s why I think that you’ve seen an outcry -- again not just from Democrats. This hasn’t been a partisan or even a particularly political dispute. It’s business interests; it’s other Republicans, it’s other leaders in the faith community who have stepped forward and said -- particularly in the case of Indiana -- that this law is a terrible idea. It's not good for our state, it's not consistent with our values. And I think that outcry is what has prompted Governor Pence to reevaluate the wisdom of signing this bill into law, something he did just a few days ago. And I think it's also what has made Governor Hutchinson so reluctant to sign this bill and to actually send it back to the legislature so they could do some additional work on it.
Q So you don’t see this in any way analogous to the kind of carve-out or opt-out you’ve offered to religious institutions on contraception, for instance?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this matter is broadly different for a variety of reasons.
Q Thanks for that, Josh. In the past, you’ve talked about how different people who have been looking at these negotiations have cherry-picked different parts of the negotiation as they’ve tried to oppose it. If we do reach a deal, you mentioned it's going to be incredibly complex. How is the President or the administration going to get across the parts of the deal to the American public so that people understand it? And how will you counter the folks who are going to maybe cherry-pick the parts of the deal that people might not like? How are you going to go about rolling this out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of that is we’re going to be counting on all of you to tell the truth about what’s included in the agreement. And so we’re certainly going to spend some time talking to all of you about what the details are of the agreement and what consequences that would have for our national security.
The other thing I guess I should clarify is that the agreement that we’re trying to reach right now is a political one, so essentially, it would be a generalized framework. And while the issues that are at play here are complicated, what we’re envisioning is a pretty general framework that somebody who spends some time looking at it should be able to understand.
Down the line when we get to June and we start negotiating -- or we, hopefully, end negotiating over the very technical details, that’s when we’re going to enter a phase where the scientific details are pretty complicated.
The other thing that I’ll point out -- and this is I guess something else that you could be on the lookout for in the days ahead if an agreement is reached -- is that I would anticipate that we will make not just a public case to try to persuade you and the American people and members of Congress and our allies that this is clearly in the national security interest of the United States. We’ll also have a scientific case to make that we’ll be able to make a pretty forceful case that, looking at the science, we’ve reached an agreement that has effectively prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that will be part of the explanation and description that we’ll offer to all of you.
Q On the deadline and sort of the decision to push the deadline past yesterday, is that in part a negotiating tactic that if this fails, you will, as you mentioned earlier, sort of be able to put it on Iran and not -- it won’t be blamed on the U.S. having this hard arbitrary deadline? Is that part of the tactic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear is that Iran, now and over the course of talks that have lasted over a year, has had every opportunity to make the kinds of commitments that the international community expects. And, again, these are commitments that would shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and comply with intrusive inspections that would ensure that they’re living up to the agreement. And they’ve had every opportunity to do that. And while talks continues to progress and while they continue to be productive, they’ll continue to have that opportunity. But this is not an open-ended commitment to talking that we’re willing to make here; that the time has come for Iran to make some decisions. And we’re hopeful that they’ll do that.
Q Just a quick question on Cuba. There were some talks yesterday between Cuba and the U.S. about human rights. Did any progress come out of those talks? And what’s the administration’s reaction to the idea that Cuba is bringing up issues like police brutality and poverty and also Guantanamo as human rights shortfalls by the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t gotten a readout of those conversations, but we’ll see if there’s something that we can share with you on that regard.
Q On the President’s executive order today regarding the financial sanctions against hackers, was there any effort, or might there be any effort in the future, to bring in the international community to join in sanctions like that, given that the threat crosses borders, could involve multinational corporations and that kind of thing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal of this executive order that the President signed today is geared toward giving him an additional tool that can be used in response to significant acts of -- significant malicious acts in cyberspace. And the idea here is that we want to make sure that whatever sort of response to those kinds of acts when they’re carried out is proportional. And this would be a set of tools that the President could use to respond to significant malicious acts in cyberspace.
And the President is mindful of the threats that continue to exist in cyberspace, and these are threats that are related to cyber intrusions that occur in the private sector. We’ve seen health care companies and financial institutions be victims of these kinds of intrusions. Obviously there are even some media outlets that have been victimized by some of these attacks. There are obviously government networks that have also been subjected to some malicious activity in cyberspace. We’re mindful of all of that, and we want to make sure that the U.S. government has the resources and the tools necessary to respond forcefully to those incidents. And that’s the idea behind this executive order.
And I guess to get directly to your question, this is the kind of thing that other countries are looking at, too, in terms of understanding that their countries, that their governments and companies that are located in their countries are similarly vulnerable to these kinds of actions and that a coordinated response across the international community is one that makes those responses more effective.
They also serve as a more effective deterrent as well, and that’s part of the goal here. And I would anticipate that when the President does meet with other heads of state, it’s not uncommon for him to talk about cybersecurity, and I could certainly anticipate a scenario where he would discuss this proposed response as well.
Q Congress appears prepared to act either way the talks conclude. So is it fair to say that you guys would support sanctions legislation that the President has said he would veto in the past while the talks are ongoing? And if there is, in fact, a deal, are you guys open and willing to work with Congress on shaping some kind of legislation that you can live with, either in the interim period from now until June 30th or after?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Carol, what we would encourage members of Congress to do is a couple of things. One is -- and we’ve made this case pretty aggressively -- you alluded to it -- that we do not believe it is in the best interest of the talks for Congress to take action on additional sanctions while talks are ongoing. And so that’s why we have been strongly opposed to some of the legislative proposals that have been floated so far. We continue to be strongly opposed to those, again, for reasons that Mara sort of highlighted, which is that that would run contrary to the terms of the interim agreement, the so-called Joint Plan of Action that was reached more than a year ago.
If we do reach an agreement, sort of this political agreement, we would encourage members of Congress to evaluate that agreement on its merits. And I referred yesterday to this idea that it will require members of Congress to sort of set aside their partisan interest and try to keep the national interest at the front of their mind, and to evaluate whether or not the President has followed through on the commitment that he has made to use diplomacy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And the President has been clear to his negotiating team that we’re only going to take a good deal, and one in which Iran makes the necessary serious commitments to resolve the concerns of the international community. And so we will certainly have that conversation with members of Congress if a deal is reached when they return to Washington.
Q If one is not, then you’ll back the legislation -- some of the legislation that you currently oppose, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if a deal is not reached, there are a range of options on the table, including some options that Republicans -- well, or that members of Congress in both parties, frankly, have sought to put on the table now. We have opposed many of those provisions because we’ve said they shouldn’t be on the table while we’re engaged in negotiations.
But, yes, if those negotiations break down and the Iranians walk away without demonstrating the willingness to make some serious commitments, then that does bring some of those issues back into play. But we’ll evaluate that when we come to it.
Go ahead, Connie.
Q Thank you so much, Josh. In light of this tragic plane crash, would the President favor lifting privacy restrictions on pilots, train conductors, bus drivers, doctors, even White House press secretaries -- anybody who holds the public interest in their hands?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are obviously matters where it’s important for independent regulators to balance a couple of competing interests. Obviously, first and foremost in their mind is ensuring the interest of the traveling public. And that’s why the FAA, the NTSB and other agencies like that have in place regulations that are related to the health and well-being of train conductors and airline pilots.
Obviously, those individuals, just because they are in that business, don’t give up all of their right to privacy. And trying to strike that right balance is an important public policy question and certainly one that I’m sure the FAA spends a lot of time on. I will say that the FAA, when it comes to airline pilots, does have regulations that requires pilots over the age of 40 to submit to a medical examination once every six months to ensure that they are fit to fly an aircraft that has members of the traveling public on it. And those kinds of health care examinations include a component dedicated to their psychological health, as well. And that’s an appropriate policy response.
Q Does the President think this whole HIPAA system, this health care privacy system should be reevaluated?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that we have made that kind of pronouncement.
Dave, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about military retirement pay. The President sent a letter to the congressional leaders a couple days ago about the recommendations of an independent commission on military retirement pay, and said it was an important step forward to preserving the system, but he also wants the White House to work on refining some of the proposals. Can you outline in any more specificity what areas of concern the White House has about those recommendations?
MR. EARNEST: Dave, I’ll confess I’m aware generally of this issue but not of the finer points of our position on this. But let me have somebody follow up with you. We can do that with you today.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Have a good Wednesday.
2:06 P.M. EDT