Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/13/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for an addendum, marked with an asterisk, on the President’s travel to South Dakota.
12:23 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I see at least a couple of you might have made the trip back successfully from Panama. So those of you who did, welcome back. Let me do a quick rundown at the top and then we’ll get straight to your questions.
This week, the President intends to spend a lot of time talking about his agenda that’s focused on middle-class economics. He believes that we have a critical opportunity here to build on the progress that we’ve made so far based on a simple idea, which is that our economy is strongest when it’s growing from the middle out. And that’s why the President is going to continue to advocate for policies that benefit middle-class families in a way that will continue to grow our economy from the middle out.
This stands in stark contrast to the approach that’s advocated by many Republicans who believe that they should target benefits and relief to those at the top, with the expectation that those benefits will trickle down to everyone else. The best example of this is we see that Republicans are trying to advance through the House of Representatives this week a proposal that would offer a $300 billion tax cut that’s targeted specifically at that small group of estates that’s worth in excess of $11 million.
The President, for about that same amount of money, believes that we can actually offer tax relief to 44 million working families. And again, that’s a pretty stark contrast in approach. The President will have the opportunity to make the case about his approach that’s focused on middle-class and working families around the television interviews that he’s planned for later today here at the White House. He’s going to be doing interviews with local television reporters from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Ohio and Maine, specifically to talk about this issue.
Tomorrow, the President will mark Equal Pay Day here at the White House, and will call on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would significantly strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and give women additional tools to fight pay discrimination.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he’ll meet with working women to discuss the plan that he’s laid out in his budget proposal to help those women who are both working in the workplace but also trying to raise a family. And in the context of that visit, he’ll take some questions from some online communities that cater to working women to talk about this issue.
Then, on Thursday, the President will make a special appearance here at the White House at a Champions of Change event, where he will honor working families and advocates for working families, and recognize their efforts to fight for things like workplace flexibility, paycheck fairness, and putting an end to pregnancy discrimination.
So a very practical pocketbook-focused agenda for this week, in addition to a range of other issues. And I’m prepared to talk about all of that today.
So, Darlene, do you want to get us started?
Q Thank you. I had a couple of questions on the visit tomorrow by the Prime Minister of Iraq. Before he left Iraq today, he said that his country needs more support from the international community to finish off the Islamic State group. I was wondering if you are aware of any specific requests from the Prime Minister that he’s coming with for the President tomorrow.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific request that Prime Minister Abadi is bringing with him. The President certainly is looking forward to the opportunity that he’ll have to sit down with Prime Minister Abadi and to discuss the partnership between our two countries. The United States has obviously been very encouraging of and even supportive of Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to unite the nation of Iraq to confront the threat that is posed by ISIL.
Prime Minister Abadi took office vowing to govern that country in an inclusive way. Iraq is a diverse country, and Prime Minister Abadi has gone to great lengths to ensure that the diversity of the country is reflected in the diversity of the government and in the diversity of the security forces of that nation. And that will be critical to their success in fighting the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
The United States has obviously been very supportive of his efforts both diplomatically but also in terms of providing support and assistance to Iraqi security forces. And we anticipate that that partnership and that support will continue.
Q There have been some reports that he’s prepared to ask the President for drone aircraft, attack helicopters, and ammunition. I was wondering if -- how would you characterize the willingness of the President and/or the administration to fulfill a request like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re obviously deeply engaged in regular or even daily conversations about steps that the United States and the international community can take to support the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces as they face down the ISIL threat. There is obviously intensive coordination between our militaries. The U.S. military has a presence inside of Iraq where we can coordinate our efforts and make sure that we are leveraging all of the technological capabilities that our military has to benefit the Iraqi forces that are fighting on the ground. That is part of the strategy that the President has laid out for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
We’re pleased to be implementing that strategy by working closely with some 60 other countries who are part of this broader international coalition. And if there are specific ideas that Prime Minister Abadi has for stepped-up assistance, then we’ll obviously consider them seriously.
Q What can you tell us about press coverage of the visit tomorrow? Will there be a spray at least?
MR. EARNEST: We’re still working to pin down the details. We’ll have those locked before the end of the day today.
Q And then one final question on Cuba. Over the weekend, the President said he was traveling and hadn’t yet had the chance to read the State Department recommendation on whether to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Do you know if he’s begun to read and study that recommendation? And is there any sort of timeline for when he would want to announce what seems like a foregone conclusion? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: For something that seems like a foregone conclusion, it has certainly gotten a lot of attention in the last few days, and understandably so. This is obviously a significant policy decision that the President and his team will have to make.
I don’t have an update for you in terms of where the process currently stands. I can tell you that the President was looking forward to the opportunity to reading the recommendation from the State Department and the input that was provided through other relevant agencies. I don’t have a specific timeline to offer you in terms of when a decision will be made, but I would anticipate that, given that the process has advanced so far, you can expect a decision in the coming days.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Kremlin has said that Putin has lifted a ban on providing anti-missile rocket systems to Iran. This is also coming as Russia seems to be prepared to supply grain and other equipment in an oil-for-goods swap with Iran that may position them to have kind of a head start when and if sanctions are lifted. Is the President -- has he been briefed on this? What is his response?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julia, we’ve seen those reports as they relate to the possible sale of the S-300 anti-ballistic missile system to Iran. The United States has previously made known our objections to that sale, and I understand that Secretary Kerry had an opportunity to raise these concerns once again in a recent conversation with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Lavrov.
I’m not in a position to, obviously, speculate on the decision-making process that Russia is engaged in right now, but I do think it’s safe to say that Russia understands that the United States certainly takes very seriously the safety and security of our allies in the region.
As it relates to the other oil-for-goods discussion, this is something that has been -- this is a discussion that has been underway for several months now, and we’ve obviously been aware that there are proposals involving Russia and Iran to, essentially, barter Iranian oil for Russian goods. We’re studying the details, and if this sort of arrangement were to move forward it would raise serious concerns and even could potentially raise sanctions concerns. So we’re going to continue to evaluate that moving forward as well.
Q Could it endanger finalizing a deal by the end of June?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one of the things that we have indicated has been critical to our success in this diplomatic process has been the unity of the international community. And the United States and our partners in Europe have been able to work closely with both Russia and China to bring Iran to the negotiating table by putting in place and enforcing tough sanctions, and engaging in a negotiating position that has succeeded in getting Iran to make serious commitments about limitations and, in some cases, even rolling back specific elements of their nuclear program.
So we value the coordination and unity that we have been able to maintain throughout this rather long process. In fact, we recently even saw that an official from the foreign ministry in Russia indicated that the U.S. document outlining the parameters of the agreement with Iran was consistent and did reflect the agreement that was reached at the table. And again, that underscores the kind of unity around the specific agreement that we believe has been critical to our success.
We’ll obviously evaluate these two other proposals moving forward. And obviously we have been in direct touch with Russia to make sure that they understand -- and they do -- the potential concerns we have.
Q Okay. And building off Darlene’s questions. If you can’t get into specifics about what Prime Minister Abadi might be asking for and how Obama -- how he would respond, what can you tell us about deliverables, expectations? What’s the goal of this meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal is to continue the obviously deep coordination that already exists between the United States and Iraq. This is a partnership that the United States is obviously deeply invested in. And our success in working with an inclusive Iraqi government has been important to some of the security gains that Iraq has realized against ISIL in the last few months.
There obviously is a lot more work that needs to get done. And we’re going to continue to work closely with the Iraqis and deepen our relationship in coordination in successful pursuit of the strategy that the President has laid out for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q Josh, getting back to the nuclear deal, and to follow up on some of the President’s comments from the press conference on Saturday, is there any scenario in which the President would accept a nuclear deal in which the sanctions are lifted immediately at the consummation of a deal, in the same sense that the Iranians seem to want that to happen? Would he just rule that out -- are you ruling that out, that’s not going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we have been very clear about what our position is. And the position is different than the Iranian one, which is one that insists upon removing all sanctions on day one. What we have indicated is the best course of action is for the international community to provide phased sanctions relief to the Iranians in exchange for their implementation of the deal. And that would mean -- and I guess -- and that would be backed up of course by an historically intrusive set of inspections that, frankly, are more rigorous and more detailed and more intrusive than any set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. That obviously is a critical component to this agreement as well.
But what we would envision is essentially phased sanctions relief in exchange for successful implementation of the agreement, and the Iranians, in a verifiable way, living up to the commitments that they’ve made at the negotiating table.
Q And you’re not going to accept anything less than phased sanctions relief?
MR. EARNEST: We’ve been very clear about what our position is. Let me say two other things about that. One is this is a position that the Iranian negotiators are very well aware of. This is something that's been conveyed to them around the negotiating table.
The second thing I can tell you is that this position about phased sanctions relief doesn't just reflect the position of the United States, it reflects the position of the international community. And again -- this goes to my response to Julia’s question about how important it is for the international community to remain united on these issues -- that's the way that we have been able to maximize our leverage with Iran to get them to make these serious commitments that we seek. And there continues to be unanimity of opinion that phased sanctions relief is the most effective way for us to implement this agreement.
Q And the President indicated he -- perhaps more of a flexibility on Senator Corker’s legislation to get Congress a final say on the deal. Maybe I was misreading that a little bit, so that's what I want to ask. Does his veto threat still stand on that legislation? Or is he perhaps amenable to working with the Senator, the White House working with the Senator’s office, that committee, and crafting something that's a little bit different that might go to the same type of goal of giving Congress a final say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, those are two different questions, so let me take the first one because that's the easiest. The legislation as it’s currently written is a piece of legislation that the President would absolutely veto, for a variety of reasons. One specific example I can give you is a specific example that I offered up for the first time last week, which is there a provision in the current version of the bill that would make the deal contingent upon Iran essentially renouncing terrorism. It would require the administration to certify that Americans weren’t at risk from any of the terror activities that Iran supports.
We’ve been very clear about the fact that we hope to resolve this agreement in a way that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon precisely because we're concerned about the fact that if Iran were able to obtain a nuclear weapon it would make their support for terrorist organizations even more dangerous and even more risky.
So we do not anticipate in the context of this agreement being able to resolve all of our concerns about Iran’s terror activities. In fact, that's the reason that we're pursuing this agreement -- to ensure that Iran can't obtain a nuclear weapon and then share either that nuclear weapon or some of the technology or those materials with a terrorist organization. So that is why we could continue to strongly oppose that legislation and veto it because it essentially includes a provision that would make the deal impossible to implement.
Now, what’s also true is that this administration has been deeply engaged with Congress since the agreement was announced back in April 2nd. Since that time, there have been more than -- or maybe it’s exactly -- no, more than 130 telephone calls that have been placed by everybody from the President, the Vice President, members of the Cabinet and other senior administration officials on down to members of Congress on Capitol Hill. Now, you’ll recall that Congress has been on recess that last couple of weeks, so it means that we have not been able to have as many face-to-face conversations as we would like. But that's going to change today.
What you also know, I believe, is that Secretary Kerry, Senate Moniz, Secretary Lew, and some senior officials in the intelligence community will be convening classified briefings with members of the House and Senate over the course of the next two days. And again, that reflects the fact that we are at the beginning of the process of helping the members of Congress understand exactly what commitments Iran has made so far and how those commitments we hope will be finalized over the course of the next two and a half months.
Q But in terms of crafting some sort of alternative, is that -- can an alternative be crafted that might satisfy your concerns and satisfy concerns of lawmakers to have some sort of oversight role in this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that remains unclear, and the fact is the way the legislation is currently written is something that we strongly oppose. But, again, we continue to have extensive conversations with members of Congress on Capitol Hill. We’re going to make sure that every member of Congress who wants one can get a classified briefing from Secretary Kerry, who is leading the negotiations; from Secretary Moniz, who is one of the foremost nuclear experts in the world who is involved in these negotiations; Secretary Lew is obviously the leader of the Cabinet agency that’s responsible for implementing the sanctions regime that have been so successful in pressuring Iran. The briefing will also include intelligence officials who can offer an updated assessment about Iran’s nuclear program and our knowledge of their thinking so far.
So we’ve obviously got a lot of -- there’s obviously a lot to this agreement that has been reached so far. The other thing that will be included in that conversation is the acknowledgement that there are details that still need to be worked out, and that’s why the President wants Congress to ensure that our negotiators have the time and space that they need to try to reach an agreement by the end of June.
Q And one last thing. You mentioned that this is going to be middle-class economics week. I’m sure you saw the announcement video that was released by Hillary Clinton and her campaign over the weekend. And in that video, she features a lot of working Americans and everyday Americans, and at one point during the video, she says, the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. She’s obviously speaking about the economy. Do you take that as a criticism?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. I think the President would raise the same concerns that there is more that we can do to invest in middle-class families, to make sure that middle-class families have access to the job-training and education that we know is going to be critical to the long-term success not just of individual families but of the country, that there’s more that we can do to invest in our infrastructure that we know that would create jobs right away and lay a foundation for our nation’s long-term economic strength.
There are a host of changes that we can make to our tax code to make it a little bit easier for families to send their kids to college, to pay for child care. And those kinds of changes to our tax code are targeted at middle-class families. And that stands -- those priorities are priorities that are broadly shared by Democrats, and they stand in stark contrast to Republicans that are interested in -- just to take one example -- focusing tax breaks for not just the wealthiest 1 percent, but the wealthiest 0.1 percent in terms of those estates that they’re proposing no longer be subject to the estate tax.
Q Does Hillary Clinton automatically get President Obama’s support no matter what Democrat comes into the race because she was his Secretary of State and because it was such a big deal from 2008, the skirmishes that happened in the campaign, and the fact that he made such a big deal of the team rivals? Does she just automatically get his support?
MR. EARNEST: The answer to the question is, no. The fact is, the President obviously had an opportunity to see up close how effective a campaigner she can be. She was obviously a very formidable opponent in the 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination. During the general election in 2008, Secretary Clinton was a very effective advocate for President Obama’s general election campaign. And over the course of the President’s first term here in office, Secretary Clinton proved to be a very effective Secretary of State.
Over that time, President Obama has had the opportunity to build a strong personal relationship with her. As the President indicated in his news conference on Saturday, the two of them have become friends. But as has been speculated by all of you and many others, there are other people who are friends of the President who may at some point decide to get into the race.
So the President has not offered up any sort of an endorsement at this point. This will be the responsibility of Democratic voters to decide who should be the Democratic nominee for President. But I would anticipate that once that process has been concluded and Democratic voters across the country have decided who the Democratic nominee should be, I think that Democratic nominee can be confident that they’ll enjoy the support of President Obama in their campaign.
Q And is there an anticipation that not just Hillary Clinton but other Democrats -- because we know the Republicans are swiping at this administration -- but is there an anticipation of swiping at this administration for policies maybe not fulfilled or policies that may in their thoughts you might have failed? Is there an anticipation that the Democrats will be doing that to this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the Democratic candidates will have to make their own decisions about what their message will be. But I do think that, as I think Jim pointed out, there’s a lot of overlap in the priorities and values that President Obama has routinely expressed, and the kinds of priority and values I anticipate that a lot of Democratic candidates for President will be making over the course of this year.
Q And lastly -- Loretta Lynch, again, I have to ask that this week. You’ve got supposedly 51 votes. Why has it not come up for a vote yet?
MR. EARNEST: That’s the best question I’ve heard in a while. It’s one that can only be posed, I think, to Senator McConnell. He’s the one that’s determining the floor schedule. Ms. Lynch has now been waiting 156 days for her confirmation. She is somebody who got bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She got that bipartisan support because she is a career prosecutor with a reputation of fairness and toughness. She’s prosecuted terrorists. She’s prosecuted white-collar criminals. She’s prosecuted public officials who didn’t keep the public trust. She’s done all of that with professionalism, with dignity, and with the interest of the American people at heart.
That’s what makes her the right person to lead the Department of Justice over the course of the next two years or so. And we continue to believe that Republicans should stop, for partisan reasons, preventing her getting the vote that she deserves. We’ve confident that if she’s given the vote, she’ll be confirmed.
Q So is it partisan politics? And I’m going to ask this question again; I asked you a couple of weeks ago. The votes are there. They haven't put it to the floor on the schedule yet. Do you think race still is a factor or is not a factor? What do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, in answering your first question you’d have to ask Senator McConnell why she has not been given the vote that she clearly deserves.
All right. Jon.
Q Josh, on Iran. As you are well aware, there are four Americans still being held prisoner by the Iranian government. Has the administration been in contact with their families as this deal has come together? Have there been any further efforts to get those Americans free? I know you said it won’t be part of the nuclear deal, but has there been any parallel efforts to get those Americans free?
MR. EARNEST: Look, Jon, I can tell you that on the sidelines of the ongoing conversations that there have been occasional discussions about the U.S belief that those Americans who are unjustly held in Iran should be released. We’ve made our views on that known very clearly to the Iranians.
The Obama administration, and even officials here at the White House, do continue to be in regular touch with the families of those who are being held in Iran. Just to give you one example -- you know that President Obama, when he traveled to Idaho a couple of months ago, had the opportunity to meet with the family of Saeed Abedini. He is just one of the Americans who is being held unjustly in Iran. And we continue to have concerns about that, and we’re going to continue to advocate for their release. In fact, we’re going to insist upon it.
Now, at the same time, I’ve also been pretty clear about the fact that we do not anticipate that we’re going to be able to resolve our long list of differences with Iran in the context of these nuclear negotiations. But it does not mean that our efforts to secure the release of these Americans is not a priority.
Q So you said you’re going to insist on it. But it's still quite possible, unless you’ve seen movement, even likely that if a nuclear agreement is reached and finalized that those four Americans can still be held prisoner by the Iranian government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have indicated is that our efforts to secure the release of those Americans is separate from our efforts to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But both of those things are priorities. And we continue to be in touch with the families of those who are being held to make sure that they understand that as well.
Q And the Iranians [sic] that were held hostage in 1979 and 1980 have, as you know, never received any compensation whatsoever for the 444 days they spent as hostages of the Iranian -- in Iran. They are here in Washington this week trying to -- working with Senator Corker, trying to get as part of that bill a provision that any agreement that is done with Iran must include a provision giving compensation to those Americans that were held hostage. What’s the White House’s position on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, our view is that the commitments that Iran has made to limit and, in some cases, even roll back aspects of their nuclear program are critical to ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. And that is the focus of the negotiations that have been taking place for some time. There are a whole host of issues on the side that are also priorities but that are separate from our ongoing efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Has the administration raised that issue of compensation for those hostages, 1979-1980, at the sidelines of any of these negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that Jon. You should check with the State Department on that.
Q And then turning to Hillary Clinton. Was there any coordination at all? Did the President get a heads-up from Mrs. Clinton or her team? Did the White House get a heads-up about her announcement over the weekend? And I’ve noticed that the White House -- the President’s agenda this week looks roughly in line with Mrs. Clinton’s agenda this week. (Laughter.) Has there been any coordination whatsoever?
MR. EARNEST: To answer your last question, no, our efforts to focus on some of our ideas around tax policy and tax fairness, and highlighting how Republicans want to shower tax benefits on those at the top while the administration believes that by targeting tax benefits to middle-class families we can maximize the impact of those benefits -- that is something that we have long envisioned making around Tax Day, which, as you know, is this Wednesday. So that’s been our focus and this has been part of the plan for some time, prior to any announcement from any of the candidates.
I’m not aware of any specific heads-up that the President got. I can’t sort of account for everybody that may have been in touch with the Clinton campaign. You will recall that the President had the opportunity in the last several weeks to have a private conversation with Mrs. Clinton. I don’t know if they talked in detail about her rollout plans, but even if they did, I probably wouldn’t talk about it from here.
Q Can you talk a little bit about the meetings with the Jewish leaders today and what the President wants to say, what he wants to hear from them? There’s obviously likely to be a disagreement among even those groups about the Iran deal. And maybe you could say what the difference is between leaders of American Jewish organizations and Jewish community leaders, and why there are two separate meetings.
MR. EARNEST: Let’s take your first question first, which is this will be an opportunity for the President and other members of his senior team to talk to these advocates for the Jewish community about what’s included in the interim agreement that we’ve reached with Iran.
Iran has made some serious commitments to limit and, in some cases, even roll back their nuclear program in a way that would prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The agreement also includes Iran’s cooperation with a set of the most intrusive inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. And we want to make sure that they understand the details of what’s been agreed to so far. We also want to make sure that they understand that all of the details have not been agreed to; that the final agreement is one that we’re hoping to complete by the end of June.
The President -- we will make the case to them and senior officials here will make the case to them that this agreement is one that is clearly in the best interest of the United States of America. That’s why the President is pursuing this effort with the international community. The President also believes it’s clearly in the best interests of our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. And there will be ample opportunity for that to be part of the discussion as well.
As it relates to the two different groups, I mean, I can tell you that some of them are elected representatives of organizations that advocate for either U.S.-Israeli relations or the Jewish community in the United States. Others who are participating in these meetings are merely outspoken advocates who may not hold official positions or leadership positions in those organizations but are, in their own right, effective advocates. I think in some cases they’re members of these organizations but not necessarily in leadership positions.
Q And just one follow-up. Is part of what the President is hoping to do, to get them to get these folks to come out and essentially lobby, to the extent that they agree with him, members of Congress against the Corker bill and essentially try to put pressure on Congress? And do you know if he plans to bring up the concerns, whether -- they may come up anyway -- but whether he plans to bring up the concerns that have been expressed about the tension between him and Netanyahu as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would welcome any public expression of support from anybody -- certainly these individuals who, again, are either in elected positions in prominent organizations or are effective advocates in their own rights -- for the approach that we’re pursuing to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We’d welcome that support. We’d welcome that public express of that support, and we would welcome the expression of that support directly to members of Congress.
I don’t anticipate that everybody who participates in this meeting will choose that course of action, but we are hopeful that people will enter into these discussions with an open mind. And I do think that there will be an opportunity for everybody who participates in this discussion, whether they are inclined to support the administration position or not, to get a very clear assessment from senior members of the President’s national security team about where things stand.
And I do think that for all of the differences, that there will be unanimity of opinion around the room that we have to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; that the destabilizing impact that that would have on the region, that the risk that would pose to Israel is one that’s simply intolerable. And every person who will participate in those meetings, I feel confident in saying, is strongly supportive of the President when he says that he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining and nuclear weapon.
I think the difference of opinion exists around the best way to do that. And the President is prepared to make a detailed case about how this diplomatic agreement is by far the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Who else is going to be in there besides the President? You mentioned top officials.
MR. EARNEST: I know that the President’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, is participating in some of these discussions. I don’t know who else from the administration. A number of other administration officials are actually going to be on Capitol Hill, so I suspect it will principally be White House officials who will be participating in these discussions.
Q I have a question about Iran. You’ve said and Secretary Kerry has said that nothing is agreed to until everything is agree to. And you’re saying you’re going to brief Congress on what Iran -- what commitments they’ve made. Yet the Ayatollah has called into question two of the most basic ones -- how the sanctions are going to be lifted and the intrusive inspections. So I’m confused. What exactly are you telling Congress they’ve agreed to if nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s go through that. We have acknowledged on the front end that there are some elements of this agreement that have not been resolved yet.
Q Some pretty important ones.
MR. EARNEST: Well, some important ones. But there are also some pretty basic elements that have. For example, Iran -- just to cite one -- has agreed to not enrich uranium over 3.67 percent for at least 15 years. That is a detailed commitment that Iran has made.
Now, implementing that political commitment is one that our technical experts will be engaged in over the course of the next two and a half months or so. So there are more details that need to be locked down here, but there are serious commitments that Iran has made. There are other elements of the agreement where the details need to be worked out, including the sanctions relief that Iran is seeking for taking these serious steps.
So I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the deal is done. There are still significant commitments and details that need to be worked out. And we’ll be engaged in our effort to do exactly that.
Q Before the announcement of the framework in Geneva, the President said many times he’s thought the chances were less than 50/50. What do you put the chances at now of getting something final and that will meet your criteria?
MR. EARNEST: I think the fact that we have been able to put in place this political framework enhances the odds of a final agreement getting done. But I would hesitate to put a specific number with that assessment.
Q The President did. He said it over and over again, under 50/50 before. Why not put a number on it then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, maybe you can get him to do that at some point -- (laughter) -- but I’m not going to do that from here. But what I will acknowledge, though, is that the President made that assessment about being able to reach a final agreement. And now that we’ve got this political framework in place, I do think it enhances the odds of us being able to reach a final agreement, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion.
Q One of the problems with the framework being in place -- and I think Rand Paul I think was on “Face the Nation” and sort of illustrated this. He said, “The biggest problem we have right now is that every time there is a hint of an agreement, the Iranian Foreign Minister tweets out in English that the agreement doesn’t mean what our government says it means.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, Doug, what I would say to that is that we saw a similar dynamic in play around the Joint Plan of Action. This is sort of the interim agreement that was reached by negotiators back in November of 2013, that there was essentially a broad framework that was established, knowing that it would take a couple of months to work out the details, and over the course of November and December and January, negotiators worked through those details.
In that interim period, there was a lot of hue and cry about what was included in the agreement and whether or not that would be memorialized in any sort of locked-down commitment. What we saw was that technical negotiators were able to reach an agreement in January of 2014, I believe, that did live up to the factsheet that the administration put out in November of 2013. In fact, that agreement has been so effective that there are some Republicans who are advocating that we should actually keep that agreement in place in perpetuity -- never mind the fact that some of these Republicans actually criticized this deal when it was first announced.
So we’ve seen these kinds of negotiations be subjected to a lot of politics and a lot of turbulence. But time and again, what we’ve seen is we’ve seen the United States reach commitments and extract commitments from the Iranians that were subject to a lot of public debate, but then were finally formalized in an agreement in a way that actually satisfied the concerns of those who were criticizing the agreement on the frontend.
Q And on the subject of Russia, you said that there’s unanimity of international opinion that these sanctions be phased in. How can you say that when Russia is basically freelancing its own sanctions with this oil-for-goods deal that it has worked out and the lifting of the embargo of the S-300 missiles? And one other follow-up question to that. Did Secretary Lavrov -- Foreign Minister Lavrov call Secretary Kerry in advance of this lifting of the embargo or just to inform him that it had happened? And has there been any communication with the government of Israel about this lifting of the embargo?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the circumstances of the conversation that the Secretary of State had with Foreign Minister Lavrov to raise our concerns about this issue. All I know is that it was an opportunity for Secretary Kerry to raise our concerns. I don’t know exactly when that conversation occurred or how it was set up. But the State Department may be able to give you some more details on that.
As it relates to the so-called oil-for-goods agreement, that’s not one that’s been reached at this point, and we’ve made clear to the Russians our concerns about the proposal that’s being discussed. It’s not something that’s been enacted at this point.
I can’t speak to any specific conversations that have taken place between the United States and Israel on the specific proposal of the Russian sale of anti-ballistic missiles to Iran, but we continue to be in frequent touch with Israel on a whole host of issues so I wouldn’t rule out that a discussion about this matter has taken place.
Q Thanks. The President sounded, I would say, somewhat frustrated at the Panamanian press conference about comments made by McCain and a pretty, I think, strong response --
MR. EARNEST: “Frustrated” might be putting it mildly.
Q -- of John Kerry. And John McCain responded very quickly. He said that there were widely divergent explanations of what had been agreed to. And then on Twitter, he posted, “So President Obama goes to Panama, meets with Castro, and attacks me -- I’m sure Raul is pleased.” Any reaction to that? And what does it say about efforts on the Corker bill and sort of the mood on the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I would say is that the administration will be engaged in an effort to help members of Congress, all members of Congress who are interested, in explaining to them in a classified setting the details of the commitments that Iran has made so far. And in the context of those negotiations that will be rooted -- I’m sorry, in the context of those briefings that will highlight the scientific aspects of this agreement, we will be focused on making the case that this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And when you consider the alternatives -- putting in place additional sanctions that would cause our international coalition to fracture, or taking a military strike that would not be as effective in limiting Iran’s nuclear program or at least for as long as getting Iran to voluntarily make specific commitments to limit and in some cases roll back their nuclear program -- it’s pretty clear that this is the best opportunity that we have to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And we certainly welcome any discussion and debate, but the fact is, the case here is, in the mind of the President, very clear. And there certainly is a lot of scientific evidence to back up this case. But ultimately what we have said is that there are details that still need to be worked out and we hope that Congress, while pursuing their rightful role, will also ensure that our negotiators have the time and space that they need to try to finalize this agreement.
Q It does seem, though, that the rhetoric has certainly not been dialed down by some of the opponents of the administration’s approach to this. So are these classified briefings -- and I know you’ve talked about the scientific evidence and how you plan to use that, you’ve talked about that for some weeks, but is that kind of the last, best hope to coming to some sort of compromise with Congress over whether it’s the Corker bill or the oversight in general that Congress wants to have?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the first observation, Chris, I would make is that the escalating rhetoric that we’ve seen from our opponents does coincide with the release of the parameters of this agreement that I think a lot of people described as more detailed and more comprehensive than was previously anticipated. So it might evince some sort of concern that they have about the success of our efforts that they’re feeling like they have to ramp up their rhetoric to try to undermine it. So while some people may be a little more pessimistic than I am about the rhetoric of our opponents, I actually think that they may be indicating some concern about the strength of our position.
But I would not, however, conclude that the classified briefings that are taking place over the next two days will be the last conversations that take place between senior administration officials and members of Congress. We anticipate that we’re going to continue to stay closely coordinated and to ensure that Congress continues to be in the loop as we work to try to reach this final agreement by the end of June.
Q And just one thing on the economy. You said that the President’s week has long been envisioned around Tax Day. So it would be, I guess, coincidental that the phrases we hear from you are pretty much the same as we’ve heard from the Clinton campaign -- middle-class economics, paycheck fairness, the things she plans to focus on this week as well. But is it --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I --
Q No, go ahead.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t mean to interrupt. I wouldn’t characterize them as a coincidence. I think it is an indication that the priorities that the President has championed are consistent with the values that most Democrats share and consistent with the values that they themselves prioritize. So I don’t think it's particularly surprising that the kinds of early messages that we see from a Democratic candidate for President seem to be largely consistent with the values and priorities articulated by the sitting Democratic President.
Q But not coordinated. Is it, however, coincidental that of the local anchors who the President is going to be spending some time with later today, at least three of them are from battleground states, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the other thing I would point out to you is that I believe -- I don’t have a list in front of me right now, I can look at it. I believe that each of those states is also represented by at least one Republican member of Congress in the United States Senate.
Q And perhaps that might also be a part of it --
MR. EARNEST: Perhaps. We’ll see.
Q Thanks, Josh. If I can follow on Julia’s question on Russia and the oil-for-goods deal. You say it raised concerns including sanctions concerns. Does that mean the United States is considering additional Russia sanctions? Can you clarify?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm suggesting is that the -- well, those are two different things. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to clarify. The oil-for-goods proposal that, as I mentioned to Doug, has been discussed but not implemented, is one that could run into some conflict with the sanctions regime that we’ve put in place against Iran. And when I say we, I don’t just mean the United States, I mean the international community.
The concerns that are raised by the possible sale of this anti-ballistic missile system is different than that. It's covered by a whole set -- different set of concerns and agreements that we have related to this issue. So I think it's important to differentiate between the two. But we obviously have concerns about both proposals and have made those concerns known to our Russian counterparts.
Q Back to your briefings to Congress. Are you saying that there is so much more in the classified information about this agreement you can give to Congress that you’ll be able to convince the skeptics who are hearing on the other side what they think is not in the agreement?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that there’s a lot of details about these commitments that are not publicly known. I don’t want to leave you with that impression. There are some details of their commitments that are relevant to evaluating the deal that we cannot discuss in a public setting. And that’s why we’re going to take the opportunity to have that discussion in a classified setting with some members of Congress.
But the other thing that’s true, Bill, is that there are a lot of members of Congress who, quite frankly, are not willing to evaluate this deal on the merits. They evaluate this deal based on whether or not President Obama supports it, and if he does then they’re going to oppose it. And again, that’s the kind of partisanship that has infected so much of what this President has tried to do over the course of the last six years. And it's unfortunate that it's emerging in the context of such a critical national security priority for the United States. But the fact is, that’s what’s happening.
Q So you’re conceding that you’re not going to be able to convince them in any case?
MR. EARNEST: There will be some members of Congress who, based on their rigid, partisan views, will oppose this deal no matter how good it is. I am willing to stipulate to that.
Q Thank you. Would the President benefit if Hillary Clinton spoke out forcefully in favor of the Iran negotiations in a public setting -- of the final deal? And do you think that that’s a realistic ask?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of any specific ask that’s been made along those lines. Obviously as an expert on foreign policy, and as somebody who has devoted a significant portion of her career to the safety and security of the United States of America, I would anticipate that she has a view on this. But I don’t know what it is. (Laughter.)
Q You don’t know what it is?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. I suspect that over the course of the next couple of weeks somebody will probably have an opportunity to ask her. But I’ll let her speak for herself on that.
Q I wanted to follow up on the question about the two meetings with the Jewish leaders. Is the White House committed to releasing a list, at least after the fact, of the participants in both sets of meetings?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the list, but let me look into that for you.
Q And my understanding -- tell me this is wrong -- is that the second meeting is largely Jewish political backers and, in some cases, donors of the President’s. And I'm just wondering -- is the thinking in not putting them in the same meeting as the organizations that different things will be discussed, that one is a more substantive discussion and one is a more political discussion by definition? Or is the second meeting larger and the first one smaller? Or kind of what’s the thinking in sequestering the two pots?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me confirm for you first that the political contributions of the participants of the meeting was not considered when we were handing out invitations. So you’re probably right that there are people who are participating in these meetings who have been politically supportive of the President, but that was not a factor in their invitation.
But the other thing is the President will participate in both meetings and I would anticipate that the discussion will focus on the same kinds of issues -- in some cases, concerns, in some cases, our priorities for what we’re hoping to achieve. I think a lot of this was -- the reason for two different meetings was simply to try to limit the size of the groups so that everybody would feel like they had an opportunity to participate. So it’s sort of an uninteresting logistical concern that’s driving a lot of this, but that’s the thinking behind all this. And I’ll see what we can do on the list.
Q Just one quick, last one. South Dakota is among the areas represented by the reporters speaking with the President later today. Is there any update on any planned stop in the last place in the country we can anticipate off of that interview?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate any sort of announcement along those lines today, but stay tuned.*
Q Can I ask a couple about Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Can you update us on efforts by the U.S. to evacuate hundreds of Americans who are still in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that there is -- I don’t have an update on that for you. I’m not aware of any U.S. government-sponsored plans to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Yemen at this point.
Q And there was -- there’s been a lot of discussion about how to get these Americans out. Back in 2006, in Lebanon, about 15,000 Americans were evacuated, thousands of Marines were called into action to help them get out. I’m just wondering why is this situation any different?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one part of this that’s relevant is that for years now, the State Department has warned Americans about the dangers of traveling to Yemen. But for more details on this, I’d refer you to the State Department.
Q So it’s just a “we told you so, you shouldn’t have gone?”
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that’s just it. (Laughter.) But I certainly think that is a relevant fact.
Q Just to follow up on Yemen a little bit. Is this administration relieved at all that Pakistan, a nuclear power, will not, in fact, be involved in supporting the Saudis in their defense against the intrusions there in the peninsula by the Yemenis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve seen the Saudis take some steps to build an international coalition with some of their partners to try to address the concerns they have about the unstable security situation along their southern border, and they have sought input and support in a variety of forms from countries throughout the region. But ultimately, those countries will be making decisions for themselves about how and whether to support that Saudi-led effort. The Saudis, as you know, made a specific request of the United States government for some logistical and intelligence support. That is support that we have offered to them.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just real quick. You characterized Republican opposition to the Iran deal as partisanship.
MR. EARNEST: Rigidly partisan, I think.
Q How do you characterize Democratic opposition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there is some Democratic opposition and I do think there is an opportunity for us, again, to make the case to them that the negotiations that we have undertaken, if we can complete this agreement by the end of June, would be, by far, the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And that is, after all, a goal that we all share; that certainly Democrats understand that the President means it when he says that he is going to use every element of his authority to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is what the President believes is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
There have been a couple of other proposals that have been floated. We’ve seen people like the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton advocate aggressive military action against Iran. The fact is, to launch military action at this point against Iran would only cause our international coalition to fracture. There are a lot of countries in the international community that would not support such an action. We’ve relied on their support to pressure Iran.
The impact of those military strikes would not be nearly as enduring as the 10 or 15 or 20 years of limitations that this diplomatic agreement envisions.
Third, it would have the effect of essentially causing the Iranians to kick all the inspectors out of the country. Those inspectors have been critical to increasing our knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program. If you kick out the inspectors, it makes it harder for us to understand exactly what Iran is doing.
And, finally, in some cases, most importantly, launching a military strike against Iran would only give Iran the clearest incentive they need to unite the country around pursuing a nuclear weapon. We talk about this breakout period that exists -- right now, our experts tell us it’s two to three months, and the context for an agreement would lengthen that to a year. Well, we would see Iran take that action, in all likelihood, if they were subjected to a military strike -- because ultimately Iran would have to conclude for themselves, and I think it would be a pretty reasonable conclusion, for them to say, if we want to prevent another military strike, we need to get ourselves a nuclear weapon.
So that is why that course of action is so dangerous. Now, it's an option that remains on the table, but it's not nearly as effective as this kind of diplomatic agreement would be.
The other proposal that some have floated short of aggressive military action is putting in place additional sanctions on Iran. And what those individuals often say is that will apply greater pressure to Iran and get them to offer up additional concessions. The fact is that analysis is just plain wrong. What would happen if we tried to put in place additional sanctions is the rest of the international community would say, we signed up for sanctions to get Iran to make serious commitments to limit their nuclear program and they have done that and we're not going to go along with that extra set of sanctions. In fact, you're indicating that you're not being particularly serious about these negotiations, so we're not going to continue to implement these sanctions.
That would cause our international coalition to fracture. And so placing additional sanctions on Iran wouldn't actually increase the pressure, it would relieve it -- which is exactly the wrong thing for us to do at this sensitive point in the negotiations.
So that's why the President can make a full-throated case to anybody who will listen that this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And there are many Republicans who will not be persuaded by that because they’re not considering the facts, they’re considering the politics. I think there are some Democrats who will listen to this pitch. I don't know if it will convince them all, but there is a strong case to make and it's one that we intend to continue making.
Q Thanks, Josh. On trade, with Congress back, can you detail what, if any, plans the White House has to reach out to members of Congress to advance the trade promotion authority bill this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is obviously something that is being debated to some extent in the Senate right now. There are a lot of conversations that are ongoing that the administration has been a part of. So we're going to continue to encourage bipartisan action that would support the President’s efforts to open up overseas markets to American businesses. And we continue to be engaged in those discussions and to be supportive of bipartisan efforts. But for an update on their timing or the status of their proposals I'd refer you to members of the United States Senate who are involved in those talks.
Q Does the President plan to get personally involved in lobbying members of Congress to vote for the proposal to give him trade promotion authority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has already been personally involved in making that case and I would --
Q As far as making direct calls to reluctant members.
MR. EARNEST: The President has been involved in those kinds of conversations already, and I would anticipate that he will continue to be.
Q Yes. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, said today that there are not the votes in the House to pass the President’s authorization of military force. Do you have a reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess my reaction is just an observation I think I've made before, which is that we see Congress eager to weigh in and advocate for the role that they should have that would prevent diplomacy, while at the same time you hear members of Congress who are unwilling to take any steps that would constrain the President’s ability to wage war. It seems to me they might have their priorities a little backwards.
Q He also said that they have a veto-proof majority for the Iran bill.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's his responsibility to count votes. I don't think anybody is batting a thousand when it comes to counting votes up there. (Laughter.) So we'll see.
Q Thanks. Back to taxes. You said that the President is going to be contrasting his tax policies with Republicans. But really, what is his goal? Does he want a tax package eventually? Is he trying to convince voters first, or Congress, or --
MR. EARNEST: No, I think that those -- I think that case is -- the case that the President has to make for making our tax code more fair and more simple is one that he will make both to members of Congress and to members of the public. And the President believes that by closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, we can derive some revenue that can be invested in upgrading our infrastructure in a way that's good for the economy in the short term and will build a foundation for the long-term strength of our economy. That's a proposal that the President has put forward and one we've been talking about for a long time.
The President certainly is going to speak up and speak out against this latest Republican proposal that would offer a $300 billion tax benefit to not just the top 1 percent, but the top .1 percent of Americans. That is a set of priorities that is totally upside down. The President believes that if we really want to put in place policies that are going to benefit our economy and ensure that we have the kind of strong economy that has benefitted the United States for generations now that we need to make sure that we're investing in the middle class.
And that's why so many of the President’s policies that he'll be talking about this week are actually targeted at the middle class, because the President believes that if we can get our economy growing from the middle out, that's the best way for us to sustain long-term economic growth.
Jared, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President has spoken out against decisions from the Supreme Court like McCutcheon and Citizens United, and I know that we're going to start getting a lot more questions every single day about the nature of the 2016 race. This will be the first general election since McCutcheon, the second since Citizens United. What’s the push from the White House to make some serious movement on campaign finance reform?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, we continue to believe that there are some important reforms that we could put in place to our campaign finance system that would improve the electoral process. There’s obviously a lot of resistance to those ideas in Congress, principally from Republicans, but even some Democrats, too. So I'm not particularly optimistic about the likelihood that we'll be able to make substantial progress in this regard. But it's certainly something that you’ve heard the President talk about quite a bit over the last couple of years, and I don't think the President will hesitate to speak out on it anymore in the future.
Q And just thinking about some of the things that the President has talked about, especially going back to 2008, as part of the team that brought him to the White House, the message in 2008 was that this was a fresh face, outsider, who could change Washington. Do you see any official candidate right now who brings that same message?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I've resisted to sort of weighing in on the 2016 candidacies, so --
Q Have you at this point? I mean --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think I have. (Laughter.) So I'm going to continue to do that for the time being. But I think all of you can sort of draw your own assessments. Many of you covered the 2008 race, and we'll have ample opportunity to evaluate the 2016 candidates and see if they bring the same kind of passion and commitment to hope and change that then Senator Barack Obama did.
All right. Thanks, everybody. Have a good Monday.
1:23 P.M. EDT
* On May 8th, the President will travel to Watertown, South Dakota to deliver the commencement address to the 2015 graduating class of Lake Area Technical Institute. Lake Area Technical Institute is one of the top community colleges in the nation, and is recognized for rigorously preparing its students with the skills they need to compete in the 21st Century economy. With a two-year graduation rate more than twice the national average, Lake Area Technical Institute focuses on providing its graduates smooth pathways to high skilled careers with private-sector businesses. Further details about the President's travel to South Dakota will be provided in the coming days.