Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/16/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:04 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: How are you doing, everybody? Appreciate the rousing welcome today. (Laughter.) Nice to see you all. We can go straight to your questions.
Jim, do you want to get us started?
Q Thank you, Josh. President Putin today gave a lengthy interview and he says he wants to be treated as an equal partner by the West. How does the White House view Russia? Is it an equal partner? The President once dismissed Russia as a regional power. I'm wondering if that’s the kind of, perhaps, dismissive view of Russia that Putin has taken to heart.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say -- a couple things come to mind. The first is simply that we have acknowledged on a number of occasions that Russia has played an important role alongside the P5+1 in our negotiations with Iran to try to carve a diplomatic pathway that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Russia has played a constructive role in that effort.
And you’ll recall that even earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry put out a helpful statement indicating that the document outlining the parameters of the political framework that was announced two weeks ago was consistent with the agreement that was reached at the negotiating table. That means that Russia has been an active participant in those discussions and helpful.
What’s also true is that Russia has been helpful in other circumstances. The other thing that comes to mind is the assistance that Russia provided in negotiating with and assisting in the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. That was an example of the United States working closely with Russia to reach a goal that was clearly in the best interest of the region and the world. Russia has particular influence with the Syrian regime and they uses that influence to good effect.
What’s also true is that there are expectations for influential world powers. One of those expectations is that they are going to respect the borders of sovereign countries. And right now, we see that the Russian government has, time and again over the course of the last year, flagrantly violated the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people. And we have seen Russian military activity inside of eastern Ukraine in support of separatists. That is not at all consistent with the kind of behavior that you would expect of a world power.
And that is not just the opinion of the United States. That’s the opinion of a substantial number of other legitimate world powers that have imposed sanctions and tried to negotiate around the table with President Putin and other senior members of the Russian government to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, to get the Russians to remove their military forces out of Ukraine, to stop moving weapons and materiel across the border, and to facilitate a genuine, diplomatic discussion -- or political discussion -- between the separatists in Ukraine and the Ukrainian government.
Q Does Russia’s -- you addressed this earlier this week -- does Russia’s decision to supply Iran with a powerful missile system, combined with Putin’s comments today, suggest that maybe the unity of the P5+1 that you discussed earlier this week is, in fact, in danger?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t say that. And even President Putin, I'm told, in the context of his very long program today, indicated that he was committed to preserving unity with the P5+1.
We have raised -- you’ve heard from me and you’ve heard from others in the U.S. government the concerns that we have about the sale of this defensive weapon system from Russia to Iran. We’ve made that concern -- we’ve relayed that concern directly to senior officials in the Russian government. So this is not just a message that we’ve delivered publicly, it's one that we’ve delivered privately as well.
The transfer of this defensive weapon system, however, is not prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and we would need to know more about this specific program to determine the impact it would have on U.S. sanctions programs. As I said earlier this week when asked about this, I would hesitate to speculate on the thought process behind the decision to complete the sale.
There are some who have speculated that Russia has engaged in this transaction simply because they need the money; that the sanctions that we put in place against Russia, because of their interference in Ukraine, has had a pretty significant impact on their economy. And the latest illustration of that is from the IMF’s latest projections that were just released this week that indicate that Russia’s real GDP -- the Russian economy this year is predicted to contract by 3.8 percent.
So it isn’t a particular surprise that Russia may be pretty desperate to generate some income. And I do think it actually does indicate that Russia’s willingness to engage in a controversial transaction like this one is an indication of how weakened their economy has become.
Q One on Iran. With talks I believe scheduled to restart next week, I wanted to go back to something the President said on Saturday at his press conference, which was, when asked about the comments that Ayatollah Khamenei made, he suggested that politics was driving that internal politics in Iran, that there were hardliners, and that in the end that might not end up being the final position that Iran takes in these negotiations.
A month ago, when Prime Minister Netanyahu said that under his watch there would be no Palestinian state during the heat of the campaign, and then he later walked those comments back, the President still said that he believed the Prime Minister’s comments at that time. I’m curious why the Ayatollah gets the benefit of the doubt on his remarks but Netanyahu does not.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is the thing, Jim -- the Ayatollah does not get the benefit of the doubt. We have indicated time and time again that these negotiations with the Iranians are not built on trust. The foundation of these talks is ensuring that there are verification measures in place to confirm their compliance with the agreement. There’s no indication that it would be in the best interest of the international community to just take Iran’s word for it. In fact, what will be required, in addition to serious commitments by Iran to roll back key aspects of their nuclear program, is compliance with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
So this is not a matter of taking -- accepting the word of the Iranian leadership. In fact, we’ve been pretty blunt about our approach to these negotiations being distrust and verify. And that is going to continue to be our approach. The one sign of encouragement that we have seen is that Iran did make commitments in the context of this political framework, but there is a significant amount of work that remains. And that will begin next week. As the EU has announced, when the political directors will meet in Vienna, there will be a plenary meeting of all P5+1 political directors. And then there will be more engagement -- I’m sorry, there will be a plenary meeting of all the P5+1 political directors, as well as the EU and Iran at the end of next week. In parallel to that, we’ll have the technical experts sitting down and working to continue to finalize the framework.
So the fact of the matter is, this is a diplomatic, negotiated agreement that will require the Iranians to make both serious commitments and demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with the most intrusive inspections that have ever been imposed on a nuclear program to verify that they’re living up to those commitments.
Q And regarding his relationship with Israel, last month you said you -- because of the Prime Minister’s comments, you were reevaluating the U.S. approach toward Middle East peace. After a month, have you come up with what that approach should be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have done over the course of the last month is continue to keep the lines of communication open with our partners in Israel on a variety of issues. And I don’t have any policy changes or anything like that to announce today, but we’re going to continue to keep those lines of communication open.
Obviously, the other thing that we have indicated is that the next step is for Prime Minister Netanyahu to go about the important work of forming the new Israeli government. And that’s a process that continues, and we’re going to keep the lines of communication open even as they undertake that process.
Q Josh, has the Saudi government indicated to the White House or the United States any plans to start ground operations in Yemen? And if it did, is that something that the White House would support?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any communications between the U.S. and our partners in Saudi Arabia to read out at this point. What Saudi Arabia has undertaken so far has been an air campaign against Houthi forces that are destabilizing the region along their southern border. And those are actions that the Saudis have taken with the support of other countries in the region, other GCC countries.
The Saudis asked the United States to offer some assistance, and we have complied with that request in the form of providing intelligence and logistical support to their ongoing operation. But what we have always believed and continue to impress upon everyone involved in this situation is that our goal is to try to bring about a political resolution to the conflict, and that there are many grievances on the part of many parties in that country. And it is in the clearest security interest of every country that’s partaking here for this political resolution to be reached. And that is the best way for us to try to bring some stability to the situation and also succeed in rooting out the extremists that are trying to foment instability not just in Yemen but across the region.
Q Would the United States support Saudi Arabia expanding its campaign from the air to the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have not seen an indication publicly from the Saudis that that’s precisely what they’re planning. But the United States is closely coordinating with the Saudis as they plot the military aspects of this operation.
Q The new Yemeni vice president expressed some concern that that’s something that was on the cards.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have any comment on what the Saudis may be considering or planning. You can ask them, and they may be able to provide you more insight into their thinking as they consider this dangerous security situation.
Q And on one other issue -- today is Greek Independence Day. Speaking of, how confident is the White House that Greece will reach an agreement with its creditors by the end of this month?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, what we have indicated is that it is in the best interest not just of the Greek people but all of the nations of the EU to resolve this situation in an orderly fashion. There are obviously a large number -- this is obviously an extraordinarily complex situation, and we have experts over at the Treasury Department that, frankly, for years have been working closely with their counterparts in Greece and throughout Europe as they work through what is an extraordinarily complex but also high-stakes situation that the world economy, and certainly the U.S. economy, benefits from the quiet resolution of these challenges. And we have taken many steps to try to encourage and foster that kind of resolution, and we’ll continue to do that.
Q The Greek Finance Minister is coming to the reception this evening. We understand --
MR. EARNEST: I’ve heard.
Q I’m sure you have. We understand he’s not meeting with the President.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. Thank you for stipulating as such.
Q Is he meeting with anyone else at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any formal meetings that he has at the White House. I wouldn’t rule out that he might see some senior administration officials who will be partaking in the festivities today, but I'm not aware of any specific formal meetings.
Now, I know what’s also true is it's not uncommon when the Greek Prime Minister -- Greek Finance Minister is in town for the IMF World Bank meetings, that he would, for example, have a meeting with the U.S. Treasury Secretary. I'm not aware of what Secretary Lew’s schedule is today. I wouldn't be surprised if the two men do have a meeting while he’s in town, but you can check with the Treasury Department about that.
Q Josh, are there any lessons to be learned from the gyrocopter incident on the Mall yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of temptations that are associated with the posing of that question. I'll try to resist them. What I will say is that the Secret Service takes very seriously the responsibility that they have to protect the President, to protect the White House, to protect those of us who work at the White House, to protect the airspace above the White House. And they obviously are dealing with a very dynamic, challenging security environment. Not only is there all kinds of new technology that they have to be prepared for, but there are also threats that emanate from a lot of different places. And they have to balance all of those concerns with the priority of ensuring that the public continues to have access to the White House.
And there are hundreds of thousands of people who come to the White House every year, on tours or for events like Greek Independence Day. And balancing the need to protect the President, protect the White House with a need to preserve that openness is a central part of their mission. It's a mission that I know they take very seriously.
I also know they take very seriously the responsibility that they have to work with other law enforcement agencies, whether that's the Metropolitan Police Department here in the District of Columbia, or the Capitol Police up on Capitol Hill, to ensure that all those agencies are sharing information about threats that may exist.
So I'm confident that there will be a careful look at this incident. And while we certainly are pleased that no one was harmed in this incident, it may provide an opportunity for law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, to review their procedures and to get some useful lessons from it.
Q Can you tell us about the President’s reaction to it? First of all, when was he told about it? Was there any alert while this thing was in the air that caused the President to be notified?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that he was notified right away because he was on the road when it occurred. He was not in Washington when it occurred. But he was informed on the trip by the military aide who was traveling alongside him.
Q And what was his reaction to it?
MR. EARNEST: I wasn’t on the trip, so I didn’t see his initial reaction. It might have been, what’s a gyrocopter? (Laughter.) I know that was my reaction. But beyond that, I don't know what his reaction was. So I guess I failed in my resisting the temptation in your question.
Q So on the Corker bill, I understand the bill that passed unanimously out of the Foreign Relations Committee is one the President would sign, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, in the form in which it passed.
Q In the form in which it passed. And I also understand the Republicans who control the Senate now are very much into an open amendment process, and it's a virtual certitude that an amendment to stipulate that the administration would have to certify that Iran is not supporting terrorism against Americans will almost certainly be added -- would be presented and would be added back on to this bill. If that were to happen, do we go back to where we were, which is a presidential veto?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. There is an agreement that was reached -- a strong bipartisan compromise -- in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the President has indicated he’d be willing to sign. But if there is an attempt, and it succeeds, to undermine that compromise, and returning it to either a blatantly vehicle or a blatant attempt to undermine diplomacy, the President would absolutely veto that bill.
Q Wouldn’t that be a tough argument to make that you would be vetoing simply a provision that would certify that the Iranians were not supporting terrorism against the Americans? You really want to be up there and make that --
MR. EARNEST: Not particularly. Not particularly, no. And let me explain to you why. The first is that we know that Iran, for at least a generation, has been very active in supporting elements of terror around the globe. That is why they are on that now shorter list of state sponsors of terror, and that is a designation that this administration takes very seriously. And there are a whole host of sanctions and other ways that we have made clear to the Iranians that we have concerns about the way that they sponsor terrorism around the globe.
What we have also been clear about is that we do not anticipate that these nuclear negotiations are going to resolve our concerns about their support for terror. It is highly likely that Iran will continue to be supportive of some terror elements, even if they are able to successfully enter and complete these negotiations about their nuclear program.
Now, what, finally, is also true is that our need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is made all the more important because we know they support terrorism. Iran’s support for terrorism would be even more dangerous if we were dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. That’s what makes the stakes for these negotiations so high, and that’s why we wouldn’t want to see a politically motivated attempt to undermine these serious negotiations.
Q As you know, many of our Arab and Gulf allies don’t see it the same way, and they’re very concerned that this agreement would actually put Iran on the path towards becoming a nuclear power. I know you disagree with that. Is the administration open to the idea that’s been floated by some of a mutual defense pact where the United States would effectively guarantee that defense of our allies in that region the way we do, say, with Japan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing that we have said about our ally in Israel is, the President I think on a number of occasions has indicated how seriously he takes the security threats to Israel. Israel exists in a very dangerous neighborhood, and there are a number of steps the United States has taken over the years to show -- to demonstrate our commitment to their security. And the most recent of those was last summer when the United States ramped up our assistance for the Iron Dome program, a program that was initiated in the Obama administration, to protect Israeli civilians who are under threat from rockets that were being fired by extremists in Gaza.
So the United States is certainly committed to the security of the people and the nation of Israel.
Q Now, I'm asking about our Gulf state allies, which have some of the very same concerns that the Israelis have. And of course, you’ll be having the summit at Camp David. And I'm asking if the administration would be open to the idea of effectively a defense pact with our Gulf allies. We’re worried that this deal will pump in hundreds of billions of dollars ultimately to the Iranian economy and make Iran a more dangerous exporter of terrorism. And many also argue that this ultimately puts them on the path towards becoming nuclear power. Would the United States be -- would the administration be open to the idea of a defense pact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one of the reasons that we’ve entered into these negotiations is because we do believe it is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And the case that we will certainly make -- and I think we’ll have some evidence to substantiate this claim -- that these negotiations would prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. In fact, that is one of the reasons that we’re pursuing these negotiations. And we will certainly -- we’ve made that case publicly and it's one that we’ll continue to make in private as well.
The second is, we value strongly the military-to-military relationship that exists between the United States and so many of our GCC partners, including Saudi Arabia. And that military-to-military cooperation is on display right now as Saudi Arabia engages in this military campaign in Yemen to protect their southern border.
And I'm confident that these are the kinds of conversations that we’ll continue to have with the leaders of the GCC countries when they travel to the United States in the next month or so to have a longer conversation -- an in-person conversation -- with the President about all of these issues.
Q Does he have --
MR. EARNEST: There’s one other thing that occurs to me that I also want to make. We have seen that the Iranian economy has been decimated by the sanctions regime that’s been put in place led by the United States, but in cooperation with the international community.
Unfortunately, we have not seen that economic pressure lead to a scaled-back investment in terrorism. Iran’s support for terrorism is as strong as it's ever been. And I think the point is that there are some people who say, well, why don’t we put in place even more sanctions and we could probably convince Iran to change their calculus. And the fact is, we haven’t seen them change their calculus when it comes to their support for terror. There are some indications that they might change their calculus when it comes to their nuclear program. And that’s why we’re pursuing this diplomatic opportunity that currently exists.
Q Does the White House have any doubt that the rebels in Yemen are supported by Iran? That Iran is ultimately the force behind what we’re seeing happening in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: The latest assessment that I’ve heard, that is not -- I haven’t talked about this with anybody today -- but the latest assessment that I’ve heard in the last week or so is that there are indications that Iran is supporting the Houthis in Yemen.
What continues to be unclear, and there is some skepticism about is, whether or not there is command and control of the activities of the Houthis in Yemen. So in other words, it seems probable that there are weapons and equipment that are being supplied, or other forms of support that are being supplied to the Houthis. But it’s not clear at this point that the Houthis are essentially being directed in how to use them. But there’s an ongoing assessment of this.
Look, we are clear-eyed about the risk that is emanating from Yemen right now, and that there is certainly a risk that the conflict there could spiral into a broader, more regional conflict. And that is -- I listed previously a substantial number of reasons why it’s in everybody’s interest to try to resolve this politically; in some ways, that may be the most important one.
Q A question about the comments yesterday from Abadi. And then in response to that, the Saudi ambassador arguing about Saudi’s regional ambitions versus Iran’s regional ambitions. Just in light of what you just told Jon, how worried is the President about a full-fledged Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region? And how close is the President or the White House to having a comprehensive strategy to deal with that -- kind of beyond just Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a bigger strategy to contain Iran’s ambitions in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think it would be particularly surprising to hear that this is something that we continue to be concerned about. And it’s precisely because this conflict is manifested in much smaller conflicts, but they do have the potential to spiral into much broader ones. So that’s everything from the situation in Yemen that Jon and I were just talking about; that situation is manifested a little bit in Syria as well, where we have seen the Iranian regime trying to prop up an Assad regime that is under some pressure from their Sunni neighbors.
So there is a danger of conflicts like that that start out as relatively small in the broader -- in the grand scheme of things, spiraling into a much more dangerous regional conflict. And that’s why the United States has tried to pursue a strategy of engagement with many of our Sunni partners, and to demonstrate that we continue to be concerned about their security situation.
And that’s also why we have worked so aggressively with the international community to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; that that regional rivalry that exists would become far more dangerous if one of the two parties in that rivalry were to be armed with a nuclear weapon. It would create an incentive for the other party to build a nuclear weapon. It would greatly increase the risk of proliferation. And there obviously are generational tensions that exist that, again, would be only more dangerous if both side is nuclear armed.
Q But if the Saudis and the other Gulf states conclude that the deal with Iran will turn them into a very much richer, more troublesome nuclear power in 10 or 15 years and decide the best response is to go get nukes of their own, then --
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s what -- right, and that’s why we’re going to make the case -- and there will be plenty of evidence to substantiate this -- that that is why we’re entering into these negotiations, is to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Right, but the President himself has said that at the end of the period of this agreement they’re free to go ahead and race for a bomb again.
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think that’s at all what the President has said. There will be very strict controls that will continue to be in place on Iran for a substantial period of time. The additional protocol -- Secretary Moniz has talked about this -- the additional protocols that will be put in place by the IAEA would be inspections and verification measures that would be in place in perpetuity. And those kinds of inspections are a critical part of the foundation of this agreement, and that is something that we’re going to insist upon because of the legitimate concerns that the United States has and that other countries in the region have about Iran’s previous activity when it came to the covert attempt to develop a nuclear weapon.
Q But are you planning to offer some kind of commitments to the Gulf states to dissuade them from going out and getting nukes of their own?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly do not believe that adding nuclear weapons to the equation in the Middle East is in anybody’s interest.
Q I know what you believe. I'm asking what you're willing to do to --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're certainly going to make that case to them directly; we already have. And certainly one element of -- well, let me say it this way. Many of the Sunni countries may be in a position where they feel like it is in the best interest of their country’s security to consider that approach. The other approach is for them to continue to strengthen the security relationship that they have with the United States and that there’s an opportunity for some of those countries where they may choose to act in the best national security interest of their country by strengthening their ties with the United States.
Q And one last quick thing on another subject. Does the President still have confidence in the DEA chief who was roundly savaged yesterday on Capitol Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Office of the Inspector General in recent days has published some pretty troubling details about the conduct of some officers at that DEA. As you know, Mara, the President has very high expectations for everybody who serves in his administration about their conduct and about keeping the public’s trust. I know that these are concerns that have prompted the Department of Justice to take some steps to try to address them, and we're certainly supportive of the efforts that are underway at the Department of Justice to address those concerns.
Q That doesn’t answer the question. Does the President still have faith in the DEA chief?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I, at this point -- we do have concerns about what’s been reported by the Office of the Inspector General. We do have high expectations for those who serve this government and serve the American people, and we do believe it's important for the Department of Justice to do as they’re doing, following through on some reforms to address those concerns.
Q Is it fair to interpret that as saying that you feel she has not lived up to those expectations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think I've said all I have to say about this topic.
Q The administration has told Congress it's working to resolve the issue of American fugitives in Cuba. Is the goal to get them back here? And what are the chances of that happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice that's principally responsible for bringing to justice American fugitives who may be trying to hide in other countries. This is not a situation that's unique to Cuba. As you know, there are a number of other countries around the world where there are fugitives that the Department of Justice is interested in getting in touch with, and that is true. What is also true is the fact that a country may have some fugitives that need to be brought to justice here in America does not merit their inclusion on the state sponsor of terror list. And I know that's the argument that's made by some, but it's not an argument that withstands the scrutiny that's required by a serious designation, like being added to the list of state sponsors of terror.
Q Is Cuba’s willingness to work on this issue the result of being taken off the terror list?
MR. EARNEST: No, it's a completely separate issue. I think that the -- one of the things I think that we would expect is that as we start to take some steps to normalize relations between our countries, that our conversations with the Cubans about the need for the United States and the Department of Justice to have access to these fugitives might be more fruitful than they’ve been in the past.
Q Would the U.S. consider sending back any people who are here that Cuba wants in exchange?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of anything like that that's being contemplated at this point.
Q Thanks, Josh. Senate Republicans have previously floated the idea of using spending bills to challenge the administration’s regulatory policies. And in an interview with us --
MR. EARNEST: It didn’t work out very well with the Department of Homeland Security, did it?
Q Well, in an interview that published, granted, while you were up here, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised big fights over funding the bureaucracy. Can I get you to react to that either specifically or generally? And does the White House have concerns about another shutdown?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Senator McConnell himself -- I haven't seen the latest interview, but I did see the interview that he conducted shortly after the election in which he promised that there wouldn't be any more government shutdowns. So I guess I'll -- I think I would anticipate that we're going to hold Senator McConnell to his word. I guess I'll have to read the story and find out if he’s changed it.
Q Switching directions a little bit -- as a candidate, the President promised to use the word “genocide” to describe the killing of 1.5 million Armenians. He has not done that. Does he plan -- and this is the 10th anniversary, by the way, this year. Does he plan to use that word? And why, or why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I can tell you that the President and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. We further stated that we mourn those deaths and that a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in the interest of everybody, including Turkey, Armenia, and the United States.
That is our position. And one of the principles that has guided the administration’s work in this area and in atrocity prevention more broadly has been that nations grow strong by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of their pasts, and that doing so is essential to building a foundation for a more just and more tolerant future.
Q So you won’t use the word, though, to describe those events?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this has been our policy and our position and our approach to this issue for a number of years now. It is customary for the President to issue a statement on the situation, on this terrible historical event, later in the month of April. And I wouldn’t anticipate any updates on our policy until then.
Q If I can go back just for a second to the gyrocopter. And, by the way, Jeh Johnson said his first reaction was, “what’s a gyrocopter?” So --
MR. EARNEST: Well -- I guess there’s a little of that going around. (Laughter.)
Q The pilot had a blog where he wrote extensively about what he planned to do. He spoke, apparently, with Secret Service agents twice who came to his home. The local paper did a story on him, and the local reporter said he actually called the Secret Service while this pilot was in the air. Does this raise concerns, again, that the Secret Service, or security in Washington is not on top of things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, what it does is I think it illustrates just, in a very vivid fashion, just how difficult a responsibility it is for the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of the nation’s capital.
Q But they don’t often, I don’t think, get a heads-up from a perpetrator and a reporter who says he’s in the air.
MR. EARNEST: Well, and I know that the Secret Service has raised significant doubts about that purported fact. I’d refer you to them; they are in a position to know. I can only repeat what they’ve said, and they have indicated that they don’t think that’s true. But I’d refer you to them to assess that.
What they have also said is that when they first learned of this individual’s interest in this endeavor more than a year and a half ago, that Secret Service agents showed up on his doorstep a day later. And again, I think that’s consistent with the kind of vigilance that you would expect from an agency that has such a very serious responsibility to protect the President, protect the White House, and to work with other agencies to protect the nation’s capital.
Q On a sort of related note, the Commission on Fine Arts voted today; it was just a first step to do something interim to the White House fence after the fence jumper. The fence jumping took place in September; the independent report on that came out in December and said -- and I'm quoting -- “It must be replaced as quickly as possible.” And later said, “It should be done immediately.” No one thinks permanent replacement is going to happen at least until sometime next year. They’re not even looking at a proposal until sometime this fall. Is there any concern that this is just taking too long?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I can assure you that everybody who’s working on this issue has a sense of urgency to deal with it. And again, I just want to go back to highlighting the difficult equities that need to be balanced here.
Obviously, the very first priority is ensuring the safety and security of the President, the First Family and the White House. That is priority number one. But what is also important -- and this is also an element of their responsibility that the Secret Service takes very seriously -- is ensuring that the White House continues to be open to the public; that there are large public tours that take place almost every day; that there are large events, like Greek Independence Day, that can be hosted in the East Room of the White House where hundreds of people attend; that this is part of our philosophy when it comes to a government of, for and by the people.
And, yes, it’s symbolic, but it’s an important symbol. And I know that the Park Service, the Secret Service and other agencies are looking at the appropriate measures that can be taken along the North Lawn and all around the White House complex to balance those two critical priorities.
There are obviously some steps that have already been taken in the aftermath of some of the serious events that we saw late last year to put in place an additional barrier there outside the fence that would strengthen the perimeter. But for additional steps that may be contemplated, I’d refer you to the Secret Service. And they may have more for you on this; I know that this is something that they’re actively working on.
Q Does the President get updated on any regular basis on this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that there’s any sort of regular mechanism for updating him, and that’s a testament I think to the confidence that he has in Director Clancy and other professionals at the Secret Service to handle their responsibilities and to take them seriously.
Q Hey, Josh, thanks. I want to take you back to Russia for just a second. You said earlier on the P5+1 that they are playing a constructive role in that process, and yet between buzzing our aircraft and selling missiles to the Iranians, with friends like these, I think is what a lot of people are wondering. Are the Russians friends? Are they foes? Are they frenemies? Are they somewhere in between? It just seems like there’s always something.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think we’ve articulated on a number of occasions that the United States does have a complicated relationship with Russia, and there are some areas where our two countries can work together very constructively in pursuit of interests that benefit both our countries and both our people. And whether that is removing Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile, putting astronauts onto the International Space Station, or engaging in diplomatic conversations to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we can work constructively with Russia in a way that benefits both our countries.
That doesn’t, however -- that obviously doesn’t prevent Russia from doing some things that we do strongly disagree with. And when we have those disagreements, we not only make clear that we’re concerned about their behavior -- and in some cases, we even take steps to register our displeasure with their conduct. The flagrant violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine by Russia is a classic example of that, and I think actually it’s a testament to the President’s leadership that we can engage in taking very serious steps against Russia that is having an impact -- a negative impact on their economy to register our concerns about their activity in Ukraine while at the same time looking for opportunities to work together to advance the interests of the United States.
Q Did you have the opportunity to sort of unpack what Vladimir Putin said -- the Russian President -- about now that the sort of framework has been agreed to, that not everything has to be on the sort of sanctions table anymore. He’s using as an example the sale of the defensive missile system to the Iranians as this is just a reward for their cooperation in the process. He even said today he felt like this has been agreed to by the parties. Do you subscribe to that notion at all?
MR. EARNEST: No. Because we have raised very clearly and directly our concerns with the sale of this defensive system to the Iranians by the Russians. What is clear is that the sale, while concerning, does not violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
And again, I would hesitate to speculate on precisely why Russia is taking this step, but I know that there are others who have speculated that it's an indication of just how weakened the Russian economy has become as a result of sanctions put in place by the United States that they’re forced to take a controversial action like this just for the money. And that kind of desperation, I think, is an indication of how effective the international sanctions regime against the Russian government has been.
But we’re going to relay those concerns to the Russians directly; that’s already been done. And we’re going to continue to work with Russia in collaborative fashion to try to reach a diplomatic agreement that will succeed in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Last thing. I want to ask you about Loretta Lynch. The clock continues to tick. I’ve run out of ways to describe the delay. I'm curious, what, if anything, is the White House planning to do to move this process along?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have a new way to describe the delay for you. The last seven -- Mr. Schultz alluded to this yesterday -- the last seven nominees for Attorney General waited a combined 24 days to move from the committee to a floor vote. As of today, Loretta Lynch has waited 49 days. So she’s waited now more than twice as long as the previous seven Attorneys General nominees combined to get a vote on the floor of the United States Senate. That is an unconscionable delay and there’s no excuse or explanation for it.
It does, however, prompt me to point out something else. I had the opportunity to tweet briefly about this before the briefing started. I don’t know if you guys had a chance to see that. Over the last six years or so, we have seen a lot of ink be spilled about the challenges associated with the White House working constructively with Republicans in Congress. And there’s been a lot of speculation: Is it politics that prevents the White House from working -- political differences that prevent the White House from working with congressional Republicans? Is it ideological or philosophical differences about policy that prevent congressional Republicans and the White House finding common ground? Is it the President hasn’t played golf enough with members of Congress that they haven’t been able to find common ground?
I actually am ready to stand here and present to you exhibit A in why it is very challenging to work with congressional Republicans. Back in September of 2014, shortly after Attorney General Holder indicated that he was prepared to step down as the Attorney General of the United States, there was a lot of speculation about how soon the President would nominate a replacement and how soon he would seek that person’s confirmation.
And in the days after that -- that Attorney General Holder indicated he was prepared to leave -- Senator Grassley, appropriately relishing the possibility that Republicans would assume control over the United States Senate, said, “Rather than rush a nominee through the Senate in a lame duck session, I hope the President will take his time to nominate a qualified individual.” So Senator Grassley said, I hope the President doesn’t nominate somebody right away, because this should be somebody who’s considered by the new, hopefully Republican-led Congress.
Just today, on television -- on Bloomberg -- Senator Grassley was asked about the delay -- again, citing the historic delay that she has faced. And he said -- and I'm quoting here -- “If you want to subtract November and December from that long time frame, you should do it. The Democrats were in control of the Congress and they decided not to bring her up.”
That, in my mind, is an astounding display of duplicity. And I know that it may be that you guys are looking at me -- many of you have been in Washington longer than I have -- and you’re thinking: That Josh really likes working at the White House, he’s so idealistic, he’s got stars in his eyes, he’s so naive about the way that Washington works; that this kind of dramatic reversal and going back on one’s word is just business as usual in Washington.
The sad part, I think, is that Senator Grassley -- particularly in his home state of Iowa -- has cultivated a reputation as somebody who is true to his word. And I think the only conclusion that I can draw from this astounding exchange is that it's possible that Senator Grassley has been in Washington for too long.
With that long wind-up -- Bill. (Laughter.)
Q You did mention, in answer to Chris a bit ago, that the Secret Service had interviewed the pilot of the gyrocopter a year and a half ago. Is there any concern around here that he wasn’t placed on some kind of watch list, and that you weren’t notified when he next moved? I mean, doesn’t the concern over the security of the President above all warrant such a move?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the way that this individual was handled and what the process is for handling these kinds of situations, I’d refer you to the Secret Service. This is obviously -- they have developed procedures in place --
Q But I'm asking about concern around here.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, there are a couple of things that are also relevant here, which is that in his extensive public comments to the Tampa Bay Times and others, he has not indicated a desire to harm anybody. He’s indicated that he was interested in --
Q Just to fly through restricted air space near the White House.
MR. EARNEST: But, Bill, I think the intent of the individual was relevant. It certainly is relevant to the way that he is processed by the investigative agency, in this case the Secret Service. It's difficult to stand here and tell you what the Secret Service found in the course of their investigation. If there’s more that they can tell you about that, I’d refer you to them.
There also has to be a process in place for evaluating these kinds of instances. Law enforcement agencies are in the business of making careful judgments about threats. And again, for questions about how that’s actually done, I’d refer you to the Secret Service.
Q So as long as he didn’t seem to want to cause any harm, it was okay to show up?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think anybody is making that case. I'm certainly not.
Q Prime Minister Abadi. Again, what has he asked for? He told people in a question-and-answer session this morning, “We asked the U.S. to continue to support Iraq by providing weapons, training and advisors, sharing of intelligence, making public and private investments.” But what has he asked for? We only know about the humanitarian relief. What else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Bill, what I'm trying to say -- and I think it sounds like Prime Minister Abadi is trying to say the same thing -- there’s not a specific request that he brought to his meeting with the President of the United States. What Prime Minister Abadi has sought is to travel to the United States, to deepen the relationship and coordination and cooperation that already exists between our two countries.
The United States, over the last decade and a half, has invested significant resources, both in the form of financial resources but also in the form of our men and women in the military who have fought and bled, and in some cases died, to try to resolve the security situation in that country because of the impact it has on U.S. national security.
And this President is committed to pursuing a strategy that builds up the capacity of Iraqi security forces to take the fight on the ground in their own country, to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And that’s contingent on a couple of things. One is, and most importantly, it's contingent on a central government in Iraq that can unite that country to face down the threat that’s posed by ISIL. And we are pleased with the early indications of Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership that he is trying to do precisely that. That’s going to be critical to their success.
What the United States is committed to do is to marshal the international community to bring a variety of resources to this conflict, including military air power. And by backing the ground forces in Iraq with coalition military air power, we have substantially improved their performance on the battlefield such that 25 to 30 percent of the populated areas that ISIL previously controlled, they no longer do.
Q But in marshaling international resources, the U.S. will be expected to contribute, as well.
MR. EARNEST: And we have contributed substantial resources in terms of equipment, in terms of training, in terms of advice, in terms of the kinds of airstrikes that are being carried out, and in terms of the humanitarian relief that is needed in that country, too.
So the United States continues to be committed to the success of what the President has acknowledged is going to be a longer-term effort.
Q But to what extent, we don’t know.
MR. EARNEST: To what extent -- you mean in terms of the --
Q The continuing commitment.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the President has indicated very clearly that he is committed to this effort. He recognizes that there are serious implications for American interests and American national security, and the investment that we’ve made thus far is significant. And there’s no indication that that investment is in any way waning.
Q No, no, but what is the next tranche of that investment? How much more? When?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, in terms of our military cooperation, we’re going to continue to stay in close touch with the Iraqis. We’re going to continue to conduct airstrikes where necessary with our coalition partners to support their efforts on the ground. We’re going to continue to work closely with the Iraqis as they make decisions about where the military campaign will move from here.
Obviously, the Iraqi security forces have made substantial progress in the last couple of weeks. They drove ISIL fighters out of the city of Tikrit. There now are more significant skirmishes taking place in other locations in Anbar Province. We’re very mindful of the very dangerous security situation that continues to exist in Iraq, and we’re going to work closely with Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi central government to help them make the decisions and take the necessary steps to address it.
Q Can I get back to the gyrocopter for one more try?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Wasn’t this a pretty astounding security lapse here in the Nation’s Capital for somebody to buzz across the National Mall and land a gyrocopter on the front lawn of the Capitol?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think what it does is it illustrates how difficult and dynamic the security environment is in the Nation’s Capital. And we’re certainly pleased that no one was hurt in this incident.
Q Because he went through three different FAA flight-restricted zones, including something called the P-56 zone, which is the zone around the White House, the Vice President’s residence, and the Capitol -- apparently undetected, nobody tried to fly in and shoo him away, and was just able to come right in. I know it’s a dynamic security environment, but that just seems like -- it seems like somebody screwed up somewhere, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think that what the FAA has said is that this individual was flying at a sufficiently slow speed and a sufficiently low altitude that it was difficult to detect him on their radar system. But again, this just illustrates, again, how difficult it is for these agencies to secure an area as large as the National Capital region, and to do it in a way that reflects the need to allow for the freedom of movement and allow the American public to visit the Nation’s Capital.
But rest assured our security professionals at the Secret Service are constantly reevaluating security postures, trying to learn lessons every day from additional steps that can be taken to make the White House and the U.S. Capitol and the entire national capital region even more safe. And I’m confident, again, that our security professionals are continuing to review this incident to see if there are some lessons learned and some changes that may be needed to make us even safer.
Q And on Loretta Lynch, is there any chance the President withdraws her nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no question that she is an eminently qualified nominee. And for all of the hue and cry, and for all of the historic delay of her confirmation, there’s no one who’s raised a legitimate concern about her aptitude to do the job. And that’s because she has earned a reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor. She’s somebody who has put terrorists away for life. She is somebody who has prosecuted public officials who violated the public trust. She is somebody who has prosecuted white-collar criminals on Wall Street that have tried to take advantage of middle-class families -- or victimize middle-class families in some situations.
So she is somebody, in a variety of areas, [who] has proven her mettle and proven her capability. That's why the President chose her to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer. She’s somebody who has the strong support of law enforcement. She’s somebody who has even the strong support of Rudy Giuliani. She is somebody who got bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee when she finally got her hearing.
So there is no reason --
Q So you’re not going to withdraw her?
MR. EARNEST: There is no reason why she shouldn’t be confirmed today by the United States Senate.
Q But you're not tempted at all to just let Eric Holder finish out -- sort of two can play that game -- you're not tempted to withdraw her nomination and just let Eric Holder stay in place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President believes strongly that she’s the right person for the job. Attorney General Holder has indicated that he’s ready to move on, and this is the way the system is supposed to work, that the President is supposed to nominate a qualified nominee and even members of the other party are supposed to consider that nominee.
And here’s the thing. Members of the other party are also supposed to give the person the benefit of the doubt. If they believe they’re qualified for the job, they should vote for them. In this case, we already see that a large number of people in the other party aren't willing to vote for her, but the worst crime is their refusal to even allow her to come up for a vote. It's shameful and it should change today.
Q Governor Scott in Florida says he’s going to sue the Obama administration for withholding money for hospitals because the state won't expand Medicaid. He says that the administration is cutting off federal money to force the state into the Obama health care law. Do you have a reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the specific details of the lawsuit, but what is true is that expanding Medicaid in the state of Florida would ensure that 800,000 Floridians would get access to quality health care coverage. The cost of providing that health care coverage this year would be borne entirely by the federal government. So there’s not a good reason why anybody in Florida would be in a situation of trying to block a policy that would benefit 800,000 Floridians. In fact, it would have a positive impact on the finances in the state of Florida. And it's difficult to explain why somebody would think that their political situation and their political interest is somehow more important than the livelihood and health of 800,000 people that they were elected to lead.
Q Are you holding back money for hospitals as a result of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the details of this particular fund that's in question I'd refer you to CMS. It's an issue that I have heard about, but I don't feel confident explaining from here.
Q Is the White House involved in that decision? Even if CMS is the one that is enacting it, does the White House make that decision or play a role in that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not, frankly, aware of what precise role the White House would have played in this, but we can look into that for you.
Q Let me just continue on the conversation regarding Cuba and the discussion. Was there any discussion between President Obama and President Castro that may have indicated a return of Guantanamo -- Guantanamo Bay, if you will -- to the government of Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: I wasn’t in for the entire discussion, but we have been very clear both in private and in public that it is not our intent to return control of the military base at Guantanamo Bay to the Cubans.
Q Are we still leasing it from the Cuban government?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer you to the DOD for the precise details of that arrangement.
Q Okay. Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Lesley.
Q Thanks, Josh. I have two quick ones since Peter took Florida. (Laughter.) That's great. In any case, asked. Do you have any date yet set for the meeting of the Gulf leaders at Camp David?
MR. EARNEST: I don't yet. I know that we're hoping to do this sometime relatively soon. But we'll get back with you as soon as we've got a date locked down.
Q Okay. And also, could you tell me -- the White House hasn’t said yet whether or not it's going to send anybody to the Armenian commemoration later this month. Do you know at what level you're considering sending people?
MR. EARNEST: We haven't yet, but we’ll let you know as soon as we've made that decision. We'll have to get back to you on both those things.
Q Thanks, Josh. On Greece, I wanted to ask if you're ruling out the possibility of the President meeting with the Finance Minister, even informally, and talking about the situation there.
MR. EARNEST: I'm ruling out any sort of formal sit-down conversation, which is what I understand was initially reported on this. That will not occur. I don't know if there’s any plan for a handshake and a photo or anything like that. But based on the news reports of the last couple of days, if something like that occurs I'm confident that the Greek Finance Minister will let you know.
Q Can you talk a little bit about how engaged the President is on the Greece issue? We just heard that the IMF rejected the request for debt relief, and we're getting pretty close to the deadline. Is the President pretty engaged in terms of making sure that Greece doesn’t go into default?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is regularly briefed on this situation. I don't know if it's daily, but it certainly is regularly. And I do know that the President, on a number of occasions, has placed phone calls to European leaders to talk about this situation. That typically happens with Chancellor Merkel, but I know that this issue has come up in his conversation with other European leaders.
Principally, the Treasury Department has been the focal point of our efforts to work with the European nations to resolve this situation, and so it's Secretary Lew and other senior officials at the Treasury Department who have been focused on this. And, again, this is the weekend when many world leaders are in town for the IMF World Bank meetings here in Washington over the course of the next few days, and I would expect that Secretary Lew would be engaged in some conversations on this topic with his counterparts over the next few days.
Q Thanks. The Senate is said to be close on reaching an agreement on trade promotion authority legislation. I'm wondering if that's your understanding if they’re close, and also whether the White House could support the direction they’re going.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do understand that they have -- that based on a lot of hard work over the last few weeks, that they’ve made important progress. I always hesitate to predict that Congress is going to do something before they’ve actually done it. And this process, I think given the complexity, it's understandable that there have been a lot of stops and starts associated with it. But the White House and senior administration officials, including our United States Trade Representative, Mike Froman, have been involved in conversations with staff and members on Capitol Hill on this issue.
And so we are encouraged by the progress that they have made so far, but I'd refer you to members and staff on Capitol Hill to give you the latest assessment of their progress.
John, I'll give you the last one.
Q Actually two --
MR. EARNEST: I'll give you the last two.
Q That's very nice of you. The first one, just your reaction, the administration’s reaction, the House today voted to repeal the estate tax. I wanted to get your reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is -- as you’ve heard me say before, this is a very vivid illustration of the different values and priorities between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to tax policy. Republicans believe that it's in the best interests of our economy to offer a $270 billion tax cut just to the wealthiest .1 percent of Americans. The President believes that we could actually better use about that same amount of money to offer substantial tax cuts to working families.
And there’s just a difference in approach. Republicans believe that if we offer those significant benefits and tax credits to the wealthy that the economic benefits will trickle down on everybody else. The fact is, the President believes that we can take a more direct approach and that by offering some relief to middle-class families we can actually not just lighten the burden for those middle-class families, we can actually ensure the longer-term strength of our economy by doing so.
The one thing, the one irony I will point out in this process is that when the President talks about his desire to bring some relief to the burden that's borne by middle-class families, the prompt response that you get from Republicans on Capitol Hill is, how are you going to pay for it? But what House Republicans have just done is passed a $270 billion tax cuts for the wealthiest .1 percent and are just going to put it on the tab of the deficit.
So it is some might even call it hypocritical, but it certainly is in my mind at least ironic.
Q And my other question has to do with some comments that you made in response to my colleague’s -- Kevin -- question a little bit earlier. You, in the course of responding, you referred to Senator Chuck Grassley as “duplicitous.” Is that helpful --
MR. EARNEST: I referred to his comment as duplicitous. But, yes.
Q Is that helpful to the process of getting Loretta Lynch nominated? Is that helpful to building relations with the party that controls the U.S. Senate, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: I'll just observe, John, that being nice has gotten us a 160-day delay. (Laughter.) So maybe after they look up “duplicitous” in the dictionary we'll get a different result.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
2:12 P.M. EDT