Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/21/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
*Please see below for corrections and clarifications, marked with asterisks.
12:48 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all today. I did want to do a quick thing before we get started. I wanted to call to your attention once again a couple of other climate-related announcements from the administration today.
The first is that NOAA today released a floor risk mapping tool that allows communities to map their location and add layers to visualize the impacts of different flood scenarios on their populations and infrastructure. This is a tool that was originally developed for New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. And today it’s been expanded to cover coastal areas up and down the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
This is, again, an example of the administration working closely with state and local officials using data that’s compiled by the federal government to help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The second thing I want to direct your attention to is the announcement from the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA, all of whom are collaborating on four landscape partnerships. These are areas in southwest Florida, Hawaii, Washington and the Great Lakes region. The selected lands and waters face a wide range of climate-related impacts, including sea level rise, drought, wildfire and invasive species. The federal agencies that I’ve mentioned will work closely with state, tribal and local partners to prepare for and prevent these threats and ensure that long-term conservation efforts take climate change into account.
This is an example of how the administration can continue to advance what we consider to be and what the world considers to be a top priority, which is dealing with the impacts of climate change in a way that makes communities more resilient in the face of climate change, but also can take some steps that will contribute to public safety and public health. This is also evidence of how the administration can make progress in these priorities, even in the face of pretty significant opposition from Republicans in Congress.
And so the President will obviously have more to say on these matters tomorrow at the event that he will host in the Everglades.
So with all that, Julie, do you want to get us started with questions?
Q Great. Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask on the deal, on the trafficking bill on the Hill that appears like it will clear the way for a vote on Loretta Lynch. Is the President satisfied with the outcome on the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Julie, we at this point have not seen the final language of this compromise, but reports indicate that both Democrats and Republicans have agreed upon the language. Support for the language appears to come also from senators like Patty Murray, who is a longstanding champion for women’s access to health care. So that certainly is an encouraging sign, but we haven't yet taken a look at the language.
We are hopeful -- though I don’t know that we’ve seen tangible agreement -- that after the passage of the human trafficking bill, if the compromise holds up, that the Senate will promptly turn their attention to the nomination of Loretta Lynch. But I certainly would use this opportunity to encourage them once again, after 164 days of delay, to move forward as quickly as possible with her confirmation.
Q With the risk of getting into another back-and-forth like we did last week over the Iran deal -- because you haven't seen the language on this, can you say whether or not the President would sign a trafficking bill that appears to have the agreement that we’ve seen on the Hill in it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if we see strong Democratic support, including from champions for women’s health care, like Patty Murray, then that certainly seems like the kind of thing that the President would be able to support. But we’ll obviously make a final determination about that once we’ve seen the language.
Q I know you were asked about this yesterday, but you weren’t able to comment on it. This Navy ship that’s been sent toward Yemen to possibly try to intercept Iranian arms shipments -- can you give us any more context on why this ship was sent there, and what their mission is, what their orders are?
MR. EARNEST: The principal goal of this operation is to maintain freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This is obviously a region of the world where significant commerce takes place. This includes energy shipments, but other goods that move through this area of the world both as they transit the Red Sea into the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal. Obviously there are significant European markets. There are also obviously important markets on the other side of the Gulf of Aden as well.
So this military presence -- well, let me say it this way. The movement of this particular aircraft carrier would augment the American military presence in the Gulf of Aden and would send a clear signal about our continued insistence about the free flow of commerce and the freedom of movement in the region.
Q But they were also sent there to presumably block any Iranian shipment of arms that were heading towards Yemen, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to have concerns about Iran’s support for the Houthis, including supplying them with military equipment even arms. And we’ve made clear both publicly and privately our concerns about their continued support. And the concern that we have is because the conflict there has led to significant violence and an urgent humanitarian situation, but also because the instability in that country is only going to be solved around the negotiating table. And so we’re encouraging all parties to the dispute to put down weapons and to engage in a U.N.-led process to try to resolve their differences politically.
Q Did the U.S. given Iran any heads-up that this aircraft carrier was going to be positioned there, either directly to the Iranians or through a third party?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any communications with Iranians to convey to you at this point. But I think this is a clear statement about our commitment to ensuring the free flow of commerce in this important region of the world.
Again, this is not the first sign of a U.S. presence in this region. The aircraft carrier is just the latest in a deployment of personnel and assets to this region of the world, again, in pursuit of this goal, which is the free flow of commerce in this important region of the world.
Q And then just finally, CBS has a report that the DEA administrator is expect to resign. Can you confirm whether she either has resigned or is expected to?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any personnel announcements from here, but I’d direct you to the Department of Justice where the DEA is housed, obviously. And they may be able to provide you some more information.
Q Does the President continue to have confidence in the DEA chief?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we went through a little bit last week. We continue to have concerns about the material that was presented in the IG report that raised legitimate and serious questions about the conduct of some DEA officers.
The President, as you know, maintains a very high standard for anybody who serves in his administration, particularly when it comes to law enforcement officials. And the IG report raised serious concerns about that conduct. But I don't -- that's, frankly, all I have to say about the DEA at this point.
Q Just going back to Yemen for a moment. Saudi’s King today ordered the Saudi national guard to take part in the campaign. And I’m wondering if the White House has a reaction to this. And does it mean that ground forces are going to be involved? And is that something that the White House supports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen that -- I had not seen that comment from the King. I can tell you as a general matter that the United States is supportive of the ongoing efforts by the Saudis to try to resolve some of the security concerns that they have along their southern border. They're engaged in military operations with the support of many of their GCC partners in the region. And the United States, at the request of the Saudis, has provided some logistical and intelligence support for that ongoing effort.
As a part of offering that support, we also continue to be in close contact with military officials in Saudi Arabia, and that close coordination and communication will continue.
Q And does the White House have any reaction to Mohamed Morsi being sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole in Egypt?
MR. EARNEST: I’m aware of those reports, as well. The United States is concerned by these sentences. All Egyptians, regardless of political affiliation, are entitled to equal and fair treatment before the law, including full respect for their rights to due process.
Now, we won’t have extensive comment on this until we’ve had an opportunity to review the verdict and the basis of the verdict, which we understand the Egyptian judicial authorities will make public soon.
That being said, Mr. Morsi, like all other defendants, must be afforded the basic legal right of due process. And the United States continues to be strongly opposed to politicized arrests and detentions. The United States will also continue to engage the Egyptian government on its political trajectory, and to raise human rights and political reform issues. There should be no doubt that these issues remain significant bilateral priorities for the United States.
Let’s move around. Bob.
Q Thanks. Josh, back on the Arabian Sea situation, are our ships there in a sense to flex muscle, thump the chest a little bit? Will they be able to board any Iranian-flagged vessel if they want to? Or is that going to be left up to the other nations there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The principal -- again, the principal purpose of this military deployment is to protect the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce both in the Gulf of Aden and in the Red Sea.
The other thing that I should also point out is that just last week, the international community came together at the United Nations and imposed an arms embargo on key Houthi leaders, as well as former President Saleh, his son, and all those who are acting at their direction. And any effort by Iran or anyone else to provide weapons to the Houthis would be a clear violation not just of this United Nations Security Council resolution, but of previous U.N. Security Council resolutions related to Iranian weapons shipments.
So we obviously are concerned about the situation there. And again, it stems from a couple of things. One is Iran’s long history of destabilizing activities in this region of the world. The second is the impact that this continued instability and violence is having on a terrible humanitarian situation in Yemen. The third is we continue to be concerned about the political instability in this country. And this instability is not going to be addressed and resolved militarily; it’s going to require all sides to sit down at the negotiating table.
Let’s also remember what the chief U.S. interest is in this region of the world, which is not allowing extremists like AQAP to capitalize on the instability and chaos in a region to establish a safe haven and plot attacks against the United States and our allies around the world.
So we have a pretty clear set of priorities and interests. And we're working closely with our partners to try to address them, both through the U.N., in this particular U.N. Security Council resolution, but also our partners in Saudi Arabia that also have their own significant security interest in Yemen.
Q But is that a yes to the question of whether the United States would be able to feel free to board Iranian vessels, flagged vessels?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t speculate on this on that particular matter at this point. But what I would do is just indicate that there is a military -- a U.S. military presence in the Gulf of Aden to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce both in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. And that is the principal goal of that mission. And again, that is not a new mission. There has been a U.S. military contingent -- a U.S. naval contingent in that region of the world for some time, but it is being augmented by the Roosevelt aircraft carrier.
Q Is that answer vague by design?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m trying to be as explicit as I can about what the chief goal of this deployment is.
Q Josh, what is it that threatens the freedom of commerce in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to such an extent that the existing American deployment had to be ramped up --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to be concerned about the broader political instability in that region. So that’s the first thing, that you essentially have a Yemeni central government that’s been rendered pretty ineffective in terms of being able to provide for security off the waters of their coast. They’re having a lot of trouble with the security situation in their country.
Second, we obviously continue to be concerned about the destabilizing activities of the Iranians. So we’re mindful of that as we carry out this deployment.
Q Sorry, I’m not up on my Yemen navy statistics, but it seems like unrest in Yemen wouldn’t necessarily carry over to this extent in the waters off Yemen that you would need to send an aircraft carrier and another warship there to augment the existing force, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the goal here is to -- well, let me start by saying I don’t think even prior to this latest round of instability that there was a lot of bullish confidence in the strength and capability of the Yemeni navy. But we are pretty eyes wide open when it comes to the efforts that some may engage in to capitalize on the instability in Yemen in a variety of ways, and that includes interfering with the freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce through this key navigational channel.
So we’re mindful of the way that the violence and instability in Yemen could have an impact on all of that. And again, this is not a new U.S. military presence, but rather a presence that’s being augmented by the Roosevelt.
Q And then this is sort of a follow-up on my colleague’s question. In terms of the rules of engagement, does the United States consider that an Iranian ship heading into Yemeni waters is necessarily conveying weapons and therefore subject to enforcement of the international community’s arms embargo?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say that the -- I don’t want to speculate on any sort of future activities, but --
Q But you have parameters for this, I assume. I realize you don’t want to speculate about a future possible confrontation or incident, or whatever, but you must have existing rules on the books now for how you’re going to treat those.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sure that there are. And so for detailed questions about the rules of engagement, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. But I would say, as a general matter, that we have been concerned about Iranian support and weapons shipments to the Houthis. And we are -- when I say “we,” I mean the international community is serious about the strict enforcement of a United Nations Security Council resolution that has placed an embargo of weapons shipments to the Houthis, to President Saleh, to his son, and to others who are taking directions from them.
Q So when the President ordered the Roosevelt there, did he give it a mandate to assist in the enforcement of that U.N. Security Council resolution?
MR. EARNEST: The specific mandate and the specific mission of the Roosevelt is to ensure the free flow of commerce and the freedom of navigation in this region of the world. That is their specific mandate. But we continue to be mindful of the destabilizing activities that Iran has engaged in in terms of supporting the Houthis and, in some cases, even supplying them weapons. And the United States is serious in standing shoulder to shoulder with the international community when it comes to this specific arms embargo that has been put in place by the U.N.
Q I’m trying to put these two things together. Would a suspected arms shipment by itself constitute something that would interfere with the free flow of commerce and/or navigation in that area?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a specific arms shipment from the Iranians intended for the Houthis would be a pretty clear violation of the United Nations Security Council embargo, no doubt about that.
Q Right. And would it also complicate the free flow of navigation and commercial shipping in there, which is the mission that they are assigned currently to maintain?
MR. EARNEST: Well, hypothetically I wouldn’t go beyond what we’ve said about the need to protect the freedom of navigation and the need to make sure that the international community takes seriously this United Nations Security Council resolution that was just passed last week.
Q So it would be hard to imagine a scenario in which if we became aware of it, we would allow an arms shipment to land in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is an embargo in place --
Q And you would enforce it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the international community and the United Nations would certainly be serious about making sure that this embargo is upheld.
Q And the President has put the Roosevelt at the disposal of that particular mission?
MR. EARNEST: The particular mission, again, for the Roosevelt is to guarantee the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.
Q So they’re not linked? It’s not there to try to discourage and/or intercept an arms shipment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it is there to protect the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce. That is the mission.
Q You said that was the principal mission.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q But there could be others.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but that is the reason that the Roosevelt has been sent to the Gulf of Aden. And I’m not going to speculate about any sort of future events that may or may not occur, but it is possible for the United States to be justifiably concerned about protecting the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in this volatile region on the world, while at the same time being -- ensuring that the arms embargo that the United Nations has put in place is one that everybody takes seriously.
Q One more try. What should the Iranians conclude about the presence, this increased muscular presence of U.S. naval power as regards its activities in that region?
MR. EARNEST: They should know, first and foremost, that the United States remains concerned about protecting the freedom of navigation in this region of the world. The second is, they should also understand that the United States alongside the international community, including the United Nations, is serious about the Iranians not providing weapons to the Houthis. Again, providing weapons to the Houthis only exacerbates the violence and instability in this region in a way that will have a continued impact on the humanitarian situation in that country.
The United States continues to be particularly concerned about this violence and instability in Yemen because of the way that extremist organizations have previously tried to capitalize on that turmoil to establish a safe haven and to use that safe haven to attack the United States, our interests and our allies.
So we’ve got a pretty serious list of concerns. What we also, however, believe is that there is value in pursuing a U.N.-led process to try to resolve diplomatically the legitimate concerns of all of the parties that are involved here, and that there is an opportunity for us to try to effect a legitimate political transition in Yemen. And that is our chief goal at this point because it would address all of these concerns.
Obviously, engaging in an effort to effect this legitimate political transition would allow international agencies to more effectively address the urgent humanitarian situation there. It obviously would bolster the capacity of the central government in Yemen that could prevent, or at least make it a lot harder for extremist groups to try to capitalize on the instability there to carry out attacks against the United States.
Q Bloomberg had a story this morning that suggests a certain amount of flexibility -- some might suggest manipulation -- on the administration’s part of communicating what it believed and what its intelligence community actually thought about the timeline for a breakout period for Iran. And when the President a couple of years ago said it was a year, it was in fact much closer than that. Now the President, with the creation of the political framework, now talks about a two- or three-month breakout period. Could you help us understand how it went from a year to two to three months, when, in fact, there are indications that when the President was saying a year it was actually closer to two or three months, and there was an attempt to sort of quiet concern about this breakout period then that is no longer present now?
MR. EARNEST: Major, I didn’t see the Bloomberg report that you’re talking about. But why don’t we take a look at the story and see if we can help you understand the context in which the President delivered those specific remarks two or three years ago.
What I’ll say is that the two- to three-month estimate is one that we have heard from outside experts and others who are drawing on an intelligence assessment to reach that conclusion.
The goal of the ongoing diplomatic effort would be to extend that breakout period to a year, to essentially quadruple it or more, and put in place measures to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement so that if they did attempt a breakout, that the international community would have a year or so to determine an appropriate response.
Q The import of my question is, oftentimes administrations are held accountable for what they convey about their own intelligence estimates, which are not always viewable to the public. And the suggestion in the story was the President, knowing it was two or three months two years ago, said it was a year to sort of quiet and calm concerns about how close Iran in fact was, and now is being more candid because in the context of the political framework he wants to intensify concern about how close Iran is, when he was trying to minimize it a year or two ago -- when, in fact, the breakout period was precisely the same. Do you deny on the President’s behalf any attempt to mislead or to manipulate understanding of what Iran’s actual capability was?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I feel confident in conveying to you without having seen the story that the President, I think throughout this process of engaging in a diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, has sought to use intelligence assessments to the best of his ability to give people an accurate understanding of the threat that Iran poses.
And there are obviously limitations in terms of how detailed the President or anybody else can be in terms of talking about our intelligence assessments because we’re very interested in protecting sources and methods and other things that allow us to have continued insight into these kinds of sensitive matters. But the President all along has worked to help the United States people and our allies understand exactly what this threat is so that we can design the best mechanism for addressing that threat. And the President continues to be confident that the current diplomacy that’s underway with Iran is by far the best way for us to succeed in preventing Iran from obtaining and nuclear weapon.
Q Getting back to the situation with Yemen and the Iranians, do you feel that the Iranians are trying to test you right now? The fact that they have the United States at the negotiating table, that perhaps they're feeling emboldened in the sense that they could send warship; they could send ships with weapons to Yemen; that they can come up with trumped-up charges for this Washington Post reporter? Do you feel like they're trying to use some leverage that they have at the negotiating table to perhaps push you a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the truth is that Iran has been engaged for quite some time in destabilizing activities throughout the region. They’ve done this in a variety of ways, and they were engaged in this kind of activity long before the United States entered into this diplomatic effort to try to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The same is true of the unjust detention of Americans inside of Iran. These are situations that we’ve confronted with Iran on a number of occasions throughout our history, particularly over the last 30 years or so. So we continue to be concerned about all of those things and are candid about the fact that as important as these ongoing nuclear negotiations are to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we do not anticipate that they will succeed in preventing Iran from engaging in a wide range of behavior that we continue to be concerned about.
Iran continues to menace in an anti-Semitic way our closest ally in the region. We continue to be very concerned about those threats, and we continue to be very concerned about that anti-Semitic language and rhetoric. We continue to be concerned about Iran’s support for terror around the globe. Iran continues to be firmly on the state sponsor of terror list for that reason. We continue to be concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East. The most recent example of that is their continued support for the Houthis in Yemen.
We do not anticipate that the ongoing nuclear negotiations are going to succeed in resolving all of those concerns. But what we do expect is that those talks will allow us to verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the fact is a nuclear-armed Iran would be only more destabilizing to the Middle East, would be only more dangerous when they're providing support to terrorist organizations, and would be only more dangerous when they menace Israel. So that's why continue to see the United States focused on trying to capitalize on the best opportunity we have to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while continuing to be candid about the wide range of concerns we have with Iran’s behavior.
Q But can the assortment of activities that you just outlined get to a point where the United States has to say, you know what, we're not engaging in these negotiations anymore? Can they become such a bad actor between now and June 30th where it just goes beyond the pale and you have to say, this is not working for us?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I certainly don't want to --
Q I mean, that is a possibility.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s quite a hypothetical. I also don't want to inadvertently give somebody an incentive here to try to -- to do something that we wouldn’t agree with.
Let me just say as a general matter that the United States and the President are very focused on trying to complete these diplomatic negotiations because he does believe it is by far the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the fact that Iran engages in a wide variety of other behaviors that are concerning to us is not a reason to break up those negotiations. In fact, it is a very strong incentive for those negotiations to succeed. And that's precisely because a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more destabilizing to the region, would be even more dangerous when they menace Israel, and would be even more concerning when it comes to their support for terrorist organizations.
So that is why we have made this such a priority, and why, frankly, it would be so keenly in the national security interest of the United States for these negotiations to succeed.
Q But if their behavior gets to such an egregious level, I would have to assume that that would be something in your arsenal of options that you would have to exercise at some point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would actually --
Q You guys were ruling that out --
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that the behavior that we’ve seen from Iran when it comes to their support for terrorist organizations, their anti-Semitic rhetoric against Israel, and their destabilizing activities in the region are already egregious. And that is why they reside on the state sponsor of terror list. It’s why Iran is subject to a wide range of economic sanctions that are not related to their nuclear program, but are actually related to their support for terror and their weapons programs and other things.
It’s why we’ve seen this new embargo against -- arms embargo against the Houthis, President Saleh, his son, and others who are taking direction from them because we know that Iran is seeking to support them through the provision of weapons and in other ways.
So we continue to be very concerned about Iran’s behavior. But that only makes the successful completion of diplomacy that would effectively prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon all that more important.
Q And on Michele Leonhart, if she were to tender her resignation, the President would accept it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to speculate about any personnel moves at this point.
Q Josh, coming back to another category of egregious behavior by Iran, we talked about Jason Rezaian yesterday. As I’m sure you've seen, Amir Hekmati, another one of the Americans, who’s been held for 1,300 days in Iran has been able to dictate out a letter over the phone in one of the conversations he was able to have with his family. And in that letter he writes, “As a war veteran who defended our nation in a time of need,” -- writes to congressional leaders -- “I ask that you also work to defend my dignity and that of my fellow Americans by putting in place serious consequences for this serial hostage-taking and mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.”
I understand -- we’ve been over this many times -- you're not going to make the release of these Americans a condition for having a final deal on the nuclear matter, but is the administration willing to impose some serious consequences on the Iranian government for taking these Americans under what appear to be specious charges?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to speculate about any possible future action, but I will say something that's similar to what I said before, which is that we continue to be very concerned about the unjust detention of a number of Americans inside of Iran. We have made those concerns known in quite public fashion. We’ve also made those concerns known privately, directly with the Iranian leadership. As recently as a month or two ago, Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of his nuclear negotiations with his Iranian counterpart raised his concerns about this unjust detention.
So we’ve made very clear to the Iranians that we're concerned about the treatment of Americans inside of Iran, and that this continues to be a high priority for U.S. foreign policy.
Q So expressing concern on the sidelines of negotiations is one thing. Again, what Amir Hekmati is asking in this letter he was able to dictate from prison in Iran is that the United States impose serious consequences on Iran for taking Americans like this. Is there any sense that there should be some kind of consequences imposed by the United States on the Iranian government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no doubt that the unjust detention of Americans in Iran has continued to serve as an impediment to better relations between the United States and Iran. There’s no doubt about that. So there already have been consequences that Iran has suffered as a result of this.
But again, I’m not going to speculate about any sort of future actions that we may take to further compel the Iranians to release those Americans who are being unjustly detained inside their country.
Q His sister, who wrote a letter on behalf of the whole family, has asked for one specific thing, which doesn't seem to be that much of a heavy lift. She’s asking that the State Department direct the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, as the protecting power, to lodge a formal protest with the Iranian government for their treatment of her brother. Is that something that the administration is willing to do?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the status of that specific request, but the State Department may be able to provide you some additional details about it.
Q Okay. And if I can turn to an entirely different subject quickly. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, you may have heard, is in New Hampshire -- been in New Hampshire. And she made a comment about the economy, and I wanted to get your reaction to this. Regarding small business creation, she says that small business creation has “stalled out” -- she was surprised to learn this -- has stalled out in the United States. Does the White House agree with Hillary Clinton’s analysis of the state of the economy regarding small businesses?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see the entirety of her remarks, but I can tell you that the President certainly believes that there is more that we can do here in Washington to put in place policies that will further strengthen job creation in our economy. Whether that is important investments in rebuilding our infrastructure, the President believes that we can make some common-sense investments in infrastructure by merely closing some loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.
By making smart investments in infrastructure, we can create jobs right away. Many of those jobs would be created with small businesses all across the country. And we would also see a long-term economic benefit associated with a modern, upgraded critical infrastructure in this country. So --
Q But do you agree with Hillary Clinton that under President Barack Obama small business creation has “stalled out” in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that's a direct quote. I suspect that it’s not. But I would -- the President has --
Q She used the phrase “stalled out”. She said small business creation has “stalled out.” Do you agree that it has stalled out?
MR. EARNEST: The President himself has said many times that there are additional important steps that could be taken by Washington, D.C. where members of Congress no longer serve as an impediment to forward economic momentum, but actually that they can support it.
Q That's not my question, though. I just asked, do you agree that small business creation has stalled out in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I didn't see the entirety of her remarks.
Q Forget what she said. Has small business creation stalled out in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll take a look at the statistics and get back to you.
Q Okay, thanks.
MR. EARNEST: All right, Kevin.
Q Josh, thanks. I just want to follow up on something that Major was asking about, the Bloomberg article. I know you haven’t read it, but I think this is a pretty straightforward question. There seems to be a disconnect between the timeline -- is what the article is saying -- meaning for the longest time the President was saying Iran is about a year away currently from having the materials to create a nuclear weapon. And then that changed as we got closer to April, you could say even late 2014. So my question is: Is it fair to say that the President didn't know that the assessment from his intelligence community that Iran was two or three months away as far back as 2012 or ’13? Was he unaware of that assessment? Was he not properly briefed on that assessment? Or was the information that has now been declassified something that he never took a look at?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, what I can tell you is that the President time and time again has made clear how important it is for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And in the context of making that case, the President has made clear that we need to be concerned about the previous actions that Iran has taken to try to circumvent international monitoring of their nuclear program. That's why the President is working hard to try to reach a diplomatic solution that would effectively shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, would roll back certain key aspects of their nuclear program, and impose on Iran the most stringent set of sanctions that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
Q That's great. We’ve read that. We know that you believe that, and I’m not doubting the veracity of that goal. What I’m trying to get at is, how is that his own administration was saying they're about two to three months away for the longest period of time, and yet the President himself was saying they're about a year away? I’m trying to figure out, did he not read their assessments? Did he disagree? Was there disagreement within the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Kevin, I haven’t seen story that you're referencing. So we’ll take a look at it, and we can get back to you with some more details.
Q Okay. Let me ask one more thing, if I could. Yesterday we had the opportunity to talk at length about some of the Americans that had been unfairly imprisoned in Iran. Is it your position that the White House is doing all it can, short of making it a condition for further negotiations, to win the release of these individuals?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it is fair for you to report that the White House has made very clear to the Iranians that the release of these Americans who are being unjustly detained in Iran is necessary and should be done immediately.
The White House and senior administration officials have been in touch with the families of those Americans who have been unjustly detained. We have made these views known directly to the Iranian government. And it is an important item on the long list of concerns that we have about Iran and their behavior that includes their menacing of Israel, their ongoing support for terror organizations around the globe, and their continued destabilizing activity throughout the already volatile region in which they live.
Q If I can go back to the waters off Yemen, does the U.S. believe that there are arms on the Iranian ships there? And if so, in an area where Iranian ships generally are not, would the U.S. consider that a provocation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I don't want to speculate about, again, any sort of future developments. What I will say is that we have raised concerns for a while now about Iran supporting the Houthis in a variety of ways, including providing them weapons. The international community is so concerned about this that the United Nations at the Security Council passed a resolution that imposed an embargo against the Houthis, against President Saleh, against his son, and others who are taking direction from them. And this is an embargo that we expect every country around the world, including Iran, to abide by. And this is something that we take seriously.
The President also -- as I mentioned in response to Major’s question and to several others -- continues to be concerned about the instability in *Iran Yemen interfering with the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the Gulf of Aden. And there are U.S. military resources in the Gulf of Aden to try to protect those two priorities, as well.
Q Can I take from that [that] the U.S. is unsure if there are weapons on Iranian ships there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not going to speculate or -- I don't have an intelligence assessment to share at this point. But the United States is concerned because Iran has been supporting the Houthis and has provided them weapons. We have made clear both publicly and privately our concern with that behavior.
We are concerned principally because that will only further the violence in a country that has already been ripped apart by war. It has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe that only seems to get worse by the day. We're also concerned because there is a track record inside Yemen where extremist groups have tried to capitalize on the political turmoil there to establish a safe haven and use that safe haven to plot attacks against the United States and our allies.
So there are any number of concerns that we have about the situation in Yemen. And that's why the best way, in our view, to address all of this is for the U.N.-led process to get the support of everybody in the region and around the world to encourage all the sides in this dispute to sit down at the negotiating table and engage in a legitimate political transition that would restore some stability to the country, that would allow international aid groups to try to meet some of the acute humanitarian needs in that country.
It also would try to bring some political stability to the country that would make it harder for extremist groups to operate there. So we’ve got a long list of concerns, and this is a political situation that is being very closely watched by the President’s national security team and even the President himself.
Q And just really quickly on one domestic story. Now that the anti-trafficking bill, there’s an agreement and may well go through -- I think the latest whip count I saw had five Republican votes for Loretta Lynch. Understanding that you've said many times from the podium you would have liked to have seen her confirmed many months ago, and that she deserves to be confirmed, how confident are you at this point that she will be confirmed? Are you concerned about the closeness of the vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we're concerned about right now is the extensive delay to which she’s been unfairly subjected. And we're up to 164 days now. And she is somebody who earned bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She certainly deserves strong bipartisan support on the floor of the United States Senate. She is somebody who has a well-deserved reputation for being a tough, fair prosecutor. Her track record speaks for itself. The fact that she has the support of both civil rights organizations, law enforcement organizations, and even former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani I think is an indication that she is somebody who is very well qualified for this job.
Q If there is a nuclear deal with Iran, and the sanctions begin to be eased gradually or quickly, what leverage is there left to try and get these Americans out of Iran and deal with some of the other concerns that you have with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there would be several things. The first is there would continue to be a long list of other sanctions that would be in place against Iran. We’ve been very clear that even if we're able to reach a nuclear agreement, and we're able to engage in a process where Iran takes tangible, verifiable steps to comply with the agreement by curtailing and even rolling back some aspects of their nuclear program, that they would get some phased-in sanctions relief.
But that would not include relief from sanctions that are related to their weapons programs. That would not relate to sanctions that relate to human rights or their support for terrorism. So we would continue to have significant concerns with Iran’s behavior, and there would continue to be significant pressure on Iran to change that behavior.
Q That would be U.S. sanctions, as opposed to international sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it would be both. I know that there are other countries that have significant concerns about these other aspects of Iranian behavior, and they have imposed some financial penalties against Iran for that behavior too.
Again, those kinds of sanctions are not on the table in these negotiations. Even if we're able to successfully complete these negotiations and Iran begins to implement their end of the nuclear bargain in a way that would shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and allow the international community to verify that -- sanctions that are related to their weapons programs, that are related to human rights violations, that are related to their support for terrorism would continue to be in place.
Q On trade, as you know, Senator Ron Wyden has a lot of -- he has a mixed record on trade. But he also -- Oregon also has a lot of business in Asia that would benefit from it, like Nike and Intel. I’m wondering if from Sandy Levin’s comments today, if you rely too heavily -- or last week -- if you rely too heavily on Ron Wyden to negotiate the deal? And if you feel like your White House leg affairs shop did a good job reaching out to Capitol Hill and Democrats? And if you're worried about their support on the House side?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Susan, I can tell you that the administration at all levels -- frankly, not just the leg affairs team -- has been engaged in an effort to convey to members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, the President’s view that putting in place the most progressive, far-reaching trade promotion authority bill in history is a priority for him. And it’s a priority that this bill includes enforceable labor provisions and enforceable environmental provisions, and provisions related to human rights.
What that means is it means that there is ample reason for Democrats and Republicans to support this particular bill that would essentially allow the President to go out and negotiate an agreement and set up a mechanism for congressional consideration and hopefully eventual approval.
But the President has been very clear about what he expects this essential -- this final agreement to look like and what, frankly, the agreement will require before he’ll sign it.
Q Congressman Levin says that the human rights language is too vague and doesn't have any teeth. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my response to that is that this is the most far-reaching progressive trade promotion authority bill that Congress has ever passed. And I describe it that way because it has enforceable labor provisions. It includes enforceable environmental provisions, and it includes provisions related to human rights. I’m certainly no expert on the legislative history of trade promotion agreements, but I don’t think it is common for trade promotion bills to even include references to human rights.
So I think this is an indication that the President is engaged in a process that he’s confident, if successful, will be something that will benefit middle-class families, American workers and American businesses. And frankly, the President I think was pretty blunt about his concern that failure to engage in these kinds of negotiations would essentially cede ground to -- at least when it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- to the Chinese.
And we would be in a situation where there’s no doubt that the Chinese government would seek to engage in this region of the world, and write rules and set standards that are much lower than the kinds of standards that the United States is advocating for. And that would have the effect of putting American workers and American businesses at a significant disadvantage when they’re trying to do business in one of the most economically dynamic regions of the globe.
So that’s why the President I think made a pretty forceful case that failing to support this kind of trade agreement would essentially be ratifying the status quo in which American businesses would be -- and open up the potential where the next 20 or 30 years it would be actually much tougher for American businesses to do business in Asia, and if they do, that they’d be doing so on terms that are not advantageous to American workers. And so that’s why the President is a leading advocate of engaging in this process.
I think the final thing I’d say on this is that what’s also true is that we don’t have a final agreement yet, and that there will be ample opportunity for the Congress and for the public to evaluate the terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if we’re able to reach one. And obviously, Ambassador Froman has been tirelessly engaged in the effort to try to negotiate this agreement. I would anticipate this will be the topic of some conversation when Prime Minister Abe visits the White House one week from today.
But the President believes that this is a priority not just as it relates to the immediate impact it would have on our economy, but based on the longer-term impact it would have on our economy and the long-term prospects for American workers and American businesses.
Q One more quick one. Was there any consideration before you sent this aircraft carrier out to the Gulf of Aden to send a War Powers Act request up to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe so. But if -- let me check with the lawyers on that before I completely rule that out. My suspicion is that based on the fact that there is already a military presence there, that a War Powers Act notification would be unnecessary. But let me check on that.* Usually the explanations for these kinds of things are more complicated than they seen, so I may not have done justice to the full legal explanation. So let me follow up with you on that, okay? All right.
* The War Powers Resolution states that a report shall be submitted to Congress within 48 hours of certain criteria being met. These criteria were not present here.
Q I wanted to take you a little bit back to what you just said about Trade Representative Michael Froman. He recently came back from Tokyo. Can you talk about what kind of progress you’ve been able to make there? Was that trip a success? And were you expecting or hoping for more progress as we get ready for the trip of the Prime Minister next week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I can tell you that Ambassador Froman has described his trip as successful in substantially narrowing the differences between the United States and Japan when it comes to negotiating this Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also was pretty blunt about the fact that continued work is needed to ultimately resolve the outstanding issues that remain between the two countries.
I know that both Ambassador Froman and his counterpart have directed their teams to continue to try to narrow those gaps based on the guidance that they’ve been given. And we continue to believe that continued success in narrowing those gaps is important to the momentum behind the broader TPP conversations.
So I’m confident that this will continue to be a topic of conversation around the White House in the days leading up to Prime Minister Abe’s visit, and I’m confident that the two leaders will have the opportunity to spend some time on it, as well.
Again, what the President is seeking is a trade agreement that is clearly in the best interest of American businesses and American workers. And raising standards as it relates to labor and the environment is good for -- is certainly good for leveling the playing field. And the President is confident that if we can level the playing field in terms of doing business in that region of the world, that American businesses are very well-positioned to compete for and win business in some of those emerging markets.
Q Can you talk about specifically what he said, that there were issues that had been narrowed? Can you talk about specifically about which issues were narrowed?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a more detailed accounting of Ambassador Froman’s conversations, but you can contact his office. They may be able to provide you more a more detailed readout.
Q And also on trade -- the President has been talking a lot about trade. Recently, he’s going to be doing an interview -- or I guess recently did an interview over in Virginia. How important is it to convince Democrats to get onboard with this? And how many Democratic senators do you think you have on your side on this so far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I can tell you that the President is going to make a pretty strong case to both Democrats and Republicans on this issue. I know that there is a -- the President acknowledged this when he was asked about it by your colleague at Bloomberg last week -- that there is a reflexive opposition in many quarters of the Democratic Party to the idea, the concept of international trade.
The President continues to be confident that he will be in a position to make a very persuasive case to both Democrats and Republicans that the kind of agreement he signs is one that is clearly in the best interest of American workers and clearly in the best interest of American businesses.
The kinds of economic interests are not the kinds of things that have traditionally been -- that have traditionally broken down along party lines. When we’re talking about opening up overseas markets for American businesses, that’s something that Democrats and Republicans traditionally are able to get behind. And we certainly will be appealing to both Democrats and Republicans on those grounds if we’re able to reach a broader agreement.
But the other thing that I think is a pretty persuasive case -- and again, has nothing to do with ideology or partisan affiliation but I think has to do with fact -- and that is that if the United States were to disengage from Asia when it comes to trying to open up access to overseas markets for American businesses, that’s going to have a negative long-term impact on the U.S. economy and on individual U.S. businesses and U.S. workers.
And the threat that is associated with disengagement is a significant one, and again, I think one that either a conservative Democrat -- I’m sorry, either a conservative Republican or a progressive Democrat could understand and be concerned about, frankly. So that’s why the President is engaged in this effort to open up these markets and to level the playing field.
The President continues to be confident that if we can level the playing field and if we can essentially raise standards in this region of the world that has the most dynamic and populous economies, that there will be a genuine economic opportunity for American businesses. And that’s probably not going to win -- convince every single member of Congress, but it should be a persuasive argument to both Democrats and Republicans, and we’ll be making the case to both Democrats and Republicans.
April. I’m sorry, Toluse, go ahead.
Q Just one quick question about the trip to the Everglades tomorrow. The President said in his weekly address that that climate change is an issue that’s going to be longer-lasting and bigger than his presidency. Is he expecting as he goes down to the backyard of top 2016 candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to address their stance on climate change? And is he hoping that his trip will get them to speak about it more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would not anticipate that the President will be singling out any presidential candidates while he’s there, but I would anticipate that the President is hopeful that this will continue to add some momentum and energy to the ongoing political debate about climate change.
And there are significant national security consequences for climate change -- the Pentagon will tell you that. There are significant economic consequences for failing to deal with the consequences of climate change -- there are lots of business leaders who will tell you that. There are significant consequences for public health when it comes to air pollution and air quality and other factors that contribute to climate change -- our leading medical experts make that clear to us. There are significant impact on public safety when it comes to failing to deal with climate change -- we’ve got law enforcement officials and local and state level elected official who would tell you that.
So there are any number of reasons for the U.S. to continue and build on the leadership role that this President has established for the United States when it comes to dealing with climate change and reducing the U.S.’s carbon pollution and using our influence to get other countries, like we have successfully with China, to get them to make commitments to reduce their carbon pollution, as well. And the President is proud of the leadership role that he’s played in this effort, but he certainly welcomes the engagement in this broader debate by Democrats and Republicans.
Again, when it comes to basic national security and public health questions, it shouldn’t be about Democrats and Republicans, it should be about us united as Americans to confront this threat.
Q Josh, I want to go back to two subjects really fast -- Loretta Lynch and human trafficking. Since Dems and Republicans seem to be working on the logjam in the Senate, what is the timetable that the White House has been given for a Senate vote for Loretta Lynch?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a latest update in terms of those conversations. I can tell you that the fact that she has been waiting 164 days is, that vote, whenever it occurs, is long overdue.
Q So there’s no timetable, like maybe the end of this week, beginning of next week? Are you setting like a deadline -- what is this, end of April -- maybe like the first, second week of May? Are you setting a deadline or something?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not setting a deadline. I’m saying that if there’s any sort of deadline that was set, it’s been far surpassed. So it’s time for Republicans to stop playing politics with the nomination of an obviously qualified woman to be the next Attorney General of the United States of America.
Q All right. And an easier question I guess. The President ever year has -- he delivers addresses for commencements. Do you have a list of commencement speeches that he will be giving? And will he be doing an HBCU again this year?
MR. EARNEST: I think the only commencement address that’s been announced so far is the President is planning next month to go to South Dakota and deliver the commencement address at Watertown community college. Is that the name of it? Okay -- the Watertown community college *Lake Area Technical Institute. And the President is looking forward to that opportunity.
Q Is he planning on having anything added to his schedule? Are you guys looking at others still, or is that just one --
MR. EARNEST: I know that the President also traditionally speaks at a commencement ceremony for the military -- one of the military service academies; I believe the Coast Guard is next up on the rotation. I don’t know if I made news there or not, but --
Q Yes, you did. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, there you go. So everyone enjoy all of that. You’ve got that to look forward to. But I’m not aware of any additional commencements that are on the President’s schedule.
Q So he’d just be doing two this year and that’s it?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any others beyond those two. I know that the First Lady today has put out the list of commencement addresses that she’s planning. One of them is a high school in Chicago, Oberlin College in Ohio, and an HBCU in Alabama -- Tuskegee College I believe, as well.
Q On Prime Minister Abe’s visit next week, it looks like the U.S. is preparing quite a welcome for him; he’s going to address Congress for the first time in more than a half century -- Japanese Prime Minister. What’s the message the U.S. wants to send to the region, especially China?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. Obviously there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance associated with a state visit. And we are looking forward to welcoming Prime Minister Abe not just to the United States but also to the White House. And it will be an opportunity for the President and Prime Minister Abe to continue to build on the strong working relationship that the two have personally established, but also to strengthen the ties between our two countries.
Those ties aren’t just political, they are also economic, they are related to security, but they’re also strong ties between our people. There are a number of Japanese Americans who have contributed significantly to the strength and dynamism of our country, and we’re certainly pleased about that.
There are obviously important values that we share -- respect for human rights, commitment to democracy. These are all things that are critical to the strength of the relationship between the United States and Japan. One high-profile topic on the agenda will be the status of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, and the hope that by raising standards and leveling the playing field, we can secure an agreement that is clearly in the best interest of the United States and American businesses and American workers, but also in a way that fairly is beneficial to the Japanese economy, as well.
And certainly, Prime Minister Abe will be in a position to advocate aggressively for his country and his country’s economy. And I’m confident that based on his track record of doing that over the last couple of years, that he’ll continue to do that both when he’s here at the White House and as we try to complete these TPP negotiations in the future.
John, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Great, I appreciate it. I’m curious, just following up on a number of answers that you gave regarding the movement of the Roosevelt to the Red Sea in that particular area of the world, is the U.S. prepared to enforce militarily the U.N. Security Council resolution regarding the arms embargo in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, I don’t want to speculate about any sort of possible future activities. What I will just say -- and maybe what I will just repeat -- is that the chief responsibility of the Roosevelt and other U.S. naval assets in that region is to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in that region of the world.
And there are significant economic consequences for the disruption of navigation and commerce there. And given all of the instability that we see around Yemen and that region of the world, we certainly don’t need that to be worsened in the waterways there.
So we’re cognizant of that. That is the chief responsibility of the U.S. military personnel that are serving our country aboard naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden right now.
Q What’s the purpose of passing that U.N. Security Council resolution if you’re not going to actually enforce it militarily?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United Nations Security Council did come together and speak loudly with one voice in terms of imposing an arms embargo against the Houthis, against former President Saleh, against his son, and against others who are acting at the direction of those individuals.
The international community is resolute in ensuring that that arms embargo is enforced. And it’s true I think, as I acknowledged earlier, that if Iran or anyone else were to try to provide arms to the Houthis, it would be in direct violation of that United Nations Security Council resolution.
Q And what would be the consequences of that? I mean, I don’t think I -- and maybe I missed something -- I don’t know if I heard anything during the course of this briefing that should give the Iranian government pause in terms of the possibility of them delivering arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
MR. EARNEST: We have -- again, I’ve stated here publicly and I’m confident that the Iranians are well aware of the serious concerns that the United States has about their continued support for the Houthis. And their continued supply of support and weapons and equipment to the Houthis would raise significant concerns and be in direct violation of the embargo that was passed by the United Nations Security Council.
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