Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/5/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:03 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all on this beautiful Tuesday. I don’t have any announcements to begin, so we’ll go straight to questions.
Darlene, do you want to start?
Q Thank you. Does the U.S. have any information at this point to corroborate the claims by the Islamic State group that they’re responsible for the shooting attack near Dallas on Sunday?
MR. EARNEST: Darlene, at this point, this is still under investigation by the FBI and other members of the intelligence community to determine any ties or affiliations that these two individuals may have had with ISIL or other terrorist organizations around the world. So it's too early to say at this point.
The thing that we can say, definitively, is that because of the quick and professional and brave work of local law enforcement officers, an attempted terrorist attack was foiled. And that certainly is, again, a testament to the courage and professionalism of those public servants who were there to keep the peace.
Q So then is it also too early to say whether this attack means that the Islamic State has now come to the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think before we made a pronouncement about anything like that we certainly would want to make sure that we knew a whole lot more about the facts. What we do know is we know that there are extremists around the globe, including some who are affiliated with ISIL, who are trying to capitalize on the opportunity that’s presented by social media to try to communicate with individuals around the world, including inside the United States.
There have been a large number of -- not a large number, but there have been a number of individuals, Americans, who have been apprehended by law enforcement who were attempting to travel to the Middle East to -- that at least is an indication of their level of sympathy for ISIL or for extremist organizations around the world. And so we’re very vigilant about the efforts that are underway by ISIL and other extremist organizations to try to radicalize some individuals in the United States. And we’re working closely with community leaders, law enforcement officials, of course, to try to counter that threat and to mitigate that threat. And it's something that we continue to be vigilant about.
You’ll recall that a few months ago the President convened a summit on countering violent extremism to try to collate best practices that are used in communities across the country, and that can be used in other communities to repel this threat. But it's one that we continue to be exceedingly vigilant about.
Q Is it time for individuals or groups or even publications to stop depicting the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons or any other types of drawings?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s obviously a judgment that we leave up to individual media organizations. The principle that I restated yesterday is one that applies, which is, that there is no expression, however offensive, that justifies an act of terrorism or even an act of violence. And that apparently is what these two individuals in Texas were trying to do. They were responding to one form of expression that they found offensive, and tried to use that as justification to carry out an act of terror.
And that is something that the President has repeatedly and consistently condemned. And this is a firm principle that we’re going to protect when it comes to the freedom of expression, and freedom of press, and freedom of speech.
Q One question on the nomination of Joseph Dunford. He had a lot of experience in Afghanistan, was a combat commander. What message is the President trying to send by choosing someone with his experience to be the Joint Chief’s Chairman?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that the President, as he mentioned himself in the Rose Garden, was very pleased today to have the opportunity to nominate General Dunford and General Selva to the positions of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, respectively.
The President has gotten to know General Dunford. Obviously General Dunford has proudly served this country in a variety of roles but including in combat, and that combat experience is valuable to individuals who serve in military leadership positions as well. It’s a testament that General Dunford is somebody who doesn’t just talk the talk, but he is somebody who walks the walk. And the President is going to rely on General Dunford both for his broader strategic advice, but the President is pleased that that strategic advice will be informed by General Dunford’s own personal experience in combat.
Obviously the President and General Dunford have talked about the challenging situation in Afghanistan over the years. General Dunford has his own firsthand experience in leading our troops there. And the President has, for years now, counted on him for unvarnished advice about our military strategy. And the President looks forward to continuing to rely on that advice in the years ahead.
Obviously one of the significant challenges facing the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be considering this military policy moving forward as we continue to draw down our military personnel from Afghanistan while at the same time we’ve preserved the important security cooperation relationship with the Afghan government and the Afghan people. And General Dunford knows -- understands that dynamic as well as anybody, and the President is certainly going to rely heavily on his advice as he makes decisions that are consistent with the national security interests of the United States.
Q Josh, Greece is getting closer and closer to a cash crunch, and there’s no deal in sight yet with the IMF, with the ECB or the European Commission. How concerned is the White House, the United States about that? And to what extend are you involved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, the Obama administration, for years now, has been involved in the effort to facilitate efforts by the major European economies and Greece to reconcile their differences. And the President’s Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, and other officials at the Treasury Department continue to monitor this quite closely. Secretary Lew is in regular touch with his counterparts in Europe and with leaders of some of these countries as they work through these disagreements.
The thing that we continue to be pleased by is that individuals on all sides indicate that they believe, as the United States believes and as the President believes, that it is in the interest of the global economy for the European Currency Union to remain intact. And we continue to have confidence in the good faith efforts of those on all sides, whether it’s the ECB, or the individual European countries, or Greece to try to resolve this in a way that doesn’t add additional and unnecessary drama to the international economy.
Q Are you confident that they’ll get a deal in time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't speculate on that. Obviously this is something that we continue to monitor closely, and we are encouraged by the efforts -- the good-faith efforts that have been made by all parties to try to resolve this in a way that minimizes the drama and uncertainty.
Q On a separate issue, Attorney General Lynch is in Baltimore today. To what extent was -- did the President offer her any counsel or advice on what to say as his representative there, and was he involved at all in the decision to send her?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she obviously is going to spend time meeting with political leaders in Baltimore. I know that she also is looking forward to spending some time with leaders in the community who have obviously been on the front lines of this, not just in the last couple of weeks but over the last several years that the tensions between many members of the community and local law enforcement have worsened.
I know that the Attorney General is also planning to meet with the family of Freddie Gray. She’s also going to spend some time meeting with those law enforcement officers that have been injured in the context of the violence that we've seen there over the last week or so.
So she’s going to spend a lot of time on the ground, and that will be a valuable thing. Attorney General Lynch is somebody that comes into this job that she’s had for about 10 days now with the strong support of law enforcement, given her track record as a career prosecutor with the track record of prosecuting everyone from those suspected of acts of terrorism to white-collar criminals. And her evenhandedness and fairness and professionalism have served her well and inspires the confidence of law enforcement officers that she’s worked closely with.
At the same time, Attorney General Lynch is somebody that has -- when she was nominated, also got the strong support of the Civil Rights community as well, and I think that means that she is well positioned to try to bring about the kind of healing that Baltimore is pretty desperately in need of right now.
Q Did she and the President talk about her visit before she went?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. You’ll recall that last week she did, on her first day on the job, come by the White House and talk to the President about a variety of issues, including the ongoing situation in Baltimore. I don't know that they’ve had the opportunity to talk about the situation since then.
Q And lastly, any reaction to Mike Huckabee’s announcement today as a presidential candidate?
MR. EARNEST: I don't.
Q Senator Reid said yesterday that he’d work to block movement on TPA until the Senate took care of both the highway bill and surveillance reform. Senator Hatch expressed some disappointment with that, said he’s been trying to work with the White House. So I'm kind of wondering what your guys’ reaction to the Senator’s comments were.
MR. EARNEST: My reaction is we're setting the bar awfully low if we think the Senate can only do one thing over the course of the next month. The American people have a higher expectation for the U.S. Senate to get things done that are clearly in the best interest of the American people, particularly when we know they have strong bipartisan support.
We know there’s strong bipartisan support for trade promotion authority. We know there’s strong bipartisan support for some of the FISA reform proposals, the Patriot Act reform proposals that have been put forward. So, surely we should be able to expect the United States Senate to do more than one thing over the course of this month. And I'm gratified that we have seen a number of senators come forward and say that exact thing, that they welcome Senator Reid’s interest in seeing some of these other priorities that he’s identified and we hope the Senate will act quickly on all of them.
Q Last week, on the USA Freedom Act, which would replace the Patriot Act, you said you're encouraged to see the bipartisan support, but you needed time to review the extra language. It's been a week now, so I'm just wondering if you might be able to firm that up any more on whether the White House supports the bill as is.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are -- we continue to be supportive of the ongoing effort in Congress to build bipartisan support and put in place the kinds of reforms that the President talked about in the speech that he gave a year and a half ago.
I don’t have anything new or definitive to say about it at this point, but our posture toward this is that this common-sense reform legislation that has bipartisan support is an important step in trying to reach the balance -- strike the right balance between ensuring that our law enforcement and intelligence officials have access to the information they need to keep us safe while also safeguarding the privacy of the American people.
Q And the last thing -- the Labor Department said today that they’ve turned over the recommendations on the overtime rules to OMB. This is something the President talked about, about a year ago. I’m wondering, first, if you could tell us what the recommendation was in terms of the limit at which kind of overtime rules would go into effect. And then OMB has got 90 days to review this. I’m wondering if they can extend it if they want. This has already kind of dragged on for a year, so I’m wondering if that’s sort of the time frame in which the White House wants to see them come to a determination.
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, Justin, I don’t have any more details for you in terms of the specific recommendation or the time frame. But I can tell you that OMB has received the recommendation and is, consistent with the standard process here, reviewing that recommendation. And once they’re prepared to make an announcement, we’ll be ready to talk about that recommendation in more detail.
Q Do you have any objection to them releasing what the Labor Department’s recommendation was?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we have asked them is to follow standard procedure, and the standard procedure is for them to evaluate that recommendation before making it public. So we hope that they’ll follow that standard procedure.
Q Josh, looking ahead to the President’s summit with Gulf leaders, it’s no secret that they’re coming to D.C. with sort of a laundry list of requests for military hardware. At this point, is the President willing to expand American military assistance to those Gulf countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to make any pronouncements about what they’ll -- about the results of the discussions that the President is looking forward to next week. It obviously is an opportunity for the United States and the countries in the Gulf to discuss ways to enhance our partnership and deepen our security cooperation. It’s also an opportunity to reaffirm the United States’ strong strategic partnership with the Gulf States. I’m confident they’ll discuss our shared concern about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, and I think the fact that this summit is taking place demonstrates a mutual commitment to take the steps that are necessary to deescalate tensions and stabilize the security situation in the Gulf.
So this is an important meeting, but at this point, I would not prejudge the outcome.
Q And I know you’ve been asked this before, but I want another bite at it, which is, as sanctions are, I’ll say, eased -- not lifted, but eased -- on Iran, they’re going to get a flood of cash. Is it your assessment that they’re not going to use that money to expand their destabilizing operations in the region, that they’re going to find some other use for it? Or are you acknowledging that, in fact, they’re going to turn around and use that sanctions relief to fund Hezbollah or other groups?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, I think, most importantly, it’s the hope of the Iranian people that that influx of resources will be devoted to meeting the needs of the population there and strengthening the economy that has taken a terrible toll on the daily lives of millions of Iranians.
We’ve talked before about how the significant pressure that our sanctions regime has placed on Iran has had a negative impact on their economy, and that poorly performing economy has added to some pressure inside of Iran for the Iranian leadership to consider a change in policy. And we’re gratified by that because it’s created an important diplomatic opportunity for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But the fact is the -- I guess there are two things I’d point out. The first is, even while these sanctions have been in place, we’ve not seen Iran significant scale back their support for terrorism or their destabilizing activities in the region. And the second thing is that the pressure that they’re feeling is not primarily rooted in the idea that they need to get rid of -- they need to throw off the sanctions, or at least get the international community to relax these sanctions so that they can invest additional resources in those activities. Again, the pressure that they’re reacting to is from the Iranian people who are frustrated at the persistent, and persistently negative, economic conditions in their country.
So, again, I wouldn’t be in a position to predict exactly what the Iranian reaction will be, and I’m certainly not going to be in a position to mandate what kinds of economic decisions that they’ll make. But I do think that a common-sense look at what kind of pressure they’re reacting to indicates that their priority will be to use those resources to address the persistent economic problems in their country.
Q But as you pointed out in your number one, there’s no indication that even under all this pressure they’ve really scaled back those destabilizing activities. So they already face this choice. They’re making the choice to continue to fund these activities. I guess I don’t see why that would change for a newly flush Iran.
MR. EARNEST: And, again, Olivier, the reason that they are pursuing this policy change -- you’ll recall that when President Obama took office, there was a situation where the international community was fractured in terms of how to confront Iran and their nuclear ambitions. At the same time, this was a problematic dynamic because the Iranian people inside of Iran was unified in support of the government’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.
Because of the President’s leadership, because of the strong actions taken by the United States Congress, we’ve seen a dramatic reversal in that dynamic. Now the international community is united in ensuring that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, and there now is significant disagreement inside of Iran because a large portion of the population is frustrated by the poor economic conditions in that country.
And we’ve seen that economy only weaken further over time because of the pressure that’s being applied by the international community. And that pressure, again, that’s put in place by the international community and has prompted a reaction on the part of the Iranian population because of the poor economy -- that is what has prompted Iran to come to the negotiating table and start having constructive conversations with us about how to curtail and, in some cases, even scale back their nuclear program in a way that would prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So, again, the pressure that they’re responding to is an economic one. And so given additional economic resources, I think that a common-sense analysis would be that they would use those additional resources to try to relieve that economic pressure that they’re feeling. But again, I'm not going to make any predictions about what they’re going to do, and I certainly am not going to be in a position to prescribe what they should do. This is a sovereign country that will make their own decisions.
The last point -- two last points that I’ll make -- one is that there continue to be other sanctions that will remain in place even if we are able to reach a nuclear agreement. There are a host of sanctions that the international community has placed on Iran in response to their support for terrorism, some weapons proliferation activities that have aroused the concern of the international community. And so the point is there are a large number of sanctions that will remain in place.
Q Hey, Josh. I know you said that the incident in Texas is, of course, under investigation. But regardless of what the investigation reveals, just given the way this played out, the type of event it was, the fact that at least one of the gunmen had some contact with people within ISIS -- or even if he didn’t -- are you treating this as a terrorist attack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I indicated in response to Darlene’s question that it's because of the quick thinking and professionalism of local law enforcement in Texas that they were able to foil what appears to be an attempted terrorist attack. Again, we’re grateful to the courageous actions of the individuals that prevented further bloodshed at the site.
Q Okay. There’s been a lot of emphasis, not just here over this today, but over the past year, on foreign fighters and on trying to stop this. But it seems like the greater risk is always going to be the path of least resistance, and maybe the easiest way for a force like ISIS to get inside the U.S. would be over social media, but that’s also the hardest thing to prevent. So are there enough resources being devoted to that when often what we hear about is the risk of the foreign fighters?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that the United States government has been focused on in both of these issues, both in terms of foreign fighters, as well as efforts that are underway by extremists, including those inside of ISIL, to use social media to try to radicalize individuals and inspire them to carry out acts of violence. We’re mindful of both threats.
And when it comes to foreign fighters, the President, as you’ll recall, convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss this issue and to coordinate international efforts to stop the flow of fighters -- or at least reduce the flow of fighters to the Middle East who are taking up arms alongside ISIL. And we’re mindful of that threat. We’ve worked cooperatively with the international community. And there have been steps taken by law enforcement in this country to prevent individuals in the United States from traveling to Syria or to other places in the region with the aspiration of fighting alongside ISIL.
But we continue to be keenly aware and vigilant about the threat that is posed by a so-called lone wolf, where you have an individual who is disaffected and is vulnerable to some of the kind of recruitment efforts that we see ISIL employ through social media. And, again, I can’t speak to what happened in this particular situation because it’s still under investigation, but this is a broader threat that we continue to be mindful of.
And there are periodically law enforcement actions that are taken, announcements made by the FBI about individuals who do aspire to carry out lone wolf attacks who are prevented from doing so because of good law enforcement work. And so I think that is an indication that our law enforcement community, our intelligence professionals, and our homeland security officials continue to be vigilant about this ongoing threat.
Q Okay. And lastly, the possible release of Omar Khadr in Canada, the former Gitmo detainee -- the thought that he may soon be released from prison there. How does the administration feel about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen those specific reports, but obviously the United States has a strong and important alliance with Canada, and whenever there are transfers that are conducted from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to other countries, it is done with a set of security requirements in place. And the United States stays in close touch with our partners who are working with us in the effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay as they apply the security requirements that we and they believe are necessary to protect the citizens in both our countries.
Q To follow up on Justin’s question about overtime. Do you have -- I know you can’t say when OMB will make it public, but do you have any idea why it took a year? Other rules that the President has asked labor to develop have come out much quicker.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is one particular rule that was the subject of extensive study. There was a lot of consultation that was conducted by Department of Labor officials who had conversations with people who would be affected by this decision -- that included a wide variety of employers, but also organizations that represent the interests of working people.
I know that there is a body of academic work that’s been dedicated to this, as well, that was also carefully reviewed by the Department of Labor officials as they were putting together this recommendation. But as to why this one took longer than other rules have taken, I can’t speak to that. That may be something that the Department of Labor can speak to once a final recommendation has been moved forward.
Let’s see, let’s move around a little bit. Bill Press.
Q Josh, I want to come back to Garland, Texas for a second, in that this event was an event that was deliberately planned to offer a prize for the worst depiction, if you will, of Mohammed. Is it in -- do you believe, is it, while we all condemn the violence, appropriate to hold an event like that deliberately to poke fun at someone else’s religion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the principle that we have cited here is that no act of expression, even if it’s an offensive expression, can justify an act of terrorism, or even an act of violence. And that’s why I’m reluctant to offer -- render my own judgment or the judgment of the United States government about this particular act of expression. But there certainly is no room in our society, and it certainly doesn’t reflect a commitment to universal human rights, to try to use an act of expression to justify an act of terrorism.
Q This organization -- you don’t have to. The organization has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, and it seems they organized this event deliberately to provoke a response. Are they in any way responsible for what happened?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there’s no justification for an act of violence and an attempted act of terrorism like the one that we saw. And even those who do find these expressions offensive -- I think the vast majority of them would, and I think even the experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center who have obviously expressed their strong concerns about this expression, would say that it does not justify an act of violence.
And I think that’s the principle that’s at stake here. And it’s going to be something that we’ll continue to -- there’s a lot more for us to learn about what exactly took place in Texas and our intelligence and law enforcement professionals are investigating the situation to find out more.
Q Just a couple questions on Iran. First of all, June 30th is our deadline, correct, for the --
MR. EARNEST: That is correct.
Q Is that also -- you previously said that the earlier deadline was basically the real deadline. Is there any wiggle room on this June 30th deadline?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding of the way that this is structured is that June 30th is the day that the Joint Plan of Action would expire. This is the interim agreement that was reached between Iran and the international community. And so that’s why we’re working off this June 30th deadline.
So the point is there are consequences for not meeting that deadline. I know that there have been earlier negotiations where the deadline has slipped a day or two. But as the President said in relation to the April 30th deadline, we’ve been negotiating here for more than a year and a half -- or at least about a year and a half, and the time has come for the international community and, most importantly, Iran to make some serious decisions about their commitment to resolving this situation through diplomacy.
The President and the international community have acted decisively. We’ve been clear about what our expectations are in terms of shutting down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, and about imposing the most stringent and intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. That’s what the United States and the international community requires in this agreement.
And there are still important details to be worked out. But we continue to be hopeful that we’ll be able to successfully complete an agreement by June 30th precisely because resolving the situation this way, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy, is by far the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q You do have some pretty fundamental differences still. What is the alternative? What happens if there is no agreement by the 30th or by a day or two after the 30th?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have to see. What we’re focused on right now is trying to -- is to complete these negotiations. And I know that our technical experts even this week have been in touch with their Iranian counterparts to continue working through many of these highly technical details.
The thing we continue to be mindful of is that, while this broader political framework has been established and agreed to, that there continue to be a lot of details that have to be locked down that will allow both sides to live up to the terms of this broader political outline. So we’re mindful of the importance of those details, and that’s why, here, even a couple of months in advance of the deadline, this is something that our experts are working on.
Q Because the President, a number of times, and you have as well, have basically portrayed the alternative to a deal as war. But I mean, that’s not the choice you’re facing at the end of June 30th, is it? You criticize critics of this deal by saying that essentially they would want war. So what -- that’s what I’m trying to get a sense of -- what happens if you don’t get a deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that we have described it this way is that those critics of this negotiation don’t suggest that there’s some other deal that could be reached through negotiation. They’re essentially throwing out the diplomatic option, which I guess only leaves you with the military option. I haven’t heard a suggestion that there is some other option out there.
Q Okay, but you just said a deal has got to essentially be done by January [June] 30th. You’ve been negotiating for a year and a half. If you can’t get there, you have these fundamental differences about when sanctions are being lifted, what is your alternative? Or are you forced to accept whatever you can get by June 30th? Or accept war?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we are trying to do, and I think what we are forcing the Iranians to do, is to try to agree on all the details that support this broader political understanding that’s been reached a month or so ago. And that’s what we’re focused on. We believe it’s clearly in the best interest of the international community, and Iran has something to gain from this, as well. And that’s why we’re so focused on this particular objective.
Q And on the Corker bill, as I’m sure you’ve seen, it’s in a little bit of a holding pattern right now. Would the administration be troubled if this bill died -- I mean, between the machinations of -- maneuvers of folks like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, if this bill died in the Senate? I mean, you didn’t want it in the first place. Would that be a problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you point out that we did urge Congress to not take action prior to the completion of negotiations. But at the same time, by working diligently in bipartisan fashion, we were able to reach a compromise that was approved unanimously -- not just with bipartisan support, but approved by every single Democrat and Republican that serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But ultimately, it will be the responsibility of individual senators to decide whether or not they’re going to go along with this compromise proposal that’s got strong bipartisan support, or if there might be other factors in play that might be affecting the decision that they’re making in terms of casting this vote.
Q But there would be no mourning here at the White House if that bill died in the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’ve made clear what our starting position was, but we’ve also made clear that the compromise that was reached by Chairman Corker and Senator Cardin is a reasonable and acceptable one. And that’s I think why -- I think that’s also the opinion of every single Democrat and every single Republican that served on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Q Senator McConnell today put trade promotion authority on a very short list of bills that he expects to come up very soon. Do you have the votes now for that bill?
MR. EARNEST: For trade promotion authority? Well, again, I think you’d have to check with Senator McConnell. He obviously is a hard-nosed and experienced, veteran vote-counter, and so I would refer you to them for a whip count. I think you’ve seen the President devote significant personal time and attention to making the case to individual members of Congress about why this is something they should support. He has talked to both Democrats and Republicans, but the case the President has made to Democrats has been that action on this trade promotion authority bill would be to vote in favor of the most progressive trade bill that’s ever advanced through the Congress.
And the President is hopeful that Democrats, as they take a clear-eyed look at this proposal, will acknowledge that the best way to advance the kinds of progressive values and the best way to advance the interests of middle-class families all across the country is to support this particular trade bill. And if we’re able to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, it will be one that reflects the principles that are outlined in the trade promotion authority bill, and we’d be optimistic and hopeful that Democrats will give that a fair look as well.
Q Will the President have any new message or announcement when he goes to Oregon on Friday?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned.
Q Thanks, Josh. FHFA is reviewing and possibly -- reviewing a possible boost to the pay of the CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Does the White House have a reaction to that news?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, you saw that the Treasury Department put out a statement today indicating that the current limits on compensation that are in place for executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should not be raised. And the reason for that is simply that there are important taxpayer assistance that’s been provided to those particular organizations, to those institutions, and it’s the view of the Treasury Department and the view of the White House that those limits on executive compensation should remain in place.
Q The two CEOs of those entities get paid a small fraction of what other CEOs in the same industry get paid. They also get paid less than executives at those entities. Given that there’s no plan to wind down these entities, why shouldn’t they get close to the industry level of compensation?
MR. EARNEST: The reason that these entities are different than some of the financial entities that you see in the private sector is they benefit significantly from a backstop that’s provided by the taxpayers. And because of that taxpayer assistance, I think it is entirely legitimate for the executives of those institutions to be subject to compensation limits. And more importantly, that’s the view of the Treasury Department. There’s a responsibility that FHFA has to consult with the Treasury Department when making these kinds of decisions. And that’s a view that the Treasury Department has expressed.
At the same time, both the Treasury Department and we here at the White House acknowledge that this falls within the independent jurisdiction of the independent FHFA.
Q So given that taxpayer money is on the line with these entities, there’s no concern that the compensation limits prevent those entities from attracting the top talent and the best administrators?
MR. EARNEST: It hasn’t so far. We’ve seen some very highly skilled and experienced financial professionals who have been working hard at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This has particularly been true since some important reforms have been put in place. And we have seen the financial picture of these entities improve rather dramatically in just the last six or seven years in ways that many financial analysts didn’t expect.
There’s still important work to do in terms of these reforms and still important decisions to be made about the ultimate structure of these entities. But I think the point is that, thus far, we’ve seen individuals with significant financial experience step forward and want to serve their country in this way. And at the same time, they’re able to do that without making a particularly significant financial sacrifice given that they still enjoy significant financial compensation, even if it's not in line with their counterparts in the private sector.
Q Thanks, Josh. Going back to trade for just a minute, and I wanted to ask if you had any reaction to John Boehner’s assertion that if the President really wants a trade deal, he should get Hillary Clinton on board. And has he asked? And does he agree?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, we saw Republicans, including the Speaker of the House -- again, in the context of the last election -- make a really strong case about why Republicans should retain the majority in the House of Representatives so that they could advance their interest and their priorities including trying to advance trade legislation.
And now here we are, three or four months into the newly strengthened House Republican majority, and you have the Speaker of the House suggesting that he doesn’t just need the help of the current Democratic President to try to get this legislation through his body, he now is suggesting that candidates for President in the other party need to help him do his job.
I think in the mind of the President, it's the responsibility for the Speaker of the House to do his job and to pull together the votes that he needs to advance his agenda. The good news is, is that he has a Democratic President who shares at least one of those priorities, and a Democratic President who signaled a willingness to make the case to members of Congress in his own party about why they should support bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority legislation.
But ultimately, it seems a little early for a pretty desperate act like that, to basically suggest that you need a candidate for office from the other party to help you advance the agenda when you’ve got the majority in the House of Representatives.
Q But it's something the President wants, and she’s someone --
MR. EARNEST: Sure it is. And that’s why you’ve seen the President --
Q -- who could win over some Democrats who are on the fence about this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that what you have seen is that you have seen the President make a very strong case to Democrats in the United States Congress about how advancing this Trade Promotion Authority legislation is consistent with the kinds of progressive values that the President has championed throughout his six or six and a half years in office now.
And the President has made that case publicly; he’ll do it again on Friday out in Oregon. The President has made that case privately, most recently in a meeting that he convened with some members of the New Democrat Coalition here at the White House last week.
So we’ve been clear about the case that we’re willing to make and so the President has taken on that responsibility. I guess we’d like to see the Speaker of the House, who actually presides over the majority in the House of Representatives, assume a similar level of responsibility for advancing a piece of legislation that he himself has called a priority.
Q And on another topic. The President posted a message of condolence on Dave Goldberg’s Facebook page. Mark Zuckerberg, among others responded to it. I'm wondering if you could tell us anything about the President’s relationship with him or anything else about how long they knew each other and anything else that -- if you’ve spoken to him about it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did have the opportunity to write this note that was posted to the White House Facebook page to offer his condolences. And the President had the opportunity to get to know Dave and Sheryl a little bit over the years, and I think the President’s impression of Dave is consistent with the impression that we’ve seen in much of the news coverage of his death over the last 72 hours or so.
As the President said in his Facebook message, Dave was somebody who really left an impression as somebody who was kind, who was generous, but at the same time extraordinarily talented and was willing to dedicate that talent to obviously benefit the institutions with which he was associated. But he was also willing to use that talent to help other entrepreneurs and other people who were striving to make their mark. And he leaves behind quite a legacy in terms of the large number of entrepreneurs and innovators that can talk about the way that they benefitted from the counsel, advice, and mentoring of somebody of Dave’s stature.
Let’s see -- Anita.
Q I just wanted to go back to the shooting. I know that local law enforcement said that they were aware of the event -- the contest that was happening. The organizers had already gotten additional security. I’m wondering what the White House knew about it. Did that rise to the level that you had heard this contest was happening, and was there some concern? And if you didn’t know, should you have known?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Homeland Security knew, and that’s I think the most important thing. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, put out a statement yesterday indicating a variety of things, but he noted that “Initial word of the planned program at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland was passed from local law enforcement and the community to federal authorities days before the event. And the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI were then able to disseminate information about the planned event to law enforcement and first responders across the country.”
That’s the kind of coordination and communication that we would expect the Department of Homeland Security to maintain with local law enforcement agencies across the country.
Q Does that mean the White House knew?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any -- to what degree the White House or officials at the White House were aware of this particular event. But what is clear is that our professionals at the Department of Homeland Security were aware of this event and communicated appropriately with law enforcement agencies across the country. And in this case, thanks again to the bravery and professionalism of at least one member of the local law enforcement agency, greater bloodshed was averted because of his actions.
Q The British election is Thursday. How closely is the President paying attention? In fact, it could mean a total change in leadership.
MR. EARNEST: The President is obviously following the elections that are taking place in a country with whom we have such a special relationship. But I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about the current status of those elections, again, because I’m unwilling to speak about this election in a way that might leave anybody with the impression that we’re supporting one side or another.
Q Thanks, Josh. I have two topics. First of all, on this string of recent incidents of police violence against unarmed citizens that the President noted are showing up on video just about every week. Something I’ve heard him say and then I’ve heard you say on a number of occasions with these incidents is that in the context of those incidents, the overwhelming majority of police officers act properly and are good and honest. And I’m wondering, when we look at the Freddie Gray incident and Walter Scott and in incident after incident, not a single officer intervenes on behalf of these citizens. We haven’t seen a single incident where a police officer, other than the ones participating in the event, have acted properly and intervened on behalf of the citizen. So I’m wondering, on what basis do you and the President make that statement in that context? I mean, notwithstanding what happened in Texas. When they’re put to this test, when police officers are committing violence against an unarmed citizen, why would anybody think that the overwhelming majority of them are good when we’ve seen evidence that not a single one of them has been?
MR. EARNEST: Tommy, I think we do that based on the experience that the vast majority of Americans has when they’re dealing with local law enforcement -- that they find these individuals to be professional, they find them to be fair, and they find them to be committed to protecting the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.
And, again, I think that’s the experience of many Americans when they come into contact with law enforcement professionals. And, again, I think the fact that these particular -- the President alluded to this a little bit in his conversation with David Letterman yesterday, that the reason that some of these incidents stand out is because they are a departure from the experience that most Americans have when they’re dealing with law enforcement. And they are a departure from the kind of professionalism that the vast majority of law enforcement officers show when they’re doing their job.
Q It doesn’t seem like -- if we’re having one of these every week, that if the vast majority of officers are professional and good and act properly, wouldn’t we see at least one of them show up on video acting properly and saying, you know what, stop choking that guy, stop planting evidence on that guy, give this guy some medical help? Why haven’t we seen that happen even one time? The reason I’m asking is that the President also said, look, I can’t federalize the police. But given that this is happening so frequently, why aren’t we pushing for something like federalizing the investigation and prosecution of these incidents? Or requiring body cameras? Or data collection for profiling and use of force? Why aren’t we pushing for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tommy, that’s more than two questions; that was a long list of questions. But let me just observe that many of the incidents that you have cited as being cause for concern are incidents that either were or are under investigation by federal authorities at the Department of Justice. And I think that is an indication that the Obama administration and our career prosecutors at the Department of Justice do take these issues very seriously.
And the other thing that occurs to me is that are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hours of video footage collected every single day by dashboard cams, by body cams, by security cameras that monitor or at least are capturing the work of our law enforcement officers. And I think that is an indication that the snippets that we do see are serious and are cause for significant concern but do not reflect the actions and professionalism of the vast majority of law enforcement officers who pursue their work in a professional way that’s consistent with a commitment to justice and equality.
But as long as we have even these isolated incidents, it’s important for us to acknowledge that those isolated incidents contribute, as the President said yesterday, to broader concerns in the community about the fairness with which justice is being administered. And it’s important for local law enforcement to be responsive to those concerns, but by building more trust between the local law enforcement and the communities that they serve, it makes it safer for police officers to do their job and surely makes it safer for individuals who are living in those communities.
Q One last one, if you don’t mind. I think that one of the reasons -- there are Democrats who would otherwise be open to listening to a final trade deal and looking at it, but they’re made nervous by the fact that with TPA the only thing standing between the American people and a possible bad deal is a simple Republican majority. So what I’m wondering is, let’s say the TPA is passed, the bill is -- the final deal is put online for 60 days before the final vote. If the President -- will the President be listening -- if the public wises up and says this is a terrible deal and we don’t want it, would the President be listening and be willing to veto a TPP deal that passed with a simple majority?
MR. EARNEST: Here’s the thing, Tommy, that I think that the vast majority of Americans can be confident about -- that the most important thing standing between the American people and a bad TPP deal is a President of the United States that for the last six and a half years has scratched and clawed to protect the interests of middle-class families all across the country. And they can be confident that as he weighs an agreement, if one is reached, that he will have the interests of middle-class families first in his mind. And there is no reason that anybody who has concerns about the conduct of Republicans in Congress -- and according to the latest polls, the vast of majority of Americans do -- those Americans can take solace and they should actually feel confident that any agreement that’s reached will be one that the President believes is clearly in the best interest of the American economy, of American businesses and, most importantly, American middle-class families.
Q But will he be listening, will he be open to the idea at that point? You guys talk about the 60-day period where we can look at it, we can comment about it, and I just want to make sure that President is going to be listening and open to the idea.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the President is always going to be open to the comments of the American people and is attentive to their reaction to decisions that he’s making. But the goal of this process that this administration has devoted years to trying to negotiate is to level the playing field in some of the most dynamic economic markets in the world, and that by leveling the playing field for Americans businesses we can create an opportunity for our entrepreneurs, our innovators, our small and large business-owners and our workers to compete and win. And that’s going to expand opportunity for American businesses and for American middle-class families, and that’s what we’re focused on. Again, if the agreement doesn’t meet that test, then the President won’t sign it.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about General Dunford. The President went to great lengths to salute General Dempsey, and describing the closeness of their relationship and the success of that relationship. What is his expectation of General Dunford, if confirmed? And how might that expectation differ -- or even from a policy perspective differ from General Dempsey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has been deeply appreciative of the service that he has received and the American people have received from both General Dempsey and from Admiral Winnefeld. Those are the current Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The President has developed a very strong and useful working relationship with both men who represent the interests of the United States military and every single servicemember. And the President, again, as he had the opportunity to convey in the Rose Garden today, is deeply appreciative of their service to the country, not just over the last four years that they’ve served in these positions, but throughout their careers in serving the military.
And I would anticipate that the President plans to establish a similarly solid working relationship with both General Dunford and General Selva; that these are two who have long, highly decorated careers in the United States military, in the United States Marine Corps and the United States Air Force respectively. And the President has complete confidence that these are the right men to assume the important responsibility at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Q Would it be status quo, though? Is that the expectation? Or would he expect them to do something different from their predecessors?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it’s going to depend on -- what he expects that they’ll do the same as their predecessors is to offer him the unvarnished, direct advice that he needs from his military leadership. And that’s, in fact, the reason that the President has chosen both General Dunford and General Selva.
But in terms of any sort of policy announcements or policy changes that they’re contemplating, I’m not sure that they’d have a whole lot to say about that in advance of their congressional testimony. But the American people will get to hear from them about whether they’re contemplating anything like that when they testify before Congress.
Q What’s happening in Somalia that makes the White House feel like now is the time to engage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as you point out, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, has made the first visit by a United States Secretary of State to the nation of Somalia. He went there to try to nurture the kinds of democratic reforms that we believe are critical to stabilizing the security situation in Somalia. Because of the hard work of African Union forces, we’ve seen a lot of progress in the last several months against al-Shabaab forces that had previously taken over significant amounts of territory in that country. I think the latest estimate I heard was that 80 to 85 percent of that territory had been rolled back, and that’s an indication that this regional effort to combat the forces of extremism are, at least in this instance, bearing some very valuable fruit.
And in order to capitalize on those security gains, we believe, as we have in other countries, that a stable, unified, inclusive, democratic governing system will be required. And we want to encourage the efforts of the President, the Prime Minister and others, including those who are serving in parliament, to do that. And that’s why the Secretary of State met with them today.
Q Two others. I want to ask you about trade. Congressman Doggett of Texas, who has obviously come out very forcefully against fast-track, is concerned about secrecy. We’ve been hearing that a lot over the last several days -- secrecy is a problem; the sheer volume of information on this; there’s no enough clarity and transparency. Does the White House understand the concerns of many in Congress about that?
MR. EARNEST: No, we don’t. The fact is, any member of Congress that’s interested in knowing exactly what’s in the agreement doesn’t even have to leave Capitol Hill in order to go and read every single text, chapter of the agreement as it stands now.
The fact is, a final agreement, however, has not been reached. And once an agreement has been reached, the American public will have 60 days to review that agreement even prior to the President signing it. And after the President signs it, Congress will then have the opportunity to continue to evaluate it. Members of Congress have also received extensive briefings from senior administration officials who are directly involved in negotiating the agreement.
So the fact of the matter is, there’s no excuse for a member of Congress who wants to know what’s in the trade agreement for not knowing what’s in the trade agreement. And so I guess -- reflecting his commitment to transparency, I hope Congressman Doggett will be willing to say whether or not he’s actually read it.
Q Including those documents that are marked confidential, still restricted to members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that means members of Congress can read them. That’s the point. That’s why it’s ridiculous for somebody to suggest that anybody is keeping a secret.
Q Last thing I want to ask you about -- the ongoing process that the State Department has vis-à-vis Keystone. Any timing on that? Any chance it’s ever going to wrap up?
MR. EARNEST: You should check with the State Department. They’re the ones that are working on it.
Q How long has it been now?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure, but it sounds like you’ve been working on this today, so maybe you can tell me. (Laughter.)
Q A long time now.
MR. EARNEST: So there you go.
Bill, do you have anything today? Okay. We’ll do a couple more in the back. Yes, this gentleman back there in the glasses.
Q Thank you. I’m (inaudible) Kurdistan. And I know President Barzani of the Kurdistan region is here in the White House -- is going to be in the White House today. I wanted to know if there’s a handout for us, a readout of that meeting that’s going to take place between President Barzani and President Obama and the Vice President?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, President Barzani is scheduled to be at the White House today, and he will be meeting with the Vice President principally here at the White House. I know that the Vice President is looking forward to that meeting.
President Barzani and Vice President Biden have had multiple opportunities to talk on the phone and to visit here in person, most recently in April of 2012. I can tell you in advance that the leaders are intending to discuss a range of issues, including the United States’ strong and continued support to Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish people, the combined campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and the status of ongoing political initiatives to address the needs of the Iraqi people and to foster cooperation across all communities.
I would anticipate that the President will also have an opportunity to see President Barzani while he’s here, as well.
Q One more question. The Chief of Staff of President Barzani has said that the President will raise the issue of self-determination for the Kurdish people while he is meeting Vice President Biden and President Obama. What would be the response of the White House with that in mind?
MR. EARNEST: It continues to be the view of the United States that a unified Iraq that’s governed in an inclusive way is clearly in the best interest of Iraq’s diverse population. And that was part of the strong case that the United States and President Obama made to Iraq’s political leadership last summer when the political leadership in Iraq was fracturing. And we saw that that was having a corresponding impact on the security forces in Iraq and created an opening for ISIL extremists to make significant gains across that country.
And because of the close coordination, and because of the commitment to unifying that country that we’ve seen by Iraq’s political leadership, significant gains have been made in terms of rolling back ISIL’s advances.
There are a couple of examples I can cite for you that I'm sure you’re familiar with, of the United States and our coalition partners working closely with Kurdish security forces -- the Peshmerga -- to roll back ISIL. So this is everything from the operation to retake Mosul Dam, to the efforts to end the siege at Sinjar Mountain where the slaughter of thousands of Yezidis was prevented. That was prevented because of the good work and close coordination of the Peshmerga and U.S. forces. And I think that’s a testament to the enduring cooperation between President Barzani and President Obama, but also the people and the security forces in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and the United States.
And that means that the leaders will have plenty to discuss this afternoon, and I would anticipate that once the meeting has concluded that we’ll have a readout of the meeting for you.
All right, Bob, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just to follow up on the police issue, does the President support universal police, body, and inside-van cams? And to the point you made about the broader concerns, Boehner has said that one of the base causes is 50 years of liberal policy failures. But could you make the case just as easily that it’s income distribution from tax breaks for the rich, no infrastructure jobs, and college costs increasing that they have locked?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bob, as it relates to body cameras, you know that the Department of Justice at the end of last week made an announcement about a significant amount of federal funds that would be devoted to assisting local jurisdictions as they purchase body cameras. A portion of that money will be used to actually evaluate the effectiveness of body cameras. There’s some early evidence to indicate that the use of body cameras does reduce the number of incidents when it comes to conflicts between police officers and members of the community. So the early indications are good, but the President believes that it merits additional study.
As it relates to trying to meet the needs of people in some of these economically disadvantaged communities that are often the site of these conflicts with local police, there are a number of things that the President has proposed that have been steadfastly blocked by Republicans. These are policy proposals that we know would benefit people in these communities and would improve the economic situation in these communities, both in the short term, but over the long term.
These are things like the President’s proposal to guarantee high-quality early childhood education for every child in America. The President has put forward a Republican-backed proposal to offer free community college to every hardworking college student who’s getting good grades.
The President has even put forward a specific plan to raise the minimum wage. We know that right now there are a lot of families who are headed by individuals who are working a full-time job; they’re working 40 hours a week. But because they’re only making minimum wage, it means that they’re raising their family of four below the poverty line. That’s not fair. And it certainly isn’t consistent with our goal of trying to ensure that hard work can lead to a decent living in this country. And that’s why the President has strongly advocated for raising the minimum wage.
There are a whole set of tax cuts that would benefit working families in this country that the President included in his State of the Union address. These are things like an expanded childcare tax credit, expansion of the earned income tax credit, or even a tax credit for families where both mom and dad are working. A second-earner tax credit would benefit a lot of families that are struggling to put the food on the table where both mom and dad are working.
And the fact is, the response that we’ve seen Republicans is to prioritize slashing unemployment benefits and slashing food stamps. I'm not really sure how you can make the case that that’s going to make the plight of those families who are living below the poverty line. I think that’s going to have the opposite of that effect.
So we’re going to continue to have this debate. And I think this is indicative of what the President was saying in the Rose Garden one week ago today, I believe -- where the President said he was -- that he acknowledged that the Republican majorities in Congress were going to block a lot of the efforts that he knows would benefit many of these communities. But the President is determined the use the authority of his office and to work together with Congress where he can to try to make some progress.
So we are optimistic that we can do something like move bipartisan criminal justice reform through the Congress that would have an impact on many of these families that right now don’t have a dad because he’s locked up in prison for a non-violent drug offense.
The other thing that’s moving through the United States Senate right now is a compromise education reform proposal that would strengthen local public schools and communities across the country. That certainly would be a good thing and could be an opportunity for the President and Democrats to work together with Republicans to advance a policy agenda that would benefit low-income families.
But the other thing that we’ve seen -- and I’ll end with this -- the other thing that we’ve seen is substantial progress that’s being made outside of the federal government, often at the behest of the President. So we have seen a number of states -- including states that are led by Republicans -- make serious commitments to high-quality early childhood education across their state.
We’ve seen 17 states in the District of Columbia vote in the last year and a half or so -- or pass legislation in the last year and a half to increase the minimum wage. That’s having an impact on working families in those states.
We’ve seen a number of other states, including state legislatures, take steps to put in place paid family leave policies that will make it easier for working families, and those families who are trying to get into the middle class, balance the obligations at work that they have with the obligations that they have at home.
And finally, all of you heard the President talk pretty powerfully about the opportunity that exists inside his My Brother’s Keeper initiative -- that there’s an opportunity for us to meet the special needs of young men of color in this country; and that by focusing on some of their unique challenges, that we can have a pretty important impact in those individual communities, but also a really important impact on our broader economy to make sure that we have a workforce that’s prepared to compete and win in a 21st century global economy, but also to ensure that we have a country and communities across this country that we live in that are consistent with the kinds of values that we have in terms of ensuring that everybody has an opportunity, that everybody has a fair shot, and that everybody is getting a fair shake.
And certainly, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative would make substantial progress in pursuit of that goal. And the good news is it wouldn’t require any congressional action.
So with that long-winded answer, let’s call it a day. We’ll see you all tomorrow.
2:10 P.M. EDT