Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/6/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:23 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. A bit of a late-arriving crowd for the front row.
MR. EARNEST: There you go -- which I know you encourage.
MR. EARNEST: So I’m happy to oblige. I don’t have any announcements. So, Nedra, why don’t we get started with questions today.
Q Sure. Hillary Clinton said if she’s elected President, and Congress won’t do comprehensive immigration reform legislation, that she’ll expand on the President’s executive actions. But the President has said that he’s already expanded authorities as far as he legally can under existing statute. So has he changed his opinion on that? Or what are his thoughts?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President’s views on this have not changed. And, in fact, we did take the extraordinary step of releasing the Office of Legal Counsel opinion, where we talked about the limits of executive authority when it comes to taking steps to reform our broken immigration system. The President was determined to use as much of his authority as he could to try to bring some much needed accountability to our broken immigration system. And that was reflected in the announcement that he made back in November on this.
As you know, there’s a portion of those steps that currently is bottled up in the courts down in Texas. But this is a -- we continue to be extremely confident of our legal position and of our legal arguments, and that’s working its way through that process. There are other elements of these reforms, however, that are moving forward that we are implementing. The most prominent of those is some of the discretion that our law enforcement officers are exercising when it comes to prioritizing the cases of those individuals who pose a genuine threat to the community. Those are the individuals that we’re seeking to protect broader communities from.
Q So if a future President were to expand beyond what he had done, would that be illegal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that will be something for future Presidents and ultimately future courts to decide.
Q Can I ask you about Baltimore? Is the President going to weigh in on whether Attorney General Lynch should open an investigation into a pattern of discrimination in the Baltimore police department?
MR. EARNEST: This is a decision for the Attorney General to make. And the newly confirmed Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, is certainly eminently qualified to make this decision. So she’s somebody who dedicated a significant portion of her career to being a federal prosecutor, and she has a very good understanding of the way that those law enforcement and prosecutorial enterprises should conduct themselves.
There is responsibility for the Department of Justice to ensure that justice is being administered fairly. And she will make the decision about what role is appropriate for the Department of Justice to play in this particular matter.
There already are two things that are underway here that are worth pointing out. The first is, there is a Department of Justice investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, while he was in the custody of the Baltimore police department. And dating back to last fall, there was interest expressed by local officials in Baltimore to have the Department of Justice assist them as they sought to put in place some reforms. But ultimately, the patterns and practice investigation will be a decision that’s made by the Attorney General and by the appropriate officials at the Department of Justice.
Q The President in the Bronx spoke about how there is discrimination in law enforcement; that the statistics show that. Does he think these kinds of investigations at DOJ -- not necessarily into Baltimore -- would be the right way to address that pattern of discrimination and could make changes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President was very specific about his belief that the vast majority of law enforcement officers across this country put their lives on the line to protect the communities that they are sworn to serve. And the President believes that we need to be appreciative of the commitment that the vast majority of our law enforcement officers make to doing their important work and doing it fairly, and in pursuit of justice.
The President has also been clear, as he was when he spoke about this matter in the Rose Garden last week, that it’s unfair for us to ultimately put it on the shoulders of our law enforcement officers to deal with the wide-ranging and deeply entrenched problems that plague so many economically disadvantaged communities across this country -- not just in urban communities, but in some rural communities as well.
And it’s a responsibility for all of us, not just for those in law enforcement, to spend some time thinking about what we can do to address the root causes of so many of these problems.
As it relates to some instances where it does seem apparent that the law is not being implemented and enforced in a uniform way across the board, there are a variety of ways that we can take steps to address those inequities. That's part of what was proposed in the 21st Century Policing Task Force report. There are some steps that can be taken to -- and have been taken in some communities to good effect -- to rebuild and strengthen the bonds of trust between local law enforcement officials and those who live in the communities where they work.
But there also is, of course, a legitimate role for the Department of Justice to play in all of this, and that's necessarily a role that they play independent. And as I answer these questions I'm trying to be respectful of the independent role that they’re supposed to play in this process, because there is a place for them to use their independent perch to mandate needed changes, and they should have the opportunity to conduct those investigations, reach those conclusions, and put them forward at a time and place of their choosing.
Q Josh, Iran is still holding on to the Maersk ship that it took under control and saying that it will do so until the legal dispute has been settled. Is the United States involved either with Iran or with the Danish authorities about that legal dispute? And do you think that Tehran is handling this situation appropriately?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, this is a situation that we continue to monitor, and it's principally our Department of Defense that's been doing that. The Iranian authorities have suggested that the reason for the action that they took was related to a legal dispute with the company. And there are some reports that indicate that those differences or those legal difficulties could be resolved in the next few days and the ship could be released. I can't speak to the veracity of those specific reports, but I'd refer you to the private company for an update.
Q And does the United States think that Iran is handling this correctly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I wouldn't render judgment in terms of the way that they’re handling it. We obviously have been watching this carefully. There are no U.S. citizens, as far as we know, who are on the ship or otherwise involved. But what we have been talking about more than usual in this room over the last couple of weeks is the vested U.S. interest in the free flow of commerce in this region of the world, and there’s no doubt that these kinds of actions do start to raise those questions. But that would explain why the United States continues to monitor the situation.
Q On another topic, the fighting in Yemen is continuing to have civilian casualties, and aid organizations are saying they may need to stop their work there because of fuel shortages. What more can the United States do to lead to a pause in the fighting and/or to relieve the humanitarian situation?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, the first thing I'd want to point out is that earlier today the United States did announce the release of $68 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Yemen. We know that there are some 16 million people in that war-torn country who are in need of assistance, including as many as 300,000 newly internally displaced people. We've talked at great length about the dire humanitarian situation in that country. There are pretty urgent shortages of basic necessities like food and medicine and fuel. And it’s having a significant impact on civilians who are essentially caught in the crossfire of that conflict.
We welcome the recent statements from the Saudi foreign minister about the use of humanitarian pauses to ensure that humanitarian assistance is getting to the people who need it. We strongly urge the coalition to urgently work with the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations on the implementation of the proposal so that those in need can get the necessary assistance.
Jeff, I think you also know that Secretary of State John Kerry is arriving in Riyadh today. And among the many things that he’ll be discussing with Saudi officials is the details of implementing a humanitarian pause. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the State Department for more information about the trip and about those conversations.
But we're going to continue to make the case that given the dire humanitarian situation in that country, we believe that the implementation of these kinds of humanitarian pauses is appropriate so that international aid organizations can try to bring some relief to that situation.
More broadly, we continue to understand the legitimate concerns that the Saudis have about the security situation along their southern border. The United States has for a number of weeks now provided support in the form of logistical support and intelligence support to the coalition of countries that are acting to try to address that security situation. However, we believe that it’s time for all sides to pursue the kind of inclusive political dialogue that's necessary to try to resolve these differences peacefully.
Q All right. And lastly, can you give us a sense of when the next round of U.S.-Cuba talks will take place?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update in terms of those conversations. Obviously, the United States Treasury Department issued some new regulations just yesterday about ferry service between the United States and Cuba. That is a step -- or that's an indication that we're continuing to take steps to normalize relations between our two countries. And we do believe that a ferry service between south Florida and Cuba would provide another important opportunity to increase the people-to-people contact between the United States and Cuban people.
So we obviously welcome this step, and we're going to continue to take these steps along the path toward normalizing relations. But I don't have an update for you in terms of when the next round of talks is scheduled.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is the U.S. concerned about the number of civilian casualties in Yemen? The Saudis said that they moved into a new phase, but obviously airstrikes are continuing. There seem to be daily reports of civilian casualties. And how does the administration feel about that?
MR. EARNEST: Michelle, we do continue to be concerned about the impact of this ongoing fighting on the civilian population in Yemen. This is everything from the needed humanitarian assistance -- that there is a pretty dire humanitarian situation; that there are shortages of food and fuel and medicine in that country. And that's having a negative impact on the livelihood of millions of innocent Yemenis, and we continue to be concerned and mindful of those ongoing needs. And that would explain why the United States has announced additional assistance there to contribute to this broader international effort.
But there are -- anytime you have chaos in a country like this, there are going to be concerns about innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire. And that’s why we certainly are pleased that the Saudis have indicated a willingness to scale back their military efforts, but we haven’t seen a corresponding response from the Houthi rebels indicating a willingness to cease their military operations and bring about the dialogue that’s necessary to try to resolve the differences between all of the parties in this conflict.
Q And given everything that’s gone on there, on the water, with the U.S. ships present, Iranian ships turning away at one point, as well as the ongoing nuclear negotiations -- do you feel that Iran is still playing the same role in supporting and funding the Houthi rebels, or is there some change in that situation do you think?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update in terms of our latest assessment about the ties between the Houthi rebels and Iran. We’ve expressed concerns in the past about Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in a way that has had a destabilizing impact on that situation and on the broader region. And it’s consistent with the kinds of destabilizing activities that we’ve seen from Iran for some time as it relates to the political situation in the Middle East. We continue to be concerned about that.
And I continue to make the case that that is one of the reasons that we need to place a priority on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we continue to believe that the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy, and that’s what we’re continuing to pursue.
Q So just to be clear, you think that there hasn’t been a change in how the Iranians are treated that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an updated assessment for you. What we’ve said in the past is that we know that there is material support that Iran has provided to the Houthi rebels. But I don’t have additional details about that.
Q Okay. And we heard John McCain say that the Gulf States don’t feel like they’re getting a lot of support from the administration. He said that they’re acting on their own and that’s why the Saudis only gave an hour’s notice before they started airstrikes in Yemen. How would you characterize that statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that’s how the Saudis or our Gulf partners would characterize the level of support they’re currently receiving from the United States government. We’ve talked about how the U.S. is supporting the coalition in terms of providing logistical support and intelligence support to the ongoing operations there.
And in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia today to further coordinate our efforts, particularly as it relates to the details of implementing humanitarian pauses to try to allow international aid organizations to bring much-needed supplies to the civilian population there.
And as you know, next week the President has planned to bring the leaders of the GCC countries to Camp David for intensive consultations about our security cooperation with those countries. And the United States obviously has a long history in terms of our security relationship with these countries, and that relationship has been good for the security of the people of those countries. That relationship has also been beneficial to the security of the American people.
And the President is committed to continuing to strengthen that relationship. And in fact, one of the chief benefits of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is that it will have a corresponding positive impact on the security situation of our partners in the region.
Let’s move around. Anita.
Q Former or retired Justice Stevens this week said that the government should compensate detainees at Gitmo, and I'm wondering what your thoughts were about that, if you agree with him. He specifically talked about those that were not deemed a security threat to the United States but have remained in custody for years.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Anita, you know the President has placed a priority on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay since his first days in office. And unfortunately, we have seen Congress erect barriers to the completion of that goal. The President has been disappointed by that congressional activity. The President has made the case publicly many times, he’s made the case privately to many members of Congress directly, that continuing to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open is not at all in the national security interest of the United States of America. It certainly is not consistent with the wise use of our government resources; that the millions of dollars that are expended to keep that facility open and operating is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars.
So whether it’s a fiscal reason, or a reason that’s directly related to the core national security interest of the United States, the President believes and is continuing to pursue the responsible closing of that facility.
I’ve seen some of the news reports about Justice Stevens’ remarks, but I didn’t read the specific text and I don’t have a specific reaction to his comments.
Q Do you know if the President thinks that they should be compensated? That’s basically what he’s saying, that they should have some --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I didn’t see the substance of his remarks, so I wouldn’t have a comment on them.
Q Thank you. I know this came up once before, but can you explain why the President chose Nike as a site to advance his trade initiatives? Critics say it’s a company that’s gotten enormously profitable by producing -- sending jobs offshore, not employing Americans, and using sweatshops.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to Nike for the specific criticisms that you have outlined there. I'm confident they would be happy to be in a position to explain their record to you on these issues.
We’ll obviously have more about the President’s trip as he travels out west later this week. What I can just say as a general matter is that the President is looking forward to visiting the Nike headquarters and using it to illustrate how a responsible trade agreement that includes enforceable labor and environmental standards would strongly benefit middle-class families and the American economy.
And that’s why the President is pursing that kind of agreement with a dozen or so countries in the Asia Pacific. And we are trying to work in bipartisan fashion to pass trade promotion authority legislation that would make it easier to reach that agreement. And we’re continuing to work to build bipartisan support for it.
Q Critics also say that those enforceable labor and environmental standards are the same ones that are in previous trade agreements, and a government study said that they had not really changed conditions on the ground for workers. What assurances are there that they will be more enforceable than the past agreements?
MR. EARNEST: The key difference here is that the provisions that are contemplated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are provisions that would actually be enforceable.
So to take NAFTA, for example, an agreement that has previously been cited by critics of this potential trade agreement. In NAFTA, efforts to raise labor and environmental standards essentially included in letters that were on the sidelines of the agreement.
But the way that trade promotion authority legislation has been worked out and what the President envisions for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is to ensure that those labor and environmental provisions are actually written into the text of the agreement to make sure that they can be enforced. And again, that’s indicative of the President’s commitment to ensuring that we are maximizing the opportunity that exists for the American economy and, most importantly, for American middle-class families when it comes to the terms of this agreement.
And the view of the President is that if the United States is not the one that is engaging in this economically dynamic region of the world, that we are essentially ceding ground to China. And China will most assuredly try to write rules of the road that further disadvantage American companies who are trying to do business in this region of the world. At a minimum, we know they would lock in the current low-level -- or the low labor standards that are in place. We know that they would seek to lock in the low environmental standards in place, because they know that gives them an advantage to the Chinese business interests that capitalize on those low standards.
What the President envisions is going in and reaching an agreement that would actually raise those standards, essentially leveling the playing field. And the President continues to be confident that if American businesses and American workers have a level playing field in which to compete, that they’re going to perform very well.
Q Josh, thanks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to bring a test vote on the floor tomorrow on Iran. And I’m curious how the President feels about that. Does he think it’s a good idea, it’s a bipartisan effort?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if it reflects the bipartisan compromise that emerged from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which Democrats and Republicans serving that committee unanimously supported the legislation, we’ve already indicated that that’s legislation that the President would be willing to sign. But again, we’ll have to see what happens on the floor.
There have been a wide range of amendments that have been offered, or at least publicly discussed. We’ve expressed concerns about some of them, because they would either undermine the fundamental unanimous compromise that was reached in the committee, or they would interfere with our ability to continue the negotiations or implement a final agreement.
So as long as amendments that don’t violate those two criteria are not tacked on to the bill at the last minute, that I would envision that what would emerge from this bipartisan process is legislation that the President could sign.
Q I want to turn to Iran for just a second. Supreme Leader Khamenei saying that -- and I’m quoting now -- “Over the last couple days, at least two U.S. officials have threatened Iran with military action if the talks fail.” Any response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure which specific U.S. officials are referred to in those reports. I’ll just say that it continues to be the view of the President that, by far, the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is engaging in diplomacy with the rest of the international community. And the framework political agreement that was reached in early April was an agreement that would shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, and ensure that Iran cooperates with the most intrusive set of inspections that have been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
And that is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It will not, however, address the long list of concerns we have about Iranian behavior in other areas. But it’s precisely because of that concern about Iranian behavior in a wide variety of other areas that we have made preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon a top priority.
Q Is it possible then that there was a threat, military action against Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not sure what those reports refer to, to be honest with you.
Q Okay, lastly, I want to ask you about Texas. Any new news out of the allegation that ISIS may have been involved with the attack in Texas?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't have an updated intelligence assessment to share. These facts are still being reviewed by our intelligence community. But let me see if I can give you a better sense about what exactly they're looking at.
What the intelligence community is trying to do is they're trying to investigate specifically ISIL’s claim of responsibility, and that involves more than just authenticating that the claim published yesterday originated from ISIL. The analysts want to review whether the claim is accurate. And if so, at what level ISIL may have known or potentially even sanctioned this attempted attack.
So it’s less about just confirming the authenticity of a specific Twitter feed, and more about examining what actually was said and who was responsible for communicating that information both the public but also to the two individuals that carried out the attack, if they, in fact, communicated with the individuals who carried out the attack.
So there’s a lot to review here. And that work has not yet been completed.
Q On that same topic.
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Bill.
Q We’ve reported that intelligence services did have the two gunmen under surveillance, but that they were not high priority. Do the various intelligence services not have the resources to monitor dangerous individuals like this? And shouldn’t they?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, the President has made countering violent extremism a priority. And, in fact, you’ll recall that earlier this year he convened a meeting of top government officials and community leaders and local officials all across the country. And this included representation from both our law enforcement and our intelligence community to talk about this issue.
And this is something that this administration is keenly aware of, and we're aware of the threat that it poses to the American people. I mean, there are any number of examples of arrests that were made by law enforcement officials of individuals who either sought to travel to Syria or the region to take up arms alongside ISIL, or individuals who expressed a desire to carry out acts of violence in this country in the name of ISIL. So there is a robust response to this, both in terms of trying to prevent individuals from being radicalized in the first place; but if they are, we have mobilized extensive law enforcement and intelligence resources to protect the American people.
Q But are those resources sufficient? The fact that these guys were being monitored but not high priority suggests that maybe the resources are not sufficient. You have a lot of people apparently being monitored. Here are two that they didn’t expect to do anything, and they did.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a lot of challenges associated with trying to root out and prevent essentially lone-wolf attacks. And again, based on what we know now -- and there’s still a lot more that we have to learn -- this is consistent with what has previously been described as a lone wolf attack; that essentially you have two individuals that don't appear to be part of a broader conspiracy. And identifying those individuals and keeping tabs on them is difficult work. And even in an environment where resources were unlimited -- and of course, we're not in that environment, but even if we were operating in an environment where resources were unlimited, this is the kind of thing that would be very difficult to deter and prevent.
One of the things that we can do, however, is make sure that we are clearly communicating with local law enforcement across jurisdictions to make sure that they’re prepared. And when you have an event like the one that we saw outside Dallas over the weekend that we know is likely to attract a lot of attention, we can make sure that we're communicating with local law enforcement and beefing up security resources to keep everybody who is participating in that event safe. And that's exactly what happened.
Q Following up on Nedra’s question on immigration. So if the White House’s position that the President did all he could do within his powers as President on this issue is true, and Hillary Clinton is now saying that what she would do -- using her executive powers, if she were elected President -- to go further, she is suggesting that she would extend deferred action to the parents of the DREAMers, for example. Given what you’ve said, your suggestion is that what Hillary is proposing is beyond the powers of the presidency, essentially not legal.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not a judge and I didn’t go to law school, so I'm not going to be in a position to render a legal opinion about the --
Q But you did say that the White House position remains that the President did all he can do within his legal power.
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. And we went to the extraordinary step of releasing that Office of Legal Counsel opinion to buttress the legal argument that we were making in support of the executive action that the President announced.
Q And now Hillary Clinton is saying that she would go further. So she is effectively, in the view of the White House, proposing to go beyond the bounds of what is legally permissible by the President.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let Secretary Clinton and her campaign describe exactly what steps they envision taking, and I'll allow them to make the case about why it's legal. I think we certainly were heartened by the fact that Secretary Clinton so forcefully supported the President’s executive actions. And the other thing that she said that also happens to be true is that the best way for us to solve this problem is for Congress to act.
Q Right. And I'm not asking for a legal pronouncement. It just seems like an obvious statement. You’ve said the White House believes that the President went as far as he could. Now Hillary Clinton is saying she will go further. There seems to be a conflict.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there may be a legal explanation that they have that you should ask them about.
Q Okay. And then one other question regarding Hillary Clinton. I’m sure you were watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today.
MR. EARNEST: I was paying rapt attention.
Q We heard from the senior official responsible for Freedom of Information Act requests and the like say that Hillary Clinton’s use -- well, that the use of private email for public purposes, as Hillary Clinton did, is clearly beyond the bounds of what is permissible. Do you agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see who the -- I didn't see who the official was. I was joking when I said I was paying rapt attention. (Laughter.) So maybe I missed something good, but I didn't actually see it.
Q I’m really disappointed. (Laughter.) It was Joyce Bare, just to be clear, the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Administration. But the position was simply that the use of private email for official business is -- the message is loud and clear that that is not acceptable; it is not acceptable to use private email for official business.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have talked about the kind of guidance that we give to administration officials, and particularly to White House officials in terms of the use of email. And the guidance that we receive is to use public email or our government email when carrying out official activities. But again --
Q So you would agree, though, that the use of private email for official business is clearly not acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a flashback to a couple of months ago. But again, the guidance that we continue to give administration officials is that they should use their government email when they are conducting the official business of the United States government.
Q Okay, and then one other question on an entirely different subject. The family of Amir Hekmati -- again, one of the Americans who is in prison now in Iran, and, of course, a Marine veteran who served both in Iraq and Afghanistan -- his family is now asking that the Red Cross be able to visit him and detailing some of his treatment, including 17 months of the more than three years he has been imprisoned, 17 months of solitary confinement, the use of tasers on his kidneys, sleep deprivation, and a whole host of other things -- terrible treatment. They're asking that the Red Cross be allowed to see him. Does the administration echo that request?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, as you know, the Vice President over the weekend, when he was traveling in the Detroit area, had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Hekmati’s family. And I understand that they had a pretty long conversation about both the concerns that the Hekmati family understandably has about the treatment of their loved one. The Vice President also had the opportunity to detail for them the lengths that this administration has gone to to try to secure the release of him and the other Americans who we believe are being unjustly held inside of Iran. Those efforts continue.
And I don't have -- obviously, one of the reasons that we would like to see those individuals released is that we are concerned about the kind of treatment that they may be subjected to while they're imprisoned. And so our concerns about this are concerns that we share with the family.
Q And so maybe you can just get back to me, but, again, this is an American citizen, a Marine veteran. And the family is asking that the Red Cross be able to visit him. They're concerned about his health. And if you can get back whether the White House agrees with that and would echo that --
MR. EARNEST: All right, I will get back to you on that.
Q I just had a follow-up about Nike. What was it about Nike that prompted you to schedule the event there? I still don't -- you still haven’t really explained that.
MR. EARNEST: I know. We also still haven’t been to the Nike headquarters yet. So what I’m saying is once we have the event on Friday, we’ll be -- it will become much clearer to all of you why this is a useful illustration of the significant economic benefits associated -- economic benefits for the American people and for middle-class families associated with finalizing and implementing a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
Q So you don't want to say anything good about Nike until Friday? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, my guess is, is that there is an office somewhere -- probably in Beaverton, Oregon -- with very well-compensated, extremely skilled communications professionals who could say all kinds of nice things about Nike. I'm sure that there are lots of nice things for them to say.
Q I'm asking what you would say.
MR. EARNEST: And what I'm saying is that on Friday, when the President appears in Nike, we will have a more specific, robust discussion about why exactly the President is there. Something I look forward to. I hope you do, too.
Q Thanks, Josh. You mentioned the counter violent extremism summit, and I'm wondering if the White House is planning any additional actions or programs to address this problem in the wake of the Texas attack.
MR. EARNEST: Well, part of the goal of the summit was to try to amass best practices -- so to identify what some communities across the country are doing to prevent certain individuals from being radicalized, and applying those lessons and those best practices in other communities as well.
And there is an important facilitating role that the administration can play through the Department of Justice and through other places to help other communities meet this challenge. So this is ongoing work and it’s something that we continue to be very focused on.
Q On the defense bill that’s in the House, there’s a tussle over immigration language that’s in that bill. And I'm wondering if the White House is concerned that another must-pass piece of legislation is being held up by an immigration fight?
MR. EARNEST: Which bill are you referring to?
Q The defense authorization bill.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, okay. Well, we have indicated a pretty long list of concerns with a variety of provisions included in the defense authorization bill, including the continued reliance on this slush fund to fund basic national security priorities. So we’ve got a long list of concerns.
I don’t know that I'm aware specifically of the immigration provision that you’re talking about, but it would be consistent with the kind of actions that we’ve seen Republicans take in the past to try to interfere with must-pass legislation by attaching unrelated controversial ideological riders.
Q Josh, I want to go back to issues of trade, kind of more broadly speaking. Cities like Baltimore say that trade affected the city by many industries leaving and going to another country, and that’s why you have poverty in the inner cities, particularly Baltimore’s Fell’s Point and other industries that left because of local trade. What are the safeguards the President has in his proposal, his push, when it comes to protecting many of these urban cities to prevent the kind of cycles of poverty that we’re seeing in Baltimore and other places like Ferguson and some other places that have been hit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, the argument that the President has made is that to not try to open up opportunities for American businesses and overseas markets essentially locks in that status quo. That right now, we have seen companies take advantage of some unfair labor standards in other countries to gain in a competitive advantage over American companies. And that did prompt a number of companies to leave the United States in pursuit of more lax labor standards and essentially cheaper labor. And that did have an impact on communities large and small all across the country.
What the President basically suggests is that if you’re concerned about the impact, then what you should support -- and what the President supports -- is raising labor and environmental standards around the globe. That if we raise those labor standards, essentially what we do is we level the playing field, and no longer will companies have an incentive to ship jobs overseas. In fact, there now would be a variety of incentives for those companies to consider relocating back to America. Because we know that America has a bunch of other built-in advantages -- everything from the best colleges in the world to the most innovative economy in terms of people being able to take good ideas to market and to capitalize them quickly. We know that America has the most ambitious entrepreneurs, the hardest-working people.
So if you’re concerned about the impact that previous trade agreements have had on communities, then what you want to do is you want to try to level that playing field. And the way that we level that playing field is by entering into the kinds of trade agreements that include enforceable labor provisions, because if we don’t, what we know will happen is we know that China will step in. And if China has an opportunity to step in, they will either lock in those low labor standards or seek to lower them even further. That will put American businesses at an even bigger disadvantage and create an even bigger incentive for companies that are currently located in the United States to try to go and benefit from those low labor standards and that even cheaper labor.
So if we want to sort of stop this cycle that you referred to, one important step that we can take is actually give more U.S. businesses the opportunity to do business overseas.
Q And I want to ask one more on poverty and the situation in Baltimore. The magnifying glass has been on Baltimore now, particularly the areas where Freddie Gray was killed -- the Penn and North area. What is this administration prepared to do when it comes to impoverished communities like that area, West Baltimore and -- station? Magnifying glasses on it, people are now saying, oh my God, I didn’t know that it’s been there all along.
And you’ve got your Education Secretary there, you’ve got your Labor Secretary there. What is this administration prepared to do in the last remaining years or months that you have to try to begin to change the ties in your base, your core demographic who voted for this President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the first thing I’d point out is that the pretty dire economic situation in some of those neighborhoods in Baltimore may be new to some people but it’s certainly not new to this President.
You’ll recall that just about two years ago, the President traveled to Baltimore and spent some time at a school that had a very successful kindergarten program. He spent some time at a local business that was capitalizing on creating jobs at the port. And he also traveled to the Center for Urban Families, which is a nonprofit organization that was geared toward supporting principally young men of color, but those communities of color as they sought to get job-training skills that will allow them to get a job and provide for their families.
So the President is keenly aware of so many of these challenges, particularly as they relate directly to Baltimore, and he’s been focused on trying to address these challenges even when other people haven't been paying attention.
And I can tell you that whether it's trying to implement the recommendations of the 21st Century Policing Task Force, or trying to pass criminal justice reform, or trying to get early childhood education for every child in America, or ensuring that hardworking college students can have access to two years of free community college -- that there are a number of steps that we can take. A handful of them are things that we feel like there may be an opportunity for us to capitalize on some bipartisan agreement to make progress.
But many of the things that I've listed are things that Republicans have steadfastly opposed. And that's unfortunate. And when I say Republicans, I actually just mean Republicans in Congress. Some of these proposals, like free community college and high-quality early childhood education for every child in America, are the kinds of things that Republicans across the country support. But unfortunately, for political reasons, there are some Republicans in Congress who have effectively blocked these kinds of efforts that we know would make a material difference in the lives of men and women in economically disadvantaged communities all across the country -- both in urban settings like in Baltimore, but also in rural settings where you see Americans who are locked in a similar cycle of poverty.
Q And one last question. Is the President thinking about possibly going? Is there a chance that he will go to Baltimore? The situation is calm now. Will he be going?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates in terms of the President’s schedule. I don't anticipate him traveling to Baltimore in the near future. But I think the President himself has indicated a desire to go back there at some point.
Q Just going back to Yemen -- there’s now a serious humanitarian crisis. The Houthis haven't been dislodged, and you see cross-border violence, which you never saw before. Was the Saudi air campaign a bad idea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Drew, I think the Saudis launched an air campaign in conjunction with some of their allies in the region because they have concerns about the security situation along their southern border, and the cross-border fire by the Houthis that you cited I think is a pretty good illustration of the concerns that they have.
So, in response to those concerns, the United States has offered our support to the Saudis and to the broader coalition in the form of logistical support and some intelligence assets that we can use to benefit their efforts.
But what we have told the Saudis is the same thing that we've said publicly, which is that the only resolution here is a resolution that starts with all parties engaging in diplomatic negotiations to try to resolve their differences. And we've been gratified that the Saudis have indicated a willingness to deescalate their military campaign, but we haven't seen a corresponding willingness on the part of the Houthis. If anything, I think we've seen them continue to accelerate their actions. And that is a source of some concern, and it is certainly counterproductive to the broader efforts to try to stabilize the turmoil inside of Yemen, but just as importantly -- and in some ways, more urgently -- address the dire humanitarian need in that country.
Q But would you agree that Yemen is no closer today to stability or prosperity than it was when the Saudi airstrikes began?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that the principal cause of the instability that we've seen there has been the Houthi rebels that have engaged in essentially unceasing violence there for the last several months in a way that has destabilized the central government pretty dramatically, and thrown the nation into even more turmoil and chaos than they previously experienced.
And the Saudi and the Gulf coast -- or the GCC coalition I think has responded to the understandable concerns that they have about the possibility of that violence and chaos spreading into their countries. And again, the clearest illustration that we've seen of their concerns just occurred in the last 24 hours when there are reports that some of the Houthi rebels have actually fired shots into Saudi territory.
So that's why the United States, again, has dedicated additional resources to try to address the humanitarian need that's evident to anybody who looks in that country. It's why we've continued to support this Saudi-GCC coalition through the provision of intelligence resources and logistical support. But it's also why we continue to urge all sides to engage in this U.N.-led -- or at least U.N.-facilitated process to try to bring about a political resolution to the conflict.
Q And just a final question on Iraq. In the talks with Mr. Barzani, was there any discussion of a timetable for an assault on Mosul?
MR. EARNEST: If there was, it’s not something I’d be able to read out from here.
Q Thanks, Josh, back to trade. The Senate has said that trade will come up next after they finish the Iran bill. And you said on Monday that the President will be personally involved this week with working on cajoling Congress to do what he wants. Can you give us an update on what sort of interaction there’s been between the White House generally and Leader McConnell on this? And then whether the President has himself talked with Leader McConnell or other members of Congress this week on the trade issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the President has been engaged on this and continues to be engaged in making the case to Democrats and Republicans about the wisdom of pursuing this approach. And those efforts have continued this week, but I don't have any details to share with you.
Q Efforts including individual phone calls?
MR. EARNEST: Including conversations that the President has had with members of Congress. Yes.
Q Do you have any specifics?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't have any specifics.
Q Thanks, Josh. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a deadline to form a government -- and it looks like he may. Will the White House invite him here for a meeting given all the drama around the Iran talks after he forms a government? I know you said you didn't want to interfere in the election beforehand.
MR. EARNEST: The thing that we have indicated -- Byron, you're right -- is that the President did not envision a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu prior to the completion of the government formation process. At the same time, the President was just as clear that that would have no impact on the deep and intensive security cooperation between our two countries.
We know that the kind of security support that the United States provides to Israel is critical to the safety and well-being of the Israeli people. That's a venture in which we are deeply invested, and one that will continue.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has observed himself that the level of security cooperation between Israel and the United States under President Obama’s watch has been unprecedented. And the unprecedented security cooperation continues.
I don't have any additional meetings to announce at this point. But if and when a new government is formed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would expect that the United States will continue to work closely with that government, and the Obama administration will continue to be closely in touch with them on a wide range of issues, but most importantly our close security relationship.
Q A second foreign leader question is that the Armenian President is in D.C. this week. Why didn't the President meet with him? And did it have anything to do with the ongoing issue of the use of word “genocide”?
MR. EARNEST: I think it was more directly related to the President’s rather busy schedule this week. But I do know that the Vice President will be attending the prayer service that's scheduled for later this week, where the Armenian President will also be in attendance, as well, I understand.
Q Was a meeting requested between the two Presidents?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware -- I actually don't know the answer to that question.
Q Thanks, Josh. Civil libertarians are raising some questions after these reports about drones over Baltimore during a time of unrest following Freddie Gray’s death. And I’m wondering if you can articulate what the administration policy is on this type of surveillance, especially given the concerns that they often catch a lot of people who are doing absolutely nothing wrong in situations like this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, you’ll recall that in the last several months the FAA has put out some basic regulations regarding the private use of unmanned aerial vehicles -- drones. And so you could go to the FAA for the details of those regulations.
Obviously, those kinds of regulations apply differently when it comes to law enforcement assets. But for questions about law enforcement, I’d refer you to the relevant law enforcement officials. In this case, I think that would be the FBI.
Q But does the administration have a policy on that? Is there -- are there conversations about it? Or is this a situation where essentially the technology has -- or I guess the policy hasn’t caught up with the technology?
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident that there is a policy, but it’s one that, again, if it relates to the use of law enforcement assets, then I’d refer you to law enforcement officials who can talk to you about those policies.
Q And I just want to ask you quickly about the meeting, which may still be going on, I’m not sure, between Governor Scott and Sylvia Burwell. And as you well know, he’s coming and pushing for a billion dollars in federal aid for Florida hospitals. What’s the administration’s message to Governor Scott?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there has been a range of issues of concern about the willingness of Governor Scott and his administration to work with the administration to maximize the health care benefits for the people in his state.
And I asked about this right before I walked out here actually, and the meeting was still ongoing when I walked out here. So I wouldn’t want to say anything further until the meeting is concluded, and we’ll see if we can get you some more information about how that meeting went.
All right, let’s move around. Fred.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just this week, Governor Fallon in Oklahoma, a Republican governor, signed a bill on sentencing, mandatory sentencing reform. That's something you just mentioned in answer to a previous question. And we’ve talked about it before. There is a bill -- Mike Lee, Dick Durbin -- that they're pushing from the Senate. Is this something -- given that there is pretty strong bipartisanship out there for criminal justice reform, is this something that the President might get out in front on in terms of there is an existing framework there with the Lee-Durbin bill that you could speak out on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, this is something that the President has had -- has discussed with members of Congress from both parties on a couple of occasions. You’ll recall a month or two ago, the President did convene a meeting with Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate in the Cabinet Room, I believe, to discuss this very issue.
This is something that the President believes would be important to addressing some of the concerns about inequities in the way that the law is enforced. And the President I think has been gratified that both Democrats and Republicans recognize that this is a priority, and that putting in place these kinds of reforms would be good for the country. And the President is certainly interested and willing to work with Democrats or Republicans -- anybody on either side of the aisle -- that understands why this is an important step for our country to take.
Q And do you have any thoughts on the legislation that was signed this week out in Oklahoma? Have you seen anything on that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with it, so I’d reserve comment on it.
Q Also, on former Speaker Wright, does the White House have any comment on his passing?
MR. EARNEST: On -- I’m sorry?
Q Former Speaker Jim Wright, is there any White House comment as of yet on his passing?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I was not aware that he had passed away, but we’ll check that out and get back to you.
Q On April’s question earlier, there have been reports out that the CBC -- that President Obama is making a pitch to the CBC members to pass trade and get it across the finish line in the House, at least. And I’m wondering if that is a tough sell right now considering the Baltimore issue and the loss of manufacturing jobs in blighted urban areas around the country, and the lawmakers that represent them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the response that I shared with April I think is relevant here, which is for those members of Congress who are particularly concerned about the impact that previous trade agreements have had on their communities, that's all the more reason that they should be supportive of the kind of Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that the President envisions. And the reason for that is simple: That failing to act in this way would essentially lock in the status quo. That those companies that have left seeking cheap labor are going to come back, or at least they would consider coming back if we can succeed in leveling the playing field.
But right now they have a built-in incentive to capitalize on cheap labor in other countries. And if the United States disengages, I think what we're much more likely to see is erosion in those already low labor standards in a way that would only give companies a greater incentive to invest in places other than the United States. But that if we can succeed in raising labor standards around the world, particularly in the most dynamic -- economically dynamic region of the world, then what we’ll do is we will not only give American businesses located in this country an opportunity to compete on a level playing field, we’ll actually give businesses around the world an incentive to consider relocating in the United States,
Right now, the advantage that exists in some countries because of cheap labor standards, or access to cheap labor, outweighs -- at least in their calculation -- the other opportunities -- or other benefits that are available to them inside the United States. This is things like a stable legal system where they can rely on the ability of their company to do business here, access to the greatest colleges and best-educated workforce in the world, access to the kind of innovation in research and development that is going on in this country. That if we can level the playing field, more businesses are going to consider those benefits here in the United States and that’s going to give them a good reason -- or good reasons to further invest here in this country.
So I believe that our case for why Democrats should support a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement along the lines of what the President has described is strongest among those who are concerned about the impact that previous trade agreements with unenforceable labor and environmental provisions have about the impact that they’ve had on their communities.
Q There’s still a big trade deficit, though, with South Korea. The President renegotiated that when he came into office, but there’s still a huge trade deficit there with them, and there was a report yesterday that the trade deficit is at all-time high overall. But I’m wondering if they can sweeten the deal for Congressional Black Caucus members by saying, we’re going to provide new initiatives. Is there anything in the works to attract businesses to these blighted communities that are suffering that the President has talked so much about in the last couple weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to the trade numbers that were announced yesterday, there are a couple of key facts that are worth being mindful of. The first is that these were numbers that were taken from March, I believe, and this was the month after the labor standoff at the West Coast ports was resolved, which means that there was an influx of ships that were waiting to be offloaded in those ports and that would account for some of the increase in imports that we’ve seen.
The other thing that analysts have indicated is that the current strong value of the dollar has had an impact on our trading relationships.
But more generally, what the President does envision is doing everything that we can to promote investment inside the United States and in all of the communities inside the United States. There are a variety of programs that I'm sure that the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration could talk to you about, about trying to focus investment in those areas where it's needed most. But the fact is anytime that a company is considering moving more business into the United States, that significantly increases the economic potential for communities all across the country.
And that's what we're focused on, and we know that that contributes significantly to our GDP and to job creation. And that's why the President has been focused on increasing our exports since the earliest days that he’s been in office.
Q Just one follow-up on Chris’s question about surveillance in Baltimore. You responded about FAA and private drones. If the Cessna that was flying over was acting on behalf of both local and federal law enforcement, that would violate potentially the 14th and 4th Amendments, respectively. The White House doesn’t have a position on whether that's an appropriate surveillance of thousands of people simultaneously?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, for those kinds of questions I'd refer you to law enforcement.
Q You don't think that there’s a potential damage here done if thousands of people are surveilled by aerial forces? That's not something the White House is concerned about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I'm not sure that's exactly what happened. But in order to confirm for you what’s happened, I'd refer you to law enforcement who can give you some facts here, and that we can -- you don't have to spend as much time conjecturing; you can actually deal in facts. And you can talk to them about that. Okay?
Q Does the White House think that this isn't what happened? Is that -- I'm just trying to understand.
MR. EARNEST: I'm going to move on.
Q Thank you, Josh. Just a follow-up on Guantanamo. Will the President be ready to do an executive order to close Guantanamo?
MR. EARNEST: Laura, the President has indicated a willingness to use as much of his executive authority as he can to try to take the steps that he believes are consistent with the national security interests of the United States, and that's closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. He does not believe that the millions of dollars that are expended every year to keep that prison open is a good use of taxpayer resources. It's not. In fact, it's counterproductive.
And unfortunately, we have not seen cooperation from Congress in this regard. In fact, what we have seen is we've seen members of Congress repeatedly go to great lengths to try to prevent the closure of the prison in Guantanamo Bay. That's been the source of a lot of disappointment to the President, but it has not prevented him from continuing to push his team to try to take -- to go as far as we can to reduce the population there and to ultimately get to a place where we can close that prison.
Q And in Boston, the trial is coming to an end. The jury will decide death or life sentence for Tsarnaev. What’s the President’s view on it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously jury deliberations are ongoing, and so I wouldn't want to weigh in on it at this point.
Connie, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. How closely is the President watching the British elections today? Does he have any message to the British people? Is he concerned that any of the issues that the U.S. and the U.K. work on might be --
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned to JC yesterday, I'm going to reserve comment on the elections because I don't want to be in a position of even leaving you with the impression that we're favoring one side or the other. The President is, of course, monitoring the results of the election -- or is monitoring the election and awaiting the results, because this is an election that's taking place in a country with whom we have a special relationship, one of our closest allies. And I am confident that that strong alliance and that special relationship will endure regardless of who the next British Prime Minister is; that the depth of that relationship is so strong that it will continue.
Q Josh, can I say polls close very soon. And the Brits, unlike us, don't campaign on Election Day. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Interesting.
Q Save a lot of money, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: Well, everybody go look for your British exit poll results.
1:24 P.M. EDT