Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/12/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:17 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you. I apologize for the late start of the briefing. I wanted to give you all an opportunity to see the end of the spirited conversation that the President participated in in Georgetown. I suspect we’ll have the opportunity to discuss that a little bit more here.
Before we do, however, I want to commend to your attention a statement that was issued earlier today by Bernadette Meehan, who is the spokesperson for the National Security Council. She issued a statement today that it’s with a heavy heart that earlier this week we marked American journalist Austin Tice’s 1000th day in captivity.
I won’t reread her entire statement, but obviously our thoughts and prayers aren’t just with Austin today, but they're also with his parents, Debra and Marc, and his brothers and sisters who are missing him dearly. The United States government, working closely with our Czech protecting power in Syria, is trying to bring him home, and that is an effort that is ongoing and has been for some time. And it’s certainly something that we are very focused on every day, but today we're particularly mindful of this week being his 1000th day in captivity.
So on that somber note, Jim, let’s move to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about trade and this procedural vote that's going to take place this afternoon in the Senate. We're already hearing some pro-trade Democrats kind of lowball expectations on that vote. I believe Steny Hoyer in the House said that, “If the 60 votes don't materialize, it’s not the end of the story.” I’m wondering how much of a setback is it for the President to lose this vote today if that were to happen. Are there other opportunities ahead? Or is this an uphill climb or a worse climb now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the thing that we have been very clear about from the very beginning is that the President was seeking from the United States Congress the authority necessary to complete the TPP agreement and the authority that's necessary to enforce it. And we were gratified earlier this spring when the Senate Finance Committee acted in bipartisan fashion to produce legislation that would do exactly that.
Not only was that legislation supported by both Democrats and Republicans on the committee, it was supported by a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats on the committee. And that is a testament to the commitment to bipartisanship that's been on display in the Senate, in the Finance Committee, in particular.
Now, what’s also true is that it is not unprecedented, to say the least, for the United States Senate to encounter procedural snafus. That was true when Democrats were in charge of the United States Senate. We’ve talked before about how that's been true when Republicans have been in charge of the United States Senate. And what we're hopeful is that every member of the United States Senate can summon the bipartisan spirit that was on display in the Senate Finance Committee to work through this procedural snafu.
And the good news is that we have seen statements in public already today from people like Leader McConnell, from Senator Wyden, even Senator Hatch -- who obviously was instrumental to crafting this bipartisan compromise -- to a willingness to work in bipartisan fashion to untangle this procedural knot that the Senate right now is mired in.
So we're obviously going to continue to remain engaged with members of the United States Senate. But the truth is most of our discussions are focused on the substance. And the Senate has a process for working through these procedural challenges, and we're pleased to see Democrats and Republicans both indicating a willingness to work through these procedural challenges.
Q It seems one of the main challenges right now is deciding which aspects of trade and trade-related bills get dealt with. Does the President have a view on whether -- there’s particularly a bill on customs provisions that includes a currency language that the White House is not thrilled with, but certainly did not want it in the trade promotion authority bill. It ended up in this customs bill. Does the President want that to proceed? Would the President prefer that just two bills, as McConnell has proposed, move through the process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what we’ve been clear about is the President needs both the authority to complete the TPP deal, as well as the authority necessary to enforce it. And there are obviously strongly held views in the Senate that many times cross partisan lines about the wisdom of the way in which the legislation is written and advanced through the Senate.
So these are procedural challenges that members of the Senate will have to work through. And the President of the United States and members of his staff will continue to remain engaged in having conversations with members of the Senate -- both Democrats and Republicans -- about the substance of this proposal. And we're going to continue to work through these challenges with that.
Q These procedural challenges ultimately determine the fate of legislation, however. And I’m wondering, given the effort that the President has put into this, what does it say about those efforts if, right now, on the verge of this vote we still don't know which way it’s going to come out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I just would observe that these kinds of procedural snafus have cropped up even when we're talking about otherwise pretty simple and straightforward pieces of legislation.
And the legislation that currently is -- that has been passed through the Senate Finance Committee is anything but simple and straightforward. I think anybody would acknowledge that this is complicated. But the President believes that it doesn’t give him the authority that's necessary to complete the deal and to enforce it, and that's why he has been strongly encouraging Democrats to support it.
But that's different from the kind of procedural snafu that currently is facing the United States Senate. So they're going to have to work through this challenge. And we’ll remain engaged with them as they do.
Q So a group of pro-trade senators are saying they're not going to support today’s vote unless the four bills are packaged together. What is the White House position on packaging those four bills together? Do you agree with them? Or would you rather they just do the one thing? Or what are you saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the case that we have made to both Democrats and Republicans, but principally Democrats, is that the authority that’s vested in this legislation is critically important to the future of our economy. And so we have made a case, both publicly and privately, about the importance of the Senate acting in bipartisan fashion to get this done. And we were gratified that we saw that kind of bipartisanship in the Senate Finance Committee, and it’s going to be incumbent upon Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to work together to figure out how to overcome this procedural snafu and advance legislation that, as we saw in the Finance Committee, has clear bipartisan support in the Senate.
Q So you’re not going to take a position on how that snafu, as you call it, should be worked through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when it comes to these procedural things, we have often made clear that it’s the responsibility of the Senate to work through them. We’re going to continue to remain engaged and have conversations with members of the Senate as they do exactly that. But ultimately this will be the responsibility of members of the Senate to work through.
One other thing that I will say is -- and again, I’ve said this about legislation that’s far less complicated than this one, which is that we live in an era of divided government, where there are Republicans who are in charge of both Houses of the Congress, there’s a Democrat that’s sitting in the Oval Office, there is a Republican majority in the Senate, but it’s not a filibuster-proof majority -- which means that for anything to become law, party-line votes are not going to cut it.
And that’s why we’re going to continue to urge members of the Congress to act in bipartisan fashion. We’ve seen that kind of bipartisan spirit on display in the Senate Finance Committee, and it yielded a good result. And we’re hopeful that as the Senate works through this particular procedural snafu, that they will encounter the kind of bipartisan compromise that will be required to advance any legislation.
Q I just want to ask on one more topic. Iranian warships are traveling with a cargo ship that is bound for Yemen, and Tehran says that the cargo ship is carrying aid. What’s the U.S. response to this? And will the U.S. presence in that region make an effort to stop Iran from moving this -- letting this ship go directly to Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, I can tell you that the United States is monitoring this latest maritime shipment from Iran to Yemen. What we expect is that the humanitarian assistance that Iran is willing to offer will occur through the process that’s already established by the United Nations.
Now, what the United Nations has done is they’ve established essentially a relief effort inside of Djibouti, where humanitarian aid can be offloaded in Djibouti. It can be processed by U.N. experts, and effectively and efficiently distributed to those who are most in need in Yemen. This has the effect of ensuring that, for example, there’s no accusation of political preference being demonstrated by who receives the aid. We can also make sure that the aid that’s needed in some parts of the country gets to the right places. In some places, a priority is going to be placed on medical supplies. In some cases, there will be a priority placed on food. In other cases, there may be a priority placed on fuel.
This is basically an effort to try to be responsive to the needs of the local populations, and there are officials at the United Nations that have an expertise in this area. The thing that’s also important is that using this, essentially, a logistics hub in Djibouti will allow for the enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which put in place an arms embargo against the Houthi rebels. And so by allowing the U.N. to process those humanitarian donations and to efficiently distribute them, we’ll make sure that we’re enforcing the arms embargo while at the same time most efficiently and effectively delivering assistance to those who are most in need.
Q So will the U.S. ensure that that ship does not go direct and instead goes to Djibouti or wherever?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s my understanding that the journey of this particular maritime vessel has only recently begun from Iran and we’re monitoring the shipment. And, again, we would urge Iran to utilize this relief hub that’s been established in Djibouti. I mean, the other thing that I’ll -- I guess the last thing I’ll point out on this is that Iran understands that they can’t afford to play games with humanitarian assistance to people who are in dire need, like we see in Yemen. And the Iranians know as well as anyone that a political stunt to defy their regional rivals outside the U.N. system is provocative and risks a collapse of the U.N.-led humanitarian ceasefire that’s scheduled to go in place later today.
Q Just back to trade for a minute. You seem to kind of dismiss what’s happening in the Senate as just a procedural snafu. Assuming it gets solved, do you feel confident you have the votes in both Houses to pass fast track?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what is true -- and I think Senator Wyden himself, through one form or another, made clear that the concerns they have about the current procedural problem in the United States Senate has not in any way affected his overall support for the legislation that advanced through the Senate Finance Committee.
Q His overall support or Democrats’ overall support?
MR. EARNEST: His overall support.
Q Oh, okay.
MR. EARNEST: And I think that the point is, I think as other Democrats talk about this, I think that you’ll find other Democrats who are saying the same thing.
Q So you’re confident?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m confident is that the -- that a “no” vote on this procedural situation should not be interpreted as a change in position on the substance of the bill. And again, I don’t speak for these senators, so you should go ask them, but Senator Wyden I know is one person who has made clear that’s his view. I suspect that there are a number of others. I say that based on the fact that there were seven Democrats who voted this particular legislation out of the Senate Finance Committee. And that, I think, is an indication that there is present already Democratic support for this legislation and the potential that even more Democrats could support the legislation if and when it makes its way to the floor.
Q Is the President frustrated that Hillary Clinton hasn’t said anything in support of this?
MR. EARNEST: Not particularly. She’s not a member of the United States Senate. I thinks if she were a member of the United States Senate, then we might. But in this case, she’s got a campaign to run, and I think what she has indicated is consistent with what the President has said about this in terms of the goal of the TPP negotiations, which is to open up opportunity for American businesses overseas in a way that we can ensure benefits middle-class families across the country. The President obviously shares those values and shares that goal.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First one, Russia. Is Secretary Kerry bringing a message, a personal message, from the President to President Putin?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that there’s a personal message that the Secretary of State is bringing with him -- is taking with him to Russia, but obviously there are a range of issues that will be discussed by the Secretary of State and both his Russian counterpart and President Putin. Shortly before I walked out here, I was informed that the meeting with President Putin had just begun. So there are a range of issues for us to talk about -- everything from obviously the situation in Syria to the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Russia has played a key part in those talks as a member of the P5+1. And we’re certainly going to spend a lot of time talking about the situation in Ukraine and the need for Russia and the separatists that they back in eastern Ukraine to live up to the terms of the Minsk implementation plan. So far, we haven’t seen that, but living up to those commitments will be a critical part of deescalating the conflict that we see in Ukraine right now.
Q Is it conceivable that the relationship will go ahead, even if nothing really changes on the Ukrainian front?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve talked about a number of times in this room, the United States has a complicated relationship with Russia. There are some very vigorous disagreements we have on a number of issues. The most prominent of them is Ukraine; it's certainly not the only one.
But there are a wide range of other areas where the United States and Russia have been able to work effectively together to advance the interest of citizens in both our countries. And everything -- this is indicative -- or this is true of the space program where obviously Russian scientists and astronauts have worked closely and effectively with American scientists and astronauts to explore outer space.
This has also been true of ridding Syria of their declared chemical weapons stockpile. That that would not have occurred without the effective coordination and cooperation of the United States and Russia to round up that declared chemical weapons stockpile and dispose of it in a way that would prevent the proliferation of those specific materials that would, if proliferated, pose a pretty serious threat to our interests and to our people.
Q Sorry to be maybe simplistic, but you say often complicated relationship, but will you say it's still a constructive relationship?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no question that we have been able to use elements of our relationship to advance the national security interest of the United States. The national security interest of the United States was enhanced with the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. The national security interest of the United States is advanced if we can capitalize on this diplomatic opportunity to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Again, that will require the cooperation and support of Russian negotiators. And thus far, that’s exactly what we’ve received in a way that’s good for the United States. It also happens to be good for the people of Russia. And so I think that is an indication that we can work effectively together despite the significant disagreements we have about the way that Russia has handled their business when it comes to the relationship with Ukraine.
Q And last question. Totally different topic. Sorry. The Brady story, Tom Brady story. I just want to know --
MR. EARNEST: People in Canada are following this closely?
Q Yes, very closely, actually. (Laughter.) And not only the people in general, but also the kids are following American football a lot. And we’d like to know, how does the White House see prominent players like this? Should they be a role model -- aren’t they a role model for kids? And by extension, shouldn’t they follow higher standards of overall behavior?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there has been a lot of discussion -- (laughter) -- I will say that I spent a lot of time thinking about all of things that were going to come up in this briefing and a number of them we’ll get to. This is one of them, actually.
I will just say that as a general matter, I have not spoken to the President about this particular issue. And I haven’t thought nearly as much about this issue as obviously executives at the NFL have, and as many NFL fans -- in particular Patriots fans have. I will say, just as a general matter, that I do think that people around the world, particularly children, particularly boys, do look up to Tom Brady. He is somebody who has a reputation for professionalism. He is somebody who has enjoyed tremendous success on the football field and has carried himself off the field in a way that has earned the respect of a lot people.
And I think that as he confronts this particular situation, and he determines what the next steps will be for him, that he’ll be mindful of the way that he serves to be -- the way he serves as a role model to so many, not just American kids, as you point out, but to kids around the world.
Q Raul Castro said today that Cuba and the U.S. could exchange ambassadors as soon as May the 29th, I think he said. Does that fit your expected timeframe? Could we see a reestablishment of diplomatic relations within weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there are additional conversations that are planned between now and the end of May. And our efforts to work with Cuba to start to normalize the relations between our two countries is something that we continue to pursue. The President had the opportunity to visit with President Castro in Panama a few weeks ago, and that certainly continued to advance this effort toward normalization.
They also had an opportunity to have an extended discussion about the priority that the United States places on respecting basic universal human rights. And these are -- we have expressed quite often, in public and in private, the concerns that we have with the Cuban government and the frequency with which they trample the basic universal human rights of their people. And that’s a concern.
And the President’s view is that after 50 years of a policy that tried to isolate Cuba, that the United States demonstrated very little ability to influence the Cuban government when it came to basic protections for human rights.
And the President feels strongly that by changing our policy, by seeking greater engagement not just between the Cuban government and the American government, but between the Cuban people and the American people, that we can continue to support the Cuban people as they seek the kind of government that respects their rights and allows them to fulfill their ambitions.
So we’re going to continue to advance this process, and it's one that this administration takes very seriously. And it's been -- it continues to be the source of extensive discussion within the United States government, but also with the Cuban government.
Q Does the President have an ambassadorial candidate or a short list in mind?
MR. EARNEST: He may, but not one I'm prepared to announce right now.
Q Thank you. I have a TPP/TPA question. But first, a Tom Brady follow-up.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q So I just wanted to clarify. You said that you hadn’t spoken with the President about it yet. Did you mean the issue of whether Tom Brady should be a role model to kids, or do you mean at all? Because we were sort of trying to figure out what he thinks as a sports fan about the punishment both for Brady and for the team. And also, on a related thread, the idea that -- the controversy over whether or not he skipped the White House announcement because he was angry about you and the President’s --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I saw some of those news reports myself. I have not spoken to the President since this latest announcement from the NFL -- I guess it was just yesterday -- about the punishment that they had handed down against the Patriots and against Mr. Brady. And I have not spoken to the President about Mr. Brady’s status as a role model.
I have also not talked to the President about Mr. Brady’s decision not to attend the White House celebration of their Super Bowl victory earlier this year.
Q Many of our news organizations are interested in if the President would like to weigh in on what he thinks about it.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. There may be an opportunity for you to ask him.
Q Oh, okay. On TPA/TPP. Patty Murray spotted -- as they say -- outside with Denis McDonough just before the President left for Georgetown. And I'm wondering what that was about. Was it her coming to give him a heads up? Was it him trying to do a last minute whip kind of thing? And was there anyone else here? What was going down there? What happened? What was that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding is that Senator Murray had a meeting at the White House on an entirely different issue. But as is indicative --
Q Tom Brady?
MR. EARNEST: Possibly. (Laughter.) Given her status as a loyal Seahawks fan, I doubt it. But she was here on a different issue, and I do think that the -- I am aware that the Chief of Staff did want to have a conversation with her while she was here on the current efforts to resolve the procedural snafu in the United States Senate.
This is indicative of the kinds of conversations that the President and senior White House officials have been having over the last several weeks with members of the Senate in both parties -- mostly Democrats, but occasionally a Republican conversation or two.
And again, we’re going to continue to try to nurture this bipartisan agreement. And as members of the Senate try to tap into that bipartisan spirit that allowed for the strong support of this legislation at the committee level, hopefully it will be able to advance on the floor as well.
Q Just, sorry -- I wasn’t sure. So he grabbed her on the way out because he knew she was here and he didn't want to talk to her about it?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if it was on the way out or the way in. She was here for a different reason, and they did have a brief conversation about --
Q That's what they were talking about, even though that's not why she was originally coming?
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q Okay, thanks.
MR. EARNEST: Correct. Jon.
Q You called this issue with the trade bill a “snafu”?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q Once or twice. (Laughter.)
Q A “procedural snafu.”
Q A “procedural snafu.”
MR. EARNEST: A procedural snafu. Thank you, Mark.
Q Thank you, Mark.
Q A procedural snafu. Remind me, what does snafu stand for? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: This is a family program, Jon.
Q The first words are “situation normal” I believe. (Laughter.) But isn’t that the core of the problem here that prominent -- some of the most prominent figures in the President’s party on Capitol Hill are simply not with him on this? It’s not just Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the left. He hasn’t has support of --
MR. EARNEST: I think they're prominent figures in their own right.
Q Sure. Yes. But I mean within the leadership -- and, of course, Elizabeth Warren is now a member of leadership.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I would acknowledge that there are a number of Democrats who do not intend to support this legislation. But what I would also quickly follow up to say is that it’s the President’s view that there’s ample reason for Democrats to support legislation that would give him the authority to complete the TPP negotiations and the authority that's necessary to enforce whatever agreement is reached.
Q So what does it say about the President’s power of persuasion within his own party right now that the most prominent players on Capitol Hill don't agree with him on this, are not convinced by his arguments on this, and the most prominent player outside -- Hillary Clinton -- won’t even step forward to make the case or even say she agrees with the President?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I would do, Jon, is I would urge you to withhold judgment about the President’s persuasion ability until we’ve had an opportunity to try to advance this piece of legislation through the Senate.
Q So you're predicting a victory on this?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in the prediction business, particularly when it comes to actions that are taken on Capitol Hill. But I think the President has made clear that he considers this to be a domestic priority principally because of the positive impact it would have on expanding economic opportunity for American businesses and American workers.
Q Okay, then one other subject. The decision to allow Shell to drill in the Arctic. As you've seen, environmental groups are upset by this decision. One, Friends of the Earth, said, “It is outrageous how our own government appears determined to sacrifice our precious Arctic Ocean for Shell’s profits.”
What is your response to that? And how do you square this decision to allow more drilling in the Arctic with what the President has said about climate change?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, this reflects the all-of-the-above approach that this administration has taken to our energy security. And the fact is we have taken steps to open up some regions of the Arctic to closely supervised drilling by Shell. There are some additional permitting steps that need to take place before this activity will begin. But this is something that will be done under the strict oversight of the Department of the Interior. And it will be consistent with the upgraded safety standards that have been put in place in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
What’s also true is that there are significant areas of the Arctic that have been designated for protection under the leadership of this President. That includes 9.8 million acres in the waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. That includes the designation to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from mining activity.
And you’ll recall there was a big hullabaloo when the President re-upped his proposal to permanently protect another national treasure, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And that's an indication that we need to have an all-of-the-above approach.
What’s also a part of this approach is investment in, and capitalizing on, the opportunity that exists when it comes to renewable energy. That's why under the President’s watch we’ve seen that the amount of energy that's generated by the wind has tripled just under the President’s tenure in office, and we’ve actually seen that the amount of energy that’s produced by solar has increased 20 times since the President’s first day in office.
So we’ve made substantial progress in investing in and capitalizing on the opportunity that exists when it comes to renewable energy. We’ve talked at length about the kinds of steps that we have taken when it comes to increasing energy efficiency, both in our cars and trucks, but also in our buildings in a way that’s had positive economic benefits for middle-class families across the country but also had a positive impact on our climate.
But what’s also true is the President is committed to ensuring that we are doing as much as we can to protect our energy security, and that means looking for opportunities to safely develop sources of energy on American soil. And I think this -- again, this decision reflects the effort to pursue that all-of-the-above approach.
Q The President today talked at some length about race with the panel on poverty that he had at Georgetown. His remarks seemed deeply personal and at much greater length than we’ve heard. And on top of this, the First Lady of course made some remarks about her experiences with race at her speech at Tuskegee. Is this something that they have set out to do? Is this a change of some sort? Is this a message that they’re starting to send?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think much of what you’ve seen from the President, at least over the last couple of weeks, has been a reflection of the national debate and dialogue that has been taking place across the country when it comes to these issues of the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve and protect. There is an obviously significant overlap when it comes to that issue and the issue of race. They’re not the same thing. But to deny that race is an element of some of those challenges is to deny sort of the basic fact of what’s going on. And the President has been asked a number of questions about this, and he has answered them and spoken about it freely.
Q In the previous six years he’s had relatively little to say about race.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know. The President gave a pretty prominent speech when he was running for office on this topic, and the President had ample opportunity to weigh in on things like the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and other situations where the President has spoken out on these issues principally because they’ve been part of the broader national debate. And the President, as the first black President of the United States, I think has something -- and he thinks has something important to contribute to that debate.
And so I think what the President was most interested in talking about today was a discussion and an examination and, in some cases, even a debate about how to expand economic opportunity in this country for all Americans. But at different points in the conversation, it did cause him to reflect more on his own views about how to address some of the challenges that we face when it comes to the persistent divisions around race.
Q You also mentioned Austin Tice at the outset. We believe he is being held by the Syrians. Is there anything in particular we’re doing to try to obtain his release as opposed to other hostages?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to be very focused on trying to rescue and return him. I don’t have much I can say in terms of our view about where or by whom he is being held, but I can tell you that we continue to work through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get information about his welfare and his whereabouts. And we’re certainly appreciative of the Czech mission for their efforts on behalf of Austin and effectively on behalf of the American people in trying to secure his safe return.
The other thing that’s true is the United States has been in periodic, direct contact with Syrian government officials, strictly on consular issues, including the case of Austin Tice. But for privacy and security reasons, I don’t have any additional details about that beyond that description of periodic, direct contact with Syrian government officials.
Q Do you have anything on a helicopter missing in Nepal?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything on that, but we can check on it.
Q Josh, getting back to the President’s remarks at this poverty event, at one point he said there are some communities where I’m not -- I don’t know -- “not only do I not know poor people, I don’t even know people who have trouble paying the bills at the end of the month. I just don’t know these people.” Was he trying to say that he is somewhat out of touch?
MR. EARNEST: No. (Laughter.) That would be a gross misreading of his comments.
Q That’s why I’m asking.
MR. EARNEST: That’s good, and I’m glad you did. The President began those comments by noting that what we see in this country is a greater degree of class segregation. And what that essentially means is that people who are in the upper-income brackets live in neighborhoods where they’re surrounded by other people who are in the same income bracket and don’t come into regular contact with people who may have trouble paying the bills on a monthly basis. And the President was articulating his concern that that kind of segregation, class segregation, has affected the policy debate about the best way to address some of these persistent challenges in our society. And I think the President indicated that it was important for all of us to challenge ourselves to sort of step outside of our own comfort zone and to think more broadly about some of these issues.
Q And with his comments today and the announcement about the library, it seems to be -- I don’t know, it seems as if he is starting to think about his legacy and that his legacy is on his mind. And I know you’re going to tell me he is hard at work trying to get things done for the American people and, well, we’ll think about legacy every once in a while but he is not going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about that. But it does seem like he is spending some time thinking about that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the principal reason that the President established a foundation and appointed some of his closest friends and most-trusted advisors to serve on that foundation is so that he wouldn’t have to spend so much time thinking about it. That has been the work of the board of the foundation, and they have of course kept the President updated on their work. They’ve kept the First Lady updated on their work, too. She’s got a say in this.
Q I guess my point is he is thinking about it. He’s spending a lot more time thinking about it, talking about it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess my point is that the President is focused on his responsibilities as President of the United States. And I think that he has been very clear with all of you that he is determined to use every single day that he has remaining in office to advance the agenda that he has put forward for the American people. And that’s why he would set up a system where he would have people who are focused on his post-presidency life who can start working and planning for that stuff now so that the President himself doesn’t have to dedicate nearly as much time or energy or thought to that process, and he’ll have ample time post-presidency to think about what those kinds of priorities will be.
Q And what does the selection of the South Side of Chicago say about the legacy of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the South Side of Chicago is where the President got his political start, and the President spent many of his formative years in that community. And it’s where he met his wife, it’s where he raised his kids, but it’s also where he got interested in politics and interested in public service, and interested in trying to work through the government system to benefit people all across the country but also ensure that we’re expanding economic opportunity for everybody and particularly for middle-class families and for those who are trying to get into the middle class. And I think that’s what makes the South Side of Chicago an appropriate venue for the future Obama Presidential Library.
Q And getting back to Putin, is the President trying to test the waters here to see if that relationship can be improved? Is that why the Secretary met with him? What’s going on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I would not describe it that way. I would describe this as part of our regular efforts to communicate with the Russian government. Secretary of State John Kerry --
Q He could do that with Foreign Minister Lavrov. This has been -- how long has it been since a high-level person from this administration has met with Vladimir Putin? I would imagine it has been a while.
MR. EARNEST: It probably has been a few months, at least, since the President spoke to him on the phone.
Q A significant meeting -- it seems to me this is a significant meeting.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think any time that you’re meeting with the Russian President and it’s the Secretary of State who is doing it, then, yes, that would be an important meeting. But it is part and parcel of our ongoing effort to communicate with the Russian government on a wide range of issues. Many of those issues will be difficult ones to discuss around the table because we have pretty -- we have significant differences with them when it comes to the need for Russia to respect the basic territorial integrity of their Ukrainian neighbors.
At the same time, there are other areas where we're able to work more constructively and cooperatively to advance the interests of both our countries. And I’m confident that issues in both categories will get significant attention in today’s talks.
Q Maybe I’m beating around the bush too much, I’ll get right to it. So the G7 meeting is coming up next month. There’s no possibility that Russia could be invited back into the G7 and it will become the G8 -- certainly not within the next month I would imagine. Is that kind of conversation at all happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I think that's pretty difficult to imagine. We’ve laid out a long list of concerns that we have with Russian behavior. But, Jim, I’d be remiss if I didn't point out that we’ve also been very clear, both in public and in private, with the Russians about what kind of steps they can take to essentially reduce the amount of isolation that they're currently facing.
We’ve seen that the Russian economy has weakened significantly, both because of declining energy prices, but also because of the sanctions that have been put in place by the United States in coordination with our European allies. And we’ve been very clear that we’d be prepared to take some steps to relax or even remove those sanctions if Russia started to live up to the commitments that they had made in the context of the Minsk Implementation Plan. And there’s obviously a lot of work for them to do to live up to those commitments because thus far they haven’t.
But if there’s any mystery about what will be required for Russia to be able to start to enjoy the benefits of a more normal relationship with countries around the world and with countries in Europe and certainly the United States, there shouldn’t be, because we’ve been very clear about what kinds of steps we’d like to see them take.
But I guess my point is I don't envision those -- I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I don't envision those steps being completed in advance of next month’s G7 meeting.
Q You were talking about Russia and space, and it sounded somewhat more optimistic than some of the language you've heard from this administration over the last several months with respect to Russia and their isolation.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that underscores the complexity of our relationship, and it certainly doesn't in any way diminish the very serious concerns that we have with Russia’s failure to respect the territorial integrity of their Ukrainian neighbors.
Q Thanks, Josh. The organizers of the movement to put a woman on $20 bill have announced that they have voted that -- that the public has voted for Harriett Tubman.
MR. EARNEST: A wonderful choice.
Q And they have delivered a petition to the White House formally asking the President to take action on this. Is he even aware of this? Would he direct I guess it would be Secretary Lew to look into it any further?
MR. EARNEST: This organization has been quite effective at generating media attention, and the President, as an avid consumer of the news, I’m confident has at last a general awareness of their efforts. I don't know if he’s aware of the petition that they delivered. But for questions about the currency, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department and Secretary Lew.
Q Care to venture a guess on how likely it is we’ll see a woman on the $20 by 2020?
MR. EARNEST: No. (Laughter.)
Q Going back to trade for a minute. Beyond the meeting that you referenced with Senator Murray, what else has the White House been doing in these last couple days to make a last push? Has the President been making calls? Has Denis McDonough been making calls? Or at this point, are you just counting on the Senate to resolve this procedural snafu?
MR. EARNEST: There have been a number of calls that have been placed by everyone -- by many people at the White House, by many senior White House officials, up to and including the President. I don't have any details about those conversations or those phone calls to share with you.
I think there were reports that the President has scheduled a meeting yesterday with a small group of Senate Democrats that had to be put off because of the voting schedule on the floor of the United States Senate. You might call that a scheduling snafu. But these kinds of things crop up. And I think -- I mention it only to highlight that this gives you a pretty good indication of our ongoing efforts to engage members of the United States Senate and to encourage them to support legislation that would give the President the authority that he needs to complete the agreement, and the authority that he needs to enforce it.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to go back to the library. The President has said that he will not be involved in raising money for it himself. But a lot of good-government --
MR. EARNEST: While he’s in office.
Q While he’s in office, yes. But a lot of good-government groups have suggested that it still raises the possibility of conflicts of interest by having groups that he’s very much affiliated with raising money for the library. Does the White House consider this a conflict? And have you done anything to prevent it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the foundation who will be steeped in all these details. But I can tell you that there are a number of steps that the foundation is planning to take to ensure that we live up to the high standard that the President established as a candidate for this office.
The foundation will not accept donations from PACs or lobbyists while the President is in office. The foundation will not accept donations from foreign governments while the President is in office. And the foundation intends to disclose on a quarterly basis the donations that they do receive in excess of $200 or $250 -- again to sort of fulfill the transparency that the President has talked about quite a bit.
Q Was that something that was worked out with the White House to avoid potential conflicts of interest?
MR. EARNEST: Certainly, the foundation was interested in living up to the very high standard that the President himself established. I don't know, frankly, if there are any specific conversations that took place between the White House and the foundation. But again, based on the fact that the President had appointed to the foundation people who are intimately aware of his knowledge and his approach to these issues in the past, understood that it would be a priority for the foundation to live up to that high standard that the President himself set in the context of his campaign.
Q To clarify, you're saying, just to make sure, any donor who would like to give to the library while the President is serving as President who would like to give more than $200 has to agree that their donation will be made public?
MR. EARNEST: That is my understanding. You should confirm that with the foundation. But that's my understanding of the rules that they’ve established.
Q Thanks, Josh. At the GCC summit later this week, does the President intend to bring up human rights concerns in countries that are participating?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that will not be the focus of the meeting. Obviously, this will be an important opportunity for the United States to deepen and modernize our security cooperation with our GCC partners.
Much of the conversation will be focused on what these countries can do to better coordinate their own security measures. So there’s been a lot of talk about sort of what -- what sort of additional assistance will the United States provide. Obviously there is obviously a significant U.S. military presence in the region. Each of these countries has a significant military-to-military relationship with the United States when it comes to getting military hardware and security hardware to provide for the security of their country.
The thing that the United States believes would significantly enhance the effectiveness of these countries when providing for their own security is to strengthen their interoperability. That is to say, what can they do to make sure that the countries are not relying on the United States to make sure that their coordinating their efforts, but what can they do directly to coordinate their efforts.
Let me give you one example. There’s been some discussion about how important ballistic missile defense is to the national security of any of these countries, and many of these countries do have a robust infrastructure when it comes to missile defense. But, of course, ballistic missiles don’t respect political boundaries and that the architecture of this missile defense would be greatly enhanced if you had missile defense not just for an individual country but for the entire region, and that you had these missile defense batteries essentially working in concert to protect all of the countries in the GCC.
And so this is indicative of how important it is for this interoperability to be established and for these individual governments to work together to enhance their security. It doesn’t necessarily reflect a need for additional hardware; it reflects a need for a commitment to pursuing this kind of cooperative relationship with their neighbors.
Q Getting back to the human rights question. Many human rights activists are saying today that the people who are participating in this meeting with the President from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, are the very people that need to hear from the President about human rights abuses in their countries because they’re the ones who are in charge of the state security apparatus. And these human rights activists are questioning whether the President is “tough enough” to raise those kind of concerns with these people. Do you have a response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s an interesting way to put it. Again, let me just reiterate that the meetings will be focused on regional security cooperation. But the President and members of his team will -- as they do in every meeting -- stress the need for long-term solutions that build more inclusive governance and service delivery in conflict-ridden societies, promote reconciliation, protect all minorities and respect universal human rights, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
This is a priority for the United States both when it comes to our values and our priorities. But what we also know is that respect for basic universal human rights has an impact on broader long-term regional stability, and that if we -- advancing these goals will benefit the United States and we know will enhance the prospects for long-term regional stability among these partners of ours.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First, Greece today made its payment back to the IMF of its latest portion of the loan that it had. Now, there’s been some concern that it might not be able to do so the next time it's up. The President, we know, has talked to Chancellor Merkel about this. Is he in regular consultation with her and Prime Minister Tsipras on the Greek loan repayment?
MR. EARNEST: The President is not. But the Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, has been engaged with his counterparts and with some European leaders on this issue, with some regularity.
This is the way that the United States facilitated previous rounds of these financial difficulties. We’re obviously aware of the significant economic consequences and financial consequences for Greece being able to meet its obligations and continue to be a part of the currency union in Europe. And that’s why you’ve seen Secretary Lew be actively engaged both with his counterparts but also with some European leaders, including Prime Minister Tsipras, when it comes to trying to facilitate these kinds of solutions.
But ultimately -- and what we have said is the United States is prepared to support Europe as they confront these challenges. But ultimately it's going to be the responsibility of Greece and the EU and the other multilateral institutions that are involved to resolving these difficulties.
Q Turning to the home front and Congress, a question about TPP. Two weeks ago, Chairman Paul Ryan, of the House Ways and Means Committee, insisted that the agreement contains nothing dealing with immigration. And later, Chairman Goodlatte, of the Judiciary Committee, put out a statement praising USTR Froman for not including immigration. Now, Senator Sessions and some other lawmakers have said it does indeed include portions of the comprehensive immigration package in a trade deal. Who is right on this, can the White House say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would trust the word of Ambassador Froman. He obviously has the principal responsibility for negotiating this agreement. And I know that this is a discussion that he’s had with members of Congress quite frequently.
And we believe that the way to ultimately resolve our broken immigration system is to pass legislation that would finally bring some accountability to our broken immigration system. And we believe that’s something that Congress should do, and we’ve made that case for a long time. But I do not envision that being coupled together with this other economic priority, which is the passage of TPA legislation that would give the President the authority that he needs to complete a TPP agreement and the authority that he needs to enforce it.
Q So you’re saying that Chairman Ryan and Chairman Goodlatte are correct when they said TPP has nothing to do with immigration?
MR. EARNEST: And I think they said that based on their own conversations with Ambassador Froman. And considering that he is the principal negotiator here, I think he’s an awfully good source. There’s probably not a better one.
Q Thanks. The President, in his comments this morning on poverty, said it would take some money to invest in early childhood education, worker training and infrastructure jobs. But the bills coming out of Congress right now -- the spending bills still keep sequestration. What progress have you made in trying to come to agreement on spending this year?
MR. EARNEST: Not much. We’ve obviously raised some significant concerns about some of the appropriations bills that are working their way through the committee process. Just yesterday, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, sent a letter to members of the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee to raise some significant concerns with the legislation that they were working on.
The early draft of that legislation includes a billion-dollar cut in our infrastructure investments; it reflects a significant cut in the Choice Neighborhoods program that would significantly underfund that important priority, particularly when we’re talking about issues of expanding opportunity -- economic opportunity for everybody in this country.
So we have some pretty significant concerns about the current status of those appropriations efforts. But there’s still ample time for Democrats and Republicans to do what Paul Ryan and Patty Murray did a couple years ago, which is to sit down together in bipartisan fashion and figure out a way that Congress can go beyond the sequester caps that hardly anybody supports.
So that’s what we’re hopeful that they’ll be able to do. And if we see that Democrats and Republicans are able to work together in that effort, they’ll have the full support of the White House as they try to find that bipartisan common ground. We believe that would be good for the political process, but most importantly, it would be good for our economy to avoid a government shutdown and to make sure that our priorities both when it comes to defense but also to our economy are properly recognized.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to take you back to September 2012, Ben Rhodes’s now infamous memo --
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s infamous for some of the way that’s been covered in the media. (Laughter.) That’s the reason it’s infamous. But go ahead.
Q Indeed, yes. At the time, he said it was not explicitly about Benghazi. And I want to read to you something that Jay Carney said, your predecessor, in April 2014, when referring to that memo. He said, in fact, this was not -- it was explicitly not about Benghazi. It was about the overall situation in the region, in the Muslim world, where you saw protests outside of embassy facilities across the region, including Cairo, Sana’a, Khartoum and Tunis. Yesterday, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell said that Jay misled reporters and the public when he suggested that this was a broad sweep of protests in the region and not specifically about Benghazi. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: My reaction is that Mr. Morell makes clear that the talking points surrounding the Benghazi attack were not politicized. In fact, what he wrote is, “There is no such conspiracy, as I have already explained, and there is no evidence to support such a theory. No committee of Congress that has studied Benghazi has come to this conclusion.” He went so far as to call Benghazi the “poster child of the intrusion of politics into national security.” He went on to say, “I believe Benghazi is an example of what is wrong with American politics -- politicians focused on scoring political points rather than working together to advance the interests of our country.” And with that, I would whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Morell.
Q And yesterday he said Jay misled the public and reporters in suggesting that that memo was not politicized. Is he lying then, or is he lying now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that the point that Mr. Morell makes in his book is the relevant one, which is that it is false to suggest that this thing has been politicized, this tragedy has been politicized by the administration. I think, unfortunately, we have seen some -- again, as Mr. Morell says -- some who have sought to rather cynically try to score political points by politicizing what is a legitimate tragedy. And that’s unfortunate.
Q Why would McDonough then send Morell with Rice to the Hill, for example, whose talking points, it seems pretty evident, clearly mirrored the memo from Rhodes rather than the CIA’s assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what’s clear is that this administration -- as we have throughout this whole saga of supposed congressional oversight, is to provide members of Congress with the most direct, specific, granular knowledge possible. And one way to make sure that members of Congress had good insight into what the intelligence community was thinking was to send the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency up to Capitol Hill to explain it to them.
Q Last thing. On a much lighter note, on Brady. Four games, a million bucks, a couple of draft picks -- appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a decision for the NFL to make and --
Q But what do you think? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes, well, I’ve got lots of thoughts, but none I’m willing to share here.
All right, thank you, Kevin.
Q Josh, today the Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidance that would eliminate the lifetime ban prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating blood, and replace it with a policy requiring one year of abstinence before they can donate. Does the President think this is a good final policy, or should the FDA move on to eliminate the ban altogether?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding, based on what I’ve heard about this, that the FDA has not rendered a final judgment on this, that this is the subject of ongoing consideration both by scientists but also by the public health professionals at the FDA that have a responsibility for ensuring that the American people and our blood supply is safe. Obviously we’re going to be guided by the science when it comes to this.
Q The President has said before that he opposes discrimination. Why wouldn’t that naturally apply to the issue of blood donation from gay and bisexual men?
MR. EARNEST: Because, again, this will be something that is going to be guided by the science. And the President does have a very strong record when it comes to ensuring that we’re not discriminating against people because of who they love, and the President feels strongly about that principle being abided by. He also feels strongly about making sure that we have an effective system that manages the reserve blood supply of the country. And we’re mindful of that, and that’s why we’ve got some of the best scientists in the world at the FDA who are looking at this issue and making sure that we can reach an agreement -- or reach a policy that is in the best interest of the country.
Q One more thing. The Texas House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would apparently seek to defy a Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage by prohibiting the use of local and state funds to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Is the President aware of this legislation and does he oppose it?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve only seen some news coverage of this. I’d refrain from putting myself on the hook for every piece of legislation that is considered by a state legislature. But obviously this is among the things that the Supreme Court is considering now and will ultimately have a decision on hopefully later this summer.
Q Does it sound like bad legislation to you?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t draw any conclusions based on the way that it sounds at this point. But I think the President’s values when it comes to this question are very clearly well-articulated.
Q Thanks, Josh. Leader McConnell and Senator Hatch are saying that Senator Wyden backtracked on a commitment for a deal that would bring TPA and TAA to the floor only. Is that the White House’s understanding as well? And does the White House still view Senator Wyden as a reliable partner on this trade issue?
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, what we saw in the Senate Finance Committee was the Chairman, Senator Hatch, working closely with the Ranking Member, Senator Wyden, to put together a trade proposal that ensures the President has the authority that he needs to complete a TPP agreement and the authority that he needs to enforce it. And we were pleased to see that they were able to work in bipartisan fashion together to put together this bipartisan compromise.
Then what they did was they worked with members of their committee to craft an agreement that attracted the support of the majority of Republicans and the majority of Democrats. And that is effective bipartisan work at the committee level in the United States Senate. And we’re hopeful that that kind of spirit and that kind of focus on the content of legislation that does stand to benefit the American economy will prevail as the Senate works its way through this procedural snafu.
Q One more on Israel. The White House said after the elections that it would conduct a reassessment of the U.S.’s diplomatic relationship with Israel. Now that the government has been formed, is there an update on that reassessment? Have you guys made any decisions on how you’re going to move forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me quibble with one aspect of your question, which is I don't think that there is a reconsideration of our diplomatic relationship with Israel. The relationship between the United States and Israel is strong and it is focused primarily on the critically important security cooperation between our two countries. That security relationship is critical to the very existence of Israel, and critical to their national security. But it also has important benefits for the American people and for American national security.
And the President did indicate that the Prime Minister’s comments about the pursuit of a two-state solution necessarily prompted a reconsideration of our approach to trying to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but that in no way inhibited our ability to communicate with the Israelis, particularly when it comes to our security cooperation. And the United States has continued to take a variety of steps even in a range of multilateral fora to stand up diplomatically for Israel even in situations that left the United States feeling a little isolated.
But that underscores the depth of not just the President’s commitment to our relationship with Israel, but it reflects the depth of the relationship between our two countries -- one that has persisted across generations, and one that has persisted even as the leaders of the two countries have been representing different political parties. And that kind of bipartisan commitment to Israel is a hallmark of that relationship and reflects the deep ties between our two countries that endure to this day.
Q So we shouldn’t expect any announcements or changes to be made?
MR. EARNEST: No -- well, again, I wouldn’t expect any broad announcements. But the approach that we take to trying to facilitate a resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is necessarily different because of the comments made by the Prime Minister in the closing days of his election.
I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. What is objectionable about having the currency language in the TPA bill?
MR. EARNEST: The concern that we have expressed about some of the currency language that's included is twofold. The first is that the United States pursuing regular sort of diplomatic economic negotiations has been effective in addressing some of the currency practices of other countries that have put the United States at a disadvantage.
So again, a couple of examples that I’ve cited a couple of times. Since 2010, China’s exchange rate is up nearly 30 percent on a real, effective basis. And that's because when U.S. officials are meeting with China in the context of the G20 and in the context of the IMF that there’s an opportunity for us to relay our concerns on this issue, and that diplomacy has been effective in leveling the playing field -- or at least beginning to level the playing field for American businesses who are competing against Chinese enterprises that may benefit from a devalued currency.
We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Japan that over the last three years Japan has not intervened in the foreign exchange market. There were significant concerns by U.S. manufacturers, including some in the auto industry, about Japanese interventions. And we haven’t seen that over the last three years. And again, that's because of the advocacy of U.S. officials.
So the point is we do have mechanisms in place that will allow us to advance the interests of the U.S. economy when it comes to currency policy.
The other concern that we have is that the proposal -- one of the proposals that's currently being considered by the Congress would -- or at least could potentially undermine the independence of the Federal Reserve, and it could make it easier for other countries to try to encroach on the ability of the Federal Reserve to make independent decisions about what they believe is in the best interests of the U.S. economy. And the President doesn't believe that's good for the economy at all in this country. It certainly is not good for American businesses and American workers.
So the point is we believe that we have a variety of effective mechanisms already that allow the administration -- as we’ve effectively done when it comes to China and Japan -- to protect the interest of the United States and our economy when it comes to currency policy.
Q Then is the White House suggesting lobbying Minority Leader Reid to drop the idea of rolling all four together?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have made clear what our views are both on this specific topic and more broadly about the need for legislation that would give the President the authority that he needs to complete the agreement and to enforce it. And that's the guidance that we have shared in all of the conversations that we’ve had with members of Congress. And what we're counting on is that Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate will be able to work together in the same way that Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee did to find bipartisan common ground and pass legislation that the President believes is critically important to our long-term economic success right here in the United States.
Q Thanks, Josh.
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