Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/22/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I apologize for the late start today. To paraphrase Chris Tucker in a cult classic, it’s Friday and we’ve got a lot of stuff to do. (Laughter.)
So with that, Nedra, you want to get us started?
Q Yes, I want to get us started. Is the White House concerned now that we’ve learned that Hillary Clinton sent email on her private server that's been classified, that there is a problem here and that there could be more to come?
MR. EARNEST: Nedra, as you know, the State Department, following through on their promise, has publicly released the emails that have been previously submitted to Congress in the context of their ongoing investigation into the tragic events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi.
The fact is that when these kinds of emails are reviewed for public release, consistent with FOIA standards, it’s not uncommon for the materials included in the review to be classified based on current events. So it’s not uncommon for information that was previously unclassified to, upon later review and based on changing events in the world, be deemed classified. This was a determination in this case that was made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And for questions about their decision to make this classified, I’d refer you to them.
What is also true, and what we also know about the contents of these materials is that they do not change in any way anyone’s understanding about the events of that tragic evening.
Q But do you think that someone should have classified this material earlier? Should this have been on a classified server --
MR. EARNEST: That's not at all a judgment that I can make. This was a judgment that was made by the FBI recently in light of more recent events, even though the email was, as we know, nearly three years old. But for why they made that decision and what led them to that conclusion, I’d refer you to them.
Q This is just a small part of the emails that are to come. So are you concerned that there could be more classified material despite the assurances that were given that she did not send classified material?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that assurance remains true today. That is information that was not classified at the time, that it was sent or received. But again, I can't speak to the content of the emails. There is a rigorous process in place to review them and release them as expeditiously as possible.
Q On another topic, does the United States believe that a newly established Saudi affiliate of the Islamic State was behind the mosque suicide attack there?
MR. EARNEST: It’s unclear. This is obviously a very tragic event that occurred overnight. It is indicative of some the extremist tactics that we’ve seen. The fact is that when extremists like this carry out these violent attacks -- in this case, all of the victims were Muslims. That is unfortunately all too common. And so we obviously mourn the loss of life and condemn this violence. The attribution, the determination about who is responsible is something that is still under review.
Q How concerned is the President that the Senate won’t approve today the USA Freedom Act, and that the Patriot Act will expire without any replacement? And will the activities that are authorized by that law just stop, or is there some kind of plan B? And is there a risk to U.S. national security if activities do stop?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, the administration continues to be quite concerned about the fact that the United States Senate has refused to take up and pass the common-sense bipartisan compromise that was crafted in the House of Representatives. This was a compromise proposal that was painstakingly crafted with the significant input of the intelligence community. And the goal of the compromise was to write legislation that would give our national security officials the authorities they need to keep us safe while ensuring the privacy rights of the American people are protected.
After thousands of hours of meetings and painstaking work on what everyone would acknowledge is a very complicated policy issue, a reasonable bipartisan compromise emerged. This was a bipartisan compromise that earned the support of 338 members of the House of Representatives.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking before about how difficult this Congress in particular has found it to be to do even simple things, to find common ground on even simple policy proposals. This policy proposal was extraordinarily complicated and one that has significant consequences for the national security of this country and for the basic civil liberties of the American people.
The point is, the hard work on this has been done. It was done in response to a call from the President of the United States almost a year and a half ago. You’ll recall -- many of you covered this -- the President gave a speech, I believe it was at the Department of Justice, in January of 2014 where he called on important reforms to be put in place to better strike this balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting the country. That work finally has gotten done.
And the refusal of the Senate to consider this legislation in a similarly bipartisan spirit puts at risk not just the bipartisan compromise, but it puts at risk the ability of our national security professionals to keep us safe. And that’s why we continue to call on members of the Senate, in this case, in both parties to take up and pass the USA Freedom Act today.
Q So if the timing doesn’t quite work out on this, is there any kind of administrative fix that the White House has at its disposal to sort of --
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. You asked that before and I didn’t get to it, but I have a good answer for you.
So the first thing is that there’s no reason that timing should be an issue. The house has already passed a compromise proposal. All the Senate needs to do is to take up and pass that same proposal. The President will sign it immediately, and timing the risk of a lapse in this program is eliminated, because, frankly, there will be no lapse. This will be -- the reforms will be implemented and there will be no risk to the authorities that our national security professionals need to keep us safe.
The reason that that’s critically important is because there is no plan B. These are authorities that Congress must legislate. And again, we’re talking about a basic, functional responsibility of the United States Congress to pass a piece of legislation that is critically important to ensuring that the basic safety and security of the American people is protected, and that the basic civil liberties of the American people are protected.
Again, other than the budget of the United States, it’s difficult to conceive of a more basic, central responsibility that the United States Congress has. In this case, we’re gratified that after thousands of hours of very difficult work, the House of Representatives acted within the scope of those responsibilities to pass a common-sense reform proposal.
The Senate, unfortunately, for reasons that are unclear, for reasons that no one has actually been able to effectively explain, hasn’t yet done the same thing. So given the lack of a reasonable alternative explanation, I’m hopeful that that’s an indication that after all the posturing is finally concluded, that they’re going to move forward on this common-sense reform proposal. But we’ll see.
Q I want to ask you about another vote that’s expected today on transportation funding. When the President was asked about this at Camp David, he said that he was in discussions with congressional leaders about it, and he wanted to hear their ideas about how to fund long-term solutions. I realize this is just short term, but he sort of left the impression that he was in talks about longer term, that he was open to ideas about other sort of funding -- potential revenue sources. And I guess I’m just wondering, is he open to ideas other than his GROW AMERICA proposal? And if you can talk a little bit about what sorts of things are being looked at.
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, the President has routinely and consistently indicated a willingness to try to find bipartisan common ground about the best way to ensure that we’re making the necessary investments in our infrastructure. That’s critically important to preserving the near-term momentum of our economic recovery. It’s also critically important to the long-term prospects of economic growth in the United States of America.
We put forward a proposal that we believe makes the most sense, which is closing some loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations, and using the revenue to invest in the kind of infrastructure that benefits everybody. In our mind, that’s a pretty common-sense proposal. There are members of Congress in both parties who have a variety of other ideas, and we’re open to consideration of those ideas. And there have been conversations that have taken place between senior members of the President’s economic team, both here at the White House and at the relevant Cabinet agencies, with Democrats and Republicans, about trying to find a way forward here.
I don’t have much progress to report, unfortunately, at this point. That’s why Congress appears poised to pass a short-term extension. That’s no way to run a government, but unfortunately it appears to be the situation that we’re facing now. But if what all Congress can do is pass a short-term extension, we’re hopeful that members of Congress will use that short-term extension to negotiate something longer term. After all, you hear regularly from Republicans about the benefits of certainty -- the economic benefits of certainty. And in this case, the economic benefits of certainty in terms of our infrastructure investments would benefit the job market and the economy in communities all across the country.
Q Just to follow up -- you said you don’t know why the Senate hasn’t acted yet on the USA Freedom Act. Let me try. They’ve said that they don’t believe that it does enough to ensure that the metadata is preserved; it doesn’t require the telecom companies to keep that metadata and save it for potential future searches. So what they’re saying is that they want to at least have a temporary extension so they can have time to fix that in the USA Freedom Act. So I just want to ask you very directly: If they pass a short-term extension of a matter of weeks or as much as two months, will the President sign it so they can go back and address this concern they have with the House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me take up the substantive objection that they’ve raised first. The fact is, we know, based on the way that the program currently operates, that the telecom companies do maintain this data. You also know, based on the fact that you receive a cellphone bill every month that lists the time, duration, and phone number of all the calls that you’ve made over the course of a month -- just to cite one example -- that telecom companies are saving this data, that they do it already.
Q So you’re confident that they will save all of the metadata -- not just your phone call, but all the metadata -- and they will do that for a period of years, which is what is envisioned?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, there is no indication that they won’t.
Q But no guarantee that they will, though.
MR. EARNEST: But if there were concerns that they weren’t going to, then I feel confident that our national security professionals would assess that situation and come back to Congress if they felt it was necessary for Congress to pass legislation that would compel the telecom companies to take action. Right now, there’s no reason to think that that’s necessary, based on their long-standing practice.
Q So would the President, if it comes to it and they can’t pass this, will the President sign a short-term extension?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me raise the second substantive objection that was sort of molded into the first part of your question, which is this question about a transition period. That there are reforms that are contemplated in the USA Freedom Act that would put the government out of the business of maintaining this data, and it would require a transition period. I think it’s described in the legislation as an implementation phase that would last for 180 days.
So the fact is, there already is an implementation phase. So if there are these longstanding concerns that -- well, that raises another question. If this actually is a longstanding concern from some Republicans in the Senate, why are they waiting until the last day to raise it? I mean, they’ve had a -- we’ve been talking about this for a year and a half.
Q It’s all a good question. But I'm just asking a simple question: If politically they can’t get 60 votes for the House bill, will the President sign a short-term extension?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is, it’s not clear to anyone that the short-term extension would get 60 votes in the Senate. We have heard many people on Capitol Hill indicate that they do not believe that a short-term extension would pass the House of Representatives.
And the other thing is this -- the program lapses on midnight of May 31st, so essentially the last second of May 31st. We know that the House of Representatives is not scheduled to come back into session until June 1st. So even under this strategy that some Republicans are advocating, it would almost guarantee a lapse in the program.
Q How much risk is there, I mean, if this program lapses?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s something that’s difficult for me to assess. Maybe there are national security professionals who could offer that assessment for you.
I think what I would say is that if they pass the USA Freedom Act, there is zero risk. And when we’re talking about something this important, even only a little risk is something that we don’t need to subject ourselves to.
Q Okay. And then just one other one on the emails -- the Hillary Clinton emails. Is there any concern at the White House to see that Sidney Blumenthal was advising Secretary Clinton while he was working at the foundation? And of course, he had been kind of ruled out as somebody the administration would have at the State Department. There’s concerns that it appears that he was offering advice, even on -- offering his sense of the intelligence on the ground in the wake of the attack in Benghazi.
MR. EARNEST: No. And there’s no indication, at least on our part, to indicate that that information was somehow prioritized over information that was collected and distributed by the U.S. government.
Q Did the White House know -- did the President know that Mr. Blumenthal was offering this advice?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that.
Q Can I go back to the bulk collection program?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q I just want to figure out what happens on June 1st. The NSA has this data, and on June 1st they would not legally be able to access that data passed June 1st? Is that how it works?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the technical way in which this program is implemented, I would ask you to contact the NSA. There are a couple things I can say about this.
The first is that, as I mentioned to Jon, the way that we can ensure that there is no lapse in the program, that there is no operational risk to the program, is to pass the USA Freedom Act. And the fact is, there is an implementation period that lasts 180 days, so there would be an opportunity for these reforms to be implemented in a way that would essentially eliminate the risk of any lapse or disruption.
The 180 days period is not a number that was picked out of a hat at random. 180 days is the amount of time that the intelligence community has requested for the implementation of these reforms. And what the President has indicated is if for some unexpected reason it becomes clear that more than 180 days is necessary to successfully implement those reforms, the administration, with the backing of the national security infrastructure, would go to the Congress and seek additional time.
So again, the way for us to completely eliminate the risk of these critically important national security authorities from lapsing is to pass the USA Freedom Act.
The other thing -- and this is something that the President has strong feelings about -- the other way for us to ensure that we finally move forward on the critically needed reforms that will ensure that our civil liberties are protected is to pass the USA Freedom Act so we can do both. And again, I haven’t heard a rational, satisfactory explanation for why the vast majority of the United States Senate -- Democrats and Republicans -- won’t do that.
The last thing that I can tell you -- and the NSA can give you some more details on this; and this goes to some of the details in terms of the way that the program is implemented -- the kinds of programs that we’re talking about here are not the kinds of programs that can be started and stopped with the flip of a switch. It requires time. That’s part of what the 180-day implementation period is about.
But what the NSA has said publicly is that if there is no indication that Congress will be able to successfully reauthorize these authorities by the end of the day today, that the NSA will have to begin taking the steps to unwind the program. Because they need to be sure that they’re in compliance. The authorities, by legislation, are slated to expire at the end of the month. And again, that's not just the flip of a switch; they have to begin taking steps now to dismantle the program. All the more reasons it’s important -- as I mentioned earlier -- for the United States Senate to vote today to pass the USA Freedom Act so that the President can quickly sign it.
Q Can I go back to the President’s speech earlier today? He was reassuring the Jewish American community, and I suppose a lot of Israelis, that America has Israel’s back. And a big piece of that is Iran, obviously, and the Iran nuclear program. I guess what I’m curious about is, with respect to what’s happening in Iraq right now and ISIS, it seems that you're in a situation where you're trying to reassure Israel, Jewish Americans that you're going to keep Iran in check over here when it comes to their nuclear program; but in Iraq, it sounds as if the strategy is going to increasingly become reliant somewhat more on these Shia-backed militias, which most experts will say have some Iranian influences.
And so can you talk a little bit about how that is a difficult position to be in? Do you find that to be a difficult position to be in where you will be relying somewhat -- when it comes to your strategy in Iraq -- on militias that have some Iranian backing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what’s clear in --
Q Feel free to attack a piece of that premise.
MR. EARNEST: No, no, I --
Q But I think it is fair, that it was laid out logically --
MR. EARNEST: I understand. I understand the spirit of your question. I think there are a couple of relevant facts. The first is that the Prime Minister of Iraq is a Shia Muslim. The largest neighbor of Iraq is Iran. We would expect that Iran and Iraq would have a relationship. And we’ve acknowledged, and I think the Iranians have been pretty clear about this -- and it’s understandable -- they don't have any interest in seeing ISIL carrying out these terrible, heinous acts of violence in a country that is on their doorstep.
What’s critically important, though, is for Iran to respect the sovereignty of their neighbors in Iraq. And that's why this administration has gone to great lengths to build up and support the central government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Abadi, primarily because he has indicated a commitment to governing that country in a multi-sectarian way.
And what we have said is that the United States will not coordinate militarily with the Iranians. But what we will do is we will support the multi-sectarian force in Iraq that’s fighting ISIL as long as it is under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And that is the principle that we have applied with some evidence of success.
This was exactly the formula that we used in Tikrit. There was a lot of concern about ISIL being dug in in Tikrit and repelling the advances of some Shia militia in Iraq. And the United States and our coalition partners came to Prime Minister Abadi and said, if you will mobilize forces that are directly under your command and control, we will back them with air power, and we have reason to believe that they’ll be more effective on the battlefield. And that’s exactly what happened. Within a day or two, that multi-sectarian force was able to drive ISIL fighters outside of Tikrit. That is a formula for success.
Now, each situation is different, and the Iraqis are working to determine what they can do to build up the capacity of the forces that they have now east of Ramadi, and how they can leverage the assistance of the United States and the rest of our international coalition to ensure that they’ve got well-trained and well-equipped troops there, and that when they’re prepared to go and try to retake Ramadi that they can do so with the full support of the international coalition, including coalition military airstrikes.
Q And then lastly, my third question, and I’ll let you go, is -- you’ve been saying all week, and the President I think indicated in the article with The Atlantic, that ground forces, combat troops are not an option when it comes to dealing with ISIS.
MR. EARNEST: Not U.S. ground combat troops.
Q Not U.S. ground troops. And just to button this down, I’m just asking you, are you saying under no circumstances will that ever be considered? There is no tipping point where that might be considered?
MR. EARNEST: It’s a hypothetical. But let me try to be as clear about this as I possibly can.
The President has clearly ruled out the use of U.S. military personnel in a ground combat role in Iraq. And the reason for that is that we have an important lesson to learn from the previous invasion of Iraq; that we know that it does not serve the interests of the United States to put our military into a situation like that.
So, for example, we know it’s critically important and in the clear national security interest of the United States for the Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi people to take responsibility for the security situation in their own country, and they can do so with the support of the United States. But putting the United States military into a situation where they’re carrying out those efforts on their behalf, essentially for them, does work in the short term.
We saw in the previous conflict in Iraq that U.S. military forces, because of the bravery and professionalism of the U.S. military, that they did have some short-term success in battling extremists and stabilizing the country. But because of the failed leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, that was not a situation that Iraqi leaders were able to capitalize on.
The last thing I’ll say -- and the reason that I’m unwilling to definitively rule out your hypothetical is we’ve said the same thing about Syria -- that the President does not envision and does not plan to consider putting U.S. ground forces in a combat role in Syria. However, we just saw last weekend that the President did order a mission that did involve U.S. personnel being on the ground in a combat role in Syria to take out an ISIL leader.
And so for exceptions like that, I would preserve some wiggle room. But as a matter of policy, the President has been clear that we’ve learned the lessons of the previous Iraqi invasion, and that U.S. military cannot be in a situation where we are bearing the load providing for the security of the Iraqi people. We can support them as they try to do that for themselves, though, and that’s what our policy and our strategy is.
Q Thanks, Josh. To go back to the transportation bill, now that it’s getting close -- there’s a lot of support for a longer-term bill; it’s just how to pay for it. Is the White House any more open now to an increase in a gas tax?
MR. EARNEST: Cheryl, we’ve indicated previously that that is not a proposal that we have offered. There are other members of Congress in both parties that have made a compelling case about the virtues of that strategy. The administration, however, has put forward a plan that we think is better. So that is an indication that we’re going to continue to talk with those members of Congress, particularly because it’s an indication that they share our priority that those kinds of investments in infrastructure are critically important.
So that’s an indication that there’s some common ground. And we certainly take every opportunity to have those kinds of discussions; and when we do, we will hear them out when it comes to their suggestion about the best way to pay for these kinds of programs, but we also take advantage of the opportunity to try to persuade them of the benefits of the proposal that we’ve laid out as well.
John, is that a clever tactic for getting me to call on you today? (Laughter.)
Q No, no, no. I couldn’t make it yesterday because I was covering Senator Cassidy, so I’m celebrating red-nose day belatedly, and that’s a good cause.
MR. EARNEST: I see. I was not aware that that was a holiday, but maybe you can explain it to me later. (Laughter.)
Q Hey, it’s Friday, we got a lot of stuff.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, we’ve got a lot of stuff to do.
Q All right. Two questions. Than you, Josh, by the way. Number one, you made a strong case for the importance of the USA Freedom Act and the President’s concern. In the week ahead, while Congress is out, will he call members of the Senate himself and personally lobby them for this?
MR. EARNEST: Hopefully, that won’t be necessary. Hopefully, members of the Senate recognize that there’s a very easy solution to this problem that will balance our civil liberties protections with the need to protect our country, that will reflect the bipartisan compromise that’s already been reached in the House. And that will reflect the deadline that the NSA has already established, which is to pass before the end of the day today the legislation that’s already passed with strong bipartisan support in the House. If they do, the President will sign that into law before the end of May 31st, and ensure that there is zero risk associated with -- zero risk that the needed authorities with lapse.
Q Right. But it appears as though something is needed to get the votes. Will he make the calls and personally become involved, as he was in the Affordable Care Act process?
MR. EARNEST: The President does believe that this is a priority, and there are already senior members of his team who have been in regular touch with members of the United States Senate on this issue. But we’re hopeful that those efforts will bear fruit. And again, this is not about members of the Senate in either party, frankly, deciding to go along with the administration position. What they’re going along with are the recommendations of our senior national security leadership, and going along with the bipartisan ground that’s already been staked out by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House of Representatives who have dedicated thousands of hours of trying to reach this common-sense compromise.
And again, it effectively balances the need to protect civil liberties with the need to protect the country.
Q My other question is that the President over the years has come very close to apologizing to Iran for the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mosaddegh that is very important to the current government as a prerequisite for better relations. He mentioned it in his Cairo speech. He mentioned it in his U.N. speech last year. Is this something the President is eventually going to do as the dialogue continues with Iran, issue a formal apology? Or would he, for example, prefer a joint statement in which Iran and the United States both say mistakes were made in 1953 and the seizure of the hostages in 1979?
MR. EARNEST: John, I’m not aware of any specific plans for an apology. But I am confident that the comments that you cited that the President delivered both in Cairo and at the United Nations were words that were very carefully chosen. So when it comes to the administration and this President’s view of those historic events, I’d refer you to his comments directly.
Q Nothing new?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing new.
Q So just to put these items together -- this is a memorandum the Justice Department sent to Congress -- starting tonight, the authorities begin to be wound down for bulk surveillance under existing authorities. That process will continue until May 31st. So according to you and that memo, starting tonight things get less safe in this country in terms of using those authorities to detect and possibly prevent a terrorist attack. And the blame for that falls squarely on the Senate. So starting tonight, and each and every day thereafter, the country is less safe and the Senate is to blame.
MR. EARNEST: For the operational impact of the beginning of that wind-down, I’d refer you to the NSA. I can’t speak to what impact that would have. All I can do is speak to the fact that the NSA has indicated that if they do not have any clear indication by the end of today that these authorities will be renewed, that they will need to begin taking steps to unwind the program to ensure that they continue to stay in compliance with the congressional authorization that was passed three years ago.
Q And I’d like to get your reaction to what Rand Paul said on the Floor. He said, “If these authorities go away, it's not as if the FISA Court goes away, it's not as if the mechanism by which you can obtain a warrant for surveillance on FISA goes away. It just goes back to the system that existed before this.” And he believes, and asserts, there is more than enough security umbrella provided by that system to afford the nation the comfort and the security it needs. Why do you disagree?
MR. EARNEST: I disagree, frankly, for a couple of reasons. The first is, I rely, and I think the President relies -- I know the President relies -- on the advice that he gets from his national security team and from the intelligence professionals who are responsible for using these authorities to keep us safe. And what those law enforcement and national security professionals tell us is that these authorities do, in a tangible way, contribute to their ability to keep us safe.
And what the President has insisted upon is ensuring we have a policy that gives those national security professionals those authorities while also making clear that we’re going to put in place protections for the civil liberties and privacy of the American people. That’s exactly what’s contained in this specific piece of legislation -- the USA Freedom Act -- and it’s why we strongly believe that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate should vote for it, and should vote for it today.
Q Let me ask Jon’s question to you in a slightly different way -- because, of course, the House Republican leadership is not here, but it can conduct a pro-forma session. It can, under those pro-forma rules, pass a short-term extension if it so chooses. So what I'm asking you is not whether the President would sign that, but whether the President supports what appears to be the House Republican leadership’s vantage point on this, which is not to do that.
Given the option of if a short-term extension is presented, they have given us the impression they will not engage in any effort to do that. So as you said, well, it’s not even clear the House can do that. What I'm asking you is, does the President support that approach? Meaning, given the choice of nothing and the authorities expiring, or coming back in a pro-forma basis extending them for two weeks or two months, does the President support that legislative approach?
MR. EARNEST: Major, what’s clear -- and you’ve actually set it up very cogently. The fact is, we’ve got people in the United States Senate right now who are playing chicken with this. They’re in a situation where they’re saying, we’re going to try to just do a two-week extension on -- or a short-term extension of these critical national security authorities. And to play chicken with that is grossly irresponsible.
The fact is, they have before them a common-sense bipartisan reform legislation that has the strong support of civil libertarians, it has the strong support of our national security leaders, and it should have the strong support of a bipartisan majority in the United States Senate.
But right now it doesn’t, because unfortunately we’re seeing some members of the Senate play games with the civil liberties and national security of the United States and the American people.
Q Very good. One last question. On Wednesday, the Supreme Leader said Iran would never allow any inspection of its military sites or interviews with its nuclear scientists under any nuclear deal with the major powers. You told us yesterday the President won’t take a bad deal. The President said this morning he won’t take a bad deal. Can you square those two perspectives?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the --
Q Does a bad deal mean it can’t do what the Supreme Leader says? And does a good deal mean that the Supreme Leader has to eat his words?
MR. EARNEST: We have been clear in the context of the political agreement that was reached in the first week in April about how we would shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, and how we would -- and when I say “we,” I mean the international community and international experts would verify their compliance with the agreement. And verifying their compliance includes the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. And that is what will have to be codified in the final deal for the President and the other P5+1 members to sign onto the agreement.
Q So whatever the Supreme Leader’s stated preferences are, he’s going to have to accept exactly what he just said this week he would not accept?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the only thing that the United States and our P5+1 partners will accept is a final agreement that reflects the outlines of the political agreement that was reached the first week in April. And in that political agreement, the international community, our P5+1 partners, and the Iranians were clear that there would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear program the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on anybody’s nuclear program.
Q Which includes inspections and interviews? Yes?
MR. EARNEST: And it will -- the successful implementation of that inspections program will be required before the President signs onto the agreement. It will also be required before the Iranians get the kinds of sanctions relief that they’re desperate to get their hands on. And that’s the standard that the President and our P5+1 partners will hold the Iranians to.
Q You’re probably going to tell me to go talk to every Republican senator up on Capitol Hill in your initial response to this, but --
MR. EARNEST: I’ll try to avoid that.
Q -- why are they playing chicken? Why is there a disconnect between what the overwhelming support of the USA Freedom Act in the House -- bipartisan basis, in a sense but Republicans as well, -- and Senate Republicans? Why do you think that is?
MR. EARNEST: I have no idea, Bob. I think it’s -- and I don’t mean to take it lightly --
Q -- numbers --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can try. I guess this is what I would say: If you can get a good answer to that question, there are a lot of people here at the White House who would be interested to hear it. Because there is no -- as I mentioned to Jon, we haven’t heard a cogent, reasonable explanation for why we would see some members of the Senate resort to these kinds of tactics, particularly when there is a common-sense bipartisan proposal that’s already out there, and particularly when we’re talking about something that’s so critical to the national security of the United States, and particularly when we’re talking about the basic civil liberties and privacy of 300 million American citizens.
So again, it’s difficult to explain. There’s not a rational explanation for why you would so cavalierly handle -- or not handle, as the case may be -- such a basic responsibility of the United States Congress.
Q Do you smell politics in it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again --
Q Are they playing chicken?
MR. EARNEST: I will say this. I don’t think the American people appreciate -- I don’t know that there’s a constituency out there for Congress to not protect the civil liberties of the American people, or for Congress not to take the necessary steps to protect our national security.
So you know that I have not in the past been reluctant to suggest that there might be a political motive of one kind or another involved in a nefarious tactic being employed by somebody in Congress. But in this case, if there is, I don’t know what it is -- because, again, there is no rational explanation. Even if it were an explanation with which I strenuously disagree, there’s no rational explanation for why we’re seeing members of Congress who are charged with protecting the United States of America beyond the brink of failing to fulfill that basic responsibility.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said about the USA Freedom Act that the President -- or rather, that there were senior members of his team who have been obviously out there pushing for it. And I’m just wondering, from now until the end of the day -- because you say this has to be done today -- what can you tell us about the strategy of the White House, the President, senior staff members to try to help push this to get done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- I mean, well, to be blunt, there are a number of conversations between senior administration officials and members of Congress about a variety of legislative priorities that are currently sitting in the Senate today. And this is consistent with the pattern that we often see in Congress that a lot of critically important issues get piled up right before a recess, and that’s no different this year in advance of the Memorial Day recess.
And so I would anticipate that over the course of the remainder of today and, if necessary, through the weekend, that senior members of the administration would be in touch with members of Congress about a variety of these issues. And the President will be in town this weekend and available for phone calls if they’re necessary.
Q You also said what the State Department said about the Hillary Clinton emails, that they don’t change the essential facts of -- or understanding of the events before, during or after the attacks. And some Republicans are saying, well, of course they don’t because these were self-selected. And I wondered your response to critics who say, well, this is a process that has not been fully transparent.
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I think the fact that we’re talking about these emails is an indication of how transparent the State Department has been. The State Department had a responsibility to provide these emails to the United States Congress, which they did months ago. Today, they’re actually disclosing them to the public. They’ve taken the extraordinary step of making them public. That’s consistent with the President’s view of transparency. It’s also consistent with the call of Secretary Clinton that all of her emails should be made public after they’ve gone through this FOIA review process. And the State Department is hard at work on fulfilling those expectations.
Q So you’re 100 percent confident in the vetting process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have no reason to not be confident in the vetting process. But I would also acknowledge that I’m not deeply involved in the vetting process. That’s the responsibility of the agency, and there are professionals at that agency that I think by virtue of the fact that they are releasing several hundred pages today, that they take those responsibilities seriously.
Q Just a couple quick things, and I know you talked about this yesterday at the briefing, about the President’s Twitter account and some of the unfortunate things that have been written by folks online. And I wonder if the President has made any comments on that, if you've spoken to him about it.
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to him about it. And I think you and say -- I would feel comfortable in saying that they’re more than just unfortunate. Some of them are offensive and disgusting. But they're also not unique to the President’s Twitter feed. And we see similar kinds of things directed at the White House Twitter feed. I see similar things directed at my Twitter feed. I suspect that all of you have similar things directed as your Twitter feeds, as well. So this is something that we all deal with.
And again, we don't have to like it, but it is part of an open society. And it is in the mind of the administration and the mind of the President, it’s worth it. This is a valuable tool for us to be able to engage the American public in a legitimate debate and dialogue about priorities that they care about. And that's why we're doing it. And we're doing it in spite of some of the disgusting things that people do direct at the President’s Twitter feed.
Q And on a much lighter, much less serious note regarding the Twitter feed, is he aware of the record that he set in acquiring Twitter followers? And has he said anything about it?
MR. EARNEST: He is aware of it. I will say that -- there’s a decent chance it might have come up at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.
Q And can you tell us anything about that exchange?
MR. EARNEST: Not more than I already have.
Q Did he say he’s pleased? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the President is pleased.
Q And you didn't buy any?
MR. EARNEST: I did not. I’m not sure what sort of gift would be appropriate in that setting.
Q No, no, I mean buy the Twitter followers.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, no, we did not. (Laughter.) No, we did not. No, we did not.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple of questions about Islamic State. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the President said that he always thought the fight against Islamic State would be a multi-year campaign. And I wondered if he meant to say that, or how that squares with some of his comments early on when he described this as “limited airstrikes.”
MR. EARNEST: Colleen, the President -- this is consistent with the way the President has talked about the threat from ISIL since it emerged so prominently in their advance across Iraq last summer. The President was very candid about the fact that this was a problem that -- whose solution will require a long-term commitment. This will not be a short-term proposition, I think was the phrase that the President used.
And the description of limited airstrikes I believe was a reference to -- early on, prior to Prime Minister Abadi taking office -- the President’s desire to be supportive of a genuinely inclusive Iraqi central government. That was not the kind of leadership that Prime Minister Maliki had displayed. And after Prime Minister Abadi took office, on the wings of a commitment to govern that country in an inclusive fashion, to unite that country to face the threat posed by ISIL, that the administration and the President indicated a desire to offer him more support. And that support took the form of a significant number of airstrikes. There are thousands of airstrikes that have now been carried out by the United States and our coalition partners in that time, and there has been a significant commitment to training and equipping and even offering some advice to Iraqi security forces. And the President has worked to mobilize an international coalition to do all of that.
So it’s not just the United States that’s carrying out airstrikes; there are other coalition partners who are doing the same. It’s not just the United States that are training and equipping Iraqi security forces; there are other partners in our coalition who are doing exactly that.
Q And Brett McGurk said on NPR this morning that the degrade phase of the fight against the Islamic State would last three years, and I wondered if that meant that the President thinks that Islamic State will be sufficiently degraded by 2017.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t make any predictions at this point other than to say that based on the current trajectory and based on the success -- the areas of success that we’re seeing when it comes to the implementation of our current strategy, that we would expect to see ISIL sustain additional degradation between now and the next couple of years. And that’s going to require continuing to apply this strategy, looking for areas where we can ramp up the training and assistance that we’re offering -- the continued use of targeted airstrikes, the continued investment of our coalition partners in this effort.
It’s going to require a sustained commitment. But again, based on the progress that we’ve seen so far -- it has been met with some setbacks -- but based on the progress that we have seen so far, I would anticipate that over the course of the next couple of years we will see ISIL sustain additional losses.
Q So does that phase end then in 2017?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in 2017 there will be a new Commander-in-Chief and someone else who will have a responsibility to evaluate the situation on the ground and determine what steps are necessary to continue to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. I think there’s bipartisan support for the notion that that’s what our aim should be. And two years from now, the situation on the ground may have changed and it may require some change in the way that strategy is carried out. But that’s something that we’ll leave to the next President.
Q Josh, thanks. Recognizing in advance that you’ve been called worse, probably here in this room -- (laughter) -- I want to point your attention to something Senator John McCain said in response to your “light our hair on fire” comment. He said you’re an idiot, but then he backed off that, he retracted that. And I’m just curious --
MR. EARNEST: Senator McCain, keeping it classy. (Laughter.)
Q Not going to touch that. I just wondered if, given the firestorm -- if you’ll pardon me for using that expression -- that the statement caused, would you like to walk it back or would you like to recast it in a way that maybe doesn’t detract from what you were trying to communicate?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think I was pretty crystal clear in what I was trying to communicate.
Q Okay, great. Second, I want to point out something. You may have read Eugene Robinson’s piece in The Washington Post today. He wrote a piece about the Iraqi security forces and the frustration that in arming them repeatedly, often they leave materials behind when they’re in retreat. And this is a frustration not just for the people on the ground obviously, who are in there trying to make things happen, but it’s also a frustration, I’m imagining, for the American people who invest our money in sending material over there to help them fight. He called it the “triumph of hope over experience.” And I’m just curious if the administration shares that frustration that all too often materials are simply left, and then they end up helping to arm the opposition?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think what Mr. Robinson was identifying is the importance of the training program that's currently in place in Iraq and in the region for moderate opposition Syrian fighters.
We want to make sure that when the United States and our coalition partners are providing equipment, that it’s going to the hands of those individuals that have been trained to use it and use it effectively. And these training programs are programs that we take very seriously. There are several thousand Iraqi security forces that have undergone this training.
And the President in his interview with Mr. Goldberg indicated that some of those -- that the effectiveness of those soldiers has been proven on the battlefield. And we're working with the Iraqi central government, but also with some of the Sunni tribes and others to train up more Iraqi fighters who will be under the command and control of the Iraqi central government and can take the fight to ISIL in their own country. And that's what we're looking to do.
Now, I think in the mind of Senator McCain and other people, they might say, well, couldn’t a U.S. servicemember do that more effectively? Wouldn’t we just be better off putting American men and women on the ground there to wage this fight for them, rather than taking the time and making the investment to train and then equip an Iraqi fighter?
And this, again, is where there is just a fundamental difference of opinion. The President, based on his judgment and based on our country’s experience in the last invasion of Iraq, does not at all believe that that's in the best interest of the United States of America; and that the better way for us to approach this situation is to build up the capacity of the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government, and Iraqi security forces to take the fight to ISIL in their own country.
This is a security situation, a security problem that the United States cannot solve for them. What the United States and what President Obama has committed to do is to assist the Iraqi people, the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi central government as they confront and try to solve this problem.
Q One more, and then a bit of housekeeping. In the remarks today at the synagogue, the President seemed to really stress the importance of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Does he feel like -- or is it his sense now that after his comments today that he has done enough to bridge the gap between the communities, especially given the sort of much publicized separation between the way his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu in particular is perceived?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think what the President would say is I think the President would say that while his words today were important, that he wants to be judged by his record.
And if you take a look at the steps that this country has done under the leadership of President Obama to demonstrate our clear support for the nation of Israel and for the people of Israel, particularly when it comes to their security, there is no President who has done more to more effectively coordinate and support the Israeli people even as they go about their daily lives in a pretty dangerous part of the world.
And this is something that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has observed. He said that the level of security cooperation between Israel and the United States under the leadership of President Obama is “unprecedented.”
Q Lastly, on Cuba, any update on possible embassies, and/or has the Cuban government extended an invitation to President Obama to come to Havana?
MR. EARNEST: I am -- I know that there were additional talks that concluded at the State Department today. I’ve not gotten a final readout of those conversations. I don't believe that the State Department was planning to make any major announcements today along these lines. But for an update of those conversations, I’d refer you to the State Department.
I’m not aware of any formal specific invitation that's been offered to the President by the government of Cuba for a visit. But we’ll see.
Go ahead, Chris.
Q Yes, the past week the Washington Blade had a reporter in Cuba and spoke to a number of LGBT advocates in the country, including one such transgender advocate, Leodan Suarez Quiñones, who has said the government seeks to destroy people like her. As an example, she said the government responded insufficiently to the death of a transgender sex worker who was stoned to death. Yesterday, you talked about concerns the United States has in Cuba upholding human rights. But to what extent does Cuba need to commit to stepping up and protecting LGBT human rights to restore U.S.-Cuba relations?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, you've heard the President say many times that he doesn't believe that people should be treated differently just because of who they love. And that means that LGBT Cuban or Americans deserve the same rights and protections that everybody else gets. And that means that the concerns that we have about the way the Cuban government has all too often trampled the universal human rights of the Cuban people, we have similar concerns with the way that the Cuban government has failed to protect the basic human rights of even LGBT Cubans as well.
Q What are the consequences if Cuba continues to look the other way against -- the trampling of LGBT human rights in Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, the reason that the President made this change in policy that he announced at the end of last year is his view that the previous policy of attempting to isolate Cuba and compel them to change the way they treat their people didn’t work. And the President is hopeful that through greater engagement, that we can open up more economic opportunities, both in Cuba and in the United States. But that through that greater engagement -- including economic engagement -- that we will be able to apply additional pressure to the Cuban government and support the Cuban people in their aspirations for a government that reflects their will, and a government that is willing to respect, and even protect, their basic human rights.
That kind of support and that kind of effort will continue. And we think we’ll be more effective under this policy change.
Steve, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I want to get back to the Iraq situation. Specifically, I know you’ve ruled out the combat troops, but the President has already sent thousands of troops over there in several tranches. Is the President -- did he ask the Pentagon earlier this week -- has he asked them for additional options to send thousands of additional troops for the training and equipment mission that you just said the White House wants to ramp up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, the way that the process essentially works is that the President is looking for advice from his national security team, including from military leaders who have the most direct knowledge about what’s happening on the ground related to the security situation. And if the Department of Defense or our military leadership conclude that the strategy that the President has ordered them to implement would be enhanced by committing additional personnel, then that is a recommendation that they would make to the President.
But I won’t, from here, get into any of the private conversations that the President is having with his military leaders. They regularly offer him advice; that’s advice that he regularly solicits and takes very seriously, in the same way that he incorporates the advice of other members of his national security team, as well. But they do all of that, I think for understandable reasons, in private.
Q Is there anything that you can give us as far as insight into his thinking as far as things that would give him caution before adding 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 additional troops? Would he need to see something from the Iraqi government before committing major additional American help? Does he want to see, I don’t know, a new status of forces agreement -- anything in particular from the Iraqis, et cetera, before he’d commit more boots on the ground in that scenario?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a hypothetical because it assumes that the President is considering adding additional military personnel or has received a recommendation from the military to do so. So it’s hard to sort of contemplate exactly what scenario would make that hypothetical come true.
What I’ll just say as a general matter is the President takes very seriously the recommendations and advice that he gets from every member of his national security team, including those members of the military. And the President continues to carefully evaluate the situation on the ground, and ISIL, to take stock of the areas of progress that we’re seeing but also the setbacks that we’re seeing; and is pressing his team to make sure that they are maximizing the opportunities created by the implementation of this strategy to advance our goals and our national security interests.
And this is something that the President spends a lot of time on. It’s obviously something that his national security team is very focused on. And that will continue to be true in the weeks and months ahead.
Q And one last thought on the NSA. One of the things that’s been floating around the Hill today is going from a six- month transition under the USA Freedom Act to a two-year transition. Mitch McConnell has been concerned that that’s not enough time, and he wants to make sure that if there is another attack, that we will be able to very quickly utilize these capabilities. Is that something the White House would be opposed to, is concerned about, would strongly urge them not to go down that road today, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: We would strongly urge them not to go down that road today, to borrow a phrase. And there are two reasons for that. The first is that doing so means that they have altered the bipartisan compromise that was painstakingly reached in the House, and would therefore open up the risk that there would be a lapse in the authorities that we know that those members of Congress care deeply about. Because, again, the authorities are scheduled to expire May 31st. The House of Representatives doesn’t come back until June 1st. Is there a chance that the House could rejigger their schedule to come back? Maybe there’s a chance that they’ll do that, but there’s also a chance that they wouldn’t. And subjecting those critically important authorities to that kind of risk is not just unnecessary, it's irresponsible.
Let me explain to you why; I think it’s evident why it’s irresponsible. Let me explain to you why it’s unnecessary. There currently is 180-day implementation phase in the USA Freedom Act. So essentially, the program will continue onto the authorities in this 180-day period while the national security team and our intelligence professionals implement the needed reforms. And again, that 180-day period was not something that was randomly picked out of a hat; it was the time period that the intelligence community said would be required to implement the reforms.
Now, I suppose there is a chance that they could end up being wrong about that. If they are, and if it is going to take longer than 180 days, then the administration, with the full backing of our national security professionals, will come to the Congress and say, “We thought 180 days was going to be enough; turns out it’s not; we’re going to need some additional time. Here’s what we need.” And based on the comments that we’ve seen from Democrats and Republicans in the Congress, there is no reason to think that Congress wouldn’t act quickly to pass it.
So that’s why it's unnecessary for them to tinker with the implementation phase. We believe we have an implementation phase of sufficient length. And if it turns out that it's not, then we’ll come back to Congress and ask for additional time.
Q Would the President veto a two-year transition phase that essentially kicks this to the next President who could have a very different view about changing these programs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President would, for a variety of reasons: because it would subject our country to unnecessary risk; because it is an unnecessary change in the law. There’s already an implementation period that is of sufficient length, according to our national security professionals. And there’s no indication that that is actually a piece of legislation that would pass the Senate or the House, let alone in a timely fashion.
So, again, there’s no good explanation that anybody can offer up about why that is worthy of anybody’s time. What’s worthy of everyone’s time is careful consideration of the bipartisan compromise that was reached in the House with the close consultation of our national security team that actually reflects the need to balance our national security with the civil liberties of the American people.
And again, there’s no reason for members of Congress not to vote -- members of the Senate not to vote on this and vote on it today.
Q Josh, real quick. You said it was a hypothetical. The President is not considering sending any more trainers, advisors, or anything, and there’s no formal recommendation to do so?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm saying is that those kinds of conversations are conversations that the President will have in private with his national security team.
Q So he’s open to sending more of the kind of forces he has already sent to Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I can't speak to the nature of the conversations that they’re having. It's unclear to me that our military leadership believes that that's even necessary at this point. But the President is going to continue to have conversations with his team to implement this strategy. It's a strategy that has already enjoyed success in some areas; we've experienced some setbacks in others. And we're going to look to try to draw lessons that we've learned from both situations and apply them in a way that will better advance our national security interests.
Q He hasn’t asked for the Pentagon to research that question?
MR. EARNEST: Again, if he has, that's something that he would do in private.
I don't have a formal week ahead. There is one element of the President’s schedule next week that I do want to make sure that you're aware of, however. Next Wednesday, the President is traveling to Miami, Florida. He will spend the night there on Wednesday night. I believe that there is a Democratic National Committee event that's scheduled for that evening.
On Thursday morning, the President will travel to the National Hurricane Center and receive his annual briefing on the upcoming hurricane season that starts on June 1st. In the context of those briefings, the President hears from meteorologists about the weather forecast, but also gets detailed updates from members of his national security team, including Florida native, Craig Fugate, who’s the FEMA Administrator, about efforts that the federal government and state and local governments across the United States have taken to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season.
So this is an important annual event and it's something that the President will do in Florida for the first time this year.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good weekend.
2:19 P.M. EDT