Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/29/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:26 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Before I go to your questions, I just wanted to make one quick announcement at the top. Later this afternoon, the President will sign into law the two-month transportation patch that was passed by the Senate and the House last week. This is the 33rd short-term fix for the Highway Transportation Trust Fund since 2008 -- the 33rd.
Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that investments in infrastructure are critical to our economy, both over the long term but also in terms of the short-term impact that they could have to strengthen our economy and create jobs. But these kinds of short-term patches are also not beneficial to our economy.
According to one estimate, the uncertainty around the Highway Trust Fund has led a number of states to delay projects totaling $2 billion -- or nearly $2 billion. Again, that's $2 billion fewer dollars going into our economy in the form of paychecks for workers, in the form of contracts going to small businesses, in the form of investments that we know would derive a much larger economic benefit for communities across the country if they benefitted from a modern, efficient, upgraded transportation infrastructure.
So it's the President’s view that the era of short-term patches and chronic under-investment in our transportation infrastructure must come to an end. The President has put forward a common-sense proposal for closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and using revenue from that tax reform to making investments in the kind of infrastructure that benefit everybody. And the President is willing to continue to urge Congress to take steps in that direction, again, not because it's the President’s preference -- although it is -- but because of the important benefits for our economy.
So with that, Julie, we'll go to your questions.
Q Is there coverage of the bill signing?
MR. EARNEST: I do not anticipate that there will be coverage of it today.
Q Any money for the Memorial Bridge?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer you to the Department of Transportation about whether or not the upgrades that are needed for the Memorial Bridge would benefit from this particular piece of legislation.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to start with Cuba. Does officially taking Cuba off the state sponsor of terror list essentially clear the way for announcements on opening embassies? And if so, how quickly should we expect those announcements?
MR. EARNEST: Julie, you’ll recall that Cuban diplomats were in the United States last week meeting with American diplomats at the State Department to resolve a number of issues related to normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. Cuba’s inclusion on the state sponsor of terror list was just one of those issues. So there continue to be issues that need to be worked out.
In the discussions that were convened last week, there was important progress that was made. I don't have a time frame to give you in terms of any specific announcement, but that obviously is among the next milestones here, which is the opening of a Cuban embassy here in the United States and the opening of an American embassy on the island of Cuba.
Q But you're saying there are still unresolved issues that are going to prevent you for some period of time from doing that?
MR. EARNEST: As of right now, there are additional issues that our diplomats are working through before we can reach an agreement that would yield the opening of embassies.
Q This weekend marks the end of the agreement that the U.S. has had with Qatar to keep the five Taliban detainees in Doha. Should we expect that there will be an extension of that agreement, that they will continue to have a ban on their travel? Or will they be free after this weekend to travel as they please?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any announcements on this matter that I’m prepared to deliver today. But it is true that the United States has been in touch with our partners in Qatar about the kinds of steps that we believe are important to protecting the national security of the American people. You’ll recall that prior to the transfer of these detainees taking place, we had reached agreements with Qatar about limitations that could be placed on these individuals that would protect our national security. And that’s ultimately why then-Secretary of Defense Hagel certified that this transfer could be conducted consistent with our national security goals. And we continue to be in touch with the Qataris about the steps that we believe are necessary to protect the American people.
Q And do those steps include extending the travel ban?
MR. EARNEST: We’re talking to them about a range of issues. And when we have an announcement on this we’ll let you know.
Q Would the President be comfortable with these former detainees being free to travel?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President believes is important is for us to make sure that we have in place the conditions that are necessary to protect the American people. And what exactly that entails is not something I can talk about here because it’s something that we’re talking about with the Qataris right now. But when we do have an announcement on this we’ll let you know.
Q And would you expect to have an announcement by the time this one-year agreement expires?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t make any promises on the deadline, but we’ll certainly keep you apprised of the conclusion of those talks.
Q Josh, Mr. Blatter has won the reelection as the head of the soccer body, FIFA. Does the White House have a response to that?
MR. EARNEST: We do not. It’s the members of that organization that cast votes to choose their president, and that’s apparently what they’ve done.
Q Do you feel like the United States has lost confidence in him, given the controversy and the start of prosecutions this week?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t speak to even the degree of confidence that we had in Mr. Blatter prior to the latest announcements about the Department of Justice investigation. So I’ll reserve comment on this. This is a decision for that organization -- that’s now in some turmoil -- for them to make, and we’ll let them make it.
Q We had a chance to ask Eric a couple times on the plane about the President’s reaction and the White House’s reaction more generally to the controversy with the soccer organization. Chancellor Merkel has weighed in. Prime Minister of Britain has weighed in. How does the President feel now about this controversy going on in the soccer community at-large?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’ll just say something you’ve heard me say on other similar occasions, which is that this is the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice criminal investigation. And in this case, I think we’ll leave that investigation in the hands -- or, in this case, maybe it’s appropriate to say at the feet -- of the career prosecutors who are leading the investigation.
Q Let me move to just other topic. Is the White House monitoring the protests in Phoenix in which participants have been asked to draw pictures of the Prophet Muhammad? And do you have any reaction to that protest?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve read some of the news reports about this event that’s being planned, and let me just reiterate what I’ve said when I’ve learned of previous gatherings like this, which is that even expressions that are offensive, that are distasteful and intended to sow divisions in an otherwise tightknit, diverse community like Phoenix, cannot be used as a justification to carry out an act of violence, and certainly can’t be used as a justification to carry out an act of terrorism.
And the Department of Homeland Security is aware of this event, and as they were in advance of the previous event that was convened earlier this month, I believe, the Department of Homeland Security has been in touch with state and local law enforcement authorities, and we’re going to continue to monitor the situation.
Q The meeting today with Attorney General Lynch, was that organized because of the possible expiration of parts of the Patriot Act? And how would you characterize the kind of outreach, if any, that the administration has been able to do with members of Congress this week, despite their being away?
MR. EARNEST: The meeting that the President will have later this afternoon with the Attorney General is just a routine meeting. It’s part of the regular slate of meetings that the President has with his Attorney General. That was true of the previous Attorney General and it’s true of this one.
It’s apparent from reading the newspapers that they’ve got plenty to talk about, and I think this issue will be at the top of the agenda, and I don’t have detailed conversations to share with you. But even though members of the United States Senate left town for a week -- at the end of last week -- with a really important piece of business left undone, the administration has been in touch with senators over the last week to urge them to do the one thing that will eliminate unnecessary risk to our national security, and that is to pass the USA Freedom Act -- a piece of legislation that both extends important but non-controversial law enforcement authorities, and implements reforms that are critical to protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.
This is a piece of legislation that accomplishes those two top priorities and that earned the strong support of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives. It got 338 votes of Democrats and Republicans in the House. And the Senate should act before the deadline to pass that piece of legislation.
Q And we heard Jen Psaki yesterday talk about Rand Paul and his role in this, and she mentioned that he has presidential aspirations and that maybe he should put those aside for now. So is the White House saying that his concerns about surveillance aren’t legitimate and they’re more related to his aspirations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let you guys make that assessment. What I will tell you --
Q But she said that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I will tell you is that the President is concerned about making sure that the privacy and civil liberties of the American people are protected. That’s why the President, in a speech at the Department of Justice almost a year and a half ago, called for this program to be reformed. That’s why the President dispatched his national security team to travel to Capitol Hill last year to begin conversations with relevant Democrats and Republicans about how these authorities could be reformed in a way that would boost public confidence but would also protect the ability of our law enforcement and national security professionals to keep the country safe. And they hammered out that bipartisan agreement.
And this legislation, if passed, would effectively out the federal government out of the business of collecting and holding bulk data. And that is the stated goal of many members of the United States Senate, both Democrats and Republicans. And we would expect all of those Democrats and Republicans who share that goal to vote for this bill.
Q So based on what you said, you clearly feel that it is politics that’s marring this process that would otherwise be agreed upon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no -- I haven’t heard -- I mean, as we spent some time talking about a week ago today, I haven’t heard a rational explanation for what exactly is going on in the United States Senate right now. There’s no good explanation for it.
There are members of the United States Senate who are deeply concerned about making sure our national security professionals have all of the tools they need to keep us safe, but yet they’re blocking a piece of legislation -- the USA Freedom Act -- that would do exactly that. We’ve heard other members of the United States Senate say that they are deeply concerned with protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the American people, and yet they’re blocking a piece of legislation that would do exactly that -- it’s called the USA Freedom Act.
So it’s been very difficult for anybody to offer up a satisfactory explanation or even a rational explanation -- even an unsatisfactory rational explanation for what exactly they’re doing up there. And so hopefully they’ll be able to come back after eight or nine days of clearing their heads and put the best interest of the country and our citizens and our national security first.
Q What do you think about that super PAC ad sort of portraying this as a big rumble on Sunday -- it’s in support of Rand Paul -- but kind of making this into a wrestling match, including, I might add, a shirtless Rand Paul versus Barack Obama in this ad.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the ad, but I will say --
Q The President was not shirtless.
MR. EARNEST: I will say, I haven’t seen the ad, but you have piqued my interest. (Laughter.) So put that on the to-do list for this afternoon, guys. We’ll check that out. (Laughter.)
Q Don’t you think that might -- could you say that it’s in poor taste, or, I don’t know, portraying the wrong things to the American public?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that there is a pretty long history in the commonwealth of Kentucky of pretty heated feuds, going all the way back to the Hatfields and McCoys. (Laughter.) And the fact is there seems to be a feud right now between the leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell, a native of Kentucky, and Senator Paul. Unfortunately, the victim of that feud right now is the amount of risk that’s facing our national security and legislation that would protect the privacy and civil liberties of our people.
All right, move around -- April.
Q Josh, I want to follow up on what Michelle was talking about. The President asked for this meeting, we understand. You said it was a routine meeting, but we understand that he asked for this meeting. It wasn’t a regularly scheduled meeting. So is there -- now, from my sources over at Justice, they said it was something that the President had asked for. So with that --
MR. EARNEST: I think the President asks to meet with his Attorney General on a fairly regular basis. So I wouldn’t read too much into who extended the invitation.
Q Okay. Well, with that, and looking ahead at Sunday, there are two options. It could be extended, passed or what have you, or it could -- there needs to be a plan B coming from the White House. What is the plan B? And is that something that the President and Loretta Lynch will be discussing if indeed the Senate does not come back, if indeed this is not dealt with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, as we’ve said a couple of times now, the possibility of a plan B is not something that’s on the agenda because it doesn’t exist. There is no plan B. There is no executive action that the President can take to give our law enforcement and national security professionals the tools they need -- all of the tools that they need, including the tools that are included in the USA Freedom Act.
Now, what our national security professionals will tell you is that they will, if faced with a scenario in which they have some of these tools taken out of their toolbox, they will try to use all the tools that they currently have to do what’s necessary to keep us safe.
And the point that I would make is that taking those tools away seems like an unnecessary risk. I can’t necessarily say to you that our national security professionals at 6:00 a.m. on Monday are going to need to be able to use Section 215, even the routine use of Section 215, which is not at all controversial. But why would we take the chance? And, more importantly, why are we taking the chance? Again, there’s no rational explanation for the Senate not acting in bipartisan fashion to pass a piece of legislation that already has a strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.
Q Can you be frank and detailed -- and we’re not talking hypothetical --
MR. EARNEST: I think I’ve been pretty frank up here.
Q No, no, no --
MR. EARNEST: There’s some days you can probably accuse me of not being overly frank, but --
Q I want more information about when you take these tools out of the toolkit, what could happen? I mean, you don’t want to talk hypotheticals, but this is a possibility that could happen. What could the American public be in jeopardy of? Can you give us detail and not talk around it, just give us frank detail?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are some very specific authorities that are included in the USA Freedom Act that will lapse if the Senate doesn’t vote to approve this piece of legislation. The one that has gotten the most attention is the use of Section 215 authority to search bulk data that’s collected by telecom companies. And the USA Freedom Act includes reforms that would put the federal government out of the business of holding those records, and instead, it would require our national security professionals to get a court order, and then to search data that is held by the telecommunications companies. And that is a reform that’s put in place to ensure that the privacy and civil liberties of the American people are protected.
But what’s also true -- and that’s the controversial element of this, and this is consistent with the reforms that the President himself called for a year and a half ago. But the reason that our national security -- one of the more important reasons that our national security professionals have raised concerns is that there are other authorities that are included in this legislation that will also lapse if the Senate doesn’t pass this bill.
The first of those is the routine use of Section 215. This is authority that allows our national security professionals, with a court order, to go and obtain business records relating to a suspected terrorist. And by business records I mean things like hotel records, financial records, bank records, other things that might give them insight into what the suspected terrorist is up to or who they might be plotting and planning with.
Again, this is specific authority that's given to our national security professionals by the Congress. They have to obtain a court order before they can exercise those authorities. But that's non-controversial. People haven't raised concerns about that -- or at least not many people have. And as our national security professionals will tell you, it's an important tool for collecting information.
There are two other authorities that are included here. The first is what’s called the roving wiretap authority, and this gives essentially our national security professionals the opportunity to monitor the communications of individuals even -- again, with a court order -- even if they are changing cellphones rapidly. So you’ve heard the term, a burner phone, where somebody will use a phone for a day and then move to a different cellphone. What this authority gives our national security professionals is the authority to essentially follow this person from cellphone to cellphone as they monitor their activities.
The third and final authority is actually an authority that our national security professionals have not used, and it is the lone wolf provision. This essentially is an authority that, again, under a court order, would allow our national security apparatus to collect information about a suspected terrorist who is not an American citizen, and even if they are not able to directly link them to a specific terror organization. And this is an authority that has not been used before, but it is considered by our national security professionals to be an important one.
And, again, the case that I would make overall here is that it doesn’t make sense, and no one has presented a compelling case for why we should take the unnecessary risk of allowing these authorities to lapse.
Q And on the next question, you said President Obama was not going to support Hillary Clinton at this time for her presidential bid because he’s got other friends out there who could be making an announcement. There’s a friend that could be making an announcement tomorrow -- Martin O’Malley. What does the President think about Martin O’Malley and his chances?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to handicap his chances from here. He'll have the opportunity to make the case that he would like to Democratic voters. If he chooses to run, he obviously will have a compelling case to make about his record in the state of Maryland as the governor of that state. But I would not anticipate any presidential statement or endorsement in the coming days for any of the candidates in the race at this point.
Q Since the President is now on Twitter, is he following and looking at some of his favorite reporters -- (laughter) -- tweets? Is he -- what’s he doing? Is he just watching what people are saying to him? Is he going around looking through the Twitterverse?
MR. EARNEST: I can confirm for you that he is not spending much time doing that. (Laughter.) He’s got a lot of other things on his plate. But he certainly did enjoy the opportunity that he had yesterday to use his new Twitter handle to answer some questions and interact with the public, some of whom had some direct, serious questions to ask him about climate change, and some of who had direct and serious questions to ask him about the NBA playoffs.
Q And is he aware of some of the hate that has come to him since he’s been on the Twitterverse?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q Josh, any reaction to the news that former Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, has been indicted?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I read those stories in the paper today. I'll tell you that this falls in the category of an active Department of Justice criminal investigation. But I think I can speak pretty faithfully for everybody here at the White House that even though Speaker Hastert served as a Speaker of the House in the other party that there is nobody here who takes -- who derives any pleasure from reading about the former Speaker’s legal troubles at this point.
Q What does the President think is the most prominent political figure from the state of Illinois to see -- this is a state where, by last count, four of the last seven governors have gone to prison, a member of Congress has gone to prison, another member of Congress recently on charges that could send him to prison, and now you have Speaker Hastert, perhaps the most prominent outside of the President from the state of Illinois, under this cloud. What does he make of that -- I mean, somebody who came into politics to get people involved and restore faith in the political process, but sees so many top political figures from his state brought up on charges or convicted of charges?
MR. EARNEST: Again, based on only what has been shared publicly, it's not clear that any of the charges that Speaker Hastert is facing are related to his service in government, either at the local level or in the United States Congress. But I do think that as a more general matter, the responsibility that the Department of Justice has to make sure that our public officials are not violating the public’s trust is an important responsibility.
And again, I won’t speak to any of the specific cases, but the President certainly believes that they have an important job to do, and expects them to do it.
Q Okay, and just one other one quickly. You’ve seen the news with the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter held in Iran. One of the pieces of evidence against him apparently was a job application he made to come to the Obama administration, which somehow the Iranians see as evidence that he’s some kind of an American spy. What do you make of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have said for quite some time that Mr. Rezaian is being unjustly detained by Iran. We’re aware of the reports that his trial has both started and adjourned. We have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency associated with his case, but it’s consistent with the pattern that we’ve seen in Iran of these kinds of trials being closed to the public.
That certainly does raise questions about the veracity of claims against Mr. Rezaian. And that’s why we have made clear both publicly and in private conversations that Mr. Rezaian should be released immediately, and he should be allowed to return to the United States and be reunited with his family.
Q Do you have any indication that either Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, that any of the Americans now being held prisoner in Iran -- as you have said, unjustly -- are any closer to being freed, or will be freed before the agreement is done on the nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, we have made clear to the Iranians that they should release Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Abedini, and Mr. Hekmati. They are being unjustly held in Iran, and they should be released and allowed to return to the United States so that they can be reunited with their families.
We have also raised, again, both in public and in private with Iranians that we would like their assistance and we would like information about the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson. And we’ve also been clear that we will not allow these American citizens to be used as bargaining ships. We’re not going to negotiate for their release; they should be released because they’re being held unjustly. And again, we’ve made that clear in public on many occasions -- the President himself has. And we’ve raised concerns about each of these individual cases in private as well, including the President. And we’re going to continue to do so until these American citizens have been released.
Q Josh, following up on Dennis Hastert, what would you say was the President’s relationship with him? He was a formidable figure in Illinois politics, as well; he was the Speaker of the House. And some in political circles in Illinois have described them being -- themselves being shocked and saddened by this. Would you say any of those adjectives fairly characterize the President’s reaction? Could you describe to what degree, if any, they had a professional and political relationship?
MR. EARNEST: I did not speak to the President after the news broke late in the day yesterday about this specific case. Off the top of my head here, I do not recall having heard the President talk about his relationship with Speaker Hastert. I’m sure they had the occasion to meet at some point, but I’m not aware that they had any sort of material or personal relationship.
Q Okay. When you said at the top that the era must come to an end of short-term Highway Trust Fund extensions, does that mean the President won’t sign another?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not saying anything that declarative. What I’m saying is that the --
MR. EARNEST: Well, as bad as this short-term extension is and this uncertainty that it creates around the Highway Trust Fund has delayed all across the country about $2 billion worth of projects. So this kind of uncertainty is bad management and is bad for the country and is bad for our economy. But allowing the trust fund to go broke would be worse. But we need to actually set our aspirations a little higher than that. And that’s why the President has put forward a very specific plan for essentially a six-year proposal that would close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and use the revenue from those reforms to invest in infra that would benefit everybody. That would be good for the economy, it would create jobs in the short term, and it clearly is the right thing to do.
As I have often done, I remind you that on the day after the election, Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner wrote a joint op-ed in The Washington Post, the headline of which was “Now We Can Get Congress Moving.” Well, we have an opportunity now to literally get America moving by putting in place a modern, upgraded transportation infrastructure that would be good for our economy both in the short term and the long term. And we hope that Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner will follow through on that promise. And we certainly have our own very specific ideas about how they can start.
Q But he will sign other short-term extensions, if necessary?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not making any pronouncements about future short-term extensions. What I am saying is that it is not at all in the best interest of the country for the United States Congress to continue to kick the can down the road, even if it’s two months at a time. What they need to do is they need to get serious about considering a common-sense proposal like the one the President has put forward to make a long-term commitment to the transportation infrastructure of the United States.
Q Back to FIFA for a second. Vladimir Putin left the impression that he felt the United States was meddling in business it ought not to meddle in and trying to extend its jurisdiction in ways it should not by pursuing this criminal prosecution of FIFA executives, suggesting that there really was no jurisdiction and this is not the United States Justice Department’s business. Your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to the Department of Justice who can, I’m sure, give you a very detailed explanation about the jurisdiction that they have recognized here to pursue these charges.
Q You disagree, though?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have full confidence in the explanation you can receive from the Department of Justice.
Q Speaking of Putin, there were reports yesterday that some number of thousands of Russian troops, with their uniform insignia stripped off and with armaments, were moving again, as we have seen before, toward parts of eastern Ukraine still in dispute. To what degree does this add or has added to the administration’s concerns about what may come next in that particular --
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those specific reports, but I will say that we do continue to be concerned -- because what you have just relayed is consistent with the kind of behavior that we’ve seen by the Russians over the last year and a half or so. And they have repeatedly violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And the international community has spoken clearly and with one voice to insist that the Russians recognize and respect the sovereignty of their neighbors, including in Ukraine.
And the Russians have been isolated as a result of this. The Russian government has been heavily sanctioned. And it’s had a significant impact, a negative impact on their economy. And those costs will continue as long as Russia and President Putin continue to engage in destabilizing activities in Ukraine.
Q Will the G7 summit be a platform to intensify discussion about another round of sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the G7 has obviously been very involved in imposing economic costs on Russia for their destabilizing activities in Ukraine. And I would anticipate that there will be additional discussions of this issue at the G7. I don’t have any outcomes to foreshadow at this point, though.
Q Last question. There’s not just a legislative deadline, but there is this 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the conduct of bulk collection data, telephony data, is illegal because it is broader than was sanctioned by Congress. If the Patriot Act expires, how significant does that 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling loom in trying to restart any of this and getting legislative approval for what you’re doing now -- what you would lose the legislative right to do, and have a court opinion saying it's illegal?
MR. EARNEST: Let me answer that question in two ways. The first is that this is the concern that we have about the very short-term extensions that have been floated by some members of the Senate. There’s been the suggestion that, well, why don't we just extend the life of the Patriot Act by three or four days or a week to give us additional time to tinker with the compromise proposal that's already passed with bipartisan support in the House.
And the concern with that is that the 2nd Circuit has said -- has raised significant concerns about whether or not the use
Of that authority can be used to continue to search this information. The good news is that the USA Freedom Act as passed in the House our lawyers believe actually addresses the concerns of the 2nd Circuit. So rather than to throw into doubt the ability of our law enforcement professionals to use these authorities based on a ruling from the 2nd Circuit, we believe we should act quickly to reform that proposal, to reform that program, consistent with the concerns that were raised by the 2nd Circuit. That's how we can be confident that we can prevent a lapse in these authorities and make sure that this information that our law enforcement and national security professionals say is important is something that they’ll continue to have uninterrupted access to.
Q Since your lawyers looked at this, if the Patriot Act lapses and you don't have the USA Freedom Act legislation, which talks about a continuation in this transition period for NSA housing of this data to telecoms housing it, do you have to start from scratch legislatively to rewrite authorities for this program and essentially draft a new bill that has to go through both chambers? If you lose the authorities you have now and they are not reauthorized as the USA Freedom Act envisions, this sort of handover, do you have to start from scratch?
MR. EARNEST: I have not heard that prospect raised. I don't believe that that will be necessary. But what -- I guess the scenario that you're setting up is, if Congress blows through the deadline but five days later they come to their senses and pass the USA Freedom Act, is it still possible to do that? I understand that, yes, it is still possible for them to do that, but it would introduce some unnecessary risk in the form of that five-day lapse in which our national security professionals would not have access to some tools that they say are important to keeping us safe.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to get your reaction -- I know you’ve been talking about Rand Paul -- you obviously disagree with him and his tactics, but he makes one argument that I want to get your reaction to. He says that the metadata program has never actually stopped an attack. He says that rather it's a “building block tool” for investigations. Can you respond to that? I know that the counterargument is that, well, he’s using the wrong metric. But is he wrong? I mean, can you say definitively that this metadata program has thwarted an attack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, what I can say is that in the same way that building blocks are critical to the stability of a structure, building blocks are critical to the successful completion of an investigation. And I think that's what our national security professionals would tell you, is that they have used these tools in the past to collect information that they were previously not aware of and that that information has been important to their activities that are critical to our security.
Q Can you draw a direct link?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what I can do is I can illustrate to you that these programs are really important. And again, they are important building blocks to investigations that have protected the American people.
I think the other thing that I would say, Kristen, is that even if you assume the worst about what some of our critics have said, they don't know what’s going to happen in the future; neither do I. And I guess the point is why would we unnecessarily take the risk that someday in the coming days we could need access to that information and it could be critically important to our national security -- why would we take the risk of removing that tool from the toolbox of our national security professionals even though it includes the necessary reforms that Senator Paul and others have called for?
Q Can you give us a specific example of when this program has played out -- has been a part of the building block that has thwarted an attack?
MR. EARNEST: These are investigations that are conducted in the classified setting, so I don't have specifics that I can share with you in this format. But our national security professionals have indicated that these programs are an important building block to their investigations and that there has been information that has been obtained through these programs that they were previously unaware of, and that that newly obtained information was important to their investigations.
And again, no one has presented a compelling explanation for why the United States and the American people should assume the risk associated with taking those tools out of the hands of our law enforcement professionals.
Q And I want to circle back to the contingency plan. You say there’s no contingency plan in place. But you're not suggesting that there aren't still tools in place that intelligence, NSA officials have at their disposal?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m saying that if Congress doesn’t act, if the Senate doesn’t act by the end of the day on Sunday, there are three important tools that our national security officials do currently have that they will not have unless the Senate acts.
Q And can you just look ahead for us over the next 48 hours -- what will President Obama be doing? Is he going to be making phone calls directly to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, pressing them to get this done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any presidential conversations to preview for you, but certainly the President will be available when members of the Senate do eventually return to Washington after their weeklong recess to consider this piece of legislation. The President stands ready to have conversations, if necessary.
I can tell you that members of the President’s team and members of the President’s national security staff have been in touch with members of Congress about this issue to make sure that they understand the stakes here. The stakes are significant. We’re talking both about the basic civil liberties of the American people and the national security of the United States.
Q I guess what I’m saying is, given the enormity of the argument that you’re making, what’s the -- how would you characterize the strategy from now through Sunday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, I think what’s really important for people to understand about this is we’ve already done the hard work of resolving these very complicated policy issues; that a year and a half ago, the President called for these reforms and more than a year ago our national security professionals have been engaged in difficult work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to try to fashion a bipartisan compromise.
And this isn’t a matter of, “well, I’ll give you half of this budget if you give me half of that budget.” This is a situation where they’re going through very complicated legal and national security policy issues, some of which are affected by rapid changes in technology, to try to find a policy that both protects the ability of our national security professionals to keep us safe, and protects the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. That’s hard work.
Good people, well-informed individuals who aren’t influenced by politics can have a legitimate difference of opinion on these things. That makes it all the more remarkable that a House of Representatives that typically is wracked by politics was able to find this common ground and vote on it in a timely fashion, and yield 338 votes of Democrats and Republicans. Again, you don’t often hear me doing this -- that is a credit to the leadership of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives.
And unfortunately, when it came to the Senate’s turn to take this up, we did see all the Democrats in the Senate do the right thing. They all did try to vote in a timely fashion for the USA Freedom Act. But because of the latest installment of the Kentucky feud, we haven’t seen that critically important piece of legislation advance in advance of the deadline.
Q And just one more, Josh, on Iraq. Can you update us on the discussions -- the reports that the administration is considering sending arms to Sunni fighters in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, as you know, the President and his team have been engaged for some time in training and equipping Iraqi security forces. And we have insisted from the beginning that the security forces in Iraq be multi-sectarian, that they need to reflect the diversity of that country.
And that’s why equipment supplied by the United States and our coalition partners has benefitted Kurdish security forces, some Shia fighters in the Iraqi security forces, and even some Sunni tribal fighters as well. All of that supplying of equipment has been done through the Iraqi central government. And if there are things that we can do to make the flow of that equipment more efficient to getting that equipment in the hands more quickly of the fighters who need it the most, we’ll look for ways to do that. But we’re going to make sure that that effort continues to be multi-sectarian and that it is done under the auspices of the Iraqi central government.
Q Can you go back to what you said on Cuba earlier when you said there were additional issues that needed to worked out for embassies to open in Havana and Washington? Can you elaborate on that? What are those issues?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a detailed readout of their conversations. As you know, there have been a variety of issues that our diplomats have encountered as they’ve sought to normalize relations between our two countries. They made some important progress. The state sponsor of terror was one stumbling block in those discussions. That’s something that should be resolved as of today.
There have also been extensive discussions about what sort of limitations we placed on the activities of American diplomats on the island of Cuba. This is the role of diplomats in countries all around the world, not just in Cuba, that they interact not just with government officials, but they also interact with the people in the countries where they’re located. And that includes meeting with citizens outside of the capital city, and it includes even meeting with citizens who aren’t entirely supportive of the political decisions that are being made by their government.
And we want to make sure that our diplomats who, if they’re operating out of an embassy, an American embassy in Cuba, do have the ability to do their jobs. And that includes not just meeting with government leaders, but also involves meeting with members of -- with citizens of the population.
Q Is there any update on the likelihood that the President will travel to Cuba before he leaves office? Or is that something he wants to leave to his successor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s -- you could still characterize this as presidential aspiration. I guess it’s a different sort of presidential aspiration than the one that’s consumed a lot of attention in this room over the last few months. But obviously it would be another milestone in the effort to normalize the relations between our two countries.
Q I don’t know if you have seen the debate at the Security Council today. But the Secretary General is saying basically that the number of foreign fighters who are fighting among ISIS in Iraq and Syria has risen to 25,000, which, if I’m not wrong, is around 70 percent. Does that change the White House perspective into looking at the ISIS problem as an international one? So are you considering changing the strategy of fighting them, considering also the attack in the Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia, so they are no longer local in Syria and Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a lot of questions there. Let me try to do a couple of them. The first is that the President has recognized the importance of shutting down the flow of foreign fighters in our strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL. And you’ll recall that at the United Nations Security Council last fall, the President convened a meeting with other heads of state to talk exactly about this issue, about what countries all around the world could do to prevent their citizens from traveling to Iraq and Syria, and taking up arms alongside ISIL.
The announcement -- while I can’t speak to the veracity or the accuracy of that report, it does highlight something that we’ve long acknowledged, that there is more that can and should be done to shut down the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria. And we have been in frequent touch with countries around the world about that ongoing effort.
Now, the second thing that we have raised concerns about -- and this may go more directly to the incidents that we’ve seen in Saudi Arabia over the last week or so -- that we continue to be concerned about the way that ISIL uses social media to incite and inspire people around the world to carry out acts of violence. I can’t speak to whether or not ISIL was involved in the attack that occurred earlier today in Saudi Arabia. I know that Saudi Arabian authorities have indicated that the attack that was carried out at a Shiite mosque last week was the work of someone that was affiliated with ISIL.
And so the point is that we recognize that this is an important part of the strategy, too, and it’s an element of the strategy that we take very seriously. And we work closely with the Saudis, in fact, as we try to counter some of the radical messaging that we see from ISIL. But obviously that is very difficult business, particularly given the sophistication that ISIL has shown in using social media tools. But that’s something that we continue to be very aware of, and we’re going to continue to work closely with the Saudis and others to confront that element of the threat.
Q I have another question. I don’t know if you are aware, but the last city in the province, which is northern Syria, has fallen to the rebel hands, led by Jabhat al-Nusra. And I’m just wondering why the United States, or the coalition led by the United States, has not targeted Jabhat al-Nusra, who are in part affiliated and considered a terrorist organization. Is it because they’re not against the U.S., or is it because you want to put more pressure on Assad to compromise in a political transition?
MR. EARNEST: Nadia, we have expressed significant concerns about the way in which a variety of extremist groups inside of Syria have sought to capitalize on the chaos in that country to set up operations in that country. That makes Syria a very dangerous place not just to people who live in Syria, but to people who live throughout the region, and potentially the people around the world.
And that's why you’ve seen the United States take some military action not just against ISIL fighters inside Syria, but also against some other extremist elements inside Syria that may pose a more direct threat to the United States. And that's something that we have been engaged since the earliest days of our efforts inside of Syria.
I was not aware of the most recent reports about some of the gains that some groups had made in northern Syria, but I have been briefed on some of the advances that Syrian Kurdish fighters and Syrian Christian fighters in Syria have made in northeast Syria against ISIL; that there has been substantial territorial integrity that has been gained by those fighters who have been acting in coordination with our broader military coalition -- that there are a number of coalition military airstrikes that have been taken in northeastern Syria in support of those efforts on the ground that have succeeded in driving back ISIL.
And, again, that is a characteristic of the kind of areas of progress and periods of setback that we've seen throughout this military conflict.
Connie. I'm calling on all the women who are wearing blue dresses and black blazers today. (Laughter.) So you’ll get your turn.
Q There are reports -- that North Korean nuclear scientists are now in Iran helping to (inaudible) nuclear weapons in Iran. Do you have anything on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't, Connie. I haven't seen those reports. But I can a check with our national security team and see if they have information for you on that.
Q Secondly, does the President believe that the U.S. still can conduct guns and butter at the same time, and to give more priority to fighting terrorism or rebuilding the infrastructure?
MR. EARNEST: Connie, the President believes that we can do both, that we don't need to make sacrifices in that regard; that we can successfully devote the necessary resources to keep the American people safe while investing in the kind of infrastructure and in the kind of economy that will expand opportunity for all middle-class families in this country.
And that does involve a set of strategic choices, and our resources are not unlimited. But the President does believe that if we are making wise decisions consistent with our priorities that we can take the steps that are necessary to protect the country and take the steps that are necessary to support the private sector as they unleash economic opportunity for every citizen in the United States.
Q I'm wearing a brown blazer.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. You look nice today, though.
Q Thank you. I wanted to ask you a couple questions about the President’s visit yesterday with the Sotloff family in Miami. Can you tell us a little bit more about the hostage review and when that might be wrapped up? And is that going to be publicly shared?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update on the timing. This is obviously something that our team has been engaged and working on for almost a year now, I believe. And I would anticipate that we'll have something relatively soon. And I don't know that every element of the review is something that we'll be able to make public, but we'll be able to offer some sort of public accounting of the kinds of reforms that that review recommends.
Q I also wanted to ask you -- Steven Sotloff’s father had told the Miami Herald earlier this week that they got a lot of the letters from their son because of hostages that had been released -- and I'm quoting him -- “because their countries were responsible enough to pay a ransom to get their kids back.” Do you know if he was that upfront with the President yesterday? Did that come up, the discussion on paying a ransom?
MR. EARNEST: I did not travel with the President yesterday, so I did not witness the meeting. But even if I did, I wouldn't be in a position to talk about the details of their conversation. So we did offer what I would acknowledge is a very topline readout of the meeting, if you will. But the conversation that the President had with the Sotloff family is a private one.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, John. And, John, you’ll be next. Back-to-back Johns up there, so it makes it challenging.
Q Secretary Lew said this morning that in the matters involved resolution of the Greek debt crisis there has to be greater flexibility on all sides. Did he mean that the IMF should relax a little bit in requiring its payments, or possibly renegotiate?
MR. EARNEST: What he meant, John, is that it's clearly in the interests of all the parties in these talks to resolve their differences and to come to an agreement that doesn’t create undue turmoil in the financial markets. That's not in anybody’s interest. And he’s hopeful that all the parties will be able to sit down in good faith and broker an agreement that satisfies their concerns.
Q And that includes the IMF among all the parties?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously the IMF has been a part of the conversations here, and these kinds of multilateral institutions like the IMF have a role to play. The IMF has provided significant assistance to Greece. And what Secretary Lew was urging is for all of the parties to come together and to work out an agreement that doesn’t cause undue turmoil in the financial markets.
Q Turning to the domestic front, it could be as early as next week that the Supreme Court comes down with a ruling in King v. Burwell. And Senator Cassidy of Louisiana said that of course, if it rules in favor of the administration nothing happens; if it rules in favor of the plaintiff there has to be an alternative plan. And he laid out his own patient freedom act that he said has many of the same goals as the Affordable Care Act but does things a bit differently, like removes mandates, provides for greater competition. This was his presentation. Is the White House in touch with Senator Cassidy, or any senators of either party, or representatives who have alternative plans in case the Court rules in favor of the plaintiff in the King v. Burwell case?
MR. EARNEST: John, I don't have any conversations to tell you about. But I can tell you that the administration continues to be completely confident in the strength of the legal arguments that were presented to the Supreme Court. The fact is that if the Supreme Court does not rule in favor of the arguments that were made by the administration, it will cause significant turmoil in the health care markets, and we will see a lot of people’s affordable health care plans be put at risk. And there’s no easy fix to doing that, particularly when you consider how difficult it has been for common-sense pieces of legislation to move through the Congress. With something as controversial as health care, it's hard to imagine any sort of legislative fix passing through that legislative body.
But that all being said, we continue to have a lot of confidence in the legal arguments that we make -- that we've already made, and are hopeful that the decision that's announced by the Supreme Court will reflect that. But obviously there a separate branch of government and they’ll be the ones to decide.
Q I want to ask you a little bit about the formal decision by the State Department to formally remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. What leverage does the U.S. now have on Cuba going forward now that that has been eliminated as possible leverage to use against the government of Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: Well, President Castro and other representatives of the Cuban government have made no secret of the fact that they are interested in normalizing relations with the United States. And obviously some of that is a result of the kind of opportunity that they see in the United States. We obviously see important opportunity in Cuba that, if we succeed in normalizing relations, that there will be additional opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba. There’s obviously additional opportunities for American businesses to do business in Cuba.
That's why we've seen strong bipartisan support for the President’s decision. Ultimately what we think all of that will do is empower the Cuban people. That is the ultimate goal of this policy change. And there is no question that the deeper engagement that we hope will be the result of this policy change between our two countries, and between the people of our two countries, that that will empower the Cuban people and put additional pressure on the Cuban government to do a better job of respecting and protecting the basic human rights of their people.
Q There are a number of American citizens who are living freely in Cuba who are wanted by U.S. authorities here, including a woman who killed a New Jersey state trooper. Has that particular case ever been brought up as a way to tie together these various issues of -- including this one -- of removing Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: John, I'd refer you to the State Department for a more detailed description of the kinds of issues that were discussed between the diplomats when they were here.
Q And one final question as it relates to this. Cuba, because of the action taken by the State Department formally today, is now eligible for foreign assistance. Is there any plan by President Obama to propose that Cuba receive foreign assistance from the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I'm aware of at this point. But if that changes, we'll obviously let you know.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the AUMF, Senator Corker was quoted yesterday in saying that it’s basically an intellectual exercise, it's not going to have bearing on what happens on the ground. And even Senator Reid said that he doesn’t think there’s a need to pass a new AUMF for ISIS. Do you have any reaction to those comments? And has the White House considered redrafting the AUMF and sending a new one to the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, the President has been very clear about why he believes it's important for the United States Congress to pass an authorization to use military force against ISIL. You’ve heard me say, and the President has indicated as well, that passing an authorization to use military force would send a very clear signal to the American people, to our men and women in uniform, to our allies around the globe, and even to our adversaries in ISIL that the country is united behind the strategy that the President has put forward.
And Senator Corker himself said the same thing. He wrote an op-ed at the end of last year, I believe, indicating that “unless the President reverses course and requests congressional backing, our efforts to confront ISIL risk failure without the long-term domestic political support necessary for a multiyear campaign in at least two countries.” He continued to say, “We would be stronger and our actions against ISIL more effective if the President requested authorization.”
As you guys know, the President requested authorization. The President and his national security team are certainly doing their job to confront the threat that is posed by ISIL in terms of laying out a strategy and building out a 60-nation coalition to execute it. No one doubts that our men and women in uniform are doing their important job, and in some cases, at substantial risk to themselves to carry out and execute this strategy.
But when it comes to passing an authorization to use military force, something that Senator Corker says would make our campaign against ISIL “more effective,” the United States Congress has been AWOL. They haven't been willing to stand up and do their job. Their job doesn’t require putting themselves at great personal risk. Their job doesn’t require making difficult strategic decisions. Their job requires holding some congressional hearings, writing legislation, and casting a vote. Their job requires basically only fulfilling the bare minimum.
And when it comes to our national security and something as important as this, something that they say is so critically important to our country, it's time for them to not just pay lip service, but to actually follow through with some action.
Q Right, but it seems there’s no appetite for the draft that was submitted by the White House now among members of both parties. So has there been any thought to making tweaks and sending a new one up to the Hill that might address some of the concerns that Senator Corker --
MR. EARNEST: We've been clear from the second that we submitted that authorization that it could be used as the starting point for negotiations, that we're open to discussions about adjustments and refinements that could be made to that legislative proposal. But we haven't even seen Congress be willing to do that -- even members of Congress who made an aggressive case for the President to submit an authorization to use military force.
Congress has held meetings -- has held a couple of congressional hearings that have been attended by the most senior members of the President’s national security team. So the administration has already demonstrated a clear willingness to engage in this discussion. We had a number of discussions before we submitted the authorization -- our draft authorization. We did so, indicating a willingness to engage in future conversations. And the President even dispatched senior members of his national security team to testify in public, on the record, about the authorization to use military force. But yet, all we've seen from Congress is some idle chatter.
Surely, our campaign against ISIL deserves more than that. And I know we all agree that our men and women in uniform deserve a lot more than that.
Q Thank you. Just a little Cuba housecleaning really fast, just two questions and we can wrap it up. (Laughter.) Would you say it is more likely --
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure your colleagues in the back would agree with this. (Laughter.) You can take it up with them separately.
Q After 80, 90, 100 minutes -- I mean, at this point, I’m just glad you called on me. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Don’t make me regret it, Kevin. (Laughter.)
Q You may regret it, absolutely, that would be really funny. Would you say it’s more likely than not that sometime before the end of June that the White House would announce embassy openings both in Havana and in Washington, and announce a presidential trip to the island?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a time frame for you in terms of an announcement about embassy openings. When it comes to the President’s travel, I wouldn’t anticipate any sort of travel in the near future. But the President does have I think a previously stated aspiration to travel to Cuba, but I don’t know if that will happen before the end of his presidency or not.
Q Would you say -- or, I guess, how would you characterize the legislative shop here at the White House? How active were they in the 45-day period trying to head off any possible blowback from Congress?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that there were a whole lot of discussions on this particular topic. We saw that some of the President’s most aggressive critics of this policy change -- even they were pretty forthright in indicating that there was not a lot of public support for trying to prevent the removal of Cuba from the state sponsor of terror list. So there wasn’t a particularly aggressive campaign on the other side on this issue so I don’t know that there were that many discussions about it.
Q The Attorney General coming and meeting with the President -- is it your impression that they’ll talk about the Lois Lerner circumstance? You may remember back in March the U.S. Attorney for the District declined to move forward in one aspect, but not in all aspects -- perhaps criminal activity has happened. Do you think that will be on the conversation list between the President and the Attorney General?
MR. EARNEST: I doubt it.
Q Lastly, for me -- for all the sports fans out there, a lot of people, whether you’re watching Fox Sports or ESPN or just following the President on Twitter, they’ll want to know, who’s he got -- Warriors, Cavs? NBA Finals.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has talked publicly of the degree to which he is impressed by LeBron James. And so --
MR. EARNEST: But the President has also said similarly complimentary things about Steph Curry, too. So I know the President is really looking forward to the offensive skills that will be on display in the NBA Finals this year, but I don’t know that -- since his Chicago Bulls are not in the Finals, I don’t know that he is going to be picking sides this time.
We’ll just do a couple more. Let’s see, Steve.
Q China. A lot of heating up in rhetoric about the (inaudible.) It doesn’t sound like China wants to withdraw or pull back, so what are we prepared to do in the coming days and weeks in terms of troop movements and flights and treatment of that area that we call international space? What are we prepared to do to demonstrate that we want to treat it that way, no matter what they’re doing?
MR. EARNEST: Steve, there have been some reports about some recently developed intelligence in that area of the world. I’m not in a position to confirm those specific reports, so I can’t speak about that. But I can indicate that we continue to be very concerned about recent developments in the South China Sea, particularly the large-scale land reclamation that China has been engaged in, in that region of the world. We’ve been clear that all the claimants in the South China Sea, including China, that the United States opposes any further militarization of outposts in disputed areas of the South China Sea. And we continue to urge all of the claimants -- again, including China -- to avoid any actions that escalate tensions in that region of the world.
The President has indicated that we have a genuine interest in that region of the world because it is the site of so much international commerce, and disruption of the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea would have a significant impact on the global economy and would have an impact on the U.S. economy as well. That’s why the United States has sought to try to play a role to facilitate a resolution of these disputes through diplomacy among all of the parties.
Q China has said we’re just meddling.
MR. EARNEST: They have indicated that, but that’s -- in anticipating their line of argument on this, that’s why I tried to be clear about what the President has said about the U.S. interest in this region of the world. This is the site of extensive international commerce, and disrupting that international commerce would have a destabilizing impact on the global economy, and that would have an impact on the U.S. economy. Obviously, American businesses do a decent amount of business in that region of the world. If we can succeed in getting a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement then American businesses will be doing even more business in that region of the world. But that is what our interest is.
We do not intend to resolve our concerns about that interest through the use of our military might. We intend to encourage all of the direct claimants in the South China Sea to facilitate diplomatic discussions that would allow for a resolution of their differences.
Q I thought that there was some discussion about the United States maybe going through some of those waters or reconnaissance flights over that area.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there obviously is a U.S. military presence in that region of the world and China has, on occasion, interpreted the movement of those military assets as a threat to their claim. But what the United States military would be happy to tell you -- these are principally Navy assets -- is that they’re operating in international waters consistent with widely acknowledged international rules and norms.
I wouldn’t rule out that sort of movement here -- I’d refer you to the Department of Defense on that, but what they will tell you is what I will tell you -- is that while that may occur, that’s not how we’re going to resolve the differences here. The way we’re going to resolve the difference is for all of the claimants in the South China Sea to sit down and try to resolve their differences through diplomacy.
Sarah, I’ll give you the last one and then the week ahead.
Q You characterized the situation in the Senate as being because of a feud between the two Kentucky senators. And I’m wondering if, in the view of the White House, if that solely explains the situation that we’re in, or if there are other issues with Senator McConnell’s leadership as Majority Leader or other factors.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we have a situation where a piece of legislation got strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. It’s a piece of legislation dealing with complicated policy issues, but I wouldn’t just dismiss the policy issues as complicated -- they’re critically important to our country. They are important to our national security and important to the civil liberties of American citizens.
This should be a top priority. And the fact that our national security establishment, lawyers from the Department of Justice, senior administration officials, including the President, were engaged in discussions with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to try to find a bipartisan compromise -- something that Congress has struggled to find over the last four or five years -- but because the stakes were so high, bipartisan ground was hammered out in the House. And it’s been very disappointing to the President and I think it’s pretty disappointing to the American people that something that is clearly so important to our country is, for reasons that are so unclear, being blocked in the Senate by Republicans -- and for a variety of reasons.
Again, there are some Republicans who say that it’s critically important to protect these authorities and they’re blocking the USA Freedom Act, but the USA Freedom Act actually extends those authorities. Blocking the USA Freedom Act actually is the surest way to result or to take away those authorities that our national security professionals say that they need.
There are others in the Republican Party who say that they are concerned about protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the American people -- that’s exactly what the USA Freedom Act would protect. And to block this piece of legislation prevents those protections from being passed into law.
So that is why you’ve heard me say, and others say, that there is no rational explanation for the tactics that are currently being used by Republicans in the Senate to block the passage of this bill. And we’re hopeful that after a week-long break, that Republicans in the Senate will come back ready to act on a piece of legislation that will protect our privacy and civil liberties, and will ensure that there is no lapse in these authorities that our national security professionals say are critical to keeping the country safe.
Q Do you see Senator McConnell as a weak Majority Leader?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t put myself in a position at this point to pass that kind of judgment. I think that -- well, I think what I would say is that Senator McConnell would want to be judged by his record, and that’s a record that -- as is the case with all politicians -- that we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate that record in public.
Let’s do a week ahead, and then I will let at least some of you get an early start on your weekend, I hope.
On Monday, the President will host Their Majesties King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands for a meeting in the Oval Office. Their visit reinforces the strong and enduring ties between the United States and the Netherlands that stretches back more than 400 years.
In the afternoon, the President will host a discussion at the White House with a group of 75 young Southeast Asian leaders on themes of civic engagement, the environment and natural resources management, and entrepreneurship. The group is the first cohort from The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Fellows program. The fellows, ranging in age from 18 to 35, hail from all 10 ASEAN countries, and have just completed their five-week fellowship in the United States to enhance their practical expertise, leadership skills, and professional contacts that they’ll use to address challenges and create new opportunities in their home communities and countries.
On Tuesday, the President will award the Medal of Honor to Army Sergeant William Shemin and Army Private Henry Johnson for conspicuous gallantry during World War I.
On Wednesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
And then on Thursday, the President will welcome the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants to the White House to honor their team in the 2014 World Series victory. The President will recognize the efforts of the Giants to give back to their community as part of their visit, continuing the tradition begun by President Obama of honoring sports teams for their efforts on the field and off. And certainly the San Francisco Giants performed very well on the field in last year’s playoffs.
Q Is that hard for you to say?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s not. (Laughter.) They’re deserving of all of the attention that they’ll receive next week, so it will be good.
On Friday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
So with that, I bid you all a good weekend.
2:43 P.M. EDT