Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/2/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:56 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I appreciate you venturing out to the White House on a rainy Tuesday. It's nice to see you all. I don't have anything at the top, so we'll go straight to your questions.
Josh, welcome back. It's nice to see you.
Q Thanks, Josh. It's great to be here with everyone. I wanted to ask about the NSA bill. I know you were pretty clear yesterday that the White House does not want to see the Senate start playing a lot of games with this bill that would slow it down and require another House approval. But it looks like that's kind of what’s going to happen anyway. So I'm wondering if the White House has had a chance to review any of the specific amendments that Senator McConnell plans to have votes on today to see whether they are changes that would be amenable to the President.
MR. EARNEST: Josh, what’s clear is we've seen Republicans in the United States Senate already play far too many games with a piece of legislation that's critical to the national security of the United States and the civil liberties protections of the American people. It's time for the game-playing to come to an end.
And we continue to believe that the best course of action, now that the Senate has blown through the deadline that they have been aware of for more than a year and a half, that they should vote to pass the bill in its current form, in the form that already passed the United States House of Representatives with the support of 338 Democrats and Republicans. If they will pass that piece of legislation, the President will quickly sign it into law and give our law enforcement professionals once again tools that they say are critical to their efforts to keep the country safe.
Q So if the Senate does pass this bill but they make some changes -- for instance, a provision dealing with the declassification of FISA Court decisions -- and they’re able to get the House to sign off on that, will the President accept an amended piece of legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just be clear that the administration and certainly the President would view efforts to water down the civil liberties reforms that are included in the House version as contrary to the kinds of values that he’s advocated. It certainly is not consistent with his view that reforms should be incorporated into these programs to better protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.
So what we believe the Senate should do is pass a piece of legislation that appropriately balances the need to protect the country with the need to protect the privacy of the American people. That's what the House bill does -- 338 Democrats and Republicans agree. Our national security professionals agree. That bipartisan ground was reached by the House. And the Senate has already done enough to try to spoil that common-sense bipartisan compromise. They should just do the bare minimum -- pass this bipartisan piece of legislation so the President can sign it into law, and our national security professionals can avail themselves of all of the necessary tools to protect the country.
Q There was this counter-ISIL meeting this morning that Secretary Kerry took part in by phone prior to his surgery. Tony Blinken was there and said something kind of interesting -- he said, “We will redouble our efforts.” And considering that the U.S. has committed publicly to the same strategy that it's been pursuing against ISIL, I'm wondering if you can elaborate on what does that mean, we're going to redouble our efforts? Does that mean we're going to increase training, weapons that we're sending? What exactly did he mean by that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it means that the U.S. government, in partnership with the members of the coalition, are always in consideration of ways that we can offer additional support and assistance to the Iraqi central government and to the Iraqi people as they face down the ISIL threat in their country.
This could take a variety of forms. This could include the provision of additional equipment to Iraqi security forces. I would note that in the last week, the United States did provide 1,000 AT4 weapons to Iraqi security forces. These are weapons that could be used to counter some of the car bombs that we have seen ISIL deploy in advance of some of their offensive military operations.
There has been an interest in trying to ramp up the training capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and the United States, our coalition partners have played an important role in this. There are some of our coalition partners that do have a special expertise in terms of training security forces, police officers, intelligence -- or special operations forces. And we certainly want to boost the capacity of those forces that are under the command-and-control of the Iraqi central government.
So there may be several things that we can do. The President has been very clear about something that we won't do -- and I know that Deputy Secretary Blinken agrees with this sentiment -- that the President does not believe it's in the best interest of our country to deploy a large-scale ground operation that is manned by U.S. military personnel, principally because the President believes that the security situation in Iraq is the responsibility of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi people. And the President will not put the U.S. military in a situation where we are doing something for the Iraqis that they should be doing for themselves.
Q Because the Iraqis are saying that they’re not really seeing it on the ground from there. Just this morning, Prime Minister Abadi said as far as ammunition and armament, they're seeing basically nothing and they're relying only on themselves. So is he exaggerating -- or perhaps under-exaggerating -- the degree of U.S. support that they're currently receiving?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see the precise comments from Prime Minister Abadi, but there is no doubt about the substantial assistance that has already been provided by the United States and our coalition partners. That assistance has been in the form of efforts to coordinate airstrikes at the Joint Operation Centers in Baghdad and Erbil. That assistance has taken the form of training Iraqi security forces. That assistance has taken the form of providing important military equipment, including AT4s that have been valuable and will be valuable as Iraqi security forces take the fight on the ground to ISIL fighters in their country. That will also take the form of some advice that U.S. and other coalition military officers have provided to Iraqi security forces as they’ve carried out operations against ISIL on the ground. But the other thing that is true -- and I know this is something that Prime Minister Abadi has indicated he would like to see more of -- is that there’s also been important intelligence support that's been provided by the United States and our coalition partners.
And so, again, in all of these areas, the United States and our coalition partners are considering additional steps that we can take to ramp up the extensive support that has already been provided to Iraqi security forces.
Q And the President lost his distinction yesterday as the fastest person to hit 1 million Twitter followers to Caitlyn Jenner.
MR. EARNEST: It was good while it lasted there, Josh. (Laughter.)
Q It was a short period, but it was a good. And I saw that there was a tweet from one of the accounts associated with the President regarding this very public transition that the country is witnessing. But I’m wondering if he had any other thoughts that he shared with you either about that, or about losing this honor of -- related to Twitter. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don't think the President is particularly concerned. Again, while he enjoyed holding that distinction while it lasted, I would say that the sentiments that were expressed by OFA that tweeted about this are consistent with the President’s views, which is that the President does believe that Caitlyn Jenner has shown tremendous courage as she has undergone this transition in a very public way. And that's worthy of our respect.
Q The House is going to be moving to consideration of the TPA sometime soon here. And I’m wondering how the White House --
MR. EARNEST: That would be great.
Q I’m wondering how the White House feels about the labor-sponsored campaign against Democratic Representative Bera over his support for the President’s trade agenda.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen a lot of the details of those campaign tactics. The President has made clea, and he believes that he has a pretty compelling case to make about why Democrats and progressives can be strongly supportive of the most progressive trade promotion authority bill that the Congress has ever considered and has ever been passed by the United States Senate.
It includes built-in protections related to raising labor standards and raising environmental standards. It includes important human rights protections. And all of this is consistent with the President’s view about the way that we can implement trade agreements that will level the playing field, put upward pressure -- particularly in those areas of the world that are growing so quickly right now economically -- in a way that will open up opportunity for American workers and American businesses around the world, and that ultimately will have a positive impact on the U.S. economy and on job creation right here in the United States.
So the President believes that he’s got a strong case to make. And if it becomes necessary for the President to make that case in the context of a Democratic primary contest, the President is committed to those members of the House of Representatives that face that kind of pressure that the President will stand with them.
Q So what does that mean -- he’ll stand with them? What sort of support is he going to give them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we haven’t seen that that kind of support is necessary at this point. But if it does, those members of Congress, I think, having received personal assurance from the President, know that they can go out and vote their conscience; that they can put the best interest of their constituents ahead of the claims and criticisms from those who are focused on the next election.
Q I wanted to also ask about a report today. A detainee at Guantanamo Bay has said that the CIA used a broader, wider array of sexual abuse and torture than had been disclosed in the Senate torture report last year. And I’m wondering if the White House is aware of this new report and what the response is, if any.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those claims, but if we do have a response, we can get it to you.
Q Thanks, Josh. New topic. This afternoon, the House Oversight Committee is beginning two days of hearings into agency compliance with FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. And they’re claiming that agencies are falling way behind and not complying with the timelines in the bill -- in the law. Does the administration have any plans to improve that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, I can tell you that the administration continues to be justifiably proud of our ongoing efforts to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. In the last fiscal year, the administration processed 647,000 FOIA requests that we received from the public. I would note that that is 647,000 more FOIA requests than were processed by the United States Congress. And those who are interested in advocating for genuine transparency in government should advocate for Congress being subject to those kinds of transparency measures. So this has been the administration approach to this and we’re proud of our record.
Q Also, there are a couple bills pending that would reform the FOIA law. Does the administration --
MR. EARNEST: Will they reform the FOIA law in such a way that Congress would be subject to it?
Q It would not.
MR. EARNEST: They wouldn’t, huh? Well, hopefully the transparency advocates who are testifying before Congress today will urge them to do that. I guess we’ll wait and see if they do.
Annie. Nice to see you.
Q Thank you. It’s nice to be here. I’m here to ask about a letter that Senator Elizabeth Warren sent to the SEC this morning.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I heard a little bit about that.
Q She said in her letter that she is disappointment Chairwoman White. And I’m curious if the President shares any of her disappointment, or if he believes that White has been aggressive enough in prosecuting Wall Street banks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Annie, as you know, Mary Jo White is the Chair of an independent regulatory agency. And for me to spend a lot of time talking about the performance of her in that role or her agency under her leadership could be construed by some as undermining that independence.
But let me just say as a general matter that the reason that the President appointed her to this very important position is because she has a strong track record both as a lawyer in the private sector but also as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York early in her career; that she earned her reputation as somebody who was tough but fair, and maintained a sophisticated understanding of a complex set of issues related to the financial markets.
And the President also is confident that she shares his values and the priority that he has placed on promptly implementing Wall Street reform. And there are a variety of rules that are related to this. She has to make her own independent judgment about how those rules should be implemented and on what time frame. And I won’t comment on that from here today, but the President does continue to believe that the reasons that he chose her, based on her experience and her values, continue to be important today. And the President does continue to believe that she is the right person for the job.
Q Josh, I want to ask you about the IAEA says that the nuclear fuel in Iran now has stockpiles 20 percent more than it was at the start of these negotiations 18 months ago. You repeatedly said, I believe, that their program is frozen in place. How do you square that with the IAEA now saying that they have a 20 percent increase in their nuclear fuel?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. The metrics by which we determine Iran’s compliance with the Joint Plan of Action are pretty straightforward. Iran is not enriching uranium above the 5 percent level. Iran is not installing new centrifuges at their nuclear facilities. Iran is not making progress at the heavy-water plutonium reactor in Arak. And Iran is cooperating with the IAEA inspections that have allowed us to verify their compliance with the agreement.
Now, as it relates to the uranium stockpile that you’re talking about, the IAEA report that was published at the end of last week is merely a snapshot in time. And the Joint Plan of Action requires Iran by the end of that Joint Plan of Action period -- in this case, by June 30th -- to be at the appropriate cap on their stockpile.
Now, we know that Iran is enriching at this low level. And that means that there are going to be ebbs and flows in terms of the amount of uranium -- low-enriched uranium in their stockpile. The requirement is for them to be at the cap by June 30th. And our nuclear experts continue to have confidence that they will meet that requirement. They have in the past. We’ve seen this similar ebb and flow in their uranium stockpile in advance of previous deadlines, and each time they have met the deadline. We’re confident that they’ll do so this time.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that the size of Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile is something that is specifically addressed in the longer-term agreement that we’re hoping to reach by June 30th. And you’ll recall that in the context of the political negotiations that completed the first week in April, the agreement was that Iran would reduce that low enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent down to a cap of 300 kilograms. That significant, even dramatic reduction in their low-enriched uranium stockpile combined with several other limitations on their nuclear capability is how we can achieve the goal of significantly lengthening the breakout period.
So the U.S. government has assessed that the current breakout period that Iran has to obtaining a nuclear weapon -- this is the amount of time that Iran, if they made the decision, could develop enough fissile material to build a bomb -- is about two to three months. Under the significant limitations that are contemplated in the longer-term deal, we would extend that breakout period to one year.
So the last thing I’ll say about this -- I already said that once before, but this will be the last thing. (Laughter.) The last thing about this actually is this, is that there are a number of complicated, even difficult elements that remain for us to negotiate in advance of the June 30th deadline. This is not one of them.
Q Okay. But you don’t dispute their finding, the IAEA’s finding that they have a 20 percent increase in uranium fuel over what they had at the start of these negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q You’re not concerned about that? You don’t see this is as a sign of Iran cheating, or not complying? This is not a problem?
MR. EARNEST: No, and, in fact, the IAEA doesn’t see it that way either. The IAEA report that you’re citing -- I think, first, it’s important for us to note that the reason that we can verify the precise size of Iran’s nuclear uranium stockpile is because we do have these monitoring measures in place. And because of that monitoring, we can verify their compliance with the agreement. And I would note that in that IAEA report that you are citing, the IAEA never says that Iran is not in compliance with the Joint Plan of Action.
Q Okay. And then just lastly, you mention there’s a lot of issues to be resolved. You don’t say this is one of the tough ones, but there are tough issues to be resolved. Now that John Kerry is in surgery today, this is certainly going to sideline him for a while. How much does that complicate things? Is it conceivable the date could slip past June 30 in light of what’s happened with Secretary Kerry? And is there any scenario in which the final round of negotiations could shift to, say, New York, at the U.N. so it would be easier for Secretary Kerry to participate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, it is correct that Secretary Kerry has undergone surgery today on his injury that he suffered as a result of that bike accident this weekend. I think anybody who has spent any time around Secretary Kerry will know that he will approach his recuperation and rehabilitation with uncommon zeal. And I would anticipate that any expectations that we have for the timeline for his recovery that he’s going to work really hard to shorten it. And that’s because he believes that he’s got a lot on his plate -- and he does.
And it’s too early to say what impact his injury will have on the broader negotiations. The thing that I am confident is true and will continue to be true is that he will play a leading role in our efforts to try to complete these negotiations by the end of June.
Q But my two questions -- could it be delayed past June 30th? And could it move to New York?
MR. EARNEST: It’s too early to say what impact his injury would have on either the timing or location of the talks.
Q On the TSA role where the security failures that came to light yesterday, the acting director has now been reassigned. So not only is there not an acting director, there’s no director, and there hasn’t been for almost eight months. And some people on Capitol Hill are pointing the finger at the White House.
MR. EARNEST: As they are wont to do.
Q As they are wont to do. How do you defend yourself against them saying that this is the White House’s fault that it’s taking so long?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would note that it was back in April that the President actually nominated a permanent director of the TSA -- the Coast Guard Vice Admiral, a gentleman named Pete Neffenger. He is somebody who is eminently qualified for this position. And in the several weeks since he has been nominated, he has been given one -- count them -- one congressional hearing. We would like to see Congress act more quickly to confirm him and allow him to get on the job.
We certainly have acknowledged -- and the Secretary of Homeland Security acknowledged yesterday -- that there are important steps that need to be implemented to address the concerns that are raised by this classified report. We have confidence that these changes can start being implemented at the specific direction of the Secretary of Homeland Security and under the leadership of Mr. Hatfield, who will be the Acting Director. But we would have more confidence in all of this if we could have a permanent Senate-confirmed director on the job. And we’re hopeful that the Senate will act quickly to get that done.
Q Well, there are a couple of points that they make about that. Number one is that, yes, you did make a nomination in late April, but that was six and a half months after John Pistole announced that he was leaving. So the big delay there was a result of the White House taking a very long time to make this announcement. And secondly, --
MR. EARNEST: To make sure we had the right person in the job.
Q Six and a half months is a long time.
MR. EARNEST: Now that we’ve found that right person, we would ask the Senate to move quickly to get it done.
Q Well, they’re moving a lot more quickly than the White House did to make the nomination in the first place.
MR. EARNEST: Well, over the course of six or seven weeks, we’ve seen one congressional hearing. So I'm not sure the American people would judge that as a particularly prompt action.
Q They say they’re ready to confirm him once they --
MR. EARNEST: Excellent. Chip just made news, everybody. (Laughter.)
Q Once they vote on it I'll confirm it. (Laughter.) Of course, everybody has said that they think he’s a good nominee.
MR. EARNEST: Good.
Q But they are waiting for written responses from the nominee, and that is what’s holding things up right now.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have -- I’ll see if we can get you some more information in terms of what kinds of questions have been submitted to him in writing. I know that, again, he’s already participated in the hearing in which he answered a significant number of questions in person from them. We certainly will work to expedite the follow-up that’s required. But we’d like to see similar efforts in the Senate to expedite his confirmation.
Q Any comment on Sepp Blatter, reports that he’s going to resign?
MR. EARNEST: Somebody told me about that right before I walked out here, but I don’t have a specific reaction at this point.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q I would like to ask you about the comments made by the French Foreign Minister, which seem to suggest that there may be an arms race in the Middle East if an Iran deal can't get done, because other people may say, if an agreement is weak and it’s just on paper that other countries in the region will simply say, well, we're going to have to defend ourselves, as well. Your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I didn't see the specific comments of the Foreign Minister. I’ll just say as a general matter that the President has made clear that if we can reach a diplomatic solution to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon that that is the most effective thing we can do to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It also will be effective in forestalling what could emerge as pressure felt by other countries in the region to try to develop a similar nuclear capacity. But if we can, in a verifiable way, demonstrate that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon, then that would ease the pressure on others who might be feeling similar pressure.
Q Quick follow on Jon’s question about the uranium. I just want to make sure I’m understanding it correctly. You're not concerned at all that there’s this 20 percent increase in the stockpile in Iran right now during the freeze period?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I told Jon, the requirements under the Joint Plan of Action were that Iran would not enrich above 5 percent, that they would not install new centrifuges, that they would not make progress on their heavy-water reactor in Arak, and that the IAEA would be on hand to verify their compliance with the agreement. Iran has lived up to all those principles. That is something that the IAEA has confirmed.
And to resolve the broader concerns about the low-enriched uranium stockpile that you're referring to, what we need to do is reach a final agreement that would reduce that stockpile by 98 percent.
Q Will it happen? Seems a bit ambitious.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry.
Q It seems ambitious to get that done before the end of June.
MR. EARNEST: Well, back up. The requirement by the end of June is that the stockpile level go back to the 7,650 kilograms of 5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride -- since we’re getting into the details here. That’s what the requirement is by the end of June. If we can reach this longer-term agreement, it would require Iran to reduce that stockpile below the 7,650 kilogram level down to the 300 kilogram level. That is a reduction of 98 percent in their low-enriched uranium stockpile, and that’s what we’re trying to effect here.
Q Last, I want to ask you about comments made by David Axelrod to JPUpdates. He described a moment where the President expressed exasperation over being derided as being anti-Israel by some. He said, you know -- talking about the President -- he said, you know, I think I’m the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat in this office. This is according to Axelrod. For people to say that I am anti-Israel or, even worse, anti-Semitic, it hurts. Your comments.
MR. EARNEST: I was not around for the conversation between the President and Mr. Axelrod that Mr. Axelrod is recounting. But I can tell you that I think anybody who listened to the speech that the President delivered at Adas Israel just a week or so ago heard pretty clearly from the President the kinds of common bonds and common values that are embodied in his administration that are advocated by the Jewish community. And whether that is our unprecedented security cooperation with the nation of Israel that has saved Israeli lives, or it’s putting in place and leading a government and a nation consistent with the kinds of Judeo-Christian values that have long been celebrated by the Jewish people, the President does feel that kind of kinship. So for a direct response or for questions about that specific comment, I’d refer you to the remarks that the President delivered just a week and a half ago or so.
Q To follow up on Chip’s question, Josh, does the President have confidence in the TSA?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, the President does continue to have confidence that the officers at the TSA do very important work that continue to protect the American people and continue to protect the American aviation system.
Now, what’s also true is that there were specific concerns that were raised by this classified report that was conducted by the independent inspector general, and in response to that report, the Director of Homeland Security directed the TSA to undertake seven specific steps to try to address those concerns. And that’s everything from new, intensive training for supervisors all across the country, to revising standard operating procedures, retesting screening equipment and even redoubling our efforts to make sure that the most up-to-date, modern screening equipment is being used in airports across the country to keep us safe.
The other thing that’s notable here is that these kinds of efforts -- the screening of individual passengers that takes place prior to them entering the boarding area of airports across the country -- is only one level of security that is in place at airports all across the country; that our efforts to develop a multi-layered security approach means that we have effective measures in place to counter threats to our aviation system. And we are always looking for ways to strengthen those efforts. Efforts to refine that security strategy are sometimes plainly visible to the traveling public; sometimes those strategies are not obvious to those who are going through an airport.
But what we have sought to do, even in a very challenging environment, is to make sure that TSA has the kind of leadership they need to protect the American traveling public. And that’s why we’ve urged the United States Senate to act quickly to confirm the President’s nominee of this very important job.
Q Even granting that it’s one layer of security, it obviously is the one that most Americans are not only familiar with but inconvenienced by. Countless -- hundreds of thousands, millions of hours spent in those lines, going to the airport early to go through that security. Two-part question -- one is, given that that is a critical level on which billions of dollars have been spent, while this training is going on, while the retesting is going on, should Americans feel safe? And is this proof that perhaps this is less important or maybe has been overstated as part of this whole security post-9/11 push?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think to answer your question as directly as I possibly can, the President does believe that the American people should feel confident in traveling in airports all across the country because there are security measures in place to protect the American traveling public. That involves screening at some gates, but it also involves intelligence-gathering and analysis. It involves cross-checking passenger manifests against watch lists. It involves random K-9 team screening at airports. Even things like federal air marshals and reinforced cockpit doors are reforms that have been put in place since 9/11 that do contribute to the safety and security of the American traveling public.
And when we get reports like this that indicate some vulnerabilities or even some flaws in the screening system, the President has very high expectations for the kind of response that will be enacted by TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to address those concerns. And that’s why the prompt action that was taken by Secretary Johnson just last night is consistent with that philosophy.
And I know that Secretary Johnson will continue to hold TSA officers to a very high standard. That’s what the President would expect. But the best way for us to ensure that these reforms are promptly implemented and that TSA officers are held accountable for implementing them is to make sure that they have a confirmed permanent director in that job. And that’s why we continue to call on the United States Senate to promptly confirm the Vice Admiral of the Coast Guard, Pete Neffenger, to this very important role.
Q A 95-percent failure rate is pretty appalling in any field of endeavor, but particular where lives are at stake. I wonder what the President’s reaction was when he heard.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what’s clear is that this is -- again, this is just one layer of the multi-layered --
Q But, see, that was not what he said, “this is just one layer of a multi-layer process.” If the President is told that there’s a 95-percent failure rate on the most public security system that the American people see post-9/11, I just wondered what his reaction was.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President knows is that there are multiple layers in place to protect the American people at airports across the country. And the President certainly does have high standards for the TSA, and if there are vulnerabilities that have been exposed by this classified report, then the President has high expectations that the TSA is going to take the steps necessary to resolve them.
And one important step that they can take is to get the leadership that they deserve. And we count on the United States Senate to act quickly to confirm his replacement -- or his nominee to be the permanent head of the TSA.
Q And lastly, a related question -- reports today that at least five airlines had bomb threats called in against them. And I wonder if the White House thinks that they may be related to this report yesterday, especially given the speculation -- or I should say, reports that it may have been an ISIS-related lone wolf who made these calls. And can you address that?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I haven’t seen any evidence to substantiate any of those claims. But I’d refer you to the FAA and the FBI who are taking a look at this.
Q Josh, earlier you challenged Congress to subject itself to the Freedom of Information Act.
MR. EARNEST: I did. Have they responded yet? (Laughter.)
Q What about subjecting the White House to FOIA?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, as you know probably as well as anyone, the White House is subjected to the Presidential Records Act that does have a longer period of time before those records are released. But it does ensure that a much higher percentage of those records related to official work that's done here at the White House are eventually released by the National Archives and Records Administration.
And that, again, is consistent with the standards of transparency that this President has established, and it’s consistent with the rules that were followed by previous administrations. And it’s certainly a much greater demonstration of a commitment to transparency than Congress submits to.
Q But not immediate.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct, it’s not immediate, but it is significant in terms of the records that are made public after the President leaves office.
Q But you don't want FOIA in place here, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we want is some kind of transparency in Congress. They're the leading advocates for ensuring that the President and his administration live up to those kinds of requirements. And as I mentioned, the administration, in just the last fiscal year, processed more than 647,000 FOIA requests. Congress processed zero. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Congress if they're actually committed to transparency.
Q Josh, a couple of weeks ago I asked you about what’s going to happen in the summer for many of these cities. And I understand there’s some kind of announcement coming out of Baltimore. Could you talk to us about that? And is it going to be something that trickles into other cities like Chicago and other cities that are seeing a spike in violence and shootings already?
MR. EARNEST: There will be an announcement in Baltimore. I believe that the Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, will be traveling there. This is part of a national program where the Department of Interior is funding jobs in cities all across the country. I believe it’s up to 50 cities across the country that would benefit from this kind of funding. But I’d refer you to the Department of Interior for more details on the actual program.
Q Is it youth jobs?
MR. EARNEST: That’s my understanding. Yes, youth summer jobs.
Q And is this an outgrowth pretty much of the spotlight on poverty that’s been happening since we’ve seen the Ferguson, the Baltimore issue, and Chicago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is consistent with the President’s view that we need to make sure that we’re expanding economic opportunity for everybody. I can’t speak to whether or not this is a previously existing Department of Interior program and, if it was, whether or not this represents an expansion. But the Department of Interior has all those details and you can check with them.
Q I want to ask something related to this. When it comes to hiring, job training, hiring, places like Baltimore, we’re hearing there are major job programs, job-training programs or trying to put employers with potential hires. I understand Elijah Cummings has one of the biggest job fairs in the city, but the problem is, is that many companies don’t like coming because they say there’s not any skill there or talent there to hire. What do you say? What does this White House say to something like that, when companies -- private sector companies are not going into inner cities that have these problems of poverty to hire these people? What do you say? I mean, training is abounding, but the jobs are not there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is one of the things that the President has identified as a real challenge for our job-training programs. And when the President traveled to Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota, the thing that he observed is that the graduation rate from that community college was twice the graduation rate that we see at the average community college across the country. And the recipe for their success was that Lake Area Technical Institute worked very closely with local employers to make sure that graduates were walking across that stage with skills consistent with the skills that are needed by local employers.
That is obviously good for those graduates. They can walk across the stage, get their diploma, and walk right into a new job. It’s good for those employers because, as you point out, those employers are looking for workers with a specific set of skills. It’s obviously really good for the economy if you can be creating economic opportunity right there at home by ensuring that educational institutions are partnering closely with local businesses to churn out a work force that’s prepared to take jobs and help those broader businesses succeed.
So that’s a strategy that has been used to great effect in one community in South Dakota. Obviously that community faces some very different challenges than the kinds of challenges faced in inner-city Baltimore. But there is no reason that that kind of strategy could not also be tailored to work in Baltimore in ensuring that local residents and local students are getting the skills they need to get jobs right there in Baltimore.
Q Thanks, Josh. The House rolled out a state and foreign operations bill today that would withhold funding for the State Department until the administration provides documents related to the House Republicans Benghazi investigation. And I was wondering if you had any reaction to that proposal.
MR. EARNEST: I'm just hearing it for the first time. And even hearing it for the first time, I'm struck by the irony that House Republicans, who profess to be significantly concerned about security at U.S. embassies around the world, are threatening to withhold funding for security at our embassies around the world. That is consistent with an approach that puts politics ahead of the lives of our diplomats. And that certainly is not an approach that would garner the approval of the President of the United States.
Q And on trade, I saw a report that the President is doing an interview with an El Paso TV station to sell the trade deal, ostensibly. Can you tell us, are there any more interviews along those lines happening tomorrow? And what are the President’s other plans as far as trade outreach this week?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have some more details on this tomorrow. But the President does intend to do a round of local television interviews here at the White House with local television anchors to talk about how trade legislation would benefit the economy of the communities where they broadcast. And we’ll have some additional data about these specific markets and the economic impact of our trade policies on these markets. The President will make a case that’s familiar to all of you that by passing progressive trade legislation and opening up overseas markets to American businesses and American goods and services that we can significantly expand economic opportunity and job creation right here in America.
So stay tuned for more of that tomorrow.
Q Hey, Josh. You seemed a little nonchalant in your response to the TSA questions. But surely, the 95 percent failure rate for guns and explosives -- it must have surprised or disturbed the administration.
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, Michelle I don’t agree with that characterization in my response. I think what I would urge you to do is to consider the response of Secretary Johnson. He’s the Secretary of Homeland Security; the TSA is underneath his purview. And he promptly announced yesterday seven specific steps that he directed TSA officials to undertake to address the concerns that were raised by that classified report. He also announced a personnel change in the leadership of the TSA.
And what you’re hearing me say today is that the President believes that these kinds of reforms and changes that are needed can be best implemented with a permanent Senate-confirmed director. And we challenge and call on the Senate, if they say that they’re concerned about security at U.S. airports that they’ll act quickly to confirm the President’s nominee to this job.
Q Well, you must understand how people react to a report like that -- that that failure rate is something that sticks in people’s minds. And do you feel like the kinds of reforms that could be made would even begin to restore confidence in that? I mean, something that so many taxpayer dollars have funded -- that that would make people feel confident, eventually? I mean, do you think that’s even possible at this point?
MR. EARNEST: I do believe it’s possible. And, Michelle, I think what makes people confident is that they know that there are multiple layers of protection, both seen and unseen, as a part of the robust security system at airports across the country. The most prominent and most visible part of that system is the screening that individual passengers undergo.
This classified report did highlight some concerns with those screening procedures. And that’s why Secretary Johnson announced reforms to the standard operating procedures. He announced that additional and intensive training be immediately put in place for supervisors all across the country in these important roles. He called for the testing and reevaluation of screening equipment. And he directed his team to make sure that the necessary steps were being taken to make sure that the most up-to-date, modern technology is being deployed at these screening locations.
But he does so mindful of the fact that this is just one layer of the multiple layers of screening that are in place in airports all across the country that protect the American people and the American traveling public on a daily basis.
Q And given this threat environment, listening to some of the possibilities of amendments coming up in the Senate today -- I know you mentioned your opposition to at least one of them. And now there’s a possibility that because of these amendments the bill could just fall apart in the House. But would it be better to you to see amendments go through and be accepted than for this thing to just break apart? I mean, you would accept amendments if they went through both the Senate and the House, right?
MR. EARNEST: Michelle, I think this highlights the concern. The risk here is that these amendments pass the Senate -- again, the Senate had a year and a half to participate in this debate and to offer up their ideas about changes that they would make to the system. And so to be offering up these reforms a couple days after the deadline has passed is just irresponsible and risks further delay because it would then put the House on the hook for acting once again. And, yes, it could threaten the bipartisan agreement that was hammered out in responsible fashion on the House side. We had Democrats and Republicans agreeing that appropriate civil liberties protections were added to this legislation and that appropriate language is included in the bill that would ensure that our law enforcement professionals have access to all the tools they need that they say are important to keeping us safe.
Q Also, though, about the phone companies then, after the period of time elapses, keeping track of these records, and concerns that not only how they're going to do that, but to get to access that information, if the government wants to access it, that it could take much more time to get to it because it’s now in their hands and that could miss the threat. So aren’t some of those concerns -- because the system is changing fundamentally, aren’t those legitimate concerns? Would you call that irresponsible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what’s irresponsible is if you have genuine concerns about our national security is to allow important tools that our national security professionals say are important to keeping us safe -- to allow them to lapse because you want to have a political fight with members of your own party. That's what’s irresponsible.
Q But that's already happened. I mean that's --
MR. EARNEST: It has already happened.
Q We're kind of past that question.
MR. EARNEST: Not really. It’s still happening today, right? Right now, if the Senate wanted to try to get back on the wagon, so to speak, and actually act in a responsible fashion, they would vote to approve the USA Freedom Act in the form that passed the House of Representatives with 338 votes from Democrats and Republicans.
Q But despite the question surrounding how to best and most quickly access the information that's now going to be held by phone companies, you feel that the USA Freedom Act as is, is adequate for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, more importantly, our national security professionals believe that the arrangement that has been agreed to in the House is adequate to them doing their important work. But I feel confident in telling you that if, over the course of the six-month implementation period in which these reforms are implemented, if concerns are raised by the President’s national security team about the way that this is implemented, he and his team will not hesitate to go back to Congress and say, look, we need some additional reforms that will ensure that we have what’s necessary to do our job.
But based on what we know now, based on the negotiations that have taken place between Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives, and based on the constructive engagement over the course of the last year and a half by the President’s national security team, we do feel confident that this legislation strikes the right balance in terms of protecting the country and protecting our civil liberties.
Q Thank you very much, Josh. Two brief questions. Earlier this year, with the tragic shooting of Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov, the President put out a strong statement and then underscored it by sending the U.S. Ambassador to his funeral. Six days ago, Mr. Nemtsov’s right-hand man, Vladimir Kara-murza, was poisoned and is in the hospital in grave condition. Has the administration put out any statement about his situation right now?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any statement that we’ve put out, but I can check with our national security team to see if we have. And if we have, we’ll get it to you, and if we haven’t, then we’ll see if we can get you a response.
Q Okay, appreciate it. The other thing I wanted to know -- there’s some figures out from Baltimore -- and this is following up on April’s question -- arrests are down 56 percent in the month of May, shootings are up 60 percent in May. And this comes along with figures from New York that murders were up in the city 15 percent in May. The President has spoken a lot about the situation in urban America since Ferguson and then in Baltimore. Is he going to make any statement about police and their own situation? Many people attribute these figures to a decline in morale among police.
MR. EARNEST: John, I think anybody who has listened to the President over the last several months has heard the President on a number of occasions talk about the important work that local police officers do in communities all across the country. These are men and women who on a daily basis put on the police uniform and walk out the front door of their home prepared to put their life on the line to keep the community that they serve and protect safe. And that is something that is worthy of our respect and, frankly, it’s something that the President has praised. Individuals who are willing to make that kind of sacrifice and that commitment to public safety is something that is laudable and worthy of the praise of everybody in this country from the President on down.
And the President had the opportunity to talk about this bravery and that commitment at the Peace Officers Memorial that he spoke at two or three weeks ago. So I’d refer you to those specific comments.
At this point, I’d hesitate to generalize about broader trends that we’re seeing across the country. But I do think it speaks to how important it is for law enforcement officers to build trust with the communities that they serve and protect. And that trust only makes it more safe -- it creates conditions that allow law enforcement officers to do their jobs more safely, but it also makes it more effective in fighting crime if they know that they can work in partnership and in trust with members of the community.
And this is something that the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has spent a lot of time looking at. And there are a variety of best practices that they have put forward that we’ve seen law enforcement agencies across the country adopt to try to address this kind of situation in communities across the country.
Q Thank you, Josh. Sepp Blatter said a few minutes ago that he would resign from the presidency of FIFA in the wake of the corruption inquiry. What’s the White House reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I was just informed about this just moments before I walked out here so I don’t have a specific reaction. But if we decide to put one out, I’ll make sure you get it.
Q In French. (Laughter.) Just to go back to trade quickly. With the debate shifting over to the House, is your sense that the debate in the House will be more difficult than it was in the Senate? And if so, it sounds like you're doing a lot of the same things you were doing in the Senate -- the local TV interviews and making the case that this is good for the economy and the environment. Are you planning to do anything different in the House? Vote counters say you’re a couple dozen votes short.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a strategy that we pursued that yielded 62 votes on final passage in the Senate. And that’s an indication I think of a pretty effective legislative strategy. But many observers do expect that the politics of this issue in the House are even more difficult, and we certainly are aware of that challenge. The case I think I would make to you is that today is not the first day that we’ve considered how we can make the case to Democrats in the House that they should support the most progressive trade legislation that’s ever passed the Senate. This is a case that we’ve been making for weeks, even months now, and that includes the President directly in individual conversations with individual members of the House of Representatives. And while challenging, we continue to be confident that we’ll be able to build a bipartisan majority in the House consistent with the bipartisan majority that was built in the United States Senate.
Q And you mentioned earlier in response to Roberta’s question that the President would be making assurances -- or had been making assurances that he would stand with Democrats who stood with him on this. I’ll try to give another shot at kind of fleshing out what that means. Is he telling them that he is going to campaign for them, run ads for them? What does he mean when he says that he is going to stand with Democrats who stand with him on this?
MR. EARNEST: I guess, let me just -- again, I’m not going to get into specific tactics more than a year and a half before an election. But I would just observe that there’s ample data to point you to that indicates the influence that the President has among Democratic voters all across the country. And having the strong support of the most popular figure in Democratic politics for your reelection I think most Democrats are going to find beneficial to their congressional campaigns.
So, again, I don’t want to foreshadow any tactics right now, but the President has been clear that he’ll stand with the Democrats who stand with him on this issue.
Q On another topic, on Russia. Vladimir Putin said last week he signed an order that would basically make secret any of the deaths of Russian military officers during peacetime. Some watchers say that that means that he’s preparing for an advance into Ukraine. I was wondering if there’s a response from the White House on that issue.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, unfortunately, we have seen significant movements of Russian military equipment and personnel into Ukraine over the last year. That’s been the source of significant concern and that’s concern that we’ve expressed both in public and in private to Mr. Putin.
The fact is there have been a lot of observers who are trying to analyze specific statements or specific actions that are taken by Mr. Putin, warning that this could be the prelude to an even more significant military action. All I will say is that the international community has spoken very clearly about our united view that it’s critically important for Russia to respect the basic territorial integrity and sovereignty of their neighbors in Ukraine.
And they made specific commitments to do so in the context of negotiations that took place at Minsk. These are commitments that Russia has failed to uphold. And as a result of that failure and as a result of the continued violation of the sovereignty of the nation of Ukraine, the international community has taken steps to impose significant costs on the Russian economy and on the Russian government. And those are steps that only further isolate Russia and only further diminish an economy that’s already taken a pretty substantial hit over the last year.
Q Does the President believe we're in a period of setback or a period of progress in the fight against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Charlie, the President’s view on this is that there are areas where we’ve made important progress. Just a couple of weeks ago, the President ordered a United States military raid inside of Syria to take an important ISIL leader off the battlefield and to gather a significant quantity of important intelligence. That obviously would be a sign of some progress. And then about the same time, we also saw that Iraqi security forces were driven out of Ramadi, and that obviously is something we’ve acknowledged as a setback.
And we're dealing in a complicated and complex military operation, a military conflict. And what the President wants to do is to make sure that our strategy is oriented to properly reflect those challenges.
And that's why we’ve built a coalition of more than 60 nations. It’s why we're ramping up the assistance that we can provide to the Iraqi security forces in the form of providing them additional military equipment like AT4s. And the President is willing to consider other steps consistent with the strategy that he has laid out to make the delivery of that assistance even more efficient.
Q A new poll today showed that just 32 percent of Americans support the way that the President has handled the fight against ISIS. Is the President worried that his message isn’t getting out, or that he’s not doing enough to satisfy Americans?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President’s foremost concern in this regard is not poll numbers but is actually the need to protect the national security interests of the United States both here at home and around the world.
And the President has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to counter the threat that is posed by ISIL. And the President has been clear about what we will do in the form of using military airpower to strike at ISIL and extremist targets inside of Iraq and in Syria. The President has indicated a willingness to order Special Operations raids where necessary to take out ISIL leaders. The President has also directed his team to focus on training and equipping Iraqi security forces that are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government so that they can be responsible for the security situation in their own country.
That's the strategy that the President has laid out. It also includes trying to shut down every method of financing that ISIL benefits from, and trying to prevent the flow of foreign fighters to the region. But this is the strategy that the President has laid out, and this is a strategy that has enjoyed some progress even if we're also facing some setbacks, as well.
Q Is there any response to the news that ISIS is, in fact, gaining more territory in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- again, there are some isolated reports. It’s a little harder to measure this inside of Syria. We don't have the same kind of cooperative ground force that we do inside of Iraq.
There are reports that there are some places, including Palmyra, where ISIL has made some important gains. There are also some areas in northeastern Syria where Syrian fighters, who are backed by our military coalition, are actually driving ISIL out of some territory in northeastern Syrian. So again, I think even just looking at the situation in Syria, you could describe areas of progress and periods of setback.
And again, this is consistent with what we see in almost any sort of military conflict.
Q I wanted to get your response to the reports about the premium hikes for insurance companies. Some are going up by -- are proposing to go up by as much as a third during 2016.
MR. EARNEST: Fred, you've been following this issue long enough to know how this process works now. Because of requirements under the Affordable Care Act, any insurance company that is proposing to raise rates by more than 10 percent has to make public the possibility of those rate increases.
And what we have seen -- or I guess what we saw prior to the Affordable Care Act taking effect is that insurance companies would regularly impose double-digit rate increases with impunity. They’d do it in secret, or you’d get a bill in the mail knowing that is this something you were going to be subjected to.
But now insurance companies have to publicly notify -- or publicly put people on notice that they're preparing a double-digit increase. Then we see that those rate increases are reviewed by state regulators. And the result typically has been that after that state review is conducted, that insurance companies would slash their rates.
And that's why -- just using last year as an example -- a majority of individuals who went shopping on the marketplace was able to obtain health insurance for less than $100 a month when you factor in the subsidies that were available to them. That's an indication that even more people all across the country are getting access to quality, affordable health insurance and it’s primarily because of the restrictions and requirements of the Affordable Care Act that compels insurance companies to explain significant increases in their rates, but also to compete with other insurance companies for customers. And when subjected to that kind of competition, it means that customers get a pretty good deal.
And again, 55 percent of people across the country who went shopping on the marketplace, when you factor in the subsidy that they were eligible for, was able to obtain health insurance for less than $100 a month.
Q But wasn’t the law initially sold as that it would not only not just reduce increases, but it would actually lower the cost of health care?
MR. EARNEST: Our goal of this has been to slow the growth in health care costs, and that has been our mantra. And we have seen, as our economists can demonstrate to you, that since the health care law went into effect -- since the Affordable Care Act went into effect health care costs in this country have grown at the slowest rate in recorded history, the slowest rate in 50 years. And that is obviously something that has good benefits for people all across the country, and it even has important benefits for our budget deficit and has important benefits for our economy.
Q One more subtopic. The Supreme Court decision yesterday in the Abercrombie & Fitch case, is that something that -- the Court seems to be -- totally different matter, of course -- but that Hobby Lobby from last year, the Court does seem to have had taken sort of maybe a more expansive view of religious liberty. Does the White House foresee that affecting any of the possible litigation in the state religious freedom laws that have been passed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I think what’s true -- I haven’t spent much time watching the Supreme Court, but I do think that veteran Supreme Court watchers would caution us against drawing bright lines between any two Supreme Court cases. I think what I would just say as a general matter, not having carefully evaluated the legal arguments that were made in this particular case, is that it does seem to me, based on the reporting, that the Supreme Court did stand up for the religious liberty of this one individual.
And it certainly is consistent with the President’s view that the American people hold very dear to the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. And protecting the right of individuals to observe that religion, to practice that religion and not be discriminated against because of the way in which they observe their religion is an important American value, and one that appears to have been upheld by the Supreme Court just yesterday.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Have a good day.
1:56 P.M. EDT