Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/3/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:54 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I don’t have any announcements at the top, so let’s go straight to your questions.
Julie, do you want to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to start with trade. The President is doing this round of interviews today, and it looks like the areas where he’s doing these interviews are areas where House Democrats have already said that they’re going to support TPA. And so I’m wondering if the point of the interviews is to give cover and give support to these Democrats who are already with him.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that keen political observation is true in some instances but not in all of them. Some of these are places where there are members of Congress who have not yet publicly committed to supporting trade legislation.
More broadly, the goal of these interviews is actually to make the case in these communities that passing the most progressive trade promotion authority that the Senate has ever passed would expand significantly economic opportunity for middle-class families not just in those communities, but also all across the country. And that, ultimately, is the case that we want to make. That’s also the case that the President will make in the interview that he conducts with Kai Rysdall from Marketplace in NPR.
So this is a broad-based case that we’re making here, and it’s consistent with the case that you’ve heard the President make for weeks. And based on the success that we had in convincing nearly a third of the Democrats in the Senate to support this legislation, we’re optimistic that we have the opportunity to make that case to progressives across the country and to Democrats in the House of Representatives, and we can give them a reason to support this bill.
Q Can you give us an assessment on where you think you stand with House Democrats? I think it’s something like 17 have said publicly that they are going to vote for TPA.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an updated whip count for you, but I can confirm that the President is continuing to personally involve himself in conversations with members of the House of Representatives about why they should -- making the case about why they should support this bill. And again, the case that he’s making in private is entirely consistent with the argument that he’s made publicly about the economic benefits for middle-class families associated with this legislation.
Q Obviously, this debate on the Hill is not just being watched in the U.S., it’s also being watched abroad, in the Asia Pacific, but also in Europe with a lot of the leaders that the President is going to be meeting with this weekend, who work on a transatlantic trade agreement. When he has conversations with these leaders Sunday and Monday, is he going to be able to assure them that he has the votes in the House to be able to move forward on TPA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he will make the case that we’ve built important bipartisan support in the Senate for this approach, and we continue to be confident --
Q But they’re going to want to know what’s happening in the House.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And we’re going to continue to -- we’ll project confidence that I previously expressed, that we can build a similar bipartisan majority in the House, as well. There’s still work to be done on that, and I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that work has been completed; there’s still important work to be done.
But what’s clear is that when we have an opportunity to make the case to people who are willing to keep an open mind about the benefits of this legislation, that we’ve had some success in winning support for the bill. And we’re going to continue to use that approach in making the case to Democrats in the House.
Q And finally, I know yesterday when you were up here, Sepp Blatter had just said that he went to resign, and you didn’t have a comment on it yesterday because it had just happened. I wondered if now you may have on a comment on his plans.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I would just say more broadly is obviously this is an organization that is responsible for managing the affairs of a sport that is closely followed by literally billions of people across the globe. And it’s apparent from recent news reports that they’d benefit from some new leadership. And so this is an opportunity for that organization to try to improve their public image and to make sure that the actions of that organization are consistent with their mission. But obviously those kinds of decisions will have to be made by the members of the organization.
And I say all of that without any special knowledge about the ongoing Department of Justice investigation. Obviously, the prosecutors at the Department of Justice will carry out their work irrespective of any personnel decisions made at FIFA.
Q Thanks. Josh, how is the White House preparing for the upcoming Supreme Court decision on King-Burwell? Is there any kind of contingency plans being worked out for people who might lose their health care subsidies?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julia, what we have made clear is that we continue to be very confident in the legal case that was presented by the Solicitor General before the Court earlier this year. What is absolutely clear from any impartial reading of the legislation -- and this is something that has been confirmed by Republican staffers who worked on the bill -- is that there was not a specific intent by members of Congress to make the citizens of those states that use the federal government to establish their exchange ineligible for subsidies. In fact, the goal of the legislation was to make sure that everyone, regardless of which state they lived in, [was] eligible for subsidies based solely on their income, not which state they lived in.
And the fact is that this policy, as it’s been implemented over the last several years, has lowered health care costs for millions of people across the country. And in some cases -- in many cases, millions of cases -- has allowed people who previously could not afford health insurance to be able to purchase it. And that has provided significant economic benefits for the country. It’s had a positive impact on the fiscal situation in this country. And most importantly, it’s made a difference in the lives of millions of people who now no longer have to worry that they're just one illness away from bankruptcy court.
Q But if the Court rules that the federal government can't provide these subsidies in states where the states won’t pay for them, that would undo a significant part of the President’s health care legislation. Are you just so confident in the legal case that there are no contingency plans being considered, should a ruling like that occur?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is true that we continue to be very confident in the legal case that we have to make. What’s also true is that if the Supreme Court were to throw the health care system in this country into utter chaos, there would be no easy solutions for solving the problem, principally because it would require an act -- likely require an act of Congress in order to address that situation. And we’ve not seen much of an appetite from Republicans in Congress to working constructively to address this question.
The fact is we’ve seen many Republicans be very willing to try to play politics in a rather cynical way on this issue, but not a lot of constructive engagement to solve problems.
So hopefully we're not going to have to -- that will not be an eventuality that we’ll have to consider.
Q Speaking of Republicans on the Hill, John Cornyn yesterday said that the Senate might not consider reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank until July, which would pass its June 30th deadline. What’s the President’s response to this? And what’s the White House doing to push Congress to act faster on the Export-Import Bank expiration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to believe that the Export-Import Bank does important things for the American economy. And in terms of supporting American jobs over the last six years, work at the bank has supported 1.3 million private sector jobs inside the United States. That's 164,000 jobs in Fiscal Year 2014 alone. That positive impact on our economy and that positive impact on job creation is why we’ve seen Democratic and Republican Presidents throughout history aggressively advocate for the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
That includes President Reagan, who signed legislation reauthorizing the bank, and praised the bank on the occasion of its 50th anniversary back in 1984 when he said that, “the Export-Import Bank contributes in a significant way to our nation’s export sales.” And the other thing that we have learned -- and this has been a part of the argument that we have made about the benefits associated with trade legislation -- is we know that American jobs that are tied to exports, on average pay substantially higher than the average American job. And so creating more jobs that are tied to exports means that we need to open up opportunities overseas for American goods and services.
And obviously trade legislation and a trade agreement in the Asia Pacific would further that goal. But there’s also important work that goes on every day at the Export-Import Bank that does that, as well. And that's why we believe it’s important for Congress not to prevent the charter of the Export-Import Bank from lapsing.
Fortunately, not every Republican agrees with Senator Cornyn. And there are Republicans who agree with the President’s stated position about the benefits of the Export-Import Bank. And we're hopeful that we’ll be able to build the bipartisan majority that's necessary to prevent a lapse in the Export-Import Bank’s funding.
Q And also on the economy and the numbers that you just mentioned -- I mean, it seems like you, the President, the entire administration has been very vocal for the past year on numbers on the economy -- how much that has stabilized, the progress, et cetera. But then there’s this interesting poll that just comes out today -- a CNN/ORC poll -- showing that only 40 percent of those who responded now think that things are going well in this country.
And the approval ratings for the President are also down, even since March. So it almost seems like as things stabilize and as that message is hammered out there, you see this strange shift in numbers in the opposite direction. You just can’t help but look at that with some interest. What is your take on that? I mean, is there anything that you would attribute a shift like that to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, presumably, CNN has hired very highly paid analysts to review the results of the poll, and --
Q But we would rather hear from you since you’re here now.
MR. EARNEST: I see. I probably won’t get paid as much as the highly paid analysts, but --
Q You could have someone --
Q One of the burdens, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly right. Exactly right.
Q But it has to be something that you see and you notice, right?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that I notice it principally because I expected somebody to ask about it today, not necessarily because I found it to be particularly interesting.
But let me just say as a general matter that the President believes that there is a strong case for us to make, looking at the data, about the significant progress that our economy has made since the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
That said, the President believes that there is substantially more work that needs to be done to strengthen our economy and further expand economic opportunity for middle-class families. That’s why the President is aggressively pursuing trade legislation that he believes would create jobs and expand economic opportunity.
It’s why the President continues to believe, and you’ve heard me talk about even in the last couple of weeks about how much we would like to see Congress take action to reform our tax code and use some of that revenue to invest in infrastructure that we all benefit from. Those kinds of significant commitments to infrastructure would create jobs in the short term, but also would lay a foundation for long-term economic strength in this country.
So there are additional things that we can do and that would have corresponding impact on the metrics that measure the size and health of our economy. And presumably, that would have a corresponding impact on the President’s poll numbers; but frankly, those numbers are a lot less important.
Q One of the largest disapproval numbers that you see is in the President’s handling of fighting ISIS. Do you think that that contributes to the overall drop? Or what is your reaction to so many Americans -- at least according to this poll -- saying that they feel that that’s an area that’s going pretty badly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve talked about quite a bit also over the last couple of weeks, that there are areas where we’ve made important progress against ISIL and areas where we’ve experienced some setback.
And the President is not designing our strategy around this military conflict based on monthly poll numbers, but he’s doing it based on the national security interest of the United States. And that’s what’s going to continue to guide our strategy. That’s why the President continues to believe it’s not in our best interest to essentially reinvade Iraq to try to solve this problem. But rather, he’s put in place a strategy that involves working with the international community to support the Iraqi security forces as they take the fight to ISIL in their own country.
And that’s a strategy that we’re going to continue to pursue and a strategy that has shown some success. But obviously there’s a lot more work to be done.
Q The message obviously from the American public is that it’s going quite badly. I mean, that has to be something that the administration realizes.
MR. EARNEST: I think the American public is understandably concerned about ISIL; the President is, too. And that’s why he’s laid out a clear strategy that’s consistent with our national security interests to degrade and ultimately destroy them.
And the President didn’t -- obviously protecting the national security interests of the United States is the President’s top priority, and he’s not going to lose sight of how important that is.
Q Any reaction to George W. Bush’s approval rating -- or a favorability rating being higher than the President’s right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I don’t have any reaction to that.
Q Thank you, Mr. Earnest. Congress today, a key subcommittee, the Appropriations Committee in the House, is moving to block funding for any prospective embassy in Havana. And I'm wondering if that move will hinder what appears to be an imminent announcement about normalizing relations.
MR. EARNEST: I was not aware of those specific plans but I'm not particularly surprised by them. The President has made clear that it is clearly in our interest to try to start normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. And the next logical step in that normalization process would be establishing a Cuban embassy in the United States and establishing an American embassy in Cuba.
Our diplomats are hard at work in trying to lay the groundwork for an announcement like that. I'm not surprised to hear that there are some members of Congress that don’t agree with that approach. We have heard some from members of Congress who believe that if we would have just kept the 55-year embargo in place for a little while longer, maybe we would have started to see the kinds of changes that were promised at the beginning of imposition of that embargo.
The President is a little skeptical of that case. The President believed that after 55 years we needed to consider something more impactful, we needed a new strategy. And the President continues to be convinced that by greater engagement between our governments, and greater engagement between our people, we can create economic opportunity for American businesses, but that we can also empower the Cuban people to advocate for and protect the basic human rights that are regularly trampled by the Cuban government.
Q When we last left our story, the fourth round of negotiations with Cuban officials had not yielded a breakthrough on some of the -- sort of the underbrush and the nuts and bolts that has to be done. What is the status of those negotiations, first of all? Well, what is the status of those negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it was a couple of weeks ago that Cuban diplomats were in the United States meeting with U.S. officials over at State Department headquarters. The readout that I got from those conversations were that the meetings were productive but that they were not essentially completed.
Q Right, but it hasn’t (inaudible) since then, is my question. And how imminent is an announcement?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the current status of those talks, so I’d refer you to the State Department for an update.
Q And I have one final question on a different subject, and that is the Rohingya minority in Burma. Burma just allowed -- 700 individuals, Rohingya, were floating offshore. They just brought them back into the country. I know the President had something to say about this on Monday. They continue to be stateless individuals within their own country. And the United States and the administration has maintained sanctions on Burma. Will those sanctions be contingent on the fate of the Rohingya? And what pressure will the U.S. apply to essentially give these people rights and give them citizenship within their own country?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, as it relates to the specific sanctions that are in place on Burma, I'm going to have to take the question in terms of what impact those would have. When it comes, though, to pressuring the government in Burma, the President did that when he traveled to Burma, and when he talked about the need for the Burmese government to respect the rights of all the citizens of Burma, and particularly to prevent violence being carried out against religious and ethnic minorities in that country.
And he acknowledged that that was a basic responsibility of the central government, and expected them to do more and to do a better job of preventing the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in that country. And I think that's a pretty powerful statement for the President of the United States to travel there and deliver that message directly to the government and to the people of that country.
But as it relates to the impact that might have on sanctions we have against the country, let me follow up with you on that.
Q Is there concern that that persecution continues despite the President’s opening towards Burma?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly do continue to be concerned about the human rights situation as it relates to the Rohingya in Burma. And that is a message that we have communicated consistently both in public and in private to the Burmese government.
George. Did you catch that game last night?
MR. EARNEST: The Indians.
MR. EARNEST: They’ve got to reform the instant replay process. The Royals got robbed on that. (Laughter.) They did.
Q On a less important thing. (Laughter.) Will a defeat on TPA undercut the President’s standing at the G7 Summit?
MR. EARNEST: Are you asking -- say the first part again. Would a defeat --
Q If he were to lose on TPA, would that undercut him at the summit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think a vote is planned in advance of the summit this weekend. And we're not expecting to lose it. I think the President will be traveling to the G7, some of whom are engaged in negotiations with the United States about a transatlantic trade agreement. And we're going to continue to make the case to them that we believe that we're going to be able to build bipartisan support for the progressive trade promotion authority that passed the Senate. And the President is considering these kinds of talks and trying to push for these kinds of agreements because it happens to be in the best interest of the U.S. economy and U.S. middle-class families.
I know that there are European leaders that believe that that kind of agreement would be in the extraordinary interest of their economy and their middle class, as well. So there may be an opportunity for us to try to see some common ground; that's on a little bit of a longer track. But completing TPA legislation would enhance the likelihood of being able to successfully complete a European trade deal as well -- but much further down the line.
Q Can you comment on a report today in The Washington Times that the Clinton Foundation had collected $26 million in donations in Sweden at the same time the Swedish government was lobbying the State Department under Hillary Clinton to forego sanctions against Swedish companies doing business with Iran? Was the White House aware of this arrangement?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen that report, Dave. We'll have to get back to you on it.
Q Josh, a couple things. The Taliban has said this morning that it is their understanding and their belief that the Taliban Five currently in Doha are now free to go, and any attempt by the United States to limit their ability to travel would be a violation of international law, and the one-year agreement has been lived up to and all reports that that has been extended are false. Any comment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the agreement that the United States has is not with the Taliban, it's with Qatar. And it's the government of Qatar that, at the request of the United States, has put some restrictive conditions on the individuals that were transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. I can tell you that there are conversations between the United States and Qatar ongoing about a longer-term resolution of the status of these individuals. The United States is obviously very interested in making sure that steps are taken to mitigate the risk to the United States that is posed by these individuals.
Q In this interim period while the talks continue, are the travel restrictions as they were?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. Essentially, while these talks are ongoing, the restrictive conditions that have been in place over the last year continue to remain in place.
Q Can you describe what the goal of the administration is in the talks going forward --
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal is to -- go ahead.
Q In addition to security. Is the goal to maintain the restrictions as they are, maybe loosen them ever so slightly, essentially keep them in Doha? What is the ultimate goal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't get into the substance of the conversations, primarily because of restrictions --
Q You can describe the goal, though. I understand the negotiations are -- there are a lot of variables there, a lot of factors, a lot of equities, stakeholders, et cetera, et cetera. What’s the goal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that it’s hard for me to talk in detail about the goal is because ultimately those restrictive conditions that are in place are not something that we talk about in detail publicly. So that’s why when it comes to the goal, it really is making sure that there are measures in place to protect the American people and the United States and our interests. And what exact form those restrictions take is something that we’ll discuss with the Qataris, but probably not be able to discuss publicly even after an agreement is reached.
Q Also, Tony Blinken said in an interview in France that airstrikes in the campaign that began last summer have killed more than 10,000 jihadists. He wouldn’t specify numbers in Iraq and Syria. First of all, is that a number that the President is comfortable with? It is a number far larger than we’ve seen before, to my knowledge; I may have missed it. Is that the number the President believes is true, is consistent with what the Pentagon and other coalition partners informed him? And what does that say about what the state of the strategy is so far?
MR. EARNEST: Major, what we are aware of is that there are thousands of ISIL fighters that have been taken off the battlefield due to the combined impact of our coalition military airstrikes as well as the efforts of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces on the ground. And this is indicative of the kind of strategy that we see ISIL often use to essentially sacrifice significant numbers of foot soldiers, as they did around their failed attempt to take and hold Kobani, which, we assess, led to the death of at least a thousand ISIL fighters in that one Syrian town.
At the same time, we’re also conscious of the fact that ISIL is aggressively recruiting foreign fighters from around the globe to try to replenish their ranks. And that’s why our strategy is predicated on trying to counter the radical ideology and recruitment efforts of ISIL. We’re trying to make it difficult for individuals that may aspire to join the fight to travel to that region of the world and successfully take up arms alongside ISIL, even as we continue to carry out missions on the battlefield that degrade and destroy the ISIL military organization.
But as it relates to the precise question about the number of ISIL fighters that have been killed, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for the precise number.
Q So no one from the Department of Defense has used that number. The Deputy Secretary of State used that number. And I’m asking if the President is comfortable with this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I would be curious how any of us -- anyone in this administration could know any real sense of casualties on the ground where the air campaign -- where there is virtually no U.S. eyeballs or presence, and you’re fighting an enemy that is, by its very nature, mobile, secretive and hostile. So this number seems very large. I don’t know how it could be credible. And I’m wondering if you’re confident with the Deputy Secretary of State using it on behalf of the United States government to explain that this is actually working.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, the Department of Defense does conduct routinely battle damage assessments, particularly those related to military airstrikes. And we know that Iraqi security forces also have the capability to carry out military missions and offer intelligence about what they’re seeing on the ground.
The administration, at the direction of the President, has flooded Iraq with ISR equipment -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment -- to monitor conditions on the ground. So there are ways that we can derive estimates, but good estimates, of what’s occurred in the aftermath of some of these military operations. And I have no reason to believe that the number that was cited by Deputy Secretary Blinken was inaccurate.
But for a more precise accounting of what that estimate is, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. But we continue to be mindful of the fact that this is an organization that is working very hard to replenish their ranks, and they need to do so. Because what we see is we see that ISIL, time and time again, has essentially directed their foot soldiers to be sacrificial lambs, in some instances, to go out there in essentially hopeless fights against either Iraqi security forces or Kurdish security forces.
Q Not every fight is a hopeless fight, quite obviously.
MR. EARNEST: No, and I didn’t say that. But we have seen instances where they’ve done that. There are more than a thousand -- again, based on these assessments that we’ve conducted, there are more than a thousand ISIL fighters that lost their lives around Kobani only for ISIL to be driven out of Kobani. That, I think, is a pretty good example of a situation where ISIL demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice the lives of a thousand foot soldiers in pursuit of a quixotic effort to take over one town in Syria, an effort that ultimately was unsuccessful.
But this is a much broader effort to degrade and destroy ISIL. And ultimately what we’re going to need to see is a more successful and more consistent effort and execution of the strategy by Iraqi security forces on the battlefield. And we have seen important places of progress, and there are some areas where, with additional support, we hope they’ll recover from recent setbacks.
Q One last thing. I just wanted to ask you -- you said earlier the Supreme Court could turn the health care system into utter chaos. Is that a warning to the Supreme Court on this matter?
MR. EARNEST: Of course not. It is, I think, the consequence that has been observed by a large number of individuals in both parties about the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But this is a ruling that will be based on the merits of the legal arguments that were presented before the court. And we’ve got a lot of confidence in those arguments.
Q You said repeatedly over the last couple of months, I guess, that you have a lot of confidence in the arguments. And you’ve been asked repeatedly about sort of a plan B, what happens if the decision doesn’t go your way. I just want to make sure that I understand you. Is your message to the American people who now have this coverage, that, if the Supreme Court rules essentially against Obama administration’s position, they’re out of luck and you don’t have a plan?
MR. EARNEST: Our message to the American people is that they should be confident in the health care they have now because it is rooted in a sound legal basis that was presented in an argument before the Supreme Court. That’s why we believe that people should be confident. And if that confidence is shaken, based on an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court, then that will have a substantial impact on the health insurance market in the United States -- there’s no doubt about that.
Q And you don’t feel that there’s anything the White House or the President can do about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, most people assume -- and I think they assume rightly; it’s going to depend on exactly what the ruling is and what the scope is of the ruling -- most people assume that a remedy would require congressional action. And I think there’s ample evidence that making a bet in favor of prompt, wise and constructive congressional action when it comes to the health care is not a very good bet.
Q I just want to follow up on Major’s questions, because there does seem to be among a lot of the people inside DOD and other military analysts, that for the progress that is made for the ISIL/ISIS fighters who are taken off the battlefield, that they are able, as you have suggested, to continue to recruit. And many think that that is basically a net-zero proposition. If what has happened as a result of U.S. policy and coalition efforts is essentially status quo in terms of the number of ISIS/ISIL fighters, then is that a failure of policy?
Q No, because what we're doing is we're building up the capacity of Iraqi security forces. And we anticipated that we would start to see better performance on the battlefield once we had introduced more highly trained Iraqi security forces, once we saw more better-equipped Iraqi security forces on the battlefield, that their performance would improve. And we would also see, over the course of time, improvement in our efforts to coordinate with the international community to both counter the radical ideology and recruitment messaging from ISIL. We also have seen and will continue to improve upon our cooperative efforts to prevent individuals from actually traveling to that region of the world to take up arms alongside ISIL.
But this is strategy, again, where we have seen some success, but we’ve also seen some setbacks. But we would anticipate that we're going to continue to make progress against ISIL as we see more and better equipped, better trained security forces -- both in Iraq and in Syria -- taking the fight to ISIL on the ground.
Q But if it’s essentially the status quo in terms of the number of those taken off the battlefield and the number recruited, that's about where you would expect to be right now? Is that what you're saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not -- I think -- no, that's what you're saying, I guess is the short answer to your question. I think what I would say is that we have a strategy that is correctly oriented towards the situation that you're presenting, which is that we have seen that there are a substantial number of fighters fighting under the ISIL banner in Iraq and in Syria, and we’ve laid out a clear strategy for confronting them. And that's a strategy that is predicated on Iraqi and in Syria, Syrian fighters, taking the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country.
We’ll support them by training them, by equipping them, by offering them some advice in terms of how to carry out their military operations. And we’ll back them with coalition military airpower.
But the other thing that we can do is we can try to shut down ISIL’s financing operations. We can shut down ISIL’s recruitment efforts. And we can try to counter the radical messaging of ISIL to make it harder for them to bring in recruits.
And so far we have seen ISIL demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice many of their foot soldiers on the battlefield in pursuit of some military operations that don't end up going their way. But ultimately we acknowledge that there is much more important and even difficult work to be done to accomplish our ultimate goal of degrading and destroying ISIL.
Q A related question on ISIS. There’s testimony today in Congress on those in this country who are feeding on ISIS propaganda through social media. Are you confident that the administration has the tools it needs to keep track of and monitor those who are here in the United States radicalized by ISIS propaganda?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, you have heard from our law enforcement and national security professionals that this is very difficult work. And the President himself has even observed on previous occasions that the threat that he’s particularly worried about is sort of the lone wolf threat, an individual that could be radicalized but essentially would carry out an operation of their own doing that would result in some violence. And trying to prevent that is exceedingly difficult.
And in some ways that's all the more reason that we're gratified that the Senate finally did pass the USA FREEDOM Act to ensure that our national security professionals do have all the tools that they say are important to keeping the country safe.
Q But they're saying they don’t have the tools, even with the renewal of the parts of the PATRIOT Act. You have the head of the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI today say that one of the big problems they're facing is the availability of new encryption technology, and that they are “in the dark” -- those were his words. They are in the dark. He’s basically pleading for new authorities from Congress.
That's why I’m asking what’s the White House position on this. He’s saying thousands every day are feeding on ISIS propaganda in this country, and they don't have the authorities to keep track of them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a challenge that the President --
Q Not the PATRIOT Act. They're looking for additional authorities.
MR. EARNEST: This is a challenge that the President has been mindful of. He had the opportunity to talk about this a little bit when Prime Minister Cameron was visiting the White House early this year.
And this does set up a tough challenge of balancing the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding American citizens with the need for us to try to detect and apprehend terrorists before they commit an act of violence. And that's why the President has spoken to this, and it’s something that we're mindful of.
And, yes, you're right that the other challenge that's presented here is that when we're talking about technology, we're talking about new innovations. And it means that the techniques that are employed by our national security professionals need to adapt to the innovations in the technology sector. And that is a very difficult challenge, but it’s one that the President’s team is very focused on.
And, frankly, there is an opportunity for us, in the mind of the President, to work with the tech sector on this; that as much as they value and champion the privacy and civil liberties rights of American citizens, we also know that those individuals do not want to be in a situation where their technology is responsible for allowing somebody who is seeking to carry out an act of violence to evade detection from the federal government.
So this is a very thorny policy challenge, and maybe even among the most difficult challenges that the President faces. But it’s one that he’s mindful of, it’s one that his team has been working on, and one that we should be able to manage our way through if we try to seize the kind of common ground consistent with the way that the House of Representatives and the Senate acted to -- despite the difficult challenges of reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act, but also incorporating important reforms that require people to put aside politics, focus on those areas where we agree, and do something right for the country.
And even after an inexplicable delay by the Senate, that's ultimately what was achieved. And that, I do think absent the delay, does serve as a model for how we can work our way through these other particularly difficult policy issues, as well.
Q And a very quick follow-up to Michelle’s questions about the polls. The President’s political team does do polling, right, and has access to polling -- private Democratic polling?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- and certainly through the DNC and other places, the President does have access to some polling information. I would not say that he’s a frequent consumer of that information, but he does have access to some of that data.
Q So he must be aware of some of the same trends we’ve seen in the CNN poll, the ABC poll?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any recent Democratic polls that measured the favorability of President Bush.
Q Well, the approval of the handling of ISIS at just 31 percent is a pretty alarming number. I would think that would be -- so he didn’t even notice them?
MR. EARNEST: No, not really. I mean, look, I think that it is common sense that the fact that the United States government and the President is confronting this threat is difficult work. And I think the American people understand what a significant challenge this is, but I think everything else being equal, they’d prefer that the President and the United States didn’t have to worry about ISIL. But the fact is, we do. And the fact is that the President is very focused on these national security threats, and that’s why we have implemented the strategy that we have. And this is not something that -- this is not work that’s done in a way that reflects polling; it’s work that’s done in a way that reflects the core national security interests of the United States.
Q I want to go on to another topic -- Katrina. Ten years. In a couple months we will mark 10 years since the levies broke in New Orleans. And I understand that the Housing Secretary is going down there and working down there. Is the President expected to go to New Orleans in August around the anniversary of Katrina?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that, April, at this point, but when we have some scheduling updates for the last week in August we’ll let you know.
Q And what, if anything, can you tell us that the administration has been working on? Because when President Obama came into the administration, there were two cities that he was really looking at in a different way -- Detroit and New Orleans. And then New Orleans started coming back on its own and so did Detroit to a certain extent, and they kind of fell into the same pot of other cities, other American cities. What can you say just months out, been 10 years, how this administration is viewing New Orleans after Katrina?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll say a couple things about this. The first is that one of the things that the President did when he took office was to appoint Craig Fugate to run FEMA. And the confidence of the American people was shaken in our government’s ability to respond to significant emergency disaster situations. And because of the professionalism and experience of somebody like Craig Fugate, I think that confidence has been restored. The President made that a priority. And having had the opportunity to travel with the President when he has visited some communities across the country that have been wracked by a natural disaster, the citizens of those communities appreciate the commitments of their government to help them rebuild and recover and come back stronger than ever.
And that’s a testament to the effective work of somebody like Craig Fugate and all the men and women at FEMA that work for him. It also is a testament, ultimately, to the state and local officials who are responsible for responding to these situations; that FEMA is typically there to support state and local officials who have the lead in the response to these efforts, and the President made that a priority when he came into office. And for all the talk about the efforts to prevent a second Great Depression and for the President to pursue our national security interests around the globe, there hasn’t been as much talk about how effectively that particular agency has rehabilitated not just its image but their operations in a way that has profoundly affected the lives of thousands if not millions of Americans.
As it relates to New Orleans more specifically, I’m confident we’ll have a lot more to say about this in August as the anniversary gets closer. But I can tell you that the President and his team have spent a lot of time working with officials in New Orleans to help that city recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; that we have seen housing officials, officials from the Department of Labor and others talk about the work that the administration is doing in that community to help them continue to recover -- again, not just from the flood of Katrina from 10 years ago, but also from the economic downturn five years ago. And one thing that we know from the data is that those individuals who were the most vulnerable in 2007 and 2008 were the individuals who were hit hardest by the great recession. And that means individuals in New Orleans that were recovering from this terrible natural disaster were hit by the great recession probably at the worst possible time.
But it’s, first off, a testament to the grit and determination of the people of New Orleans to rebuild that city and to rebuild their economy and to rebuild so many of those communities that are rich in history and in character, to put it mildly. But it also is an indication of the kind of resilience that we see in communities all across the country. And there is a broader American story to tell about the renaissance that we’re seeing in New Orleans. And whether or not the President travels to that community or not in the last week in August, I expect you’ll hear more from the President about this as the anniversary gets closer.
Q Josh, candidates on both sides of the aisle are talking about the concern that they have that there is a national crisis with heroin, prescription drug deaths, addiction, et cetera, and talking about what they would do or what they’d like to formulate as policy if they were President. The President still has the job for 18 months. Is the President persuaded, after listening to this commentary coming out of primary states, that there is more that this administration could do to tackle heroin, prescription drug deaths, or mental health issues?
MR. EARNEST: This is a growing challenge in many communities across the country. And I know that the ONDCP, under the acclaimed leadership of Mr. Botticelli, has done a lot of important work in this area. And I think what I should do is have somebody follow up with you with some more specifics about what the administration has done to address this growing problem, and what more we propose to do to try to head it off.
I feel confident in predicting that this is not a problem that will be solved in the next 18 months, but I do think the President would like to see additional progress be made in this really important fight.
Q And one other question to follow up on ISIL. Does the President believe that there are consequences for President Assad and his regime if, in effect, they’re assisting ISIL in Syria right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alexis, we have seen some of those news reports suggesting that there may have in some locations in Syria -- not all of them, but in some locations in Syria -- that government forces may be acting in a way that’s actually benefitting the ISIL forces.
We also see reports that there are some other areas in Syria where Assad government forces are taking strikes against ISIL forces. So it’s a very murky picture right now. But that’s indicative of the broader situation that we see inside Syria -- that, frankly, it’s because of the failed leadership of the Assad regime that they have -- that extremists have been able to make inroads in that country.
And that’s why it continues to be the policy of the United States that President Assad should step aside and allow for a political transition in that country so that they can have leadership in that country that reflects the views and ambitions of the Syrian people.
That’s the only way that we’re going to put an end to the violence inside that country. And that’s obviously going to be a long road, even if Assad were to surprisingly announce today that he is leaving. That would be a rather long road to rebuilding a country that’s been wracked by so much violence. But an announcement like that from President Assad would be obviously a very good start.
Q Josh, I was at a security event this morning, and a gentlemen who works with the FBI and other agencies said, look, I think we’ve always been one step behind tracking the bad guys. I now feel like we’re two, maybe three, steps behind the bad guys, just to play off Jon’s comment about the FBI being more in the dark than ever before. Tell me how national security is actually enhanced given the comments like these?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see the comments and I didn’t see who said them. But I will just say as a general matter, it sounds like somebody was weighing in in a discussion about some of the challenges that our law enforcement professionals face as they try to keep us safe.
And there is no doubt that there are significant challenges in that effort. And that’s why there is a lot of frustration on the part of the administration, that there were simple steps that Congress could take but didn’t that would have ensured that they have all the tools available to them as they try to keep us safe. We’re pleased to see that, even belatedly, that the Senate did act and that many of those authorities have been restored in a reformed way.
But this is a difficult challenge. The President is mindful of this challenge. The President’s budget priorities reflect how significant a challenge this is. And it’s something that he devotes significant time to every single day.
Q The question again is, is national security enhanced or not? It’s a yes or no question.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s hard for me to evaluate that without seeing what the comments were and seeing who said them and in what context they were presented.
Q But I just told you the comments. The comments were, the FBI said, we’re more in the dark than ever before.
MR. EARNEST: You don’t have to get hostile about it.
Q I'm not hostile about it.
MR. EARNEST: We can just have a discussion.
Q But the FBI counterintelligence guy said we’re more in the dark than ever before. That does not suggest that we’re safer.
MR. EARNEST: I think it reflects the challenges that are faced by greater encryption technology that’s been developed that is allowing some extremists to try to evade detection by law enforcement authorities. And this does pose a significant challenge. And this is a challenge that the President discussed in the news conference that he convened with Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House earlier this year.
And the President continues to be aware of this threat, and he also continues to be mindful of the fact that additional work needs to be done to confront it. And he continues to be confident that even the tech companies that are sort of standing at the forefront of trying to protect the civil liberties of the American people and their customers would not want to be in a position in which their technology is being deployed to aid and abet somebody who’s planning to carry out an act of violence.
So there is an opportunity for us to try to resolve this very difficult challenge.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to follow up on Julie’s question on the trade vote. You said you don’t have a vote count to give us, but I want to take that back a step. Do you have a vote count? And I ask that because there have been some reports from the Hill from both sides of the aisle that they don’t have vote counts from the other side. And there’s been very little information sharing, even backchannel. So curious if you guys feel confident in the transparency you have right now on how that vote might go.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that we do continue to be confident in the kind of working relationship that the administration maintains with Leader Pelosi on the Democratic side. Obviously most of our efforts are targeted on trying to persuade Democratic House members to support this particular piece of legislation. And there have been a number of conversations between the President and individual Democrats in the House. There have also been conversations between the President and Leader Pelosi on this issue.
And, yes, we do continue to have a lot of confidence in the effectiveness of that relationship. But I would also point out that the White House, and even the President, has been in touch with Republicans in the House on this issue. Speaker Boehner has indicated that he strongly supports this legislation. We know that Chairman Ryan is also playing a leading role in building support among House Republicans in that effort.
And despite our many political differences, and despite the many challenges that we’ve had in working with leading House Republicans on other issues, I do think I can confidently say that we have been pleased with the effective communication between the White House and leading House Republicans on this issue too.
And I think it is an example of the kind of progress that we can make when we’re focused on those areas where we agree. There are many more areas where we disagree. And our ability to coordinate in this area doesn’t change that, but it does highlight the potential that exists when we focus on working cooperatively in finding common ground.
Now, I don’t want to leave -- again, have those comments leave you with the impression that we’ve got this all sewed up; there’s a lot more work to be done on this. But I continue to be, and I think I feel confident in telling you that we continue to be satisfied with the degree of cooperation and communication that we’ve received with both Democratic and Republican House leaders on this issue.
Q One also from the Pentagon. There was a report out, I think this morning, that stated that Iran is still found to be developing ballistic technologies. Obviously with the deadline approaching at the end of the month on the nuclear agreement details, that’s a concern because those technologies could be used to carry a nuclear warhead, theoretically. Is that report something that you think will pose a challenge for getting that deal done like the President wants to do?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the details of the report. I’ll just observe a couple of things. One thing that we have indicated would need to be resolved in the context of these discussions are the outstanding questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. We do continue to be concerned about that. There are many unanswered questions. And we would expect that those questions would be answered in the context of a final agreement if one can be reached by the end of June.
That said, we have also been just as forthright about the fact that even if we are able to successfully complete negotiations at the end of June, it will not answer all of the questions that we have about Iran’s questionable behavior in that region of the world. And that includes some components of their military program.
And we’ve been pretty blunt about that fact. And that’s why you’ve heard me disagree when some have described this as a rapprochement with Iran. This would not be that. But it would be a way for us to diplomatically prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q I understand the Serbian Prime Minister is here, and I thought it was at the request or the invitation of the Vice President, who I believe is not here. Who is he meeting with?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that because the Vice President is not here today for obvious reasons, that the serving Prime Minister did have the opportunity to meet with Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. And we will have some more details about those conversations for you later today.
Q Is there any specific one topic? Or is it -- this was a --
MR. EARNEST: I think they discussed a range of issues, but we’ll see if we can get you some more detail about that meeting before the end of the day.
Q And no meeting with the President?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I -- I don’t believe the President dropped by that meeting, no.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to take you back to trade for just a moment. Earlier today, more than a dozen Democrats came on camera and expressed their displeasure with the idea of TPA. And since it -- at least it seems to me to be a little bit of Democratic friendly fire, what does that say about the President’s relationship with the party that so many, and especially so many top Democrats, are so forcefully against TPA?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think it illustrates something that we all know, which is that many Democrats in Congress are opposed to trade legislation, and they are opposed reflexively because of the impact of previous trade agreements. The case that the President has made with some success is that this kind of trade agreement is one that includes for the first time enforceable labor standards, enforceable environmental standards, and human rights standards that are written into the agreement that will level the playing field and have a positive impact on the American economy and on the economic opportunity that's available to middle-class families across the country.
That is a persuasive argument. I don't expect, however, that it will persuade every single Democrat to support it. But we did see that when the President was given the opportunity to make this argument to members of the Senate, that we got about a third of Senate Democrats to vote for this bill. And we're going to make a similar case in the House. I don't know that we're going to get up to that one-third level, but it is an indication that when we make the argument that there is ample reason for progressives in Congress to support the bill.
Q One big name that has yet to come out in support of it is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- former Secretary of State. Would it matter either way, yay or nay, if she came out in support of TPA or TPP to the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she doesn’t have a vote in Congress, and it's those votes in Congress that we're counting right now. And so that's why the focus of our efforts is on members of the United States House of Representatives, principally Democrats, but there are conversations that we're having with Republicans as well.
Q Would it matter at all? Would he care?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, she’ll have to make her own decision in terms of what she wants to say about this publicly.
Q Lastly, let me ask you about WikiLeaks wanting to crowdsource about a $100,000 to have people release details of TPP. Are you aware of that report? And what reaction does the White House have?
MR. EARNEST: Our reaction is just simply that there is no TPP agreement right now; we're working to finalize one. And when we have one, it will be made public, and the American public will have the opportunity to review the agreement and to speak their mind about it for two months prior to the President’s signature. And even after the President signs it, there will be a robust public debate in the United States Congress about the wisdom of this approach and the wisdom of entering into this agreement. The President continues to be confident that if we're able to reach an agreement it will be consistent with the trade promotion authority legislation that has already passed the Senate and hopefully will soon pass the House.
But there will be ample opportunity for the American public to look at the details of these agreements and to make up their own mind, frankly, about what impact they would have on the American economy.
Q Thanks, Josh. We've seen reports that the White House is reviewing its ISIS strategy. Any updates on when we might hear from the President about any changes or updates to it?
MR. EARNEST: No. And I would remind you that the way that we have described this policymaking process is simply that the President challenges his national security team to continually be refining that strategy, to looking at areas where we've made progress, to extract some lessons learned that can be applied to those areas where we're experiencing some setback. And that’s part of an ongoing, robust policymaking process.
And so I wouldn't expect any major presidential announcements on this in the near future, but I think you can expect that the President will continue to engage in regular discussions with his national security team about how we can continue to refine the strategy and continue to build on the momentum where we're seeing progress and shore up our efforts where we're seeing some setback.
Q On the Iran negotiations, does the White House have a plan in place for dealing with all the various parties that have concerns about a final agreement? There are concerns from the Gulf State allies, Israel, many in Congress. What’s the White House plan for approaching this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think that you’ve seen a lot of that plan already; that just in the last few weeks, the President and his team have engaged with Democrats and Republicans in the Congress about the merits of the political agreement that was already reached back in the first week in April. You’ve seen the President convene a summit with Gulf leaders at Camp David just last month, where they had a discussion of a wide range of security issues in that region of the world, including the efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I would expect that those kinds of conversations with Gulf leaders will continue even if not in person.
And the President I think has been pretty forthright about his efforts to communicate with those who are most concerned about Israel’s security about how he believes the security interests of Israel can be best served by using diplomacy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And this is a case that we have been engaged in making for quite some time, and I would anticipate that we'll have the opportunity to do it again if we're able to reach an agreement in the last month of June.
Q One more quick question. I know you talked broadly about FOIA yesterday, but in a hearing on the Hill, Rep Chaffetz said it was a White House memo that requires White House counsel review of all FOIA related to the White House that’s responsible for it being federal backlog in FOIA. Does the White House agree with that? And why is the counsel reviewing FOIA? This wasn’t a policy that was in place in previous administrations.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s interesting that you say that. I actually do have a quote from a memo that was put forward by Stephen Markman, September 1st, 1988. We had to dig way deep into the archives to come up with that one. It said, “Records originating with or involving the White House Office should be forwarded to the Office of the Counsel to the President for any recommendations or comments it may wish to make prior to your final response to the requester.” Stephen Markman was a senior Justice official in the Reagan administration.
January of 1992, a gentleman named Steven Schlesinger, who was a senior Department of Justice official in the Bush administration, said that, “Records originating with or involving the White House Office should be forwarded to the Office of the Counsel to the President for any recommendations or comments it may wish to make prior to your final response to the requester.”
This is an indication that this policy has been in place at least as it relates to two recent presidential Republican -- two recent Republican presidents. And so I would make the case to you that the memo that has been frequently cited on Capitol Hill in the last couple of days is entirely consistent with the policy that was in place under President Reagan and under the first President Bush.
And at the same time, the suggestion that this memo has -- or this policy has created an undue backlog I don’t think is reflected in the facts. The fact is the administration has processed just last year 647,000 FOIA requests. And the fact that 91 percent of those requests did result in the release of some or all of the requested information, that is an indication of this administration’s commitment to responding in full, as often as possible, to FOIA requests.
I also recognize that there is a tendency on the part of those who submit FOIA requests to focus on the 9 percent that didn’t get satisfactory responses, and that’s the job of those individuals. But their criticisms do not reflect the evidence -- the accumulated evidence about our commitment to the FOIA process.
David Jackson, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Getting back to free trade, it’s not just the economic aspects of this; there’s a political. As you know, the unions and some other groups are threatening Democratic members, or threatening to oppose them or withhold their money if they vote for a fast track authority. Is the President talking to members about that and promising some political help on this vote?
MR. EARNEST: The President has made very clear, both in public and in private, a willingness to stand with Democrats who stand with him on the trade argument. And considering the President’s status among Democratic voters across the country -- I read one recent poll that indicated the President was the most popular and influential and well-liked figure in Democratic politics right now.
So having somebody with the President’s heft on your side I think is a significant political benefit. And that is a promise that the President has made to Democrats who are willing to support the most progressive trade legislation that the Senate has ever passed. And I think that that should give all Democrats the confidence to vote their conscience when it comes to this issue.
Q How big a threat is this -- are all these political threats that are going around?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s not something that keeps me up at night, but of course my name is not on the ballot. And I think those who are concerned about it I think do take a lot of solace in knowing that they can count on the support of President Barack Obama in a Democratic primary if they need it.
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