Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/4/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: It’s nice to see you all this afternoon. Before I get to your questions, I do want to acknowledge one member of our staff, Bernadette Meehan. Today is her last day at the White House. She’s been serving at the National Security Council for three years -- about the last year, in her current role. And I think many of you have all had the same kinds of observations that I have, which is that she is passionate about her work here but also extremely diligent and responsive.
And as I had the opportunity to convey to Bernadette in a more private setting, we are going to miss her not just because of her skill and talent and experience and knowledge, but also because of the way that she does her job. She’s extraordinarily courteous and professional and collegial. And we’re going to miss her, but we wish her very well in her future endeavors. And her future employers are going to be very lucky to have her. (Applause.)
So, Bernadette, we wish you well.
MS. MEEHAN: Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Jim.
Q Thanks, Josh.
Our best to you.
MS. MEEHAN: Thank you very much.
Q Who’s taking her place?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have news on that soon.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask about trade. Speaker Pelosi just recently said that the pro-trade forces shouldn’t count on more Democrats coming onboard than the about 18 who have declared themselves publicly, and urged Speaker Boehner to come up with the remaining 200 votes. Does the President agree with that assessment? And is he pretty much stuck at that number? And why can’t he get more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about that. The first is, there is no one who is a better, more effective and more accurate vote counter on Capitol Hill than Nancy Pelosi. So I would have no reason to disagree with her assessment. That said, the President is also a pretty determined advocate for the most progressive trade legislation that’s ever moved through the Senate and he believes that there is ample reason why Democrats in the House should vote for it. And he will continue to make the case that they should, primarily because of the likelihood that it would expand economic opportunity for middle-class families. And that is, after all, the President’s top domestic priority.
The other thing that I would say about this -- and this goes more directly to Mrs. Pelosi’s comments -- Speaker Boehner, shortly after the election, indicated that advancing trade legislation was one of the top items on his domestic policy agenda. And he, working closely with other Republicans, worked hard in the last election successfully, to their credit, to expand their majority in the House of Representatives. And we would expect that he would use that substantial majority to mobilize substantial support for the items that are high on his agenda.
And I think as the Speaker indicated in his news conference earlier today, he had an opportunity to speak to the President about this specific issue just yesterday, and that is an indication that Democrats and Republicans may be able to seize on some common ground here, advocate within their parties for legislation that both the President and the Speaker of the House believe would be clearly in the best interest of the U.S. economy.
So our strategy moving forward will be to continue to make the case to members of Congress on the merits of this issue. And we’ll see what happens.
Q There’s talk of this vote coming up as early as next week. Does the President have any qualms about it being that soon? Does he feel that the votes need to be secured -- more Democratic votes be secured before that vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it will be the responsibility of the Speaker to determine when the vote should take place. And I’m confident that whether that vote takes place next week or the week after, the President will aggressively advocate for the passage of this bill right up until the vote occurs. And I assume the Speaker of the House will do the same thing.
And again, we feel very good about the merits of this argument -- that this legislation would write in enforceable labor and environmental standards, provisions that have not previously been included in a trade legislation; that it would have an impact in raising standards related to human rights among the member nations who are taking part in this agreement, and that there are ample reasons why progressive Democrats would support it.
We saw about a third of the Democrats in the Senate support this legislation, and I don’t think we’ll get a percentage that’s that high in the House, but it is an indication that there are ample reasons for Democrats to support this bill.
Q That gets to another question. In 2002, the last time that there was a successful vote on TPA, there were 22 -- 21 or 22 Democrats in the House who voted in favor of it and there was a Republican President at the White House. Why is it so difficult for this President to even achieve that number this time around? Have the dynamics of trade changed so much that it’s more difficult for a Democrat?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Jim, what the President has acknowledged is that there is in the Democratic Party, reflexive opposition to trade legislation, that many Democrats do look back on recent trade agreements that have been negotiated with some concern about the impact that that has had on some segments of the economy.
That’s precisely why the President has sought to learn the lessons from those previous agreements. And many Democrats point to NAFTA as evidence that trade policies do not benefit American workers, and the President, I think, made a pretty persuasive case in the NPR interview that he did yesterday that the agreement that he’s negotiating with these other Asia Pacific countries, including Mexico and Canada, would write in enforceable labor standards, would write in enforceable environmental standards, would include important human rights protections, would include greater protections for intellectual property. And these kinds of agreements structured in that way would start to put upward pressure on other countries to come into -- come closer at least to the standards that are enforced in this country in a way that will emphasize, underscore the kinds of opportunities that are unique here in the United States.
Here in the United States we have the most dedicated and educated workforce in the world. We have the most aggressive and ambitious entrepreneurs and innovators. We’ve got tremendous infrastructure in this country -- infrastructure that would benefit from some modernization, but still, infrastructure that does support a thriving economy. We’ve also got a business climate that makes the United States the envy of the world. The President often cites the statistic about when global investors are asked which country they’re most interested in investing in, the United States is now at the top of that list.
So the case that the President makes is that if we leave the rules where they are today we’re going to continue to leave in place a system that Democrats complained have disadvantaged American workers. That’s precisely why the President wants to go back and change those rules in a way that will start to make the United States even more competitive when it comes to competing for business in the international community -- particularly in the Asia Pacific, which is the most economically dynamic region of the world.
Q Lastly, one of the things that Leader Pelosi said was that the TAA component, trade assistance component, of the legislation, is a non-starter because it’s paid for with Medicare savings. That’s an issue that a lot of Republicans don’t want to vote for either. Does that complicate the equation for you guys?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously what we have been focused on is making sure that the size of the trade adjustment assistance legislation is sufficient. And the President believes that a lot of the assistance that’s included in that bill goes toward things like job training and investments in our workforce that are going to be critical not just to the success of middle-class families and workers all across the country, but will benefit our broader economy.
There are always debates in Congress among Democrats and Republicans about the best way to pay for things. And approaching these challenges in a fiscally responsible way is something that the President has made a priority. But that’s always the subject of extensive debate and discussion and occasionally brinksmanship in the United States Congress. So hopefully that brinksmanship won’t occur in this situation, but that we can resolve those differences and pass trade adjustment assistance that certainly the President and the vast majority of Democrats believe would be good for our economy.
Q How confident is the President that Speaker Boehner is going to be able to deliver those 200 or so votes? Was Speaker Boehner able to give the President any assurance during that call? And can you give us any color on that call at all?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more details from their conversation to share at this point. But I think what should be clear by now is that this is an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives to do something that the President has frequently challenged them to do, which is to not allow the difference of opinion over one issue to become a deal breaker for all the others.
And the fact is there are many areas where we disagree, but the President and some Democrats in the House of Representatives agree with the vast majority of Republicans that the Trade Promotion Authority -- that legislation that’s passed the Senate is in the best interest of the U.S. economy. And hopefully Democrats and Republicans will be able to work together to pass it.
Q So how worried is the President, though, that Speaker Boehner is not going to be able to corral his caucus to deliver that sort of support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve been candid that it will be politically challenging to advance this legislation through the House. But we’re confident that because this is a -- that because Speaker Boehner himself has indicated that this is a top priority of his -- I think it should be obvious to all of you that this is a top priority of the President’s -- and that we’ve got to -- but we’ve got our work cut out for us. And both the Speaker and the President believe that it's worthy of the time and investment to try to get this legislation across the finish line. And the President has already devoted significant time to getting that done, and as I mentioned to Jim, he’ll do that right up until the deadline of the vote.
Q And Senator Shelby today, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said that he won’t take up the reauthorization bill for Ex-Im, and he said he’ll decide in a week or so whether to go ahead with the reform plan or craft a reform plan of his own. But I'm wondering whether the White House has accepted now that authorization for Ex-Im is going to lapse, and what contingency plans are in place for Ex-Im?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly have not accepted that. We’ve frequently made the vigorous case that the Ex-Im Bank has important benefits for the U.S. economy and for workers all across the country. And there seems to be widespread bipartisan agreement about that, even if -- Chairman Shelby’s comments notwithstanding. So we’ll continue to make that case, and we’re hopeful that the economic benefits associated with the Ex-Im Bank will continue.
Q But are contingency plans being crafted in case that doesn’t happen?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any. There may be some people who are talking about that. But our focus continues to be on securing legislation and reauthorizing the Bank in advance of the deadline.
Q And you just mentioned that the President is going to aggressively advocate for this, and you stated the position on how this would be different than past agreements many times. But when you look at the tactics on the other side of the argument -- the extreme pressure on Democrats, petitions with millions of signatures and things like that -- I mean, these campaigns that labor has put out -- do you feel like there’s really any going up against moves like that? And how do you try to counter that kind of pressure?
MR. EARNEST: We successfully countered that pressure in the United States Senate. As I mentioned, we got about a third of Democrats in the United States Senate to consider this legislation absent any sort of political motivation and to evaluate whether or not this bill would be good for the economy.
And again, that means overcoming the reflexive opposition of a lot of Democrats. But it also means focusing on the challenge that the United States Congress has before them.
The President has talked about this quite a bit -- more broadly about the economy -- when it comes to the Congress actually taking steps that will lay a foundation that will allow the private sector to grow and thrive and benefit middle-class families all across the country. And again, right now the rules -- if you listen to Democrats, what they say is, if you look at the way the rules are written now, they put some American workers at a disadvantage and it has laid a path for some companies to ship their operations overseas. And the President basically has adopted an approach that says let’s go change those rules then. Let’s give businesses a reason and an incentive to come back to investing in America.
We already know that we’ve got the most dedicated workers; we’ve got the most ambitious innovators; we’ve got a great business climate here that’s the envy of the world; we’ve got the best colleges and universities; we’ve got terrific job-training programs; we’ve got, as I mentioned, an infrastructure that could benefit from some updating, but already does support a very dynamic economy. So those the kinds of advantages that we want to capitalize on. And the President believes that advancing trade legislation is one important way for us to do that. That’s certainly the case that we’ve made to not just Democrats, but to Republicans as well. And we continue to believe in the power of that argument.
Q But will his approach, or will his actions be any different? Now that it's coming right down to it, and you're saying that he’s going to aggressively advocate -- is that going to be something different than he’s doing, or do you feel like this whole time he’s been aggressively advocating? Especially going up against that kind of pressure.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we went up against that kind of pressure in the United States Senate and we succeeded in getting about a third of Democrats to support this legislation and we succeeded in getting 62 members of the Senate to vote for final passage -- as I recall. Is that right?
Q I think so.
MR. EARNEST: More than 60, at least. It's an indication that we have a persuasive argument. And the President has traveled across the country talking about this issue. The President has talked to reporters from across the country. Just yesterday, he hosted five local television reporters here at the White House in which he conducted rather detailed, policy-centered interviews with them to talk about the impact that trade legislation would have in their communities. The President had a conversation with Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace that aired last night, again, making this similar case.
So the President is also convening telephone calls and meetings with members of Congress. So I do think that you could make a case that the President has been aggressive about this both in public and in private, making the case to the American public, to members of Congress. And that's something that will continue right up to the day of the House vote.
Q Okay. We just heard on the White House call going into the G7 that the President is at some point going to advocate for more sanctions against Russia. And I feel like some form of this question comes up all the time, but now that we've heard that -- I mean, the sanctions -- we know, we keep hearing about the effect that it's been having on the Russian economy, but it still hasn’t changed Putin’s behavior. So, clearly, he’s not feeling enough pressure by his tanking economy to do anything different in regards to Ukraine. So more sanctions -- I mean, what makes you think that that possibility is going to change anything now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I'll say that I was getting ready for the briefing, so I didn’t listen to the entire call. I got a readout of the call. My understanding is that the plan is for the President, when he goes to Europe, is to have a discussion with fellow European leaders about the need to extend the sanctions regime that's currently in place that I believe expires sometime at the end of this month.
And there are a number of steps involved in that process, and this will be part of the conversation -- frankly, a wide-ranging discussion that the President will have with his G7 counterparts.
As it relates to Ukraine, we've acknowledged something that you’ve just observed, which is that the economic pressure that's been applied to Russia has not yet resulted in President Putin changing his strategic calculus inside of Ukraine. We continue to see the Russian military violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We continue to see the movement of materiel and personnel across the Ukrainian border in support of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.
So we have extensive concerns about Iran’s -- about Russia’s failure to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the Minsk agreement. And the fact is -- and this also happens to be true that the longer that the sanctions are in place, the more of an economic bite they take out of the Russian economy and the more pressure is applied to President Putin and the more President Putin and the country that he leads becomes isolated.
But, yes, I would acknowledge that we have not yet seen the kind of change in behavior that we have long sought now.
Q When we talk about Putin and the positions that the U.S. is taking vis-à-vis Ukraine, et cetera, might it be time to actually engage Putin, to ask in some ways for his support? He’s very close to Assad in Syria, and he’s got his own issues with ISIL at the border in Chechnya, the individuals there, who would just relish in the fact that they could permeate his border and cause as much grief there as well.
MR. EARNEST: Well, J.C., I’ll remind you that the Secretary of State was just in Russia last month, where he had an opportunity to meet both with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well as with President Putin. And again, I do think that goes to the rather complicated relationship that we have with Russia at this point, that we have been able to work effectively with Russia in the context of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, for example. We have been able to leverage their support for those negotiations in a way that has isolated Iran, compelled them to come to the negotiating table and has created a diplomatic opening that we’re trying to seize here to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And Russia has legitimately, to their credit, been a good partner in that regard.
But when it comes to Ukraine, we have significant concerns about their behavior and the way that they have pretty recklessly escalated the situation in that neighboring country. And we’ve been blunt about conveying those concerns to President Putin, both in public, as I think I am now, but also in the private conversations that the President and Secretary Kerry have had with him over the last year, year and a half.
Q But the ISIL threat, that’s something else. Again, there’s an interest that he has in a coordinated effort perhaps to help defeat that --
MR. EARNEST: Sure. And I know that President Putin has said publicly that he’s concerned about the threat of extremism in that region of the world, and we’re mindful of that. And again, it’s an indication that there are some areas where we’re able to work effectively with the Russians to advance the security interests of the United States and to advance the broader cause of stability around the globe. But at the same time, there have been situations where Russians have contributed to exactly the kind of instability that we’re trying to snuff out.
So we’re pretty blunt about those areas where we agree and where we don’t. And that will not prevent us from continuing to deepen our cooperation where we can, but also continuing to raise significant objections and concerns where we need to.
Q Just to follow up on the trade. If Nancy Pelosi is right and the Republicans really need to deliver 200 votes -- you’ve got the 17 Democrats. By my count, that’s about 9 percent of the Democratic caucus has been convinced by what you have said is a very persuasive argument from the President. I mean, less than 10 percent of Democrats are willing to listen to something that the President’s been talking about for a long time, forcefully saying it’s important, a top priority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I think it’s too early to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the argument. We can evaluate this after Democrats and Republicans in the House have had an opportunity to vote on it. And remember, our goal here is to, not alone, build a lot of Democratic support for this bill; our goal here is to build sufficient bipartisan support for this bill that it will pass the House of Representatives. And that's the effort that we're engaged in right now.
Q Does that mean you're trying to persuade more Republicans? Do you think you’ll have more luck there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we believe that there’s a strong case to make to Republicans. Even people who may not agree with us on a pretty wide range of issues, I do think that there is a reason to think that there are some Republicans -- a lot of Republicans -- who could get on board with this piece of legislation, too, in terms of the impact that it would have on the economy in the United States. So we're not hesitating to make that case either. But our efforts have principally been focused on Democrats.
Q Do you think President Obama, if he were still Senator Obama, if he were still in Congress, would he be supporting this?
MR. EARNEST: I do feel confident that if the President were in Congress that this is something that he would support. And again, the reason is that this is the most progressive piece of trade legislation that the Congress has considered and because of the enforceable labor standards, the enforceable environmental standards, the human rights protections that are included, the intellectual property protections that are included -- and because of the challenge that's facing our economy right now that if you acknowledge the legitimate concerns that many Democrats on Capitol Hill have raised about the impact that previous trade agreements have had on our economy and on middle-class families, the logical conclusion is that the way that the rules are currently working are not oriented to maximize the benefits for our economy and for middle-class families.
So the President is making the case that we should change them, and change them in a way that will benefit our economy and that will benefit middle-class families. That's exactly what we're pursuing.
Q But I ask because you see the situation differently from the Oval Office than you do from Congress. I mean, we saw Bill Clinton’s position on trade became -- evolve as he became President and he pursued NAFTA. President Obama is very strongly for this agreement now. Do you see it differently when you're looking at it as kind of a national priority versus a -- when you're a person in Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that -- you did raise one interesting question -- there was some coverage at one point during the primary campaign about the President’s promise essentially to renegotiate NAFTA. And the fact is that both Mexico and Canada are part of this agreement, and this agreement would actually raise the labor and environmental standards beyond what they currently are as codified in NAFTA to a higher standard. And I actually think that's the President following through on a promise that he did make, I guess it was seven years ago now.
So I do think that the President’s view of this has been pretty consistent. I think I would concede that it's not particularly surprising that members of Congress who have a smaller constituency might have a different view than the President of the United States, who essentially has a national constituency. I think that might lead some people to draw some different conclusions.
But what I think is also true is that there is ample reason for Democrats and progressives and those who share the President’s values when it comes to looking out for middle-class families -- for them to support this legislation for exactly the same reasons that he does.
Q And just one last thing. You probably saw we had another presidential announcement yesterday in Lincoln Chafee. One of his platforms is to go to the metric system. (Laughter.) I was wondering if the White House has a position on moving the United States to the metric system.
MR. EARNEST: I have not heard any careful consideration of that policy, but maybe the debate that former Governor Chafee will inject into the American political system will prompt a more careful look at that kind of policy change.
Q So you're not ruling it out? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’m not ruling out consideration of the debate that Governor Chafee apparently believes would be critical to the success of our country moving forward.
Q All right. Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Laura.
Q Thank you. FIFA.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, one of your favorite topics these days.
Q Very important topic. Do you think in your fight in the United States against the corruption, FIFA will be a topic during the G7?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if it will come up at the G7. I suspect that there are a lot of soccer fans who will be attending the G7 -- even at the highest levels. I don't know how much discussion there will be. Obviously, the President has confidence in the career prosecutors who have taken a careful look at this issue and are conducting the ongoing investigation. So I think even in those private conversations there’s probably not a whole lot that the President will have to say. But again, given the high concentration of soccer fans that will be in attendance in the meetings, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came up.
Q According to The Washington Post yesterday, more than 1,000 migrants died in Qatar, building a stadium for the soccer games in 2022. Did you follow that? And does the White House have any reaction regarding the Qatar involvement and the possibility of being part of the investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to get into some of the details of the investigation because it’s ongoing, and I don't want to be perceived as inappropriately influencing that ongoing investigation. So I’d reserve comment on that.
Q But are you concerned by the Qatar name coming back all the times in this investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s an ongoing investigation, and I have confidence that our federal prosecutors will do their due diligence in terms of trying to learn more as they carry out their investigation.
Q Thanks, Josh. A budget question. Just this week the OMB Director sent more letters to Capitol Hill saying the spending bills are inadequate, don't fund enough. But if you ask appropriators, they say sequestration is still the law, it’s all we can do. At what point do budget negotiations have to start to eliminate the sequester?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're in favor of those conversations starting sooner rather than later. The President has made clear that he’s not going to sign a budget -- or he’s not going to sign legislation that adheres to those sequester levels. Those kinds of across-the-board cuts in government spending have had a negative impact on our economy, and the President won’t be supportive of legislation that extends that policy.
What the President will, however, be supportive of is a process that members of Congress engaged in a couple of years ago where Democrats and Republicans sat down at the negotiating table and were able to work in bipartisan fashion to raise those caps in a way that raised funding both for our national security priorities, but also for priorities that are critical to the success of our economy. The President would be very supportive of a process like that taking place this time around, too.
That necessarily would have to be a process that's led by members of Congress. Democrats and Republicans would both have to be involved. Obviously, if anything is going to pass through the Congress it’s going to require bipartisan support because of the need to reach a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
But as the administration was last time, members of the President’s economic team would play an active role in trying to facilitate that kind of agreement being reached. And we’re hopeful that Congress would pursue a similar approach this time. I know that Speaker Boehner himself has indicated at least an openness to that kind of process this year. But we’ll have to see if that’s how members of Congress decide that they’re ready to handle their business.
Q Do you see any sign of that starting, or is it going to take like a crisis here to --
MR. EARNEST: Well, hopefully, it won’t. But I’m not aware that those kinds of conversations have begun. But I’m probably a bad source for that. Members of Congress or even some of my chatty colleagues on Capitol Hill might be able to give you a better sense of that.
Q You mentioned the interviews yesterday with the local stations, as well as Marketplace. And one of the things that the President said, and I think he’s probably said this before, is that some jobs will be lost in some sectors of the economy. So do you understand why members of Congress who represent areas that feel like they were hurt or even decimated by NAFTA are not open to the arguments? What can he say to them to convince them that this time it will be different?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what he would say to them is that, first of all, those who were affected negatively by NAFTA can support an effort to try to rewrite the NAFTA agreement in a way that raises standards, that would put upward pressure on the labor and environmental standards that are being adopted by Mexico and Canada, but also 10 other countries in the Asia Pacific region. That precisely what the President believes is the best and most effective way for us to advocate for the future of our economy and middle-class families.
The President I think was also pretty clear about why he believed that trade adjustment assistance legislation was so important, so that if there are individuals or businesses or communities that are perceived to have a negative consequence from an agreement like this, that those workers can get the kind of skills and training that they need to benefit from the upside, from the enormous opportunity that’s created by this.
I think the other thing that the President -- the other point that the President made that should not get lost in this debate is that globalization and technology innovation have had a much more profound impact on the changing economy and the changing workplace than these kinds of trade agreements have. And in fact, these kinds of trade agreements are a way for us to try to alleviate the negative impact of those broader trends that in some cases have had a negative impact on local economies or on individual businesses.
And so if we’re actually thinking about what we want the future of our economy and the future of our workforce to look like, withdrawing from the global economy is not an option -- at least it’s not a constructive one -- that we’re going to be better off if we engage in the international economy. And if we open up opportunities for American businesses to do business overseas, we have to recognize that 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders. And if we can put American businesses in a more advantageous position to compete for those customers, then American workers are going to win.
And the President is committed to making sure that our workers have the skills and training that they need to get those good jobs to support those businesses, and to benefit from the economic opportunity that exists out there.
Q Take you back some months to a topic we haven’t talked about in a long time, but the U.S. District Court in D.C. today released the sentencing memorandum for Omar Gonzalez, as he’s known, the White House fence jumper. I wonder if you can tell us if the President has been kept up to date on the prosecution or any other aspect of this case.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that he’s gotten standalone briefings on this. But this is an issue that has obtained -- or has received a lot of news coverage, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if the President is aware of the most recent details.
Q And I know I’ve asked you this before, but it’s some months -- the incident happened in September; it’s now June. There is no permanent fix yet -- at least visibly around the White House. Is that okay?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is supportive of the reforms that Director Clancy has put in place over the last several months, and there are steps that have been taken -- both some security measures have been taken, some of which are visible and some of which aren’t, as you pointed out. But the President continues to have full confidence not just in Director Clancy, but in the professionalism of the men and women in the Secret Service who take very seriously their responsibility to put in place reforms that will bolster the security at the White House complex, but also ensure that the men and women of that agency are living up the very high standards that they’ve established for themselves.
Q Well, let me ask you specifically about the fence because it’s not obvious -- just a physical barrier, but it sends a psychological message, as well, to people that we're serious about it. How long is too long to get that fence fixed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple of things, Chris. There is one security measure that is obvious to anybody who walks along Pennsylvania Avenue that there has been essentially a buffer established around some parts of the fence line north of the White House. And that has proved to be helpful in deterring individuals who might be unwisely contemplating scaling the fence at the North Lawn of the White House. So there are some security measures that have been put in place that do seem to have had an impact. But the fact is --
Q You're saying it absolutely has been helpful? You know that unequivocally that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, I think that there have been public reports about individuals who have been detained who have tried to go over that fence, but weren’t able to get over the other one. And I know those are breeches that receive a lot of attention from all of you, and understandably so.
But, look, the fact is that there are a whole range of reforms, some of which involve advanced training for security officers; some of which involve security measures that are not readily visible. And the President continues to have confidence in the professionalism and effort that our men and women in the Secret Service put in to keeping the White House and the First Family safe.
Q In that NPR interview, the President said China has put out feelers about joining either the Trans-Pacific Partnership or maybe the Trans-Pacific Partnership evolving to include China. What did he mean by that? And how should members of Congress and the general public interpret that as consideration draws near on TPA and its successor, which is TPP?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that both Secretary Lew and Ambassador Froman have talked about a little bit. China is not involved in the current TPP negotiations. There are 12 other Asia Pacific countries, but China is not one of them. What we have made clear --
Q -- not become one?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they are not part of the current negotiations and they will not be a part of the current negotiations. What we have made clear, though, is if we can reach a TPP agreement that other countries in the region who are interested in joining, that we would be willing to have those discussions, but those discussions would be predicated on a commitment from those countries to meeting the high standards that everybody else who has entered in the agreement lives up to.
And I think that is the critical part of this argument, which is that if China is willing to, at some point down the line, meet the very high labor standards -- frankly, compared to what are currently in place in China -- if they're willing to abide by the enforceable environmental standards, if they're willing to abide by the human rights protections that are included in the agreement, if they are willing to adopt the pretty strict intellectual property rules that will be written into this agreement and all of the other enforceable provisions of the agreement, then members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have conversations with China about this.
But the fact is China is not currently part of the agreement. It is hard to imagine China being able to make all of those changes in the short term. But if reaching this agreement does have the effect of China reorienting their policy in this direction, that would, of course, be good for the U.S. economy and, frankly, is part of a broader reorientation that the President would like to see, which is starting to level the playing field to open up access to overseas markets for American businesses and allowing those American businesses to compete on a more level playing field with businesses in Asia.
Right now that level playing field doesn't exist. And over the long term if we want to ensure the vibrancy of the U.S. economy, one of the things that we need to do is to make sure that American businesses have the opportunity to compete overseas.
Q And just so I make sure I understand -- you're asserting that TPA and TPP would constitute a full-blown renegotiation of NAFTA, as Senator Obama promised in the Ohio primary?
MR. EARNEST: It would constitute addressing -- successfully -- so many of the concerns that Democrats have raised about the impact of NAFTA on the U.S. economy. And that's what the President was talking about in the context of the campaign, was acknowledging that there were some communities who did not benefit from NAFTA. In fact, they actually suffered some negative consequences as a result of that trade agreement. And to try to address those concerns and to try to address those impact, the President believes that we should raise labor standards, raise environmental standards, and do some of the other things that are included in TPP, as well as offer additional trade adjustment assistance to make sure that those workers who may not benefit right away from the trade agreement can get the skills and training that they need to seize the opportunity that's created by this very agreement.
Q As you are probably aware, there was a rather lively exchange at the State Department yesterday over Iran’s nuclear stockpile and its presumed eventual violation of the Joint Plan of Action. And it was the State Department spokesperson’s point of view that this is essentially a nonissue. As you're probably aware, that's not the way it’s viewed by members of Congress in the Senate or the House. Just to start this conversation, give us the explanation, if you can, why Iran’s nuclear stockpile and where it is now and where it’s likely to be does not violate the Joint Plan of Action and should be of no concern to those who want to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first thing I would say is that the IAEA, in their report -- nowhere in their report does it say that this is a violation of the Joint Plan of Action.
The second thing is, we have seen the kind of fluctuation in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium even in previous agreements. And the reason we’ve seen that fluctuation is because Iran does continue to produce low-enriched uranium consistent with the Joint Plan of Action. The requirements of the interim agreement, however, are that they abide by the cap by the end of the agreement. And so what we’re monitoring is to make sure that they abide by this cap that’s established for June 30th. Previous iterations of the agreement they have met. There’s been a similar fluctuation and by the end of the agreement --
Q On average.
MR. EARNEST: No, not on average. By the end date --
Q By the end date.
MR. EARNEST: They have to be at the cap. And so that’s how we’ll evaluate their continued compliance with the Joint Plan of Action.
The third thing I would point out is that the only reason we’re having this conversation is because we now have a lot of insight into Iran’s nuclear program, and that is a direct consequence of the Joint Plan of Action, that Iran has submitted to extensive monitoring of their nuclear activities. And that’s why we are able to assess, with such great precision, exactly what their stockpile looks like.
The last thing I’ll say is that if we’re able to reach a final agreement by June 30th, we’ve been clear that the final agreement would dramatically reduce even further Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium. So right now, the cap is at 7,650 kilograms. The final agreement would envision Iran reducing their stockpile to just 300 kilograms. And that is why I think a lot of people were surprised -- pleasantly so -- when the political agreement was announced that Iran would reduce their low-enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent. And this is exactly what we’re talking about.
Q Which raises some practical concerns. Would it reach that level? And does any of this past behavior suggest either unwillingness to, or a technological inability to achieve that in compliance with the agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the first part is getting a political agreement. And that is actually what was reached. That is what Iran committed to in the context of those political talks in early April. Now, there are obviously a lot of details associated with meeting this standard and that’s what’s being --
Q I mean, they can agree to anything. And then it's up to the IAEA and others to, A, detect whether they have, and even if they haven’t, say, well, we’re working on it, and yet the sanctions are lifted, and they’re about their merry way.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A couple of things. One is, we have the foremost nuclear security expert in the world taking active part in those negotiations -- that’s the Secretary of Energy, Ernie Moniz. So he has a lot of technical knowledge about how exactly Iran can meet the commitments that they make. We’ll obviously have neutral international observers at the IAEA who will also be part of the most intrusive inspections measures that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program to verify their compliance with the agreement.
And to be clear, we would expect them to meet this 7,650 kilogram level by June 30th for their low-enriched uranium, and then over a period of time, they would have to meet the 300 kilogram cap. And the process by which they start to live up to those commitments, if an agreement is reached, and the way in which sanctions relief is offered is something that is still under negotiation.
But the President has been very clear that the kind of sanctions relief that the Iranians would like to see is not something that we’re going to offer until we start seeing a firm and clear commitment from the Iranians that they’re going to live up to their commitments.
Q And just to be clear, you’re talking about U.S. sanctions. Other sanctions could be lifted as they try to move from this 7,650 kilogram to the lower mark, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do know that our P5+1 partners have similarly strong feelings about ensuring that Iran lives up to the commitments that they make in the context of a final agreement.
Q Okay. Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, Major.
Q Thank you, Josh. I’d like to ask you about comments made by General David Petraeus in an interview with Charlie Rose. He said --
Q Where was that?
Q Imagine that -- on CBS.
Q Okay. (Laughter.)
Q He asked them if we were winning in Iraq and the General said, “Well, these are fights where if you’re not winning you’re probably losing because time is not on your side.” Does the White House agree with the General that we’re probably losing?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the way that we have described the situation is that there are areas where we’ve made important progress and areas where we’ve experienced some significant setbacks. I think General Petraeus knows more about this than either you or I do, that this is a typical characteristic of any sort of military conflict. And there’s no denying that taking a leading ISIL figure off the battlefield in Syria -- as we did a couple of weeks ago -- represents important progress. There’s no doubt that over the last several months as Iraqi security forces have prevented -- essentially reduced ISILs footprint by 25 percent, that that represents important progress.
But what’s also true is that ISIL being able to take over the entire city of Ramadi represents a setback and one that we are working with the Iraqis to try to address. But again, I think that is typical of the kind of military conflict in which the United States and our 62 coalition partners are currently engaged.
Q I want to ask you about criticism from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responding to some of the comments made by the General. She said, “Well, I’ve been there several times and I can remember him and others saying that they trained 175,000 Iraqis to be able to just pick up the fight themselves. You should ask the General about that. Perhaps they didn’t train as many as they suggested.” Is that a fair criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see those specific comments. Obviously part of the strategy that we’re currently pursuing inside of Iraq, again, alongside our coalition partners, is to bolster the capability and capacity of the Iraqi security forces so that they can take the fight on the ground against ISIL in Iraq.
And that is a core component of our strategy and one that we are aggressively pursuing. It is a strategy that has borne some fruit, that there are some areas inside of Iraq where coalition-trained Iraqi security forces have succeeded in taking back important strategic objectives from ISIL. But there are obviously more fighters that we would like to train, some of whom are part of the Iraqi security forces, some of them are local tribal fighters. We would expect all of them to operate under the command-and-control of the Iraqi central government. And when backed by coalition military airpower, we are optimistic about the kind of success they can have against ISIL fighters.
Q The New York Times in an editorial suggested that transgender soldiers, servicemembers, should be able to serve openly. Does the White House have a position on that?
MR. EARNEST: We don’t.
Q You do not.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. EARNEST: Not right now, Chris.
Go ahead, Kevin.
Q And just one more -- as it relates to -- medical marijuana is an issue; in particular out West, that is a very hot-button issue. Does the White House believe that medicinal marijuana is a good idea? Legalization -- is that a good idea as well?
MR. EARNEST: The President has spoken about this publicly quite a few times and he does not support the legalization of marijuana.
Q Josh, The New York Times (inaudible) the new Snowden documents out that claim you guys expanded the warrantless surveillance program to cover possible hacking, malicious computer hacking. Did you guys do that? And what’s your reaction to this story?
MR. EARNEST: David, I’m obviously not in a position to talk in a lot of detail about any sort of covert government programs that may or may not exist. What I can tell you is that the Director of National Intelligence has been clear that the United States is facing a cyber threat that’s increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact. And there are a variety of tools that our national security and law enforcement professionals rely on to keep us safe.
One of those tools is Section 702 of FISA. And Section 702 does provide authority to target non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States in order to acquire foreign intelligence information under court oversight.
And so that is a tool that our national security professionals have found to be valuable in protecting the country from a variety of threats, particularly cyber threats. And this administration remains committed to being vigilant about the ever-evolving threat that we face in cyberspace. And the President spends a lot of time talking to his national security team about it.
Q Are you saying if there is warrantless surveillance of computer activity, foreign computer activity, that that’s covered? That’s legal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what I’d refer you specifically here is Section 702 of the FISA law. And Section 702 provides authority to target non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States, and it does require court oversight.
So, again, when we’ve talked about some of the most valuable tools that we have in protecting the country from a variety of threats, including cyber threats, 702 is one of them. And 702 is an authority that is targeted against non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States, and done under the supervision of a judge.
Q I don’t think we asked you about this yesterday, but I don’t think there was an on-the-record response from the White House and I wanted to ask you about a Senate hearing yesterday regarding inspectors general where -- there are a couple of facts. At the end of June, seven inspector general positions in the administration have been vacant -- or will have been vacant for a year, and also that it takes 613 days to fill a vacancy in this administration. And I know there had been some stories prior about when Secretary Clinton was at the State Department there was actually no top inspector general the entire time she was there. So I just wondered if you could respond to the hearing.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see any of the news accounts of the hearing. So I'll see if we can get you some more details on this. I know that as it relates to the inspector general’s office at the State Department, even while there was not a person in the top job there, the office was rather prolific in issuing reports holding accountable officials at the State Department.
Q And we asked you all -- not me, but one of my colleagues yesterday and didn’t get anything. So if you could respond, follow up.
MR. EARNEST: We'll see if we can collect some more information for you.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple of questions on Iran. The Supreme Leader said today that it's impossible to trust the U.S. and other “arrogant powers,” in his words. He’s also said that they won't allow inspections of military sites, and that sanctions must be lifted all at once. How does the White House interpret his latest comments? Do you think he’s trying to halt negotiations? And has the President had any communication, correspondence with the Supreme Leader since the framework agreement was reached in April?
MR. EARNEST: Just to take your last question first, we have acknowledged previous correspondence between the President and the Supreme Leader, but we don't do that regularly. So I don't have anything new to share on that front.
On your second question, I think it is a fair assessment that the negotiations would not have proceeded as far as they have without at least the willingness on the part of the Supreme Leader to keep an open mind about the possibility of resolving this dispute diplomatically. And so what we will continue to evaluate are the discussions at the negotiating table and the actions that Iran takes when it comes to complying with the Joint Action Plan. And these are actions that we can verify through the IAEA.
And again, if the Supreme Leader were somehow of the mind that complying or cooperating with the P5+1 in the context of these negotiations or of the agreements that have already been reached that the Iranian bureaucracy would not. Instead what we have seen is we have seen that Iran has lived up to the commitments that they made in the Joint Plan of Action, and we have seen a willingness on the part of Iranian negotiators to engage in serious talks about resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program and eventually preventing them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
As it relates to his demands about sanctions relief and the inspections of military facilities, we've been very clear that the political agreement that was reached the first week in April was an agreement in which Iran did commit to cooperating with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. I would acknowledge that there are additional details about those inspections that need to be worked out. And we have been very clear -- and this is true both in public and in private, I would point out -- that the United States is not prepared to offer sanctions relief until we see a genuine commitment from the Iranians to living up to the terms of whatever agreement is ultimately reached, if one can be reached by the end of June.
That's been our position, and it's not going to change. And it is a change -- or it is a position that is central to the agreement.
If the Iranians adopt a position that says they will not be part of any agreement that doesn’t start with sanctions relief, then that’s something that the United States will not sign on to. The President has made that very clear, that we need to see sustained commitment from the Iranians to living up to the terms of the agreement before sanctions relief is offered. And we will also need to see verification by the international community that Iran is continuing to do that. And all of that will be written into the agreement.
The thing that I will say is that there is great interest on the part of Iran in escaping the economic sanctions that have been put in place. It’s put significant pressure on their domestic economy. And that’s what has compelled them to the negotiating table, and that’s why we are hopeful that we’ll be able to reach an agreement that would, through diplomacy, prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q And one other question. One of Iran’s negotiators said today that they won’t allow inspections of military sites but they would agree to permit what they’re calling “controlled access” of nuclear facilities. Is “controlled access” something the President is open to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are things -- these are details -- and you’re raising legitimate questions. These are exactly the kinds of details that are being discussed around the negotiating table by the Iranians and the United States and our P5+1 partners.
And so I won’t be able to discuss our negotiating position from here other than to say that an agreement will not go forward unless Iran commits to cooperating with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
Q I have one question on trade and then a couple on the OPEC meeting happening tomorrow. On trade, when you’ve been asked about how successful or how valuable the President’s strategy has been, you’ve mentioned the Senate 62-37 vote, and it seems like that hasn’t really translated over to the House because that wasn’t happening in a vacuum. The House members were hearing those same arguments, but it seems like it hasn’t really convinced a lot of them. So I was wondering how --
MR. EARNEST: I think I would just say it’s too early to reach that conclusion because the House hasn’t voted yet. But we’ll make our case right up until the minute that the House decides to start casting votes. And like I told Jon, at that point we can have a discussion evaluating the strategy that the White House has put forward.
I’ll just point out that our goal here is predicated on building a bipartisan majority to pass this trade legislation, and we’re going to do that with as many Democrats as we can get. But the definition of enough Democrats is enough to build the bipartisan majority that we seek for this bill.
Q And it sounds like there’s no plan to change the strategy at all or to increase what you've done in the Senate given the fact that a number of House Democrats have, as Jon said, maybe 80, 90 percent have said that they're not in favor of this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’ll be able to evaluate those tallies at the end. But the President has made a very aggressive case both in public and in private. He’s spoken to a number of reporters. He’s traveled across the country. He’s hosted private meetings and had private conversations with individual members of Congress, with small groups of members of Congress, even what could be described as rather large groups of members of Congress. So the President has put forward a pretty aggressive case. It yielded a favorable outcome in the United States Senate, and we're optimistic that it will yield a bipartisan majority in the House.
Q And on OPEC, the OPEC group is going to meet tomorrow in Vienna. The meeting comes just a couple of weeks before the Iran deadline. Iran is already sort of saying that they can be prepared for about a million additional barrels of oil if the sanctions are removed. I’m wondering if that issue is coming into the negotiations, whether or not the issue of oil is something that you all are -- whether or not it has become a sticking point in the negotiations.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I can't give you a whole lot of new insight into the details of the ongoing negotiations. I do think that that public position, public policy position that Iran has taken, is indicative of something that I was trying to convey to Colleen, which is that the Iranian leadership is feeling the economic pressure of the sanctions. And having the ability to sell more of their oil on the international market to raise additional revenue is something that they are keenly interested in.
And that pressure has compelled them to come to the negotiating table and to participate in those talks in a serious way. And we're hopeful that it will ultimately lead to a diplomatic resolution or a diplomatic agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q One more. The Census Bureau said yesterday that the U.S. exported almost 600,000 barrels of crude in April. That's a record. I’m wondering if that increase bears any weight on the decision of whether to change the U.S. position on the crude export ban, and whether or not you have an update on where that stands.
MR. EARNEST: I don't. It’s the Department of Commerce, though, that may be able to give you a sense of whether any kind of change is in the works.
Q Several prominent Sunni tribes in Anbar pledged allegiance to ISIL today. First, what is your reaction to that? How big of a setback is that? And is the U.S. government doing anything actively to try and get them to switch allegiance back to the Iraqi government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Patty, what we have indicated is that it’s critically important for the central government in Iraq to govern that country in a multi-sectarian, inclusive fashion. Prime Minister Abadi has a difficult task. He needs to unite his diverse country to confront the threat from ISIL. And there is nothing more that ISIL would like to do than to try to cause that country to start to fracture along sectarian lines. And that's why we have been pleased that Prime Minister Abadi has gone to great lengths to try to keep that diverse country together. And that has been true as he’s governed the country. It’s been true as he’s led the Iraqi security forces.
I would point out one thing that I have observed and discussed here is that there is strong support among the Anbar Provincial Council-- made up almost entirely of Sunnis, I would assume -- for the military strategy that Prime Minister Abadi has put in place to try to drive ISIL out of Anbar. We are having some success in recruiting local tribal fighters to be trained and equipped, and to fight for their communities and their families under the command and control of the Iraqi central government and Iraqi security forces. Those are all positive signs, and they reflect the commitment on the part of Prime Minister Abadi to building and mobilizing a multi-sectarian response to the ISIL threat in his country.
But obviously we're aware and he’s aware of the effort that ISIL is undertaking to try to recruit Iraqi Sunnis to their side. But it’s also why Prime Minister Abadi has rather conspicuously tried to demonstrate a commitment to a multi-sectarian government and a multi-sectarian security force to protect the country.
Q These tribes are saying they just don't believe him and that he hasn’t done enough. So is there more he could do to try and regain their loyalty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there’s ample evidence to indicate that he is doing a lot to demonstrate his commitment to this multi-sectarian principle. And the United States and our coalition partners are entirely supportive of his efforts to do exactly that.
Q Thanks, Josh. Yesterday, you expressed confidence -- the administration has confidence that you’ll win in King v. Burwell. In the event that doesn't happen, does the White House, does the President, does Congress have an obligation to try to help these states -- many of them with Republican leadership in the governor’s office, in legislatures -- who have actively chosen not to have an exchange? What is the job of Congress and the President were that to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Shirish, we have a lot of confidence in the strength of the legal arguments that Solicitor General Don Verilli presented to the Supreme Court in the context of the Halbig/King case.
Unfortunately, over the last five or six years, we have not seen much willingness on the part of Republicans in Congress to act constructively when it comes to health care reform. Instead what we have seen is that Republicans have voted more than four dozen times to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
And the other fact is that an adverse ruling in the Supreme Court would have the effect of throwing the health insurance market all across the country into chaos. And there is no indication that Republicans in Congress are willing to do anything constructive to address that. And we’ve been pretty forthright about the fact that there is no straightforward, easy, administrative solution to address this problem promptly.
So that's why we take a lot of solace in knowing that there is a lot of power behind the legal argument that we’ve made. It’s a legal argument that many lower courts have found persuasive. And we're hopeful, maybe even optimistic, that the Supreme Court will, as well. But ultimately it will be up to the nine justices to reach that conclusion.
Q But if they don't, is there anything that the -- I mean, I understand ultimately the states have to choose to want to buy into this, have to choose to either set up an exchange or something. Can the administration make it very, very easy for them to do that, by making it incredibly simple to set up an exchange the way Oregon and I guess Maryland did after theirs didn't work?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously this is a policy question you're asking that's extraordinarily complicated. And in some situations the complicated nature of this policy has been on full public display. So for the technical question you're asking, I think I’d refer you to HHS.
As a general matter, what our professionals have said -- those who are steeped in the details of the health law and who are aware of the legal arguments that underpin this policy -- that there is no simple, straightforward administrative fix that would solve a problem resulting from an adverse Supreme Court decision that would have a prompt impact in trying to correct that damage.
And again, that's why we take solace in the knowledge that we’ve got a persuasive, powerful legal argument to make; one that has convinced -- or persuaded many federal judges at lower levels of the wisdom of our position. That's a case that was fortunately made at the Supreme Court by the Solicitor General.
But again, ultimately it will be up to the nine justices of the Supreme Court to decide.
Charlie, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Texas Governor Rick Perry just announced a run for the President. And he said, “No decision has done more harm than the President’s withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.” Does the White House have a response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Charlie, as you know, we’ve refrained from sort of getting to a back and forth with presidential candidates, particularly on their announcement day. (Laughter.) Based on my own experience, that candidates understandably believe that the best way for them to win attention in a crowded primary field is to find a colorful way to criticize and in some cases even insult the incumbent President in the other party. So that's them doing their job. But today I’m going to do mine and not respond.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
1:50 P.M. EDT