Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/11/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I do not have any announcements to make at the top, Jim, so we can go straight to questions, if you’d like to start.
Q Thank you, Josh. I’d like to ask you about trade. You said that it’s an ugly process but it can yield a good result. I’m wondering if you still think that today.
MR. EARNEST: Hope springs eternal.
Q This Medicare offset in the trade adjustment assistance component of the bill seems to be a major sticking point that Boehner and Ryan have attempted to fix, that Leader Pelosi today said that had been fixed. However, that still seems to be a sticking point. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez sent a letter today supporting that TAA package. Does the President that Democrats simply don’t want to vote for, even temporarily, for something that would cut Medicare? Or does he think they want to use this to keep that fast track for a period?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’d refer you to those congressional Democrats to determine their motive. But there are two things that I think are worth clarifying. And the first is, as a strictly legislative procedural matter, it’s my understanding that the vote is structured in such a way that anyone who supports -- who essentially votes for the trade adjustment assistance package on the floor of the House, when it comes up for a vote tomorrow, will not have to vote for that Medicare offset. Based on the way that they’ve structured it, there’s a -- you guys know more about this than I do -- but there is a rule that has been put in place that, if passed, would prevent any member of Congress -- and I think it’s Democrats who are most concerned about this -- from having to vote for the Medicare offset.
And I think that is what led Leader Pelosi to conclude that this particular concern that she has raised had been effectively addressed. And this goes to something that I described yesterday, which is this is the kind of bipartisan effort that typically does yield success in the House. And this is an effort from Democrats and Republicans to sit down at the table, try to identify common ground, address mutual concerns, and try to move forward. And so that’s why, as I mentioned earlier, hope does continue to spring eternal.
Now, there’s a second piece to this that’s also really important for people to understand, and this has gotten lost in the debate a little bit. Trade adjustment assistance -- the trade adjustment assistance program that currently exists is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. I’m confident that the Speaker of the House, if he hasn’t said so already, would be happy to tell you that if trade adjustment assistance doesn’t pass this week, it’s very unlikely to pass before the end of the year. And what that means is it means that if you’re a member of Congress and you vote against trade adjustment assistance this week, you are adding your name to the death certificate of trade adjustment assistance -- because it will go away. And that is a source of significant concern to the President and, I know, many other Democrats on Capitol Hill, because we know how critically important trade adjustment assistance is to middle-class families all across the country.
This is a program that, over its life, has served 2.2 million American workers. And the good news, Jim, is that this is not just an extension of the already existing program; it represents a significant expansion. It nearly doubles the cap of money that’s allowed to be spent on these programs. It makes a large number of American workers eligible once again for trade adjustment assistance, including more than 17,000 workers who’d previously had their application denied over the last 18 months. They can now have their application reconsidered for eligibility.
So there are a lot of reasons for Democrats and Republicans to support trade adjustment assistance when it’s on the floor at the end of the week.
Q Now, even as Leader Pelosi said that she thought that the Medicare issue had been fixed, she still also raised the concern regarding public employees not being included in the TAA. And I’m wondering, are Democrats moving the goal post here? Is that a potential problem for you guys?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have indicated is that the last TAA bill that I referred to earlier -- the one that passed in 2011 -- was supported unanimously by Democrats. And it didn’t include eligibility, specific eligibility for public sector workers. And there were no significant concerns that were raised at that time.
So the fact is, this piece of legislation is consistent with that, and it would significantly expand those workers who are eligible. It would expand eligibility to those workers that may have been affected by trade with non-FTA countries, like India or China. And again, according to the statistics from the Department of Labor, that would affect up to 30,000 American workers. And the fact is that when public sector workers were eligible between 2009 and 2011, do you know how many public sector workers actually were certified as eligible to apply for trade adjustment assistance benefits? Zero. None. Not a single one.
So that is why -- again, when you consider the opportunity that exists for the United States Congress to pass legislation that would make up to 30,000 workers, who were affected by trade with non-FTA countries, eligible for trade adjustment assistance, and another 17,000 workers who have previously been denied over the last 18 months, and would have the opportunity to have their application reconsidered. The expansion of this trade adjustment assistance that’s included in this bill far outweighs any concerns about the inclusion of public sector workers, principally because when public sector workers were included in the legislation, none of them were deemed eligible.
Q So this issue that Ms. Pelosi is raising is a false argument?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I wouldn’t say that. What I would say is we have a very strong case to make about why Democrats and Republicans should be able to act in bipartisan fashion to make sure that trade adjustment assistance doesn’t expire. And, in fact, they can actually be a part of making sure that these important benefits are expanding.
Q Can you tell us a little bit about what the President has been doing today? His conversation with the Speaker and the advocacy that Denis McDonough, Tom Perez and Secretary Lew are making on the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I think you’ve about covered it. (Laughter.) The fact is, everybody from the President on down, including many members of his team here at the White House and his economic team across the administration, are making an aggressive case to members of Congress about why they should support this trade package that is scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives over the next couple of days.
And the President did have an opportunity to call Speaker Boehner today. I don't have details of that conversation to share with you. They talked about this particular issue. And again, I think it is indicative of the kind of bipartisan cooperation that we know is ultimately successful to passing meaningful legislation in the House of Representatives. And this is the kind of template that we have long sought and we have long encouraged Republicans who are in the majority to engage in. And we're pleased to do our part.
Again, it doesn't mean that a perfect piece of legislation is going to pass. But it does mean that Democrats and Republicans should be able to seize common ground to advance values that they share. And in this case, we're talking about trying to expand economic opportunity for everybody American. And that should be an area where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground.
In the past, we often haven’t been able to, but here’s a prime opportunity for us to do it entirely consistent with the kinds of progressive values that the President has championed throughout his time here at the White House.
Q I want to ask about the Senate. And I’m wondering, does the White House support Senator Burr’s cyber information-sharing bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the details of the particular bill. The President put forward his own legislative language at the beginning of this year that we believe would make it easier for the federal government to effectively respond to intrusions when they occur. It also will allow both government and private sector websites -- or private sector servers to better protect their networks from cyber intrusions. And that's why we have pretty aggressively advocated congressional passage of that legislative language.
It shouldn’t be controversial. It certainly isn’t partisan in nature. But it’s technical enough that it would make sure that federal authorities have what they need to try to protect not just government computer networks but also taking steps that would help the private sector protect their networks from cyber intrusions, as well.
Q So Senator Burr and some other Republicans are trying to move some cyber information-sharing legislation. And there’s been a suggestion that it be attached to the NDAA. What does the White House make of that approach?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we take a pretty dim view of that approach, to be blunt about it. The fact is we want the Senate to pass cybersecurity legislation, not play games with it.
And the suggestion that they're going to attach it to a piece of legislation that the President has already indicated he opposed is an indication that they're interested -- more interested in playing politics than they are in actually making sure that we have all the tools we need to protect the American people from cyber hacks, either emanating inside the United States or, more commonly, abroad.
Q But the White House -- correct me if I’m wrong -- but the White House seems to regularly issue veto threats for the NDAA. But when it comes down to it, the President signs these large defense spending bills, authorization bills. So how serious is the White House this time around about this veto threat for the NDAA?
MR. EARNEST: Very serious. And I would -- we're obviously talking about some weighty policy matters when we're talking about the National Defense Authorization Act. And the President has in the past expressed serious concerns with some of the things that members of Congress have sought to add to this legislation.
But the concerns that the President has are serious. And we have seen so far in the House that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives to sustain a presidential veto. And I think that's an indication that the President’s veto threat should be taken quite seriously.
Q Josh, on the Hill today, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine testified that chaos and friction within the Obama administration between the FBI and the DOD led to a failure to gain the release of at least five civilian hostages, including Warren Weinstein and an American, Caitlin Coleman, and the child she gave birth to in captivity of the Taliban. His direct quote was, “Our nation lacks an organization that can synchronize the efforts of all our government agencies to get our hostages home.” Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what I would say, first of all, is that the President has talked extensively about the great lengths that the U.S. government has gone to try to secure the safe return of American hostages being held overseas. The President has on a number of occasions ordered special operators to go into dangerous places, including into Syria, to try to secure the release of U.S. hostages. The President has also ordered similar raids in Yemen.
And I think that is an indication that the President is willing to take some big risks. And our men and women in uniform are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to try to secure the safe return of American hostages. I think that is a pretty clear demonstration of this President and this administration’s and this country’s commitment to securing the release of American hostages.
Now, what I will also say is that I can’t talk about individual cases from up here, either of previous -- I'm not going to talk about any individual cases. But what the President has acknowledged, and what his team is diligently working on, is a review of the process that the administration carries out for handling these cases and communicating with the families of those who are being held hostage.
And there are a number of proposals that have been circulated. I would anticipate that we would have some more details soon as it relates to some policy changes that we believe would make our government even more effective in leveraging all of our assets to try to secure the return of American hostages.
Q But it does sound as though you’re not disagreeing that there are some problems about communication between the FBI, the DOD, when these things happen.
MR. EARNEST: I think what we have acknowledged is that there are some reforms that we could put in place that would better integrate the elements of the federal government that are working so hard to secure the release of American hostages.
Q On another subject, if I could. ABC News has been reporting that the administration, according to one person -- a U.S. official -- are familiar with the OPM hack. Says the hack itself is far deeper and far more problematic than administration officials have been admitting. That there is, in fact, an effort by the White House to tell other agencies not to release full information to reporters about the extent of this hack. Is this hack more deep and more wide than what the administration has told us?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, what I can tell you is that the precise scope of this particular intrusion is one that continues to be under investigation by the FBI and other technical experts that have the knowledge necessary to try to figure out what exactly has occurred.
And I think we have been clear since this news broke that this is a matter that we take very seriously. And we do -- we are concerned that this could -- again, based on an early review of what’s transpired, could potentially have affected more than 4 million federal employees.
We’ve also been blunt about the fact that we know that the Office of Personnel Management maintains sensitive data and sensitive information about federal employees. Again, the precise scope of how much and what type of data has been exfiltrated is something that, again, continues to be investigated by the FBI and other technical experts. But we have already begun the process of contacting those that we thus far believe could potentially have been affected in a serious way. And if additional notifications are necessary, that’s something that we will -- that responsibility is one that we take seriously. As additional notifications are necessary, we’ll make them.
Q But do we have the whole story now about what the White House does know? Or are you holding back information about the extent of this hack? In fact, we’re being told that it’s much more than 4 million people.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the thing that we have been clear about is that there are certain elements of the investigation that we are reluctant to talk about publicly because the disclosure of some pieces of information could inhibit the ongoing investigation. And that’s been true -- that’s limited our ability to talk about other cyber intrusions when they’ve occurred. So this is a hallmark of these kinds of investigations.
Frankly, I think it’s a hallmark of a lot of criminal investigations that even don’t involve crimes committed in cyberspace. But what is also true is there’s also a reluctance to talk in a lot of detail while the investigation is ongoing. And I certainly wouldn’t want to say something that would be contradicted by our investigators once they’ve obtained additional information.
So I think we certainly are being cautious in terms of what information we are communicating, but we have also been pretty direct about living up to our commitment to make sure that we’re communicating directly with those that need to be notified about a potential breach of their sensitive data.
And this is walking a fine line; I would acknowledge that as well. But if there’s an opportunity for us to share additional information about this ongoing investigation in the future, then we will try to do that given the limitations that I’ve just described.
Q Josh, thanks. We learned today that General Dempsey told reporters that the administration is open to opening up more bases in Iraq. Is that the President’s thinking -- is that consistent with the President’s thinking? And are there any immediate or specific plans to do that beyond what we learned yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: There are no immediate or specific plans to do that. As my colleagues in the Pentagon will tell you, that they devote significant time and energy and resources to contingency planning. And the President relies on his military advisors in particular to spend a lot of time thinking ahead about what could lie ahead in the future. But as I mentioned earlier, there is no immediate plan to do this.
What I will say, though, is that if a kind of recommendation like this did come from the President’s national security team and from his military advisors in particular, it would be a recommendation that is made -- it would be a recommendation that reflects that the ongoing training efforts have been useful. That the reason that we would consider expanding the training operation, and the advise-and-assist operation that’s underway, would be because it’s been an effective element of our strategy.
Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it would require the additional deployment of American military personnel.
Q But it could include the deployment of American military personnel.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but it might not. So again, this is all very hypothetical. But it might not. This is all very hypothetical because this is not a recommendation that the President’s military advisors have offered. And so we’ll have to see.
Q The point speaks to a concern -- and we talked about this yesterday among two of the President’s Democratic colleagues -- that we are seeing increasingly more troops, more U.S. forces going to Iraq. Representative Charlie Rangel said -- and I’m quoting him -- “This is exactly how Vietnam started.” Your response to that broader concern that this is, in fact, mission creep?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, as I think I tried to point out, if a decision were made to open an additional facility to offer training and advice and assistance to fighters fighting under the command and control of the Iraqi central government, that would be a very clear indication that previous efforts -- or currently ongoing efforts to do that -- have been useful. And it would -- rather than being evidence of mission creep, it would be evidence of some progress in the ongoing mission to support the Iraqis as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country.
What also is undeniable are the numbers. You’ll recall that when the President took office in 2009, there were about 150,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq in a combat role. The current situation is that there are about 3,500 U.S. military personnel in Iraq not in a combat role -- in a variety of roles that includes military advisors, force protection, intelligence officers, those who are staffing joint operations centers, and others.
Q Isn’t that, to some extent, semantics to say that they’re not in a combat role? I mean, again --
MR. EARNEST: It’s not.
Q Charlie Rangel says, if you don’t think you’re putting them in harm’s way, you’re not living in the real world. And they are going into a very dangerous situation.
MR. EARNEST: It is very clear what the President has asked them to do and what their commanders have asked them to do. And the President does not, and has not, put currently deployed military personnel in Iraq to go and directly engage the ISIL enemy. They are there to support the Iraqi people to do for them what they must do for themselves -- or to support them in what they must do for themselves. And that is to support Iraqis, who are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government, as they take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country.
The United States and our coalition partners have deployed military personnel to support them in that effort. And that means, in some cases, doing training; in some cases offering advice and assistance; in some cases providing military equipment; in some cases staffing a joint operations center. But ultimately, this will be the responsibility of the Iraqi people, and it's something that they must do for themselves.
Q And just to close the loop, Josh. Is there any timeline by which the President will sit down and decide whether or not to open up another base?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Kristen, the President will be relying on the advice of his national security team, including senior members of the Pentagon. And this is not something that they have recommended, and I think that’s something that even General Dempsey said. So I think it's important to understand the context in which General Dempsey made those comments and to understand the role that he has, which is to spend a lot of time thinking ahead and doing contingency planning. And I think that's pretty clear from the comments that he shared today.
Q Just one on the trade deal, Josh. There is some concern among lawmakers that the trade deal could impact, could in some ways threaten food safety. Is the President confident that that won't happen? Can he assure Americans that that won't happen?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. He can assure Americans that that will not happen. Principally -- there are a variety of reasons. I know that The Washington Post has taken a look at this and has been pretty harshly critical of the arguments that have been made by some who’ve raised this concern because it just didn’t stand up to any scrutiny.
The fact of the matter is the reason that we engage in these kinds of trade agreements is because we want to raise standards. And that's exactly what this trade agreement would do, even when it comes to food safety.
Q Thanks, Josh. My favorite subject -- today on Capitol Hill, Speaker Boehner was asked about the spending bills and the possibility of budget negotiations. And he again said he was open to that, but said the White House needs to go first, needs to initiate those. Would you be open to doing that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, as you know, in the wisdom of our forefathers, it meant that they wrote the Constitution of the United States to give the power of the purse to the United States Congress. It means that Congress, individuals who decide to run for Congress are signing up for the responsibility of doing what I would acknowledge is difficult work, which is making very difficult, critically important decisions about our priorities, and about how the resources of the American people are properly used to advance the interest of our country and all of our citizens.
And what we have been clear about is that Congress identified a pretty effective process for resolving differences and trying to come to agreement on some of these difficult issues when Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Paul Ryan sat down at the negotiating table and hammered out an agreement. And they did that to build a bipartisan agreement that both Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress could support.
And the White House was, of course, involved in that process. We were aware of what was going on. We, in some cases, offered some technical assistance about helping them understand what impact certain budgetary decisions would have. But ultimately, this is something that Congress must resolve.
What I will also say, though, is that the President put forward a budget. The President has actually been very clear about what direction he thinks that we should go. It's a common-sense, fiscally responsible plan that puts the interests of middle-class families first, and makes expanding economic opportunity for every American the top priority.
So we believe that there’s a clear template for how this can get resolved. We have been clear, and we've demonstrated a willingness to play a supportive role in those conversations. And the President has actually put forward already, months ago, a specific template for the direction that he believes those conversations should go. Now it's time for Congress to step up and do their job. Hopefully they will.
Q A couple for you, Josh. You said that everybody from the President on down is making calls on trade. Does that include the Vice President?
MR. EARNEST: I would check with the Vice President’s office about that. I don't know whether or not he’s making calls today.
Q And in your back and forth with Kristen, you suggested that this hypothetical future opening of other facilities in Iraq would be a sign of progress. Did I hear that correctly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the point that I’m trying to make, Olivier, I think what I described is -- I described it as useful. And the reason is simply this: that if -- if, again, hypothetically -- the President were to make a decision at the recommendation of his national security team to open up an additional facility in Iraq where training, advising and assisting could occur, he would only do that if already open facilities where training, advising and assisting of Iraqi fighters is occurring was useful.
And so the point is, it was an effort -- I was anticipating Kristen’s question -- this question about mission creep, which I think is a legitimate one to raise. I think the point is that if an additional base were opened at the recommendation of the President’s national security team, it would be entirely consistent and, frankly, even an endorsement of the strategy moving forward. But again, at this point, that is a theoretical, hypothetical exercise.
Q I recognize the difference between a sign of progress and useful. I recognize there’s a distinction there.
On the mission creep issue, you don't have to give me a number, but does the President have a number in mind of troops above which he’s not willing to go? You've at least said he’s not going to send 150,000 American troops back. So is there some number below that where he would say, no, forget it -- this is just not worth doing?
MR. EARNEST: Not one that I’m aware of. But I think the context for this debate is important, and you just laid it out, which is that there is a significant difference between 150,000 troops in a combat role and 3,500 U.S. troops in roles not in a combat role -- in a variety of other roles. That is not in any way to downplay the kind of risk that these military servicemembers are assuming on behalf of our nation. I certainly don't take that lightly. I can guarantee you that the President of the United States does not take that lightly.
But the way that the President makes decisions about the number of military personnel that are necessary in Iraq are not driven by an arbitrary consideration of round numbers, but rather are driven by the number of military personnel required to carry out what the President has ordered.
So in this most recent case of expanding our training, advising and assisting mission to Taqaddum Air Base, the military planners put together essentially the scope of what the operation, that mission would look like at that air base. And then they put forward what they believe was the necessary number of military personnel that would allow that operation to be -- or that mission to be successfully executed. And it also factored in the number of support personnel, the number of security personnel and others that would be required there. And that number is a little over 400 that would need to be at the base. And that's ultimately the way these decisions are made.
So it’s not driven by the numbers on the front end. It rather is a consideration of the policy recommendation that's been put forward by the national security team, and then the consideration about the number of military personnel that would be required to successfully and as safely as possible complete that mission.
Q Josh, just to follow up on that, when you talk about opening up a base at Taqaddum or the prospect of opening up further bases around Iraq, these would be Iraqi bases, would they not? These would not be U.S. bases.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, these are bases that are in Iraq. And we do not envision the establishment of a military base in Iraq at this point.
Q Right, because legally that would not be possible, correct? You don't have a status of forces agreement. You don't have the legal architecture in place to open up U.S. bases in Iraq. So you're basically using their space? Or --
MR. EARNEST: I would acknowledge that I’m not familiar with the legal requirements of these kinds of agreements. But again, to answer your question as precisely as I can, yes, these are Iraqi facilities where U.S. military personnel would go to carry out a train, advise and assist mission. And there are five of those bases where that mission is taking place right now, inside of Iraq.
Q Because when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was talking about the prospect of opening up bases around Iraq, I suppose that some Americans may be confused as to what he was talking about, because you’re not talking about opening up U.S. military bases.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. I didn’t see the exact transcript of his remarks. It may be that he meant opening up those bases to U.S. military personnel where this training, advising and assisting operation could be carried out.
Q But you’re not talking about getting in the business of opening up U.S. military bases.
MR. EARNEST: That’s not something that’s been contemplated.
Q And I wanted to ask you about the Affordable Care Act. I know the President has an interview today with the program, Extra. And he’s also been making some remarks -- he made some remarks yesterday in his speech and talked about this during the news conference in Germany. And I was just curious, are you trying to communicate to the Supreme Court justices about what’s at risk if the Affordable Care Act is gutted in King vs. Burwell? It just almost feels like you jumped into campaign mode all of a sudden on Obamacare. And so I’m just curious, are you trying to reach to the justices there with some of this?
MR. EARNEST: No. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is, the President has, I think on a number of occasions, even in the context of some of his recent remarks, acknowledged that the decision in the King v. Burwell case will be a decision that’s made by a separate but equal branch of government. Those are the nine justices of the Supreme Court.
I’m certainly no Supreme Court watcher or expert, but my understanding about the way that these things typically go is that the opinions are typically written a number of days in advance of their eventual release. So I think it’s -- again, I say this not based on my own personal knowledge, but based on the advice that I’ve received that, in all likelihood, the decision in this case has already been reached and written, and the Supreme Court is merely waiting for the day that they choose to announce the decision that they have made.
Q And so why is there such a focus on defending the program? It’s five years old now. It’s up and running.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President views this as a significant element -- or a significant achievement of his presidency. And it has had an impact on millions of Americans. And I’m not just referring to the 16 million Americans who received health care after the Affordable Care Act took effect; I’m actually referring also to the millions of other Americans across the country who benefit from the consumer protections that are included in the law.
That includes every single woman who has health insurance in the United States; they no longer have to be worried about being charged more just because they’re a woman. I’m talking about every American in the United States that has a so-called preexisting condition; they never again have to be worried about being discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition. I’m talking about every single American who previously worried about hitting their lifetime cap because the Affordable Care Act -- an insurance company can no longer say that they’re going to stop paying your benefits because you’ve been too sick.
And I think reminding people of that progress and those important benefits is something that the President feels strongly about. And even if there are no more Supreme Court cases between now and January of 2017, I would anticipate you’ll hear the President make that case at least one more time.
Q And finally, Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN that he’s considering the idea of a rotating First Lady should he become President. (Laughter.) And I'm not going to ask you to weigh in on that idea -- unless you would like to -- but to get at that question, I'm just kind of curious what it would be like at the White House without a First Lady. And would you be able to do everything that a White House does without a First Lady? She’s a huge -- the current First Lady has a very large ceremonial role and policy role at this White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's what occurs to me, Jim, is it's hard to -- at least it's hard to imagine this White House without this First Lady. She obviously has played such an important role not just in carrying out the ceremonial aspects of her job, but also in advocating for the kinds of things that she and the President believe should be national priorities. And these are things about making sure that our kids get off to a healthy start in life, and making sure that our military families have felt the full weight of support and gratitude that the American people have for the sacrifices that they have made for our country.
So it's hard for me to imagine both a Graham White House and what a Graham White House would be without a First Lady. But I would obviously defer to the Senator to describe what that would be.
Q Thanks, Josh. Among the opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are LGBT advocates who say the deal improperly opens up trade for countries that criminalize being LGBT. In Malaysia, LGBT people can be imprisoned for 20 years or more. In Brunei, the country recently enacted Sharia law which calls for death by stoning. In an op-ed today in the Advocate, long-time LGBT rights activist Lee Jones and Pride at Work Director Jerame Davis said signing this deal will send a message to the world that you can abuse, imprison and kill LGBT people and still have preferential access to coveted U.S. markets. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I think the response that I would share with you is that we, obviously -- and the President has spoken publicly about the concerns that we have in terms of the way that other countries discriminate against people because of who they love. And in some cases, these people aren't just discriminated against, they are subjected to terrible acts of violence. And the President has used his moral authority to speak out against this rather aggressively.
And in some cases, we know that there are countries where these kinds of conditions are in place. And I think in the mind of the President, the question simply is, what are we going to do about it? And there are some who legitimately advocate that we should try to isolate those countries and we should not talk to them, and we should not do any business with them, and we should not engage them because of those practices. The President merely has a different approach, which is that the more successful we can be in engaging them both economically and culturally, and politically, and diplomatically, and militarily, in some cases the more effective we can be in advocating for the kinds of values that we prioritize in this country, and certainly the kinds of values the President has championed while sitting in the Oval Office. And I think that principle would apply in this case, as well.
Q If you're so confident that opening up this deal could lead to improvement on the LGBT rights issues in these countries, why do you think these advocates are so steadfast against it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I think the argument that I'm making is that I'm confident that doing nothing is not the most effective way for us to press our case. And that's the argument that I'm making. And that, frankly, is the approach that some are advocating. And again, I'm not going to question their motives. I know that they share the President’s view about these kinds of cherished values and ensuring that people shouldn’t be discriminated against or subjected to violence just because of who they love. But the President’s approach to trying to pressure other countries to live up to the kinds of values that we hold dear in this country is that we can do that more effectively by engaging them.
Q Josh, on TPP and TAA, the House Republicans say they made several changes, which we've just gone over, in consultation with Leader Pelosi, and that what is needed now is for Leader Pelosi to endorse those changes, be a public advocate on behalf of both TAA and TPA, and a stronger signal from this White House that all underlying issues have been dealt with and this is something that should go forward as is and Pelosi should lead that charge. Are you prepared to do that? They have a very good relationship, historically, the President and Minority Leader Pelosi.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll say a couple things about that. One of the foundations of that relationship is an acknowledgement that Leader Pelosi is going to vote her conscience and do what she thinks is right, and she knows the President is going to do the same thing. And I think what has been a hallmark of that relationship is that their values and their vision for the country are so often, on a wide range of issues, very closely shared.
And I will also say -- so I guess the point is that Speaker Boehner is welcome to make that case, but he should do that directly to Leader Pelosi. And based on the kinds of conversations that is apparent that they’ve had over the last few days, it sounds like that's what he’s doing.
When it comes to the President, we have -- I think as is evident from the list of engagements that Jim ran through --
Q They’re going on right now.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, they’re going on right now. So you’ve got the Chief of Staff of the White House along with members of the Cabinet who are up on Capitol Hill. The President had a conversation with Speaker Boehner. I'm confident that is not the only telephone call that the President will have with a member of Congress today. So we will make our case to Democrats about -- principally to Democrats, but not exclusively to Democrats -- about why we believe this is the right approach, consistent with the President’s effort to champion economic opportunity for middle-class families.
Q How comfortable are you and is the President with Leader Pelosi withholding her public position on this until tomorrow on the House floor? Would not it be more helpful to what you just outlined, the cause of this advocacy, to have Leader Pelosi -- if, in fact, she’s going to say yes -- say so now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is entirely within her rights to --
Q I do acknowledge that. That's not the question. Would it be helpful to you if what her conscience tells her were more clear to those in her caucus and in the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say as -- again, Major, it is entirely within her right to decide when she’s ready to make public her position on these issues. And the President and everyone here at the White House welcomes the support of everybody that we can get. And that's any Republicans we can go to support this, as many Democrats as we can get to support this, up to and including the Democratic Leader.
Q General Odierno said this morning that the battle against ISIS is a three-, five-, seven-, to 10-year project. Is that a timeline the President believes in or the country should be prepared for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen -- I think the President has been as clear about this as he possibly can based on his own assessment of the situation, which is that this is not a short-term proposition. It will require a long-term commitment.
Q But I’ve never heard someone who is as close to this as the Army Chief of Staff quite obviously is -- he’s not the only one who’s close to it, but he’s pretty close to it -- be that specific about the kind of timeline he believes this country ought to prepare itself for. I’m just curious if the President thinks that's within the ballpark; that's something the country ought to brace for.
MR. EARNEST: And General Odierno obviously has spent not time -- not just time in his current role, but he’s also spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq, in the previous campaign in Iraq. And so he is somebody that brings significant knowledge. So I obviously wouldn’t be in a position to contradict him.
But I think the best way that I can describe to you the President’s view of the situation is to point you to what he said about it, which is that he does not believe -- or he thinks it’s important for the American people to understand that this is not a short-term proposition and it will require a long-term commitment on the part of the United States and our coalition partners.
But the President has been just as clear about the fact that he does not envision a scenario where it is in the best interest of our country to engage in another large-scale ground operation -- ground combat operation inside of Iraq.
Q So without endorsing it specifically, you're not going to disagree with General Odierno?
MR. EARNEST: General Odierno, again, based on his own personal experience and expertise, has a lot of credibility when talking about these issues. But the best way I can describe to you the President’s position is what he said.
Q General Odierno also said that this cannot be solved, the ISIS problem and the Iraq problem, until political reconciliation in the country takes hold, and that nothing really the Americans can do is going to solve that problem unless the Iraqis are prepared and willing to solve it themselves. I presume you agree with that. And I wonder if you consider that problem bigger than ISIS itself.
Because General Odierno said one of the reasons ISIS exists is because of so many decisions made by the Maliki government and the inability of Iraq to pull itself together after the United States left. So what’s the bigger problem here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point -- again, I think you were probably faithful in your paraphrasing of his comments. I have confidence in that. It seems to me the point that he’s making and I think illustrating pretty clearly is it is impossible to separate the failed political leadership and divisive governing strategy of Prime Minister Maliki from the growth of ISIL. And these are two problems that are interrelated.
And we have identified -- and this is something that shaped our involvement in this matter from the beginning. You’ll recall that when ISIL made their rapid, stark advance across the desert from Syria into Iraq, there were many who were suggesting that the President should be aggressively engaged in the effort to try to prevent that, to try to blunt that advance, and urged an aggressive commitment of resources to do that. And the President was very limited in doing that for a couple of reasons. He did prioritize the protection of military personnel in Iraq, and so we did take steps to ensure their safety.
But the President also said I’m not willing to make a more significant commitment in Iraq until it’s clear that the Iraqi central government is willing to commit to govern that country in an inclusive way. And that's why we have been gratified to see Prime Minister Abadi, at least in the first 10 months or so that he’s been in office, live up to the kind of commitment that he made on the front end to unify Iraq, to face down the threat from ISIL.
He has committed to governing the country in a multi-sectarian way. That's clear from the way that his cabinet has been assembled and the way that they have governed the country. It’s been clear from the way that he has attempted to build a multi-sectarian force to take on ISIL. So he’s living up to those early promises.
Now, what’s also true is you demonstrate your commitment to these kinds of principles not just in the matter of weeks or months, but over a sustained period of time. So we're going to continue to watch closely the commitment of the Iraqi central government to unifying the country. But there is no doubt that an inclusive central government in Baghdad is integral to their ability to deal with the ISIL problem. There is no denying that fact.
And that's why the administration is going to continue to be supportive of steps that the Iraqi government takes to try to unify that country.
Q Last question. The new plan yesterday, or the retooled plan envisions trying to tighten the border of Syria and Turkey to prevent the flow of -- or at least slow the flow of foreign fighters. There are many who are familiar with that situation who believe the Erdoğan government has given the U.S. almost no assistance, has turned a blind eye to this entire issue, people who are very close to it. There was obviously a parliamentary election that was a setback for the Erdoğan government earlier this week. There’s talk about a coalition government. In general, does this administration believe that election result will make Erdoğan more or less compliant as this new phase of trying to stop foreign fighters begins?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we’ll see, Major. And I think the President took this on pretty directly in the news conference that he did in Germany on Monday, where he indicated that there’s more that we would like to see Turkey do to coordinate with our broader international coalition to shut down the flow of foreign fighters to ISIL and to Syria.
Q By more, you mean something.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are steps that Turkey has taken to demonstrate their willingness to be constructive here, but there is a lot more that we believe they can and should do.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to kind of follow up on something Major was talking about, and refer you to another military leader who obviously is intimately aware of what’s been happening on the ground vis-à-vis the battle with ISIS. General Michael Flynn who was on with Neil Cavuto yesterday, said some pretty interesting things. Among them, he was asked if he thought ISIS was winning and he said, “Yes, I think ISIS is achieving the objectives they have set out to achieve. I think they feel probably very emboldened, they feel pretty good.”
I'm just curious, when you hear something like that from someone who is so intimately aware of what’s happening there in Iraq, how do you absorb that? Do you dismiss it outright? Or do you simply take information like that and say, well, that’s somewhat of a reflection of what’s happening.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think that we’ve been very blunt about what our assessment is of the situation on the ground there. And specifically, there have been areas where we’ve made some important progress, and that includes retaking the Anbar town of Baghdadi to retaking -- driving ISIL out of Tikrit. Even thinking back to last summer, there was a rapid advance of ISIL fighters across the desert in Iraq where they appeared to be encroaching on Erbil, and that was an offensive that was blunted. And principally by working with Kurdish security forces and being backed by coalition military airpower, they haven’t just blunted that offensive but they’ve started to roll back many of those gains.
So at the same time, we’ve also been pretty forthright in acknowledging that there have been areas where we and the Iraqis have sustained setbacks, and Ramadi is the best example of that. But that is the nature of any kind of military conflict and it’s certainly been the nature of this conflict as well.
And what the President has directed his national security team to focus on is to make sure that we have a strategy that reflects that environment on the ground. And that’s why you saw this announcement yesterday about the decision to open up an additional Iraqi base in Anbar Province where American military personnel would go about carrying out a mission to train, advise and assist Iraqi fighters. And that’s what they’re prepared to do, and that’s consistent with our assessment of what’s happening on the ground and consistent with the kinds of strategic choices the President believes are most likely to yield success.
Q I’ve heard you use the expression “train” primarily, although today, you say, “train, advise and assist.” The Pentagon, for the most part, has simply been saying they are there to advise. Is there any space between the two descriptions, or is it all one fell swoop of a description of what they’ll be doing on the 450 additional U.S. personnel?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, what I can say is that the mission that the President authorized is a mission to train, advise and assist those forces that are fighting under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And that means both members of the Iraqi security forces; it also means those Sunni tribal fighters that had been recruited into the fight to fight under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And that’s what their mission is. And that’s the way that it’s been described by both the Pentagon and the White House and the State Department, for that matter.
And it’s consistent with what we have broadly said about the commitment of the United States and our coalition partners to support the efforts of the Iraqis to take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country.
Q Lastly, I’d like to ask you about the idea of using grants, essentially to help diversity some affluent areas. I was reading about that today. Can you tell me what the President’s position is on that and why that seems like a good idea to sort of give communities, if nothing else, an opportunity to advance and move up?
MR. EARNEST: Are you talking about the U.N. Stabilization Fund?
MR. EARNEST: The idea here is essentially that there is more support that we need to offer those Iraqi communities that have driven out ISIL and that if we want to make sure that we can prevent ISIL from encroaching on those cities, we don’t need to just be able to provide security to those cities or those towns -- we do -- we also need to make sure that we’re building up the capacity of local governance structures to govern those areas.
And again, our strategy is predicated on this idea that we want to build up the capacity of Iraqis to do for themselves what we will not do for them, and that is to govern and provide security for the communities and their country.
Q Lastly, when you say “we want to help them win their fight for their country” and others argue sometimes, well, you’re not in it to win it -- is that a frustration for the White House when you hear that? Because it seems to me you’re trying to help them, but you’re not trying to win it yourself. Is that what you’re telling me?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm telling you, Kevin, is that the fight against ISIL is one that the Iraqi people must do for themselves. They can do that with the strong support of the United States and our coalition partners, and there are a variety of ways that we can support them, whether it’s with military coalition airstrikes, or offering training, advising, and assisting of Iraqi fighters that are operating under the Iraqi central government. It also is engaging in an effort to shut down the flow of foreign fighters that are filling the ranks of ISIL. It also is undertaking efforts with our coalition partners to try to shut down ISIL’s efforts to finance their operations. All of those are things that will eventually benefit the Iraqis as they fight a war that they must fight for themselves.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President obviously had some sharp words to say about Greece in his press conference on Monday. And today, U.N. President Donald Tusk seems to have finally reached a tipping point on Greece -- his very, very harsh words. And the IMF negotiating team left Brussels with no deal. Are we likely to hear any more from the President on Greece? Is there anything he’s doing behind the scenes? And what does he see as his role in that crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Angela, I don’t anticipate that you’ll necessarily see the President weigh in on this again -- although, it’s certainly possible that one of you could ask him. But our view -- and it’s a view that we have pretty consistently articulated -- is that we want all sides to continue to focus on finding pragmatic solutions that will allow Greece to chart a path to recovery. Now, that also means that Greece must pursue some of the kinds of structural reforms that they’ve committed to. And this is part of the -- this is the essence of the negotiation that’s ongoing right now between Greece and their creditors.
And the role of the United States -- and this is something that Secretary Lew has been leading on the part of the United States -- is to encourage all sides to come to an agreement in order to prevent some kind of broader default that would destabilize the global economy and have a possible negative impact on the U.S. economy.
So Secretary Lew, over the last couple of weeks, has met with his G7 finance minister counterparts to discuss this issue; Secretary Lew had the opportunity to talk to Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece about some of these issues. But that essentially is our view of the situation.
Q On a lighter question, the President taped an interview earlier today with -- I get this right -- Extra TV. It airs at apparently 2:07 a.m. Eastern time tonight, tomorrow morning. Just curious, how does this fit into the communications strategy? Who is the President trying to reach by doing that kind of show? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Insomniacs. (Laughter.)
Q You said it.
MR. EARNEST: The fact is that this is part of our sustained effort to try to use a variety of channels to communicate with the American public. And there’s an opportunity -- I would encourage you to take a look at the interview. Maybe there’s a way for you to get it from a different market so you don't have to stay up until 2:07 a.m. here in East Coast. But this is something -- this is an opportunity for the President to deliver a message about just how valuable the Affordable Care Act has been not just to the 16 million Americans who got health care after the Affordable Care Act, but from the millions, hundreds of millions of Americans who have benefitted from the critically important consumer protections that were included in the Affordable Care Act.
And that's everything from ensuring that women can't be charged more for their health insurance just because they're a woman. You can't be discriminated against because you have a preexisting condition. And you no longer have to be worried about hitting your lifetime limit that would essentially result in the insurance company kicking you off your insurance because you got really sick.
Q Josh, I want to ask you about a question and the White House response to the GOP threatening to withhold $700 million in funding for the State Department because they feel that information is not being given quick enough and effectively enough in reference to Hillary Clinton’s documentation.
MR. EARNEST: April, I think what it does is it just calls into question the sincerity of those Republicans who are advocating for additional security at U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world. The fact is if they believe that's a priority, then you would think that they would want to ensure that those security operations and those security measures are properly and fully funded. I’m no budgetary expert, but it seems hard for me to believe that taking that big of a chunk out of the State Department’s budget is not going to have an impact on the safety and security at U.S. diplomatic facilities around the globe.
After all, the only reason that they claim that they’ve engaged in this debate -- I’ve suggested that politics are chiefly to blame -- they claim that they care about making security for our diplomats a priority. But if they actually cared about that they wouldn’t be threatening to withhold funding for security for our diplomats.
So anyway, I guess that's my reaction.
Q Thank you for your reaction. Seven hundred million dollars is a lot of money. You say safety and security. Specifically, would it really -- would it actually take security officers away from embassies, away from diplomats and things of that nature?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure of the precise budgetary impact. I think what I’ve said is that -- what I was trying to convey is it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have some kind of impact on the efforts to provide security at diplomatic installations around the world. But for those kinds of details, I’d refer you to the State Department.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Bill Press, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I’ll take a couple of quick ones. First, who are the top three leading candidates for the new Librarian of Congress? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I don't have any personnel announcements to make at this time. But maybe that's something -- well, I was going to suggest that might be something you could check out later.
Q Ooooh --
MR. EARNEST: See, I tried to stop, and you guys were all goading me. (Laughter.)
Q You were looking forward to that. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes, well, it just came to me. (Laughter.)
Q Let’s go back to the trade for a second. The Democratic members that I’ve talked to say that the vote on Medicare is not as simple as you described it at the top of the briefing. Yes, there’s a process by which once they vote to cut Medicare, then there’s a process by which their vote won’t really count. So that leaves them in the position of going to voters next year and saying, yes, I voted to cut Medicare, but I was promised that vote wouldn’t count. Is that a fair place to put Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: That's not a fair description of what exactly would happen on the floor. And I am, by no means, a legislative expert, but I asked this direct question to somebody who is a legislative expert on our staff. And what they were able to confirm to me is, based on the way the rule is structured -- I’m looking at some self-described legislative experts down here -- the way that the rule is structured, that it would not force Democrats to take a vote that could legitimately be described as cutting Medicare.
Q That's not what these Democratic members, who are experts, told me.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say that this is actually the nature of a number of the conversations that we're having with members of Congress on Capitol Hill to make sure that they actually understand the way that this rule works, and the way that they understand how their vote can be described. They have strongly held views on this. That's certainly understandable. That's why -- because of the aggressive advocacy of Leader Pelosi and because of the reasonableness, frankly, of Speaker Boehner in this instance, that they went to great lengths to address this particular concern.
Q And one with strong views on that, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, told members, “If you vote for this you could lose your job. Period. End of story.” Is she wrong?
MR. EARNEST: What the President has said is that members of Congress should be more concerned about the jobs of Americans than their own jobs. And that's exactly why the President has sought to advance this trade legislation, because he believes it is clearly in the best interest of middle-class families and middle-class workers. And that's particularly true when we're talking about trade adjustment assistance legislation.
As I mentioned earlier, those members of Congress who vote against this trade adjustment assistance bill are adding their name to the death certificate for trade adjustment assistance.
Trade adjustment assistance will expire at the end of the year, and Speaker Boehner has made clear -- again, he has made clear, and I think for good reason -- most Republicans don't support trade adjustment assistance -- he’s made clear that this is the best chance that Democrats will have, probably the only chance Democrats will have, to renew this critically important piece of legislation before it expires.
And that's the nature of the conversations that are ongoing at the White House here today.
All right? Thanks, everybody.
2:09 P.M. EDT