Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/15/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
*Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:01 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I trust you all had a good weekend, and then back to work today. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to questions.
Mr. Kuhnhenn, would you like to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple subjects. I wanted to first start with trade and see what the administration’s strategy is at this point, given that it seems highly unlikely that you can recapture the lost Democratic votes on the trade assistance side of things. Are you guys counting on Republicans flipping on that vote? Or is this likely to be something that goes on until the end of summer, as was one option that the House Majority Leader suggested?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I can tell you that there have been a number of conversations over the weekend and already today about the legislative path forward. The President and the rest of us here at the White House continue to be confident that there is strong bipartisan support for this approach, and we just have to figure out how to untangle the legislative snafu in the House. And it’s not the first time that members of the House have been presented with trying to navigate problems like this, but the White House will certainly be engaged in trying to help Democrats and Republicans on the Hill figure this out.
Q But do you see this as a -- is there going to be a short-term solution, or do you see this as extending perhaps until the end of summer, early spring? And what does that do to the prospects for negotiating a trade deal with the Pacific Rim countries?
MR. EARNEST: Look, Jim, I saw that Leader McCarthy did a news conference earlier today where he indicated something that we agree with, which is that the longer that this process plays out, the harder it is to build bipartisan support for.
So the fact is we believe we have some momentum. Just in the last several weeks, we’ve seen both TPA and TAA pass with bipartisan support in the Senate. We saw the Senate do something that many people thought was not possible, which is actually build a legitimate bipartisan majority for TPA in the House. That’s good news. And we want to try to build on that momentum to complete what the President believes is necessary to negotiating an agreement that clearly is in the best interest of the economy and in the best interest of American middle-class workers.
Q Does the White House think the two issues have to be joined together in order to get success?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, all of these kinds of procedural questions are ones that members of the House will have to encounter. Obviously the Speaker of the House will have a lot to say about this. I wouldn’t be surprised if the President has the opportunity to speak to Speaker Boehner today to discuss this issue. But ultimately he will have more to say about this than anybody because he’s the one that’s responsible for determining the calendar on the floor. So he’ll work that out, and we’re hopeful that they’ll do it soon.
Q On Saturday, in his radio address, the President again called for Democrats to support TAA. Then later, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sided with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Did the President find that unhelpful?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t speak to the President about it. I think what Secretary Clinton articulated over the weekend is a view that she is neither reflexively in favor of trade agreements nor reflexively against them. She indicated that her test would be to examine an agreement and determine whether or not it was in the best interest of our national security, and to determine whether or not it was in the best interest of American workers.
That criteria may sound a little familiar to you because it’s quite similar to the criteria that the President himself has established. And it’s not particularly surprising to anybody here that Secretary Clinton might identify similar criteria, considering she served as the Secretary of State under President Obama. So the overlap, if you will, in their views is not surprising.
Q On another subject -- I wanted to raise a question about an event, and actually raise some concerns about an event here in the White House this weekend. The White House did not verify a gathering here of about 500 people, including some musicians, even after this had gained quite widespread notice on social media. And I wondered why the White House did not at least verify the event.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I don’t have a lot to tell you about a non-public event that occurred at the White House. I think we have confirmed for you that the President and First Lady did hold a private party here at the White House over the weekend. But given the private nature of the event, I don’t have a lot of details to discuss from here.
Q Even after it had been widely noted on social media, *and you invite [even by] people like Al Sharpton?
MR. EARNEST: Again, what’s the question?
Q No, just once information about the event is in the public domain, I find it interesting that the White House would not at least acknowledge what was in the public domain.
MR. EARNEST: I guess it’s what I just did. The President and First Lady did host a private event here at the White House over the weekend. But given the fact that it was a private event, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it.
Q Were there any House lawmakers at the private event on the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a guest list for you, Roberta.
Q Leader Pelosi suggested that she would be more amenable to trade if the fate of the highway bill was settled, or linked to it. And I’m wondering, is the White House open to linking those two things? And what kind of discussion or work is going on, on that path?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, you know that the President has certainly been a strong advocate for making strong investments in our infrastructure because of the impact it would have on the short-term prospects for job creation, as well as the long-term health of our economy. So the President has put forward a very specific plan for how he believes we can close some loopholes that will only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and use revenue from those loophole closings to invest in our infrastructure that everybody benefits from. That’s a strategy that we’ve articulated and, frankly, championed for a long time.
But in terms of the legislative procedure, that’s something that the Speaker of the House will have to determine in consultation with other members of the House of Representatives. I don’t have a legislative procedure to advocate for from here.
Q What did the President do over the weekend to make his case to House Democrats, as particularly on TAA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, I think that you have heard the President and the rest of us make a pretty compelling case about how trade adjustment assistance is actually scheduled to lapse at the end of this fiscal year. So if the Congress doesn’t act by the end of September, we’re going to see a program that has significant benefits for middle-class families all across the country expire. The President has long championed trade adjustment assistance. He’s made this a top priority, even outside the context of trade agreements.
The fact is, last year, about 40 percent of the workers in this country who benefitted from trade adjustment assistance got assistance in the form of job training, principally, were workers that had not been affected by trade agreements. These are workers who could trace the loss of their job back to decisions that were made by companies to relocate operations into India and China. Those are the countries with whom we do not have free trade agreements.
And that’s an indication of the case that the President made very forcefully to House Democrats when he visited the caucus meeting on Friday, and it’s a case that you heard me make from this podium on Friday, as well, which is there’s a broader question for policymakers here in Washington, D.C. about what can we do to make sure that we are preparing or helping American workers weather the challenging forces of globalization. And the fact is, it is impossible to insulate the U.S. economy and U.S. workers from those broader forces of globalization.
And the question that the President has in his mind is, what are we going to do about it? In the mind of the President, he’s got a two-pronged approach. The first is, let’s advocate for a trade deal with countries that are going business in the most economically dynamic region of the world, in Southeast Asia, and make sure that those countries are raising labor standards, that they’re raising environmental standards, that they’re respecting intellectual property rights, that they’re writing into that agreement protections for basic human rights, and giving U.S. businesses the opportunity to do business in their countries. That’s part of that strategy.
The second part is making sure that we’re helping those workers that have been negatively affected by broader globalization trends. And that’s why you’ve seen such strong support from Democrats for this kind of program in the past. And the President is deeply concerned about the prospect of this kind of program expiring. In fact, the President doesn’t want to just continue that program; he believes that we should expand it.
Q So what did he do over the weekend to make that case to Democrats in the House?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you. I can tell you that there were senior White House officials who were in touch with some members of Congress both in the House and the Senate over the weekend. But I don’t have specific conversations to tell you about.
Q Josh, getting back to trade, you said that the President and Secretary Clinton’s views overlap on trade. You said you weren’t surprised about that. But she said over the weekend that if there aren’t changes made to the TPP, “there should be no deal.” So is the President open to making changes?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, as you know, the TPP has not been completed. This is an agreement that is still under negotiation. And the President is determined to make sure that whatever the final agreement is, that it’s clearly in the best interest of our national security and clearly in the best interest of middle-class families in this country. And that’s the standard that the President has set, and that’s the standard the President will expect. If an agreement like that cannot be reached, then there won’t be an agreement.
Q And is he hoping to get Secretary Clinton’s seal of approval on the TPP?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President is hoping to do is to garner a bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate for a trade agreement, if one can be reached.
Q And how big is this OPM hack now? We know that during the investigation of the original OPM hack, a separate intrusion was detected, and senior administration officials were confirming that late Friday. That occurred after the briefing when we were catching wind of this after the briefing. So how big is it now? Is it more than that 4.1 million people that was originally estimated?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, as you know, the precise scope of these intrusions continues to be under investigation by the FBI, by DHS, and other technology professionals. And the administration continues to be committed to making sure that we are communicating as much information as possible to those individuals who may have been affected by these particular intrusions.
You’ll recall, Jim, that at the beginning of last week the administration began notifying some federal employees that their information may have been compromised, and if there is a need for us to communicate with more either current or former federal employees, then we’ll do that.
Q There were senior administration officials saying that in addition to current and former federal employees, that even prospective employees might have been affected in this separate intrusion. And so I suppose those are people who were just applying for a job, went through the process, and perhaps did not land a job with the federal government. I would imagine that even though you can’t put a precise number on it, that the scope of this has expanded fairly dramatically.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think that what the announcement over the weekend indicated is that there was a second intrusion that was under investigation. It involved a different system and a different set of data. And I think you could logically conclude that there is a likelihood that the amount of data and information was -- that a larger amount of data and information was potentially affected. But this is something that still continues to be under investigation by the FBI and DHS.
Q And getting back to the party on Saturday night, you said it was a private function. Does that mean that the President and the First Lady will be paying for that event with their own funds?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q And that includes the entertainment, the staff? Who was staffing the event? Was it White House staff? Was it catering staff that came in?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have all those details for you, Jim, other than to tell you that the President and First Lady paid for the event.
Q Jason Chaffetz, the Chair of the House Government Reform Committee, is saying that Office Personnel Management officials are being very reluctant to testify before his committee tomorrow on the hack. And, in fact, that they say that they won’t testify. What is the White House’s position on whether they should testify tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Victoria, I don’t know that we have one, but I’d refer you to OPM to confirm their participation or to explain why they don’t, if they don’t.
Q Do you think that OPM officials should testify about the hack?
MR. EARNEST: Victoria, the thing I can tell you is that I know that there have been a number of senior administration officials who, over the last number of weeks, have repeatedly traveled to Capitol Hill to make sure that members of Congress have been briefed in some detail about this particular incident. There’s obviously more that we’re able to disclose in those kinds of confidential and, in some cases, even classified settings than we can publicly, but there are many conversations with the relevant congressional oversight committees on this issue.
Q A follow on the party that the President had. Can you just explain what criteria the White House bases classifying something as a private event on, that you don’t disclose on the President’s public schedule?
MR. EARNEST: Carol, I think what I can just describe to you is that the President and First Lady hosted a private social event at the White House on Saturday night, and it was not something that -- it was a private event and something that they paid for.
Q Well, you guys disclose private events, presumably, that don’t have coverage; for instance, when the President hosts a screening in the White House movie theater. This was 500 people -- lobbyists, corporate executives, an international celebrity -- and it wasn’t even on the President’s schedule. So how do you justify that? And how is that in line with the President’s commitment to transparency?
MR. EARNEST: Carol, I think the fact that we’re talking about a private event and the fact that details of this are known is an indication that the President is committed to being transparent. At the same time, the President and First Lady are going to reserve the right to host private parties at the White House. And they did it on their own dime, and I think that’s consistent with the kinds of values that they have talked about.
Q On a different topic, the raid in Libya that reportedly killed a top member of al Qaeda. Are you --
MR. EARNEST: Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Q Yes, I decided not to try --
MR. EARNEST: I’ve actually been relishing the opportunity to discuss this. (Laughter.)
Q Practicing it in the mirror? (Laughter.) And what is your response to that? Are you confirming that? And how does that advance the President’s fight against terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Carol, what I can tell you is that the Department of Defense has confirmed that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was, in fact, the target of a counterterrorism strike that was taken in Libya over the weekend. Mokhtar Belmokhtar has a long history of leading terrorist activities as a member of AQIM. He is an al Qaeda-associated terrorist and the operational leader of an organization called al-Mourabitoun in northwest Africa.
I am not in a position, at this point, to confirm the results of the strike. But when we have more details on that, we’ll try to share it with you.
Q Just on the party one more time -- and I’m relatively new around here, so --
MR. EARNEST: It’s okay.
Q It sounds like --
MR. EARNEST: Nobody else in here was invited either. (Laughter.) So -- there appears to be some angst about that.
Q So it sounds like, to follow up on her question, it’s private if you just say it’s private. Based on whatever criteria an event can be, if you say it’s private, it’s private. Is that it?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Ron, the point is that the President and First Lady, and I think most people across the country, would acknowledge that this is an appropriate thing for the President and First Lady to do, which is to open their house to guests and to host a private party on a Saturday night. And the fact that they paid for it on their own dime I think is an indication that this is a private event that’s not part of the regular responsibilities of the President of the United States or the First Lady, but rather is an interest in hosting a private party.
Q So there really is no criteria? It’s just that they, for whatever reason, if they deem it private, it’s --
MR. EARNEST: Again, Ron, I think the fact that we’re talking about a private event paid for the President and First Lady that occurred in their own home on a Saturday night, I think most people would recognize that, understandably, as a private event.
Q On the trade thing, you described what happened there as a procedural thing, as a snafu. Yet this is something that the President invested a lot of personal, capital time. Why would he invest so much time and energy into something that essentially it was a procedural matter? Clearly this is much more than a procedural fight between him and the members of his own party. It seems that it’s clearly a difference in ideology, a difference in belief about --
MR. EARNEST: I strongly disagree with that, Ron. The fact is, the President and Democrats share a view that policymakers in Washington, D.C. should be focused on the best interest of middle-class families. Those are shared values. And the fact is, that’s exactly why the President so strongly advocates for the passage of trade adjustment assistance -- because of the impact that that does have on the livelihood of middle-class workers and middle-class families.
The last time, you’ll recall -- the last time that trade adjustment assistance was on the floor of the House of Representatives, it was supported by every single Democrat that cast a vote; 125 of those members are still in the House of Representatives today. And we’re going to continue to make the case that trade adjustment assistance is assistance that actually matters. And we’re not talking about just continuing this program; we’re talking about, as I mentioned earlier, significantly expanding it. There are 24 -- I’m sorry, up to 30,000 individuals who would benefit from this expansion.
Q So you can see a scenario -- and then the Labor Secretary over the weekend said something to the effect that there are numerous pathways to get where we want to go. There’s a way to turn 90 votes, essentially, in a couple of days? And what are those pathways? Can you --
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve discussed in here previously before -- I’m certainly no legislative expert -- so in terms of the legislative mechanics involved, I’d refer you to -- I’d encourage you to check with your sources on Capitol Hill who may be able to explain those kinds of details better than I can.
All I can tell you is that we continue to be committed to the idea that this is critically important business for us to get done on behalf of the American people and on behalf of middle-class families in this country. We also continue to be confident that it’s possible to get it done. And the reason -- again, the reason that I would point out to you that this is a procedural issue that we have to manage is there’s a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives for trade adjustment assistance. A bipartisan majority of members of Congress recognize that this is something that’s critically important to middle-class families and middle-class workers. And the reason it’s not -- it didn’t pass at the end of last week is because there are some procedural differences that have to be ironed out, and that’s what we’re working through right now.
Q So this isn’t about the broad issue of whether the trade deal is good, bad or indifferent? And the other thing you --
MR. EARNEST: Again, it’s hard to judge that because the trade deal has not been completed yet. This is a document that continues to be under negotiation.
Q Right. And again, that’s what I was going to say. Is there anything specific in the package as it exists now, or any specific provisions that the President is insisting on in that package that would give the Democrats in the House more reassurance that they’re going to get what they want and it’s going to be what they want; that the final deal is going to be what they want?
MR. EARNEST: The final deal that the President hopes to present, if we’re able to reach one, will be an agreement that he believes will clearly be in the best interest of our national security and clearly in the best interest of American workers and American businesses.
Q But nothing specific you can point to at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Because there’s not a final agreement. Once there is a final agreement, there will be a variety of things that we’ll be able to point to.
Q Okay. And just lastly, there is some information that the FDA is planning to announce a ban on Trans fats. Is that going to happen soon?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details, but I’d refer you to the FDA for any questions about that.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First one, the U.S., Canada, has been very much involved in the assurance measure operations in Eastern Europe -- Poland and Baltic States. And you’ve repeated several times that the U.S. is not going to go to war for Ukraine. I’d like to know the evaluation of the situation at the border of the two countries. And along the Russian border, what’s the White House’s evaluation of the situation over there?
MR. EARNEST: Richard, we continue to be concerned about the fact that we see the steady flow of materiel and personnel from the Russian side of the border into Ukraine. And there’s lots of evidence to indicate that the Russian military continues to provide critically important weapons and assistance to Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. There is ample evidence to indicate that Russian military personnel are actively involved in that effort. And that’s been the source of significant concern not just on the part of the United States, but by our partners in Europe and around the world.
And it certainly -- that continued activity flies in the face of the kinds of commitments that Russia has previously made to deescalate the situation in Ukraine and respect the basic territorial integrity of their neighbor. And this is a situation that we continue to be concerned about.
Q Is the U.S., through NATO or its own, considering ways to help Ukraine in face of what you’re describing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Richard, there has been substantial military assistance that the United States has already provided to Ukraine. We continue to stand with the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian military as they face this threat.
The United States has also provided ample economic assistance -- and this is something that the President indicated was a priority back at the G7 meetings in Germany last week -- that it's important for the international community to come forward and support the government of Ukraine and the economy of Ukraine, even as they face this challenge in the eastern part of their country.
The United States has mobilized substantial economic assistance to the people of Ukraine. We’ve been gratified to see that other international organizations have also provided some economic support. But that support is going to be critically important to the success of the Ukrainian government as they try to deescalate the situation in the eastern part of their country.
Q Different topic, Josh. I’ve seen several years ago one of the President’s daughters play soccer in my neighborhood, actually. Is the President following the Women’s World Cup in the Great White North?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I do expect that the President is cheering on the U.S. women as they compete in that tournament.
Q On the OPM hack, someone in this room asked you on Friday, I think, whether it had affected the private information of any Cabinet members. I’d like to ask that question again today and add to it whether the President and Vice President’s information was ever in any danger, or whether it was in fact swooped up by whoever carried out this breach.
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, I don’t have any precise information about the scope of this particular intrusion or what data may have been affected. We know that it's highly likely that some sensitive data was affected. But the scope of that data and precisely which data was affected is something that continues to be investigated by the FBI and DHS.
Q And then on a very different topic. The administration has cited the 2001 AUMF as legal justification for operations in Iraq. And I'm wondering whether you think -- whether the administration thinks that you have legal justification to strike Syrian government forces if they threaten the forces that Americans and others are training. So if you reinsert some of these trained groups back into the Syrian theater, are American military forces prepared and legally authorized to strike Assad’s forces?
MR. EARNEST: Let me take that question, Olivier, just to make sure that we get you the precise legal answer.
Q Josh, I want to ask a couple different questions on two different subjects. One, the President is in a very interesting situation during this presidential election. He has friends, as you have mentioned, that are running. And now he has friends who are either family members -- well, a son of a President, and a brother of a President, and a wife of a President. What kind of position does this put this President in when it comes to this 2016 election cycle?
MR. EARNEST: It puts him in the role of interested observer. And that’s why he certainly is following the race and aware of the discussions and debate that’s taking place in the context of this election. But at this point, the President has not weighed in, and I don’t anticipate that he will anytime soon.
Q I understand. But he is a President who is a friend of Presidents from other parties. The Bushes -- daddy Bush and W. And then he’s a friend of Bill Clinton -- former President of his own party. In a realistic way -- I mean, he understands this is going -- we understand that he will follow his party and vote the party line, but how does he handle these friendships in a time when it’s going to be war amongst these candidates -- friends?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, April, the people -- the former Presidents that you just listed are also quite interested observers in the presidential election, some more so than others I guess. But there is no doubt that President Obama would not expect that the robust debate that’s ongoing, even in the early stages of this presidential election, would have any impact whatsoever on the close personal relationships that he feels with the former Presidents that you have named.
The President has spoken at length about his admiration and respect and affection for President H.W. Bush. I don’t know that they’ve had the opportunity to see each other recently. The President did have an opportunity to visit with President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush down at Selma. And the President really enjoyed the opportunity that he had to spend time with them there.
And obviously the President and First Lady have a close personal relationship with both President Clinton and Secretary Clinton. But at this point, it’s too early to weigh in.
Q All right, and on the next subject. The Prince concert this weekend. Everyone is asking about why wasn’t it on the public schedule as relates to the White House, but I want to ask from another side. Did Prince specifically ask for it not to be announced?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that.
Q And I ask that for a serious reason, because of his religious beliefs -- Jehovah’s Witnesses -- and the issue of politics. And that’s why I asked.
MR. EARNEST: I just -- I don’t know the answer to that.
Q All right. And lastly, in 2005 -- I just watched a video, the Image Awards -- NAACP Image Awards; Prince received an award, and President Obama is in the front row dancing up a storm to Prince. How long have the Obamas been trying to bring Prince? And I heard they tried to get him to join the campaign -- to come in on the campaign trail. Can you talk about that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of the specific efforts to enlist the support of Prince in the presidential campaign. (Laughter.)
Q Was it hard to say that?
MR. EARNEST: No, it was not hard to say that.
Q It’s got to be a first.
MR. EARNEST: It probably is, probably is.
Q On trade, you said the President continues to be confident there is a strong bipartisan support. Does he continue to remain confident that it will pass?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. The President continues to be confident that --
Q That it will pass?
MR. EARNEST: -- that we will navigate this particular procedural snafu and move this across the finish line.
Q Okay. So I want to come back to the question of exactly what he did over the weekend in light of this repudiation in the House -- or snafu, as you called it. He played golf, I believe, on Saturday, right?
MR. EARNEST: The President did play golf on Saturday with some of his friends who were in town.
Q Did he play with any member of Congress or anybody with influence -- a member of Congress, or anybody who would be, you know --
MR. EARNEST: The President did not play with any members of Congress. I don’t know the degree of influence that any of the President’s golf partners may have with specific members of Congress.
Q You saw Hillary Clinton offered some advice to the President, saying the President should listen to and work with his allies and colleagues, starting with Nancy Pelosi. Did the President listen to Nancy Pelosi or speak with Nancy Pelosi this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: No. I'm not aware of any conversations between the two. I know that the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, had an opportunity to speak with Leader Pelosi today.
Q Can you tell us about that conversation?
MR. EARNEST: I think I just did.
Q Well, you told me half -- (laughter) --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details of the conversation to share.
Q So it was obviously about the trade?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it was focused on this issue.
Q Okay. How big a deal would it be to this President -- how big a blow would it be to this President and to the United States in terms of our relations with our Asian allies if this deal were to go down?
MR. EARNEST: Look, Jon, I’ll tell you that the President’s principal concern is actually not with his own political standing or, frankly, even our relationship with our allies in Asia. His principal concern is the impact that this would have on middle-class families in this country. And again, as we’ve talked about, there is no possible way to insulate the American economy or American workers from the forces of globalization.
And we’ve seen that, in many communities across the country, those forces of globalization have had a negative impact on the economy. And the question, I think, facing leaders in this country, particularly leaders in Washington D.C., is what are we going to do about it? And the President has articulated a very clear strategy about what he thinks we should do about it. The President believes that the United States needs to use our influence around the globe to engage and to seek to level the playing field so that American businesses and American workers can compete on a level playing field. He’s confident that, if they’re given that opportunity, that they’ll win.
But for those workers that have been affected by these broader global force in a negative way, we know actually what works. We know that, through trade adjustment assistance, workers can get the training that they need to go and get a good job. And according to data from just this last fiscal year, about 77 percent of workers that have gotten trade adjustment assistance and gone through a job-training program have gotten a good-paying job within six months. And six months later, they still -- 90 percent of them are still in that job. That’s an indication that we do know what we can do to offer assistance to workers that are struggling with globalization.
And a lot of these are workers who weren’t negatively affected by trade deals that the United States had signed; these are workers who are affected by broader global forces, including the shifting of some jobs to places like China and India, where the United States doesn’t have free trade agreements. And the President’s principal concern is that trade adjustment assistance is going to expire at the end of September.
And so the question for Democrats and Republicans right now is, what are you going to do to prevent that program from expiring, knowing the positive impact that it has on middle-class families all across the country?
Q You suggested earlier that Hillary Clinton’s statements on this are directly in line with the President’s. Are we to understand -- because it hasn’t been clear, necessarily, from what she had said publicly -- but is it the President’s understanding that Hillary Clinton is lockstep in support of his view on trade -- on these bills?
MR. EARNEST: For a clear distillation of her views on this topic, particularly in the context of a presidential campaign, I’d encourage you to contact a spokesman for her presidential campaign.
Q Because you did suggest, did you not, that the criteria she had outlined are the same as the President’s.
MR. EARNEST: Based on what she had said publicly over the weekend, which is that she had two criteria for evaluating trade agreements, which is the impact it would have on national security and the impact it would have on middle-class workers across the country. And --
Q Has the President spoken to her about this since this issue has come up in Congress?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that they’ve had conversation about this issue in the last couple of days, no.
Q Okay, one last question. You remember Larry Summers?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, of course, very well. (Laughter.) Very well. Enjoyed the opportunity to work with him here at the White House.
Q A very important advisor to the President over the years, a member of his Cabinet.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. A widely regarded economist.
Q He said the repudiation of this trade deal would neuter the U.S. presidency for the next 19 months. Is Larry Summers right, that if this goes down, it neuters the U.S. presidency for the next 19 months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess that’s his assessment to try to reach. The President’s focus is on making sure that we’re doing every single thing that we can for middle-class families.
Q But I didn’t ask about the President’s focus. Do you agree that it would neuter the presidency?
MR. EARNEST: What I agree is that our priority here, and what we’re spending most of our time focused on, is trying to help middle-class families. The President has said that he’s going to use his remaining time in office to try to advance the interests of middle-class families. And again, we face these broader global forces, and the question is what are we going to do about it.
The President has got a clear strategy to allow the United States to use our influence in the world to try to level the playing field in a way that will be advantageous to American businesses and American workers. And that’s what we’re focused on. And there’s ample opportunity for those on the outside to draw their own political conclusions, but we’re not focused on politics right now.
Q I didn’t hear a “no.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what you’ve heard is a clear enunciation of what our strategy is, and it’s focused on looking out for the interests of middle-class families.
Q Thank you. Congressman Bill Shuster, who is the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has got a plan that would spin off the U.S. air traffic control system into a non-profit corporation -- is out today. Where does the White House stand on an idea like this?
MR. EARNEST: Margaret, I can tell you that we have not had an opportunity to review the details of Chairman Shuster’s proposal. But I can tell you that it is the goal of the administration to continue our air traffic control system’s outstanding safety record, and to take steps to make the system more innovative and efficient. And the administration is committed to working with Congress on reauthorizing legislation that improves and strengthens the FAA.
Q But would you consider -- you haven't fully engaged on this yet. Is this something that you’re open-minded about, or your instinct is no, not so much?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think when it comes to a question like this, I think the first thing to consider is the safety record. And obviously the current air traffic control system has an outstanding safety record. But as we consider this proposal as others that will involve the reauthorization of the FAA, we’ll be in touch with Congress about it.
Q I’d like to go back to the Prince concert. This is about twice the size of your average state dinner. So I guess maybe you’re surprised that there are this many questions about it in the press briefing room --
MR. EARNEST: Mildly.
Q -- or you’re not surprised at all, and figure let the chips fall where they may on Monday. But is there like a size threshold at which a private event just clearly becomes something that has to be disclosed? And in light of the fact that there are now so many questions about it -- I know you didn’t come with a guest list, but there were a lot of corporate folks, administration folks -- influencers. It’s not just like -- it wasn’t just Bobby Titcomb, right? It was like people who make stuff happen in New York and Washington. Would you consider now disclosing a guest list? And what was the purpose? Was it like a birthday party, or just like, whatever, it’s June, let’s have a party?
MR. EARNEST: It was a private event and an opportunity for the President and First Lady to host some of their friends at the White House at a party they paid for on their own dime.
Q But it wasn’t all friends, was it? I mean, 500 people are -- they’re not close friends with 500 people.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I described them as close friends, I just described them as friends. And yes, I think it’s fair to say that the President and First Lady obviously have the opportunity to meet lots of people and make lots of friends, and many of them were invited to the White House on Saturday night.
Q Would you consider releasing now a guest list because there’s so much interest in it?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t anticipate that we’ll do that.
Q Can I ask quickly one more since I'm on a roll? (Laughter.) Could you give us an update on the hostage review that the White House is considering? Are you expecting -- should we expect anything this week, perhaps? June, I think people have had their eye on.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific timeframe to lay out for you. This is obviously some work that’s been done over the last several months. And I would just indicate to you that we’re nearing completion of this particular document. Some of this review will remain classified and we won’t be in a position to talk about publicly. But I know that part of the work of a team that’s been conducting this review has been to ensure that there is a document that we can discuss publicly to help the American public understand the great lengths that the federal government goes to, to try to rescue those Americans who are being held hostage overseas.
So we’ll have more to talk -- more detail that we can talk about on this relatively soon.
Q Okay. But maybe not this week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific timeframe for you, but relatively soon.
Q Over the weekend, senior administration official Thomas Shannon had a long meeting with the President of Venezuela’s National Assembly in Haiti. At the end of the meeting, the Venezuelan, Diosdado Cabello, said the meeting was aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations. Is the administration considering returning ambassadors between the two countries, or any similar steps to fuller ties?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of this particular meeting, Drew, but let me see if we can get back to you. If not, I might recommend that you pose your question to the State Department. They may have some more details on this.
Q A couple new topics, Josh. The stocks are down this morning, partly in relationship to the volatility and fear associated with the inability to work out an arrangement from international bankers and creditors with the Greek government. When we were in Austria, you spoke a week ago in hopeful terms that conversations would lead to a productive outcome and both sides would give a little, and volatility would be avoided. Neither have taken place. Where do things stand now? And what has the administration done over the weekend, if anything, to try to bring this to a resolution?
MR. EARNEST: Major, we do continue to be hopeful that all sides will be able to come to an agreement without adding undue volatility to the financial markets.
Q So now it’s undue volatility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess this is an acknowledgement of what you said, that there has been some volatility in reaction to sort of the tea leaf reading of the ongoing negotiations.
We’ve been clear about what our position is, which is that the Greek people have endured prolonged hardship and have taken difficult but important steps to lay the groundwork for sustainable economic recovery. The Greek government and its international partners need to work expeditiously to finalize a credible reform program that can lay the foundation for long-term growth within the eurozone.
And the reason that we have continued to be optimistic of a favorable outcome here -- and by favorable, I mean an outcome that doesn’t add undue volatility to the financial markets -- is that all of the partners who sit around the table conducting these negotiations recognize the stakes of resolving these negotiations in a satisfactory way. And so it may be difficult to get to the final result, but it is clearly in the interest of all of those who are around the table negotiating to reach the same result.
Q You just mentioned the tough choices the Greeks have made and endured. That was not the emphasis the President placed on this subject matter last week. He said clearly the Greeks have to make more tough political choices, placing the onus principally on the Greek government. Is that still the position of this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s our position that, frankly, both sides need to engage in these conversations in a way that leads to a compromise agreement. And we have indicated that it is important for the Greek government to follow through on the critical structural reforms that they’ve committed to implementing. And I know that’s what their financial creditors are interested in seeing. And I think any sort of final agreement will require a commitment along those lines. But ultimately, that’s something that all sides will have to work out.
Secretary Lew has been chiefly responsible for engaging with the Greeks and other members of the Eurozone and other international organizations to try to encourage a resolution. So for updates in terms of conversations the United States has had, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department.
Q There was an announcement over the weekend about U.S. expanding its military engagement into the Baltics. Could you describe how that came about? Was that discussed by the President privately at the G7? Did he let other nations know that this was coming? And what message does this send to Moscow?
MR. EARNEST: Major, I'm not aware of any specific conversations that the President had with our G7 partners on this specific topic. I will say that even the early stories indicated that this proposal is still working its way through the policy process and is in the early stages of the policy process. But it is --
Q You don’t expect it to be reversed, do you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is consistent with what we have previously indicated about the United States commitment to fulfilling our Article 5 responsibilities and ensuring that all of our allies are committed to that agreement. And we want to make sure that NATO allies are defending their territory on a 24/7 basis, and we’ll continue to support them and exercise vigilance in that regard.
This is something that was discussed extensively at the Wales NATO summit that the President participated in last year. And there was agreement among the allies of the need to enhance the readiness of the NATO Response Force. And so the discussions that -- the policy discussions that were reported over the weekend are consistent with furthering that goal.
Q Is there a sense of urgency about this, that -- and is there anything that the U.S. has picked up or its allies there have picked up that create a sense that this needs to happen sooner rather than later to have the appropriate deterrent effect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I think our goal here is to further intensify our coordination with our NATO allies and to make sure that we're all -- all of our allies are living up to the commitments that we’ve made as it relates to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. And this is -- again, this is consistent with that responsibility. But it’s aimed at ensuring that the territory of our NATO allies is properly defended.
Q Jon came very close to getting at this, so I just want to bore in a little bit. Did the President himself make a single phone call this weekend to any member of Congress advocating a new legislative strategy to resolve the snafu over TAA?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a lot of specific -- I can tell you that a number of phone calls were placed.
Q By the President?
MR. EARNEST: But the phone calls I can tell you about are the President does intend to try to communicate on the telephone with the Speaker of the House today. I know that the President has placed a call and they still haven’t connected yet, but they will today.
Q All right, that's one. All right, that's one.
MR. EARNEST: The Chief of Staff today did connect with Leader Pelosi, where they discussed this issue. I know that the Chief of Staff also had an opportunity to speak with Leader McConnell to give him an update of our view of the situation. But I don't have a lot of details from those conversations to share at this point.
Q I’m just trying to figure out how many times he picked up the phone. So it was once?
MR. EARNEST: So again, I don't have any other details to share in terms of what occurred this weekend.
Q Okay. The burden falls -- for resolving this snafu -- falls on the President, the Speaker, or the Minority Leader?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s a legislative snafu.
Q Right. But who does the burden fall on? Who needs to find the votes? Because you indicated to Ron a moment ago, call your sources. We all have. And the same answer comes. Somebody needs to find some votes because they don't exist. So who does the burden fall upon to find the votes that currently don't exist?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there’s not actually a legislative procedure that's laid out at this point. So once we're --
Q Right, but one thing that will direct the procedure is finding votes -- because once you have people to vote for something, then you have a procedure you can lay before them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Major, that you have highlighted what some people find quite frustrating about the legislative process, which is that sometimes there’s a discussion about, well, let’s build the votes and then we’ll decide what the procedure is going to be for what we actually vote on. And in some cases, people say, well, let’s figure out what the votes are going to be -- what the procedure is going to be, and then we’ll go about the process of whipping support for the vote schedule that we’ve laid out.
So the fact is that the path forward is something that continues to be the subject of intensive discussion not just among reporters and their sources, but also among members of the Democratic and Republican staffs on Capitol Hill. And some of those conversations are taking place with the input of White House staff, as well.
But ultimately determining that path forward is something that the Speaker of the House is going to have to determine. He’s the one that sets the floor schedule, and so he’s the one that's responsible for that.
Q And the Majority Leader.
MR. EARNEST: They’ll do that in conjunction with certainly conversations they have here at the White House and in conversations they have with the minority, as well -- because the other thing we know is that this is going to require bipartisan support. And at each stage in this process, we’ve seen Democrats and Republicans come together to advance this legislation.
That was true when Republicans put on the floor the rule opening up this vote; and that required, in rather unusual fashion, eight Democrats to side with Republicans to advance the rule. This was true when TPA was considered. It required Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass it. It got 28 Democrats, which I think was to the mild surprise of some.
And we are going to need a similar bipartisan majority to emerge around this issue of trade adjustment assistance to make sure that we're looking out for the interests of American workers. So the point, is Democrats and Republicans are going to have to work together on this.
Q Mokhtar Belmokhtar, you said he was targeted. Do you know, and can you confirm, if he was killed?
MR. EARNEST: I cannot confirm that. It is typical for the Department of Defense, when strikes like this are carried out, to conduct a battle damage assessment. And that's something that they are -- my understanding is they're still doing that.
Q And historically you have been reluctant to confirm a targeting until DNA evidence has been obtained. It’s been reported that it hasn’t been obtained, and it’s unclear what the actual result of this targeting was.
MR. EARNEST: There are experts who will take a close look at this, and it may take some time for them to fully evaluate the results of this strike. But when they have reached a conclusion about the results, we’ll let them make that announcement.
Q Josh, thanks, I want to take you to Cuba, and I want to get your perspective on the release of the six detainees to Oman. A lot of people, Americans, who are unfamiliar with the mindset of the administration would say, “Well, why would they do that? These guys were being held; they must have done something.” Can you unpack the thought behind releasing these six detainees to Oman?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I can confirm for you that there were six individuals who had been held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay that have been transferred to the custody of the Omanis. Prior to any transfer like this taking place, the Secretary of Defense must certify that there are restrictions in place that limit the threat to the national security of the United States. That's something that the Secretary of Defense has to certify. We typically do not in public discuss precisely the security measures that are in place. But the transfer would not have occurred if the Secretary of Defense were not satisfied that the threat that these individuals pose to American national security was not sufficiently mitigated.
Q Just a couple more. I’m going to ask you about Bowe Bergdahl. When the administration agreed to the transfer of the so-called Taliban Five, I’m wondering if you factored into that the decision the intelligence that Bergdahl had, A, walked away; and B, according to senior military officials, had actually gotten high with Afghan officers and soldiers. Was that a part of your decision tree in allowing this procedure to go forward to try to get those guys sent away?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I can tell you that what factored into the President’s decision is the commitment that the Commander-in-Chief has made to every single American who put on the uniform that we're not going to leave them behind. And that is what -- that was the President’s priority in terms of securing the successful release of Sergeant Bergdahl.
Now, what’s also true is that there is an ongoing military justice inquiry into the circumstances of his disappearance. And I don't want to say anything about that ongoing investigation that may in any way interfere with the efforts of those investigators to learn more about his disappearance.
Q Just so I’m clear, it doesn't matter what he’s done or she’s done; if they go away, we're going to go get them?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Kevin, that I would say two things about that. The first is, it does matter. And that's why we have the military justice system. But what we also have is we also have a commitment from this Commander-in-Chief and every previous Commander-in-Chief that when an American puts on the military uniform of the United States of America, we're not going to leave them behind.
Q I want to get a macro question to wrap up for me. Given the trade battle, given Obamacare -- the battle there in the High Court, there are so many other little issues that we would call legacy items that seem to be in the balance. And I’m just curious from your perspective, to use a boxing analogy, does the President feel like he’s still fighting for all these legacy items? Is he on the ropes? Is he sort of taking a beating from your perspective? Because it seems like every time he puts a legacy item out there, there seems to be something that seems to either chop away at it little by little, or in the case of the trade circumstance, get rejected outright.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there were previous reports a month ago that the President’s trade agenda had been rejected in the Senate, but it eventually passed. And we're going to continue that dogged effort to stand up for middle-class families in the House.
And I think the fact is we have seen, principally from Republicans, an effort -- a dogged effort to try to stymie the President’s agenda for middle-class families. And whether that is the Affordable Care Act that has allowed 16 million Americans to get health care and kept the health care inflation at the lowest levels in 50 years, or even protections that strongly benefit middle-class families across the country that prevent women from being charged more just because they're women; or prevent those individuals with preexisting conditions from being discriminated against for having that preexisting condition. The Affordable Care Act is something the President feels strongly about, and we're going to continue to do everything that we can to try to implement that in a way that maximizes the benefits for middle-class families.
And there’s no doubt that we’ve seen a lot of resistance from Republicans. We’ve even seen Republicans resort to trying to use the court system to try to stymie the President’s progress. And if you take a look at this President’s legislative record and set of accomplishments, I think we’ll be able to look back after eight years and indicate that -- and see a lot of evidence to indicate that we’ve made some really important progress on behalf of middle-class families over his time in office.
Q Last one, I’m sorry. I forgot to ask about the story out of Spokane, Washington. There was an American woman who -- it has been alleged -- I’m trying to be careful in how I frame this. She suggested she was African American. It turns out she wasn't African American. She was an NAACP leader in that city and has since resigned. Was the President made aware of that story? Has he followed that story? Does the White House have any comment on that story?
MR. EARNEST: The White House does not have any comment, and I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it.
Q Josh, the President has said he wants to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility, and that it’s been a recruiting tool for terrorists. And it’s been thwarted by Congress. Is there a goal or a plan to send as many detainees as possible to other countries so that it, in effect, is closed before he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: Pam, as you know, the administration has undergone a great effort to try to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, principally because it does serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorists. It also is prohibitively expensive, and the President does not believe it is in the best interest of American national security to continue to operate that prison.
And so what he has sought to do is to work closely with our partners around the world to try to transfer those detainees out of the prison. There are in place significant security measures to mitigate the threat that those individuals may pose to American national security when those transfers occur.
But the President does believe that we would be more successful in this effort if Congress were willing to engage constructively in it. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Congress repeatedly throw up legislative obstacles to prevent the closure of the prison. And they do that -- Congress has done that despite the bipartisan support for closing the prison.
So the President and his team continue to be focused on trying to accomplish that goal. But it's a goal that’s been made more difficult because of congressional interference. And the fact is, we believe we’d be more effective if Congress were actually willing to work with the administration to accomplish that goal.
Q Do you think he could pare it down to almost no detainees by the time he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any sort of prediction to make at this point. But I can assure you that the President and his team are working hard in pursuit of a goal that the President identified in his first couple of days here in office.
Q Both you and the President have said that there were other things in terms of Russia and Ukraine that the U.S. could do other than the economic sanctions that are already in place. Would moving heavy military equipment into some of the Eastern European countries be one of those things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, the fact is, Ukraine is not a NATO ally. And obviously the status of countries in that region of the world varies, and the relationship between the United States and those countries is different based on that status.
So the United States has an obligation to ensure that we are protecting the territorial integrity of our NATO allies. We signed a NATO treaty that provides for the defense of our allies, and that is a treaty that the United States and this President is serious about upholding. We continue to encourage our allies to be similarly serious about upholding that commitment and to making the kinds of financial commitments that are necessary to back it up.
The situation with Ukraine is a little bit different; it is not a NATO ally. But the United States and many of our NATO partners do feel strongly about the international principle that’s at stake, which is protecting the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of an independent nation. And we have seen Russia grossly violate that sovereignty.
And that’s why you’ve seen the international community step forward. The United States has provided military assistance to the Ukrainians. The United States has provided substantial economic assistance to the Ukrainians to try to bolster the government and bolster their economy while they’re dealing with this challenging situation in the eastern part of the country. And we’ve worked closely with the international community in that effort.
But as it relates to the specific announcement over the weekend in terms of moving equipment into Eastern Europe, I would just note that, as I mentioned to Major, that that’s still in the early stages of the policymaking process but is consistent with the strategy that we have previously pursued.
Q Could it be seen as a message to Vladimir Putin if it was done?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is a message to the world -- most directly to our NATO allies -- that the United States is serious about living up to our Article 5 commitments in the context of the NATO Treaty.
Q Josh, among the -- Supreme Court this month is its decision on same-sex marriage. The ruling will determine whether states have a right under the 14th Amendment to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. But there is federal implications as well, because certain Social Security and veterans benefits aren’t flowing to married same-sex couples in states without marriage equality. Is the administration looking at contingency plans in the event -- potentially these benefits flow same-sex couples -- in the event the Supreme Court upholds bans on same-sex marriage?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, at this point, we continue to have a lot of confidence in the legal arguments that were made by the Solicitor General with regard to this matter. And I'm not aware of any contingency planning that’s ongoing at this point.
Susan, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the Gitmo issue, the President decided to release those detainees on Friday night. I was wondering about, first, the timing. And then, McCain told me last week that Lisa Monaco and others in the Pentagon were working on a plan to put forward, to send up to Congress to shut down Gitmo that maybe Congress would find palatable. McCain is willing to work with you. Do you feel like -- Manchin also told me that -- Senator Manchin -- told me that he thought it was disappointing that these detainees were going to be released in the middle of this movement for a plan in Congress.
Do you think that timing of those released on a Friday night -- can you tell me about why that was done? And can you tell me what your response is to Manchin, who says this is disappointing and can poison the well for a deal in Congress to shut down Gitmo?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d say a couple things about this. I don’t have any information about the particular timing. Obviously these kinds of transfers are closely coordinated with our partners around the world; in this case with Oman. I know that there’s -- would note that one of the legislative hurdles has been built into our efforts to transfer detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay is notification of Congress 30 days prior to this transfer.
So, anyway, I don’t have any more details beyond that. You might check with the Department of Defense to see if they have more details.
Q What about the plan that Lisa Monaco is working on with the Pentagon to send up to the -- any timing on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any specific details of conversations that have taken place. Obviously we have identified that is an important priority, and this is a priority that the President has identified in his second or third day in office. And we would have made more progress in this regard had Congress not been working so rigidly to try to prevent our efforts to -- or to thwart our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
But this is ongoing. The President believes it’s clearly in our national security interests. And we’re going to continue to make progress. And when we have the updates on timing, we’ll let you know.
Q But you’re confirming that there is an effort to send Congress a plan to close it?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not confirming any of our conversations with members of Congress. I'm just reiterating that it continues to be a priority that the President has identified, that his team is working hard on, to successfully close the prison at Guantanamo Bay because it’s inconsistent with our national security interests to keep it open.
Q On trade, Pelosi mentioned that there was some, maybe even a horse-trading deal that could be reached. And she specifically mentioned a long-term highway funding bill. And I'm wondering if that’s something that you all can get behind, and whether there’s a movement afloat to try to convince Democrats to support the trade bill because maybe the Republicans will support a highway funding bill, maybe that’s part of the talks with Boehner today.
MR. EARNEST: I think this goes to Major’s question about sort of trying to design a procedural path forward here. And that, I'm confident, will be the subject of extensive conversation on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans.
The President’s view on investing in our infrastructure is something that’s well known; we’ve put forward our specific plan. But we believe that there is ample reason for Democrats and Republicans to come together, particularly Democrats who have unanimously supported trade adjustment assistance in the past to support the extension and expansion of trade adjustment assistance that currently is being considered by Congress.
Q But does the President support this idea of -- maybe a twofer here -- you could get the highway bill if Republicans can --
MR. EARNEST: That’s something that Democrats and Republicans will have to discuss on Capitol Hill.
Q And on the Prince issue just really quickly. Sorry, last question. Thank you for indulging me.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Can you tell me if there were any House Democrats invited to this event?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details on the guest list.
Q And can you tell me how much they paid for it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know, other than that the President and First Lady paid for it.
2:05 P.M. EDT