Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 06/16/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:51 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Feel like I'm interrupting a party or something.
Q Ooooh --
Q It's a private event. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well played. (Laughter.) I'm just disappointed I wasn’t invited. (Laughter.) Let’s move on. (Laughter.)
Let me do one quick announcement before I get to your questions. The Federal Emergency Management Administration, through its regional office in Denton, Texas, has mobilized personnel to Texas and Oklahoma in response to May flooding. This is something that you all covered quite extensively last month. Those personnel are in place as well to respond to Tropical Storm Bill, which we know has already begun to bring heavy rainfall, strong winds, and the potential of tornadoes to portions of Texas and Oklahoma today.
FEMA remains in close coordination with state emergency managers and tribal officials as well as our federal partners at the National Weather Service as they make their forecasts. So these FEMA personnel will remain deployed to Texas and Oklahoma in preparation for these storms. As of now there are no unmet needs that have been expressed by state and local officials, but if those needs do arise we've got federal personnel in place to try to help state and local officials meet them.
So we'll keep the people of Texas and Oklahoma in our thoughts and prayers over the next 48 hours or so. But with that, Jim, let’s go to questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple of topics, but I wanted to start again with trade. House Republican leaders today are moving to extend the time period to act on trade adjustment authority to the end of July. Given that yesterday you said that the longer that this process plays out the harder it is to build bipartisan support, does the President support the leadership move? And can you kind of explain the strategy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, today’s move is a prudent one because primarily it would give members of the House and Senate additional time to consider the path forward. And in this case, we are pleased that Democrats and Republicans appear to be working together to try to find this path.
The President has obviously identified this as an important priority, and the President was pleased to have the support of 28 Democrats who voted for trade promotion authority legislation at the end of last week. And we are looking forward to continuing to work with those Democrats to find this path forward, including by supporting efforts to create the additional time that's necessary to find this path.
So the fact is, without this proposal we’d be staring at another vote in the House of Representatives as early as today, and it's not apparent that the outcome would be any different. So this highlights the need to find a path forward, and as I mentioned, this seems to be a prudent step in that direction.
Q July 30 is essentially the point where the Highway Trust Fund is expected to no longer be able to cover accommodations to the states. And so it seems to be a nice coincidence. And you were asked this yesterday, but given the new timing development, does the White House endorse coupling TAA with a major highway transportation bill? I mean, do you think Democrats would vote down TAA if it was joined with billions of dollars in infrastructure projects?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question in two ways, Jim. The first is that we're still engaged in conversations with Democrats and Republicans in the House about the path forward. Those conversations continue. You saw that there were some senior White House officials who traveled to Capitol Hill this morning to visit with Democrats to discuss this issue. And so we're still looking for a path forward. There’s not a specific one that we've endorsed at this stage.
What I will say is that the other thing that we continue to be concerned about is that trade adjustment assistance is slated to expire at the end of September, and we know that this is a program that offers important benefits to middle-class families all across the country.
The President’s proposal is not merely to extend this program but to expand it, and to expand it in a way that we could essentially help 100,000 middle-class workers each year over the next six years as they deal with the challenges of broader global economic trends. In many cases, we’re talking about workers that have lost their job to operations that are starting in or expanding in India or China. These are countries with whom we do not have trade agreements.
So the fact is there are broader global forces at play here, and the President is pursuing this particular trade agenda precisely because of his interest in trying to offer as many advantages as possible to middle-class workers in America as we deal with an increasingly global economy. So that’s the reason that the President is pursuing this approach. We are pleased to have the support of as many Democrats as we do, both in the House and in the Senate. And we’re looking to build on that support.
Q Do you worry that if Congress were to wait until the end of July -- or if the House waits until the end of July you then have still a process in the Senate to go through that delays TPP itself, and you might not get an agreement in time for the APEC meeting in November?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think I’ll just reiterate what I said yesterday, which is that we hope that Congress can act as soon as possible. But before they can set a timeline for action they need to determine a path forward, and that’s the subject of ongoing discussions.
Q Today Kurdish fighters had a major victory over the Islamic State in a city on the Turkish-Syria border. And I’m wondering, given that success, is the administration considering directly supplying Kurdish fighters with arms -- rather than going through either Baghdad or some other means and instead, given this victory, going directly to them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we do note the rapid advance of Syrian Kurdish and Free Syrian Army forces around Tel Abyad. The progress that they have made, according to reports, indicates that they have cut ISIL’s primary supply route to its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. We know that this could lead to a major disruption of ISIL’s flow of foreign fighters, illicit goods, and other illegal activity into northern Syria and into Iraq. So we continue to monitor the situation on the ground, but we have seen that anti-ISIL forces have taken the majority of the city of Tel Abyad.
And it’s important to note that as these local ground forces have advanced, they’ve been backed by coalition military airstrikes. And I think this is another illustration of the recipe for success that’s been documented in other places, including recently in Tikrit over in Iraq. And it is an indication that when our coalition can back capable, effective, local fighters on the ground, that we can make important progress against ISIL.
Now, the other thing that is true -- and I said this in the aftermath of the advance against ISIL in Tikrit -- is that it continues to be important for anti-ISIL forces to make concerted efforts to protect local populations and property, and secure the human rights of all citizens. This is essential to holding and stabilizing territory that’s been recaptured from ISIL. And that’s a message that we’ve obviously delivered in public, but it’s one that we continue to deliver to all of our partners as well.
Q And do you have evidence that that either has -- has been either violated or held up in this particular case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, we continue to monitor the situation on the ground. Obviously our ability to do that is somewhat limited in a place like Syria. The one thing that we know is we know that this more recent success is actually a direct consequence of an earlier military operation that President Obama ordered; that, as was widely covered by the media outlets that are represented in this room, the city of Kobani in northern Syria was under siege by ISIL forces and there was a grave risk it could be taken.
But because of the President’s decision to order the airdrop of significant resources and equipment and reinforcements, and because we were able to work with Turkey to allow for additional forces to enter that city, we saw the coalition -- and they were backed by coalition airstrikes, of course -- we saw that anti-ISIL forces were able to drive ISIL out of Kobani. And over the last several months, those forces have steadily driven east across northern Syria. And months later, they now have succeeded in -- again, according to reports -- they’ve made important progress in retaking Tel Abyad.
And that’s an important and notable development and I think is an indication that when the 62-member coalition that President Obama has built against ISIL can back up the efforts of local forces fighting ISIL on the ground, that that is a recipe for success.
Q Josh, does the White House have a reaction to the death sentence today for the former Egytian President Morsi and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I believe what was announced today was a life sentence for former President Morsi.
Q -- death sentence.
MR. EARNEST: There had previously been a death sentence that had been handed down against President Morsi. What was handed down today was a life sentence that was on top of the death sentence that he’d already received. But either way, we are deeply troubled by the politically-motivated sentences that have been handed down against former President Morsi and several others by an Egyptian court today.
We understand that Mr. Morsi’s attorney intends to appeal the sentence. The United States has repeatedly raised concerns about the detention and sentencing of a variety of political figures in Egypt and we are concerned that the proceedings have been conducted in a way that is not only contrary to universal values but also damaging to the stability that all Egyptians deserve.
In particular, we condemn the practice of mass trials and sentences which are conducted in a manner that is inconsistent with Egypt’s international obligations, and are frequently used against members of the opposition and non-violent activists, including leaders in civil society and even some independent journalists. This practice is unjust and undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt.
And again, this is a message that we have delivered publicly, but it’s also one that’s been communicated directly to Egypt.
Q Moving on to another foreign policy issue. President Putin said today that Russia would add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal. Is that something that is concerning to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, we’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a specific reaction to them. What we have -- as we have engaged Russia, we have sought to try to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, principally, and that has -- we have seen that Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine have been destabilizing -- again, most directly in Ukraine, but also in the broader region.
And our efforts are going to continue to be focused on supporting the Ukrainian government by providing some military assistance as well as some economic assistance. We’re going to continue to be actively engaged in reassuring our NATO allies, and making clear to everybody who’s watching, including Russia, that we take seriously our Article 5 commitments under the NATO Treaty. And the United States will also continue to take steps that we believe are necessary to protect our own security and our own territory and our own sovereignty. And we take all that seriously.
And we also make clear to the Russians that there is an opportunity for them to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, live up to the commitments that they’ve made at the negotiations in Minsk, and actually start to reenter the international community.
They have -- their economy has suffered and they have been isolated because of steps the international community has taken in reaction to their actions in Ukraine. And that is a message that we continue to deliver. And I’ve acknowledged in the past that we have not yet seen Russia begin to take those steps and that’s been a source of continued disappointment. It was a source of continued discussions at the G7 meetings in Germany that quite conspicuously didn’t include Russia.
So the stakes here are pretty clear. There is a lot of determination behind this message, not just on the part of the United States, but on the part of our NATO allies.
Q Lastly, the markets and currencies are continuing to react to the situation in Greece. At the risk of sounding like a broken record for asking again -- you said yesterday that the White House was hopeful of a deal. Are you still? And what do you think the prospects are now?
MR. EARNEST: The optimism that I expressed yesterday is consistent with the optimism that we have expressed over the last several weeks about the ability of all the parties to resolve their differences in a way that doesn’t contribute undue instability to the financial markets.
Q That optimism does not seem to be shared in Europe.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure what the explanation is for that. What I will just say is the reason for our optimism is that we do believe with some conviction that all of the parties recognize that it's clearly in their interest to resolve this in a way that doesn’t rattle the markets and, frankly, allows Greece to both follow through on some of the structural reform commitments that they’ve already made, but also get back on a path toward economic growth, which is something that the citizens and political leaders of that country are obviously very interested in.
And seeing that country get back on that path toward economic growth is something that is not just in the interest of the people of Greece but all of those with economies that are so directly tied to Greece.
And again, that’s what contributes to our optimism. I think as is consistent with our view of even some legislative situations in this country, the path forward is not immediately clear, but we are hopeful that all the parties at the table, including Greece, will recognize that it’s in their collective interest to resolve this situation before it has a significant negative impact on the global economy.
Q Good afternoon, Josh. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Nice to see you.
Q Good to see you. I wanted to ask a little bit about Trump. I know -- he’s very rich, by the way. I know in the past that you kind of wanted to stay out of talking about other candidates, but this has got to be just too much fun. (Laughter.) He did say today that he opposes the trade deal. Among the many people and nations he insulted was President Obama. (Laughter.) He said the trade deal because -- he opposed the trade deal because “they are stupid people negotiating it.” And he specifically said, “Our President doesn’t have a clue. He’s a bad negotiator.” Can you respond to those comments?
MR. EARNEST: I think I'm going to try to exercise more self-discipline than even Mr. Trump himself might and avoid commenting on his announcement today.
Q One more try. He did say that he has a golf course over here in Potomac that he was hoping that President Obama will avail himself of sooner than even when he’s done being President. Do you think the President would take him up on playing a course owned by Mr. Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. But it’s a generous and unexpected invitation. (Laughter.)
Q And I am going to change subjects just a bit. Did the President watch the Blackhawks last night? And does he have a reaction to their Stanley Cup win?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether or not the President had the opportunity to see the game. Those of you who follow the President on Twitter noted that he had an opportunity to tweet about this. The President is an unabashed advocate for his hometown teams in Chicago. And so he is not -- while he does not closely follow hockey over the course of the regular season, he is obviously very pleased to see the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years. And he certainly does look forward to welcoming them to the White House once again.
Q And finally, since it is summer, if I could just follow up on sports. LeBron James says that he is the best player in the world and they’re going to win. The President, obviously an avid basketball fan -- does he have an opinion whether or not LeBron James is the current best player in the world?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President would probably say that those are the kinds of claims that you prove on the basketball court. And over the last several weeks, I think Mr. James has assembled a pretty good case for himself.
Chip, over to you.
Q Can I follow up on Jim’s questions about presidential candidate Trump? The DNC put out a statement today -- they said, “Today Donald Trump became the second major Republican candidate to announce for President in two days. He adds some much needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field.”
Does the White House agree with that statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen the statement from my colleagues at the DNC, but they obviously are the ones who are in the most appropriate position to respond to the comments made by Mr. Trump in his announcement.
Q Have you heard the President talk about the Republican field? What does he think about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, the President is an interested observer in this process. Having been through this process a couple of times himself, he understands how difficult and even challenging the process of being a candidate for President or a candidate for reelection for President can be. But the President also believes that these kinds of campaigns are important for the country because they do have -- when they are run effectively, they do have a way of surfacing important debates that’s important for the country to consider.
And we're still in the very early stages of this particular campaign, but hopefully over the course of the next 18 months or so we'll have an opportunity to engage in a vigorous debate about the future of the country. And the President obviously has spent his nearly seven years in office now thinking a lot about the future of the country and working very hard to advance the interests of the country. And that's what makes him such a keen observer of this process. But I don't have any specific reaction on specific candidates to share with you.
Q On what some would say is a more serious note -- well, it is a very serious note -- do you have anything on the potential threat to the Navy Yard in Philadelphia?
MR. EARNEST: No. I heard shortly before I came out here that the Navy Yard was evacuated. But I'd refer you to the local authorities there for more information about what’s happening.
Q Okay. And finally, back on the sports beat, fortunately it's not your Missouri team, but the other Missouri team apparently is involved in a hack. Do you know anything about it? Can you tell us anything about it? Has the White House had any reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of this particular incident. I heard a little bit about it before I walked out here, but I haven't read any of the news reports. But if we have anything on this today I'll make sure and get it to you.
Q On the sports beat -- (laughter) --
MR. EARNEST: Nobody told me that sports were in the briefing today.
Q Parties, today, it's summertime, it's hot out there. You said that the President doesn’t follow the Blackhawks in hockey year-round, but he watched the game. Does that open him up to criticism that he could be considered a fair weather fan?
MR. EARNEST: No. I don't know that he watched the games. I didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that he did last night.
Q On a more serious note -- (laughter) -- since the trade vote, has the President spoken to Minority Leader Pelosi?
MR. EARNEST: I don't believe the President has had the opportunity to speak to Leader Pelosi. Yesterday, the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, placed a telephone call to Leader Pelosi. But I don't know of any presidential-level conversations that have occurred.
Q He spoke to Speaker Boehner yesterday.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. They did on a couple of occasions yesterday.
Q Why would he not speak to the leader of the Democrats? Because, again, this was an issue that he invested so much personal capital in, and you're aware of the criticism out there that he, despite your denials or objections, is not personally engaged enough in this crucial issue.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, all of you had the opportunity to see the President spend time with Leader Pelosi at the congressional baseball game last week. The President traveled to Capitol Hill to address the House Democratic Caucus on Friday morning. The President was introduced in that meeting by Leader Pelosi directly. Incidentally, after the President was introduced he received a standing ovation from everybody in the room, including Leader Pelosi. The President had the opportunity to visit with Leader Pelosi for several minutes prior to the beginning of that caucus meeting.
So the President has had a number of conversations with Leader Pelosi. And the President is going to continue to be in touch with leaders on Capitol Hill as necessary. I certainly wouldn't rule out a future call to Leader Pelosi. They speak frequently. But over the last 24 hours, the President has not spoken to her, but the President’s Chief of Staff has.
Q But some would see that as an indication that he perhaps is more hopeful -- being what is said publicly -- that it would be the Republican side that would push this issue over the top and not the Democrats. Or has he -- are you still confident that the Democratic Caucus in the House will prevail -- will help him prevail on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, what’s clear is the support of Democrats is necessary to advance this piece of legislation. That was true when Congress tried to pass the rule opening up consideration of the legislation. It was true when there was a vote on trade promotion authority itself that required the support of Democrats to build a majority. We are pleased that 28 Democrats joined with the President to support the piece of legislation, and we're mindful of the fact that in order to pass TAA legislation that the President believes is critically important to middle-class workers all across the country, we're also going to need bipartisan support for that as well.
So, yes, the administration has been focused on working closely with Democrats and Republicans to make progress in this regard.
Q Just one other topic on ISIS -- ISIL, ISIS, Daesh. You mentioned the military victory in the north, and there was the announcement the other day about the increase in military participation by the United States there. Some critics have said that that’s all well and good but the problem is still, at its root, a political problem. Is there a plan or have there been recent steps that the administration is going to take to really amp up the political pressure, involvement, whatever you want to call it, to try and -- because I think -- I guess you would argue now we’re making military progress -- to keep this momentum going or to really do something decisive on the political side of this, not just the military side of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, just to be clear, we obviously have seen the reports on the ground of the important progress that anti-ISIL forces have made in northern Syria and in and around Tel Abyad. They’ve done that, again, with the important support of coalition airstrikes. But we’re continuing to monitor that situation and hopeful that they’ll continue to make important progress.
But you do highlight something that is really important and should not be lost in this discussion, which is that ultimately what we have seen is ISIL and other extremists inside Syria capitalize on the political instability and even chaos inside Syria, that, ultimately, it’s the failed political leadership of the Assad regime that created an opening for ISIL to try to establish a foothold. And that is an indication that even if we do continue to build on this momentum when it comes to the military effort, that we can’t lose sight of the fact that a political effort will be necessary as well.
And, again, this sort of goes to what we have even seen inside Iraq, that the recipe for success in Iraq requires a successful central government that’s committed to leading that country in an inclusive fashion and governing that country in an inclusive fashion.
We’re going to need to see a similar effort inside Syria, where ultimately there is a local government that can unite that country to repel extremists like those extremists from ISIL. And, obviously, the situation in Iraq is significantly more advanced. We see a coherent, functioning central government in Baghdad. We see a prime minister that is walking the walk, not just talking the talk when it comes to sort of bringing that country together to counter ISIL. We’ve got a lot more -- there’s a lot more work to be done inside Syria to build up a functioning central government that can essentially deal with the security situation across that entire country.
Q What is being done specifically in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there continues to be an effort to try to find representatives from the regime and those from the moderate Syrian opposition to sit down at the negotiating table and try to broker a political solution to their differences. But we haven’t seen a lot of progress on that recently.
Q Josh, has the White House been approached about the possibility of a standalone vote on the Trade Promotion Authority?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I can tell you that there have been a number of conversations about possible paths forward. But there are -- those discussions continue and no path has been settled on at this point.
Q Is it under consideration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to -- there are a variety of paths that are under consideration, but I don’t want to talk about a specific one at this point. There are obviously different ways to try to get this done.
Q Did that come up in the phone call between President Obama and Speaker Boehner?
MR. EARNEST: I can say as a general matter that the President and the Speaker did discuss potential paths forward. But a lot of -- at least some of the discussion was predicated on this idea of essentially voting today to give leaders in the House more time to consider their path forward.
Q Is the President planning to use the congressional picnic tomorrow to lobby members of Congress on trade?
MR. EARNEST: I expect that tomorrow, as it has traditionally been in the past, will primarily be a social event. It’s an opportunity for members of Congress to bring their families to enjoy a nice evening on the South Lawn of the White House, and I don’t anticipate a lot of arm-twisting taking place.
Q And on a foreign story, is the President upset with South Africa for letting Sudan’s President Bashir leave the country and not be held for being turned over to the ICC?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve obviously expressed some serious concerns about Mr. Bashir and the charges that he faces in the past. But for a specific reaction, let me have somebody follow up with you.
Q Thanks, Josh. The deadline for the Iran nuclear negotiations is in sight.
MR. EARNEST: Two weeks from today, I think, for those of us keeping track. (Laughter.)
Q Right, hypothetically. I was wondering if you could characterize the President’s thinking on whether this work in progress needs to require that if Iran accept anytime, anywhere inspections, and whether Iran needs to disclose the possible military dimensions of its nuclear work in order for this to be what is repeatedly referred to as a good deal.
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, the details of what you’re discussing are exactly the details that are being negotiated by experts over in Europe right now. What I can say as a general matter is that as it relates to the two issues that you raised -- the first is we saw in the context of the political agreement that was reached in early April that Iran agreed in principle to cooperating with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. And working out the details of that is complicated work, but we have a template for this model -- that there are a variety of countries that have signed on with the IAEA to allow for detailed inspections of their nuclear facilities. So we have a process for doing this. There’s a template for succeeding in doing this.
The President has insisted, given Iran’s previous behavior, that the process that’s put in place is one that’s rigorous and the one that’s the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed, and he takes that seriously. And we’re going to be looking for and expecting Iran to follow through on the commitments that they made in early April in that regard.
Q Two quick follow-ups then. Any particular countries serving as a template for this process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a variety of countries that are subject to inspections by the IAEA, so I don’t know that there’s one they have in mind. I just raised this to indicate that this is not a -- that the IAEA has a standard protocol that they follow when conducting these kinds of investigations.
Obviously the situation in Iran is going to be different because of the unique, shall we say, circumstances that relate to their nuclear program. But what I’m trying to do is to reassure you that there is a template that can be used in the context of these discussions to design, essentially, managed access to Iran’s nuclear program that would verify their compliance with the agreement and verify that they are not in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon.
What’s unique about this particular scenario that we envision is essentially inspections that are conducted across the nuclear supply chain, that we wouldn’t just be taking a look at their nuclear facilities or at their military facilities. This would include inspections of some manufacturing facilities that manufacture parts that are critical to the operation of a nuclear facility.
This would also include the inspection of some uranium deposits inside of Iran to ensure that they can account for where those materials are being mined and where they’re being transferred. So being able to keep eyes on the entire supply chain can give the United States, our international partners, confidence that Iran is abiding by the broader agreement. And only when Iran has begun to take those steps will the United States and the rest of the international community be prepared to start offering the kind of sanctions relief that we know that Iran’s leaders and Iran’s people are eager for.
Q But the supply chain point, though, raises -- is exactly the concern of people who say that Iran needs to disclose the possible military dimensions of its program because they worry that you might have the most intrusive inspections of the declared, existing, known stockpiles and the rest of it, and not know, not have a baseline for this other component of Iran’s nuclear program. What would you say to those people?
MR. EARNEST: What I would say is a couple of things. We do continue to have -- that there are concerns that have been raised about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program that will be the subject of discussion by the experts in Europe and will have to be addressed in the context of a final agreement. But I would actually say that it’s precisely -- that the inspection of the entire supply chain is precisely what can give us confidence that there isn’t a covert path to a nuclear weapon.
So, for example, we know that there is certain equipment that is required for any sort of nuclear facility to operate. And so by going to a manufacturing facility and verifying that this equipment is not being produced, or if it is, that we know exactly where it’s going, we can, again, have a lot of confidence that the equipment that’s produced in that facility is not being directed toward a covert, as-yet undiscovered path to a nuclear weapon. The same could be said of essentially a mining facility inside of Iran. We know where that material is going and we can verify that it’s not going toward an unaccounted for path toward a nuclear weapon.
Q One more on trade, Josh. You mentioned that the President spoke with Leader Pelosi ahead of the meeting with the House Democratic Caucus. Could you explain very clearly exactly what she expressed to him about whether she was going to vote no? Did she say she was going to vote no and explain why? Did she say she was leaning no and explained why? And since then, has she communicated to Denis McDonough or others more clearly why she voted no?
MR. EARNEST: David, I’m not going to share details of the private conversation that the President had with Leader Pelosi prior to the Democratic Caucus meeting. It was a meeting that lasted about 20 minutes but it was not just the two of them -- other Democratic leaders were in the room. I know that Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Clyburn, I think Mr. Becerra was in there, maybe others were in the room when they visited. But I’m not going to get into the details of that conversation. As it relates to Leader Pelosi’s position, she articulated her position very clearly on the floor of the House of Representatives and that was the explanation that she offered.
Q Did the White House feel blindsided or surprised by the statement she made on the House floor and the way she cast her vote?
MR. EARNEST: All I’ll say, David, is that the President and other senior officials here at the White House had an opportunity to visit on a number of occasions with Leader Pelosi last week in the run-up to the vote.
Q Last one. The President and his aides have cast the TPP trade deal as an important test of American leadership in Asia. Has the President spoken with any world leaders in Asia or elsewhere about what happened last week, where it stands, and reassured them in any way? And if not, what does the White House say to those world leaders if you could sort of express where this is and whether they should be concerned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know of any conversations that the President has had with the leaders of countries who are participating in the TPP negotiations with the United States. I do know -- and this is a point that we’ve made publicly many times -- is that we have heard from those other countries that they are closely watching the debate in Congress that’s been taking place over the last several months. Obviously, the leaders of those countries were watching closely when we had a procedural snafu in the Senate, so it’s not the first time that there’s been an apparent stumbling block encountered.
But I do think that those countries who are in negotiations with the United States are eager for the situation to be resolved. What they’re looking for is they’re looking for confidence that if an agreement can be reached around the negotiating table that it’s an agreement the United States can live up to. And that’s precisely why the President has sought Trade Promotion Authority. And I think that’s what our trading partners are looking for.
Q Does the administration feel that the TPP talks are unlikely to be finalized if TPA does not pass then? There’s some who would say you can bring TPP forward on its own merits in a different kind of timetable, but does the administration feel like this deal is over if you don’t get TPA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we feel is that the most effective way for us to get this done, for us to complete TPP negotiations is for Congress to offer President Obama what every previous President going to President Nixon, I believe, has been offered, which is trade promotion authority. And essentially this is the authority that’s necessary to negotiate an agreement and have that agreement, which does require congressional approval, but to allow that agreement to have expedited access to a vote on the floor of both the House and the Senate.
And, again, this is authority that previous Congresses have given to previous Presidents, and we’re hopeful that this Congress will be able to come together in bipartisan fashion and give this authority to President Obama so that we can pursue the strategy that he has laid out for helping the U.S. economy and U.S. workers grapple with the forces of globalization.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Nice to see you.
Q It’s great to see you. I just got back from Miami.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, welcome back.
Q So I bet you know what’s coming next.
MR. EARNEST: I guess I do.
Q I’d be remiss if I did not ask you about comments that Jeb Bush made yesterday directly at the President. He said that “90 miles to our South, there’s talk of a state visit by our outgoing President, but we don’t need a glorified tourist to go to Havana in support of a failed Cuba.” And I was looking for a White House reaction to him calling the President a glorified tourist.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Francesca, I don’t have a direct reaction to Governor Bush’s comments. Obviously, I’ve tried to be disciplined about giving Republican candidates for President the opportunity to make their announcements. But what I’ll just say as a general matter is that the President is pursuing a change in policy in Cuba principally because the policy that had previously been in place for more than five decades failed. It didn’t bring about the kind of change on the island nation of Cuba that we’d like to see. It didn’t bring about a government that is protecting of the basic universal human rights that we so deeply value in this country.
And, ultimately, the strategy that the President has put in place with regard to Cuba is one that’s aimed at empowering the Cuban people, and by engaging them through increased commerce, through increased diplomacy and, yes, even increased tourism, that we can empower the Cuban people to have more say over the direction and future of their country.
And this is a strategy that’s -- or this is a new policy that’s only been in place for about six months, but the President is confident that it will allow us to make much more progress with regard to Cuba than we were able to make over the last 55 years or so.
Q Sure. And on the first part of what he said about there’s talk about a state visit -- you know about a month ago he said maybe that could happen, so are there any updates on that front?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t have any updates at this point, but we’ll keep you posted.
Q Thanks, Josh. In response to Mark’s question, you said -- about whether it would be possible for just TPA to be passed without the TAA -- you said there are a number of plans under consideration. So should we take that to mean that that is among the plans under consideration and that the President has not ruled that out or said that he would veto a standalone TPA bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don’t want to go into the legislative options that are being discussed by a wide variety of members of Congress. There are some that have been proposed that are nonstarters in the view of the White House. But rather than shooting down all the bad ideas, we’ll allow those conversations to take place. And once we have a more coherent plan to present about the legislative path forward, then that’s something that we can discuss in more detail.
What I can tell you is that the President has long made trade adjustment assistance a high priority. And the reason for that is that the President is motivated by the need to ensure that we’re protecting American workers as much as we can from the broader forces of globalization. And essentially that means we know that we cannot insulate the United States from those global pressures, but what we can do is we can give American businesses and, most importantly, American workers the tools they need to compete.
And what trade adjustment assistance is, is essentially an effort to offer very specific job training to workers who have seen their jobs shipped overseas -- in some cases, to countries that don’t even have trade agreements with the United States -- but to give them the skills that they need so that they can compete in this global 21st century economy.
We know this strategy works; that in fiscal year 2014, nearly 77 percent of TAA participants found employment within six months of completing this job training program. And six months later, 90 percent of those workers were still in that job. That’s an indication that workers, when they go through this kind of training, can find good jobs and they can keep them. And that’s why the President has made this a priority.
And this is exactly what’s motivating the President to try to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in the first place -- is that we can’t afford to just stick our head in the sand and lock in the status quo when it comes to dealing with international, global economic competition; that the United States, our economy and our workers are going to be much better off if the United States is willing to engage, particularly in the most economically dynamic region of the world. And by engaging in those countries and compelling those countries to raise labor standards, to raise environmental standards, to protect intellectual property, to write in protections for basic human rights, and give American businesses and workers access to markets in their countries, that’s the way for us to succeed.
That’s the strategy for success -- not just for our economy and not just for businesses, but for American middle-class workers.
And that’s the case that the President has made and that’s why we have been successful in building bipartisan support for this strategy in the Senate, and why we continue to be confident, despite our latest challenges, that we’re going to be successful in moving this strategy through the House in bipartisan fashion as well.
Q I understand why you don’t want to shoot down all the bad ideas, but with this particular idea, is this a bad idea that will be shot down?
MR. EARNEST: I’m going to reserve judgment on the proposed paths until we have settled in on a strategy for advancing this particular piece of legislation through the legislative process. And once we have settled on that path forward, maybe we can even have a discussion about why certain paths weren’t chosen.
Q And one last question, I’m sorry. You mentioned that this postponing of another vote would -- you specifically said it would give members of the House and Senate additional time to consider the path forward. What do you see the role of the Senate being at this point, potentially?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously there’s a substantial majority in the United States Senate that has voted to advance both trade promotion authority and trade adjustment assistance. So they are keenly interested in exactly what’s going on in the House and we've had conversations from the White House, but I think probably also there have been conversations between members of the House and members of the Senate about the path forward.
Obviously, given the substantial progress that this legislation has already made through the Senate, and there’s important progress that's been made through the House because TPA legislation did pass, that the straightest, most direct way to try to move this across the finish line is just to take an additional vote or two in the House.
But this is something that is still under discussion, and again, members of the United States Senate obviously are invested in finding a solution that allows this legislation to come to the President’s desk.
Q Have administration officials up to the President been in touch with Leader McConnell or Senator Reid?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that over the weekend, Denis McDonough, the Chief of Staff, spoke to Senator McConnell. I don't have any updated conversations to tell you about beyond that, though.
Q To follow up on ideas that you may or may not want to shoot down, Nancy Pelosi wrote an op-ed in USA Today in which she said that perhaps the U.N. might come in handy in terms of crafting future trade agreements. Does the White House share that view? Does that come out of left field for you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House view is that the President and his team have put very effective negotiators at the negotiating table with our partners in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and we feel confident that those negotiators are following the President’s instructions to make sure that they’re looking out for the best interest of American workers and American businesses.
Those are the interests that are being represented and even advanced at the negotiating table, and that's the path that we're going to continue to pursue. What we’d like to see is bipartisan support from the Congress for that strategy.
Q So you don't think that it's necessary to bring the United Nations into trade discussions, as Leader Pelosi was suggesting in this op-ed?
MR. EARNEST: With regard to this specific trade agreement that we're trying to reach in the Asia Pacific region, the President continues to have full confidence that his negotiators are focused on, at his direction, the best interests of the American economy and American workers.
Q And the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office says that Prime Minister Abadi will be going to Iran tomorrow to meet with the Supreme Leader there, the Ayatollah Khamenei. And I'm just curious if you feel like that's a good idea. And what should Sunnis make of this visit? The President said and you said in recent days that one of the problems with taking the fight to ISIS on the ground is that there’s a lack of Sunni interest and you need more Sunni fighters. I suppose seeing the Prime Minister go to Iran and meet with the Supreme Leader is not the best recruiting tool for bringing in more Sunni fighters.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, the administration -- this administration has long acknowledged that Iraq is going to have an important relationship with their neighbors in Iran. They share a long border. They obviously have shared interests, including defeating ISIL. So it's not particularly surprising -- although I had not seen the week-ahead travel schedule for Prime Minister Abadi, if you will -- but I'm not surprised to hear that he is conducting a visit with his neighbors.
So we have -- at the same time, the administration has also reiterated that we believe it's critically important that Prime Minister Abadi govern the nation of Iraq in an inclusive way, and that Iran needs to respect the sovereignty of Iraq and allow Prime Minister Abadi to do precisely that.
We've even made the case publicly, Jim, that it's in Iran’s interest for Prime Minister Abadi to succeed in uniting the nation of Iraq to confront the ISIL threat because Iran understands as well as everyone else does that if Prime Minister Abadi is not successful in that effort it will be very difficult for us to accomplish our goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. And if Prime Minister Abadi and the people of Iraq are not successful in that effort, then we're likely to see ISIL forces uncomfortably close to the Iranian border. And that certainly is not in the interest of the Iranians, and frankly, it's not in the interest of the broader international community either.
So, again, it's not a particular surprise to anybody here, even though I had not previously seen the announcement, that Prime Minister Abadi is traveling to Tehran. But we continue to believe that it's critically important and even in the interest of Iran for them to protect Prime Minister Abadi’s sovereignty and his ability to unite the diverse country of Iraq to counter the threat from ISIL.
Q And what did you make of the Pope’s comments about climate change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what I have read in news reports is that there was a document that was only a draft that was leaked early. And I guess in some ways it's gratifying to know that there might be other spokespeople who deal with those kinds of challenges. (Laughter.) But maybe you might call it sort of --
Q Careful. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no, that's not where I'm going. I'm not going anywhere close to that. I'm suggesting that maybe I will show -- demonstrate some professional courtesy to my counterpart at the Vatican and withhold comment on this leaked document until a more formal announcement has been made.
Q Here it's a scoop. There it's a sin. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Kevin.
Q I want to get your reaction to the FDA’s announcement that trans-fats are going bye-bye, giving food manufacturers three years to sort of phase them out. And I want to also get your reaction to the people who might say get out of my kitchen. If I want to eat trans fats, if I want to have Dunkin’ Donuts or pick your product, why shouldn’t I be able to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, what I would simply say is that the FDA has a responsibility to conduct a thorough review of scientific evidence and make decisions that they believe are clearly in the best interests of the health of the American people. In this case, they’ve made a decision and finalized a determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not generally recognized as safe for use in human food. That is a scientific conclusion they reached based on scientific evidence, and they made this announcement consistent with their mandate to share information that they believe is in the best interest of the public health of the United States and our citizens.
Q On trade, are you all -- is the administration reaching out to big labor? Clearly there’s a gap there, a gulf, if you will, between the way big labor views potential TPP, for example. Is the administration still reaching out to leaders in big labor like the AFL-CIO, for example, to try to bring them back to the table and continue the conversation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as you know, leaders in the labor community have been strong advocates for a variety of the policies that this administration has pursued, and we work closely with them on a range of issues, including the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reform, trying to advance many of the job-training priorities that the President has identified among many other things.
So there are a number of conversations that the administration, and even the President, has had with leaders in the labor community. But I don’t have any recent conversations to read out to you.
Q You mentioned the Affordable Care Act. There is a new IG report out today that reveals that the administration has paid billions of dollars to insurance companies without having the payment amounts verified. The CMS process for getting the exact number of government that they have to pay actually has not been finished. Can you explain why that is happening and what’s being done to change that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as you know, the administration takes very seriously the mandate that we have to both be good stewards of taxpayer dollars but also make sure that those citizens across the country who qualify for subsidies that make their health care more affordable, that they get that tax credit. And so I recognize that there is a review that has been conducted, but I’d refer you to HHS for more details in terms of their reaction to the report.
Q Are you surprised at the number? We’re talking billions of dollars, according to that IG report.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we do know is we know that the Affordable Care Act has offered substantial assistance to millions of Americans across the country to make their health insurance more affordable. But for the details of that report, I’d refer you to HHS.
Q Okay. Two quick housekeeping items. The fence around the perimeter here, any update on any changes in height or design at all?
MR. EARNEST: For any changes to the security posture here at the White House complex, I’d refer you to the Secret Service that’s responsible for that.
Q And lastly, the one question I keep asking that very few others will: Do you have an update on that Keystone -- a review that’s been going on? I can’t remember the amount of time now; I’ll have to check with Mr. Knoller. But it seems like it’s been quite a while.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, that is a review that is still being conducted by the State Department.
Q Still being conducted?
MR. EARNEST: Still over there. So you can check with them for an update.
Q All right.
MR. EARNEST: All right. April.
Q Josh, I want to follow up on Chip and Francesca a little bit, and I want to talk about the politics. We are hearing a lot of sound bites, punchlines and jokes. Yesterday we heard, as Francesca said, in Miami, “a glorified tourist,” pointing at the President. And now the DNC is pointing at Donald Trump, as Chip cited, that he adds -- talking about Donald Trump -- some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field.
How is this White House planning on handling all of this ramped up rhetoric that’s happening, particularly when GOP, GOP candidates, and Dems are pointing fingers at this White House? Are you planning to stay above the fray, as you did when the President started his quest to be President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: April, as it relates to the discussion that we have in here every day, I intend to continue to be a forceful advocate for the President’s policies, but also a forceful advocate for helping you and all of your readers and viewers and listeners understand exactly what is happening at the White House here, what our priorities are, and how the President is pursuing them.
In some cases, it may down the line mean that we get into a back and forth about some claims that are made by one presidential candidate or another. But at this point, what I have tried to do is to give these presidential candidates the opportunity to introduce themselves on the national stage and to go about their effort of making the case for why they should be entrusted with such an important job.
But at this point, I don’t envision weighing in anytime soon in that debate. But I certainly am hopeful that a robust debate will occur; that it will be focused on the priorities and challenges that are facing the country. And if there is an opportunity for the President or somebody here at the White House to weigh in on that debate, we won’t miss an opportunity.
Q So am I right from the beginning of your statement? So you do reserve the right to sling a little mud if you have to?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not at all how I would describe it. (Laughter.) But we certainly do reserve the right at some point to weigh in.
Q Thanks, Josh. Given Leader Pelosi’s vote on Friday, and the fact the President hasn’t spoken to her, would you say that she’s on bad terms right now with the White House?
MR. EARNEST: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. What I would merely point out is that, on the vast majority of issues that this President has prioritized and, frankly, on the vast majority of accomplishments that this President is so proud of, they all required Leader Pelosi’s skillful leadership in the House of Representatives.
And so President Obama and Leader Pelosi have demonstrated that they have a strong enough personal and professional relationship to withstand a difference, even on an important issue like this.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is she coming to the picnic tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know, you’ll have to ask her. She is certainly invited.
Q Steny Hoyer, since you came out to the podium today, told reporters at the Capitol that the President has “abandoned” efforts to get Democrats to vote on the same trade package that failed last week. Would you at least say that’s accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to get into conversations between the White House and the Hill at this point. We certainly strongly believe that the trade adjustment assistance legislation that was on the floor of the House of Representatives last Friday is absolutely worthy of Democratic support.
You’ll recall that previous trade adjustment assistance legislation received unanimous support among Democrats last time it was considered. And given the fact that this legislation is poised to expire at the end of September, the President believes it's important for Democrats in Congress to seize this opportunity to advance a piece of legislation that Republicans typically oppose.
And this would be an opportunity for us not just to extend this program, but to significantly expand it -- to even nearly double it in size. And that's the nature of the case that we have made to Democrats, and that’s a case that we’ll continue to make.
Q And one other on Iraq. Your comment earlier that the Kurds’ victory this week can be tied directly to decisions that the President made like six months ago, is that the judgment of the President and his national security team?
MR. EARNEST: Well, David, as a conclusion based on an examination of facts, the fact is that there were anti-ISIL forces in Kobani that were -- as was well documented by media outlets in this room -- poised to be overrun. And those anti-ISIL forces are alive and fighting, and even sustaining important progress against ISIL because of that early important intervention by the President of the United States and the ongoing support that is being offered by the United States and our coalition partners.
And there’s no doubt that, if you take a look at a map, you can see the extensive progress that they’ve made across northern Iraq. And if the kinds of gains that they’ve made, according to reports in recent days, hold, they will have succeeded in cutting off a critically important supply line for ISIL into their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. There’s no denying how -- the strategic significance of that kind of accomplishment. But we’re going to continue to monitor the situation on the ground, and we’re going to continue to see if those kinds of gains hold. But if they do, it obviously would be critically important.
Q So does the President think it’s time that he get credit for some of these military outcomes after a lot of bad headlines lately?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is much less interested in credit and much more interested in seeing important progress in the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And that progress would not have been possible without the early intervention of the United States and the continued support of our coalition partners in that effort.
Q Josh, thank you. Just two quick ones. To follow up on Jim’s question about the Pope, the President and the Pope kind of worked together to advance his Cuba policy. Assuming the White House finds his comments on climate change favorably, any plans to kind of work together to advance the White House agenda on climate change going forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Paul, at this point I’m going to reserve judgment on any of the proposed comments from the Pope until a formal document or statement has been released.
Q Okay. And on Russia, the administration keeps saying that, at some point, these sanctions against the Russians are going to start taking their toll on support for Putin. Yet the latest survey in Russia itself puts his popularity I think at 88 percent. What do you think of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen the poll. And as skeptical as I am of polls in the United States, I think I might be even slightly more skeptical of polls that are conducted in Russia.
Q It was Pew Research survey.
MR. EARNEST: But what I will say is that our view has been that costs have been, and will continue to be, imposed on the Russian economy as a result of decisions that were made by President Putin to intervene in Ukraine. And we are hopeful that, at some point, the costs that we know are piling up in Russia -- if you take a look at any statistics about the devaluation of the Russian currency or the flow of capital outside of Russia, or even at some recent economic projections related to Russia’s economy, that those sanctions have taken a toll on the Russian economy. But what they have not yet resulted in are the kinds of strategic changes that we’d like to see President Putin make.
Q But do you have any evidence at all that this is having an effect on him personally at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the best way for us to make that assessment -- well, let me start by saying that there’s ample evidence to indicate that the sanctions are taking a toll on the Russian economy. The only way to tell whether or not those sanctions are having an impact on Russia’s -- or President Putin’s decision-making is to look at the actions that are being carried out by the Russian military on the Ukrainian border and, in some cases, even in eastern Ukraine.
And thus far, it’s clear that Russia has flouted these generally accepted international norms about the sovereignty of Ukraine. They have failed to live up to their commitments that they made in the context of the Normandy group’s Minsk discussions. And that is the reason that they continue to face significant international isolation. It’s the reason they weren’t invited to the G7 meeting last week in Germany. And the only way that Russia can bring about a change in those policies and bring about greater inclusion in the international community is to live up to the commitments that they made in Minsk.
Q And just one other, real quick. It’s the opinion of some Russian analysts that he has actually gotten more aggressive militarily in the past year -- these possible new missiles, these overflights of western territory. There was a near-miss the other day with an Air Force tanker. Is he getting more provocative? And what’s your sense on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve certainly see that kind of behavior from the Russian military in the past. So I don’t think I would interpret one particular incident or one particular overflight as a significant change in Russian policy. But we certainly continue to watch those activities closely.
Toluse, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. Steny Hoyer said earlier today that Democrats in the House are specifically turned off by the President’s statement that they should “play it straight” on the trade vote. I was wondering if you’ve gotten that feedback from other Democrats, and whether or not the President regrets using that terminology, that “play it straight.”
MR. EARNEST: Not one bit. And I’m not really sure why somebody in urging to “play it straight” would be offensive to some. Frankly, I don’t understand why it would be offensive to anybody.
Q I think the underlying idea is that those who would not be playing it straight would be playing politics with the issue, and maybe not voting on the merits and voting more according to political purposes.
MR. EARNEST: Well, if you take a look at the TAA proposal, Toluse, I think it’s pretty clear that this is a piece of legislation that Democrats have previously unanimously supported. And the President’s proposal that was strongly passed -- that was passed in bipartisan fashion in the Senate would actually nearly double the size of that program. It would offer much-needed benefits to thousands of workers all across the country. It would actually benefit 100,000 workers a year over the next six years. It would give up to 17,000 workers in the United States who have previously had their applications for assistance denied, give them the opportunity to have their applications reconsidered again.
This is entirely consistent with the basic progressive values that this President and House Democrats have been fighting for, for years. And that’s why the President made the case -- if you support TAA, you should vote for it. And I think it’s -- that is precisely the case that the President made in the caucus meeting. There are some Democrats who obviously didn’t agree with the President’s approach. But there’s no denying that playing it straight means voting for bills that you know you support.
Q Does the President think that the vast majority of Democrats who voted against the TAA were playing politics with it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not going to describe their motives. They’ll all have their own explanation for why say cast a “no” vote on a piece of legislation that Democrats have long supported.
Q And finally, just going back to Speaker Pelosi’s article in USA Today this morning, she brought up the U.N. issue. On Friday, in the House, she brought up the issue that we should get a better deal and that we should slow down the fast track. It seems like she is throwing up multiple roadblocks at the end of the stage, right before getting to a vote. Do you all see her as an ally in this? Do you see her as an opponent at this point, where -- she just brought up the highway bill recently? It seems like she’s definitely not on the same page with the White House when it comes to getting down to the vote.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I think as I said in response to Jordan’s question, over the last six and a half years the President has had no stronger and more reliable ally than Nancy Pelosi. And it’s because of her skilled leadership that the President has a long, strong track record of legislative accomplishments over the last six and a half years. And the vast majority of those accomplishments would not have been possible without her leadership. And their professional and personal relationship is more than strong enough to sustain a difference over one particular policy issue, even if this is a policy issue about which the President has very strong feelings.
1:58 P.M. EDT