Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary, 6/22/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:06 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. And happy belated Father’s Day to all the fathers out there. Hope you all had a chance to relax with your kids, or a chance to call you father, or both.
Jim, nice to see you today. Do you want to get us started with questions?
Q Thank you. No announcements?
MR. EARNEST: No announcements at the top.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about the President’s podcast with WTF. His use of the “n” word has created some stir in social media, which was part of the President’s broader and deeper discussion of racism. But I wonder if his use of that was intended to be provocative? And given the reaction, does he in any way regret using it?
MR. EARNEST: He does not. The President’s use of the word and the reason that he used the word could not be more apparent from the context of his discussion on the podcast. The President made clear that it's not possible to judge the nation’s progress on race issues based solely on an evaluation of our country’s manners. The fact is that we've made undeniable progress in this country over the last several decades, and as the President himself has often said, anyone who lived in this country through the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s notes the tremendous progress that we've made. That progress is undeniable.
But what’s also undeniable is that there is more work that needs to be done, and there’s more that we can do. And the fact is everyone in this country should take some inspiration from the progress that was made in the previous generation and use that as a motivation and an inspiration to try to make further progress toward a more perfect union.
Q In Charleston, there are political leaders and religious leaders calling, as you know, for the Confederate flag to be taken down from the state capitol. And the President has said that the Confederate flag, in his estimation, belongs in a museum. But does the President believe that officials in South Carolina should take that flag down, or does he believe it should be up to the people of South Carolina to decide?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I don't entirely understand your question.
Q Well, would the President call on them, on state officials, to take that flag down, or does he believe that that's a debate that should occur and that the people of South Carolina should decide whether the flag comes down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I'm not sure that there’s a distinction to be drawn there. The President is very clear about what his views are. The President talked about this as long ago as six or seven years ago where he shared his view that the Confederate flag should be taken down and placed in a museum where it belongs. And --
Q So no debate necessary, it should just come down?
MR. EARNEST: In the mind of the President, yes, it's pretty clear what should happen. But the President obviously doesn’t have the authority to make that decision. That's obviously a decision that will be made by South Carolina officials. But the President is very clear about what his views are and what he believes is the appropriate course of action.
Q So from there, you would say to the people -- to the Governor of South Carolina, take that flag down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President said that seven or eight years ago when he was first asked about this.
Q Does the President intend to go to Charleston this week, or at any point soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do know that many of the families continue to be in the process of organizing memorial services and ways to honor the memory of their loved ones who were lost. I don't have any scheduling announcements at this point for the President, but as more information about his schedule gets locked down we'll let you know.
Q A currency question. The former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has reacted with short of outrage at the decision to replace Alexander Hamilton with a woman on the $10 bill, suggested a better selection would be replacing Andy Jackson on the $20 bill. Does the President have a view on that? And would the administration reconsider selecting the $10 bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the Treasury Department has been pretty clear about this. The first is that the image of Alexander Hamilton will remain on the $10 -- it's that they want to include a woman on the currency. And so how exactly that will be done is the process that the Treasury Department is currently engaged in.
The reason that the Treasury Department has selected the $10 bill is the $10 bill is currently the one that is under review by the appropriate authorities for upgraded redesign for security purposes, so it’s the appropriate time to be considering changes like this. And that’s why this discussion is happening in the context of the $10 bill.
Matt. Nice to see you today.
Q Thank you very much.
MR. EARNEST: Guest appearance, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: Good. Welcome back.
Q Thanks. Back on Charleston. In the aftermath of the mass shooting there, the President has lamented about the politics of Washington blocking any kind of gun control legislation. And some have interpreted that to mean that he’s basically giving up on making any efforts on that issue. Is that the case, in fact? Or is there a chance that the President might try to revisit this before the end of his term?
MR. EARNEST: That conclusion is wrong. And I think it is pretty evident from the President’s words and his body language not just when he spoke at this podium on Thursday but in remarks that he delivered over the course of his trip to the West Coast this week that this is something that he’s passionate about. And for a good reason.
What the President is also realistic about is that Congress has had the opportunity to be heard on this and the view right now -- and I think this is a pretty straightforward political analysis -- is that it’s unlikely that Congress is going to act in the way that the President certainly believes would be in the best interest of the country on this issue. And it’s the President’s view that the only way this will change is when the American people make clear not just what their position is on this issue, but that their position on this issue is a priority and that they would like to see there members of Congress take action.
All of the polling data indicates that the American people support common-sense steps that would make it much harder for criminals, those with mental health issue -- that there are some common-sense steps that we can take to make it much harder for those individuals to get their hands on a weapon, and that we can do that without undermining the fundamental Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
This should be a pretty common-sense endeavor. But because of the politics and because of the passion that is felt by a minority of individuals across the country, those steps have not been enacted by the Congress. And the President was pretty blunt about this analysis in the remarks that he delivered in the Rose Garden a couple of years ago after the last attempt to enact legislation along these lines failed in the Senate. And the President’s disappointment about that continues and it continues to be evident. But it certainly is not an indication and should not be misread as the President somehow losing passion for this issue.
Q Okay. A U.N. investigation concluded that in last year’s Gaza War, Israel and Palestinian militant groups committed serious violations of international humanitarian law that may have amounted to war crimes. What’s the administration’s response to that report, especially given that it impugns the actions of one of its closest allies in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Matt, we’re continuing to review the report that was released over the weekend, I believe. We indicated last year in the midst of this conflict that we support Israel’s right to self-defense, and at the same time, we expressed deep concern about those civilians in Gaza that were in harm’s way. And we urged all parties to do everything that they could to protect innocent civilians who are essentially caught in the crossfire of this conflict. That was an important thing to do particularly given the high civilian death toll in Gaza.
But we’re also aware that Israel has undertaken an investigation of incidents from the conflict, and we await further outcomes from the Israeli government on this particular matter.
Q Going back to the WTF interview. Did the President intend to say what he did? I mean, obviously it wasn’t a mistake, but what I mean, did he go into the interview intending to use that word?
MR. EARNEST: No. I mean, as was evident from the conversation, it was a free-flowing conversation and it was pretty wide-ranging, and there was no decision made on the part of anybody here at the White House that we were going to capitalize on this audio interview from somebody’s garage in California -- that this would be an opportune time for him to get this particular point off his chest.
In fact, I think the point that he’s making is entirely consistent with the way that he has made this point both in settings where he’s delivering from prepared remarks, but also when he’s answering -- in the context of answering other questions.
Q Did he have any hesitancy in using that? I mean, I don’t think we’ve ever heard him use that word in the public before, even before he was President, have we? Or has he?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think so. I know that there’s --
Q The President has never used it before?
MR. EARNEST: I know that that word is mentioned in his -- in Dreams from My Father, his book, several times. But I don’t know that I’ve heard him use the word before.
Q Okay. And he was pretty forceful here in this room talking about the issue of guns. Is there any indication -- when he made those remarks did he have any indication that the shooting in Charleston would have been prevented by any of the proposals that he has made on gun control?
MR. EARNEST: No, Jon. We are obviously in the very early hours of what was an ongoing investigation. That is an investigation that continues to this hour as well.
The point that the President is making is that we all know there are some common-sense steps that can be taken that don’t undermine critically important Second Amendment rights but would make our country safer, would make our kids a little safer, and would make it harder for criminals and those with mental problems to get their hands on a weapon.
And there is no piece of legislation that Congress can pass and the President can sign into law that will eliminate every instant of gun violence in this country. But if there is legislation that Congress can pass that would even slightly reduce the number of incidence of gun violence in this country, then why on Earth wouldn’t they sign it? Then why on Earth wouldn’t they pass it so that the President can sign it?
Q He sure seemed to be giving the impression that this was a result of Congress’s inability to act. I mean, he came -- in the heat of that moment --
MR. EARNEST: And I think that’s -- I think that is true that there are incidence of gun violence that would --
Q But this one?
MR. EARNEST: -- that would be prevented if Congress were to act, but they haven’t. It’s too early to say what impact any sort of congressional legislation would have had on this particular incident.
Q Okay. And I'm sorry, one more question on the interview. What was the President’s reaction to see his own words bleeped out? I mean, this is a word that most networks simply will not air because it’s so offensive. What does the President think when he hears his own words bleeped out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t talk to him about that specific issue. I will say that it strikes me as the kind of editorial decision that all of you have to make and not one that I’d weigh in on from here at least.
Q Okay. Thanks.
MR. EARNEST: Michelle.
Q I’d like to go along the same lines. Why did the President choose to use that word in this context?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there is no -- the President did not set out to --
Q Right. But he made the choice during the interview and surely that’s come out in the discussion and analysis that you do after, I would assume, every interview. But this one in particular caused a stir. And it’s such a charged word, and to use it right now in this setting, he had to have known that this was going to get a reaction. Right?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think he was surprised by that, but I do think that it has prompted careful consideration of what exactly he said. And as I think I said to Jon, this is consistent with an argument that he’s made in the past, and it’s an argument that people are now being exposed to today.
Q In the discussion that -- you said you did have a discussion, just not about a particular point that Jon made.
MR. EARNEST: About the editing of -- not the editing, but the censoring of his word.
Q So in the discussion that you did have, why did he choose at that moment to use that word? You said that he wasn’t going into the interview to use it. But at that moment, did he say he decided to, I guess, go there, as a way of saying it?
MR. EARNEST: That wasn’t the nature of the discussion I had with him. I think the fact of the matter is that if you take a look at the context of this exchange that he had with the interviewer, the President is making an argument that is familiar to many of you who have carefully covered the President’s discussion of these issues over the last year or so. This is quite similar to the argument that the President actually made at the foot of the steps -- I’m sorry, at the foot of the Edmund Petus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
He talked about how the progress that we have made on racial issues in this country, since that fateful day 50 years ago -- or a little over 50 years ago now -- is remarkable and undeniable. And we owe a debt of gratitude to people like John Lewis for the enormous sacrifices that they have made. And we should take a lot of satisfaction and pride, and even inspiration, from the fact that because of their dedication and their incredible courage, that we’ve made progress in this country. And the first thing that John Lewis would tell you, and the thing that the President observed in his remarks in that speech, was that John Lewis didn’t do it alone; that he felt he had the strong support of the community there in Selma, Alabama, and Americans of a variety of religions and a variety of races who came to stand with him and to march with him.
And because of that unified commitment to a principle of justice and equality and fairness, we have made important progress and should draw on the inspiration and success of those previous efforts to make additional progress in this country. And that’s the argument that the President was seeking to make.
Q I mean, by using that word, would you say that he had a goal in dropping that word, making the decision at that moment to say the “N” word? I don’t even feel like I feel comfortable saying it out loud in the briefing room. So for him to say it during this interview, was it the garage setting that -- (laughter) -- I mean, I don’t know that he would say it -- I mean, he chose not to say it in the briefing room, during a very emotional address.
MR. EARNEST: Well, in an entirely different context, though -- when he’s speaking essentially to the nation, on live television, in the aftermath of a horrific incident of violence here in the briefing room is very different than a taped audio interview in a garage. So I think we can all acknowledge that that’s the case. It also was a different kind of discussion that the President was seeking to have at that point.
Q Would you say that he had a goal in choosing to use that word at the moment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would just observe is that the argument that the President has made in the context of this specific interview is consistent with an argument that he has made in a variety of other settings, both when he’s been asked questions but also when he’s delivering prepared remarks.
And so I would acknowledge that it is understandably notable that the President chose to use this word. But the argument that the President is making is one that is familiar to those who have been listening.
Q A provocative choice, though, yes? I mean, he had to have known that -- as he makes the decision to say the word, and the word comes out of his mouth, he had to have known that he was deliberately saying something provocative.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that’s -- again, that’s the point of the President’s comment. He said it’s not just a matter of it being polite -- I’m sorry -- “It’s not just a matter of it not being polite” to say that word in public. So, yes, I think that is self-evident from the President’s remarks.
Q Today, the EU voted to extend sanctions for another six months against Russia -- punitive action for their annexation of Crimea and for their support of separatists in Ukraine. Is the United States going along with that? Do you have any comment from there?
MR. EARNEST: JC, you’ll recall that this is something that the President discussed with the G7 allies -- or our G7 partners in Germany earlier this month. And this was an opportunity for the President to have detailed conversations with President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, in particular, about how important it is for the international community to remain unified in the face of the destabilizing actions of President Putin. And this is the next step as the international community continues to act together in the face of the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And I think it is an indication of the international community’s resolve to making sure that President Putin respects basic international norms.
Q A couple on Iran. The Foreign Minister said today that it’s more important to get a good deal than it is to adhere to a deadline of June 30th. Is that something the administration agrees with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the way that we have described it, Major, is that the President will not sign on to a bad deal. So the extent that the Prime Minister -- or the Foreign Minister is indicating that a good deal is paramount, I think from that respect the administration would agree. I think it’s certainly entirely possible that what --
Q Will it take more days, other than the seven remaining between now and the 30th, to get one?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, what we have been saying for a month or so now is that --
Q No, I know. I’m just curious if there’s anything new.
MR. EARNEST: No, there’s not.
MR. EARNEST: -- over the weekend.
Q So, also, as he came back to work last week -- and we haven't had a chance to bring this up publicly -- Secretary of State Kerry said it really isn’t important any longer to achieve a deal with Iran that it need to disclose fully its previous attempts militarily to obtain a nuclear weapon. From this podium, you and others have said that at a certain time it was very important and that Iran would have to make clear what it attempted to do, and the world would have to understand all the efforts it undertook to pursue one. Now, that appears, by the Secretary of State’s own words, to be off the table. That appears to be a significant concession.
MR. EARNEST: What we have been saying all along, Major, is that we would insist that Iran address the significant concerns that the international community has had with the potential military dimensions of their nuclear program, but also to make sure that moving forward every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon has been cut off. And that will require Iran to cooperate with --
Q But it sounds like there’s going to be more room for Iran to admit less than it would prefer.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we have been clear about what our expectations are, and that actually is something that is discussed in political agreement that was reached in early April. So we’re going to -- we will expect -- in fact, we will insist that Iran address those concerns and, most importantly, however, that they verify their compliance with an agreement that shuts down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon.
Q And the Wall Street Journal reported today that there are lots of emails that indicate that Jonathan Gruber played a far more significant advisory and policymaking role in the development of the Affordable Care Act than had been previously admitted by this administration. Lots of emails with Zeke and Jason Furman and other people who were central to the development of the legislative framework of the law -- that appears to be in contradiction from what the administration described originally. Would you like to amend that?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think our description of his role in this has been consistent. He did not work at the White House. And as far as I can tell, the Wall Street Journal didn’t uncover any emails that suggested that somehow marketplaces established by states would somehow mean the citizens of that state would be ineligible for tax credits.
So I recognize these are emails that were actively leaked by Republicans in the House, Republicans who voted more than 50 times to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So again, this is consistent with the kind of game-playing that we’ve seen from Republicans in Congress. It doesn’t actually lower health care costs or expand access to health care for --
Q I know you find fault with the source of them and the motivations behind them. I’m just trying to ask you to address what they actually appear to represent, which is a more active and engaged role for the person who was previously described to us as largely, if not entirely, tangential to the development of the law.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, again, when the President was describing this --
Q Would reasonable people not look at these emails and come to a different conclusion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t know that many reasonable people have combed through 20,000 emails sent by Mr. Gruber in the last six or eight years. But maybe there are some that have.
But the point is that I don’t think there is anything that is revealed by these emails that is at all surprising to anybody who works here. And it doesn’t undermine the way that his role has been previously described by the administration, at least as far as I know, based on the way that I’ve described it and based on the way the President has described it.
And again, there may be some Republicans in Congress who think that releasing these emails gives them some kind of political advantage of one sort or another, but I’m not really sure what that is.
Q Okay. Last question, and it’s about the podcast. The President -- as a lot of us who spend a lot of time covering him know and appreciate -- is a student of the language. He takes words very carefully. He crafts many of them himself on speeches and utterances that he considers to be highly valuable. Philosophically, did he believe he needed to say something in a more provocative way in order to drive a point that he thinks had been previously missed in his earlier references to race, which, as you said, is consistent? But do you feel he needed to use something that would grab the country’s attention in a more provocative way? And if so, does he therefore believe that the use of this word has, at certain moments, an arresting and provocative value to it?
MR. EARNEST: Major, I think that the President was merely answering a question in a pretty informal setting. And yes, I would acknowledge that the President’s -- that the way that the President designed his argument in this scenario is more provocative. And I don’t think there’s anybody here that’s surprised that this is something that’s getting a little bit more attention. But when I say it is something, I’m referring to an argument that the President had made on many occasions. And I recognize that that’s an argument that not everybody likes, but it is an argument that the President feels strong about. And this idea that we can draw on the inspiration of those who have allowed this country to make so much progress is something that inspires the President when he considers these issues.
Q Right. But you’ve helpfully let us know the President has no regrets, doesn’t feel any contrition about using this particularly inflammatory word. So I’m just wondering if he thought it was necessary to get the country’s attention to something he thought it had missed before.
MR. EARNEST: No. I think that the President is not surprised by the reaction but, again, is eager for people to have a good sense of the argument that he’s trying to make, which is why we have gone to great lengths to try to make sure that all of you in this room exactly understand the argument the President is trying to make.
Q Thank you, Josh. Back on the gun violence issue, over the weekend White House Senior Advisor, Valerie Jarrett, she tweeted and she echoed the President and said, “Are we to accept this as the new normal? If not better laws, what will change this? What’s your plan to make sure these horrific tragedies end?” Which begs the question -- what is the White House’s plan? The President has acknowledged that lawmakers are probably not going to address this issue anytime soon, but he’s also said that until we move public opinion, the lawmakers aren’t going to address it. So I guess, again, what is the plan? And what is the White House’s plan to move up public opinion on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Francesca, you’ve obviously heard the President talk about this a lot over the last several days. And this is an issue the President is going to continue talking about. You’ll recall, a little over a year ago -- a year and a half ago, I guess now -- the administration did announce a couple of dozen executive actions that the President and his administration could take to, in a common-sense way, try to address the root causes of gun violence and to confront those in a way that does not at all undermine the legitimate and important Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
It’s possible for us to do more, but it’s going to require -- and when I say “us,” I mean Congress, principally, because there are some common-sense things that Congress can do. But periodically, if there are additional ideas from the administration, we won’t hesitate to put those forward either.
And I think, again, based on the fact that over the last year and a half, two years or so, the administration has moved forward on more than two dozen different initiatives to try to get at these root causes of gun violence I think is an indication of the President’s determination to try to make progress on this issue. But one really important way we could make progress will require congressional action, and that congressional action is something that will only occur once the American public makes clear that that action is a priority.
Q But should we expect, I guess, any legislative push from the White House, or any sort of new proposals moving forward besides that ones that you just stated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are some common-sense ones that have already been put on the table and we know would make a difference. We know they have the strong support of Americans across the country. The President even observed that some of these proposals even have the strong support of a majority of gun owners in this country. So the case before the Congress is very clear, but ultimately it’s up to the Congress to decide to act.
Q NPR has an investigation that came out today that shows that the U.S. government conducted chemical weapons experiments, specifically on minorities, to try to figure out if they reacted differently to mustard gas. And we’re wondering if the White House was aware of these military experiments that happened during World War II, and if the President or the White House plans to do anything to acknowledge what was done to these servicemembers.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tamara, I did have an opportunity to hear the report this morning. It’s the first time that I had heard some of those details. Obviously, the Department of Defense was included in that report, and they made clear that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer. And I do think that -- as long as we’re talking about these issues, I do think it’s worth remembering that the United States military, in relatively recent American history, has played a really important role in helping our country make progress on issues of race. Desegregating the military was an important step in this country’s history.
At the same time, there’s also a very good reason that the kind of testing that’s described in your report is no longer conducted by the Department of Defense.
Q And will the White House or the President do anything to acknowledge the living veterans who were the subjects of these tests?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any presidential activities to tell you about right now.
Q Just to follow up on Matt’s question. Why are you going to wait for an Israeli internal report where they’re going to investigate themselves, and you dismiss a U.N. report that they’ve been talking about gross human rights violations, especially that they condemn both sides?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nadia, the position of the United States government is one that has been quite clear, dating all the way back to last summer, in which we raised significant concerns about the safety and wellbeing of civilians who are caught in the crossfire. And those were concerns that we made clear publicly. And we raised significant concerns, in particular, about extremists actually using arms to try to target innocent civilians, and we raised concerns about reports that extremists were encouraging civilians to go to places where they could be in even more danger.
But we also reiterated our view that it was important for leaders on both sides of the conflict to go to great lengths to try to protect the safety and wellbeing of innocent civilians. And that’s been our view from the earliest days of this latest conflict, and it is our view today on the day that this U.N. report is released.
Q So you’re going to wait until we hear from the Israelis to make an official comment on it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t expect a significantly different official U.S. comment beyond what I’ve just said, which is consistent with what we said even last summer.
Q And one thing about Israel, too. The President came under attack by many Israeli officials, including the former ambassador to Washington, who accused him of formulating his policies in the Middle East because of his, what you call, his Muslim connection -- referring to his father and his stepfather. What’s your reaction to that? And also a former Israeli official made a racist remark against the President on Twitter, and she was forced to delete. Do you think it’s a slap in the face to the administration, considering the amount of support you give to Israel militarily and politically and diplomatically?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in the case of Ambassador Oren, I think it's pretty clear we're just talking about another politician trying to sell books. So I'm not particularly concerned about that.
As it relates to the other comments, I think if there’s one thing we've certainly learned from this incident -- it's not the only time we've learned this -- but that on Twitter you're limited to 140 characters, but it still has a capacity to be quite revealing.
Q I want to go back to the issue of guns and just be very clear about what you were just saying. Will we see this President either renew the push for the legislation that you talked about that has bipartisan support, extended background checks, for example, or start a new legislative push to try to crack down, have stiffer gun laws in the wake of this shooting?
MR. EARNEST: Kristen, the President’s views on this have not changed. This is a view that closing the gun show loophole on background checks, for example, is a policy position the President has long advocated. And the President has long called on Congress to take action, and we've been disappointed that they haven't.
Q He has. But in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, obviously there was a real effort to get it passed. He was out campaigning for it. Quite frankly, he talked about it in his State of the Union address. He said they deserve a vote. Will we see that type of robust effort from this White House, from this President before he leaves office to enact stiffer gun laws?
MR. EARNEST: Kristen, what the President made clear in the aftermath of the failure of that particular initiative was that we were not likely to see a different outcome in Congress until the American people made clear that this issue was a priority for them. There is a small, but very focal minority of the U.S. public who’s made clear that they consider this a priority, but they’re on a different side of the issue than the vast majority of Americans. They’re even on a different side of the issue than, according to some polls, a majority of gun owners.
So the President has been very direct about the fact that we're not going to see the kind of progress that we would like to make in Congress at least until the American public makes clear to Congress that their views on this topic are a priority.
Q And so what does he mean when he says, “I'm not resigned on this issue”? We saw him come out and say that this weekend. He said, “I'm not resigned.” And yet it sounds like what you're telling me is he’s resigned at least on the fact that he’s not going to see anything get through Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I don't think the President is resigned to that. I think the President is suggesting that we need the American public to come forward. And it will be the American public sending a signal to Congress that this is a priority that will bring about the kind of policy changes that we would like to see. I think that is a simple statement of fact. But there are some who suggested that the President was resigned we weren't going to be able to make any progress on this issue, and that's certainly is a bad misreading of both the President’s record and his intentions.
Q And I want to ask you a variation on the question you’ve already gotten, so apologies in advance. But I spoke with Michael Eric Dyson and he said he thought the President used the “n” word to shock people into awareness, a heightened sense of awareness about racism. So did President Obama use the “n” word to shock people into a heightened sense of awareness about racism?
MR. EARNEST: The President was merely making an argument in an informal setting that's entirely consistent with an argument that he’s made before. And there is no denying the important progress that we've made in this country when it comes to race relations and making our country more fair and more just, but there’s also no denying that there’s more work that needs to be done.
And the President, from a personal standpoint, draws great inspiration from the progress that we've already made and from the efforts of a previous generation of civil rights leaders to try to move this country forward. And he believes that everybody in this country can draw on that inspiration to try to move the country forward, because as the President acknowledged both in his speech in Selma and in some of his remarks over the last several days, that it's going to require the country to come together to confront this particular challenge. But we've done it before and hopefully we're going to keep doing it.
Q More broadly, on the issue of race, when you look at the statistics, African Americans incarcerated at higher rates, the unemployment rate is far higher than the national average -- does the President feel as though it’s at a breaking point or that he’s fed up with the state of race relations, and that's why he is using this new, starker, more blunt language?
MR. EARNEST: No, that's not the way I would describe the President. Again, the way that you should describe the President’s views on this is to go back and look at his comments. The President was saying that we've made really important progress in this country and that anybody who lived through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, not just in the South, but anywhere in the country, would acknowledge that we've made really important progress. And we can't allow the difficulty and the challenge of making progress on these issues interfere with our passion for them.
The President made this observation in his remarks in Selma, which is that the kinds of barriers to change that John Lewis and Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders of the ‘50s and ‘60’s encountered was significant. There were -- you saw entrenched, powerful local leaders -- in some cases, local law enforcement leaders, and this was the case in Selma -- that were willing to resort to violence to try to prevent this kind of change from occurring.
The kind of challenge that we face now is much different than that. And we should draw on the courage that that previous era of civil rights leaders showed to inspire some confidence that we can confront these difficult challenges too. The challenges are different, but there’s no doubt that we've made enormous progress and the work that we have to do is so important that we shouldn’t have our passion for these issues diminished just because making progress on them is hard. If anything, we should draw on the success that previous generations have made to inspire our confidence in our ability as a country to make progress on these issues.
Q Do you have any update on the timing of the hostage review -- now that we're officially in summer?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update on the timing other than I think I previously said that you could expect some news on this relatively soon. I would anticipate that you can expect some news on this very soon. Okay?
Q Josh, thanks. Would it be unfair to describe you as beings somewhat dismissive of the Gruber story and the fact that there were 20,000 emails out there showing that he was very much involved in the development of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would say, Kevin, is you could probably describe my reaction as a little bemused about why it matters. His role, as illuminated in 20,000 emails, is consistent with the way that at least I described his role and with the way that the President has described his role, which is to say he didn’t work at the White House. He certainly didn’t have any emails that suggested that citizens who live in states that built their own exchanges should somehow be ineligible for tax credits that make their health insurance more affordable. So if there’s a bombshell that's included in those emails, it certainly hasn’t gone off.
Q I want to follow up on something a lot of people have been talking about and that's the use of the “n” word. Does the President condone the use of that word at home? And what would he say to parents who work very hard to get their children to not use it even though it's out there, it's in music, especially in urban settings -- the parents who’ve said don't ever use that word even casually -- what does he say to those parents?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess you’d probably have to ask him that. I didn’t. It doesn’t mean it's an illegitimate question. It just means I think that for the President’s own personal views you should ask him about it.
Q Bring him out.
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry?
Q Bring him out.
MR. EARNEST: We'll see. I'll ask him.
Q Or we'll go in. (Laughter.)
Q We'll be happy to all go in there.
MR. EARNEST: There you go.
Q Lastly, on guns. I know he tried to make the point that he understands there’s a tradition of families who have had gun ownership and there’s bonding that goes along with that, but at the same time, he’s tried to make the point repeatedly, after, unfortunately, so many of the tragedies, that there should be something we can do, whether legislatively or organically among the American people. But I'm wondering if the timing sometimes gets in the way of the message, because often when he'll come out he'll say something -- it seems to get lost in what’s happening at the moment. In other words, people are still grieving over what happened in Charleston and he comes right out and he starts talking about gun control. Can you understand how that can sometimes put off people who are trying to get through the moment before they can set it aside to listen to what he’s trying to say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll say a couple things about that, Kevin. The first thing I would say is this is an issue that the President has talked about quite a bit, and he did it a lot in his presidential campaign. When the President was campaigning -- and many of you were around to cover this -- the President would go and do town hall meetings in many small communities in rural Iowa where he was campaigning for the Democratic nomination.
So this is -- we're talking about eight years ago now where the President would be asked about this issue. And he’d be asked about this issue by Democratic caucus-goers who were very concerned about making sure their Second Amendment rights were protected. And they’d make a case to the President about how important it is in their family, that there’s a family tradition related to hunting, and that handing down firearms from one generation to another is important to their family and entirely consistent with the constitutional rights that the Constitution guarantees.
And the President indicated his strong support for that, that he understood both that perspective and understood why that needed to be a priority. The President also heard from those who said things to him like, when you live in a small town or out in the country, local law enforcement can be quite a ways away, and the desire to have a firearm in that kind of setting is a perfectly reasonable one and, again, entirely consistent with protected constitutional rights.
So this is not the first time that the President has been exposed to these kinds of arguments, and it's certainly not the first time that the President has indicated his support for those kinds of arguments that are made. But in those settings, the President would also point out that in an urban setting, for example, or at least in an area that's more densely populated, that there are different factors that are involved, and that even in the kinds of settings that are being described there in a more rural community there are still some common-sense things that we can do. For example, closing the background check loophole at gun shows -- that that doesn’t infringe significantly on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
That we can ban assault weapons. You don't need an assault weapon to go hunting. That certainly is not part of anybody’s family heritage or family tradition. And so these are the kinds of arguments that the President has been making for some time.
I did not work for him when he campaigned for the United States Senate in Illinois, but I assumed he had exactly those kinds of conversations that I just described to Iowa caucus-goers with potential Illinois voters when he was running for the Senate in 2004.
Q But the timing.
MR. EARNEST: I guess the point is this is an argument that the President has made not just in reaction to terrible tragic events like the one we saw last week in Charleston, but this is an argument that the President has made when he’s campaigning. It's one that he’s made as a candidate. It's one he’s made as an officeholder. It's one that he’s made in the context of a State of the Union address. It's a conversation that he’s had in the context of a podcast interview in somebody’s garage. He’s had it in a variety of settings, in a variety of circumstances, and on a variety of occasions over the last eight years.
And I think that is indicative of the President’s passion for these issues. But one thing is clear is that more members of Congress are going to have to share the President’s passion before we can make progress in closing the gun show loophole. And the way that we're going to inspire that passion is for more American citizens across the country to make their voices heard.
Q I'm sorry, I must have spaced out a little bit. I missed what you told Major about the deadline on the Iran nuclear deal. Is that a notional deadline, or are you sticking to it?
MR. EARNEST: We are sticking to the deadline. The deadline is June 30th. At the same time, we've acknowledged that the previous deadline for the conclusion of the political negotiations was March 31st. Nothing was announced until April 2nd.
So the deadline is firm, but these kinds of short-term adjustments may be required in order to complete an agreement. But at this point, we continue to believe that -- we're continuing to operate with a June 30th deadline.
Q I'm curious about how the podcast interview came about. I know the White House approached Mr. Maron. I'm wondering what segment of the American public was being targeted specifically through his podcast versus other media outlets, and whether the President had ever heard of the WTF podcast before he went on the show.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t talk to him about it. I think he had heard of it, even if he hadn't heard it -- if that makes sense. And again, the idea here is not just that Mr. Maron presumably has a unique audience, one that's probably much bigger today than it has been in the past -- (laughter) -- thanks to all of you. But also this is a unique setting. And I don't just mean that it's a place in Mr. Maron’s garage, but that this was an open-ended, free-flowing, pretty casual hour-long conversation with the President on a wide variety of issues; that there was no one topic that was covered, there were a variety of topics that were covered.
And the combination of those factors made this a unique opportunity, and I wouldn't rule out doing other things like it in the future.
Q I don't have a garage, but I've got a parking space. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Is it covered?
Q Actually, it is. But there’s cars on either side of it. (Laughter.) Josh, can you fill in the blank in the President’s schedule between the PDB this morning and the Iftar dinner tonight? We don't know anything else that he’s doing today.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the President has had a number of meetings with staff and I certainly wouldn't rule out conversations with members of Congress about the series of votes on the President’s trade priority that's scheduled for this week. I don't have any individual calls to tell you about, but I do think the President will be engaged in that effort.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s office announced that at 4:00 p.m. she would make a statement calling for removal of the Confederate battle flag from its location. Any reaction? Or can you get us a reaction?
MR. EARNEST: We'll see what she has to say first and then we'll either react right away or maybe we can discuss it here tomorrow.
Q Okay. The other thing is that over the weekend, Ohio Governor John Kasich became the first of the Republican presidential hopefuls to address the growing Greek default crisis, and specifically the scenario of Russia possibly bailing out Greece or Greece seeking aid from Russia. He said, and I quote, “It’s a very, very ugly scenario,” and it’s something he said we should guard against and not pursue. Does the administration have any position on Greece turning to Russia for its next loan or a bailout?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is, John, the two countries you’re discussing are not exactly countries whose economies are operating at peak levels right now. So I think that’s why the concern that you hear expressed about this from the administration will at least be moderated.
What I can tell you as a general matter is that we continue to believe that now is the time for Greece and their partners to reach an agreement after months of difficult negotiations. It’s in everybody’s interest for a way forward to be found that will allow Greece to successfully return to stability and growth while continuing to make progress in implementing important reforms to put its public finances back on a sustainable path.
The United States, principally through Secretary Lew, continues to be engaged with all of the partners. But ultimately we are hopeful that Greece and its partners will seize this opportunity, now that we’re so close to the deadline, to complete the negotiations and move forward that’s in the collective interest of all of those sitting around the table.
Q So nothing on Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing on Russia.
Q Josh, not a 2016 question but a reaction to things that current and former officeholders have been saying, some --
MR. EARNEST: Let me just observe that when people say it’s not a 2016 question, it’s usually a 2016 question. (Laughter.) But that’s okay. That's entirely okay. I will accept it in the spirit in which it’s offered. (Laughter.)
Q Well, I appreciate that. I hope you find it will. There are some who have described what’s happened as South Carolina putting race second or lower in a priority, and saying this, first and foremost, was an attack on religion or an attack on faith. The President in describing it has put race where I think -- put race first. He said that this is a racial issue. Irrespective of the ongoing investigation and a lot of other questions that are still open, what do you make of, and what does the President make of those who are putting race second or lower in the priorities when we’re looking at the motives behind this attack and also the aftermath?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I haven’t seen any of the specific comments that you may be referring to. I think what --
Q Because you’re not paying attention to the 2016 race? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m paying a little attention to it. I think I would just say that I think the President’s observation about what appears to be the motive of this individual is the observation that the vast majority of Americans have reached. But, at the same time, there is an ongoing federal investigation so the President noted in his comments on Thursday I believe that he needed to be a little restrained in making remarks about the alleged suspect, so I need to do the same, unfortunately.
Q And you’re talking about the American people need to change, that to move the needle on this it needs to be public opinion. What can we expect on the President’s schedule, or what changes to his message or his road trips? Will we be seeing him actively do this? When you’re describing it, obviously you’re saying he’s not resigned to this, but the language you’ve been using today is very passive -- the American people need this to happen. What actively can we see from the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would quibble with that description. I think the President has been very forward-leaning about why this is a priority and why this is something that he is passionate about -- and particularly in light of the fact that there are some common-sense steps that Congress can take that would make our kids and our communities more safe without undermining the fundamental Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
Q So the Congress is coming from one angle, and the President’s role is what? I’m sorry, my question was about what will the President do and I didn’t get any of that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President will continue to do is forcefully make the case, as he has in recent days, that this needs to be a priority. And he will note that there are some common-sense things that can be done that will make our community safer, that will reduce incidents of gun violence without undermining the fundamental constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
Q This needs to be a priority and the President has made it clear that it is a priority for him. What I’m asking is what will he do or say differently in the next year and a half that is going to try to move the needle here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is going to continue to make a very forceful, persuasive case to the public.
Fred, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple things. First of all, the Pope’s Encyclical last week on climate change. One small part of that in a very large document, the Pope wrote that concern for protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification for abortion. Is it safe to say the President strongly disagrees with that portion of the Encyclical?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I didn’t actually see that portion of it, so why don’t we take a look at the document and we’ll get you a reaction.
Q Okay. And also with regard to the earlier questions about whether there could be any laws that might have prevented this, there are background checks in place in South Carolina right now. Would the President -- well, the bill that he supported previously, the Toomey-Manchin legislation, actually made an exemption for transfers of family members on these weapons. Would the President support background checks for transfers, which would have maybe prevented what happened in Charleston?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, the reason that the President has continued to forcefully encourage Congress to take some common-sense steps to reduce gun violence is not with the idea that one piece of legislation can prevent every incident of gun violence. The fact is this particular incident is still under investigation and so until we know more about what exactly has happened or what did happen in this instance, it’s difficult to say whether one piece of legislation or one rule, if changed, could have prevented this particular action.
But the fact is, as the President pointed out, that more than 11,000 Americans died in 2013 from gun violence. And if there is a simple thing that can be done that doesn’t undermine our constitutional rights, that doesn’t undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, but would lower that number, then we should do it. And that’s why the Congress -- that’s why the President has made a persuasive and forceful case to Congress that they should take action.
Thanks, everybody. Enjoy the rest of your day.
2:03 P.M. EDT