Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary, 6/23/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:46 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Before we go to your questions, let me begin by commending Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate who, today, took another important step toward ensuring that the United States can negotiate and enforce strong, high-standard trade agreements that are good for our economy and good for our workers.
With bipartisan support from Congress, trade promotion authority will help America write the rules of the road and ensure that our new global economy will be constructed to allow more hardworking Americans to compete and win.
But our work on trade is not finished. In addition to requiring final passage for TPA in the Senate, the President also wants to provide vital support like job training and community college education to an estimated 100,000 workers per year. That's why he continues to urge Congress to send trade adjustment assistance to his desk this week so he can sign it and do exactly that.
We also need to reaffirm and bolster trade relations between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa. And that's why Congress needs to finish the job by passing the African Growth and Opportunity Act as well.
Moving forward, we must also seek to strengthen our ability to facilitate trade and improve enforcement as well as cracking down on unfair currency practices that put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. To that end, the President asks Congress to complete action on the trade enforcement legislation that has passed both the House and the Senate. There were slightly different versions of that legislation that passed both the House and the Senate, so there will be a conference process that will need to be undertaken, and we hope that they’ll do that promptly.
But let me just conclude by saying that today’s vote and further action on trade in Congress this week will send an important message to the world about America’s engagement and continued global leadership.
So, with that, Jim, let’s go to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is there a different term than “procedural snafu” for today? (Laughter.) And as you’ve said several times, the President -- the only strategy the President supports is one that gets trade promotion authority, the fast track negotiating authority to his desk, as well as the worker assistance package.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q What do you say to Democrats who might see that as an invitation, now that TPA seems to have cleared its hurdles, as an invitation to vote against worker assistance in the House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it strikes me that that would be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. The fact is the previous explanation that we heard from some Democrats who voted against trade adjustment assistance -- something that Democrats have steadfastly supported for decades -- is that they were doing that in an effort to slow down the advancement of trade promotion authority legislation. But pending final passage of that bill in the Senate that will no longer be a factor to consider when Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate have to make a decision about whether or not to support trade adjustment assistance.
And the fact is -- and we can go through the statistics about how significant that assistance actually is. Currently, trade adjustment assistance is scheduled to expire at the end of this fiscal year, at the end of September. So we anticipate that Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell will follow through on the public commitments that they have made to bring TAA up for a vote promptly.
And it will be the last chance for Democrats to be able to not just extend that critically important program but to actually substantially expand it. Based on the amount of money that could be involved here, we're talking about nearly doubling the size of the program. As I mentioned at the top, this would benefit up to 100,000 American workers each year for the next six years. It would allow more than 17,000 workers who submitted applications over the last 18 months and had their applications denied -- it will allow the Department of Labor to reconsider those applications.
So this is a critically important priority of the President’s, and we're going to be counting on the leaders of both the House and the Senate giving the bipartisan majorities that we know exist in the House and Senate the opportunity to vote for this bill.
Q But implied in your strategy is that the President would not act on TPA unless TAA was also on his desk. So wouldn't that be then seen by some Democrats as a strategy to deny a final signature on TPA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what we have said on this is there’s no reason it should come to that. The commitment that Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner have made is that there will be a clear path for TAA legislation to arrive at the President’s desk, in the same way that a path for TPA legislation emerged as well. That's what the President is counting on, and that's what the President is looking forward to signing into law.
Q So the President would sign TPA even if Democrats would held back TAA from arriving at his desk -- simply if Democrats were responsible for not getting it to the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there would be no good reason for Democrats to do that considering Democrats have strongly supported TAA in the past, considering the significant impact that TAA would have on 100,000 middle-class workers, and considering that there no longer is a legislative process for them to slow down. The legislative process for TPA will have been completed.
Q Is there any concern that the up-and-down nature of the fate of fast track in any way hurts the administration’s hand in negotiating the final points of TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
MR. EARNEST: I have not heard anybody raise that concern. Our negotiators have not raised that concern with me. What we have -- what they have -- what Ambassador Froman has told me personally is that what our -- what his interlocutors from the representatives of the TPP countries are looking for is a firm commitment from the United States that if an agreement is reached around the negotiating table it’s not one that they’re going to have to worry about being renegotiated by 535 members of the United States Congress.
And so what they’re looking for is a clear path where Congress can, of course, weigh in on a trade agreement if one can be reached, but one that is consistent with the kinds of priorities that the President has made clear must be included in the TPP agreement before he’ll even sign it in the first place.
So what our partners are looking for is Congress to give the President the authority that he needs to complete this agreement. And then they will know if a deal can be reached around the negotiating table, it will be clear the process by which the agreement can be ratified and enter into force.
Q On a separate subject -- various organizations, including ours, are reporting that the hostage review is going to come out tomorrow and concluding that families of hostages will not be penalized if they happen to pursue any ransom. But at the same time, it’s not making any change in the law. I'm wondering why not simply change the law rather than not enforce the law that’s on the books?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, as I indicated to Carol yesterday, the time frame for the release of the hostage policy review is coming up very soon -- in fact, it will be released tomorrow. And over the course of the day today many of the families of American citizens who have been held hostage around the world are meeting with members of the administration who conducted this review, and we’re using this opportunity to let them know about many of the decisions that were made, many of the recommendations that were offered, and it will give them the opportunity to see for themselves the contents of the report.
So, for today, I'm not going to get into the contents of the report. But I will assure you that tomorrow we will release the report. It will also include a presidential policy directive as well as an executive order that the President will sign. And we’ll release all of that tomorrow and have an opportunity to have a robust discussion about what the policy review entailed, what sort of decisions were made, what recommendations were put forward, and we can weigh all of that tomorrow.
Q Was there in making -- in going through this review process, was there any conclusion reached that any of the hostage taking situations would have resulted differently had these changes that you’re now going to implement been in place?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a really difficult thing to determine. I think the goal of this review when we set out to conduct it was to make sure that we were better and more closely integrating the wide variety of U.S. government assets that are used to try to safely recover U.S. citizens who are being held hostage. We also wanted to improve the process of communicating with families who have loved ones who are going through this terrible situation.
And there is a hope and expectation that by implementing many of these recommendations that we can better integrate the resources of the federal government that are devoted to this effort -- they are extensive -- and that we can improve our ability to communicate with the families of those who are placed in this terrible situation.
Q Just going back to trade to make sure I understand. So when TPA gets to the President’s desk, is the plan for him to sign it straight away? Or is he going to wait until he makes sure that TAA passes so he has them both?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has made clear that both of them are a priority. And we continue to count on Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner to make good on their public commitment to give the bipartisan majorities that we know exist in both the House and the Senate the opportunity to vote on trade adjustment assistance legislation.
I don’t have a time frame to lay out for you right now in terms of when the President will sign one bill or the other, but the President certainly expects to be in a position to sign both of them.
Q But if you’re confident that the latter is going to pass, as the leaders both sort of assured that the vote is going to be successful, then there’s no reason really to wait to sign TPP, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you mean TPA?
Q Right, yes.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we still need to wait for final passage in the Senate. We will need to wait for the Senate to deliver that piece of legislation to the White House and so we’ll have an opportunity to go through this.
Q I want to ask about Syria. And the Kurds have had some military success in taking back territory from the Islamic State in Northern Syria. And I'm wondering what role the U.S. airstrikes played, how much coordination there’s been, what the White House makes of this success, what the goal is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, this is a situation that we talked about a little bit in here a week or two ago, that we have seen important progress against ISIL in northeast Syria. Much of that progress is actually related to an early decision that the administration -- that the President made to weigh in heavily in support of anti-ISIL forces in Kobani. There was a decision that the President made to airdrop some military equipment inside of Kobani to resupply those forces that were surrounded and under siege by ISIL forces in the area. There also was an effort by the United States and our coalition partners to encourage Turkey to provide safe passage to some anti-ISIL fighters to enter the country and to reinforce those fighters in Kobani.
Since that time, we have seen those forces that started in Kobani move eastward and to push back ISIL. And there have been extensive military strikes -- airstrikes that have been carried out by the United States and our coalition partners in the region as well. And this is, I think, an indication of how critically important it is for the United States to have a capable, willing and effective partner fighting ISIL on the ground.
And that’s why significant resources have been dedicated to trying to build up that kind of force both in Syria and in Iraq. Obviously they’re different situations. We have a central government we can work with in Iraq, already some Iraqi security forces there. We’re starting from a much different place when it comes to Syria, trying to solicit members of the Moderate Syrian Opposition and enlist them in the fight, put them through training. That, frankly, is a more difficult task. But I think this is a pretty clear illustration of why that very difficult work is important.
Q So with these Kurdish forces, specifically, what’s kind of the -- if you can describe in a general sense the strategy sort of going from here in terms of the advance.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess for more details, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense in terms of what objective they see as next. But we’ve obviously have seen steady progress across northeast Syria, and the United States and our coalition partners will continue to be engaged in that effort to drive back ISIL.
Q Just want to make sure that we’re clear on trade. So if TAA gets -- I mean, if TPA gets to his desk first, but TAA is still going to take some time, he’s going to wait and sign both together?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have that sequencing thing. But my point is there’s no reason that this should be an issue. The fact is --
Q But if it is? Because it’s looking like it could be.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been significant concerns that have been raised by people in this briefing room sort of threatening that there could be significant problems encountered. We have encountered problems, but so far we’ve got a pretty good track record of working through them. And right now, we believe there is a clear path for both TPA and TAA to come to the President’s desk. There obviously are many more steps to go before that goal is completed, but we are certainly pleased with the progress that we’ve made even as of today.
Q Okay. And on the hostage review, I know it’s coming out tomorrow, but details and reactions to it are already out now. Do you expect it to -- I mean, it seems like the original goal was communication for families. But do you expect it now, with sort of these extra elements, to have an effect on bringing hostages home?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, you guys will have an opportunity to evaluate that once the full report -- the executive order and the presidential policy directive has been released tomorrow.
Q Yes, but is that one of the goals? Is that what you expect to come from it? Because you know what’s in it; obviously, we don’t.
MR. EARNEST: What we have indicated is that our goals entering into this process was to both better integrate the variety of federal government resources that are dedicated to securing the safe return of American hostages that are being held against their will overseas, and also to improve communication with the families of those who are going through this terrible ordeal.
So that was the goal going in. All of you will have an opportunity to read the report tomorrow, and you can evaluate what kind of progress we were able to make against that goal.
Q So if part of it is to not threaten families with prosecution and sort of -- including the facilitation that’s already happened in other cases with ransoms, it seems like if that -- if the goal of that part of it is to get people home, potentially, that seems to be at odds with the policy of the government ideologically. So how does that sort of -- kind of how does that play out to make sense that both of those things could exist within the same dynamic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, once we have some more details of the policy to make public, we can discuss that further.
Q I mean, I’m just going to give it one more try, because, like I said, the reactions are already coming out. And the Weinstein family is now saying that they wish that the coordinator could be based within the NSC, I'm assuming, instead of the FBI, or wherever it’s based now. But Weinstein’s widow is saying that at the NSC, that would not only give the position more interagency coordinating authority, but ensure that those debating counterterrorism activities and hostage recovery were sitting in the same room. So do you feel that if that position is not based within the NSC that those are going to be a problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, my understanding of the way that this is structured is that the family engagement representative would both have direct access to the interagency fusion cell that’s responsible for responding to these kinds of incidents, but also will have a role in the broader policymaking process that is housed here at the White House.
Q So you don’t feel like that would be at odds with what these families are looking for in that capacity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen the direct statement that they’ve made. And we’ll all have an opportunity to review the report and reach that conclusion.
Q Yeah, Josh, one more on the motivation for the hostages. Was there a sense that the administration, and maybe even previous administrations, were needlessly adding to the burdens of the families involves in these situations?
MR. EARNEST: I think the sense, Mark, was that the administration could be more effective in delivering clear information and, in some cases, instructions to the families of those who are going through this terrible ordeal. And so the sense was that this is a process that could be improved. And so we have undertaken a pretty rigorous effort over the last six months to try to determine how exactly we can improve it.
Q And putting aside the specifics that we’re going to hear about tomorrow, does the President still believe that if you pay ransom to a terrorist you’re going to encourage more hostage-taking?
MR. EARNEST: The President does continue to believe that it’s important for the United States of America to adhere closely to a no-concessions policy.
That is a policy that was not under review in this process. And the reason that the President believes that is the right approach is that to offer concessions to terrorists only does allow them to more effectively fund their operations, but also makes American citizens around the globe an even more significant target than they already are.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple for you. At the State Department today, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Lew all promised frank and candid conversations with the Chinese on the issue of cybersecurity. I was hoping to give you an opportunity to lead the way on the frankness and the candor, and tell us who’s behind the OPM hack.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, obviously, as a student of diplomacy, you know as well as anyone that the kinds of conversations that take place behind closed doors in the context of a summit as significant as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue are different than the kinds of public discussions that take place. After all, that’s the reason that we would invite senior Chinese officials to the United States, is so that we wouldn’t have conversations through the media, but actually have an opportunity in a private setting to have a direct face-to-face discussion.
So I say all of that and end by only reiterating that we have not made any sort of public declaration about who precisely is responsible for the intrusions that were detected at the Office of Personnel Management over the last couple months.
Q I have a couple more for you. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter today told CBS that the administration is working on a proposal to shut Gitmo that would include moving some of the detainees that the administration has concluded cannot be freed, and moving those detainees to U.S. soil. Can you offer any details at all about what that plan would look like, and what the level of optimism is given the bipartisan opposition to doing that on the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more about our plans to describe to you. The President has made clear that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is a top priority -- something that he did on his second day in office, I believe. And since then, we have encountered a number of significant obstacles from members of Congress who have sought to make that already difficult task even more challenging.
And the President has directed his team to be persistent in pursuit of the goal of closing the prison, primarily because that prison does serve as a recruiting tool for our adversaries, but it also is not a very effective use of taxpayer dollars. So the President continues to believe that that’s an important national security goal.
There are a variety of ideas for how exactly to do that. As the decisions are made about closing the prison, what will be paramount, of course, is making sure that we’re protecting the national security interest of the United States. And, in fact, it’s because the President does believe that closing the prison is so clearly in our national security interest that he’s made it a priority.
Q And then lastly -- I’m sorry -- careful readers of the White House blog noticed a post about rightsizing or downsizing the NSC. Could you give us a sense of the scale of this rightsizing or downsizing? The reasons were kind of laid out in the Post, but I got no sense at all of like how many people and in what areas are being asked to consider other opportunities.
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, I don’t have a good sense of the hard numbers that are involved. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the NSC who may be able to provide you some more granular detail about this. But the sense was that, by taking a hard look at the organizational structure at the NSC, there may be some opportunities for optimizing their performance by reforming the structures in a variety of ways.
Some of those reforms are not the kinds of things that will be immediately obvious to people who don’t work at the NSC. But the sense is that there could be -- that some of these processes could be made more efficient by instituting some of these changes.
Q Just to pin down a very straight answer to a very simply question. Does the President sign trade promotion authority regardless of whether or not TAA gets to his desk, yes or no? That’s all I need.
MR. EARNEST: I know. But the problem is that it’s a hypothetical. Both -- for two reasons. One is --
Q No, but is he going to sign the bill? I mean, the bill -- assuming it passes in the House, is he going to sign that bill regardless of what happens after?
MR. EARNEST: The President has made clear that both TPA and TAA are top priorities. And he’s --
Q I understand that.
MR. EARNEST: -- obviously spent a lot of time advocating to the United States Congress that they should pass both. We’re pleased that a legislative path has emerged that will allow both to pass, and that’s what we’re counting on -- signing both into law.
Q Okay. But will he sign the first if the second does not pass?
MR. EARNEST: Again, it shouldn’t come to that, Jon. There is a clear path --
Q I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t, but will he sign it? This is a bill, standalone bill. Would he sign it? Or is his signature contingent on something else happening?
MR. EARNEST: It’s the President’s intent to sign both of these pieces of legislation into law.
Q Okay. I tried.
MR. EARNEST: It was a valiant attempt.
Q And on the OPM hack, when we first learned of it we were told that there were about 4 million current and former federal government employees that were affected. We’ve now learned that OPM knew that the number was actually significantly larger, perhaps in the tens of millions. Why were we told 4 million? And what do you think the true extent of this hack was?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, what we have tried to do at each stage is to allow what is known about the investigation of the intrusion drive what information is being made public. And we have, at many turns, sort of cautioned against being able to release specific pieces of information because there were certain details that were emerging from the investigation.
What at one point the Office of Personnel Management was able to confirm is that there was significant concern, a high probability that up to 4 million or so sensitive -- that sensitive records related to 4 million or so individuals were potentially exfiltrated by those who were responsible for the intrusion. And that was information that we put forward consistent with what we believe is our obligation to make sure we’re communicating with those individuals.
And you’ll recall that the administration has actually put forward legislation to Congress that would set a pretty high standard for notifying those whose data may be at risk from a cyber intrusion. And we sought to try to meet that standard ourselves, and we did. But the investigation is ongoing. And as more information is learned and as we reach additional conclusions, and our investigators determine that it’s in the interest of the investigation to make that information public, then we will attempt to do so.
Q But do you acknowledge that the number that were affected here -- the number of people affected here is actually significantly larger than 4 million?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, what I have previously acknowledged is that after revealing the information about the breach that led to possibly 4 million people having their sensitive data exfiltrated that, as the investigation continued, that information about an additional intrusion emerged. And I acknowledged at that point that it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that additional data may be at risk.
But only when our investigators have reached a better conclusion about how much data we’re talking about, what sort of data we’re talking about, who may be affected, that’s when we’ll be able to put that information out publicly.
Q And there’s one further on the hostage -- the policy on ransom.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Is it still and remains a crime to pay ransom to a foreign terrorist group for the sake of freeing an American hostage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for a legal analysis like that, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q But the policy on that has not changed or will not change?
MR. EARNEST: The policy of the administration is that the United States of America does not make concessions to terrorists.
Q Families don’t make concessions to terrorist and aren’t allowed to?
MR. EARNEST: Again, that is a legal question that you can direct to the Department of Justice.
Let’s move around. Rebecca.
Q On the Confederate flag issue, both Walmart and Sears said they would stop selling Confederate flag merchandise. Does the President think other retailers should follow suit?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, this is a decision for individuals businesses to make, but the announcements from Walmart and Sears are certainly consistent with the kind of position that the President has taken when it comes to the Confederate flag. And so we welcome those decisions. But obviously those are decision that should be made by individuals’ businesses.
Q You mentioned a moment ago that as you reach conclusions about the numbers of those affected by the intrusion you will announce them. But, apparently, those conclusions have already been released to at least some senators on the Hill, because that seems to be the source of the report of at least as many as 14 million intrusions. So why can’t you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, two things about this, Bill -- and I tried to be clear about this with Jon. The decision will be driven also by -- the decision to make particular pieces of information public will also be driven by whether our investigators believe that that’s in the best interest of the ongoing investigation; that sometimes, by putting out a particular piece of information or a set of information, we can give our adversaries greater insight into our investigative tools and better insight into the capabilities that we have to respond to these particular situations.
Q They’ve already got it, based on this leak.
MR. EARNEST: When you say “they” and “it” who are you referring to?
Q The sensitive information.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Bill, I think we announced a month ago that this intrusion had occurred and it had put at risk the sensitive data of up to 4 million Americans.
Q Does the President still retain full confidence in Administrator Archuleta?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q Josh, a couple on China, and then one further. Are federal investigators able at this point to exonerate China of culpability in the OPM breach?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't heard any firm conclusions from the FBI about who suspects are or who suspects aren't. So I'd refer you to the FBI for a conclusion about that.
Q You would agree that given what we know about Chinese cultural sensitivities, if they were indeed innocent in this matter and it is within the powers of the United States government to exonerate them amid all the widespread speculation that that would probably conduce toward better China-U.S. relations as they’re visiting Washington right now?
MR. EARNEST: But that would be a decision that would be made by our investigators at the FBI.
Q Regards the S&ED, we heard opening statements from the Treasury Secretary and the Secretary of State today and others. There seems to be a repetitive quality to these things. We hear year in and year out about how we want to have frank exchanges and we want to find areas for collaboration, but certainly we maintain our respective positions, but no one is going to lecture anyone and all the rest of it. Nothing ever comes of it except more OPM breaches. And so I just wonder what does this accomplish this week?
MR. EARNEST: We'll, James, you, like Olivier, are also a student of diplomacy, and so you understand that sometimes the kinds of public statements that are made by officials on both sides don't reveal everything about the private exchanges that are occurring. That is, after all, why these meetings occur in the first place.
I will say that there have been concerns that we have consistently raised year after year about China’s activity in cyberspace. You will recall that it was just a year or two ago that the Department of Justice made an announcement indicting some Chinese officials based on their conduct in cyberspace.
At the same time, there are some areas where the United States and China are able to work together to advance our collective, mutual interests. That was on display when the President traveled to China last fall and made a significant announcement, where both countries made a commitment to reduce carbon pollution. This was as substantial commitment that did drive -- we believe did drive some additional countries around the world to make similar commitments.
I would also point out that China has continued to be a useful participant in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, and we value the role that they have played there.
So there is no doubt that there are some areas where the United States and China are even in what could be described as heated competition, but there are also some areas where we are able to cooperate. And that is what we’re seeking to build upon.
Q Vice President Biden said today to his Chinese audience, this is not a lecture. Is it a concern of this administration that we may be seen by the Chinese as lecturing them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not in a position to evaluate what our concerns may be about the way they receive our messaging. Our goal here is to make very clear that we welcome a rising China, that there’s --
Q You harbor such concerns when you craft your messages. So it is a concern of yours how they hear our messages. And so I'm just -- I was struck by the Vice President of the United States seeking to assure the Chinese that we're not lecturing them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I guess you’d have to ask the Vice President’s office about why he chose to include that particular sentence.
Q One last on China, and then I'll move on. Secretary Kerry spent more time, whether you measure by number of words or time running -- total running time, in his remarks today about climate change than he did about cyber or human rights. Is it safe to say this administration regards its work with China on climate as a higher priority than our work with China on human rights or cyber?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's fair to say that we conclude that both are priorities. And I think as I mentioned earlier, our goal is to try to build upon those areas where we have been able to effectively cooperate. And certainly fighting climate change is one area where we have been able to work effectively with the Chinese to accomplish goals that are in the interest of citizens of both our countries.
But it does not in any way diminish the concerns that we’ve previously expressed about China’s conduct in cyberspace, or even China’s failure on many occasions to respect the basic universal human rights of their people. Those are values that we hold very dear in this country. And in every interaction senior U.S. officials have with their Chinese counterparts, we reiterate the significance of those values to us.
Q Last subject matter -- and I appreciate your indulgence. I want to follow up on the colloquy that was had in this room yesterday about the President’s use of the “n” word. It strikes me as a very significant moment in the history of presidential rhetoric, because I don’t think we’ve ever seen a sitting President before use that word in a public setting. And you explained yesterday why he felt it was necessary to use that word. I wonder if you could tell us whether any deliberation prior to the interview went into the use of that word; whether it was debated internally amongst the President and his aides as to whether it would be a well-considered thing for him to use that word.
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not aware of any sort of deliberation that went on. As I mentioned, this was an informal discussion -- a long, open-ended discussion that the President engaged in. And that’s where he made this argument that is familiar to those who have been open to hearing exactly what the President believes is important for people to recognize, both in terms of the important progress that’s been made in this country over the last several decades in terms of the issue of race, but also acknowledging that important work remains to be done.
Q Josh, whether the number is 4 million or 18 million, regarding the Office of Personnel Management’s acknowledgement of the number of people whose data has been compromised, were you among those individuals who was notified that your data may have been compromised as part of either of the breaches?
MR. EARNEST: I was.
Q You were. Can you give us a sense of how many people in this office were on that same list -- of Executive Office right now working for the President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how many people at the White House were affected.
Q Can I ask you about the hostage policy, very quickly? Which is, acknowledging that we’ll find out more detail tomorrow -- whether it still enforces the law or whether the law, which we understand will not change -- do you believe it undermines the process for families of American hostages to pay a ransom, whether or not they’ll be prosecuted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Peter, I think what I would say about this -- and I think we’ll have an opportunity to talk about this a little bit more when you can see firsthand the policy -- I think what everyone who has been involved with these issues, even on the periphery, like I have, that it’s very difficult to put yourself in a situation of somebody who’s going through something so difficult; to think of your loved one being in this awful situation, being held against their will overseas by people with very bad intentions.
And I think it is difficult to -- I certainly wouldn’t want to put myself in a position in which I judge their reaction or their motivation to do one particular thing or another, because I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that situation. To imagine a mother or a father or a husband and wife, or a son or daughter in that situation -- I think it’s hard to even hypothetically make a judgment about their motivations.
Q But the no-concessions policy exists because the administration believes, and past administrations believed, that that will somehow empower those people, those captors who are taking hostages -- American or whatever, other sort. So does it undermine the process that you’re trying to achieve if others -- not the government -- but others, families, are paying money? Why would they stop kidnapping people if you don’t give the money but the family will?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what’s clear, Peter, is that the reason that we have our policy in place is that the resources of the United States government are not going to be used to make concessions to terrorists. And again, we do not want to open the door to even more Americans being vulnerable to a hostage-taking.
Q Are the families opening the door?
MR. EARNEST: And we certainly don’t want to give additional financial resources to terrorist organizations that we know then turn around and use those financial resources to carry out additional atrocities, including additional hostage-takings.
Q Didn’t the Bowe Bergdahl situation open that door?
MR. EARNEST: The Bowe Bergdahl situation was different because Sergeant Bergdahl wears the uniform of the United States military. And as the Commander-in-Chief, the President does believe that he has made a firm commitment to everyone who puts on the uniform that we will not leave them behind.
Q Just to follow up, will we hear from the President tomorrow on this review?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. The President tomorrow -- as I mentioned, many of the families of American hostages are in Washington, D.C. today. They’re receiving a briefing from officials who participated in this review. Tomorrow, those families will come to the White House and they’ll have an opportunity to sit down and visit with the President. And the President will have an opportunity to speak publicly about the completion of this review process tomorrow.
Q Will he take questions?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate that he will, no.
Q Can I follow up with one thing on that -- very, very briefly that I failed to ask? Which is that only about a small percentage of the families even participated in the review process, which is demonstrative of the lack of trust that exists right now. I appreciate Carol indulging me, but what do you say about the fact that a limited number of families participated in that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate. We’ll have an opportunity to talk about their involvement in this tomorrow.
Go ahead, Carol.
Q Can you provide any additional details on the President’s trip to Charleston on Friday? And in particular, is he writing the eulogy himself? Is he going to use that as a moment purely to reflect on the lives of the victims, or is he going to use it as a moment to lay out a path forward for the country in the wake of the tragedy?
MR. EARNEST: The President has begun the process of working closely with Cody Keenan, his lead speechwriter, on those remarks for Friday. That process has just begun, so I wouldn’t want to speculate at this early stage about what the remarks will look like at the end. But as we get a little bit closer, I’ll try to provide some additional insight.
Q Josh, the issue of the ban prohibiting openly transgender people from serving in the U.S. military is coming to a head. As The New York Times just reported last week, and I later confirmed, Representative Jackie Speier is planning to introduce legislation to force the Pentagon to lift the ban. And Representative Mike Honda is circulating a letter among colleagues, calling for the administration to make a change on the policy on its own volition. Tomorrow, at least two transgender servicemembers will be in attendance at the Pride Reception right here at the White House. You said before that the President agrees everyone who is qualified to serve should be able to serve in the Armed Forces. But will he act on that principle tomorrow by announcing at the reception that he’ll lift the ban prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t anticipate an announcement like that tomorrow.
Q And isn’t it incongruous, though, that the President believes that everyone who’s qualified to serve should be able to serve, for him to hold that policy, and then for the Pentagon to continue discharging people who are transgender?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, this was a question that was posed earlier in the administration, related specifically to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And we’ve long acknowledged that considering these kinds of policy changes also involves considering the process for implementing them. And the job of advocates on the outside is to apply pressure and to try to speed that process, but it’s the responsibility of those, particularly those who are leading our military, to ensure that any policy that is decided and implemented is clearly within the best interest of the United States military and our men and women who volunteer to serve this country.
But I will reiterate the President’s view -- and it’s one that is shared by his Secretary of Defense -- and it’s that Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to do so, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Q But does the President believe the military will end this prohibition before the end of his administration?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any news to make for you on this today, Chris.
Q Back on the hostage policy -- review. I’m wondering if -- you said that the hostage families are being briefed today. Did you brief the lawmakers on Capitol Hill? As you know, there’s a bipartisan group of them -- Ben Cardin, John Cornyn, Duncan Hunter, who is outspoken and very vocally critical of your approach today -- and they want a completely different approach in terms of the fusion center. They believe that too many turf wars and allowing the FBI to head this is up is not going to solve any problems in that capacity. Can you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll be able to talk a little bit more about the specific policy tomorrow once it’s been released. But I would anticipate that many members of Capitol Hill will have an opportunity to speak with senior members of the administration prior to the release of the report tomorrow.
Q -- 1:00 pm today.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q They were briefed at 1:00 p.m. today, I think by the NDI, by the National Defense Intelligence Director.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have specific conversations to tell you about. But I know that many members of Congress will hear from the administration prior to the release of the report.
Q Did you get their input in terms of how to get the fusion center organized?
MR. EARNEST: I do know that there are a number of conversations that took place with members of Congress as the task force was doing their work and as they were assembling this report. But again, I don’t have any specific details of those conversations either.
Move around. Bob.
Q Josh, just a quick one. You mentioned P5+1 a moment ago. It’s now June 23rd, and there’s basically a week until this self-imposed new deadline -- new self-imposed deadline for coming to some kind of final agreement. Can you update us on that, especially with Iran’s leaders making all kinds of statements?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bob, as I mentioned yesterday -- I believe Olivier asked about this -- the United States and our P5+1 partners are continuing to operate against the June 30th deadline, and we’re going to continue to press for an agreement that is consistent with the political agreement that was reached earlier this spring.
Now, there was also a self-imposed deadline in the context of those political negotiations as well. That deadline was March 31st, and you’ll recall that an agreement was not announced until April 2nd. So we’re mindful of what these deadlines often look like, but our view is that we’ve been negotiating with Iran with our P5+1 partners for coming on two years now, and now is the time for us to reach an agreement, and we’re pressing to reach an agreement by the June 30th deadline.
Q But you realize that could very well slide a few days or a couple days, however you want to say it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that certainly is what we saw in the context of the spring discussions and agreement, but ultimately, it didn’t have an impact on our ability to reach an agreement that’s consistent with the priorities that the President has laid out. And so if it requires us to take a couple of extra days, just like we did in the spring, in order to reach an agreement that’s consistent with that political agreement, then we’ll do that.
But again, there’s no reason our negotiators, by working with Iran as we have over the last two years, shouldn’t be able to meet this June 30th deadline.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, James.
Q Thanks very much. You were just discussing with us the prospects that the talks may extend beyond the June 30 deadline for some limited period of time, and certainly recent history bears that out as a valid prospect. Can you at least assure the American people that if a final deal is reached, it will, in fact, be final? That is to say, the final deal will not contain within it, with respect to any particular component, parameters that are to be fleshed out further in further negotiation after the inking of the so-called final deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say that I would anticipate that the culmination of two years of work here is to be able to establish a framework for moving forward. And that means Iran taking the steps that are necessary and, in a verifiable way, shutting down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. And they would do that in exchange for sanctions relief. That is the essence of the agreement.
Now, will there be differences of opinion as certain aspects of this are implemented that may require additional negotiations? Yes. That’s going to keep our diplomats employed here. But this is an effort to reach a final agreement, and that’s the --
Q So there could be additional negotiations after the final deal has been announced?
MR. EARNEST: Well, James, you’ve also been closely -- a close observer of this process enough to understand that, yes, this will be a final agreement, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to begin to accomplish the goal that both sides set out to achieve, which is the United States and our P5+1 partners shutting down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, and Iran getting, in exchange for taking those steps, the sanctions relief that they seek. And we should be able to reach that final agreement by June 30th.
Q Thanks, Josh. Ash Carter said on CBS News today that he is not confident that Guantanamo Bay will be closed before the President leaves office. I’m wondering, does the President share this lack of confidence that he won’t be able to reach this goal before he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear from Secretary Carter’s remarks is that because of the consistent and repeated effort on the part of Congress to impose obstacles on the process of closing the present Guantanamo Bay, that’s made an already difficult process even more challenging. But this is a priority that the President has set and his national security team is working hard to achieve it.
Q I also want to ask you about the King vs. Burwell case.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q We’ve asked you a couple times about this, but just want to get a sense on whether or not -- we know that you all think that the case doesn’t have merit and shouldn’t have been taken up. But in the case that the court does strike down these subsidies, has the White House done -- can you explain what the White House has done to prepare for that? And has the President made calls? Is he reaching out to members of Congress who are saying that they have an alternative? Is there anything going on at the White House to prepare for that scenario?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I don’t have a lot to tell you about. The fact is, we continue to have a lot of confidence in the power of the legal arguments made by the Solicitor General before the court. And you’ve heard the President discuss this at some length, and what some people thought was pretty colorful.
But we continue to have confidence in the strength of those arguments. And the fact is, if in the unlikely event that there is an adverse ruling, the President has also been pretty clear that if Congress is actually serious about solving this problem they could solve the problem in one day with a one-page bill.
But it’s pretty clear from those who have been quoted talking about this publicly -- at least on the Republican side of the aisle -- that their interest is not in trying to protect the critically important gains that have been enjoyed by millions of Americans across the country, but rather to dismantle them. And that is the publicly stated goal of any number of members of Congress.
I saw that Chairman Ryan was even quoted today saying that that was his goal, and he hoped to use the prospect of an adverse court ruling to accomplish that goal. That certainly is not what the American people expect of their elected leaders. But again, we’re not losing a whole lot of sleep over it because we continue to have a lot of confidence in the power of the arguments that we’ve made.
Q Josh, my colleague, Caitlin Dickerson, has been reporting this week on World War II veterans who were subject to the secret mustard gas experiments. When those experiments came to light -- public light -- in the early ‘90s, the VA promised that it would notify all the veterans who have been affected and make it easier for them to get disability payments. But Caitlin found that thousands of them had never been notified and many were still being denied the benefits to which they’re entitled. What’s it going to take for the VA to make good on its decades-old promises to these veterans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Scott, what’s clear is that our VA is committed to making sure that our men and women in uniform who serve this country get the benefits that they deserve. And that is the reason for that agency’s existence. And it is something that the President has indicated to his team here at the White House, and at the VA, is a top priority. And that’s why you have seen all the significant progress that we’ve been able to make in terms of expanding access to care and making sure that we are working through the backlog that has materialized. And we’ve made important progress in both of those regards, and that’s indicative of the broader commitment that the President has to our men and women in uniform.
As it relates to this specific case, I’d refer you to the VA so they can talk about how they’re processing these claims and following through on that commitment. But the President certainly believes that their doing so is consistent with the instructions that they’ve received to make sure that the VA is doing their job and looking out for our veterans.
Q And is the White House doing anything to kind of keep tabs on that progress that the VA is making, both on this specific subset of veterans and on the broader group of veterans who maybe had their promises met in a very slow manner?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Scott, there is substantial progress that’s been made at the VA, and they can tell you more about the metrics of that -- and frankly, somebody here can if you’re not able to get those details. But we’re pleased with the important progress that we’ve made; we recognize that there is a lot more that needs to get done. But that progress is a result of the President and his team making this a top priority. But again, for this specific case, I’d refer you to the VA for details on how they are working through that process.
Q Thank you, Josh. Personal question at the beginning. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Are we allowed to ask those?
Q Well, personal for the President.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) We’ll see -- we’ll see.
Q Has the President contacted Governor Hogan, following his very moving announcement yesterday? Or does he plan to issue any statement about the Governor?
MR. EARNEST: I know that senior officials here in the White House have been in touch with the Governor’s office to try to line up a phone call between the two, but I don’t know that the conversation has taken place yet.
Q The other thing is, just going back to the earlier question about an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court, Senator Tillis of North Carolina said last week that in the event that happened and Congress passed a contingency plan, he felt confident the President would veto it or anything that would concede that there were flaws in the Affordable Care Act. Other lawmakers have said that, including Senator Cassidy, who offered the Patient Freedom Act, which he says has the same goals as the Affordable Care Act. What does the administration say to senators when they make statements like that?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we would say to them is hopefully their musings on this topic will be rendered irrelevant in the next week or so.
Q How concerned is White House about the security situation in Afghanistan? We saw that brazen attack on parliament yesterday. And now there are these reports that the Taliban is close to overtaking Kunduz in the northern part of the country. How concerned is the White House about this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Aru, I can tell you that, as it relates to the specific attack we saw against the parliament building yesterday, that it is an indication of the sophistication and capability of Taliban fighters, but we were pleased to see a rapid and professional response by the Afghan security forces that did limit the very dangerous attack that was carried out.
And that is an indication of some of the progress that has been made as it relates to building up the capacity of security forces inside of Afghanistan to better provide for the security of their citizens. But obviously, it’s a very -- a difficult security situation in that country. And there continue to be U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan that are focused on the effort to continue to build up that capacity of those Afghan security forces by offering them some training and some assistance.
There also is a counterterrorism role for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and that is strictly to ensure the safety and security of those American military personnel inside of Afghanistan, but also to look out for the broader national security interest of the American people.
So there is still important work that’s being done by the U.S. military there, even in a difficult situation. But I would not anticipate that yesterday’s attacks by the Taliban would have any impact on the longer-term U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.
Goyal, go ahead.
Q Thank you, sir. Two questions. One, health care costs -- mental health, depression and also -- are on the rise around the globe. To keep all these in mind, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi last year, the United Nations declared June 21st as the International Day of Yoga, on Sunday, around the globe -- celebrating of course, including at the monument. My question is just, how does the President feel about this, or if he has spoken with anybody or with Prime Minister Modi? Or if he’s planning to declare this, also that will bring all these down and help health-wise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, I could just say as a general matter, that I'm not aware that the President had any conversations with world leaders on this topic, but obviously the President and the First Lady have made public health and the health of the American people a top priority of their administration. And whether that’s trying to advance the Affordable Care Act, or the First Lady through her Let’s Move! initiative, to try to encourage children in this country to be more active and to follow a healthy diet -- that these are policy priorities that the administration has identified and one that we’ve tried to encourage the American people and people around the world to follow.
Q Second, Josh, as far as two lawyers back in Delhi, President Obama and also Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, and they discussed about that as far as the trafficking and child labor, and child trafficking around the globe is on the rise, including of course in India and also in China. If you can tell me, because Mr. Satyarthi was in Washington last week and he was speaking at the Lincoln Memorial about this issue around the globe to bring children out of the shadow and from child labor. What do you think what President had spoken with him, and what the President think about this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, I can just say as a general matter, that the President believes strongly that we need to be serious about combatting child trafficking. And the administration has devoted significant time and consideration, and even resources, to international efforts to try to fight human trafficking.
We can get you some more details about sort of the -- about the nature of those efforts. But I know this is something that the President has talked about frequently, not just with his national security staff, but in his conversations with other world leaders, and even in the context of international meetings at the United Nations.
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