Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/24/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:36 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Noting your interest in the hostage policy review that was announced today, I brought with me today Lisa Monaco, who is the President’s top counterterrorism advisor. Lisa was instrumental in the completion of this report and leading the broader interagency effort that took a look at this issue.
So you have all heard from the President already on this, so I think what I'll do is I'll call up Lisa and we'll go straight to your questions on this topic. She’s only got about 10 or 15 minutes before she needs to move on, but we'll take the questions on this topic first. And then we'll let her go and I can handle the range of other questions you may have.
So, Lisa, why don't you come on up?
Mr. Viqueira, do you want to get things started?
Q Sure. Thank you, Lisa. So as I understand it, the longstanding U.S. policy against negotiating a hostage ransom by the government is still the same, no concessions. But the President will facilitate families if they choose to pay a ransom. If I'm a bad guy in the Middle East, is that a distinction with a difference? Because either way, if I take an American I'm going to --
MS. MONACO: So I want to be very clear about what was said today, and the President was very clear just now and he was very clear with the families. The United States government’s policy of no concessions -- providing no concession to those who take hostages stands. That continues to be the policy of the U.S. government. What we did today, and what we've done as a result of this review is to clarify that no concessions does not mean no communications. And unfortunately, that needed clarification and that was -- that came through loud and clear in the review that we did.
With respect to your question about whether or not that's a distinction, I appreciate that critique and I understand that analysis. But I think what is very important and what the President said both to the families with whom he met earlier today and in the Roosevelt Room today is that we will not abandon families. We are going to work with them.
And I do want to take issue with the term “facilitate.” The government will not facilitate the payment of a ransom. What we will do, however, is work with families to try and advise them, to give them the benefit of our best advice, but we will not abandon them when they make very hard decisions, and we will be guided by a focus on their security and to ensure that they’re not victimized further as they’re going through the most horrific situation that they’ll probably ever endure.
MR. EARNEST: Roberta.
Q The President said that families were rightly skeptical, and I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what his meeting with them was like. How many families did he meet with? Any families that you can mention in particular? What did they tell him? What kind of reaction did they have? And did he ask them to stand behind him or with him as he spoke to us to tell us the results of this?
MS. MONACO: So the President met today with about 40 former hostages and families of former and current hostages. And he met with them in what, as he acknowledged, was a very emotional meeting. I and a number of my colleagues from around the government spent several hours with these same families and former hostages yesterday.
What we did is we went through, and the President continued to describe the changes we are making, the review that he ordered and the policy directive that he signed and the executive order that he signed. He fielded questions about the review, about the process, and about the accountability for making sure that we implement these changes.
What was very clear is that families want to make sure they continue to be partners in this effort and to continue to feed into the process and make sure that we're implementing.
Q Was he hoping that they stood with him when he talked to the cameras?
MS. MONACO: No, this was -- the time with the families was about hearing from them, hearing their questions, hearing their concerns. And he had already met with them and described and made his statements and heard from them, and then he made his public statement. So they were very separate events.
MR. EARNEST: Jim.
Q The President pointedly noted that nobody has been prosecuted for pursuing a ransom option. And I'm wondering if that becomes a signal potential hostage-takers and pirates, et cetera, that it is okay to get -- that they will get some kind of remuneration if they kidnap someone. And does it create this kind of bifurcated system where private citizens who may become hostages and can pursue that path, soldiers who are captured can get -- be part of a swap, as Bergdahl was, but other government officials who are serving in a dangerous way may not have the possibility availing themselves to that kind of exchange?
MS. MONACO: I think what’s true is this is an extremely complex environment that we're navigating, and what the President talked about today with the families is we're confronting a hostage-taking environment and a threat from particular terrorist actors that has changed and is not the same one that we designed our policies for before.
The statements about no families ever having been prosecuted, those are statements made by the Justice Department, and it's simply a statement of fact. And as the Justice Department said in the statement I believe they issued today, they do not intend to add to a family’s pain as they’re going through these ordeals by making threats of prosecution.
So, does it signal something? I can’t speak to that. I can’t speak to the motivations of brutal actors that we’ve seen. What is also true, though, is the motivations here include propaganda and sheer brutality, and is not always about profit.
MR. EARNEST: Michelle.
Q Thanks, Lisa. So does this mean that since the policy remains the same and there’s a reason, an ideological and practical reason for that policy, will the U.S. government first try to dissuade families from paying the ransom? Will that sort of be the first action on that issue? And also, when you say that the government won’t facilitate -- I mean, we know in the past with the Weinstein case there was a facilitation there. But you’re also saying that the U.S. government can assist with communication. So how do you draw the line between not facilitating a ransom payment but facilitating communication that could be exactly for that reason?
MS. MONACO: So I’ll take the last part first, which is to say I’m not going to get into very specific tactics. I think nobody here would want me to, and to lay bare a playbook for terrorist actors who are out there. What I will say is that there are very good reasons for communication and for helping a family communicate if they need it and if it’s part of a plan that the family designs together with the government and with the experts with whom they work. And that’s really the goal here.
What we’re trying to put in place is a partnered approach where families said quite clearly to us and have experienced at times -- and the President spoke to this -- that they felt neglected, they felt abandoned, they felt on the outside of strategies or efforts to recover their loved ones, sometimes not knowing what was happening, sometimes not knowing what that strategy was.
What we’re trying to put in place here is an environment where they will be part of that process. They will be able to participate in designing that recovery strategy. There will be a single government entity led by a senior responsible official who is charged every day and wakes up every morning seized with the charge to develop those recovery strategies and execute on them, and is held accountable. And every case is going to be different.
MR. EARNEST: Major.
Q Lisa, could you address Elaine Weinstein’s criticism that she would have preferred to see a White House person -- and some members of Congress have asked for a White House czar, and I don’t need to tell you when the President tried to wrap his arms around the bull he brought somebody in, in the White House, directly answerable to him and to carry out this coordinating role across the government. Why would it not have been better -- and what do you tell Elaine Weinstein and members of Congress who far would prefer that this coordinated effort be orchestrated from the White House?
MS. MONACO: I think what I’d say, Major, is -- and, look, there are valid ways of going about this and I understand the perspectives that other people are bringing to it. I think we’ve worked with a number of folks in Congress on some of this legislation, some of which call for an interagency coordinator, which is exactly what we’re doing.
But I want to be very clear about the gap that we heard and saw needed to be filled -- very, very important -- and that is a single place where operationally -- and I want to underscore “operationally” -- all elements of the government were coming together in one place, not stove-piped in one agency working in isolation from the other experts and the other agency working in isolation. There needed to be one place operationally where the experts -- the investigators, the intelligence analysts, the military personnel -- all sat together and focused 100 percent of their time on these recovery strategies. That was not happening, and that operational work is not appropriately put in the White House. I think we’d receive other criticism if it was seen that we were trying to run operations out of the White House.
So you need one operational place, this fusion cell, with a senior official responsible for that to lead it, but populated by all those experts, focused on hostage matters 24/7, but making sure they are accountable here at the White House to the President, as he said in his statement, but also to the policymakers who are sometimes going to have to make hard calls. So the operational gap is the one that I think is most urgently filled.
MR. EARNEST: Jon.
Q You said this is about communications. Let me ask you directly, is it illegal for a family to make a payment to a foreign terrorist organization, for whatever reason?
MS. MONACO: So I’m not going to give you -- I took off my prosecutor hat a few years ago, as many of you know, and I’m not going to make legal analysis from here. The Justice Department’s statement that was issued today talks very clearly about the confusion that many families felt because of a statute called the Material Support Statute, which does make it illegal for anybody to provide material support in the form of money, guns, you name it, to a designated foreign terrorist organization. The Justice Department also said, however, they have never exercised their prosecutorial discretion to use that statute to prosecute friends or family members of hostages.
Q But isn’t it clear -- if I can just follow up -- the Foley family, for one, has told us that over and over again they were threatened -- if they attempted to make any kind of a payment, they would be prosecuted. Wouldn’t it make sense that that’s why the prosecutions weren’t happening, because families -- it was made very clear to them if they did this, they could end up being prosecuted for it?
MS. MONACO: I understand that the families have felt that they were threatened, and it is something that should not have happened, which is what the President said today, which is what officials, including from the Justice Department, told the families yesterday, and that that will not happen in the future.
MR. EARNEST: Peter.
Q Lisa, appreciate your time. Very simply, the President today said that the U.S. government policy will remain the same because he said ransom risks endangering more Americans and it funds terrorism that we’re trying to stop. But ransom money is ransom money, whether paid by the government or paid by individual families. So doesn’t this announcement today risk endangering more Americans overseas?
MS. MONACO: I understand that critique. Here’s what I think is different, which is to say the U.S. government policy is no concessions -- that’s ransoms, that’s other policy concessions. There’s a whole number of levers or issues that could be on the table if it’s an issue of the U.S. government providing that concession -- whether it’s money and the seemingly vast resources at the government’s disposal, or a policy concession, or a policy change, or a pledge not to undertake some type of foreign policy or military action. All of those things would be in the realm of a U.S. government concession that are simply not on the table and will not be on the table.
Q But just very simply, doesn’t that money -- regardless, that money, the administration agrees -- and the President said that and oil basically helps fund these terrorist groups. So providing that money even from families, doesn’t that ultimately put a price tag on Americans’ heads overseas?
MS. MONACO: There’s no doubt that the payment of ransoms fuels the very activity that we are trying to stop, which is why the U.S. government has worked and urged other governments internationally to not pay ransoms. At the same time, we’ve got a responsibility to stand with families as they make the most difficult decisions that they could ever possibly imagine. And what the President said today is we’re not going to abandon them.
MR. EARNEST: James, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Okay, just a few quick items in succession. Can we say how many American hostages are being held abroad right now?
MS. MONACO: It is over 30 right now.
Q And this fusion cell that has been described, you referred to it in operational terms. If this cell should determine that, in the case of a given American hostage, rescue is possible, will that cell have the ability to order an immediate rescue operation without getting it signed off on by the President? And under what rules of engagement will the individuals dispatched by this cell operate?
MS. MONACO: So I’m not going to speak to hypotheticals about particular operations. But what is true is that cell comprised of law enforcement, diplomatic, military and intelligence personnel will develop that strategy, will combine all the intelligence that will drive that strategy -- whether it's a diplomatic one, whether it’s a law enforcement one, whether it’s potentially a military operation.
A decision, depending on the nature of that operation and if it involves sending our military service members into harm’s way, that will be done by the President on the recommendation of his military chiefs.
Q And last one. Do you acknowledge that part of the problem here, part of the reason why a review like this ultimately became necessary was because the Obama administration had been sending some very badly mixed messages? For example, swapping hostages in the Bergdahl case, threatening some families with prosecution and not others. Wasn’t the Obama administration, to some extent, part of the problem here?
MS. MONACO: So I challenge the premise of your question on some of that with specific reference to swapping hostages for Sergeant Bergdahl. As you know, that is not how we evaluated that. But what I will say is -- and the President said it to the families and he said it publicly -- we did not do right by these families. And that is what we are here to set right and to try very hard to rectify that and put in place processes where we’re going to do better in the future. And that was his pledge to them.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Lisa.
MS. MONACO: Thanks.
MR. EARNEST: We can now go back to our regularly scheduled programming here.
Jim, do you want to get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. Two issues. We’re going to have a final vote in the Senate today on trade. And I'm wondering if -- is this something that the President would have been able to accomplish had Democrats retained control of either house of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. Obviously, the dynamics of this debate would have been different. I don’t know what that would have meant for the outcome.
Q Would the President have pursued it?
MR. EARNEST: I think -- well, let me say this. I think what is true is that even if Democrats had retained the majority in both houses of Congress that it would have required a legitimate bipartisan effort to pass this legislation and have it arrive on the President’s desk.
And the President is gratified that this is a situation where it appears that Democrats and Republicans are able to work together in pursuit of important legislation. And again, it’s notable that we have Republican majorities in Congress working closely with Democratic minorities in Congress to build bipartisan support for legislation that then arrives on the desk of the Democratic President. That is the way that the legislative policymaking process in Washington is supposed to work in an era of divided government.
But, look, there is still additional votes that have to occur and the administration is going to continue to play an important role in nurturing that kind of bipartisan spirit to get this across the finish line.
Q It looks like this could possibly be the last real major bipartisan effort, however you -- the White House and OMB have been sending a flurry of veto threats to Congress on a variety of pieces of legislation, particularly appropriations measures. So can you say this is essentially the last time that you’ll see a major bipartisan piece of legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, many of those letters that have been sent to Congress were raising concerns about legislation that passed almost exclusively along party lines. And the case that we have made in the context of those particular letters, but also that I’ve made from here on a number of occasions, that in order to successfully fulfill their responsibility to pass a budget that properly funds both sort of our domestic priorities as it relates to our economy and our national security priorities, we’re going to need to see Congress act in bipartisan fashion to do it. In order to get 60 votes in the Senate, in order to obtain the signature of the Democratic President, we need to see some bipartisanship.
And so far in the appropriations process, we’ve seen a pretty partisan effort. And what we have said we would like to see is Congress engage in an effort that tracks closely with the previous budget agreement. That was a process that started with Democratic Senator Patty Murray sitting at the negotiating table with Republican Committee Chairman Paul Ryan in the House, and trying to find bipartisan common ground on a range of budget issues. And we believe that that is an effective template for how Congress should resolve the current budget situation.
And what I would say is that they should begin that process now. There’s no sense -- there’s no benefit to putting this off until close to the deadline. I do not believe that that will enhance our ability to reach a bipartisan agreement. And I also have concerns, based on what we saw last time around, that that could have a negative impact on our economy.
The second thing that’s important to note is that the administration, as we were last time, will be involved in those discussions and we certainly are going to be very supportive of Democrats who are seeking to advance -- or make sure that progressive values are reflected in whatever bipartisan budget agreement is reached.
I can assure you that neither side is going to get 100 percent of what they want. But we should be able to identify enough common ground well in advance of the deadline that will allow us to ensure that we are fully funding priorities that are critical to the success of our economy, and priorities that are critical to our national security.
Q On Iran -- and you’ve been asked about this recently by Major the other day -- but it seems that you had previously suggested that the Supreme Leader’s position was in part an attempt to deal with the domestic politics in Iran -- a hard position to address the hardliners there. But we’re just a few days away from a final deal and he has not backed off, in fact, may even hardened his position on the sanctions having to be lifted immediately and issues of inspections of military facilities and so forth. That position hardening, is it making it much more difficult for you guys to reach an agreement? Can you say whether this has pushed the sides apart -- further apart rather than bringing them closer together?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I’d characterize it that way. But I would acknowledge that there continue to be some difficult challenges that have to be met in order to successfully complete an agreement along the time frame that we have set out here.
That all said, what we’re most focused on are the actions, not the words. And when I say actions, I mean both the actions of the negotiators as they sit down with the United States and our P5+1 partners, but we’ll also be very attuned to the actions of the Iranians as they implement an agreement if one can be reached. And that’s why central to this agreement will be Iran’s commitment to cooperate with a set of intrusive inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. That will be central to the agreement, and that is consistent with our view that we’re less concerned about the words and much more concerned about the actions.
Q I want to ask about the phone call with President Hollande. And the readout said that President Obama reiterated his commitment that the U.S. government has not spied on his communications since late 2013. But I’m wondering if President Obama also --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that’s exactly the way that the readout -- (laughter) -- so, for those following along at home, I’d encourage you to consult the precise language of the readout. But I apologize for interrupting, Roberta. Please continue.
Q Did President Obama acknowledge that there were times when the U.S. government observed, surveilled, spied on -- choose your word -- President Hollande’s communications between 2006 and 2012? And if so, did he apologize for that?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, I can tell you that in the conversation that the President had with President Hollande today, the President was very clear about the fact that the United States does not target and will not target the communications of the President of France.
And this is consistent with the conversation that President Obama had with President Hollande during President Hollande’s visit to Washington, D.C. last year, a little over a year ago. We’ve been very clear that foreign intelligence activities are only conducted when there is a specific, validated national security interest involved. And that is true both when it comes to the leader of a country, but also when it comes to the citizens of a country.
And the fact is the United States and France have a very important security relationship and the United States has gone to great lengths to ensure that we are sharing our special capabilities with France in a way that has very real implications for the national security of France and for the people of France. We value the strong alliance. And there is obviously a very persistent extremist, terrorist threat inside of France right now, and obviously that is something that the French people and the French government takes very seriously. And we are pleased that the United States, given our special relationship and given our unique capabilities, that we can substantially contribute to their effort to keep that country and the citizens of France safe.
Q But I believe the tense was “does not target.” And I'm wondering if President Obama spoke about -- “did not” -- like things that happened before that might, in the past --
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any more details to share about their private conversation.
Q The French summoned the U.S. Ambassador over this. There have been some pretty strong words issued by current and former leaders of France. Do you feel like the call with Hollande sort of settled that enmity, or can you tell us about the outcome of that call, and tone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the other thing I'd point out, Michelle -- and you guys have footage of this, so I'd encourage you to go take a look -- at the news conference that President Hollande convened here with President Obama in the White House last year, this particular issue came up. And it was a question that was asked directly of President Obama that President Hollande himself took the opportunity to weigh in. And central to his answer was this quote: “Mutual trust has been restored, and that mutual trust must be based on respect for each other’s country.”
So that is mutual trust that was reiterated in the context of a short telephone conversation that occurred between President Obama and President Hollande already today.
Q And does the U.S. feel that France has spied on the U.S. in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for any information about France’s national security activities, I'd encourage you to ask them.
Q Okay. Back to the subject of the hostage policy review. It was a question I'd asked before, but she wasn’t able to answer it in the time frame --
MR. EARNEST: I can take a shot at it.
Q Okay. So is the government, then, in dealing with these families initially, because of the U.S. policy that is unchanged, going to try to dissuade them from paying ransoms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, like Lisa, I'm going to be reluctant to talk about any individual conversations that we have with families. But what is clear in the review and is clear from the President’s comments is that the U.S. government feels an important obligation to the families of American citizens who are going through this terrible ordeal, and that obligation is to support them, to try to protect for their safety and their security, to prevent them from being further victimized, and to use every element of the capabilities of the U.S. government to try to rescue their loved one.
And we have a variety of tools that can be used in this effort, and it's not just military tools. It's diplomatic tools; there are certain intelligence capabilities that we have that can be supportive of this effort. And that's why this review is focused on making sure that we're properly integrating and coordinating the efforts of the federal government to make sure that we are maximizing the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Q But you have to understand that it seems like this important policy of the U.S. government, the policy by which you try to persuade other governments to do the same just doesn’t apply to families because they’re families. And that doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that it does, Michelle, if you understand, as the President does, that the federal government, the United States government has a particular responsibility to support and not abandon families who are going through a terrible ordeal like this. And the President is serious about ensuring that our government response is oriented in a way to both effectively communicate with the family to make sure they’re getting relevant information in a timely fashion, but also to make sure that they’re not further victimized, given their vulnerable situation.
Q So can we say that U.S. policy does not apply to individuals when they have a family member who is held hostage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when you say “policy”, tell me what you mean. Do you mean a no-concessions policy?
Q Yes -- sorry.
MR. EARNEST: What we’re suggesting is that the no-concessions policy is something that has long applied to the efforts of the United States government to secure the release of U.S. citizens being held hostage. And as Lisa pointed out, there are often hostage-takers that are seeking things beyond just a ransom. And we’ve been clear that the United States government, including ransoms, will not be in a position of offering concessions to hostage-takers.
Q But isn’t the U.S. sort of implicitly saying that, okay, ransoms can work; if you want to do that, you can do that. But you’re sending that message globally now that in some cases ransoms can work and we’re not going to prosecute you for it and we’re going to allow you to do that.
MR. EARNEST: I think the message that we’re sending is that the government of the United States of America stands squarely behind American families who are in the unthinkable position of trying to do everything that they possibly can to try to secure the safe return of their loved one who is being held hostage overseas.
Q Two questions about Friday, if I might. Can you talk a little bit about kind of the President’s intentions when he goes to South Carolina in delivering the eulogy? Does he view the eulogy as primarily a kind of emotional moment, or does he view it as a time to talk about policy, gun policy, gun-control policy, confederate flag -- issues that have arisen from all of this, or is it a mix of both?
And then, second, if you could talk a little bit about logistics of the President reacting to what might be an Affordable Care Act decision on Friday and how that might work?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, I can tell you that the President’s remarks for Friday are still in the early stages of being written. I can say, as a general matter, that the focal point of the President’s remarks will be to pay tribute to Reverend Pinckney and the eight others whose lives were lost in that terrible attack just over a week ago -- a week ago today, obviously, but at that point it will be a little over a week ago -- and remembering those individuals and celebrating their lives will be the focus of the President’s remarks. But we’ll try to get you some more detail in advance of Friday.
Q But I guess, without detail, can you give us a sense of whether he intends to also use that moment to talk about, again, this question of the broader questions that have been raised by the killings -- the gun control issues and others?
MR. EARNEST: There’s obviously been a robust public debate on a variety of issues that have emerged in the aftermath of this terrible incident. At this point, again, it’s hard for me to rule out the President mentioning some aspects of this debate at this point, because it’s so early in the writing process, but I do feel confident in telling you now that the focus of his remarks will be on celebrating the life of Reverend Pinckney and the eight others who were lost that night.
Q And then on the logistics?
MR. EARNEST: And on the logistics, it’s my understanding that the President’s departure on Friday will not be until after the typical 10:00 a.m. time frame in which Supreme Court decisions are announced.
Q And so would we expect to hear from -- if the Affordable Care Act is that day, would we expect to hear from the President either way, whichever way it goes?
MR. EARNEST: It’s certainly possible, and it sounds like we would have that capability based on the President’s current travel schedule. But I wouldn’t make that commitment to you at this point.
John, in the back.
Q Thank you, Josh. You’ve said on three or four occasions that the administration has had no discussions with senators of either party about a contingency plan if King v. Burwell goes on the side of the plaintiff. Accepting that, have you -- or has the administration had any discussion with governors of states who would be impacted by a hostile decision, and with their personal staffs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, I think what I’d refer you to is actually what senior administration officials have told members of Congress -- and I’m referring specifically to testimony from the Secretary of Health and Human Service, Sylvia Burwell, where she indicated that if some kind of reaction is necessary in the unlikely event of an adverse ruling before the Supreme Court, that the pressure would be immediately on governors and -- or I guess state officials and Congress to try to address the situation.
And the fact is, this is something that is hard to predict without seeing the ruling. But again, if there were -- in the unlikely event that there were to be an adverse ruling, we’ve already indicated that there is no simple, easy fix that can be made solely by the executive branch.
But again, we continue to have a lot of confidence in the strength of the legal arguments that were made before the Supreme Court in this matter. And we believe that it is very clear what the statute says, and that’s why we continue to have confidence in the outcome.
Q Josh, would it be fair to say that the President’s remarks today amounted to an apology for what the administration got wrong in dealing with the hostage families? He did not use that word in public, but did he, I wonder, use it when he spoke with the families either today or in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Major, I did not -- I was not in the room when the President spoke with the families today. Even if I were, I’m not sure I would have a lot to share about that private conversation.
I think what you can interpret from the President’s public comments is that he is very serious about making sure that the United States government is doing right by our citizens, particularly when we’re talking about citizens that are enduring a situation as terrible as a having a loved one taken hostage.
And the reforms that the President announced -- that this review group put forward today, that the President discussed today, and the statement from the Department of Justice about this policy I think are a illustrative of the effort and the commitment to ensure that we are maximizing the resources of the federal government to try to address this situation, and ensuring we are putting forward the best possible effort to support these families.
Q To follow up on Michelle’s line of questioning, is it the President’s belief that with the fusion cell, the FBI, and better coordination, there is a higher degree of confidence he hopes to have in the future that hostages will be recovered because the effort will be better and more focused and more aggressive? And secondarily, in conversations with families, the government will convey that ransoms should be considered the last resort because so many other efforts are being undertaken?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that I would necessarily describe future efforts as more aggressive, simply because the efforts that have already been taken as it relates to previous hostages and even some current hostages are very aggressive. And the President has demonstrated a willingness on more than one occasion to expend significant government efforts and even to take some significant risks to try to secure the rescue of American citizens.
The President has ordered operations in remote places like in Syria and in Yemen to try to rescue American citizens who are being held hostage. I think that reflects a very aggressive effort on the part of the President and his administration to try to rescue American citizens. I think the goal of the reforms that were announced today is to make sure that we are properly integrating and coordinating those efforts so that we can maximize the impact of them. And I do think there is a sense that by implementing these reforms, we can make these efforts even more effective.
Q What about ransom as a last resort?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not the way that it’s described here. I think the --
Q But if you’re going to have an open -- and you’ve pledged to have an open conversation with families --
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q -- you wouldn’t suggest that ransom be the first option, would you?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we would say is we would be able to -- again, given this refined structure -- be able to communicate in as much detail as possible the great lengths that the U.S. government is going to, to try to rescue their loved one.
I think, to be blunt, I think even the President would admit that in the past, that communication has not been nearly as clear as it needs to be. And I do think that as families go through this terrible situation, that clearer communication and this reformed structure will give them greater confidence in the ongoing efforts of the U.S. government to rescue their loved one.
Q Just to follow up on Jim’s question on Iran, you said you’re interested in actions, not words.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q Is it, therefore, clear to the negotiators on the U.S. side that what’s happening in the negotiating room is different than what the Supreme Leader is saying and, therefore, the negotiators have some latitude to ignore what the Supreme Leader is saying, and what he’s saying in public is not being reflected at the negotiating table, and that those are the actions that you’re basing your sense of optimism on the potential of obtaining a deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say, Major, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I have a lot of detail to share about the ongoing negotiations.
Q You must have something.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do, but I’m just unwilling to share a lot about this.
Q But it’s an important distinction that I want to follow up on.
MR. EARNEST: And what I can say to you without getting into a lot of detail is that the negotiations continue to be difficult, but there continues to be a good-faith effort on both sides to try to complete them in the timetable that we’ve laid out. So there’s a reason that they continue to negotiate, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all of the difficult challenges have been resolved.
Q -- yes or no that the negotiations reflect the framework, or the comments in public of the Supreme Leader?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said is the only result that we will accept is one that’s consistent with the framework.
Q That’s not what I asked.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I understand that, but that’s as much as I feel like I can say at this point.
Q I wanted to go back to France really quickly. There’s like a long history of French and U.S. industrial espionage, dating back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the French were spying on IBM, Texas Instruments, and then accused us of spying on their tech industry. And so I’m wondering if, under the umbrella of specific, validated national security interest, you can rule out the U.S. conducting any sort of industrial espionage on the French, especially tech or defense corporations?
MR. EARNEST: Justin, let me just reiterate what our policy is, which is that foreign intelligence activities are only conducted when there is a specific and validated national security interest involved.
Q Yes, I included that in the question.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but I do think it answers your question because you’re asking specifically about whether or not these kinds of foreign intelligence activities are used for some sort of economic purpose or for financial gain.
Q Or just spying on French companies because we think that the technology that they’re developing would be useful to our national defense interests.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm trying to be as specific and direct and candid as I can about what I think we all know are activities that are not discussed in much detail in public.
Q All right. Let’s move to the OPM hack. I'm wondering why it’s been so hard to get to the bottom of how many people’s records have been compromised. Obviously there was lot of conversation about this on the Hill yesterday, and so I'm wondering what the issue has been and how quickly you think you’ll be able to figure it out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, this is a challenge that is not unique to the federal government. The fact is the private sector has worked through this very difficult challenge, too. And it’s not -- again, it’s not unique to the U.S. government in trying to investigate these intrusions to determine exactly what happened, to determine who is responsible, and to determine the scope of the breach. And that takes time.
But I think what our administration has demonstrated already is a serious commitment to trying to be as forthright as possible about what it is that we know. And what we have announced thus far is that there are upwards of 4 million U.S. government employees who potentially may have had sensitive information exfiltrated from the OPM system. We have acknowledged that there is additional activity that could lead to the conclusion that additional data is at risk, but this is something that is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
And we’ve been clear that we’re going to try to give people as much insight as possible into that ongoing investigation. But at the same time, we’re cognizant of the fact that talking in public a lot about the investigation could actually affect our ability to conduct it successfully. So we’re trying to balance all of these things. And I think what is paramount, though, is trying to communicate clearly with those individuals who may be directly affected. And that will continue to guide our public communications priorities.
Q Well, lawmakers said yesterday after their classified briefing that they weren’t necessarily confident that you guys could get a handle on the entire scope of this. Are you willing to lay down any kind of markers for when you will be able to tell, even in a classified briefing like there was yesterday on Capitol Hill, what the kind of size and scope of this breach was?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the FBI for that. Again, there are also -- I guess the other point that you are highlighting which is relevant here is that our -- the kind of communications that we have with members of Congress in a classified setting is obviously different than the kinds of conversations we can have publicly. And so we have gone to great lengths to make sure that we’re sharing as much information as possible with members of Congress in a classified setting. That’s consistent with the executive branch’s obligation to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight. That’s a responsibility that we take seriously, and we have taken that very seriously in this matter.
But we’re going to continue to be mindful of the responsibility that we have to communicate with those who have potentially been affected, to be as transparent as possible about the ongoing investigation while also protecting the ability of our investigators to do their important work, too.
Q And one last thing. You kind of implied yesterday that as part of this dialogue that’s going on with the Chinese that issues about cybersecurity would be raised behind closed doors. I'm wondering if the President plans to raise cybersecurity issues when Chinese officials visit the White House later today.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any aspect of the meeting to preview, but let’s touch base after the meeting and maybe I'll be able to provide you some additional details about their discussion.
Q Josh, what is the origin of the phrase “fusion cell”? I’ve heard of “working group”, I’ve heard of “task force.” I’ve never heard of a “fusion cell.”
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure of the origin of the word. I think what they’re trying to illustrate is that they’re trying to bring together, essentially to fuse together the efforts of the variety of government agencies that are involved in trying to rescue American citizens. And so that means making sure that the efforts by the intel community are fused together with the efforts of the military, are fused together with the efforts of our diplomatic core to make sure that those actions are reinforcing one another and are properly coordinated to maximize the likelihood of success.
Q Are you aware of any other fusion cells in government? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not off the top of my head. Not off the top of my head.
Q You’ll get back to me?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll take a look at it.
Q And one last thing. If the government is giving tacit approval of private family payments in terms of ransom to get a hostage back, doesn’t that provide an incentive to terror groups to go after not just Americans but wealthy Americans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I think there’s a pretty significant disincentive that hostage-takers have around the world -- that they know if they’re going to target U.S. citizens that the resources of the federal government under the leadership of President Obama will be dedicated to rescuing that American citizen and bringing their hostage taker to justice.
Q About the OPM hack very quickly. On June 4th when the White House publicly acknowledged a single breach had taken place, was the White House covering up the fact that there was an investigation of a second breach that they were already aware of?
MR. EARNEST: Peter, what we have done at every turn is to try to be as forthright as possible about the status of the ongoing investigation. And I think what I have also been clear about in talking about this is that there continues to be an ongoing effort to determine the precise scope of this intrusion. And that’s something that -- that was true back on June 4th when we first started talking about this publicly and it’s true today.
Q So did the White House know I guess there was a second breach all along?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I will let our investigators talk about what they were able to learn and the decisions they make about when it's appropriate to make information about their investigation public.
Q One on Iran, and then I want to return to the hostage policy.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Recognizing that you care more about actions than words, and that you haven’t the ability to plumb the motivations of the Supreme Leader, I’m asking you simply to assess for us the words as we have received them from the Supreme Leader. And my question to you specifically is, do you recognize that the recent statements of the Ayatollah and the red lines he has drawn, stating them as such, run directly inimical to the things that our negotiators are trying to achieve? Another way of putting it is, do you recognize that if the Supreme Leader means what he says, then these talks are finished?
MR. EARNEST: Well, James, again, I guess that’s why -- I think that’s why the principle that I have tried to describe is the operative one here, which is that we are very focused on the actions of the negotiators at the negotiating table and of Iran’s willingness to live up to the commitments they make if they do eventually make them.
I guess what I will say is that we have been really clear about the fact that we’re only going to agree to a final agreement if it reflects the political agreement that was reached back in the first week of April. And if that is not something that the Iranians will be able to agree to, then we will not successfully complete the negotiations.
Q On the hostage policy, number one, President Obama in his remarks stated that the fusion cell has been up and running for some period of time already. Why then did we not hear about the appointment of its leader? Tell us the timeframe for that appointment and how that process is being managed right now.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the leader has been appointed yet, but let me check on that and we can have somebody get back to you. This is obviously a process that will be housed at the FBI, but we’ll get with the FBI and determine whether or not this leader has been appointed yet. I think what the President was referring to is we recognized at the beginning of this review that there was a need to more effectively integrate the efforts of the federal government. And what this review did is essentially formalize a process for doing that.
Q No one has been asked yet, in other words, to be the leader?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that, so let me follow up with you.
Q Two more. We have now seen this administration announce publicly that it is going to decline to enforce relevant federal statutes with respect to marijuana. We have seen this administration announce that it is going to decline to enforce relevant federal statutes with respect to immigration and deportation policy. And today we saw this administration announce it is going to decline to enforce the relevant federal statutes with respect to private payments of money to foreign terrorist organizations. Do you understand how a dispassionate observer could conclude that this President who is the chief enforcer of our laws, the chief executive of our laws charged with executing those laws, takes a somewhat cavalier view of the law and sometimes decides it should be enforced and sometimes not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I vigorously disagree with that conclusion, James. The chief law enforcement officer of the United States is the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. And it is the agency that she runs that’s responsible for making these prosecutorial decisions. That’s been true of previous administrations and it’s true of this administration as well.
Q There’s no pattern there of declining enforced federal statutes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the pattern is that prosecutorial decisions are made on a daily basis over at the Department of Justice absent any political interference.
Q Last one. Give us a sense for, in the course of the President’s day-to-day schedule, how frequently he is engaged on the issue of American hostages. Is that something he’s dealing with every day? Once a week?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is fair, James, to say that the President is frequently updated on the status of efforts to recover American hostages. And obviously the individuals who will be responsible for running the fusion cell and responsible for leading this policy group -- obviously, Lisa Monaco, who was just out here, will be intimately involved in those efforts. And they will make the determination about how frequently it is necessary to update the President on their efforts, but the President is certainly interested in hearing from them every single time they have an update.
Q Just to follow up on James’s question about enforcing laws. So you’re saying that the President of the United States, the White House, has had nothing to do with decisions on the part of this administration not to enforce immigration laws under DACA, the law under the Defense of Marriage Act earlier in this administration, or on marijuana laws that the President -- or in this case, that the President and the White House has had nothing to do with the decisions not to enforce laws in all of those categories?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, the tradition that is abided scrupulously by this administration is the same one that was followed by previous administrations, which is that it is the responsibility of the Attorney General, the top law enforcement officer of the United States, to make prosecutorial decisions. And Loretta Lynch is eminently qualified to do exactly that.
Q Okay. Let me ask you about -- the President said that every effort will be made to free American hostages, we’ll work with the families -- all that was announced today. Does this apply to Jason Rezaian, Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati, who are being held right now -- known to be held right now in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, we have had communications with the families of those American citizens, and we have made sure that they are both aware of these policy changes but also aware of the ongoing efforts of the federal government to secure their release. Obviously, the efforts to secure their release are different; they are being held by a foreign government. That means they face a similarly gut-wrenching situation for their family, but their legal status is different than somebody who is being held hostage by a terrorist organization, for example.
Q Okay, and I was just wondering -- ABC was among a couple other news organizations that reported back in April that precisely this would happen, that the hostage review would recommend using prosecutorial discretion not to threaten families of hostage with prosecution if they pursued ransom. And that was outright denied and said to be false by the National Security Council and Press Office. Why is that? I mean, that’s exactly what happened.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I didn’t read the details of the specific ABC report. I think what we tried to be clear about -- and I mentioned this as recently as yesterday -- that while the scope of this specific hostage review was broad, what was not included in the review was a reconsideration of the federal government’s no-concessions policy. And again, I can’t speak for all of the back-and-forth communications, but that is a principle that we outlined from the beginning of this process and it’s one that we’re saying here today on the day that the report was released.
Q But back in April, when this came up, I asked you directly not about U.S. policy about paying ransom, but about threatening families with prosecution. And you said that this was strictly a matter of the Department of Justice to make prosecutorial decisions, and that obviously will not be anything that’s decided in the context of this review. Judging from the President’s words, it sounds like this was very much a part of the review, the idea of stopping the practice of threatening families with prosecution. That’s not going to happen anymore.
MR. EARNEST: But it was a decision that was announced by the Department of Justice in the context of a statement from a Department of Justice spokesperson.
Q So it had nothing to do with this review?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that --
Q Well, that’s what you said in April. You said this will not be anything that’s decided in the context of this review.
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying that it is a decision that was made by the Department of Justice and announced by the Department of Justice for a reason, because that is their purview.
Q But as a result of this review -- that this was part of this review?
MR. EARNEST: This is a decision that was made by the Department of Justice.
Jared, go ahead.
Q Josh, a follow-up to Mike’s question from earlier about the Friday remarks in Charleston. The President said last Friday that sympathy for victims is not enough. And while you said to Mike that the victims will be the focus of the remarks, can we assume that the President will take his own advice and go beyond sympathy, perhaps into the realm of gun control policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’ve said to Mike is that the focus of the President’s remarks will be on celebrating the lives of those who were lost on that tragic night last week. For more details of what the President’s message will be on Friday, I’d encourage you to tune in.
Q I’m happy if you want to go further. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: No pride of authorship --
Q No, really, I’m happy. Go ahead.
Q Will hostages whose families pay some kind of ransom privately, not through the government, be treated differently when it comes to rescue operations by the U.S. government? Just as an example: If two comparable situations -- people taken under similar circumstances, under similar conditions, for similar lengths of time -- will the United States prefer the family whose -- or the hostage whose family didn’t pay the ransom, and therefore complied fully with U.S. law when trying to effort a rescue operation?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, that’s a hypothetical situation that I’m probably not going to delve into at this point.
Q No, I’m asking -- you’ve clearly laid out this change in policy, but you still have the old policy in effect, which is that this is illegal. So what I’m asking is, will families who comply with the law be treated differently when it comes to hostage rescue operations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into that.
Q The decision the President made today, articulated by Ms. Monaco, was this decision tactical, strategic or moral, overall?
MR. EARNEST: When you say “this decision,” you mean the --
Q The entire executive decision on the hostages and the families, and the way -- the entire --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Lisa was pretty blunt about the fact that there are both strategic, tactical and moral questions at stake here. And I think it’s fair to assume that all of those factors weighed in the conclusion that the review group reached.
Q I’m speaking in terms of the President and his own emotional -- his feelings about these things, his commitment to do the right thing, as we --
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the President believes that the U.S. government has a particular obligation to American citizens, particularly those who are vulnerable and going through an ordeal as serious and gut-wrenching as having a loved one taken hostage. And we want to make sure -- and this review reflects a commitment to making sure -- that we are maximizing the efforts of the federal government and that we are doing everything we can to do right by the families.
Q Thanks, Josh. To follow up on gun control, I know the President has said that he doesn’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress, but is the White House having conversations with interested lawmakers, like Senators Manchin or Toomey, who have been talking about resurrecting the background check bill from 2014, about making another push, even a symbolic one?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any high-level conversations that are ongoing, but I think it’s pretty clear to anybody that’s been following the President’s public comments in the last week or so that this continues to be a priority of his. He was also just as blunt about the fact that the American people are going to need to send a clear message to the United States Congress that this is a priority in order for us to get a different result than the one we got last time that Senators Manchin and Toomey got together to try to advance gun safety legislation.
Q But the White House hasn’t spoken with either Manchin or Toomey on their public efforts to resurrect that bill?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any high-level conversations, but it’s difficult for me to account for the telephone use of every single person who works at the White House. So I wouldn’t rule anything out necessarily, but there’s no high-level conversations to tell you about.
Jim, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. On the budget negotiations -- the President will want revenue in return for any cuts, as in the past, I assume. Do you have any revenue targets in mind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the most prominent revenue target that we have discussed in the context of the President’s State of the Union address and the rollout was carrying the -- or closing the carried interest loophole. So there are a variety of other ones; we can go back and pull those factsheets for you to give you some more details.
The fact is, we have identified revenue targets that would allow us to make a series of critically important investments in a fiscally responsible way. That’s certainly the approach that the President will advocate and has advocated for some time, and will continue to advocate for.
Steve, you had your hand up for a long time. I didn’t mean to skip over you, so I’ll give you the last one.
Q The head of OPM -- a lot of people in Congress calling for her removal. What’s the White House’s stand on that?
MR. EARNEST: She’s obviously got a very difficult job and a very difficult challenge ahead of her. And the administration and the President continues to believe that she’s the right person for the job.
Q And on another matter. OMB has stated that it’s opposed to the parts of the appropriations bill on environment-interior that would make it very difficult for EPA to keep pursuing the regulations it has, but there’s no veto threat in there. Is the administration not regarding that as something that it would veto if necessary?
MR. EARNEST: So this is a procedural thing -- and I may have to follow up with you on it -- but was this a piece of Senate legislation? I think it may have been. And the way that we have done this is that we -- as these appropriations bills have moved through the Senate appropriations subcommittee process, what we have done is we’ve written letters to the appropriators to raise specific concerns with the bills that they have considered.
But I think, consistent with the letters that were sent related to other Senate appropriations subcommittee deliberations, it didn’t -- none of them included veto threats, but they, rather, included a pretty broad enumeration of the concerns that we have with the bills that they marked up. But we can follow up with you on that.
Q So you’re withholding the veto threats until it’s in the House side, or --
MR. EARNEST: Well, until it advances to a later stage in the process. So we can follow up. Those who are interested in this, I’d encourage you to check with OMB. They can help you understand the procedural quirks.
What’s admittedly true, Steve -- and this is something that OMB will also acknowledge -- is that on the House side, our approach has been somewhat different, which -- we’ve been more blunt about the possible use of a presidential veto in response to particular -- to appropriations proposals that have advanced through the House process.
So this is complicated. I’m by no means an expert in the appropriations process. But I believe that the administration response to this latest environmental appropriations bill is consistent with our response to other appropriations bills that have advanced in the Senate. But we’ll follow up with you on that.
Thank you, guys.
2:41 P.M. EDT