Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/6/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:59 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you all enjoyed your holiday weekend. Before I get to your questions let me do a little statement here at the top.
This afternoon, the President will travel to the Pentagon, where he’ll receive an update from his national security team on the execution of our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
There are numerous elements to this strategy, including military airstrikes carried out by U.S. and coalition aircraft in support of local fighters on the ground. To date, more than 5,100 airstrikes have been carried out against extremist targets, including 1,950 of them in Syria.
This is, understandably, the most conspicuous aspect of our strategy, and it's an important one that's being carried out day in and day out by our skilled military professionals. Now, there is a less conspicuous, but similarly important element of our strategy that we've previously discussed in this room, and that is preventing ISIL from funding the violence that has destabilized an entire region.
Back in December, many of you will remember that David Cohen, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department, briefed all of you on these important efforts. Since then, Mr. Cohen has been appointed to be the Deputy Director of the CIA. And back in April, nearly three months ago, Adam Szubin was nominated to take over this critically important post, but Senate Republicans haven't even scheduled a hearing for him. That is to say, Senator Republicans won't even give the time of day for a hearing to the person who is responsible for using all of the elements of our influence and authority to keep ISIL from raising money on the black market or otherwise, to recruit foreign fighters, inspire others to commit acts of terrorism, and attempt to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.
So today, the President will be meeting with a group of individuals in the Pentagon who are doing their jobs to keep the American people safe. In some instances, we're talking about individuals who are risking their lives to do their jobs to keep the American people safe. Well, now it's time for Republicans in the Senate to do their jobs for a change.
Adam Szubin is a highly skilled lawyer who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and he’s been asked by the President of the United States to implement a critical part of our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Republicans have all too frequently allowed political considerations to trump national security. It's never been appropriate and it's certainly isn't appropriate in this instance. And now that the Senate is back from their 4th of July recess, Senator Shelby should schedule Mr. Szubin’s hearing as soon as possible, and the Senate should confirm Mr. Szubin before they leave town for their next recess in August.
So with that, let’s go to your questions. Julie.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to start with the situation in Greece. Now that the Greek public has pretty overwhelmingly in this referendum rejected the proposal by creditors for stricter austerity measures, does the U.S. believe that the rest of Europe should seek a compromise with Greece, even if it means lowering some of the restrictions that would be in that compromise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, the fact of the matter is the referendum is over, but our view here at the White House remains the same. And that is Prime Minister Tsipras has indicated that he and his country want to remain part of the Eurozone, and he says that he wants to work out an agreement that would allow them to do so. The leaders of Europe, of the European nations who are in the Eurozone have indicated that they would like for Greece to remain part of the Eurozone, but doing so, achieving that goal will require a package of financing and reforms that will put Greece back on the path of economic growth and debt sustainability.
So the task before the leaders of Europe remains the same. And we have long indicated that it's our view that it's in their collective interest for these differences to be resolved. And we have freely indicated both publicly and privately that it's also in the United States’ interest for the situation to be resolved, and we hope that the leaders of the respective countries will do exactly that.
Q Well, what signal do you think it sends about Greece’s willingness to accept the kind of package that you're talking about given the way that this referendum went over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the referendum notwithstanding, I think the challenge before the leaders of Europe --
Q The referendum can't be taken out of account, though.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not suggesting that it should. I'm suggesting that even after the referendum, the situation remains the same, which is that all parties seem to be publicly indicating that they would like to resolve the situation in a way that allows Greece to remain part of the Eurozone, and the only way that that will happen is to agree to a package of reforms and financing that will allow Greece to get back on a path of economic growth and debt sustainability. That's the only available resolution that is in the collective interest of those in Europe who are involved.
Q Is the President planning to talk to Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, and other European leaders today?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any calls to tell you about right now. I certainly wouldn't rule out calls over the course of this week.
Q Okay. If I could just ask quickly on Iran -- you’ve said from the podium, and other officials have said that these negotiations are strictly focused on the Iranian nuclear program, that you're not negotiating any side issues, any parallel deals. And yet Iran, it appears now, is pushing for a parallel deal to end the U.N. arms embargo. I assume the U.S. would oppose them doing that, but given the fact that they’re trying to push this when we're 24 hours from the deadline basically, do you think that Iran is negotiating in good faith at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to get into the kinds of conversations that are taking place in Vienna right now. Obviously, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, their counterparts from the P5+1 countries and obviously their Iranian counterparts are in Vienna right now working through many of these issues. But we've been very clear about what will be necessary in order to complete a final agreement, and that is to come to an agreement that reflects the political agreement that was reached the first week in April.
Now, that requires going through a lot of details, including many technical details. And that has been the essence of the conversations that have been going on over the last couple of months. But working through all those technical details to arrive at an agreement that reflects the parameters of the agreement that was laid out in early April is what will be required in order to reach an agreement.
And if Iran is not willing to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of April’s political agreement, then, as Secretary Kerry indicated in Vienna just yesterday, we won't be able to reach an agreement.
Q How firm is the June 7th deadline?
MR. EARNEST: July 7th. Look, we anticipate -- let me say it this way. This is the deadline that we continue to operate against, and I think that reflects the rather aggressive pace of negotiations that are underway in Vienna right now.
Q Josh, back on Greece. Does the United States believe Europe and the other creditors should forgive some of Greece’s debt as a way of moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, what we have indicated all along is that the path to resolving the differences and the challenges here is difficult but I think pretty clear to everybody who’s taken a look at this, which is that it will require both a package of financing and reforms that will allow Greece to achieve -- or at least be on a path towards some debt sustainability, but also be on a path toward economic growth.
There are people who are better analysts of the Greek electorate than I am -- certainly people who are more experienced in that endeavor -- but I think what’s clear is that this was a pretty clear expression from the Greek people that they do seek greater economic opportunity. That's certainly understandable given the significant economic challenges that have faced that country over the last several years.
At the same time, the creditors who are sitting around the table recognize that it's in their interest for Greece to be back on a path of economic growth, but it's also important for Greece to implement the kinds of reforms and to keep the commitments that they have made previously.
So this is always going to -- this has always been the essence of the negotiation that's underway. And we continue to take heart in the fact that despite their significant differences, including some differences that have been expressed in rather colorful terms, that all sides do recognize they do have a collective interest in trying to arrive at the package that I described in a way that would allow Greece to remain part of the Eurozone.
Q It’s no secret that the United States believes, at least at times over the last three years, that Europe has been too focused on austerity. Do you think that the Europeans and the creditors generally have been too hard on Greece?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think at this point I wouldn't be in a position of doing some backseat driving. Obviously this is the responsibility of the Europeans, principally Greece and their creditors, to try to resolve. And obviously Secretary Lew has been deeply engaged in conversations with his counterparts and with other leaders of the countries and financial institutions that are involved in these conversation. The President, over the last several months, has had a number of conversations with his counterparts on this issue. So we’ve made clear that we continue to believe it’s in the U.S. interest and in the global interest for these differences to be resolved. But ultimately, it will be the responsibility of the Europeans to resolve them.
Q You mentioned Secretary Lew and the President’s role, but none of those conversations appear to have really had a whole lot of influence. Is the United States more than just a bystander in this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the way that I would describe it to you, Jeff, is that we have acknowledged all along -- and this is true going back to 2010 and 2011, when sort of the first flames of the Greek financial crisis broke out -- that this would be the responsibility of Greece and their creditors to resolve.
And the United States has been very supportive of those efforts at every stage. In the early days of this crisis, Secretary Geithner was obviously deeply involved in some of the more technical aspects of these conversations. But the fact is that Secretary Lew has picked up where Secretary Geithner left off and continued to provide support and continued to provide the American point of view on those efforts. But ultimately, we have acknowledged from the beginning that this is a European challenge to solve.
Q All right. Just one quickly on one other topic -- the Secretary -- former Secretary Clinton made some remarks this weekend -- or Friday, I guess -- on China and Iran. Does the White House have any reaction to those remarks? And do you think in particular her remarks on Iran may give some cover to lawmakers in Congress who are not supportive of a deal?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think so, primarily because Secretary Clinton has previously expressed her support for the political agreement that was reached back in April and many of the sentiments that she expressed in her comments on Friday were entirely consistent with the views that I and others have articulated with respect to Iran.
For example -- and, I think, most prominently -- we have acknowledged that the ongoing nuclear talks will not resolve all of the concerns that we have with Iran’s behavior. We don’t intend for these conversations to successfully resolve our concerns with the way in which Iran continues to menace Israel. We know that Iran continues to be a leading state sponsor of terrorism. We know that Iran continues to be a country that is actively involved in supporting groups that seek to destabilize different regions of the world, including in the Middle East. And we know that Iran continues to unjustly detain American citizens. So we’ve got a large number of concerns with Iran’s behavior, and we don’t pretend to make the case that these conversations are going to resolve all of those concerns. In fact, what we say is all those concerns about Iran would be even more concerning if Iran had a nuclear weapon.
And that’s why we’ve made preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon such a priority. And that’s why the President is pursuing what he believes is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and that is to use diplomacy and the implementation of a set of inspections that would verify their compliance with the agreement. And that’s been the strategy that we have pursued so far. But there’s still important work to be done in Iran and in Vienna on this.
Q Back on Greece. Of course, last week, the President himself said that he didn’t think it would be -- that the Greek crisis would have a major shock on the system of the United States, and that it was -- that the markets had properly factored it in. Now that this referendum has failed, do those comments still hold? Is there any more reason for concern in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, a couple of parts -- factors here to consider. The first is that we did see markets obviously in Asia and Europe have been open over the course of today and despite the political volatility that we’ve seen, the financial markets have been mostly orderly and there’s been limited spillover. But because markets tend to be unpredictable, this is why we’ve been encouraging all sides to try to arrive at a constructive agreement. As it relates to the United States, it was true back in 2010, it continues to be true today that there’s very little direct exposure that the U.S. economy has to the Greek economy. And there’s very little direct risk that U.S. banks face when it comes to the Greek banking system.
But, at the same time, what we have long expressed our concern about is that the failure to deal with this in an orderly fashion could have a broader impact on the economy in Europe, and the U.S. economy obviously has important ties to Europe, that there are significant export relationships there. And we’ve already seen some weakness in the European economy over the last couple of years that has prevented some of our export growth from being as strong as we would like.
So that’s why the United States has been engaged in this effort in the way that we have not just over the last several months but over the last several years.
Q Is it fair to say that the administration believes that Americans -- the American people do not have to worry that much about their 401(k)s today, even though the Greeks decided not to pass that referendum?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have seen so far is that the market has been orderly and that the spillover has been pretty limited. But, again, we’re going to continue to encourage all of the parties to pursue a solution that we believe is in their collective interest.
Q And briefly, just on another subject, out in San Francisco, on the shooting that happened there. The administration has been focused on prioritizing criminals as far as deporting those who have violated our immigration laws. Is this a failure in this case where this man apparently -- a criminal -- came over time after time and still was able to keep coming and was not deported? Is there a problem between the cooperation between some cities in this country and the United States government? Where do you see the problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, for this particular case, I’d refer you to DHS. I can’t speak to the details of this particular case. I can say as a general matter that as a part of the executive actions that the President announced back in November of last year, one of the chief goals that we are seeking to accomplish was ensuring that we were focusing our law enforcement efforts on those individuals who pose a genuine threat to public safety and to national security, that those are the efforts that should be prioritized. And too often, we’ve seen the failures of our immigration system allow for those limited law enforcement resources to be focused on breaking up families. The President doesn’t believe that that’s consistent with our values as a country. It’s also not consistent with the priority that the President places on protecting the public and protecting the American people.
So, because of the announcements that the President changed last year, we have started to make changes in terms of structuring and staffing at the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that our law enforcement efforts are focused on felons and not on families. And that is an effort that is continuing. I would say -- and it bears repeating in this case -- that these efforts would be significantly augmented had Republicans not blocked common-sense immigration reform.
You’ll recall that the piece of legislation that was blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives actually included the biggest-ever increase in border security. And that’s why it’s particularly disappointing that congressional action -- or congressional inaction, in this case -- has blocked efforts to put in place common-sense reforms that would be good for our country, good for our economy, and good for public safety.
Q I hear your reluctance to comment on this case, but this case is being used by opponents of the administration to say that your policy is not working and that repeat criminals are coming across the border.
MR. EARNEST: And what I’m saying is that those critics are individuals who oppose legislation that would have actually made a historic investment in border security. So I recognize that people want to play politics with this, but if you take a simple look at the facts, the fact is the President has done everything within his power to make sure that we’re focusing our law enforcement resources on criminals and those who pose a threat to public safety. And it’s because of the political efforts of Republicans that we have not been able to make the kind of investment that we would like to make in securing our border and keeping our communities safe.
Q I wanted to follow up on Jim’s question. This person was a repeat offender, but he’s been deported another time, but he was -- he had immunity because he was in a safe state. So is there any kind of concern in this White House about the fact that this gentleman -- or this person who committed this crime was continually in the system and he’s been deported and he’s come back? Is there some kind of way that this administration is trying to fix that kind of, I guess, slip in the cracks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I can’t talk about the details of this specific case. I’d refer you to DHS for how our efforts to focus on felons is implemented. And the Department of Homeland Security can explain to you how that applies in this case.
Q So now, as it relates to this case and some other cases over the holiday weekend -- guns. What do you say about the issue -- the fact that this is another gun incident? And then in Chicago, 10 deaths and scores of people shot -- what happens? What can the President do within the last 16 months? Is there anything that he can do in executive actions to change what he says he’s tired of talking about, issues of gun violence in this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the President did spend a decent amount of time talking about this a week or two ago -- in making sure that we don’t allow ourselves to become numb to these gruesome statistics -- the fact that just over the weekend in Chicago -- again, according to public reports -- that we actually had more people gunned down on the streets of Chicago just over this past weekend than were killed in that terrible incident in Charleston that captured the attention of the country.
And so I think this is what the President was talking about when he gave the eulogy for Reverend Pinkney, that we can’t allow ourselves to be numb to all of this, that we need to remain engaged in this broader effort. And that includes the effort to take some common-sense steps to make our streets a little safer. And there are some common-sense things that we can do that don’t undermine the basic Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
And the fact is, it’s not just the majority of Americans that support some of those common-sense steps; it’s actually the majority of gun owners that support those common-sense steps. But the American people are going to have to make their voices heard to the United States Congress in order to make some progress on this.
Q So when you say we don’t need to be numb, what, in this administration’s opinion, would it take? I mean, we’ve seen Gabrielle Giffords, a federal lawmaker, get shot. We’ve seen little kids in a school. We’ve seen shooters go into schools. We’ve seen a shooter in a church. Now, we’re seeing this in Chicago. What would it take for us to be not so desensitized and numb? How far do we have to go? I mean, we’ve seen assassinations of Presidents. We’ve seen a lot of things happen when it comes to guns in this country. What, in this administration’s mind, does it take to not be so numb and desensitized to this anymore?
MR. EARNEST: That truly is going to require the American people speaking up and speaking out, and making clear to Congress that this is an issue that they’re going to cast a vote on.
Q So what do you say to those people who understand that there is a Second Amendment right, the right to bear arms -- you have people from all walks of life, various colors, who believe that, but then you have other people who are saying I have a right to live as well. What do you say to those people who feel that you’re -- this administration is not pushing hard enough in times where there is momentum to do something?
MR. EARNEST: What I would say is that there are common-sense steps that Congress can take that would make our streets safer, make it harder for criminals and those who shouldn’t have guns from getting their hands on them. And we can do all of that without undermining the basic Second Amendment rights of law-abiding American citizens.
So, again, sometimes we have these very difficult policy challenges where we have to sort of weigh competing equities and competing interests. And there may be a good reason not to do something, but in the case of some of the common-sense measures that Congress has considered, we can actually take some steps that we know will make our streets safer without undermining the basic Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.
And in this case, that’s a pretty common-sense proposal. I think that’s why such a strong majority of Americans support those kinds of measures. It’s why even a majority of gun owners support those measures. But again, because of the way that our system works, we’re not likely to see the kind of change that’s necessary until the American people speak out and make clear to Congress that this is a priority.
Q Is the NRA at fault for this, for this not going as far, since you’re saying there’s a majority consensus on these background checks?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that there is a broad, bipartisan consensus across the country that there are some important common-sense steps that can be taken and should be taken by Congress. We can take those steps without undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. But we’re not going to see action on this until the American people speak out to make clear to their elected member of Congress this is a priority for them.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President last week said he had a long list of agenda items he’d like to do. Congress is going to be in session for about four weeks before they take a long break. What’s your short-term priority? What would you like Congress to do in the next month?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mentioned the case of Mr. Szubin at the top of the briefing. That obviously would be a priority, but that shouldn’t take long at all. So there’s certainly more that they should be able to get done in the next four weeks or so.
The piece of legislation that I know that’s on the floor of both the House and the Senate this week is related to education reform. And obviously, this is something the President has talked about quite a bit. The President believes that this is a priority -- making sure that our kids are getting a good education. So that is a priority.
The other thing that we’re -- the other issue that we’re focused on is knowing that the Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to be depleted at the end of this month without some congressional action. We’ve long said that these short-term extensions are not conducive to the effective and efficient governance of the country. It certainly is not an effective way for us to manage the kinds of significant investments in our infrastructure that we know are critical to our economy and critical to the safety of the traveling public. So we obviously would like to see some congressional action on that front.
The President has talked quite a bit about the importance of criminal justice reform, and there does appear to be hope for a bipartisan compromise on that issue. We’ve seen some interest from Republicans in working with Democrats to try to pass legislation to do that. We obviously welcome that opportunity.
I’ve been here long enough to know that all those things probably aren’t going to happen in the next four weeks, but surely we can make some progress on each of those things in the next four weeks.
Q And on the Highway Trust Fund, in particular, I know there were talks about maybe some tax reform going along with that. Are you aware of those negotiations happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the administration has been very clear about what we believe is the best way for us to make investments in infrastructure, and that’s closing loopholes that will generate some revenue that would allow us to not just fund our infrastructure at the current level, but actually to make an expansion of that investment in a way that would have positive benefits for our infrastructure, but also have positive benefits for our economy.
So we’ve been clear about what we believe is the best way to do that, and, yes, we believe that there is a way for us to do some elements of tax reform in a way that raises revenue. This essentially means closing loopholes for only the wealthy and well-connected, and using the revenue to invest in infrastructure that everybody benefits from. That’s a pretty common-sense proposal, too, and that’s a proposal that we’re going to continue to advocate for.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’ve got a couple for you. In his remarks on normalizing relations with Cuba, the President gave a, by name, shout-out to Carlos Gutierrez. How high on the short list is Mr. Gutierrez for the first ambassador to Cuba once those relations are normalized?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the list, so I can’t give you -- it’s hard for me to handicap it. It’s also not clear to me that that’s a job that he wants. But obviously we were gratified to have that kind of bipartisan support for the President’s efforts to normalize our relations with Cuba.
Q And then, for months, administration officials have said that one of the possible outcomes of failed negotiations with Iran might be military action down the road. In the President’s visit to the Pentagon today, is he going to be talking about the possible military options on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have indicated that military options remain on the table. The President will be delivering some remarks at the conclusion of that meeting so I’ll let him read out whether that was discussed.
Q Let me pick up on that. What is the point of the meeting at the Pentagon? What can the President -- or does he intend to learn that he can’t learn here? And how would you put into context the concentrated coalition airstrikes around Raqqa around last weekend? What does that mean? What does it suggest? Is it a turning point?
MR. EARNEST: What I would say is that the President has periodically received updates from his national security team on the ISIL strategy. We’ve done that in a few different places. We’ve done that several times here at the White House. You’ll recall the President traveled to Central Command down in Tampa to get an update at one point. The President last visited the Pentagon to discuss this issue back in October. And so the President was looking for an opportunity just to get together with the team again and to review the ongoing effort.
So I would not anticipate any major announcements out of this meeting today, but it is an important opportunity for the President to hear from members of his team not just on the military aspects of our strategy but on all the aspects of the strategy.
Olivier, just to go back to your question, I would expect that the conversations today would be focused on ISIL and not Iran. So I would not expect that the military options that we have indicated remain on the table would be discussed in today’s meeting.
And then you asked me one other part of it, which I had in my head.
Q What should we -- and what does the administration believe was the import of the concentrated airstrikes around Raqqa over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I would refer you to the Department of Defense. They may have some more details on this.
Q -- this morning on this.
MR. EARNEST: What I would say is that -- I mean, this is one of the reasons that I noted at the top that over the last nine or 10 months, the United States and our coalition partners have carried out 1,900 military strikes in Syria. So that is an indication that we have been using our military airpower to gain an advantage and to hit ISIL targets in Syria for some time now.
It’s my understanding that many of the airstrikes that were taken over the weekend around Raqqa were an effort to try to deny ISIL a safe haven. We know that many ISIL leaders are operating out of Raqqa or that immediate area, and I think this sends a pretty clear signal to them that that’s not a safe place for them to be.
The second thing -- and in some ways, this is even more important -- is that we’re seeking to take some steps that would deny the ability of ISIL leadership, ISIL fighters to maneuver in that area. And that means moving equipment. There has been some stepped-up activity in northern Syria, where we have seen fighters on the ground make some important gains against ISIL. And we certainly want to limit the capacity of ISIL that’s headquartered in Raqqa to try to resupply their fighters that in the last several weeks at least have been on the run. And so that’s part of that effort to -- I would not read that increased pace of airstrikes over the weekend as a significant change in our strategy. If anything, it would be the logical continuation of a strategy that would reflect our effort to try to support those fighters who are acting on the ground.
Q Does it indicate you have better spotters or eyes on the ground that gave you better target opportunities, which is something that has been aspired to but difficult to achieve?
MR. EARNEST: That's something that's hard for me to speak to. I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for a better assessment on that.
Q Okay. I want to ask you the question you side-stepped at the top of the briefing. Will the U.S. negotiate with Iran in these final remaining hours any other topic outside of the JPOA -- yes or no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our efforts have been focused on Iran’s nuclear program. And the goal of these conversations is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and ensure that they coordinate with international efforts to verify their compliance with the agreement. And that’s the focal point of these conversations.
Now, what we have acknowledged in previous lines of questioning is that there have been other things that have come up on the sidelines of these talks. To be specific, the most prominent example of that is the concern we have about American citizens who are being detained in Iran.
On the sidelines of these talks, we have raised directly -- Secretary Kerry has raised directly with his counterpart our concern about the unjust detention of those American citizens. But what they’re focused on in Vienna and the kind of agreement that we’re trying to reach is one that is focused on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Will you allow any negotiation over the future of the arms embargo to be a part of those conversations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what we’re focused on is just the nuclear talks. And I don’t have an update for you in terms of additional topics that are under consideration in Vienna.
Q One quick thing that is coming up in Congress in relationship to Puerto Rico. You said last week there will be no bailout, but there is an effort to bring Puerto Rico under U.S. bankruptcy law. It was left out either by a drafting error or some other miscue back several years ago. Does the administration support efforts to allow institutions within Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy and clear some of these debts as it relates to their particularly precarious financial situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, we acknowledged last week that Puerto Rico does not have a tested restructuring regime for its public debt and that has caused some, including some in Congress, to consider whether or not legislation should be passed that would allow Puerto Rico and officials in Puerto Rico to use Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy law as a --
Q Which it’s not part of now.
MR. EARNEST: Right, which it’s not part of now, which the other 50 states are, I understand. So this is a possibility that Congress is considering.
Q Does this administration support it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that we have talked with Congress about. I don’t think that we’ve taken a position on specific legislation at this point, but we certainly believe that this is something that Congress should take a look at.
Q So you’re generally supportive of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’re generally supportive of is Congress considering legislation along these lines. We haven’t actually seen specific legislation so we’re not ready to commit to it at this point. But obviously Puerto Rico doesn’t have the kinds of options that other states do. Puerto Rico is not a state, so it makes sense that they might be treated differently. But in this case, we believe it’s worth Congress considering whether Chapter 9 protections should be made available to them.
Q Before I let you go, did the President watch the World Cup game? Did he call the coach? And when will the team be here?
MR. EARNEST: The President did have the opportunity to see the game yesterday. Many of you saw his tweet that he was very proud of the way that the American women performed yesterday. I don’t have any calls to the coach to read out at this point, but I know the President is looking forward to having a chance to talk to the coach and to the team, and we’ll let you know when he has had an opportunity to do that. We will be in touch with them on trying to schedule a time for the team to come and celebrate their big victory here at the White House, but I don’t have a date yet.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to follow up on something April asked you about. A devastating weekend in Chicago -- in particular, of note, the death of a 7-year-old, Amari Brown. Was the President briefed on what was happening in his hometown and his thoughts on what was a devastating weekend, despite the fact that Chicago still has some of, if not the toughest gun laws in the country?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I don’t know if the President received a specific briefing on this. The President does keep close tabs on the local news and the happenings in his hometown of Chicago, so I’m sure the President is aware of this and is feeling the same sense of concern about that situation that we are. And, again, all of these terrible incidents continue to be under investigation by local authorities in Chicago.
But the fact remains that there are some common-sense steps that could be taken that would make our streets a little safer. We could take those steps without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And that’s why the vast majority of law-abiding Americans actually support those steps. But we’ll need Congress to act before we can take them.
Q I want to ask you about the Hillary Clinton email trove that was released. We sort of missed you over the last couple of days -- 3,000 of them were released.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t miss this. (Laughter.)
Q I’ve been dying to get to this. (Laughter.) Listen, and I know you’re going to say -- I’m going to try to predict how you will approach this. You will say, Kevin, it’s a State Department or it’s a campaign issue. But she worked for the President while all this was going on. We’ve also learned that in addition to her own private server, she even had emails on a couple of public servers. And so I’m wondering, to use your phraseology, is this consistent with the administration’s position of transparency? And is it also consistent with the way that you all conduct business that someone who is extremely high up in your administration would do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the expectation that we have is that everybody who works in the administration, no matter how senior or how junior, would be in compliance with the responsibilities that they have to make sure that any work that they do on their personal email account is archived, consistent with the standards that are established by the National Archives and Records Administration. And, again, that Secretary Clinton has forwarded thousands of emails from her server to the State Department for exactly that purpose and she’s actually gone to the extraordinary step of actually suggesting that those emails should be made public. And that is consistent with the kind of priority that the President has placed on transparency.
Q But you could also argue that despite the fact that she has given thousands of emails, she’s left a few out, some have now been determined to be classified after the fact in some cases. We’re just not sure what’s missing because it was all on her own private server. Can you understand how this could be problematic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Kevin, for the way to which the campaign made the decision about which emails actually did pertain to government business --
Q Not the campaign. Someone who worked for the administration made that decision while she was working here for the President.
MR. EARNEST: That’s not accurate, Kevin. The way that the decision was made was that this was after Secretary Clinton had left office.
Q But hang on, really quick, really quick. While she worked for the President, those emails were public record. They’re supposed to be maintained. All of them. It turns out they weren’t. They were on a private server, which was against what the President asked her to do. And then after the fact, we all find out she had her team or her staff pick and choose which ones that she said were available. Can’t you see how that’s a problem?
MR. EARNEST: No, Keven, I think what her staff did was they did what the National Archives and Records Administration asks them to do, which is to go through those emails and send the ones to the Statement Department that relate to her official business, her official responsibilities as a Secretary of State.
Q She missed some, right? You know that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’d have to -- and this is why I suggested that you contact the campaign for the process that they undertook to decide which emails were relevant to her professional responsibilities and were then archived to the State Department. But, again, I think Secretary Clinton was acting in the spirit of the President’s commitment to transparency when she suggested that those emails should be made public.
Q Just a couple follow-ups, Josh. Let’s start with Greece. On phone calls yesterday, a couple of major financial institutions -- Barclays, J.P. Morgan -- warned their clients, their investors that it’s likely with the vote that there would be a Greek exit from the Euro, something obviously the administration had hoped to avoid. Do you think that this vote makes this significantly more difficult to achieve? And you also said that the President has nothing, as far as you know, no calls scheduled, although he could make some over the course of the week. What would precipitate his involvement on that level?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, there are a number of conversations that are taking place among European officials right now. And I think that there is a meeting of European leaders scheduled for tomorrow evening, Europe time. And so based on those conversations, we may conclude that it’s appropriate for the President to be in touch with his counterparts. But we’ll --
Q So not until after that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not necessarily. I could imagine a call taking place in advance of that, but we’ll keep you posted as those kinds of decisions are made.
In the meantime, I think it’s important to know that other senior administration officials are in touch with their counterparts. Secretary Lew continues to be on the phone with European leaders who are involved in these conversations. There are other officials at the State Department, even here at the White House, that are involved in contacting their counterparts to get an assessment about where things stand and to continue and encourage all parties to make progress in the direction that is clearly within the collective interest of those who are sitting around the proverbial negotiating table at this point.
Q But how much harder do you think this vote has made it, particularly to prevent the Greek exit from the Euro?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned at the top, the referendum that took place does not change any of the fundamentals related to this situation. Those fundamentals continue to be the -- the Prime Minister of Cyprus continues to repeat his view that it’s in the interest of his country to remain part of the Eurozone. We continue to see statements from European leaders indicating that they would like Greece to remain part of the Eurozone. And what also hasn’t changed is the fact that completing that goal will require those who are seated at the table to arrive at a package of financing and reforms that will put Greece back on a path of economic growth and debt sustainability.
And so the collective interest hasn’t changed. The path toward resolving the situation hasn’t changed. And the role that the United States will continue to play in facilitating an agreement and encouraging all the parties to recognize that common interest hasn’t changed either.
Q In the meeting today that the President is going to have at the Pentagon -- although, as you already pointed out, the President gets periodic updates and obviously it’s not unusual for him to meet with his national security team -- but is there something in the situation on the ground that precipitated this in particular, or precipitated, as Major asked, him going to the Pentagon today? And are there things, are there changes on the table that are maybe out of what we’ve talked about before?
MR. EARNEST: The short answer to your question is no. I would not read any sort of -- there is no situation on the ground or condition on the ground that has prompted the scheduling of this particular meeting.
At the same time, I would acknowledge that while the President does receive regular updates, daily updates, in some cases, even more frequent than that, about the status of our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, that, yes, that carving out a couple hours in his day to go across town over to the Pentagon and have a conversation face-to-face with leaders of the national security team, including many of our men and women in uniform, does reflect a deeper and longer conversation that the President wants to have with his team.
But, again, I would not view that as a direct response to any situation on the ground or any changes in the situation on the ground.
Q Is it meant to send any kind of message to the American people, many of whom expressed concern, obvious concern over the weekend with the heightened security and heightened alerts that they heard in many of the cities over the 4th of July celebrations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, we have been -- continue to be -- our national security infrastructure has continued to be very vigilant about the threat that is posed by extremists. We have seen the public statements from ISIL encouraging those who support their mission to carry out attacks during the holy month of Ramadan. And so we’re mindful of that risk environment. But the fact is our national security professionals are always vigilant and they’re always mindful of what kinds of steps need to be taken to protect the American people. And sometimes this means changing our security posture. In some cases, this means adapting that security posture to reflect new threats that may be emerging. But, again, I would not conclude that this particular meeting is in any way related to that ongoing vigilance.
Q I wanted to ask you about the Walter Reed lockdown. When we came in here, it was still ongoing. Has the President been made aware of the situation? And what’s your understanding of what’s going on?
MR. EARNEST: Sunlen, I don’t have a lot of details about this particular situation. I know that the Department of Defense security personnel and local law enforcement have both responded to reports about a possible shot fired at Walter Reed. The last I heard when I walked out here half an hour or so ago was that that was unconfirmed at this point, but that this is something that they continue to investigate. But when local law enforcement has more information on this, I’m sure they’ll make it public.
Q Is the President aware of it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President has been briefed on this particular matter, but I’m sure before the end of the day he will be.
Q There are reports that in the next few weeks the President will issue orders that would free some federal prisoners -- those that were locked up because of nonviolent drug offenses. Why is this important for the President to do now and also in reportedly more numbers than many other Presidents?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did read those reports over the weekend. I don’t have a lot of new information to share with you at this point. The President, as I mentioned in response to Cheryl’s question, does believe that criminal justice reform is an important priority. And we’re certainly gratified that there are some Republicans in Congress who are also interested in some of these reforms. I know that some of the reforms that are being considered would make our criminal justice system a little bit more fair. Some of these reforms would also stand to save taxpayers money.
So the President is looking forward to those kinds of conversations and the President has already, over the first six years of his administration, offered some commutations to nonviolent offenders. But he does not view that as a cure-all for some of the inequities that continue to persist in our criminal justice system. Broader reform is needed. And that’s what the President is hoping to pursue with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill this year.
Q Will the next round of potential commutations -- would that serve as a launching pad for him to make this broader call for reform?
MR. EARNEST: Not necessarily, simply because the kind of broader criminal justice reform that the President envisions is something that would be somewhat broader than the kinds of steps that the President will be able to take at this point using his authority as President of the United States to offer pardons or commutations.
Q And on Iran, to get back to what we were discussing before, you said that the deadline continues to be July 7th, that’s the deadline everyone is working against. But it seems that officials on both sides, the Iranians and the U.S. officials there, are pretty much laying the groundwork that this is going to be delayed. How eager are you to get this done before the 9th, when the congressional review period will double?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, we’re obviously mindful of the fact that the original deadline here was June 30th so we’re already several days past that. And the fact is we’re talking about negotiations that have been taking place for almost two years now. So this has been a long-running effort and we -- as Secretary Kerry and, I believe, his Iranian counterpart observed over the weekend, they’ve never been closer to reaching an agreement.
At the same time, Secretary Kerry I think was pretty blunt yesterday in his comments to reporters in Vienna that there remains very difficult, critically important issues that are unresolved and they will not be able to reach an agreement as long as those issues remain unresolved. And that’s what they’re working on right now.
So I wouldn’t want to prejudge an outcome at this point, but I would acknowledge that we are past the deadline. We’re well into these negotiations. But again, the President and his team are prepared to walk away if Iran cannot sign on to a final agreement that reflects the kinds of commitments that they made in the context of the political agreement back in April.
Q But at what point is the deadline -- keep getting pushed, keep getting pushed -- when do you say it is time to walk away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that’s something that the negotiators can better speak to. I think at some point, you walk away when it becomes clear that the Iranians, even in the face of unanimity of opinion across the international community, are unwilling to sign on the dotted line to uphold commitments that they’ve already made. And that’s really all that we’re seeking here. But if that’s something that Iran is unwilling to give, then we won’t be able to reach an agreement.
Q And last -- Senator Corker. If you could just respond to his comments over the weekend that he advises you guys not to rush into any effort to meet the deadline. And he kind of brought up the legacy issue, that that might be what’s driving the need to keep staying at the negotiating table on the part of the administration. Can you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the fact that these negotiations have been taking place over the better part of two years I think is an indication that nobody has been in a rush. And I think the fact that we have been quite clear about what exactly would be included in a final agreement is an indication of the President’s resolve to do what he believes is in the best interest of our national security.
And the fact is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy and through the implantation of the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. That’s precisely what’s being negotiated in Vienna right now. And if a final agreement can be reached, it would be good for our national security.
It certainly would not resolve the long list of concerns that we have with Iranian behavior, but it would allow us, in a verifiable way, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that would certainly make it less dangerous when Iran decides they want to menace Israel. And it certainly would make it less dangerous when Iran wants to support terrorist organizations. It certainly would make it less dangerous for Iran to support destabilizing groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But it’s not going to resolve all of those concerns, but it certainly would be an important step in the right direction when it comes to the national security of the United States.
Q On education reform, which you mentioned is a priority -- the President hasn’t really been out front talking about No Child Left Behind, rewriting it that much. I’m wondering if that’s intentional, because when he tends to come out for things, a lot of Republicans suddenly don’t want to support it.
MR. EARNEST: You’ve noticed that? Even it’s the same thing they’ve previously supported.
Q Yes. So Lamar Alexander talked to us, said that he had a personal relationship with the President on this particular issue; they’ve been working behind the scenes since, really, January. I’m wondering sort of what’s the President’s approach on this, and would he sign the Alexander-Murray bill that’s on the Senate floor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, I don’t have a position on that specific legislation to announce at this point. I can confirm for you that there have been a number of conversations that have taken place between administration officials and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill as they’ve sought to write this bill.
The President obviously does believe that this is a priority. We’ve talked a little bit about, over the last several months, about trade and how giving the President the authority to negotiate a Transpacific Partnership agreement would allow our economy and our businesses, and, most importantly, our workers, to deal with broader global economic forces and their impact on middle-class families in this country. The best way that we can prepare the American workforce is to make sure that they’re getting skills and training and the education that they need to compete and win in a 21st century global economy. So that obviously starts with kids in elementary school.
So the administration is certainly encouraging bipartisan efforts in Congress to try to advance legislation that would strengthen our schools. But I don’t have a specific position to announce at this point on the piece of Senate legislation that’s been put forward.
Q Is there an intentional effort? Would the President be behind the scenes on this to try to keep it out of politics?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would welcome a genuine bipartisan effort in this regard. And my guess is that there will be at some point in the future where you’re going to hear the President talk about how important a good education is for America’s children and how critical that is to the longer-term economic success of our country.
The President will certainly make that case in the future. And I’m confident the President will have future conversations with members of Congress about legislation that would accomplish that goal. But right now, we certainly are intrigued by the kind of bipartisan effort that is underway on Capitol Hill, and we, generally speaking, want to be supportive of that effort. But again, we need to do a little more analysis on the specific piece of legislation that’s been put forward before I can give you a specific administration position.
Q Thanks. I’m just wondering, are you -- when you’re talking about the Iran deal and it has to be approved by the Senate, up-or-down vote. People have talked about the nomination of an ambassador to Cuba might disrupt that. It would be picking a fight with the Senate at a very difficult time for the administration. And I’m wondering if for sure you are going to nominate someone to be an ambassador, or just leave the position as an acting intersection, I guess, a charge d’affaires -- that would be the title?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update for you in terms of our intent to nominate someone to that important position. I’ll just remind you of a principle that the President laid out I think it was even at the end of last year -- that we can’t allow a difference of opinion over one issue to become a deal-breaker over all the others. And there was a vigorous debate in Congress -- and obviously, the President strenuously disagreed with a lot of Republicans when it came to immigration reform -- and there were some Republicans who publicly suggested that the President acting on his own on immigration reform would somehow “poison the well” and interfere with our ability to work in bipartisan fashion to make progress on trade promotion authority, for example.
Fortunately, we didn’t see that come to pass. We actually did see Republicans work effectively and constructively with Democrats to pass trade promotion authority. And so we may have our differences over issues like appointing an ambassador to Cuba, but hopefully, that won’t prevent us from cooperating in those areas where there might be some genuine agreement.
And I would point out that there actually is strong bipartisan support for normalizing relations with Cuba. There are any number of Republicans who have complimented the President for taking this step. But again, hopefully we’re not going to allow a difference of opinion on one issue like Cuba to become a deal-breaker over all the others, including some areas where there might be some genuine common ground to be found.
Q -- on when you might make that nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point, but if we do, I’ll follow up with you.
Q Okay. One more, quick thing. It’s the one year -- June 29th was the one-year anniversary of ISIS declaring a caliphate. And we’ve seen, with the uptick in threats -- with the July 4th holiday and Ramadan, as you mentioned -- and I’m wondering -- a lot of these threats are occurring on Twitter, and there are groups -- outside groups -- and I know you had Twitter at your Countering Extremism Summit. I’m wondering if there’s been any effort to -- there’s complaints that Twitter is not moving fast enough to shut down these terrorists and recruiting and violent threats on Twitter. They’re not shutting it down quickly enough. There was a threat right before the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage saying that one of these guys that’s very prolific in ISIS, affiliated in France, made a threat against a gay man, wanting to throw him off a building, and people were saying -- telling Twitter, hey, we need you to take down the site, this is not what Twitter -- it’s breaking Twitter’s own rules. So I’m wondering if the White House, if the administration has done anything to reach out to Twitter to try to get them to be more proactive.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the administration has been engaged with Silicon Valley and social media outlets on a variety of issues, including this one. As you pointed out, Twitter -- and I believe that there are some other leaders in the tech community who participated in our Countering Violent Extremism Summit. The President also convened a Cybersecurity Summit out in Silicon Valley back in February at Stanford University.
So we have these kinds of conversations on technology policy quite frequently. I’ll have somebody follow up with you. I’m not aware of this particular criticism that’s been lodged against Twitter, but I can tell you that we have been engaged in conversations with Twitter and sought to actually work with Twitter and other social media outlets to cooperate in this area.
Q -- get them to shut down the accounts faster? Because cooperating law enforcement would be, of course, something that is already happening.
MR. EARNEST: Right. Well, I don’t mean just at a law enforcement level, but I also mean at a broader policymaking level, too; that certainly Twitter and other social media outlets understand how their tools are being used in a way that they obviously have concerns about.
And so there’s a policy decision -- there are policy decisions for them to make, and there are obviously public safety and other policy equities that involve the federal government, as well. So let me see if I can have somebody follow up with you who may have more detailed knowledge of those conversations?
Q One more time on tomorrow’s deadline. Is it fair to say based on everything you've said here that the White House’s expectation is tomorrow’s deadline will slip?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is that we will get updates from our negotiating team out in Vienna. And I wouldn’t set any expectations at this point. I would say that it’s certainly possible, but at this point I don't have an expectation to share.
Q And then can you shed some light on what the President’s week is like? We don't have any information about how -- what he’s -- it just says meetings at the White House. Does he have events planned? Does he -- what are those meetings that he’s having at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me tell you a couple of things. Obviously, we did announce over the weekend that the President will be meeting with the General Secretary of Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam here at the White House tomorrow. And that will be an historic meeting where the President will meet with the General Secretary in the context of the 20th anniversary or normalizing our bilateral relations.
The two men will discuss how we can further advance our cooperation as envisioned by the comprehensive partnership that was signed in 2013. The President will also raise areas of mutual interest such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and regional security and areas where our differences require continued attention, like human rights.
So that's a meeting that the President will convene tomorrow. I will say that the rest of the President’s schedule has been left intentionally fluid to account for the fact that we may have news out of Vienna. But we’ll just have to see how the week takes shape.
Q Will he take questions when there’s a conclusion of those talks?
MR. EARNEST: You mean the conversation tomorrow with the General Secretary --
Q No, I mean will the President have a press conference at the end of this big foreign policy initiative of his?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing to announce at this point, but we’ll keep you posted.
Q He said he wanted to speak to us.
Q Will you let him?
Q He said he wants to --
Q He said you're stopping the --
Q You are the reason why he didn't.
MR. EARNEST: He’s a very enthusiastic interlocutor when it comes to the White House press corps, that's for sure.
Q He apologized for us -- to us for not -- (laughter).
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: David, go ahead.
Q One quick question I don't think was covered. I’m sorry if it was.
MR. EARNEST: That's okay.
Q The President is visiting Kenya, and I believe there were stories out of Kenya today that the National Assembly had said Obama will not be permitted to raise issue of gay rights and talk about that issue. Are you familiar with that? And does the President have a problem with that? Will he abide by -- and has the White House been made aware of that decision by the --
MR. EARNEST: I had not been made aware of that particular announcement from Kenya. Obviously, we have been clear that when the President travels around the world, he does not hesitate to raise concerns about human rights. And that's been true when he’s traveled to places like China; it will be true tomorrow when he meets with the General Secretary of Vietnam. And I’m confident that the President will not hesitate to make clear that the protection of basic universal human rights in Kenya is also a priority and consistent with the values that we hold dear here in the United States of America.
Q And it was not predicated on the President having -- the visit was not predicated on not talking about certain subjects?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q One tomorrow’s meeting should we expect an announcement that President Obama will be visiting Vietnam this year?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I don't know. You may have to wait till tomorrow to find out. All right?
Q And on your opening statement, what is it that makes you say the Republicans are playing politics with the Szubin nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would suggest is that if there’s a better explanation I’d be happy to hear it. The fact is we have an individual who is highly qualified, has served in both administrations -- both Democratic and Republican administrations. He obviously has very important work in front of him. This is work that both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill strongly support. So I haven’t, frankly, heard a very good explanation from Senator Shelby about why he has failed to schedule a hearing for Mr. Szubin for nearly three months.
So if there is an alternate explanation I’m happy to hear it. Maybe somebody in this room or somebody who is watching wants to call Senator Shelby’s office and ask. But I certainly would be interested in the response.
Q Could it be just normal bipartisan foot-dragging?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I supposed anything is possible -- particularly when it comes to Congress. I know that there are Democrats who serve on this committee who are strongly supportive of Mr. Szubin. I’m confident that if Republicans were to give Mr. Szubin a fair hearing that he’d have a lot of strong supporters in the Republican side of the aisle, too. So there’s no reason this should be a partisan issue.
If there is some legitimate explanation, I’d be both surprised but also pleased to hear it. But in any event, I do believe that not just Mr. Szubin and not just the President of the United States, but when we're talking about the national security of the country, I think the American people are entitled to an explanation about why there has been a significant delay in the scheduling of the hearing of somebody who has got such an important role when it comes to our national security.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody. Happy Monday.
2:04 P.M. EDT