Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/9/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Let me start today by briefly noting that legislators in South Carolina came together in bipartisan fashion to vote overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. I understand that Governor Haley will sign that bill into law later today. That’s good news and that’s progress.
Republicans in Congress, however, seem to have values and priorities that lie elsewhere. Right now, the Interior appropriations bill in the House is jammed up because a sizeable number of House Republicans are eager to protect the status of the Confederate flag on National Park Service grounds. These are the same House Republicans who voted for a party leader who once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.” These are same congressional Republicans who have declined to criticize the race-baiting rhetoric of a leading Republican presidential candidate. That’s to say nothing of the Senate Republican who saluted that candidate.
So when you hear me say that congressional Republicans have an agenda that is out of step with the vast majority of Americans, his record, at least in part, is what I’m referring to.
So with that, Jim, why don’t you get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. Well, on that subject, one of the issues that’s holding up that Interior bill is a vote that initially they were going to have vote today, but they put it off to change some provisions that were in that Interior bill. But it does go to some policies that the administration can have some effect on. So I’m wondering if the administration has any interest in changing current Park Service policy that permits the display of Confederate flags in cemeteries, federal cemeteries.
MR. EARNEST: I know that the National Park Service has talked about some of the policy changes that they have made in the last couple of weeks. I don’t have those in front of me, but I’d encourage you to check with them.
Q That one I don’t believe was affected by it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we can check on that for you. I know that there are a number of announcements that they made that were related to the sale of Confederate flag objects in gift shops and those kinds of things. So we’ll walk through the -- we’ll see if we can get you a list of those details.
But there are a number of changes that the National Park Service has made, and we’re certainly supportive of the amendments that were passed by voice vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. I believe it’s precisely those amendments that would limit the display of the Confederate flag on National Park Service grounds that Republicans are trying to reverse.
Q But if you could do that through executive action, why not just take care of it that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, like I said, I think there are a number of policy changes that are related to this that the National Park Service has already announced, and we can give you a list of those.
Q So as we’re waiting for Secretary Kerry to give us an update from Vienna, I wondered if you maybe cared to preempt them and just --
Q Just tell us. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’m definitely not going to do that. But I do think that Secretary Kerry will later this afternoon, East Coast time, offer an update on the status of the talks.
Q And it does look like negotiators are going to bust through the latest deadline, which would essentially give Congress an extra 30 days, if there were a deal, for them to review it. Do you all think that if there is a deal, that August presents you with a better opportunity to sell the public on this, or does it present opponents with a better opportunity to make a case against it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that there will be critics of the deal who will say that they would like to have additional time to try and criticize the agreement. That said, we continue to have confidence that the terms of the political agreement that were reached in Lausanne will be the parameters of a final agreement, if one can be reached in Vienna. And the reason for that is that’s essentially what the President has established as his bottom line, and the President continues to be confident that an agreement like that would effectively shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, and it would put in place the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
Now, this final agreement has not been reached yet; there still continue to be some obstacles to reaching that final agreement. But that’s the only kind of final agreement that President Obama and the American negotiating team will sign off on. The good news is that this is the only kind of final agreement that our international partners will sign off on as well.
So the President has succeeded over the last several years in building a unanimous international front to compel Iran to come to the negotiating table and to make serious commitments and concessions that will ensure that any sort of nuclear activity that exists in Iran exists solely for peaceful purposes.
Q One of the issues that has appeared lately is Iran’s demand for lifting the U.N. arms embargo. Is that out of the question as far as the Obama administration is concerned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into the details of what’s currently being negotiated by the United States and our P5+1 partners and the Iranians.
Q Just as a matter of policy, is that something that the administration -- that that’s strictly not part of the equation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the Iranians have sought, and what is the essence of the negotiation, are how would the Iranians take specific steps to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, and, in exchange, would nuclear sanctions -- nuclear weapons-related sanctions be relieved in exchange for those steps.
What we have said is that we’re going to need to see concrete, verifiable progress toward living up to their commitments on the part of the Iranians before sanctions relief related to nuclear weapons is given. But exactly how to structure that is the essence of the ongoing negotiations in Vienna.
Q Josh, got anything new on Greece?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t.
Q I’m just going to leave it at that then. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: There we go. Let’s cut to the chase. (Laughter.) I like that.
Q On the highway bill, is the White House open to using the repatriation of tax dollars from appropriations moving overseas to pay for the highway bill, as Chairman Ryan has suggested?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, what we have indicated is we’ve put forward our own plan that does involve some tax reforms that would essentially close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and use the revenue from those changes to make investments in infrastructure.
What Chairman Ryan has proposed is slightly different than that. But what we have observed and I think others have observed is Chairman Ryan’s proposal may indicate an openness to the kind of principle that we have embraced about tax reform proposals that would yield revenue that could be used to invest in infrastructure. The nature of closing those loopholes is, again, the subject of some difference of opinion, I think, and that would be part of any negotiation.
We have indicated that this could be a fruitful path for making the kinds of badly needed investments in our infrastructure that would have a positive impact on our economy. And we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to find some common ground with Republicans in those conversations.
Q Are you open to doing another short-term deal or getting a longer one sealed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, we’ve raised significant concerns about the frequency with which Congress chooses to just kick the can down the road when it comes to funding our infrastructure. And that does inhibit the ability of state officials, certainly, but others who are responsible for managing the critical infrastructure of the United States, to plan effectively. When we’re talking about large infrastructure projects, these are projects that take years to complete, particularly when you’re talking about the planning, engineering and architecture of these programs.
And so to fund these efforts at a month or two or three at a time is really inefficient. So I’m not willing to make a public declaration one way or the other right now, other than at some point Congress needs to get serious about making a long-term commitment to investing in our country’s infrastructure, both because of how important that is to the country over the long term, but because of the important economic benefits that could be associated with such an investment in the short term.
Q So that’s not a yes or a no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is a -- I think it is a we’ll see what emerges from Congress with a bias toward a longer-term commitment that we believe is consistent with the best interests of the country.
Q Finally, General Dunford said at his confirmation hearing today that Russia presents the greatest national security threat to the U.S. Is that an assessment that the White House shares?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen a formal assessment from the President’s national security team. Given the amount of time that we’ve spent talking about Russia’s destabilizing activities in Ukraine, I think should give you some indication that we’re very mindful of the kind of risk associated with Russian activity.
We’ve talked a little bit in here about some of the same saber-rattling that the Russians have engaged in. They’ve taken some provocative steps near the border of some of our NATO allies that we’ve raised concerns about previously. So we’re mindful of the threat from Russia, and we’ve made clear the commitment that the United States is willing to make when it comes to backing up our NATO allies who might be on -- who are certainly on the front lines of these tensions.
At the same time, Jeff, it’s also clear that we have been, in some areas, been able to effectively coordinate with the Russians to advance the interest of the United States. And the best and most vivid example of that that I can give you is that Russian negotiators have been active and constructive participants in Vienna, sitting on the same side of the table as the United States, as we compel Iran to take the steps to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon.
Q The President did sort of mock his rival in 2012, Mitt Romney, for saying that Russia was the greatest threat to the U.S. national security. So I'm just curious what he thinks about this person who he has chosen to be the next Joint Chiefs of Staff saying the same thing today.
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, since that time, we’ve seen the kind of activity from Russia that makes their activities somewhat more concerning: Their destabilizing activities in Ukraine, some of the stepped-up saber-rattling that we’ve seen from them both as it relates to their nuclear program but also as it relates to some of their military activities near the borders of our NATO allies.
So I think it’s fair to say that these kinds of assessments are dynamic based on the activity and the situation on the ground. But again, certainly General Dunford is somebody who has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues and has his own view. But I think he would be the first to admit that that reflects his own view and doesn’t necessarily reflect the view of -- or the consensus -- analysis of the President’s national security team.
Q Does the President believe that American workers need to work longer hours and harder to improve the economy?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I can tell you that the President believes that the data indicates very clearly that the American people are working very hard, and by some measures working harder than ever. What we have unfortunately not seen is that hard work be fairly rewarded with an increase in wages; that we are seeing American workers work harder, that they’re being more productive but we’re not seeing those wages raised at a corresponding rate.
And that’s why the President has made it a policy priority to try to find ways to make sure that American workers are getting paid fairly. So one way we can do that is to raise the minimum wage. A number of states have taken that step, we’ve seen even some private sector companies take that step when it comes to compensating their employees. The President believes that workers who are working full time, trying to raise a family of four at the minimum wage, shouldn’t be trying to raise the family below the poverty line, but yet that’s what they’re doing right now. So the President believes that American workers deserve a raise.
Just last week, the President announced that the hardest-working Americans should deserve fair pay if they’re working overtime. And that’s why the President announced a rule change that could potentially allow 5 million Americans to get a raise when they work overtime. That is consistent with the priority that the President has placed on trying to make sure that Americans can get a fair paycheck. But there’s no doubt that by just about any measure that American workers are working harder than ever.
Q But is Jeb Bush on to something when he does say that the American economy depends too much on part-time workers, and that they need to be full-time, and that there are too many people who are underemployed in this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no doubt that the President is very focused on trying to expand economic opportunity for everybody in this country. We can get you the updated data on this, but what our economists have told us is that if you take a look at the job growth that this country has experienced over the last four or five years in the aftermath of the Great Recession, that the vast majority of the jobs that were created -- we’re talking on the order of 80 or 90 percent -- were actually full-time jobs.
And so that’s an indication that our economy is moving in the right direction. But we’ve long indicated that we would like to see more policies be put in place here in Washington, D.C. that would create more jobs, that would create more good-paying jobs, and that would allow those Americans who are currently working really hard to be paid fairly. And whether that means giving minimum-wage workers a raise, or ensuring that more Americans who do work overtime can be properly compensated for their extra work.
Q And just briefly on Iran, kind of a housekeeping thing. There was a message today that there would be a joint news conference -- a news conference here and a news conference in Iran -- if and when a deal is announced. Is that accurate? And is that a signal that things are closer than we have been told?
MR. EARNEST: When you say “here,” you mean?
Q In the United States by this President and then in Iran by their leadership.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of any sort of planning that is actively being coordinated between the United States and Iran as it relates to the logistics of announcing an agreement. Right now, we’re focused on trying to reach an agreement.
Q Thanks a lot. I'm curious, from what you know, has the President and the Vice President, have they had any discussions about the possibility of the Vice President joining the 2016 presidential race?
MR. EARNEST: As you know, the President and Vice President speak frequently, including having a regularly weekly lunch. But I don’t have the details of any of those conversations to share with you.
Q What would, in your view, the Vice President add to the equation if he were to decide to join the 2016 race?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the fact that the President chose Joe Biden to be his Vice President -- a decision that the President has often described as the best political decision he’s ever made -- I think is all of the indication that you need about what a good president President Obama thinks Joe Biden would make.
Q That’s almost an endorsement.
MR. EARNEST: Not really. (Laughter.)
Q Josh, I want to ask you about your opening statement about the Confederate flag. And you even diverted a little bit into the presidential contender who is making some divisive comments about immigration.
MR. EARNEST: He’s a leading Republican presidential candidate who has said some of those things.
Q Wow. Compared to yesterday, you didn’t even want to talk about it. (Laughter.)
Q Difference in days.
Q Yes, how about that. So with that, and understanding that you wrote this in conversation and consultation with people around White House, what did the President talk to you about within the last 24 hours about this issue, himself? What has he said?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t talked to the President about this issue in the last 24 hours.
Q About the Confederate flag, or about Mr. Trump?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Well, when it comes to the issue of Trump -- and I'm going to pose the question that I asked you yesterday. Reince Priebus two weeks ago told me that this nation is more united than it is divided. And then we’re hearing that he has tried to wrangle Trump -- he’s trying to bring him in. Do you think it is time for someone to talk to many of these candidates to stop the divisive conversations, because we are nation that’s browning and a nation that is going to be majority minority in decades to come?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think each of these candidates is going to have to make their own decision about the kinds of values and priorities that they articulate, what kind of agenda they want to pursue. But that’s going to be up to each of them. It’s part of what makes our free country so great.
Q And lastly, how much will the President lean in on this issue? I mean, you gave a strong statement at the opening of this briefing. If indeed there is an effort to -- a successful effort to reverse the amendment on the Hill by the GOP, will the President lean in on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President will have the occasion to talk about this in the days and weeks ahead.
Q Will this be something he may talk about at the NAACP convention Tuesday when he speaks?
MR. EARNEST: There’s a possibility of that, but we’ll see.
Q So how confident is the administration that it now has a handle on the hacking? Do you know who did it? Are you willing to say? And what are you going to do about it? And what can you do about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, Bill, our investigators are continuing to work on this. And as I mentioned to your colleague yesterday, I would anticipate that there would be additional information made available soon about what we know about some of the cyber breaches that have been experienced over at the Office of Personnel Management.
Q Give us a little preview.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm going to reserve judgment on doing that because any announcements that we have about new information that has been obtained and new conclusions that have been reached will be disseminated by OPM.
Q Do you still think it’s the Chinese who are responsible?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are some who speculated on who may be responsible at this point. I'm not willing to do that. But I will note that there have been other incidents of inappropriate cyber activity that we have attributed to the Chinese. We have freely acknowledged that just about every time the President meets with his counterpart, and when other U.S. officials meet with their Chinese counterparts, that the issue of China’s conduct in cyberspace is one that we routinely raise.
Q I guess the big question is, what is the United States government going to be able to do to fix this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would anticipate that we’ll have more on those kinds of steps soon. There are a number of things that we have proposed, and that includes some specific pieces of legislation that we have sent to Capitol Hill but that have not yet been passed. That’s something I’ve expressed significant concern about in the past. That’s a concern that we continue to hold.
There are a number of other steps that we’ve taken using the President’s own authority to try to both strengthen cyber defenses of the federal government, but also make sure that we’ve got more tools that we can use to respond to threats in cyberspace. And this is everything from convening a cybersecurity summit with public and private sector experts out in California back in February to discuss this issue. That’s something that the President did.
And earlier this spring, we announced that the President had delegated authority to the Secretary of Treasury that would allow the United States government to impose financial sanctions against individuals or entities that are engaged in cyber hacking or benefit from cyber hacking. And that certainly puts more tools in the President’s toolbox as he considers what steps can be taken to respond to either this incident or others that may emerge.
Q On a related issue, there was a quote from a government official today -- yesterday perhaps -- which suggested that the government would not insist that technology companies provide a backdoor key to encryption; that they would only encourage it. Is this the U.S. position?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is currently an effort underway to work with private sector technology companies to resolve many of the concerns that we’ve expressed about encryption technology. We have seen that some individuals who are seeking to carry out acts of violence are trying to evade detection using this encryption technology.
Now, the President has spoken forcefully about the need for robust encryption technology that protects the safety of citizens.
Q But would you try to mandate it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there’s no policy conclusion that’s been reached on this, but the President has acknowledged the importance of a robust encryption capability that would allow private sector companies to ensure that their customers and others who are using their online tools can do so with the confidence of some privacy. But at the same time -- and again, I think that even many in the technology industry would acknowledge that they don’t want to allow individuals who are attempting to carry out acts of violence to use their technology to make them more successful in doing that.
So this is a difficult policy problem and one that the administration and certainly our law enforcement professionals inside the administration are working on.
Q But the suggestion was from this official that the government would not try to mandate it. Is that your understanding?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that any conclusion like that has been reached at this point.
Q Just coming back a couple days ago when you were asked about whether the President had accepted Nguyen Phu Trong’s invitation to visit Vietnam in their bilateral meeting. Yesterday, the Communist leader spoke at a think-tank and he reiterated that the President had accepted his invitation. Can you be a little bit more clear -- is the White House considering a stop in Vietnam for the President this year, and particularly on the Asia trip? Is that under consideration actively?
MR. EARNEST: David, at this point, the President is planning to travel to Asia this fall as he traditionally has done while in office. There are a number of multilateral meetings that are convened in Asia in the fall. I don’t have any details about the President’s itinerary at this point, but as soon as we have more information about his trip we can follow up with you on it.
Q Are there reasons that you would not want the President to travel to Vietnam? That they may not be ready for a visit? He’s chosen to travel previously to Burma or Malaysia, other countries with records of the same kind of human rights issues that Vietnam has. Is there something about Vietnam that the administration is concerned about, about giving that kind of attention to the presidential trip? Or does it just happen to be coincidental that you haven’t been able to stop there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that the administration has been outspoken in raising some concerns about the government of Vietnam’s human rights record, and these were concerns that the President made directly with the General Secretary when he was here at the White House earlier this week.
But as it relates to the President’s travel, I just don't have any details on his Asia itinerary yet at this point.
Q Would a trip to Vietnam be predicated on progress on TPP and certain steps that Vietnam promises to take either on opening their economy or improving their human rights record? Is that how you decide -- can you talk a little bit about how you would decide whether to go?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a range of factors that would go into making a decision about travel to Vietnam. And we obviously have a lot of business that we're trying to do there, and certainly an important part of that business is trying to complete the TPP agreement. But, again, there are a lot of factors that go into any sort of presidential trip, particularly an international one, and so I wouldn't pin a decision on the President’s itinerary to one specific policy issue.
Q Thanks. While we've been in here, Secretary Kerry came out and talked to reporters in Vienna and said basically that they won't be rushed; they’re not going to negotiate forever, but they’re going to stay at the table for now. So I guess my question for you is, as the President sees it, is there any time pressure here? And when you say -- you said a couple days ago that negotiators would stay at the table until it was no longer useful to do so. Could you lay out for us what that exactly means? What are the sort of factors that you're looking at when the President decides it would be useful for them to stay at the table or not?
MR. EARNEST: That's a difficult thing to talk about without getting into the details of the discussions, but let me give it a try.
I think what I would just say generally is that Secretary Kerry himself has observed -- and I don't know if he reiterated this view today -- I think he might have -- that it is true that over the last couple of weeks negotiators have made important progress. And they previously described that progress as the closest they’d ever been to reaching a final agreement. At the same time, Secretary Kerry has acknowledged that there still remains significant obstacles to a final agreement. And I think what the President and the negotiating team are looking for is a genuine commitment on the part of everybody sitting around the table, including both the Iranians and our P5+1 partners, to trying to constructively resolve the remaining sticking points. And as long as there is tangible evidence that there is a constructive effort underway, then the talks will continue.
Q Does Iran bringing up new issues at the negotiating table, would that prompt U.S. negotiators at this point to walk away? I mean, is that seen as a sign that they’re not really serious about, as you’ve said many times, implementing the framework that was agreed upon earlier this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not aware that any last-minute -- I'm not aware of a last-minute introduction of any new details, necessarily. But even if that did occur, I probably wouldn't talk about it from here just because we're trying to protect the ability of the negotiators to have their conversations in private until we're ready to announce an agreement.
Q And on a housing rule that was announced yesterday, I know the President has spoken after Ferguson and Baltimore and some of these racially sort of tinged incidents in cities around the country about a need to do more across government domestically to really address the root causes here. Does he see that as part of that effort? And are we going to see more, sort of, of the rulemaking and policy initiatives that may have been in the pipeline for a long time coming to the fore now to try to round out some of that agenda he’s talked about to address racial disparities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any announcements in mind when I say this, but I think you can expect that the President and his administration are going to continue to place a priority on advancing policies that will expand economic opportunity for every American. And the step -- or the rule that was announced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development is an example of the kind of rule that will make it more likely that every American has access to quality, affordable housing in this country.
And there has been some interesting academic data to indicate that children that are raised in certain neighborhoods don't have access to the same kind of economic opportunity that children in other neighborhoods do. And trying to make sure that every child has access to that kind of opportunity is a priority of the administration. And that certainly was part of the thinking behind advancing the housing rule, and I'm confident that that priority will influence additional decisions and announcements made by the administration over the next 18 months or so.
Q Just to follow up on Julie’s question there about the progress in the Iran talks, the President was quoted as saying that the odds were less than 50/50 by Senator Durbin, who was at that working reception the other night. Is that essentially where things stand right now, a little less than 50/50? That sounds a little more pessimistic than the way it was assessed earlier.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would caution against reading too much into the secondhand communication of what the President said in the working reception. The President has previously described the odds of talks sort of along the way as being around 50/50, and I think that’s an illustration --
Q Forty-nine percent.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly. So I think that’s an illustration that, look, we are in a place where this could go either way. Either Iran will live up to the political commitments that were reached in Switzerland back in April and sign onto the dotted line of a final agreement, a detailed agreement that reflects the parameters of that commitment that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, or they won’t. And it will require Iran to make some very serious commitments that they’d previously been unwilling to consider.
And so you can understand why there may be some who are sitting on the Iranian side of the table that are reluctant to do that. This is a tough deal. But this is also the unanimous view of the international community. And that is why this is a tough decision for the Iranians to make.
Q And it sounds like Secretary Kerry, when he was saying that we’re not going to negotiate forever, that there is going to be sort of an end of the road here one way or the other. Would the White House be open to -- if they just can’t get to an agreement over the next several days -- coming back in a few weeks and trying again? Or have you sort of done that a little too much now and you’re sort of at this point where you feel like, hey, this is it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don’t want to speculate about possible resolutions here. What our negotiators are focused on is engaging in constructive talks to try to resolve the remaining sticking points. And whether that’s possible still remains to be seen.
Q And getting back to Donald Trump -- if I’m not mistaken, you referenced him twice without naming him. There’s not a rule here against naming Donald Trump here --
MR. EARNEST: Not a rule that you have. (Laughter.)
Q Okay. That’s true. (Laughter.) Are you trying to say -- the opening statement that you made was pretty harsh. Are you trying to say that the Republican Party has a problem with race?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think what I’m saying is that the American people will judge the record of congressional Republicans based on their actions, based on the positions that they advocate on the floor of the United States Congress, and based on the way that they discuss these issues. That’s how it should be. And ultimately, this will be up to the American people to consider and evaluate. I would say there’s no denying the stark difference in the agenda that’s advanced by Republicans with regard to many of these issues and the priorities and values that are espoused by Democrats.
Q Because you have a Republican governor in South Carolina who has advocated for taking down the Confederate flag at her state capitol, and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said today that he’s not in favor of having Confederate flags at federal cemeteries.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just --
Q You didn’t include that in your opening remarks.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did include a reference to Governor Haley’s --
Q Governor Haley, but not what Speaker Boehner --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s notable that Speaker Boehner is having some difficulty in persuading the remaining -- the other members of his conference of his view. And again, I think that’s something that the American people themselves will consider as they evaluate the agenda that’s being advanced by Republicans in Congress.
Q And there’s been some talk about whether the statue of Jefferson Davis should be removed from the Capitol. Does the White House have a view on that? Should all Confederate reminders be just removed from federal buildings?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that Speaker Boehner obliquely referred to that in his news conference today, and obviously it’s the responsibility of the House of Representatives to decide what’s appropriate to be on display in the building where they conduct the people’s work.
Q Getting back to Donald Trump -- I remember during the 2008 campaign, the President used a phrase “the silly season.” He described when things would get a little heated out on the campaign trails being the midst of “the silly season” of politics. Are you saying that what’s happening right now with Donald Trump is more than that; that this is not just sort of early presidential election campaign silliness and media fascinations and that sort of thing? When you say that the Republican Party hasn’t condemned Donald Trump and describe him as the leading Republican presidential candidate, you are trying to sort of hang the entire Republican Party, or hang Donald Trump around the entire Republican Party.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that the positions and statements of Republicans is one that the American people will evaluate and eventually pass judgment on.
Q But as for what Donald Trump said about Mexican immigrants, your view on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I have resisted commenting on his occasionally outrageous claims.
Q You went after him but you don’t want to elaborate I guess is --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think I’ve probably said enough on this issue.
Q Josh, I’m not exactly sure what Secretary Kerry has just said, but you put out a statement last night about the teleconference with the President and the negotiating team, et cetera. The impression we’ve gotten though is that Kerry has had -- Kerry and the team have had significant leeway in these negotiations. This is a simple question: Was the President briefed today in any greater length, or did he talk with Kerry at any greater length? Did he need to be updated, considering what went on yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, for what Secretary Kerry said today, we can certainly get you a transcript of his remarks. More generally, the President did consult with the negotiating team in Vienna last evening, and this was a conversation that lasted about an hour and a half. The President talked to them via secure video teleconference.
And this was an opportunity for the President to merely check in with the negotiating team. The President has been regularly updated, I think I mentioned this the other day, on average more than once a day about the status of the ongoing talks.
And I think it is fair to say that President Obama has a lot of confidence in Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, and the other senior members of the negotiating team to represent the interests of the United States and ensure that they are advocating consistent with the strategy that the President has laid out.
So, yes, the President has a lot of confidence in their ability to conduct these negotiations. At the same time, I would also say, observe, that the President has been crystal-clear about what his criteria is for a final agreement. And the President has been very direct both in public but also in private, in the context of meetings just like this, about the fact that if Iran is not willing to take all the necessary steps to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and to cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program, then there won’t be an agreement. The President won’t authorize Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz to sign onto a final agreement, and I’m confident we won’t have to worry about Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz signing off on an agreement that doesn’t accomplish the goal that the President has clearly laid out.
Q Okay. I guess the point of the question was, was there a need to update the President today significantly if things have changed since the teleconference?
MR. EARNEST: I see. I don’t know that there’s been a significant change since the conversation that they had last evening. I do think that the President was updated this morning on the status of the talks. I don’t know how robust that update was, given he had talked about it for an hour and a half the night before.
Q Thanks, Josh. Following up on Jim’s question, do you see any upside or benefit to extending the 30-day period to 60 days? Does the White House see any positive side of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I guess what we’ve -- our view of this is that it’s immaterial; that if an agreement can be reached, we will be confident in making the case to the American public and to the world that this agreement would effectively prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and is, in fact, the best possible way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; that reaching a diplomatic agreement along the lines of the one that we have described that is backed up by strict verification measures to ensure Iran’s compliance with the agreement is a better way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon than all of the others that are contemplated.
It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options; we’ve indicated that those other options remain on the table. But this continues to be the best way for us to accomplish that critical national security goal, and it’s one that we will pursue.
Q And on the U.N. arms embargo, apparently Iran is pushing to have that lifted. Russia seems to also want to sell arms to Iran. I’m wondering if you fear there being a non-nuclear arms race in the region with Israel and other regional actors wanting to beef up their arms as well to counter anything that Iran may be doing after the U.N. arms embargo.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into the substance of the discussions, but I will -- let me say a couple of things to address that.
The first is the Obama administration I think has made it quite clear to everybody in the region and even around the world of our commitment to standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel when it comes to their unique security needs. And there is significant security assistance that’s been provided by the United States at the direction of President Obama. That security cooperation continues to this day, and it is a security relationship that has not wavered.
You’ll also recall that about six weeks ago the President convened a group of GCC countries at Camp David. And part of that discussion was focused on how to strengthen the security relationship between those countries and the United States, and among those countries themselves; how could the United States facilitate stronger security relationships among those countries. And that conversation reflects the volatile region of the world in which those countries are located.
So the United States certainly values those important relationships. Some of those relationships with GCC countries have been important to advancing our national security interests in the region and around the world. And strengthening those relationships is an important priority, but one way that we can strengthen those relationships is to facilitate the ability of those countries to work together to better provide for their own security.
And all of those efforts are ongoing, mindful of the destabilizing impact that Iran will continue to exercise in the Middle East even if we’re able to reach a final agreement about their nuclear program.
Q And just one more on the Americans who are held in Iran. You’ve said that’s not really the principal focus of these talks, but you said on the sidelines that some of that is going on.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q I’m wondering if the extra time, the additional delays have provided any opportunities for maybe having an announcement that includes the release of any of those individuals, or whether or not you’re sort of foreclosing that as an option of announcing those things at the same time.
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point I don’t have an update on the status of our efforts to secure the release of some American citizens that we believe are unjustly detained in Iran. I will tell you that we continue to make a forceful case to the Iranians that they should be released, and we’re going to continue to do that. And that takes place sometimes on the sidelines of the ongoing international nuclear negotiations, but it’s a matter that’s kept separate.
We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that the status of these individuals doesn’t get overly wrapped up in the efforts to resolve the nuclear situation there.
Q But you’d be able to tell the families that there would be a better opportunity aside from this extended period of face-to-face talks at a high level to get their family members back in the future, if it isn’t done now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that remains to be seen. But what we will continue to do in the event of a deal or even in the event of no deal being agreed to, we're going to continue to advocate for the release of these Americans that we believe are unjustly being detained in Iran.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’d like to try to pin you down a little bit on highway funding. Yesterday, the Transportation Secretary said that there is a need to break the cycle of these short-term extensions and that he might recommend that the President veto another short-term extension. Would the President be open to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, for the specifics of Secretary Foxx’s comments, I’d encourage you to check with his office. But based on the way that you've recounted them, I’m not sure they're materially different than what I’ve described as our position, which is that it is our view that the repeated use of short-term extensions does have a negative impact on our economy and on our ability to make tangible, critically needed investments in our nation’s infrastructure, and that our strong preference is that Congress get to work on a longer-term agreement that would allow the federal government to make a long-term commitment, a long-term investment in America’s infrastructure.
This obviously would be a decision -- a commitment that is welcomed by the nation’s governors and the nation’s mayors in both parties because they deal firsthand with some of the neglected infrastructure upgrades that are needed. And so that is essentially our position -- that we believe that these kinds of short-term extensions have not been good and it’s time for Congress to focus on a longer-term investment and commitment to our infrastructure.
Q Thanks. Is the 90-minute scheduled videoconference that the President had with Secretary Kerry last night different from the one you read out yesterday afternoon or the same one?
MR. EARNEST: The same one -- that late in the day yesterday -- I guess it was yesterday afternoon, and we let you all know early yesterday evening that that took place.
Q Secretary Kerry said that the President told him in that conversation that he can't wait forever to have a conclusion to these talks one way or another. What did he mean by that? What is his time frame?
MR. EARNEST: I think that was essentially another way of saying that if a deal cannot be reached that is consistent with the parameters that were established in Lausanne that the American negotiating team will walk away. And the President said that very forcefully in public, and I think that's the point. As long as the talks continue to be useful, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz and others will be deeply engaged in trying to reach a final agreement. But if those talks don't appear to be useful anymore and there does not seem to be a constructive engagement on the part of the Iranians to resolving the remaining sticking points in the negotiations, then the President won’t hesitate to bring his team home.
Q So there is a scenario in which the talks could -- I mean, you're basically saying that at some point the talks are no longer going to be useful?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think at some point, it will become clear that they're no longer -- that the talks are no longer constructive. And again, we’ve been very clear about what our expectations are for a final agreement, and the question is can the Iranians make those commitments. And as long as they are working constructively in the context of those conversations to talk about how they can make those commitments, then we’ll keep having those conversations. But if at some point, it becomes clear that they’re no longer willing to seriously commit to constructive conversations, then the American negotiating team will come home.
Q And that means that you completely walk away from talks, or that you try to get some sort of arrangement where you could keep the interim agreement in effect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to speculate about the outcome. But there’s no doubt that the interim agreement that's been in place for about a year and a half now is an agreement that has been good for the country and good for national security. The fact is that agreement has succeeded in freezing in place Iran’s nuclear program. They have not been able to use diplomatic talks as cover to advance their nuclear program -- something that they have done in the past. And there are even some key aspects of that agreement that have rolled back important parts of Iran’s nuclear program.
So that agreement has been good. But I wouldn’t -- and I would acknowledge -- I think it also merits pointing out that many Republicans who were initially critical of that interim agreement are now suggesting, and now even recommending, precisely the prospect that you have raised, which is that the interim agreement could just remain in place.
So at this point, however, I think it’s too early to speculate about what the outcome actually looks like.
Q Thanks, Josh. So this was mentioned earlier, but Secretary Kerry said, “We will not rush and we will not be rushed.” Is that an indication that this really is open-ended? I mean, are you talking days, even weeks, or months, that as long as he feels progress is being made, the President is willing to let these talks continue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that it’s -- what we're looking for are signs that the Iranians continue to constructively engage in trying to resolve the remaining sticking points. And if it becomes clear that they're not willing to engage in those kinds of conversations, then the President will bring the negotiating team home. How long that will last is something I wouldn’t speculate on.
Q So if it’s weeks, that's not necessarily out of the realm of possibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the fact that they are closer than they’ve ever been before and the fact that we are really -- that we’ve been very clear about what our expectations are for a final agreement makes it unlikely that the talks would drag on for many more weeks. But, again, I wouldn’t speculate on the outcome.
Q And it goes to 60 days for the review in front of Congress and gives opponents more time to essentially try to get the votes to scuttle an agreement. Does that in any way -- if it goes to 60 days -- change the parameters of what kind of deal would be accepted, or what kind of deal John Kerry would bring back to the President to say not only do I think this is a good deal but it’s one we can get through Congress?
MR. EARNEST: No, it wouldn’t. And again, the 60-day thing is not something that we're particularly concerned about. The only reason they went from 30 to 60 days is to accommodate the 30-day vacation that members of Congress have planned for themselves. So we're not too concerned about the 30-to-60-day window here, right? But the point is it would not have a substantive impact on a final agreement that could be reached. If the final agreement is settled consistent with the parameters that we’ve agreed to in Lausanne, then there will be a final agreement.
Q You mentioned that you had not talked to the President in the last 24 hours about the Confederate flag. But there was an impassioned speech given by a Republican state representative who happened to be a descendent of Jefferson Davis that probably changed the outcome of that decision in the South Carolina legislature. I’m wondering if you know if the President saw that or had any reaction to it.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if he saw that or not.
Q Josh, thanks. Yesterday you took a run at this, and I want to kind of come back to it, and that's sanctuary cities and what that policy really means from the White House perspective. Do you support sanctuary cities? And you talked a little bit about Secure Communities and Priority Enforcement. But for the folks that don't sort of get down into the weeds, broadly speaking, sanctuary cities -- does the President support that idea? Is that something the White House believes in? And if not, why not?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the sanctuary cities movement was a movement that was essentially a response to significant concerns that have been raised by local law enforcement officials about the Secure Communities program. And back in November when the President announced the whole suite of executive actions that would reform our broken immigration system, the President essentially set aside the Secure Communities program and implemented the Priority Enforcement program.
This is a different mechanism for state -- I’m sorry -- for local and federal law enforcement officials to coordinate their efforts in terms of enforcing our nation’s immigration laws. And the Priority Enforcement program is one that is currently in the process of being implemented, and we have sought to implement that program with the goal of significantly improving the ability of local and federal law enforcement to work together on this.
So we would expect as this program gets implemented that you would see better and more effective cooperation between law enforcement entities when it comes to enforcing our immigration laws.
Q So from the White House perspective, as they are currently run, sanctuary city programs leave a lot to be desired -- is that fair to say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what this is evidence of is it’s evidence of the fact that the executive actions that the President took were consistent with his goal of introducing greater accountability to our broken immigration system. Right now when you talk about sanctuary cities and raising concerns about them, what’s Congress doing about it right now? Congressional Republicans aren’t doing anything. But they would have been able to take an important step in voting on comprehensive immigration reform legislation that had passed the Senate in bipartisan fashion but was blocked in the House -- this would have made a historic investment in border security and would have beefed up the capability of our law enforcement agencies to deal with those who have entered the country illegally and pose a threat to our communities and even pose a threat to our national security.
But because Republicans in Congress didn't act and, in fact, actively blocked that legislation, we now are trying to use the President’s executive authority to bring some much needed accountability to our broken immigration system. And that's exactly what the Priority Enforcement program would do.
Q You make the point that Congress hasn’t acted, but the President hasn’t come out personally and said, I don't think this is a good idea, I think it’s unlawful to sort of give a pass to people who are here illegally and not hold them over and make sure that they're transported to federal authorities either. He hasn’t come out and said that.
MR. EARNEST: I disagree with that, Kevin. The President has been very forceful in suggesting that our limited law enforcement resources should be focused on deporting individuals who do pose a threat to communities or to our national security. And the President has taken -- not just talked about it, he’s actually taken tangible steps to try to bring about that end. And that's because he does believe that public safety should be a priority when it comes to enforcing our immigration laws. And in fact, he’s put in place policies, using his executive authority, over the objection of Republicans to accomplish that goal.
Q Let me ask you specifically about an online petition right now that's being sent over to congressional lawmakers -- more than 150,000 signatures proposing something that they would call “Kate’s Law,” to honor the slain young woman in San Francisco who was murdered by an illegal immigrant who had been deported some five times and committed several crimes while here. Some of the idea behind that petition would be to make mandatory five-year sentences in federal custody for any illegal immigrant who leaves -- or is deported, I should say, and then comes back and is caught or, in many cases, committing a crime.
If that makes its way through Congress, would the President sign something like that, a notion that would put people who are here illegally, deported, then come back -- send them to prison?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't mean to talk over you there, Kevin. I haven’t seen any sort of evaluation of this specific proposal by the administration, but I’m confident our folks will take a look at it. And if it’s able to make its way through Congress we’ll have a conversation with members of Congress about that.
Q On another petition question. Is the President aware of that petition that seeks to strip Bill Cosby of his Presidential Medal of Freedom? And if so, would he feel that it’s a worthwhile thing to at least look into?
MR. EARNEST: I got asked about this yesterday. I'm not aware of the specific petition. I know that there had been a news release that had been generated on it. And at this point, I don’t have any specific reaction to it other than to remind you, as I did yesterday, of the priority that this administration has placed on trying to counter sexual assault wherever it occurs, including in our military and on college campuses.
Q Did you find out if it was legal or not?
Q Do you know if the President’s aware of it?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead. I’ll come back to you.
Q You don’t know if the President’s aware of that effort?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if he’s aware of that specific effort.
Q Can you say anything about the atmosphere that’s at the Iran talks now? There was a report on Monday that Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart were yelling at each other. Is that a sign of the tension at this stage of the final stretch?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve obviously been here, I haven’t been in those rooms. I have spoken frequently with some of my colleagues who have been working diligently in Vienna to try to reach an agreement. And, look, they’re working really long hours over there, and they’re talking about really serious issues, and they’re talking about issues that are extraordinarily complicated and complex and have significant consequences for not just the relationship between the United States and Iran, but have significant consequences for the world. And in many cases, we’re talking about negotiators who have spent hundreds of hours, if not thousands of hours, across the negotiating table from one another, often on very little sleep. So I'm not particularly surprised to read those reports of patience wearing a little thin.
But if it is wearing thin, I'm confident it’s for the right reasons. It’s because everybody who’s sitting around that table understands that the stakes are high. They understand that these talks are serious and have significant consequences. And I don’t anticipate that any sort of personal frustrations will inhibit the ability of our negotiators to reach an agreement if it’s possible for them to do so.
All right, Jim.
Q I was just going to follow up -- we’re you able to find out whether it was legal for the President to revoke a Medal of Freedom?
MR. EARNEST: The only thing that I’ve been able to find out is that -- and I say this with not complete certainty -- but based on what we’ve looked at, the Presidential Medal of Freedom has not been revoked before. But I don’t know at this point whether or not it’s possible.
Q Following up on that, though, then -- according to those who are asking for the medal to be rescinded, they’re saying the President could issue an order that the 2002 Medal of Freedom bestowed on Bill Cosby is hereby rescinded. They’re also saying that the President could make a request to Bill Cosby that he rescind it. I mean, what do you say to that? That’s from the statement --
MR. EARNEST: The only thing I know is just that it’s never been done before. But I don’t have any --
Q Could you take that question?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not going to promise an answer to that. I don’t know that I’ll have one. But if I do, I’ll let you know.
Rebecca, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. Going back to the Confederate flag issue -- will the President direct the Park Service to ban the flag from national parks, including cemeteries, along the lines of the Democratic amendment passed in the House on Tuesday?
MR. EARNEST: Rebecca, let me get you the list of the steps that the National Park Service has already announced as they relate to the display of the Confederate flag on national park land. And I know that there are a number of steps that they’ve already taken. And obviously the administration is very supportive of the amendments that were passed unanimously in the House on Tuesday night that would place further limits on the display of the Confederate battle flag on National Park Service land. But we’ll follow up with you in terms of the details of the steps that have already been taken.
Q Has the President spoken to the National Park Service or any other federal agencies on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that the President has directly spoken with anybody at the National Park Service about this. I wouldn’t be surprised of some National Park Service officials did have a conversation with White House officials on this policy, but I don’t know that the President was involved in those conversations.
All right. Thanks, everybody. Have a good day.
1:55 P.M. EDT