Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/4/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:58 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. We’ll do a couple of announcements at the top and then we’ll go to your questions.
The first is, the President was updated this morning by his top Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, regarding the wildfires plaguing the American West. Yesterday, the national preparedness level was raised to four, which means that three or more geographic areas are experiencing incidents required elevated management, including more resources and fire crews.
Currently, there are up to 27 large uncontained active fires. Nearly 37,000 total fires have been reported; 14,000 interagency personnel, including both state and federal jurisdictions, are assigned to the incidents, and this includes 108 helicopters and 22 air tankers that are available to fight the fires.
The President asked his team to stay in close touch with the governors and local officials as their efforts continue. And the White House will continue to closely monitor the situation from here.
Finally, on behalf of the White House and the American people, I want to extend our gratitude along with our thoughts and prayers to the brave men and women who are battling these fires. These are selfless individuals, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for putting their lives on the line to fight these fires and protect their fellow Americans.
Secondly, I just want to give you an update on the President’s schedule for later this week. On Thursday, the President will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act by underscoring the importance of restoring the landmark law, and reaffirming the principle at the heart of our democracy that all of us are created equal, and that each of us deserves a voice in our government.
The President will participate in a video teleconference with citizens nationwide, and he will be joined by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and United States Congressman John Lewis, along with advocates and state and local officials who have worked to strengthen and protect Americans’ rights to vote.
As the President said in Selma, the Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, and it’s our responsibility to honor the sacrifices of so many who risked so much by protecting the law as promised. That’s why the President will take time out of his schedule to discuss this important issue on Thursday. The event will be livestreamed on the White House website, and we’ll have more information about the event later this week.
So with that, Darlene, let’s go to your questions.
Q Thank you. Couple on Iran. The meeting this afternoon the President is having with the American Jewish leaders, I was wondering if the timing of that was arranged so that his meeting would purposely follow the Israeli Prime Minister’s webcast to some of the same -- possibly some of the same American Jewish leaders who are opposed to the Iran deal.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I can tell you that this event -- or this meeting has been in the works for at least several days, if not more. And the group of individuals that the President will meet with will include some who have publicly expressed some skepticism about the wisdom of this diplomatic agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It will include others who have articulated their public support for the agreement, and also a group of individuals who have not yet expressed a public opinion on the deal.
And this is an opportunity for the President to once again lay out his case to all of them about why he believes this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He will make clear that this is an agreement that is not built on trust, but rather is built on the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
And there will be an opportunity for those who participate in the meeting to ask questions directly to the President; that they’ll have an opportunity to make clear the concerns that they have and to ask questions about the details of the agreement. And the President will be there to answer their questions.
We will, at the conclusion of the meeting, provide you with a list of those who participated so that you’ll be able to examine for yourselves the diverse composition of opinions that’s included in the meeting.
Q Are you done?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I am. (Laughter.) Did I go on too long? (Laughter.) I probably did, but I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to answer your question.
Q But to the question of whether the meeting is sort of a response to Bibi -- I mean, how do you answer that?
MR. EARNEST: I would merely say that Prime Minister Netanyahu has had ample opportunity to make public his views of this particular situation. You’ll recall that, I guess it was about five months ago now, he spoke to a joint session of the United States Congress that was carried live on television here in the United States. Today, his team has organized a webcast to make his views known.
So it’s clear that he’s availed himself of a variety of opportunities to make clear what his views are, and the President obviously has his own views as well. The Prime Minister has ample opportunity to make clear what his views are, and he’s taken advantage of that opportunity. But the President, as you’ve heard him say, will make clear that he believes that this effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the best interest of the United States -- and it is -- the President believes that it’s in the national security interest of our closest ally in the region, Israel, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy. And that’s a view the President has made clear in public to all of you and it’s a view that he will reiterate in the context of this meeting with leaders in the American Jewish community later this afternoon.
Q You mentioned that on Thursday he is going to take some questions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Will the President put himself in a position where he can take people’s questions on the Iran deal? Maybe the White House would consider doing a town hall where he could be seen answering regular people’s questions about the agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s certainly an intriguing idea. I’m not aware of anything like that that’s on the schedule, but obviously there are another 45 or 50 days that Congress has to consider this agreement, which means there are another 45 or 50 days for the President to make public his case about why he believes this sort of agreement is in the best interest of the United States and the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Obviously, the President has taken questions in a variety of settings on this topic. Just a day after announcing this agreement, he took questions from all of you over in the East Room -- or at least from many of you over in the East Room.
Q But we’re not real people.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Well, but I do think that those -- well, maybe the jury is still out on that question. But there’s no doubt that the people in this room have been following this issue as closely as anyone, and all of you have access to information to evaluate this agreement. And so that’s why the President made a point very early on in this process of spending more than an hour with all of you answering questions to discuss this.
So I certainly wouldn’t rule out future public engagements in which the President takes questions on this. You all have reported on the wide variety of private meetings that the President has had with individual members of Congress. Many of those meetings, if not all of them, have been characterized by a lot of Q&A and give-and-take, both in settings involving a large number of members of Congress but also even in some one-on-one settings, too. So the President certainly hasn’t been shy about his willingness to do some Q&A on this, and I wouldn’t rule out that he might do some Q&A with members of the general public on this in the future.
Q Josh, is the White House or the administration considering returning a Chinese businessman, Ling Wancheng, to China on their request?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I’m limited in what I can say about this particular matter. Let me just -- there are a couple of things I can say, however. The first is that the United States and China regularly engage on law enforcement matters of mutual concern, including when it comes to fugitives and fighting corruption. Through the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation, what U.S. law enforcement officials routinely emphasize to Chinese officials is that it’s incumbent upon them to provide U.S. officials with significant, clear and convincing evidence to allow our law enforcement agencies to proceed with investigations and even removals and prosecutions of fugitives.
As we stated many times in the past, the United States is not a safe haven for fugitives from any country. And the facts that support any insinuation that we are hindering any other nation’s campaign against corruption just don’t stand up to the reality of our efforts. The United States is an international leader in anti-corruption, and we will continue to work with partners across the globe to advance the fight against corruption.
When it comes to the details of any particular case, including the case of Ling Wancheng that has attracted some media attention in the last 24 hours, I'm not able to comment on any specific details.
Q Are you able to say whether you consider him a fugitive?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not able to render any judgment on this particular individual’s case.
Q Okay. And going -- sort of looking forward to September, the President of China is coming to the United States. How does this particular issue, as well as some of the other major irritations in their relationship like the hacking, like China’s aggression, as some would say, in the South China Sea, how will that affect that visit? And how are you preparing for it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, you’ve listed a couple of the irritants in the relationship between the United States and China. The one that’s most regularly cited was the law enforcement action. In fact, that was carried out by the Department of Justice a year or two ago to indict five Chinese military officials for their actions in cyberspace. That was an irritant because the United States obviously has deep concerns about the activities of those individuals. And the Chinese government expressed some frustration, and even concern, about the public law enforcement action that was taken against five military officials.
So we’ve acknowledged that these kinds of differences exist in our relationship. They carry over into other areas as well. We’ve raised concerns in the past about our concern about China insufficiently protecting intellectual property, to say nothing of the concerns about some of their destabilizing activities in the South China Sea.
At the same time, however, the United States has been able to work effectively with China to advance the mutual interests of our countries. There are a couple of good examples of that on high-profile issues. The first is, when the President traveled to China last fall, President Obama stood next to President Xi and announced that both countries were taking historic steps to curb carbon pollution. I’ll remind you that China was an active participant in the P5+1 negotiations, alongside the United States and our international partners, to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So those are not -- neither of those is an insignificant issue. And both of those are examples where the United States and China have been able to effectively work together in ways that we could make progress for the citizens of our countries that may not have been possible had we been working alone.
And that’s an indication that U.S. engagement with China is useful in protecting and even advancing the interest of the United States. It doesn’t mean we’re going to always agree, but it does mean it’s worth preserving a constructive working relationship. And it’s rooted in the President’s desire to have that kind of constructive, effective, productive relationship with China that he has decided to invite President Xi for a visit later this fall.
But there’s no doubt that even for all those areas where we can cooperate, at least some portion of that meeting will be dedicated to some of the differences that exist between our two countries as well.
Q Are you any closer to being able to say publicly or formally who was behind the OPM hack?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any additional information on that. There has been obviously extensive public speculation about the attribution of some of those concerning actions in cyberspace. But I don’t have any new information to share publicly today.
Q Josh, I want to go over to the voting rights issue. And I want to ask one thing about irony. Is there irony -- does this administration find there’s irony in the fact that the anniversary is Thursday, 50 years ago, of the Voting Rights Act was passed into law, and then you have the first GOP presidential debate where many of them are not feeling the Voting Rights Act as it stood?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess one person’s irony might be another person’s serendipity. And maybe there will be an opportunity for Republican candidates to discuss the importance of protecting the right of every eligible American to cast a vote, particularly in an election as consequential as the upcoming presidential election.
Q When the President comes out and talking about restoration, 50 years ago there was a focus on Southern states with the problems in poll taxes and trying to come up with a test to make sure that African Americans were able to vote. Now there are different challenges in various states across the nation. Where does the President stand as it relates to restoring the Voting Rights Act? What parts does he want to keep and which parts does he want to, I guess, bolster? Or what does he want to take out? What does he want to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll have an opportunity to hear more from the President directly on this later this week. I’ll just say as a general matter, the President has been concerned, and even dismayed, by the significant amount of energy and effort that’s been expended almost exclusively by Republicans to make it more difficult for eligible citizens to cast a ballot.
And the spirit of the country -- in fact, the values of the country -- would reinforce a view that every eligible American should have an opportunity to participate in their government and in their democracy. And that is what motivates the President’s view of this policy, and that’s why the President is marking the 50th anniversary of this historic piece of legislation.
Q And on another subject, Sandra Bland’s family is filing a lawsuit after the government there said there was no reason for her to have been arrested. And reports are saying she committed suicide. What does the White House feel about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any comments on that specific civil litigation that’s been filed. I can confirm for you that the Department of Justice continues to monitor the situation in Texas, and I know that local prosecutors continue to examine the circumstances of this case. But I don’t have any additional information about federal action that’s been taken at this point.
Q Can I follow up quickly on voting rights and then I have a couple other things? But there was a push a couple weeks ago from congressional Democrats to tie -- essentially dropping their concern or their objection to displaying Confederate flags in military cemeteries to getting a vote on voting rights. And I'm wondering if that’s a strategy that the White House has endorsed or been in contact with.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific discussions between the White House and leaders in the House Democratic caucus who I think championed that effort. But obviously the administration is very interested in trying to make some progress on the Voting Rights Act, and we certainly have been in touch with members of Congress in both parties about that. And you heard the President speak pretty forcefully about his support for renewing the Voting Rights Act in the speech that he delivered in Selma, Alabama earlier this year.
Q On Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico went into default for the first time yesterday. And I'm wondering if you could just talk a bit about what the administration is doing at this point to help address that and if there’s concerns that it could impact the broader U.S. economy.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, at this point I'm not going to be in a position to comment on any specific decisions that Puerto Rico’s leaders have made regarding their debt obligations. But I will reiterate that we believe Puerto Rico needs an orderly process to restructure its unsustainable liabilities. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s significant financial challenges didn’t begin overnight. And this latest development is set against the backdrop of ongoing broader economic challenges across the island.
And the President did establish a task force on Puerto Rico, essentially an interagency task force in Puerto Rico to try to leverage available federal assistance to assist Puerto Rico’s leaders as they confront these significant financial challenges. And the work of that task force and our ongoing commitment to coordinating our efforts with leaders in Puerto Rico continues.
But as I’ve said before, there’s no -- the administration does not envision a bailout for Puerto Rico. But where available federal assistance can be leveraged to assist the leaders of Puerto Rico in meeting some of their financial obligations, we stand ready to help.
Q And last thing on Iran. Chairman Royce sent Secretary Kerry a letter yesterday and made public today, saying that it was imperative for Congress to be able to review this agreement between Iran and the IAEA that we’ve been discussing for more than a week now.
I know everything that you’ve got to say about it not being a side deal and that you’re briefing Congress to the extent that you can. But I'm wondering about two specific questions. The first is something that you were asked last week but said that you hadn’t had a chance to review, which is whether the White House was confident that it had satisfied all the legal requirements of the Iran review legislation in terms of turning over information about these deals to Congress.
And the second is whether the President would veto legislation demanding that the actual text of these agreements be turned over to Congress. This is something that some Senate Republicans floated.
MR. EARNEST: I can say that all of the available information that the administration has about this diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been turned over to Congress. And I believe that was done on July 19th or 20th -- whatever that Sunday was. I believe it was the 20th. And so that has been completed. And that was -- the presentation of those documents is what initiated a 60-day clock that Congress has imposed for the consideration of this agreement.
And what we have indicated is a willingness -- above and beyond the documents that were required to be submitted -- is to spend time briefing Congress, in person, with our experts who actually were responsible for negotiating the agreement in the first place.
And that has included detailed, classified briefings about the contents of -- or about the nature and contents of the agreement that was reached between Iran and the IAEA as it relates to the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. And that classified briefing has already occurred for a large number of House members and I know that there’s a classified briefing for senators that’s scheduled for later this week.
I also know that the Director General of the IAEA is planning a series of meetings on Capitol Hill today as well. And I think this is an indication of the administration’s desire for Congress to understand as much as possible about this important agreement so that they can judge for themselves about the success we believe this agreement will ensure to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Would you veto legislation requiring turning over the physical text, knowing that you’re offering this briefing?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the specific legislative proposal, and the reason I say that in this case is that it’s not immediately obvious to me what sort of congressional action -- what sort of oversight Congress would have over an agreement between Iran and the IAEA. In other words, I’m not sure exactly what impact the passing of legislation would have on the agreement between Iran and the IAEA. You know what I mean? Like, I’m not sure that Iran -- that Congress can compel Iran --
Q Well, I think probably they would void the President’s ability to implement the Iran deal by saying that it’s tied to -- whether or not he turns over the actual text of this agreement between Iran and the IAEA.
MR. EARNEST: I see. Well, obviously, then I guess I’d refer you to the answer that I just said, which is we believe that we’ve produced all of the material that Congress needs in order to consider this specific agreement, and we have followed up the presentation of those documents with extensive, in-person briefings by the individuals who are responsible for negotiating the agreement in the first place. And those briefings have taken place in a classified setting. Those briefings have taken place in one-on-one meetings. Those briefings have also taken place out in the general public, under oath, before congressional committees, both in the House and in the Senate.
So there are a variety of ways in which this information and this briefing -- and these briefings have taken place, all in an effort to help members of Congress understand exactly what’s included in this diplomatic agreement.
Q Josh, on the campaign trail and probably in Thursday night’s debate, we will hear once again Republican candidates say how when they get to be President, they’re going to tear up this agreement. If, in the end, after the 60-day review period, the other machinations, it is implemented, can a Republican President come in here and just tear that agreement up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m sure there’s somebody who could give you a more lawyerly answer than I can, but I think what I can explain to you is that it would be foolish for a future President to do that, primarily because this will be an agreement that had been implemented. And we will have an opportunity over the course of the next year and a half to implement the agreement and to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
Keep in mind, if Iran doesn’t comply with the agreement -- and we’ll be able to tell, because we have the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program -- but if we detect that Iran is not abiding by the significant commitments that they have made in the context of the agreement, then sanctions will snap back into place, and we will preserve the international unanimity of opinion in confronting Iran and their nuclear program.
And that international unity would be completely gutted if another President were to take office after a year and a half and, despite Iran’s compliance with the agreement, were to unilaterally withdraw from that agreement. The other thing that strikes me about that is it’s unclear exactly what that would accomplish -- is the suggestion that they would withdraw the United States from the agreement and somehow impose additional sanctions unilaterally on Iran.
The reason that would be foolish is we’ve talked about the fact that the reason that our sanctions regime was so successful in compelling Iran to come to the negotiating table is that it required not just action by the United States, but by coordinated action all around the globe -- not just among the members of the P5+1, but other significant economies that have close economic ties with Iran, including countries like India and South Korea and Japan.
And it’s not at all obvious that the United States unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement, that we would have any standing or success in persuading other countries around the world to go along with us, particularly if over the last year and a half we’ve been able to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement. Keep in mind, Iran’s compliance with the agreement includes reducing their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting 13,000 centrifuges, and essentially gutting the core of their heavy-water plutonium reactor.
So again, the reason that I would describe such an action as foolish is it’s not at all clear what that would accomplish other than making a military confrontation in the Middle East much more likely.
Q Obviously we’re dealing with hypotheticals, but conversely, is there anything in this agreement that would bind a future President to adhering to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the binding comes in with the inherent -- the significant inherent value of preserving the international coalition to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that coalition would be significantly undermined if the United States were to unilaterally withdraw.
Q But it’s not a treaty?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q Just to follow up on Bob’s question.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q Getting back to Justin’s question about these side agreements, or the one that exists between the IAEA and Iran. I guess the thrust of Chairman Royce’s concern is that this would set a precedent that Iran could say, well, we’ve got this agreement with the IAEA, we don’t have to comply with the other parts of the deal. That seems to be the thrust of his concern. How do you address that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the first way that I would confront that concern is that there already is a precedent. The IAEA has bilateral agreements with I think -- I believe it’s on the order of 180 countries around the world. And those are bilateral agreements between the IAEA and individual countries; in this case, between the IAEA and Iran.
Now, the key here is that the United States and our negotiating team is aware of what’s included in that agreement, and that’s why we’ve been willing to communicate the contents of that agreement to members of Congress. We want to do it in a classified setting because it includes a bunch of sensitive information, including information related to nuclear proliferation that we obviously don’t want to advertise broadly on the Internet.
Q When you say communicate, you’re saying that you’re just talking about what’s in that side agreement? You’re not showing the text.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q Does the administration have the text? Has Secretary Kerry viewed this, Secretary Moniz? Is there a text?
MR. EARNEST: There is a text. The administration does not have a text. The text is a text that is shared between the IAEA and Iran. But I want to go back to this key thing. I would not describe it as a side agreement, and the reason simply is this, Jim. The information that we’re talking about is information that the IAEA needs to write a report about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. And the United States and our negotiating partners has made clear that this deal, this broader agreement will not go forward until Iran has complied with all of the IAEA’s requests for information and access that they need in order to write that report.
So that’s why I would not describe this as some sort of side agreement. This is a critical --
Q What do you call it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s an agreement directly between --
Q Working document or --
MR. EARNEST: It’s an agreement directly between Iran and the IAEA. But what we have made clear is that any sanctions relief will not be provided to Iran by the international community until Iran has complied with the requests for information and access that have been submitted by the IAEA. So this is --
Q So it would be up to the IAEA to determine whether or not Iran is complying with respect to Parchin? Is that right? And then the P5+1 has essentially agreed to -- well, if the IAEA’s interpretation of compliance at Parchin is acceptable, then we’re okay with that.
MR. EARNEST: So the IAEA is an international organization of nuclear experts that is responsible for enforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty around the world. So the IAEA -- when we talk about the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program, those inspections will be conducted by the IAEA.
And essentially, what the United States and the international community is doing is we’re coming in on behalf of the IAEA and telling Iran -- we’re mandating to Iran that they must cooperate with the IAEA at every turn. They must cooperate with them when it comes to preparing their report about the possible military dimensions of their nuclear program. That’s to account for past behavior. But even moving forward, the international community is going to insist -- including the United States -- is going to insist that Iran cooperate with IAEA inspectors who are responsible for verifying Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
They’re also responsible for, I might point out, the permanent, the never-ending commitment that Iran has now made to never develop a nuclear weapon. And that is why there will be permanent inspections in place by IAEA nuclear experts to verify that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon.
And for too long, what’s happened in the past is that Iran has essentially given the IAEA the run-around, and that’s what --
Q How do you know that’s not going to happen again?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because the international community has come forward and said, if you want relief from these terrible sanctions that have had a decimating impact on your economy, then you need to cooperate with the IAEA, both when it comes to access and information that’s required to write about the possible military dimensions of your nuclear program in the past, but you’re also going to need to cooperate with them moving forward to verify that you’re not developing a nuclear weapon.
Q And you’re satisfied that there’s -- none of that wiggle room is built into this sidecar or whatever you want to call it between the IAEA and Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the reason that I resist describing it as a side agreement is because the agreement does not go forward unless Iran performs and follows through on the commitments that they’ve made to the IAEA to provide the information and access that the IAEA needs to write this report.
I’ll also point out that -- sometimes this gets lost -- we’ve set a deadline for that compliance. We have insisted that Iran actually provide that access and that information by October 15th. If they don’t, there’s not going to be any forthcoming sanctions relief. And the reason for that is we want the IAEA to have access and information as soon as possible so that they can also complete their report before the end of the year. That’s what they’re aiming to do.
Q And yesterday, our colleague, JC, asked the question about this comparison between the President’s speech tomorrow at American University and President Kennedy’s speech. Do you like that comparison? What do you make of that comparison?
MR. EARNEST: I think what’s appropriate about that comparison is President Kennedy more than 50 years ago entered into a diplomatic agreement with an adversary of the United States that did succeed in advancing the national security interests of the United States. The United States --
Q A long time, Cold War --
MR. EARNEST: Sure did. But we clearly know who won, and we clearly know that the national security interests --
Q Might this diplomatic process -- might this go on for another couple of decades before Iran and the United States can be in the same place where the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at the end of the 1980s? Is that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s a difficult historical analogy to draw. Let me point out one thing that I mentioned yesterday to JC that I think is also relevant to this. So it’s not just that Senator Kennedy engaged an adversary of the United States to use diplomacy to advance the national security interests of the United States. There’s another thing that Senator -- President Kennedy had to do, which is that he had to make some concessions on the part of the United States that there were commitments that the United States -- there are elements of our nuclear program that were rolled back in the context of that diplomatic agreement with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
In the context of this agreement, you have President Obama, who has entered into a diplomatic agreement with the international community, with one of our adversaries, to advance the national security interests of the United States. But here’s the catch -- the United States didn’t have to make any concessions. There’s no impact from this nuclear agreement on the United States and either our nuclear programs or our military programs.
And that’s -- again, I think that speaks to the strength of this agreement that the President was able to reach alongside the international community in confronting Iran’s nuclear program.
Q I don’t mean to belabor this, but he’s aiming for that comparison then with this speech tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s a comparison that we welcome when it comes to this principle about the --
Q Negotiating that deal.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the effectiveness of principled, smart, tough diplomacy even with our adversaries to advance the national security interests of the United States.
Q And finally -- I’m sorry to take so much time -- but on a separate subject, is the Obama administration doing anything in terms of oversight, investigation? Is a call being made to look into what is being alleged occurred inside these Planned Parenthood facilities? Any activity whatsoever inside the administration? Or is the White House essentially looking at these videos and saying these are selectively edited, doctored, whatever you want to call it, edited in such a way to indict Planned Parenthood unfairly? Or is there some concern inside this administration about these videos?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, you’ve heard me say a couple of times now, including on your network, that these are videos that were released for their shock value. And they clearly are shocking. I think that’s the reason that you saw the President of Planned Parenthood apologize for the statements that are included on that video just a day or two after the videos were released.
Q I understand that. But these are health care facilities, and the administration has a responsibility to monitor and provide oversight for health care facilities. So I'm just curious, is any of that going to go on?
MR. EARNEST: For any questions about oversight of health care facilities, I’d refer you to HHS.
Q Can I switch to immigration for a moment? ICE has been an issue for some time among advocates of reform for immigration. And now, apparently, there seems to be some pushback from municipal governments on whether or not they want to cooperate with ICE in the President’s program, or DHS program, to bring back those who were criminally -- who have committed crimes. Does ICE have a credibility problem? Because sometimes they have not -- frequently they have not followed what the administration wants to be done. Frequently they have deported people who were not criminals, and is not administration policy, is my understanding. Does ICE have a credibility problem not only with the cities but with this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think that there are a variety of ways in which our broken immigration system has had a negative impact on the ability of law enforcement officials, both at the federal and local levels, to do their job.
And the lack of clarity about the immigration policy in this country is why the President believes that reform is badly needed. And in fact, the President is strongly supportive of reform that brings greater accountability to our broken immigration system. And so this -- our broken immigration system has resulted in a lot of frustration being expressed by local law enforcement officers about the best way to protect the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.
There’s also been some frustration expressed by ICE officers -- these are essentially federal law enforcement officers -- about how to use their limited resources to try to both enforce the law but also to protect communities all across the country.
That’s why the President was a strong advocate of comprehensive immigration reform. The President built a strong bipartisan majority, Jim, as you know and covered closely. And that’s why we were particularly disappointed that Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked the passage of that compromise proposal because that compromise, comprehensive, immigration reform proposal made a historic investment in border security, and it would have greatly enhanced the available law enforcement resources to enforce the law and protect our communities.
And that’s why it’s such a shame, even a tragedy, that Republicans in Congress blocked comprehensive immigration reform.
Q But we are who we are. I mean --
MR. EARNEST: Because of the efforts of House Republicans to block comprehensive immigration reform -- but yes.
Q Point taken. We are who we are, and the administration has to deal with what’s going on now.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q And what’s going on now, it appears, is ICE doesn’t consistently follow what their bosses are telling them to do. Is there a problem there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what the President has said -- and these are part of the executive actions that he rolled out at the end of last year, and essentially that was to pursue a policy at DHS that would focus law enforcement resources on those individuals that pose the most significant threat to public safety and to national security.
So these are individuals with a record of committing violent crime, individuals with known gang affiliations, and even individuals who have repeatedly violated immigration law by crossing the border time and time again. Those individuals were made a priority, and those are the individuals that the administration believes should be the focus of law enforcement efforts and the focus of deportation efforts.
Q But is that getting down to the field? Because there have been deportations of families, of people who are not criminals, and at the same time, criminals like the one apparently in San Francisco, the alleged criminal there, have not been deported. So is there not the emphasis that you want, the administration wants, being carried through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to individual cases. But the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security have been very clear about what they believe is the most effective way for us to bring accountability to our broken immigration system, and that is to set the enforcement priorities in the way that I’ve just described.
But ultimately, it is the responsibility of our law enforcement officers who are dealing with, in a very challenging environment, with limited resources to try to enforce a fundamentally broken system. And that’s why it's such a shame, even a tragedy, that Congress -- that Republicans in Congress blocked a solution to this problem. And it’s why the President has tried to impose a solution that would bring much needed accountability to our broken immigration system. But it’s also why even after taking that action, we continue to urge Congress to take the kind of legislative action that’s needed to finally address this.
Q And just one more subject, if I could -- and that is the USA Today report today that mass public shootings have increased in frequency from one a year to about four and a half a year, and that some 33 people were dying in the past every year -- that are dying now every year because of mass shootings. Has the President -- does the President have a plan to reintroduce new gun control while he’s still President? Or has he given up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think it was in the interview that the President conducted with the BBC shortly before departing for his trip to Africa that he expressed that this was the inability of Congress to take even common-sense steps that would make our communities more safe by keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
That has been the source of his biggest frustration as President. And there are dozens of executive actions that this administration has taken to try to plug holes and fill some gaps. And these are common-sense steps that we can take without in any way infringing upon the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans that’s protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
And the fact is, there are additional steps that Congress could take that would protect those constitutional rights while at the same time protecting our communities, including those communities that are increasingly home to the victims of gun violence.
And again, it’s not just mass shootings that attract so much attention. It’s even those shootings that have become all too common in significant -- in larger urban areas all across the country.
Q But we should not expect any significant legislative initiative by the White House before President Obama leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has made clear that he doesn’t expect a change of heart in Congress on this issue until the American public makes clear to members of Congress that their decisions, when it comes to provisions that would reduce gun violence in this country, are voting decisions that are going to be accounted for at the ballot box on Election Day.
And we’ve not yet seen that kind of significant outpouring of support from the American public, at least in a sufficient quantity, to change the minds of individual members of Congress. But that ultimately is the key here. There’s no legislative strategy, there’s no trick to the legislative process that’s going to change the outcome. The only thing that will change the outcome is a strong, clear, outpouring of public support from the American people.
Q So if he’s leaving it to the next election, that means he’s leaving it to the next President, he’s not going to do it himself?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t -- this is an issue that the President is going to continue to advocate for. But, ultimately, the way that we’re going to see the decisions that are made by members of Congress change is when we see members of the American public change their minds.
Q Thanks, Josh. So just to follow up on that, so the President thinks at this point, given the curt political climate, he’s done everything he can do in terms of proactively advancing gun control?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at least when it comes to the legislative process -- and I think the President has been pretty clear about this for a couple of years now -- that the way that we’re going to get to see -- the only way we’re going to be able to change the minds of members of Congress is if members of the American public make clear that these kinds of decisions are going to be taken into account when they’re casting their ballot on election day. And we’ve not seen enough outpouring of support from the American public to change many minds on Capitol Hill yet.
But certainly the President is going to continue to be an advocate on this issue because he is very concerned about the impact that gun violence is having on communities all across the country. And I mean, those communities that surely have been the site of terrible tragic mass shootings but also those communities that are the subject of what are now tragically routine incidents of gun violence -- the President is very concerned about this. The President continues to be an advocate for policies that would reduce gun violence.
But, again, if we’re going to have success in the legislative process, it’s going to be because members of Congress change their minds on this issue. And the only people who have the authority to change -- or the power to change the minds of members of Congress are their constituents.
Q Yesterday, when Senator Schumer was holding his press conference with his cousin, Amy, he -- in addition to calling for new legislation -- called on the Justice Department to make recommendations on how states deal with mental health issues. Is that something that the President has had discussions with him about? Is it something the President would get behind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know there -- I haven’t looked at the specific proposal that he’s advocating -- I’d be happy to take that question -- but I do know that a number of the executive actions that this administration announced almost two years ago included steps that would make sure that mental health information is more effectively shared between medical professionals and law enforcement to, again, try to do some common-sense things that would keep guns out of the hands of those individuals who shouldn’t have them.
Q Chuck Schumer also said yesterday he’s not made a decision on whether to support the Iran nuclear deal. Obviously he’s a key player in all of this, somebody who is widely respected. And I wonder how much conversation there’s been -- if you can share anything between either the President and Chuck Schumer, or other members of the administration and Chuck Schumer and how closely you keep in touch with him on this issue.
MR. EARNEST: Very close. I can tell you that there have been extensive conversations between senior administration officials and Senator Schumer that actually predate the completion of the comprehensive agreement that was announced a couple of weeks ago.
This is an issue that --
Q But more recently?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is an issue that Senator Schumer takes very seriously. And to his credit, he is closely studying this agreement and he obviously takes his responsibilities in this matter very seriously. And he has actually actively sought the input and briefings and information from senior administration officials as it relates to this agreement. And the administration has readily engaged in those conversations.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two questions. So far, the Senate has only confirmed five judicial nominees this year. And they’re getting ready to leave for a month, so no more for another month at least. Is the President frustrated by the pace of his judicial confirmations? And what is the White House doing, if anything, to try to get these moving?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jen, the administration certainly is interested in seeing Congress act to faithfully fulfill their responsibility to advise and consent on a wide variety of administration nominees -- not just judicial nominees, but even some executive branch nominees as well.
And over the last seven months or so, since Republicans did assume the majority in the Senate, we’ve seen that process almost completely break down. And even when it came to confirming someone like Attorney General Lynch -- somebody with strong bipartisan support, with impeccable credentials -- it took -- remember, it took almost as long as the four or five previous attorneys general nominees combined to finally get her confirmation completed.
So we have on a number of occasions expressed our frustration about the inability of the United States Senate to perform one of their most basic functions, which is to offer their advice and consent on nomination -- on administration nominees.
Q Has the White House been working with the Senate Republican leadership at all on this?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there have been some conversations, if you will, on this matter, but I don’t have details of those conversations to share.
Q Okay. And then the second question -- we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the United States bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and there’s still no new AUMF. Does the President feel like there’s a point at which the 2001 AUMF can’t be used anymore as this military campaign escalates?
MR. EARNEST: I would say, Jen, that in the proposed legislation that the administration put forward several months ago, it included language that would repeal the 2002 AUMF and aim to refine the 2001 AUMF. The President has previously given speeches articulating the variety of concerns that he has with the overly broad nature in which the 2001 AUMF was written and passed. There are a lot of logical explanations for why that’s the case, but there’s not a good explanation for why Congress hasn’t taken steps now to fix it.
And the President has made very clear about what steps he believes is necessary to fix it; in fact, we’ve even submitted our own proposed legislative language to try to address some of those concerns. But the truth is, we’ve run into a United States Congress that seems very interested in discussing this issue but not actually doing anything on it. And that has also been a source of some frustration for the administration.
Q But does the President believe there’s a point at which this -- the current -- the 2001 AUMF can’t be used anymore? Is there some scenario, such as DOD-backed rebels in Syria being attacked -- would the 2001 AUMF authorize airstrikes against people attacking DOD rebels in Syria, for example?
MR. EARNEST: We did talk about this a little bit yesterday, and it is true that there are Syrian opposition fighters operating inside Syria that have gone through the train-and-equip operation that is run by DOD and our coalition partners. And there has already been one occasion where those opposition fighters came under fire from other extremists that are operating inside Syria, and the United States and our coalition partners took military action to protect those coalition-trained anti-ISIL fighters inside Syria. And the President and his lawyers have determined that the 2001 AUMF does apply in that particular case.
But I think you raise an argument that this administration has made, which is that there’s a lot of clarity that could be derived from Congress following through, from Congress living up to the rhetoric that we saw from members of Congress on both sides to try to put in place an anti-ISIL AUMF. And the administration engaged in lengthy and significant and extensive discussions up to, and including, the President of the United States to try to broker compromise language on this. We even put forward on paper our written proposal for how Congress could take this action, but yet we’ve seen little, other than one or two hearings on Capitol Hill. And that’s a disappointment and it represents a fundamental failure of the United States Congress to perform one of the more important functions that they have.
Q Thanks, Josh. What is the President’s key message to Jewish leaders today? And how, if at all, does that message differ from his broader message to the American people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is going to deliver very clearly his view that this diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it’s also in the best national security interest of both the United States and Israel. And that’s a pretty blunt, direct case that the President will make. He will reiterate his view that that agreement is not based on trust but rather based on our ability to impose the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been conducted against a country’s nuclear program.
That’s a case that I think sounds familiar to you. You’ve heard the President make that case directly at least a couple of times, even in person. And I can’t predict at this point what sort of questions the President is likely to get from the assembled group, but certainly when it comes to the President’s opening presentation, it will be along the lines of what I just described and along the lines of the kind of case that’s very familiar to those of you who have been following closely.
Q Let me ask you about the IAEA and the inspections that might happen, and even some of these contested sites. Are Americans allowed to be a part of the IAEA inspection group in any case, or is that prohibited by this particular deal?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, U.S. officials will not be part of the inspections team because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. But there certainly are Americans at the IAEA, and that organization more broadly will be responsible for conducting these inspections, and it will be Iran’s responsibility to meet the expectations that the IAEA has, or the agreement is going to fall apart and we’ll see sanctions either snap back into place or sanctions relief not even start -- because as I mentioned earlier, Iran has to comply with the IAEA’s request for access and information so that they can complete their report about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before any sanctions relief is even offered in the first place. So Iran’s compliance with the IAEA’s request for access and information are necessary before any sort of sanctions relief is offered.
Q And lastly, far be it for me to lean on a brilliant Brit in John Oliver, you’re mentioning voting rights. What about the voting rights of the nearly 700,000 Americans that live here in the District? Is there anything you all do, are you willing to do, are you trying to do so that people in Washington, D.C. can vote?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the President has strongly articulated his support for a home rule in Washington. And there does appear to be a desire of District residents to exercise more control over the management of their district and the management of their communities. And too often we’ve seen Congress interfere in those efforts, and that’s something the President strongly opposes.
Q Statehood -- yes or no? Will he back that as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, that would be a decision that we would support the residents of the District making for themselves.
Q The TPP talks, trade talks, ended a few days ago without any real progress. I’m wondering if the President’s legacy on trade that he worked so hard to get through Congress, the TPA, is in peril right now.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Susan, what we’ve made clear is that the President is not going to accept an agreement that isn’t clearly in the best interest of middle-class families here in the United States, or he also will not accept an agreement that’s not clearly in the best interest of the national security of the United States.
So the President has set a pretty high bar for what’s acceptable to him when it comes to a final TPP agreement that he’s willing to sign on to. And that means that our negotiators, when sitting around the table with the 11 or 12 other countries that are part of these discussions, are driving a pretty hard bargain. And so it’s not particularly surprising to me that efforts to reach a final agreement are taking a little bit more time than originally expected. But that’s simply because our negotiators have been given instructions by the President about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
So ultimately, the President is much less worried about his legacy and much more worried about the impact of what a good trade agreement would have on the country. And the President, frankly, is not one to sign on to a bad one.
Q There’s been a Reuters report recently -- I guess yesterday afternoon -- that said -- talked to numerous people at the State Department and found that there was some, according to the report, playing politics with this human trafficking report that came out July 27th. And there’s going to be a hearing on Thursday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Menendez and others are very concerned about the accusation of playing politics with a modern slavery report and prostitution report. Can you address those concerns and put to rest any suggestion that there was politics at play here? Because with Malaysia and Cuba, you know those are the two issues there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would refer you to the State Department. This is a process that was run by the State Department, and they can speak to the process that they used to publish this report.
I know what their goal was, and their goal was to offer up a detailed assessment of whether foreign governments -- or whether foreign government efforts comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons that the United States has established. So the department -- the State Department, in this case -- strives to make the report as accurate as possible, documenting the successes and shortcomings of other governments’ anti-trafficking efforts.
So that was the ultimate goal of the report, and that is what the findings reveal, is the conclusion that was drawn by -- or that was yielded through this policymaking process at the State Department. But this is a process that lived at the State Department, so I’d refer you to them for any questions about -- that some may have about political interference.
Q Can you say definitively that the White House did not have any role to play in that report in influencing whether Malaysia, Cuba or China got a better grade?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that this is a process that lived at the State Department, and the White House was very respectful of the ongoing policy process at the State Department for publishing this report.
Q And just one final one. I don’t know if it’s already been reported, but what is the White House going to do, what is the President going to do to celebrate his birthday today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did, over the previous weekend, did get to spend some time on the golf course and at Camp David with some of his friends. And I don’t have any other additional details about what may or may not be in store for today.
Q Josh, President Obama and Vice President Biden were having lunch today -- I presume it’s over -- and it’s lunch at a time when speculation is at a fever pitch on whether Vice President Biden will decide to run for President. To borrow your phrase, is this lunch irony or serendipity? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: In this case, Mark, it’s serendipity. The President and Vice President routinely have a lunch together about once a week, and there’s a reason there are only two place settings at the table, which is it is a unique opportunity for the President and the Vice President to talk privately about whatever happens to be on their minds.
And so I don’t have a good sense about what exactly was discussed in their lunch. I suspect they covered a variety of topics -- some personal, some public, as they relate to ongoing debates. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was maybe even some politics discussed. But I don’t have any insight to share.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t know whether or not -- I don’t have any insight. As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t have any insight into the Vice President’s current thinking on this particular matter. But again, the President and the Vice President have the kind of relationship where they speak pretty candidly with one another knowing that that information will remain private.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just to follow up on the Voting Rights Act, Martin O’Malley has said that -- is going to be advocating for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote for everyone to sort of overcast all the ID laws and so forth. Is that something the President or this administration could ever support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I haven’t seen his specific proposal, but obviously a constitutional amendment along those lines is certainly something that would be consistent with the values and priorities that the President himself has discussed quite powerfully in the speech that he delivered in Selma, Alabama earlier this year.
Our efforts, however, not been focused on a constitutional amendment but actually on getting Congress to walk the walk when it comes to their expressions of support for the value and liberty of individual Americans -- and that is to pass the renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
Q And just real quick, coming back to the Chuck Schumer gun bill. You said that there needs to be more public support out there, but is this something that you would foresee the President speaking up for, championing, the Schumer bill?
MR. EARNEST: Fred, as I mentioned to Chris, I haven’t seen the specifics of Senator Schumer’s proposal.
Scott, did you have your hand up?
Q Yes. In that speech at American University, President Kennedy talked about the need to not demonize the Soviets but sort of get inside their head and approach them as rational people sharing interests with the U.S. Should we expect to hear some echoes of that in reference to Iran from the President tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the relationship between the United States and Iran is different than the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union back in the early ‘60s. I think what they have in common is that both countries were clearly adversaries of the United States.
But the President has also been clear that in his dealings with Iran he’s been unwilling to rely on any trust with the Iranian leadership. And in fact, what the President has said is his approach to this situation has been to distrust and verify. And that’s why this deal would not have gone forward had Iran not agreed to cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
And the reason for that is that this agreement requires Iran to make some significant commitments, including things like reducing their uranium stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting 13,000 centrifuges, and essentially gutting the core of their plutonium reactor. These are all significant commitments, and each of them is necessary before any sort of sanctions relief will be offered.
So the stakes of those commitments are high, and the President is unwilling to just trust the Iranian regime that they’re going to follow through on those commitments. In fact, the President will insist that the IAEA be given the access they need to verify that Iran has followed through with those commitments. And once that has occurred, then sanctions relief is something that the international community is prepared to offer.
Q For all that skepticism, though, in his interview with Tom Friedman, the President talked about sort of empathy as being a key to this kind of diplomacy. And I'm just wondering if that’s something that he’s going to talk about tomorrow.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t anticipate an extensive discussion about that. And I think what the President was referring to in the interview is that -- I do think it’s safe to assume that the reason that the Iranian regime reached the calculation that they should cooperate with the international community to obtain the sanctions relief is that they were under significant pressure because of the international sanctions that had been imposed on that country and on their economy.
And that is a -- that, at least, is a rational reaction of the leader of a country when sensing that the people of Iran are eager for greater economic opportunity to take steps that would expand that opportunity and allow Iran to, at least haltingly, more deeply engage with the international community.
And that was a -- I think in describing the motivations of the leaders of Iran, the President described those decisions that Iran -- or that conclusion that Iran’s leaders had reached as a logical one. But again, the President is not at all in a position of trusting Iran to follow through on these commitments. The President has insisted that any agreement -- that this agreement include verification of Iran’s compliance by the international experts at the IAEA.
All right, Rebecca, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. On cyber, given questions from privacy groups and even DHS about the bill’s effectiveness and privacy protections, does the White House support the cyber information-sharing bill that could go to a vote in the Senate this week?
MR. EARNEST: Rebecca, the administration at the beginning of this year put forward a series of specific bills that we believed that Congress should pass to address our concerns about cyber security. And these were three different pieces of legislation that we sent up there that included legislative language about what exactly Congress should pass.
And one of those bills was information related to information-sharing that essentially would allow law enforcement officials and even national security officials the ability to more freely share information with the private sector about threats that they’re detecting in cyberspace and vice versa. That private sector entities who are either the victims, or aware of attempted cyber malfeasants, could share that information with law enforcement and national security officials so that other private sector entities could adapt their computer systems to defend against those attacks.
So we have gone to great lengths to try to encourage that kind of information-sharing. And I as I understand it, that’s the goal of the bill that’s currently being considered by the United States Senate. But for our exact position on the issue, I’ll follow up with you on that.
But ultimately, that’s the goal that we have strongly supported for some time now. And we’ve strongly urged Congress to take action in that regard, but let me get back to you on that specific piece of legislation.
Okay. Thanks a lot everybody.
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