Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/7/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:18 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday.
MR. EARNEST: Let me do a short statement, Mark, and then we'll go to your questions.
Today actually marks the one-year anniversary of the commencement of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIL targets. You will recall, one year ago today, that ISIL had advanced unimpeded across Iraq. Fallujah and other parts of Anbar had already fallen earlier in the year. Mosul had fallen; Tikrit had fallen; Kirkuk had fallen. ISIL was advancing rapidly on Erbil and Baghdad, where U.S. government personnel were located. And ISIL forces were laying siege to Sinjar Mountain, threatening genocide against the Yazidi people. ISIL had committed -- and they still commit, by the way -- atrocities against all of Iraq’s diverse communities -- Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others.
But in the last year, we have made considerable progress in our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The U.S.-led coalition has now hit ISIL with more than 6,000 airstrikes. The coalition has also taken out thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories and training camps. In Iraq, ISIL has lost the freedom to operate in some 30 percent of the territory that they held last summer.
Overall, ISIL has lost more than 17,000 square kilometers of territory in northern Syria -- that's over the course of the last year. And they are now cut off from all but 68 miles of the more than 500-mile long border between Syria and Turkey. Coalition forces have repeatedly struck ISIL leadership targets, to an extent that ISIL leadership targets no longer have a safe haven. And the United States and our coalition partners are taking steps to interrupt ISIL’s finances, and make it more different for the group to attract new foreign fighters.
As the President has said, this campaign will take time and there will be setbacks along the way. But we and our coalition partners have made progress and we will ultimately prevail.
While our commanders continue this mission, there is one thing that Congress can do to support their efforts; they can vote on the authority for military force against ISIL that the President sent to Congress nearly six months ago. There is simply no excuse for members of Congress to continue to dodge this debate while our men and women put themselves in harm’s way to support our effort to defeat and ultimately destroy ISIL.
So, with that, let’s go to questions. Mark.
Q And I'd like to shift straight to Iran and the two very large-scale defections that you had -- Chuck Schumer and Eliot Engel. How big a blow is that to the administration’s effort to avoid having Congress to (inaudible) of this deal? And do these otherwise loyal Democrats now join the group who the President thinks are pursuing a fantasy of a better deal, choosing a form of war over diplomacy, and who are, in some cases, making common cause with folks shouting “Death to America”?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, the President certainly stands by the arguments that he made in his speech at American University on Wednesday. You cited the two members of Congress that have come out in opposition to the deal since the President delivered his speech, but there are -- we're now up to -- let me just do the math here -- I think we're up to 12 members of Congress that have come out in support of the deal. And that's seven in the House and five in the United States Senate.
So certainly the two members that you mentioned are influential members of Congress, but they have one vote. And since the speech, we've gotten substantially more votes in support of the deal. And I think that's an indication of how persuasive the President’s speech was and how persuasive a case it is that he is making to members of Congress and to the American public.
Q It’s not every day you lose a guy that's going to be the number one Democrat in the Senate. And again, does he, does Eliot Engel now -- are they classified as these people who are rejectionists for reasons that the President has questioned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President took on directly in his speech is that the individuals who are advocating for the defeat of this agreement are the same people who made the same arguments in 2003 in the march to war against Iraq. So this includes people like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and John McCain and more recent newcomers like Tom Cotton and Donald Trump.
That’s why, on the other side, the group of people who are supporting the agreement are those individuals who, like the President of the United States, opposed the Iraq war from the beginning or have since acknowledged that the congressional vote in support of that march to war was a mistake. And I mentioned some of their names already -- Senator Gillibrand and Senator Baldwin are two of the newcomers. But there are also people like Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin and Adam Schiff who have strong records on these matters.
So anyone -- and Mark you would be in this category -- anybody who has been covering American politics for the last 12 or 13 years would recognize the fault lines of this political argument. It’s not new. And this is a difference of opinion that President Obama and Senator Schumer have had dating all the way back to 2003.
That all said, that’s why I would describe this as an announcement that was not particularly surprising to anybody here at the White House even if it was disappointing. But it doesn’t change our confidence that we’ll be able to mobilize a substantial majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate in support of the deal, and if necessary, to sustain the President’s veto.
Q All right. Since you’ve mentioned the Trump word, let me shift quickly to the debate. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: If you needed to know -- (laughter.)
Q Since the President wouldn’t answer our questions about whether he watched the debate, can you tell us whether he watched the debate? What was his reaction to it?
MR. EARNEST: I did have an opportunity to speak briefly with him this morning and he indicated that he did not watch the debate last night. I did have the opportunity to watch the debate. I was disappointed that it started so late. So there was a point where I did doze off for a little bit during the debate -- (laughter) -- but I woke up and thought I’d been transported back to 2012, where we saw a variety of Republicans making outlandish and certainly outside-the-mainstream claims about the country and claims about their views and priorities. And I don’t think that Republicans found that to be a particularly useful line of attack last time. But it appears they may be fixing to do it again.
Q Were you surprised by any of what you saw? Or did you feel the need to fact-check anything?
MR. EARNEST: Not particularly.
Q And you said the President didn’t see it, but you also indicated yesterday he might at least catch clips or something. So he’s seen nothing of the debate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he has seen some of the coverage of the debate, but he did not watch it last night.
Q Josh, an Iranian official has confirmed that the head of its elite military Quds Force -- if I said that correctly -- traveled to Russia to hold talks with Russian officials, in violation of an international travel ban. Now that that’s been confirmed from the Iranian side, what is the U.S. reaction to that? And what sort of concerns does it raise about both Russia and Iran’s respect for that ban?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I’ve seen those reports as well, I'm not able to independently confirm them, however. I think what I would remind you of is we have indicated from the very beginning that our expectation was that this effort to reach an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would not address the longstanding and lengthy list of concerns that we have with Iranian behavior.
You mentioned Mr. Soleimani. He, in particular, is someone who has been subject to U.S. sanctions for quite some time because of the effort that he has undertaken to support terrorist organizations around the world. And again, I can’t confirm these specific reports, but it is an indication of our ongoing concerns with Iran and their behavior and, in the mind of the President, makes it all that more important that we pursue the best available strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that’s exactly what the President believes this diplomatic agreement is.
Q Does it raise any concerns about Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we have found over the course of this diplomatic engagement in the context of the P5+1 negotiations that Russia has been an effective partner, and the international community and the citizens of Russia have benefited from their willingness to cooperate with the broader international community in reaching an agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we hope that Russia will continue to act cooperatively with the international community moving forward.
Q But you’re not worried that they would be holding meetings with Iranian military official?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to confirm the individual reports.
Q Going back briefly to Iran. Does this development, which you’ve characterized as not surprising, but disappointing, change the calculations for a lobbying campaign going forward over the next few weeks? Does it change your answer to my question yesterday about the President’s engagement while he’s on vacation?
MR. EARNEST: No, I do not anticipate that the President will spend a lot of time making calls on vacation. I think it’s possible that the President would make some one-off calls, but I think most of the President’s time on Martha’s Vineyard will be spent with his family, or on the golf course, or a little bit of both.
Q And overall, are you still confident about support for the deal? You listed the people who have come out in favor of it, but it’s still got a ways to go.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Jeff, what’s clear is that there are still a number of people who have not announced a position on this issue. And that’s why you can expect that there will be continued discussions between senior administration officials and members of Congress even over the next several weeks that Congress is out of town.
And we do continue to be confident in our ability to build strong majorities in both the House and the Senate among the Democratic caucus. And one of the reasons that that is the case is that there continue to be -- there’s ample public data to indicate that this is an agreement that Democrats across the country support. And there’s even some polling data to indicate that there are majorities of American Jews who support this agreement. And that continues to give us confidence that as people consider the terms of this agreement and as they consider the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we’ve got a strong case to make in terms of persuading members of Congress and the American public that this is, in fact, the best approach.
Q One more on Senator Schumer. A number of former senior administration officials, including Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau, last night tweeted suggesting that between this and what Senator Schumer said about Obamacare in the past, that the base might not support him as the Democratic leader in the Senate. I’m wondering if Senator Schumer’s position on this issue has brought that question to any doubt at the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, this is a question for Democratic senators, and this is a vote that they will cast in early 2017 -- I believe that’s the way the system would work. So this was a line of questioning that came up in this context when Senator Reid announced his retirement, and I said at the time that the White House did not anticipate -- this White House, at least -- would not take a position on those future leadership elections in the Senate Democratic caucus.
That continues to be true today. But I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if there are individual members of the Senate Democratic caucus that will consider the voting record of those who say they would like to lead the caucus.
Q Earlier this week, a draft memo of an executive order that would require federal contractors to provide their employees with a week of paid sick leave was circulated on the Hill. I know that the Labor Department has said that no final decisions have been made, and you guys haven’t commented so far, but I’m wondering, is this at a point where it’s kind of getting through the regulatory language and crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, or is there any reason that the White House wouldn’t support and doesn’t plan to implement such an executive order?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, I don’t have any comment on the consideration of possible executive actions that the President or the administration might take in pursuit of priorities that we have laid out. The President has certainly made clear that he believes that middle-class families and our broader economy would benefit if more families had access to paid leave; that those kinds of policies help middle-class workers better balance the obligations they have at the office with the obligations that they have at home. And when those polices are effectively implemented, they have a way of improving productivity and bolstering loyalty to the employer.
That’s why we’ve seen so many private sector companies take action on their own to implement these kinds of policies. And I know that -- I believe it was Netflix earlier this week got a lot of attention for a paid-leave policy that they’re implementing at that company. And they’re not doing it out of charity; I’m confident they think it’s good for their business. And the President has made no secret of the fact that he believes this would be good business for companies all across the country. But I don’t have any announcements to make at this point about executive actions that may be under consideration in pursuit of that goal.
Q A last one on Syria. In a meeting with columnists earlier this week, it’s reported that the President said that he saw a glimmer of opportunity for a political transition in Syria that hadn’t existed previously because the governments of both Iran and Russia were starting to worry about the stability there. So I’m wondering what the President is basing his assessment of positions of Russia and Iran on. Was this an issue that came up during the nuclear talks? Has the President or have administration officials had conversations with the Iranian government about Syria? And secondly, what is the U.S. doing to seize advantage of this window that you perceive -- are there any policy changes that you are trying to undertake to sort of take advantage of this moment that the President sees?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, it sounds to me like an accurate characterization of what the President said in the interview. And the view that he was expressing was based on his own analysis of what’s occurring on the ground. I think that many analysts with some expertise in this area have concluded that President Assad’s grip on power is not as strong as it once was. And I don’t have any specific conversations to tell you about, but there’s reason to believe that it’s not just analysts in the United States that have made this observation, but other interested parties in the region have also reached this conclusion as well.
It’s unclear exactly how that is going to change anybody’s strategy or anybody’s actions in the region. But as the President pointed out, it does offer at least a little bit more hope that our long-sought political reconciliation in Syria might be slightly more attainable.
Q If he sees a window that’s unique from a previous time, shouldn’t he consider maybe some of the options about either arming more rebels, or backing them financially? Or maybe some additional U.S. intervention that -- whether it’s airstrikes against the Assad regime or some sort of military effort against them?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that any of the steps that you just named would logically make some of the countries that you named in your original question more likely to be constructive. But I think it is safe for you to assume that the President and his national security team have been and continue to watch the situation in Syria quite closely and to consider a range of policy options that could improve what is just an awful situation.
I had an opportunity to refer to it earlier this week of just the terrible humanitarian toll that this conflict has taken on that country. And the United States has committed significant resources to try to alleve some of that human suffering and to try to ease the burden on other countries in the region that have taken on so much responsibility for some Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict. So there are a variety of reasons to be concerned about the situation in Syria, and it’s one that we continue to watch closely.
Q Did Senator Schumer call the President to inform him of this decision?
MR. EARNEST: The President was given a heads-up in advance of Senator Schumer’s announcement.
Q But you can’t say whether or not it was a call from the Senator himself?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to readout.
Q And you said you wouldn’t be surprised if Democratic caucus members in the Senate were to take this into consideration, deciding who their next leader should be. How provocative would it be, do you think, if Senator Schumer were to start whipping against this deal. Coming out against it is one thing; whipping against it is another, I suppose.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think ultimately that will be a decision that individual members of the Senate will have to make. And I’m not sure that my opinion on that matters too much.
Q Okay. And can you --
MR. EARNEST: I recognize that hasn’t stopped me from weighing in on other things. (Laughter.) But in this case, I’ll defer.
Q Case-by-case basis.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly.
Q Can you measure the frustration level inside the White House right now in response to Senator Schumer’s decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think I would stick with my description before as disappointing but not surprising. Again, this is a -- the fault lines of this argument date back more than a decade and this is a difference of opinion that President Obama and Senator Schumer have had for quite some time.
Senator Schumer, in his announcement, made a strong case for the President of the United States seeking to impose the will of the United States on a sovereign country in the Middle East. And previous efforts to do that, like those that occurred in 2003, have not served the interests of the United States very well. And that is the essence of the disagreement that was brought to light last night.
Q And getting back to the debate last night, was there one comment that was made that you would take most exception to? What struck you as being something that you really had a problem with last night in terms the way these candidates were talking about the President’s record?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I think I’m going to resist the urge to choose just one, there were so many. (Laughter.)
Q You are the President’s spokesman.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. (Laughter.)
Q And I’ll try another one -- I probably won’t be successful. It’s a Friday and he’s leaving for vacation, but I’m going to give it one more try.
MR. EARNEST: Maybe the third try is the charm.
Q Third try is the charm. If I’m not mistaken, Secretary Clinton will likely be in Martha’s Vineyard roughly the same time that the President will. Their vacations may overlap. That did happen last year, as a matter of fact. There was some news, as I recall, when that occurred. Do you think that it’s possible that the two will meet? It’s a small island.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it is a small island.
Q The ferry service is limited. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know precisely what Secretary Clinton’s vacation itinerary will be, but I wouldn’t rule out that they may cross paths. If they do, we’ll be in a position to let you know.
Q Josh, I want to go back to a couple of subjects. First, I want to ask you about the Iran deal and the vote -- well, potential vote. You gave a glimmer of the tally. Do you have more insight on the tally you gave us -- 12 members of Congress have come out in support -- 7 House, 5 Senate. What’s the overall number that you have so far?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an overall number in front of me. And even if I did, I’m not sure that I would share it.
Q Well, why did you share this one?
MR. EARNEST: To illustrate the persuasive power of the speech that the President delivered on Wednesday -- that these are just the -- and, again, the tally that I gave you, those are individuals who have publicly announced their support. So merely as a service to you, I highlighted -- I collated the public statements that have been issued and tallied them up for you. But, again, just the raw numbers here -- because we’re talking about one vote per member of Congress -- the 12 members of Congress that have come out since the President’s speech on the Democratic side is an indication of the momentum we hope to build on to build the strong majority in the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate that we expect in support of the deal.
Q And you say, the support and non-support runs along obvious fault lines. But what do you say to someone like a Dave Scott in Georgia, who is a Democrat, who is going against it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen Mr. Scott’s statement.
Q It came out --
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Well, it's hard for me to evaluate his opposition without having seen his statement.
Q Okay. All right, on another subject -- the debate last night. There was verbal fisticuffs over this hug between Chris Christie and President Obama. Were you awake for that piece?
MR. EARNEST: I was awake for that part. (Laughter.)
Q It woke you up. (Laughter.)
Q In your opinion, what was the essence of that hug, really? Because I mean, Republicans are really upset about that hug. It was the time of Sandy and a lot of emotion. What does the White House think about that hug, and what -- was the President surprised that there was a hug?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we did have the opportunity to talk about this in 2012, shortly after that public display of affection occurred. And I think what it symbolized to a lot of people is the willingness of leaders in this country to set aside their own partisan identity and political ambition, particularly in a time of crisis, to ensure that the interests of the people they were elected to serve are protected.
And here you had an instance of, shortly before an election, a Democratic President and Republican Governor working effectively to try to meet the needs of the people of New Jersey that were significantly and negatively affected by the storm. And I think that's the expectation that people have for their government, is that we expect to have robust debates in this democracy and we're going to have differences of opinion even occasionally within our political parties, but when the chips are down and when we're in the midst of a crisis and American lives are at stake, the American people have an expectation that their elected leaders are going to put aside their political differences and focus on the best interests of their constituents.
And I think that this particular situation got outsized attention because it occurred just days before a significant national election. But this is the kind of governing style that the American people rightly expect, and it certainly is the kind -- it's the approach that President Obama has prioritized even in less high-profile or less scrutinized situations. It's not uncommon for the President to travel to other areas of the country that have sustained a natural disaster, for example, and even when it's clear that the vast majority of the local population didn’t support his election, the American people in those communities appreciate that the President of the United States is there.
And having had the opportunity to travel with the President to visit communities in both Oklahoma and Arkansas that had been affected by tornadoes, and even I was struck by it. It was clear to me that there weren't a lot of Obama voters in the crowd as the motorcade was passing by, and certainly not a lot of Obama voters necessarily picking through the rubble of a neighborhood that had been destroyed by a tornado. But at each turn, we’ve seen the President very warmly received. And again, I think that’s the expectation the American people have for their political leaders, and it certainly is one of the reasons that the President is so proud to lead this country.
Q And lastly, I know waning -- 18 months left -- but in this time, and because this is such a hot topic -- and this is one of the reasons why the President and other Presidents, I guess, have been elected, because they were thought to be people who can reach across the aisle. Do you think that this President, in the midst of all that he has to do in 18 months, that he will try to have more of an effort to reach across the aisle before he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: I think at least some of you saw the President just sign a piece of legislation into law creating a wilderness area in the state of Idaho, and standing over his shoulder was one of the Republican members of Congress from Idaho. I think that’s at least one example of the President trying to find some common ground with Republicans, and, in this case, Congressman Simpson trying to find some common ground with President Obama despite the significant political differences that I’m sure that they have.
And again, I think that’s another illustration of not just the President’s effort to reach out and try to find common ground when it’s most important, but also a manifestation of the expectations of the American people that even in some of the darkest-red congressional districts in the country, that there’s -- the expectation of even those people is that their member of Congress is going to work effectively with the Democratic President to advance the interests of their community. And that’s what happened at least in this case.
Q As they hug? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe so. I wasn’t in there, so maybe you should tell me.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to go back to Senator Schumer. You called his decision disappointing but not surprising. But as recently as Tuesday I think it was, you said that the White House was in very close contact with him.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true.
Q Have you been under the hope or expectation that he -- even if he was leaning no, that he would have waited until after the President gets back from vacation, until after September, until you had a chance to build up a campaign for votes?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not clear to me what expectations anybody had here about the timing of Senator Schumer’s decision. What the administration sought to do was to work closely with him to help him understand the facts of the agreement and understand the details of what had actually been agreed to that gives the President so much confidence that this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And I mentioned on Tuesday that the efforts by the administration to engage Senator Schumer actually predated the completion of the agreement, that Senator Schumer had indicated an interest and a willingness to interact with the President’s national security team to understand the details here. And it would have been foolish for the administration to rebuff his interest merely because of his widely known views as it relates to the Iraq war in 2003; that we were going to engage him in pursuit of an opportunity that we might be able to succeed in persuading him to support the deal.
But ultimately, it didn’t turn out that way. I don’t think anybody was surprised, but I think that would account for the disappointment that you’ve heard me express.
Q But it sounds like the timing may have surprised you and more disappointed you, because you said Tuesday, as well, I think, that the President was not going to do anything on vacation but to vacation, and now there’s a suggestion that maybe he will be making some calls.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I was a little flippant in answering Jeff’s question earlier in the week saying that I doubt it. I think that was my intent to try to convey to you that there would not be much time spent making phone calls. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out that he might make some one-off calls, but that would have been true regardless of either the timing or ultimate conclusion that was reached by Senator Schumer.
Q So there’s no ramping up of what he plans to do?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q A couple on the debate. Obviously President Obama is not on the ballot, but his policies were certainly under attack. Did it sting at all that what the Republicans seemed to say is that, while you’re saying that the reason why the Middle East is such a mess now and because we’ve been led into this situation is because we went into war in 2003, what they’re saying is because we gave up the war. And it’s because -- they said that because President Obama ordered the troops out of Iraq, that’s why -- that’s led to the ISIS revival. Can you at least comment on that, if that was a direct attack on an Obama policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think it does serve to illustrate the starkly different approaches that’s pursued by some Republicans and the approach that’s pursued by President Obama. President Obama has made clear that he does not envision a scenario in which U.S. military personnel will be engaged in a sustained offensive ground combat operation in Iraq or in Syria. I know there are many Republicans who were on the stage last night who either, on the stage or previously, have articulated their support for a strategy that would include significant commitment of U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and in Syria.
The President does not believe that that would be the best way to advance the national security interest of the United States. But that’s a disagreement that we’ve known about for some time. And ultimately, the American people will have to render their own judgment about the wisdom of starting another ground war in the Middle East. The President doesn’t support that approach, but that’s a well-known difference.
Q But did the trouble start when President Obama ordered the troops start going down in Iraq, or had it started already before that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think that what we have been clear about is tracing the genesis of this situation back to 2003. There has been extensive discussion about the fact that al Qaeda in Iraq -- al Qaeda was not in Iraq until the invasion occurred. And since then, we’ve been dealing with the consequences of that invasion and the infiltration and propagation of those extremist forces in Iraq. And we are dealing with these consequences even today.
Q On the Iran deal, the criticism over and over on the Republican stage was that the United States got nothing in this deal. What did the United States get?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what the United States got out of this deal is something that Republicans and even Prime Minister Netanyahu have long said is the top priority, which is verifiably preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That’s the benefit of this particular agreement. That is a goal that Democrats and Republicans and even Prime Minister Netanyahu all agree that they had set. And this is, in the President’s mind, the best way for us to accomplish that goal.
Q On the other -- another subject, on immigration, if I could. DHS has, in fact, responded to the court about the detention centers along the border. Is this a change in policy? It does, when you read it, say that -- it sounds as though DHS is changing its policy of calling this even a detention center, but more of a processing center.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, as you and I discussed yesterday, this is something that the administration and the President have long acknowledged is a very difficult policy challenge and one that we have -- that’s been difficult to confront. For the details of the policy and the way that it’s described to the judge, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security. I certainly wouldn’t want to inadvertently describe it in a different way and cause a little interference or confusion in that ongoing court case. But this is a challenging issue and one that the administration takes seriously.
Q But if I could just follow up. In the response, DHS says that in the two-week period from June 28th to July 11th, more than 60 percent of those at the detention centers were released. Is this because the White House is to begin changing the policy of how these processing or these detention centers are being used?
MR. EARNEST: For those specific enforcement decisions, I’d refer you to DHS.
MR. EARNEST: Margaret. Nice to see you.
Q Nice to see you. Yesterday we saw the announcement that the U.S. had transferred the Umm Sayyaf, as she’s known -- the wife of a senior ISIS leader -- to Iraqi Kurdish custody. And in the statement from the White House it said that she was complicit in the detention of an American, Kayla Mueller. I want to know -- because DOJ is saying that she will not face U.S. charges -- why there was, or if there was a policy decision not to more aggressively pursue that avenue of trying her, bringing U.S. charges.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, I think there are a couple of things that factor in here. The decision to transfer Umm Sayyaf to the Iraqi government was based on a unanimous interagency consensus that the detainee’s transfer would be appropriate with respect to legal, diplomatic, intelligence, security and law enforcement considerations. And I think that the large number of adjectives there should give you an indication of how many agencies were consulted about this particular decision. The determination of Umm Sayyaf’s disposition has been conducted in full coordination with the government of Iraq, and both the United States and the Iraqi government are fully supportive of this transfer.
Though, one other thing that I will add to that is that U.S. personnel did have an opportunity to interrogate Umm Sayyaf for an extended period of time to maximize the collection of available and useful intelligence. She was married to a senior ISIL leader, Abu Sayyaf, who was killed in a special operations raid in Syria earlier this year. And we do suspect that Umm Sayyaf was a member of ISIL and played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and we do believe that she and her husband are complicit in the captivity of a U.S. citizen, Kayla Mueller. We believe they were also complicit in the captivity of a young Yezidi woman, who was rescued at the time of Umm Sayyaf’s capture. We have a firm believe that in the context of the Iraqi criminal justice system that she will be held to account for her crimes.
Q But given everything you just laid out, is there frustration, is there disappointment that now someone so complicit and engaged at a fairly senior level of ISIS now is outside the reach of U.S. justice and won’t face U.S. charges?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the decision to press charges in a U.S. court is made by prosecutors at the Department of Justice, and that’s a decision that they would make, and they may be able to give you more of an explanation for the decision that they have made. At the same time, the reason that you had broad interagency consensus that this was the right approach is that the United States has confidence that Umm Sayyaf will face justice in the Iraqi criminal justice system.
Q And lastly on that, you’ve talked a fair amount about a review of hostage policy that the United States has undertaken. How was this communicated to the family? Was there communication from the White House to the family of Kayla Mueller in regard to this?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it was communicated to Ms. Mueller’s family prior to this public announcement.
Q By the newly created structure?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I don’t know exactly how that communication occurred, but it was communicated to Ms. Mueller’s family here in the United States before any public announcement of this decision was made.
Q Another question on Umm Sayyaf. She was captured in Syria; her alleged crimes took place in Syria; she was living in Syria. Why is she being sent to Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: She’s an Iraqi citizen.
Q Has she committed a crime in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the Iraqi criminal justice officials about that. Obviously there’s some reason to be a little skeptical of the effectiveness of the Syrian criminal justice system at this point. But for the charges that she’ll face and where they took place, I’d refer you to Iraqi criminal justice officials. But the reason for her transfer to Iraqi criminal justice officials is because she is a citizen of Iraq.
Q And also on Syria. Does the President think that it would be useful to have a poll or a rethink in the train-and-assist mission, given the cohorts of U.S. fighters that have been deployed have either been captured, killed, gone underground, or are refusing to fight Nusra? It seems like that’s more than just a setback -- it seems like a failure of the program.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrew, I think we’ve been pretty forthright and candid about the significant challenges that we’ve faced in trying to implement this train-and-equip strategy when it comes to recruiting, training, and supporting moderate Syrian opposition fighters to take the fight to ISIL on the ground inside of Syria. One of the most significant challenges that we face is actually conducting background checks of these individuals; that there is a priority that's placed on making sure that the individuals who go through this training program and receive significant military equipment from the United States and our coalition partners are not individuals who are prepared to turn right around and use that training and equipment against coalition forces or other moderate Syrian opposition elements operating in Syria.
So this has been a difficult challenge. And as I mentioned yesterday, the President has been briefed on the current state of this mission. And I’ve often said that the United States -- that the President and his team is interested in working closely with our coalition to make sure that we are constantly reviewing the policies that we have in place and updating and improving and refining them when necessary to better accomplish our goal.
Q Are you still deploying U.S.-trained fighters into Syria? Newly deployed --
MR. EARNEST: For an update on the current status of the train-and-equip mission I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q I’m sorry, just one final question on Senator Schumer. He voted for the Iraq war, described passing health care as a mistake, and now he’s going to vote against the Iran deal. Does the White House have confidence in his judgment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a variety of other areas where I could cite that Senator Schumer has been supportive of other Democrats in pursuit of the President’s agenda, but there’s no denying that this disagreement -- this difference of opinion that emerged overnight is one that has existed between Senator Schumer and President Obama for more than a decade.
Q I just want to follow up on Jeff’s question. So in the reports that you said you cannot confirm, one American official said that Qasem Soleimani has visited Russia. And actually there are details of the visit, that he spent three days and he met with President Putin and other defense officials, et cetera. So he did not just violate your own travel ban, but he also violated the U.N. Security Council ban that was imposed on him in 2007. So at least aren’t you asking for some kind of investigation from the U.N.?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to our mission at the United Nations for information about any kind of requests that we’re making of the United States. Nadia, I think I’d just remind you that we have been very clear that we do not anticipate that even the successful implementation of this nuclear accord that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is going to resolve the long list of concerns that we have with Iran’s behavior, including the behavior of this individual.
Q Let me go at it differently. So if this report is true, doesn’t it concern you that this person who has been in the forefront of the accusation or your opponent against the deal, that actually he is then going to be given more money and he would have more of a carte blanche to operate in the Middle East that should worry you, should raise some kind of red flag?
MR. EARNEST: The opponents who are making that argument are wrong. The sanctions against Mr. Soleimani through the United Nations will remain in place once the deal is implemented for 10 years. And the President has been clear that the U.S. sanctions against Mr. Soleimani are unaffected by the deal, that there are sanctions against Mr. Soleimani because of his support for terrorism that will remain in place.
So we certainly are mindful of his activities and our level of concern about them has not changed. I will tell you that our level of concern about his activities would be greater if he had access to a nuclear weapon. And that’s why we’re working so hard to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q Just on the breaking news. CNN just confirming that actually he did visit Moscow when he went to Russia.
MR. EARNEST: That sounds like CNN’s got some excellent sources. (Laughter.)
Q Josh, as President Obama readies to leave on vacation later today, would you say that he regards the past seven months as especially tough and that this is a vacation he really needs badly? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I think it is true that the -- those of you who have been closely following the President would note that his schedule has been especially demanding in the last several weeks. I think he would also be quick to tell you that the last several weeks have been especially rewarding for him. They’ve included a historic trip to Africa. They’ve included the completion of negotiations on an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon that eventually got the unanimous support of the United Nations Security Council. It included the -- after a couple of snafus -- the passage of Trade Promotion Authority legislation that we’re hopeful will allow the United States and a dozen other countries in the Asia Pacific to complete a trade agreement -- to say nothing of the Supreme Court rulings that once again uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, and affirmed a right for everyone in this country to marry who they love.
So it’s been a rather rewarding, satisfying several weeks even if the pace of those accomplishments and the pace of that progress has been rapid.
Q But he did move up the departure by a day. Was he anxious to get out of town?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he took a look at the schedule and recognized that he’d be able to fulfill all of his immediate responsibilities at a decent hour today -- that would allow him to spend the night in Martha’s Vineyard and get started on his vacation first thing tomorrow morning. And I know that the President is looking forward to spending some time with his family when he gets up there.
Q And, Josh, did you ever find out what he was talking about when, at the start of his AU speech, he said, even President have trouble with toner. Do you know what he was talking about?
MR. EARNEST: I think there might have been a little bit of a snafu when it came to the backstage printer at American University.
Q No wonder he needs to get out of town. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: If it’s not one thing, it’s another, Mark.
Q Given the attack in Kabul today, in the last 24 hours this is the second major one after the new Taliban leadership has engaged in more strikes inside Afghanistan. Do you think this is still the right time for having peace talks with the Taliban?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that the United States condemns in the strongest terms last night’s bombing in Kabul, which reports indicate killed more than eight people -- I think latest reports have increased that to 14 or 15 and there could be more -- and wounded as many as 400 civilians including women and children. This heinous attack demonstrates once again the ever growing gulf between extremists and the people of Afghanistan. And it certainly shows the blatant disregard for human life on the part of those extremists.
The fact is, in recent years the Afghan people have endured much, but they are resilient and are resilient even in the face of a brutal insurgency. We continue to believe and continue to urge the Taliban to heed President Ghani’s call for reconciliation and make genuine peace with the Afghan government.
Let me hasten to add that in terms of who is responsible for the attack, I’d refer you to the government of Afghanistan. I can’t confirm that from here. But what is clear is that there does appear to be an opening, and we are hopeful that the Taliban will take advantage of that opening to try to pursue a genuine peace with the Afghan government. President Ghani has made clear that he would nurture and support that effort. And we hope that those overtures will be reciprocated by the Taliban.
Q And secondly, several times from this podium you have said that countries like India, Japan, South Korea are not going to be part of any additional sanctions against Iran if this deal is not (inaudible.) Is this based on a reduction of --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s both. And let me explain to you why. You’ll recall that when these sanctions were originally put in place three or four years ago that the United States traveled around the world including to India, sat down with the Indian government and asked them to curtail the amount of Iranian oil that they imported into the country. And we acknowledged in the context of those discussions that this would be an economic sacrifice that the people of India and that the economy of India would have to make. But Indian leaders agreed to it by saying that this is something that they were willing to do if they can advance our effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.
In essence, that was the agreement -- that countries like India had agreed that they would take these steps, even at their own expense, to try to reach this broader international agreement. And the good news is that that agreement has been reached. And it is an agreement that is supported by the international community -- 99 percent of the world, as the President has described it.
And that’s why it would be so damaging to the standing of the United States for the United States Congress to act unilaterally to kill this deal. No longer would countries like India, who have been making a substantial sacrifice over the years, have any interest or incentive to continue to enforce those sanctions against Iran. There is no basis, there is no credible claim for why they would be willing to do that. And there is no denying the significant negative impact on United States credibility for the United States to be isolated in this way.
That’s why the President has said if Congress were to move forward to kill this deal or kill this agreement, it would, in fact, yield a better deal for Iran. Because what we would see is that Iran would get sanctions relief; they would have the ability to sell oil to India and get the proceeds of doing so without having to reduce their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, without having to put 13,000 centrifuges in storage, without having to gut their heavy-water plutonium reactor, and without having to submit to the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
That’s why I’ve long said that the case before Congress is that Iran is going to get sanctions relief. The question is whether or not the United States and the international community is going to get anything for it. And that is ultimately the choice before members of Congress right now, and it’s why we continue to be confident that we’ll be able to build substantial support -- at least in the Democratic caucus -- in both the House and the Senate in support of this agreement.
Q Josh, in the past, the administration has charged Republicans with opposing certain administration initiatives with a personal sense -- that it was the President’s support for something that led Republicans to oppose it. Do you think, or does the President think, that that’s the effect here with the Iran deal? And if, let’s say, a Republican President were to produce the same document, would Republicans oppose it as they do now?
MR. EARNEST: That’s an interesting hypothetical. I think there are a couple of things going on here, Rich. I think the first one is there’s no denying the fact that senior Republicans in the United States Congress appeared on television two days before the agreement was reached to announce their opposition to the deal. Senator McConnell appeared on Fox News Sunday two days before the agreement was reached, and proclaimed the deal “a bad deal.” This was even before the deal was reached, even before the deal was announced.
So now the question is, why did he do that? Does he have remarkable powers of clairvoyance? That’s possible. It seems more likely that he is committed to the kinds of arguments that he and other Republicans made in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq war, that he’s committed to this idea that diplomacy is not worth the effort, that war in the Middle East is easy and that we can easily work our will, and that the opinions of some of our closest allies and partners in the world aren’t worth paying attention to. Those were exactly the arguments that were made in the march to war in 2003, and these are exactly the kinds of arguments that we hear from Republicans, including Senator McConnell, as they advocate against the deal.
Q But does the President think that it’s also a matter of him, that were someone else negotiating -- it’s his -- the fact that he has negotiated -- or his administration has negotiated this deal is what’s led to a bulk of the opposition?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think it’s hard to tell. I think there are a variety of motives that could be ascribed here. I think the clearest one is, again, that Senator McConnell is making the same argument that he made in 2003. And it’s the President’s view that those arguments and the policy that resulted from those arguments did not advance the interest of the United States in terms of going to war in Iraq in 2003, and he does not believe that they would serve well the interests of the United States if they were used to successfully kill an agreement that 99 percent of the world agrees with.
Q Does the White House fear a multiplier effect from Schumer, Engels, senior Democrats opposing this, perhaps that they would sway other Democrats on the fence?
MR. EARNEST: Not particularly. And I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is that there was a story in Politico -- just looking for a Politico reporter today --
Q They’re watching.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, they’re watching I’m sure, carefully covering our words as we have this discussion. Politico did do a story sort of about the competing political pressures on Senator Schumer -- and now that I’ve embarrassed them I’m going to say something nice about them -- because of their diligence in reporting out that story, they interviewed a couple of Democratic United States senators who continue to be undecided, at least publicly, about whether or not to support this agreement. And both Senator Tester and Senator McCaskill were quoted in the story saying that Senator Schumer’s eventual decision would have no impact on theirs. And I think it was even Senator Tester who hoped that the reporter wouldn’t tell Senator Schumer that his vote wouldn’t factor into his own decision-making on this.
I think the other data point that I can point out to you, Rich, is that Senator Schumer is the senior Senator from New York. The junior Senator from New York also came out yesterday, and she announced her support for the deal. And since Senator Schumer made his announcement, at least based on my tally -- and I don’t know if anybody has made any statements since I walked out here -- but as far as I can tell, there’s one Democratic senator who has announced an opinion since then, and it’s Senator Tammy Baldwin, who came out in support of the agreement.
So I think there is a preponderance of evidence to indicate that Democrats are going to make up their minds not based on Senator Schumer’s conclusion, but based on their own conclusions about the merits of this agreement and the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as long as they do that, we’re going to continue to feel quite confident about our ability to build support for this agreement in the Democratic caucus.
Q And quickly on the debate from last night. The President missed the debate. How engaged would you say is the President in the Republican primary process? I mean, one of these folks might meet him on Inauguration Day in 2017. Isn’t he at least a little curious to see what the debate produces?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is certainly following the terms of the debate -- just not in real time. So the President is aware of the broader political debate that’s ongoing, and I’m confident that he will be more than just a casual observer in the 16 months or so between now and Election Day -- I guess it’s 15 months between now and Election Day. And there have already been a couple of occasions where the President has been asked directly about some of the outrageous claims of those who are running to replace him ,and on at least one or two occasions, the President hasn’t shied away from responding.
Q I want to just follow up. Do you think that Senator Schumer’s influence, particularly on matters relating to Israel, has been overstated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess it’s hard to measure exactly what kind of influence he has on these matters. He clearly is somebody who is very focused on these issues, but he’s also somebody who has arrived at a starkly different conclusion than the President has. And I don’t think anybody, including all of you, who have had an opportunity to interact with the President when he is talking about this issue would suggest that the President has not paid a lot of attention to these issues as well.
So I think it’s hard to quantify. We continue to be confident that the vast majority of Democrats in the United States Congress will make a decision based on their own conclusions and not on Senator Schumer’s.
Q So the President may or may not make some calls. But what will be going on during this period? Because obviously early September they’re going to start looking at this, start voting on this, and even though I think the analysis would say the numbers are on your side, given that they have to get more than two-thirds, you only have to get a third, you could still feasibly lose this, so what’s the strategy between now and then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, as we talked about yesterday, I believe this deal does not require congressional approval, but there’s no doubt that Congress can play the spoiler here. And we continue to be confident of our ability to prevent that from happening. But we certainly don’t take any of these votes for granted. And while Congress was in session, you saw senior members of the President’s national security team spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill in a classified setting, in private meetings and even testifying under oath, to help members of Congress understand exactly what’s included in it.
I would anticipate that even when Congress is out of session that there will be a number of private conversations that occur between senior members of the President’s national security team and members of Congress. And I’m confident that when the President returns to the White House in a couple of weeks that he also will reengage in that effort and will also be making a number of calls and having a number of conversations, too.
Q A person close to the decision suggested -- well, didn’t suggest, told NBC, and I believe Politico as well, that this announcement by Chuck Schumer was to be made today but that the White House leaked it last night deliberately because it would get buried with all of the attention on the Republican debate. Did the White House leak this?
MR. EARNEST: No, the White House did not leak this. And I’m not sure who thought that leaking it on Thursday night would bury it. Anybody who has been in this business for a few days would understand that announcing this at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday, particularly a Friday before the President and I assume many of you are prepared to head out on vacation, might have been a more effective strategy. (Laughter.)
Q Just one more thing. Since the President did not spend his leisure time last night watching the debate, perhaps Jon Stewart?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if he watched Jon Stewart’s final show. It definitely started too late for me to stay up and watch it. But hopefully I’ll be able to catch up on it over the weekend.
Q Josh, can I just follow up? Because the President gave an interview to CNN that will air on Sunday and he had a quote related to this -- I wanted to just follow up because events, of course, have overtaken what he said yesterday. So on Senator Schumer, can you just clarify, does the President believe that Senator Schumer is making common cause with the hardliners in Iran by feeling that he is going to vote against supporting the Iran deal?
MR. EARNEST: Alexis, I think what the President did say in his interview does directly apply even to this case, that the concern that the President had with the actions of the Republican conference that he described as making common cause with hardliners in Iran is that they announced their opposition to this agreement before the agreement was even reached, before the agreement was even announced, before the agreement was even available for those members of the Congress to read. And that’s an indication of their ideological opposition to this deal. Hardliners in Iran are also ideologically opposed to this deal, and that’s the point that the President was making.
I’d also point out that the other thing, the other way in which Republicans in at least the Senate were making common cause with hardliners in Iran is they wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran, tracking closely with the arguments that were made by hardliners in Iran, trying to convince the Supreme Leader of Iran not to engage in the agreement.
So that’s the essence of the President’s case. And Senator Schumer reached a conclusion that we strongly disagree with, but the essence of our disagreement is vigorous but it’s different. Senator Schumer is advocating an approach to foreign policy that minimized the likelihood of success in diplomacy and relies far too much on the ability of the United States to unilaterally impose our will through force, if necessary, on a sovereign Middle Eastern country. That’s what Senator Schumer advocated in 2003. The President does not believe that that served well the interest of the United States in 2003, and he doesn’t believe it serves the interest of the United States well to kill this deal.
Q Just to follow up, and then one more question. So what -- tell me if I’m correct what you’re saying. Even though the White House was disappointed in Senator Schumer’s -- not surprised -- disappointed, not surprised -- the distinction here between his expression of views and Senator McConnell is that Senator McConnell, ideologically driven, expressed his views in July and Senator Schumer expressed his views on August 7th. Is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that the month on the calendar is less significant than the timing of these announcements. Senator McConnell announced his opposition to the deal, he referred to it as a bad deal, before the deal was even reached. He called it a bad deal while the negotiators were still sitting around the negotiating table in Vienna -- far before the deal was reached, announced or made available for his review. That’s an indication that he was ideologically opposed to this, in the same way that hardliners in Iran were ideologically opposed to this agreement, even before it was announced.
Q So you're maintaining that Senator Schumer had an open mind about this, but the President’s persuasion was not effective?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that Senator Schumer at least read the agreement, talked to the experts who were involved in negotiating it, spent time talking to experts to understand the nuclear basis for some of the strategic conclusions that were reached by our negotiators. That at least demonstrates a willingness to consider the arguments of the other side. And, yes, we were disappointed that he didn't ultimately reach the same conclusion that we did. But given his well-known view on a range of foreign policy issues, the result is not particularly surprising.
Q One other question about the debate. Because the President as his AU speech encouraged the American people to contact their members of Congress and because the debate last night had a viewership of something like 16 million -- regardless of political party, right -- is the President concerned that the viewership last night will in some way overtake his own appeal earlier in the week while members are at home, while members have gone home to talk to their constituents?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President is not worried about that.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Jared. I’ll do a couple more just because we're not going to do this for a while.
Q Thank you for that. Just to follow up on the Schumer, -- Senator Schumer head’s up. Did Senator Schumer indicate -- because his statement was pretty clearly worded and there has been no follow-up from his office -- did he indicate that he would both vote to override the President’s veto in addition to vote to disapprove the Iran nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the details of the information that was transmitted from Senator Schumer’s office to the White House, so I’d refer you to Senator Schumer’s office for a detailed explanation of whether or not he would vote to override a presidential veto.
Q You were pretty pragmatic yesterday when you were asked about does the number matter, and you said both yesterday and today that it’s really -- in your words “Congress, don't screw this up.” When Democratic senators are considering their leadership, should they consider both the vote to disapprove and the vote to override? Or does one matter -- I guess does your pragmatism -- should that leak into the Democratic Senate caucus?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think ultimately they’ll decide based on the criteria that they themselves set. So I don't have any advice to dispense. Though I would predict -- I suspect they will apply that test as they consider their vote for the next Democratic leader in the Senate.
Q So you're saying that the White House remains pragmatic about the utility of the vote, and that a motion to disapprove is not necessarily as important as the override vote, which would be obviously true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, no, no. I think I may have misunderstood your question. My point is I think Democrats in the Senate will make up their own mind and apply their own criteria in terms of how they choose their next leader. I merely suspect that many of them will include in their criteria the voting record of those who say they want to lead the caucus. But ultimately that's up for them to decide. Maybe some of them won’t. That's their own decision to make.
In terms of the best way for members of Congress in either party who wants to support the deal, we would both encourage them strongly -- and in the mind of the President, it’s a close call -- in terms of making the decision to both oppose a resolution of disapproval and certainly oppose an effort to override the presidential veto if that resolution of disapproval does pass.
Q Josh, a question on the GOP debate last night. A number of the Republican candidates pledged to take unilateral actions if elected on behalf of (inaudible) seen to enable LGBT discrimination. And Mike Huckabee objected to the Pentagon’s plan on transgender service. And even though John Kasich expressed some nuance, all 17 candidates opposed same-sex marriage. If any one of these Republican candidates are elected to the White House, are the President’s advances for the LGBT community at risk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I think that's a hard thing to say. I think that so much of the progress that has been made is progress that a substantial number of Americans have come around to supporting. And I think that speaks to not just the critically important political progress that's been made in this country on some of the issues that you've just cited, but in some ways I think you can make a pretty persuasive argument that at least as important as that is the social progress that's been made in communities, large and small, across the country in which discussions of these issues are taking place outside the context of any sort of political election or partisan debate.
And it’s my view that at least some of that social progress would not have been possible without some political leadership. And that’s why the President is, justifiably, proud of his record. But the real power behind this change in the view of so many Americans, as we perfect our union, is the power of the American people and the significant change that we’ve seen in a relatively short period of time.
Q You can’t deny, though, a lot of this change is a result of the President taking action on these issues -- for example, the executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. That could be -- the President signed that; a subsequent President could undo it. So isn’t that in danger at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think I alluded to this in my first answer. I do think that some of the social progress that’s been made can be attributed to some political leadership, including political leadership by the President of the United States. And there’s no doubt that we would have liked to have seen Congress take some of the steps that the President has been forced to take on his own to try to make our country a little more just and a little bit more fair.
Congress has resisted. But ultimately, those voters who prioritize these issues I’m confident will look carefully at the views and records of those who are running for President -- because there’s no denying the kind of authority that they could wield sitting in the Oval Office on these issues.
Q I want to just follow up briefly on Andrew and Justin’s questions. Regarding the transfer of the Iraqi detainee, I had asked you about her disposition a few weeks ago and you seemed to hold up as an example -- you said the record that the Obama administration has of capturing, building a case, trying terrorist suspects in U.S. courts was part of the decision in transferring her to the Iraqis because there was insufficient evidence -- there was reporting that DOJ was building a case. So was there insufficient evidence that would have either -- that would have held up in U.S. courts? Was that part of the reasoning? Or was part of the reasoning additionally because the Iraqi government opposed this, given it provisions in their own constitution that they can’t hand over their citizens to foreign groups? And then also, why was she given to the Kurds rather than to Iraqi authorities?
MR. EARNEST: There’s a lot there. Let me see if I can get through --
Q Sorry, that’s --
MR. EARNEST: That’s okay. That’s okay. Let’s get through all of that.
Just in terms of why she will be put through the Kurdish system is that while we obviously can’t guarantee a particular result, we do have a firm belief that she will be held accountable for her crimes. And the United States stands ready to cooperate with authorities in Iraq to support a prosecution and assist in ensuring that justice is served.
The other relevant facts here is that Umm Sayyaf has been detained in Erbil for the last few months. And in the course of that detention, we’ve worked closely with the Kurdistan regional government and the criminal justice authorities there. And one of the other reasons that this makes sense in terms of having her go through the Kurdish criminal justice system relates to the location of potential witnesses who would take part in these proceedings.
I’m not aware of any concern that the Department of Justice expressed about the weakness of their case. You can go speak to them more directly about this. But I do think that you could conclude that we believe this was the best course of action because, as I referred to earlier, this is the conclusion of the intelligence community, the diplomatic community, certainly our national security and our law enforcement officials, that this is the best disposition. And this is a conclusion that we reached in agreement with Iraqi officials as well.
Q But did Baghdad ask for her? Did Baghdad request that the U.S. hand her over?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the central government in Baghdad certainly agreed with the decision.
Q And, sorry, just one more. Tomorrow is the year anniversary of the military operation begun against the Islamic State. You had mentioned earlier to Justin that expanded military options in Syria might be counterproductive to efforts to come to a political transition. There’s been some hesitance to discuss what authorities the U.S. might have when it comes to protecting the train-and-equip fighters against anyone -- whether al-Nusra, ISIS, or the Syrian government. Is that reluctance due in part to seeing that discussion as counterproductive to a political transition?
MR. EARNEST: No, because I have been willing, in the context of this briefing, earlier this week, to discuss the legal justification for actions that the United States and our coalition partners have already taken to defend those Department of Defense trained and equipped soldiers that are -- or forces that are fighting ISIL in Syria.
The administration has concluded that it is appropriate under the 2001 AUMF for the United States and our coalition partners to take strikes against extremists that are threatening U.S. or coalition-trained Syrian forces that operating on the ground against ISIL. So that is a policy decision that’s been made and a legal justification that we’ve already made public.
Q Sorry. Absolutely last one, I promise. But does the 2001 AUMF apply to strikes against Syrian government forces if they were to attack the troops that we’re training and equipping and reinserting into Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have indicated -- I'm not aware of a firm legal analysis that’s been done on this. Maybe there has -- I have not been briefed on it. What we have made clear is that this is not an eventuality that we’ve had to encounter at this point. Prior to the initiation of U.S. and coalition airstrikes inside of Syria, the United States government admonished the Assad regime against interfering in those operations. And that admonishment that we delivered to the Assad regime also applies to any temptation that the Assad regime may have to interfering with the efforts -- the anti-ISIL efforts on the ground of Syrian opposition fighters that have been trained by the United States and our coalition partners.
Okay. Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks very much. Two questions. One, there are so many engagements going on between U.S.-India relations and including Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Nisha Desai made statements in New York, and also I got email from Ambassador Richard Verma from the U.S. Embassy in Delhi where he said that under his administration, during his six months in India, the embassy staff has done so much as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned in space and trade and other matters. My question is here, now, Silicon Valley is ready to welcome Prime Minister Modi next month in a huge celebration and function like in New York he received a welcome. Has the Prime Minister has been invited to the White House by President Obama before he leaves for the celebration of the U.N. 70th anniversary in New York?
MR. EARNEST: Goyal, I’m not aware of any planned visits by Prime Minister Modi to the White House in conjunction with his travel to the United States for the U.N. General Assembly.
Q Second, this week marks the third anniversary of the hate crimes at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh gurdwara. Tomorrow, the members of the Sikh community is going to march from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and the White House. And several lawmakers also registered, including Congressman Joe Crowley, against hate crimes against the Sikh community. Any statement from the President? Also if anything has been done? Because they are asking anything for their safety because of their look.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, when this event -- when this tragic event originally occurred, we expressed our profound sorry at the innocent loss of life and offered our sincere condolences to the families of those who have loved ones that were killed in this vicious attack. And I think what I would remind you of is that this administration has made countering violent extremism like the violent extremism that we saw in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a top priority. And this kind of extremism manifests itself in a variety of ways. And this administration is determined to work effectively with local elected officials and local law enforcement and with community leaders across the country in communities large and small to counter it.
And this is a challenge and a risk that the administration doesn't take lightly. And our efforts, thanks to the good, hard work of our national security professionals continue 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to try to protect the American people.
Q And finally, my personal greetings and happy birthday to the President and I wish him all the best and God bless him.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Goyal.
With that, everybody, I hope that all of you will get the chance to take a little vacation while the President himself is enjoying a vacation. So while the President is out, we will not be convening these briefing settings. So you got a couple of weeks off, enjoy it. Take care, guys.
2:40 P.M. EDT