Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/26/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:51 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I appreciate you accommodating the change in the time to the briefing today. We wanted to make sure that all of you had the opportunity to see the President welcome the WNBA champions, Phoenix Mercury, to the White House.
But now that we are all assembled, let’s get started. Nancy, do you want to start us off?
Q Yeah, thanks. What was the President’s reaction to the Roanoke shooting?
MR. EARNEST: I did not have the opportunity to speak to the President about the tragic shooting that occurred earlier today in Virginia. Obviously the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were injured or killed in that terrible incident. The precise details of that incident continue to be under investigation.
But as you’ve heard me say in the past, this is another example of gun violence that is becoming all too common in communities large and small, all across the United States. And while there is no piece of legislation that will end all violence in this country, there are some common-sense things that only Congress can do that we know would have a tangible impact in reducing gun violence in this country. And Congress could take those steps in a way that would not infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And the President has long advocated Congress taking those steps, and the President continues to believe that they should do so.
Q Can you say what role federal officials will have in the investigation?
MR. EARNEST: I do know that officials from the FBI and the ATF were involved in responding and tracking down the individual who is believed to have been responsible for this violence. And I would anticipate that federal officials will be working to support state officials who will conduct the investigation.
Q Also, do you have any comment on the signing of the peace agreement in South Sudan, and what the prospects are for lasting peace there?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that was just reported within the last few hours. What I would say is that the administration believes that President Kiir made the right decision to sign the peace agreement today. But we should be just as clear that the United States and the international community does not recognize any reservations or addendums to that document. And President Kiir and the government of South Sudan should abide by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development agreement that was signed today, and they should work toward ending the conflict and rebuilding the country.
Nancy, you’ll recall that the President had the opportunity to meet with leaders of other countries in the region in discussing trying to broker some peace in South Sudan. So this is an issue that the President has not just been following but been actively engaged in. And you heard him note that South Sudan is a country that has been wracked by terrible violence in recent years, and the United States and other countries in the region have been trying to act in coordinated fashion to broker some peace there. So this is something that we’re going to continue to monitor as the situation moves forward.
Q Has the White House raised its sights on the Iran vote? And is the White House now trying to get enough votes to -- actively trying to get enough votes to block a motion of disapproval?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, what our strategy is focused on right now is building as much support as possible in both the House and the Senate for the agreement. As I’ve noted before, the appropriate congressional role here, as described and codified by Congress, is not to sign off on the agreement, but Congress does have a role in evaluating the agreement. And essentially, the role that Congress would play at this point is spoiler. Congress does have the capacity to kill this agreement.
This is an international agreement between the United States and several other countries and Iran. And our legislative efforts are focused on building enough support for the agreement to prevent Congress from spoiling, and that’s what we will continue to do. That effort has included a variety of lobbying efforts. This has included presidential phone calls. Other senior members of the President’s national security team have reached out to members of Congress and their staff members to advocate for the agreement. And you’ll note that later this afternoon the President will conduct a handful of interviews with television anchors from across the country, and this will be among the issues that will be up for discussion. And it’s the President’s view and it’s the view of his team that the more that we elevate this discussion and the more that the American people have the opportunity to hear the arguments in favor of this agreement, the more likely they are to support it. And that’s the reason that the President will do those interviews today. It’s part of our ongoing effort to build as much support for the agreement in Congress as possible.
Q So does the White House feel that it’s possible -- feasible at all to get 41 votes of support in the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the last I saw, I think that there are 26 or 27 senators who support the agreement. There are only two Democrats that have come out in opposition to it. That’s an indication that we’ve got a lot of momentum built up in terms of building support for this agreement. But what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get as many members of the Senate as possible -- and as many members of the House as possible -- to back the agreement.
I would note that there was a letter that was signed by about 150 House members prior to the completion of the comprehensive agreement back in July indicating their support for an agreement that was consistent with the aims that the President had identified for a final agreement. And the essence of the final comprehensive agreement does fulfill that criteria, and so we are optimistic that we will be able to earn the support of those who sign that letter -- we’re still hard at work in that effort. But what’s notable is that there are several Democrats in the House of Representatives who declined to sign that letter, but yet have announced their support for the final agreement.
So there are several indications that we are succeeding in our efforts to build sufficient support for the agreement in the Congress, but we certainly want to collect as many votes as possible.
Q On the television interviews. How did the White House choose the markets for those interviews, and did you pick those markets because Democratic senators in those markets have not publicly announced their intention on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, those are markets that are represented in the United States Congress by Democrats and Republicans, some of whom have not announced their final position on the agreement. Some of them have recently announced their position on that agreement, and I think they can expect some supportive comments from the President in that regard. So I think it’s a little bit of both.
Q Does the President feel more inclined to support Secretary Clinton than Vice President Biden, as some are suggesting?
MR. EARNEST: Bill, I am -- well, first of all, the Vice President has not indicated whether or not he is going to run, so it’s unclear if that’s a question that anybody will have to answer, let alone the President.
Q But we all know that it’s a possibility.
MR. EARNEST: I think the Vice President himself has acknowledged that it’s a possibility. The President -- as I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t rule out a potential endorsement in the Democratic primary at some point, regardless of what the field looks like, but I am confident that the President will do two things. One is, he will vote in the Illinois Democratic primary and that he will strongly support whatever Democratic candidate emerges from the primary process.
Q Some people around him seem to be suggesting that Secretary Clinton would be someone he sees as the more electable of the two candidates.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I have not heard the President evaluate the merits of any established candidates in comparison to any potential candidates, but the President has certainly spoken quite warmly of Secretary Clinton, her leadership, her performance as Secretary of State. And I think it would be fair for you to assume from those public comments that he believes that she would be an excellent President. But he certainly has not made any sort of public endorsement in the Democratic primary at this point.
Q Does he think the Vice President would be an excellent President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I have said earlier, the President has described selecting Vice President Biden as his running mate as the smartest political decision that he’s made in his career in public service. And I think you can reasonably conclude one of the reasons that you choose a running mate is because you can -- that you would expect them to step in an emergency situation to run the country. And I think that should give you a good indication of his view of Vice President Biden’s aptitude for the job of President of the United States.
Q Has the President told the White House staff to give the Vice President space to make his decision?
MR. EARNEST: The President has not delivered that message to me, so I can't account for all of the conversations the President has had at the White House. But I think it is the instinct of all of us who have had the opportunity to work with the Vice President over the last six or seven years to respect his stated desire to consider a presidential campaign. And certainly somebody who has the long track record in public service that he does agrees that he’s certainly earned the right to make this decision without any undue external pressure and to make this decision on a timeframe of his choosing.
Q Josh, can you confirm reports out of Saudi Arabia that King Salman has been invited to visit the White House next month?
MR. EARNEST: I cannot confirm those reports at this point. But if I’m in a position to do so, we’ll follow up with you, Mark.
Q All right. You may have heard that Governor Scott Walker is urging President Obama to cancel the scheduled state visit by President Xi of China. Any response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any direct response to that charge. I would just say that the President is looking forward -- well, let me say it this way. The President has found engagement with China to be an effective way for the United States to advance our interests around the world. The President traveled to China last fall and announced a historic climate change agreement with China in which China for the first time made a public commitment standing alongside the United States President to cap their carbon emissions. And there was a lot of skepticism among the chief critics of the President’s placing a priority on climate change policy that China would ever take any sort of meaningful step toward that goal. And by engaging with China at a variety of levels, including at the highest level, the President was able to advance our interests by conducting that engagement.
So I think that's just one example of why it’s important -- particularly in this case -- for the U.S. President to engage with his Chinese counterpart.
Q One more from the campaign trail. Donald Trump said yesterday he thinks that teleprompters ought to be outlawed. (Laughter.) Is that something that would affect the President adversely? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any -- well, I’ll just -- (laughter) -- that's a tough one to respond to, I think. I think what I'll say is --
Q -- no prompter.
MR. EARNEST: That's true. That's true. I think what I'll say is I think certainly each of the candidates has an opportunity to choose how they deliver their remarks in public, and people are much more focused not on how they deliver their remarks, but actually the substance of their message. And I'm confident that’s how all the candidates in both parties will be evaluated by the voting public in advance of Election Day.
Q Last one. President Obama said the other night that he came back from vacation feeling feisty. How is that manifesting itself?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Well, I think some people noted that the President, in his public comments both at the clean energy event in Las Vegas and at the fundraiser afterwards, that the President was feeling pretty feisty. I think that was an observation not just that the President made about himself but that others made about his comments at those two events. And I think that's a pretty good indication to me at least that a couple of weeks out of the spotlight with his family did the President some good.
Q Do you mean the reference to “crazies”?
MR. EARNEST: That's not exactly what I had in mind, no.
Q What did you have in mind? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Just I think that the President seemed pretty energized about the opportunity that Democrats have, in particular, to regain the majority in the United States Senate. And he was making that pitch on behalf of one Democratic candidate for the Senate from Nevada.
Q Thanks. A policy question. Has the White House asked appropriators to include an extension of the Export-Import Bank as part of the CR that's expected?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, what the White House has long advocated is Congress taking the long overdue step of approving some reforms to the IMF. And what this would do --
Q Export-Import Bank.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I'm sorry. I heard something totally different.
Q Not IMF. Export-Import -- Ex-Im Bank.
MR. EARNEST: On the Ex-Im Bank, we obviously believe that this should be a congressional priority, that there’s a significant economic impact at stake here. And we do believe that Congress should reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.
I don't have any details to share with you specifically about the way that we believe that should get done. As you’ll recall, I did make a case prior to the congressional recess that Congress should act on a longer-term infrastructure bill and include the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank as a part of that package. Unfortunately, that did not occur, despite the fact that there is strong bipartisan support for the Ex-Im Bank.
So we're hopeful that when Congress returns that they will find a way, whatever it is, to act quickly to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank is something that has long earned bipartisan support, and reauthorizations have been signed into law by both Democratic and Republican Presidents, including President Reagan, who talked about the economic benefits of a high-performing Export-Import Bank. And so we're hopeful that Congress will take that step.
Q Josh, if you had to put a grade on the severity of arm-twisting going on right now by the President to members of Congress to get them onboard with this Iran deal, where would you put that grade, especially compared to other foreign policy issues in the past where you had to lobby and really stump members for their votes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Scott, I think those of you -- I would put you in this category -- those who have been following this closely have seen the administration engage in a pretty aggressive effort to engage members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to encourage them to support the agreement. And we did that despite the fact that many Republicans, even before the deal was announced, declared it a bad deal.
So that may be an indication that not everybody who is receiving briefings is actually coming to those briefings with an open mind, but that didn’t stop the administration from organizing classified briefings for every member of Congress in both the House and the Senate. That included presentations by Secretary Kerry, Secretary Lew, Secretary Moniz. These are the individuals who are responsible for negotiating the agreement and implementing the sanctions that allowed this agreement to come to fruition in the first place.
So we've also allowed senior administration officials, including the three gentlemen that I just mentioned, to participate in open testimony before Congress, in committee hearings where they were able to take questions in public, under oath, from members of Congress to help them understand exactly what was included in the agreement. And in addition to all of those activities, you’ve also seen an aggressive campaign by a wide variety of senior administration officials, including the President of the United States, and having one-on-one conversations with members of Congress about why they should support this agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. And the case that they have made in those private settings would be very familiar to all of you because it tracks closely with the case that I and Secretary Moniz have made for the agreement even in this room.
Q During the Affordable Care Act push, for example, though, there were a lot of allies on the Hill who were perhaps more enthusiastic and more open about their support of it and were actually pushing their colleagues to get onboard. It seems like this time you're going at it a little bit more alone than, for example, in that occurrence.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think I would entirely agree with that assessment. Leader Pelosi put out I think a very forceful statement not just indicating her own strong support for this agreement, but encouraging her colleagues to support it as well. On the Senate side, we've seen Senator Durbin be quite aggressive in terms of marshaling support for this agreement. And on Sunday, I think the written statement from Senator Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, was quite forceful in advocating the benefits of this agreement.
So there is no doubt that the administration has been very forceful in making our case. But we have been pleased to see other leaders in both the House and the Senate make a similarly strong case in encouraging their colleagues to support this agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Q Three subjects. First -- it just came up -- Amelia Boynton has died. She is a crusader for voting rights in Alabama during the civil rights time. What does the White House have to say? Has the President said anything about it?
MR. EARNEST: April, I learned of this shortly before I came out here. We will have a statement from the President on her passing later today.
Q And he was with her, though, on --
MR. EARNEST: The President did have the opportunity to see her when he traveled down to Selma back in the spring, and he obviously mourns her passing. But we'll have something more formal from the President of the United States before the end of the day today.
Q Okay. Two other subjects. This week, 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Ten years ago, the Bush administration, the United States pushed away any efforts from Cuba to help in the rescue, recovery and medical help. And understanding that this newly forged relationship with the U.S. and Cuba is going on, was it a mistake 10 years ago to push Cuba away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, over the last 10 years, there have been a lot of questions and concerns raised about the immediate response to Hurricane Katrina. And that's been well-chronicled, that there were significant shortcomings in that emergency response. And there is much that this administration has done to make sure that our government and our country is better prepared to respond to significant disasters like Hurricane Katrina. I guess it's unclear now exactly how our improved relationship with Cuba would affect that kind of offer in the future. I think what I would say is, because of our efforts to reform and improve the federal government’s response to these kinds of emergencies, that the need to accept assistance from nations like Cuba hopefully would not be necessary in the future. But at this point, I would be reluctant to re-litigate that long history.
Q So you all say, 10 years later, with lessons learned, and in effect, you said there were some things that could have been done differently and better, you would not say it was wrong to turn away Cuba’s help?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would just say that I think that there have been a lot of legitimate critiques offered about the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. I wouldn’t itemize them at this point.
Q And lastly, Thursday, tomorrow, is day 500 for the missing Nigerian girls. And there was a CODEL led by Darrel Issa to Nigeria recently. And that CODEL included Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida. And she said that senators in Nigeria said to that CODEL that the girls could have been found -- well, could have been brought back because -- that there was a problem with negotiations with Boko Haram and the Nigerians. They wanted to exchange the girls for inmates or for those in prison. What do you say about that when you have Israel, you have the United States, France, other countries that are helping that have successful negotiators? Have you heard about this? And what do you say about that negotiation process breaking down in Nigeria with Boko Haram?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, the nation of Nigeria is leading the ongoing search for the kidnapped girls, and the United States and other countries will continue to provide support for that effort. As you know, there is a U.S. advisory team in Abuja right now that includes both military and law enforcement elements to try to assist the Nigerian government as they conduct this search. At this point, I don't have an update to share in terms of what progress has been made or any information about where that process currently stands. But it is one that we continue to lend assets to support.
I would also say that we continue to encourage Nigeria to pursue a comprehensive approach toward countering Boko Haram. And the United States and some of our partners are providing significant and even increased funding for countries like Chad and Cameroon and Niger to encourage regional cooperation on border security and counterterrorism as they confront this threat from Boko Haram.
Q Would the administration support the negotiation with a terrorist group to bring back the girls in exchange for prisoners?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what this administration would do is support the Nigerian government as they lead the search for the Nigerian girls. And we obviously have resources that we can lend to the effort that improve their efforts, but ultimately this ongoing effort is one that’s being led by the Nigerian government.
Q I hate to keep pounding on this, but Congresswoman Frederica Wilson said twice they could have had the girls back but there was a problem -- they don’t know how to negotiate. So I mean, what can the United States do in efforts to help negotiate or what have you? I mean, even the First Lady came out saying, “Bring back our girls.” I mean, is there something that the United States can do to help them in the negotiation process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have been doing, April, is we have -- there is certain military and law enforcement expertise, and there are some technical capabilities that we can offer that will improve their efforts and, frankly, have improved their efforts to try to find the girls. It has not yet been sufficient to successfully rescue them, but this is something that our efforts on the ground are oriented to supporting, which are the ongoing Nigerian efforts to find the girls.
Q The other day you were talking about the U.S. economy, and you warned against self-inflicted wounds. What is the President’s responsibility to try and head those off? And what is he doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, right now, as you know, it’s the Congress’s responsibility to pass a budget for the federal government. This is a responsibility that was given to the United States Congress by our Founding Fathers. It’s enshrined in the Constitution, and it’s one of the most basic responsibilities that any Congress has.
And we have been quite disappointed at the refusal of the Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate to even begin the process of sitting down to negotiate with Democrats to trying to find bipartisan ground that would allow for the passage of a budget that properly funds both our economic needs and our national security requirements on time.
And that’s been the source of significant disappointment here. The Democrats in the both the House and the Senate have indicated that they’re ready to have those negotiations. The administration has put forward a budget; we did that six months ago -- almost seven months ago now. And we have indicated our willingness to support those ongoing talks that, many times in the context of those highly technical discussions, there will be a need for the administration and some technical experts to offer some advice and support to those ongoing negotiations. We’re prepared to do that.
But right now, there aren’t any Republicans sitting on the Republican side of the table ready to engage in a bipartisan discussion about passing a budget and doing it on time to prevent a government shutdown. In fact, what we’re actually seeing is we’re seeing some prominent voices in the Republican Party actually advocating for the shutdown of the federal government.
Q Looking at your agenda for the fall and when you know the congressional agenda for the fall, is it your top priority to try to avert a government shutdown?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got a lot of priorities in Congress right now. And after Congress gets back from their August recess, they’ve got a pretty long to-do list, and it’s filled with some not insignificant items. It certainly includes not killing the Iran deal, but it also includes making sure that they fulfill their responsibility to pass a budget that properly funds both our economic and our national security priorities on time. And that certainly could be described as a presidential priority. And I think given the kind of instability we’ve seen in the global financial markets, added instability in the form of a government shutdown is a really bad idea for the U.S. economy and for U.S. middle-class families.
Q I also just want to make sure I understand what you mean when you say “killing the Iran deal.” You still maintain that it’s not Congress’s role to approve the Iran deal, but you’re talking about the sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m talking about are that Congress has established for themselves the process by which they will review the Iran deal. And so Congress themselves have -- it is not their responsibility to give approval for the agreement, but we are concerned because Congress does have the authority to spoil it. And we certainly want to build enough support to prevent them from doing that.
Q And by “spoil” you mean refuse to let the President lift the sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly. They refuse to allow the United States to implement an international agreement that basically the rest of the world has signed off on. And what that would do is it would undermine the kind of global unity that has allowed us to make so much progress in pressuring Iran to make these significant commitments to reduce their uranium stockpile by 98 percent, to unplug thousands of centrifuges, to effectively dismantle their heavy-water reactor at Arak, and submit to the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. None of those restrictions and limitations will go into effect if the United States backs out of this international agreement.
Q Josh, tomorrow the President gives a speech on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He was barely a United States senator 10 years ago when Katrina happened. What is he going to say? Does he believe that climate change plays a role in these water storms, these large weather events that are happening across the country? And how does this fold into what he’s going to be saying up in Alaska? It seems like he’s been sort of on a climate push lately. How does the Katrina component fit into all of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think the President will say a couple of things. The first is, I think we’ve been pretty clear that there’s not any one weather event that can be directly attributed to climate change. But there’s no denying what scientists tell us, which is that there is reason to be concerned about these storms getting worse and more violent. And one thing that the President will certainly talk about in New Orleans tomorrow is the need for the federal government, and in communities all across the country, to make the kinds of investments in resilience so that our communities can better withstand stronger tornadoes, more violent hurricanes, more widespread wildfires, those kinds of things.
Q He seems to almost be resigned to that as being what’s going to happen.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what’s prudent, Jim, is for us to both confront the impact of climate change as it exists now, but also take the longer-term steps that can prevent the impacts of climate change from getting even worse. And that’s why the President has aggressively pushed the Clean Power Plan, has advocated for some of the investments in clean energy that he talked about on Monday, and is working aggressively on the international scene, including in China, to get other countries to make similar commitments to reduce carbon pollution to try to prevent the impacts of climate change from getting even worse.
Q And this afternoon the Vice President is going to be on a conference call with the DNC to talk about the Iran deal. Is he going to be speaking on behalf of the administration when he does that?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. So this is the -- I don’t know -- is this the DNC summer meeting or their fall meeting -- I’m not sure. We’re sort of in the middle here.
Q It’s not fall yet.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true, as the Vice President will be the first person to tell you, I suppose.
Q It’s not September 23rd yet.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. But this is a -- so this is their regular meeting and it’s not uncommon for senior administration officials to address the members of the Democratic National Committee on key issues of the day. The President, you’ll recall, spoke to the DNC at their -- I believe it was their winter meeting earlier this year here in Washington. And so what the Vice President is doing today is entirely consistent with that and it will be sort of an outline of why the President has made preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon a top priority and why the administration continues to believe that this agreement is the best way to do that.
Q But there’s no wink and a nod there that the Vice President is going to be delivering from a political standpoint -- it seems to be that if it’s something the administration wants to get out there, why not just open it up to everybody and let the cameras in? If the Vice President makes a forceful case, you’ll want that out there, don’t you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, if the Vice President is winking and nodding, it will be hard to tell because he’ll be on the phone. But, look, the Vice President has, in a variety of settings, made a very forceful case for this agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And he has delivered some public comments on this, and I think what you are likely to hear from Democratic members who participate in that call is the case that the Vice President makes will be very similar to the case that you’ve already heard him make publicly before.
Q And one final thing. Maybe the President has commented on this to you, maybe he hasn’t. I know sometimes he weighs in on political items. But over the last several days, it seems the immigration rhetoric on the campaign trail has gotten very hot. And I won’t walk through all of them, but just last night Donald Trump said to Jorge Ramos from Univision, “Go back to Univision,” and kicked him out of a press conference. They kicked him out of a press conference -- said “Go back to Univision.” What do you guys make of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my first response is that I’m not sure that it’s a successful media strategy to physically remove reporters who are asking tough questions. I think if that were the case, I’d be bringing a much larger security contingent than I have today. (Laughter.) Although they're tougher than they look. I will say that.
But, look, there is no denying that the kind of rhetoric that we’ve seen when it comes to immigration policy has been alarming to a lot of people. And I don't think it reflects the values that are shared by the vast majority of the American public.
Q Hey, Josh. Is the President still resigned to the belief that Congress won’t enact any meaningful gun control reform so long as he’s President, or as long as there isn’t that movement of public support that we haven’t seen materialize? Is he still resigned to that? And he talked about this as his biggest frustration. Is he doing anything to resolve that frustration? Where is he with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Devin, I think what I would describe -- the President has himself described this as his greatest frustration as President. And the President’s views on this certainly haven’t changed. The President believes strongly that there are some common-sense steps that Congress could take that would have an impact, a positive impact in reducing gun violence. And we could do that in a way that wouldn’t undermine the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
I think -- there is little argument about that, I think. There continues to, however, be a very vocal portion of the U.S. population -- I think it’s a minority, and I think the polls bear that out -- however, that has a lot of sway in Congress when it comes to issues related to guns.
And the President has found that disappointing and frustrating principally because he believes it’s bad public policy for us to not take common-sense steps to address what I think we all acknowledge is a pretty significant problem.
But I think the President has also been disappointed that our political system hasn’t responded in the way that he would like. There are clear majorities in both the Democratic and Republican parties -- according to many polls -- for these policies. There are even some polls that indicate that there are clear majorities of gun owners that support some of these common-sense steps, but yet we haven’t seen Congress take this action. And that has been the source of significant frustration.
Q But I hear you saying essentially he’s resigned to the fact that this is an impasse and there’s basically not much he can do about it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is clear the President has taken executive action -- a number of executive actions -- to try to address some of the holes in the system. There are some steps that the administration has taken to reduce gun violence, and those are -- and do that in a way that doesn't undermine the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And the President has taken a number of those steps already. But at the same time, there are some steps that only Congress has the authority to take, and the President certainly is hopeful that they will.
At the same time, I think the President has made -- I think reached a logical conclusion which is that he’s going to continue to advocate for this, even aggressively. But we're not likely to see the kind of congressional action that most Americans like to see until most Americans make clear that this is something that Congress needs to do. And if they don't, that there will be consequences in the ballot box.
Q And if I may real quickly, just on 2016, given the divided loyalties and all the talk about the Vice President running, is it safe to say it would be easier for this White House if Vice President Biden did not run?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know there are some who have made that assessment. I think if -- well, let me just say that that's certainly an assessment that other people are welcome to conclude. What we have said -- and as I mentioned to Bill -- the Vice President has more than earned the right to have the space and time that he needs to make a decision about whether or not he’d like to be a candidate for President.
Q Charles Koch responding to the President’s comments in Las Vegas the other day said that he was “flabbergasted and dumbfounded” by being singled out by the President. He said it was “beneath the dignity of the office.” I’m wondering what you make of that. Should he be as flabbergasted and dumbfounded as he says he was? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure whether to describe those comments as remarkably rich or utterly predictable. The fact is the President of the United States noted that the oil and gas industry benefits significantly from tax subsidies and other policy preferences that make that industry even more lucrative than it otherwise would be. And so it’s not surprising that when the President is advocating, for example, the end of tax subsidies that benefit oil and gas companies that somebody who has made billions of dollars leading an oil and gas company might not think very highly of that policy proposal.
I think what is also interesting is the claim that somehow Koch Industries hasn’t advocated for the continuation of those policies. The fact is that Koch Industries has spent at least tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress -- these are publicly available disclosures -- in support of those kinds of policies to say nothing of the millions of dollars that they have spent punishing those candidates that didn't side with them.
So what I think is illustrative about this exchange over the last 24 hours is this is exactly why the President ran for office, it’s why he ran for this office -- is that for too long we saw the oil and gas industry exert significant pressure on politicians in Washington, D.C. And that did have an impact on the ability of the federal government to make smart policy decisions in terms of offering preferences to oil and gas companies and not making the kinds of investments that we know we should be making in renewable and clean energy. And that's -- I guess to borrow a phrase -- that's change you believe in.
Q But given what you just described the lobbying efforts, the campaign tactics that have gotten pretty rough, are you surprised that Charles Koch is so sensitive to the President’s statement? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I guess. Yes. (Laughter.)
Q Was the President surprised to hear that response?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no. Primarily -- again, this is something that we have seen in a variety of areas where when the President decides that we're going to take on a challenge that Washington has resisted for too long, that the special interests, including the millionaires and billionaires that have benefited from that paralysis start to squeal. And I guess in this case, at least one billionaire special interest benefactor chose to squeal to a Politico reporter.
But the fact is, again, this is exactly what the President had in mind when he said he wanted to run for office and again change business as usual in Washington, D.C. And that means fighting to end the kinds of tax subsidies that the oil and gas industry doesn't need and, frankly, make sure that we're making the smart investments in clean energy that will be good for the planet but also good for the economy.
Q Does the President believe that Charles Koch is a good judge of what the dignity of the office is and what’s beneath it and what’s above it?
MR. EARNEST: He’s certainly allowed to express his opinion about what he believes the dignity of the office is. But again, I think in this case the facts speak for themselves.
Q Just one last one. The President is pushing for criminal justice reform measures. The Koch Brothers are in support of a lot of the same things. Are you worried about -- given that this has now become a little bit more of a direct fight than it even had been in previous weeks and months, that that may endanger the sort of unlikely alliance that you guys have over that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not particularly concerned about that because I think that the differences that this administration has with the oil and gas industry about tax subsidies that benefit the oil and gas industry and appropriate investments in clean energy are well-known differences.
And so I don't think that, despite the comments that Mr. Koch had for Politico, I don't think he was surprised to hear the President’s position on that issue. And I’m hopeful -- I certainly -- let me say it this way. It certainly is not going to impact the desire of the President or this administration to work with anybody who is interested in bringing greater justice to our criminal justice system.
Q I have a couple political questions. One is -- so the Vice President is obviously involved in Iran, for example, and a bunch of the other issues that are going to be all center stage throughout the month of September. Without reading out any actual quotes from their personal meetings, has President Obama talked with the Vice President about kind of how to --
Has President Obama talked with the Vice President about kind of how to balance his desire to use him to make the case in areas of strength without appearing to be preferential or influencing the primary?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, I want to be real respectful of the private conversation between the President and Vice President, so I don’t have a lot of insight to share with you about those conversations. I will say at this point that the Vice President does continue to be engaged in a variety of topics that are critical to the success of the country and the administration. And there’s no evidence that I have seen that his ongoing deliberations about his presidential ambitions have in any way impacted the busy -- the full agenda that he has as Vice President of the United States.
Q Also, I’m wondering if -- when the President is thinking about whether he may eventually support someone in that primary, there’s been a lot of speculation that, you know, it’s Obama, he’s pragmatic, he would go with whoever he though could win the general election and carry on his legacy. Would you say that that would be his driving motivation, or that he thinks primaries are a place to express your emotions and your heart and who you want?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my first observation is that in the best candidates, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. And when the President has made a decision to endorse someone and if he makes a decision to publicly endorse someone, I’m confident that he’ll have a very robust explanation for why he has made that decision.
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident.
Q Can I do a China one real quick?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q With the Xi visit coming up, do you expect that the President will either sort of grill him or offer him advice on the economy, or do you think he’s more likely to stick primarily to some of these other issues like cyber espionages?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no doubt that the President will certainly raise, as he has in every previous meeting with his Chinese counterpart, concerns about China’s behavior in cyberspace. Those concerns are well-chronicled and I’m confident will be the subject of discussion when the President meets with his counterpart.
At the same time, as we discussed a little bit yesterday -- or I guess it was Monday -- there is the economic instability that we’ve seen in China has contributed to some volatility in financial markets across the globe. And in this interconnected 21st-century economy, the President is mindful of that. At the same time, he is also mindful of the sovereignty of China and we certainly respect that sovereignty. At the same time, we’ve also advocated a variety of reforms that China should put in place because of the positive impact they would not just have on the Chinese economy but on the global economy. And I’m confident that the President will once again reiterate and even press China to make more rapid progress in implementing those reforms.
Q Thank you, Josh. I have two questions I’d like to hear your comments on. One is, some members of U.S.-trained Syrian opposition would have told American news media website, McClatchy, that Turkish National Intelligence Organization orchestrated el Nusra attacks against the group. So Turkish officials denied the allegations and said that claims were completely baseless and part of psychological operation target in Turkey. What’s your view on it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Emel, I would -- for an explanation of the Turkish government’s position on this, it sounds like they’ve issued a statement on this, but I’d refer you to them for a better explanation of their position if that’s what you’re seeking. What our view of the situation is, is that for quite some time now we have been urging our allies in Turkey to become more deeply involved in the international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
And in the last several weeks, we have reached agreements and secured commitments from our allies in Turkey to become more deeply involved in that effort. And we certainly welcome the important contribution that they have to make to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And there is an ongoing effort right now at the Department of Defense to capitalize on the commitment that Turkey has made to conduct air operations against ISIL, and the Department of Defense is working to integrate their capabilities into the broader anti-ISIL air campaign. So we certainly welcome their involvement and we’ll seek to effectively integrate it with the 60 or so other nations who are involved in this ongoing effort.
Q My second question is about the issue of foreign fighters for ISIL. As you know, Secretary of Defense already said Turkey should do more against ISIL. And today, Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, addressed the critics of Turkey foreign fighters. Çavuşoğlu said, “Those countries that say ‘Turkey has not fulfilled its duty in terms of foreign fighters’ or Turkey ‘could do more’ are releasing the very foreign fighters we send back to them.” Çavuşoğlu said, without naming any country, adding that some of them "are calling it freedom of travel". So do you agree Turkey should do more? Or what does the U.S. administration want Turkey do? This is a problem for all the countries -- foreign fighters?
MR. EARNEST: This is a problem that the President has long been mindful of. And you’ll recall that almost a year ago now, the President convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council -- just the second time that a U.S. President had ever convened a meeting like that -- to discuss with other heads of state this very issue. And the reason for that is that it is in the clear national security interest of countries all around the globe to stem the flow of foreign fighters to the Syria-Iraq region. And this does place a significant burden on other countries in the region because they are likely to be the path that some of these foreign fighters take.
Now, it's also true that in some ways those countries in the region have an even greater personal incentive to counter the flow of foreign fighters. And we have heard Turkey repeatedly express significant concerns about their long border with Syria and the unique security challenges the instability inside of Syria poses for Turkey. And that's why you see the United States and some of our coalition partners try to work effectively with Turkey to address the security situation along the border. And the border, as I recall, is a little over 500 miles long and there’s only about 60 or 70 miles of that border that is now the focus of our ongoing efforts to eventually gain control of the entire border.
That will obviously have a negative impact on ISIL and, therefore, a positive impact on our effort to counter ISIL. It also will have a positive impact on the security situation inside of Turkey. And so we certainly welcome Turkey’s renewed commitment to that effort, and the United States and our coalition partners are working closely with them to eventually completely secure the long land border between Turkey and Syria.
Q On the campaign trail, some Republicans seem willing on the issue of immigration to reevaluate or revisit the 14th Amendment to find policy solutions that meet what they see as the needs of the system. When we're talking about gun control, does the President feel like his efforts are circumscribed by the 2nd Amendment, or does the magnitude of the things that we've seen so far force a similar reinvestigation or reevaluation of even that basic constitutional freedom?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, the President does not advocate changing the 2nd Amendment. He believes that we can actually take common-sense steps that are entirely consistent with the protections included in the 2nd Amendment but would actually have an important impact on reducing gun violence in this country. And that's why you’ve heard me on many occasions say that there are some common-sense things that Congress can do, and I describe those things as common sense in part because of the obvious impact they would have on making our communities more safe, but I also say that because it wouldn't require a substantial change to something as significant as the Constitution of the United States.
Q I know that he’s not going to take his cues from Republicans, let alone Republicans on immigration, let alone Republicans who want to change the 14th Amendment. But I wonder about when they’re talking about nibbling around the edges of those protections to try to solve this immigration issue, if there are any cues that can be taken to enhance the effort that the President wants to see on the 2nd Amendment and on this gun control problem because it's proved to be such a thorny issue and because there’s nothing that has been amenable to this Congress or even previous Congresses. Is there any other way to get this done? Or are the bounds as they currently exist something the President is willing to accept?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I think that there are some -- as you point out, there are some Republican candidates for President that are advocating a change to the Constitution. When it comes to gun safety measures, the President believes that there are common-sense things that Congress can do that don't, frankly, have constitutional implications, that don't undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And again, that's why I would describe some of those steps as so common sense.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about ISIS. An interesting piece in the Times you may have read -- the DOD IG investigating claims that some of the intelligence reports may have actually been altered to create a more favorable view of the ongoing battle against ISIS in Iraq. Is the President aware of that report, and does he view that with any concern?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I haven't discussed the report with the President. For details on the report, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. I can tell you that the President’s expectation is that his national security team will work diligently to get information to him and other members of the team that reflects an accurate assessment of what’s exactly happening on the ground. The President and his team rely on that information to make good policy decisions.
And you’ve heard me discuss in this setting a number of times how the President regularly tells his team to evaluate our policy and to look for opportunities to refine it, to reform it, or to even make improvements to that policy that will yield benefits on the ground. So that's why it's so important to the President that we have a clear picture of what’s actually taking place on the ground inside of Iraq and in Syria because that's what’s going to lead to the best policy decisions. And that's why the President places a premium on getting an unvarnished assessment from the intelligence community.
Now, what the intelligence community also does -- and they can give you a more sophisticated explanation of this -- but one of the things they place a priority on doing is making sure that they’re getting differing points of view on what’s happening on the ground, making sure they’re not just relying on one analyst’s assessment, but rather getting assessments from a variety of agencies that are involved in the effort.
And that yields, in the mind of our experts, the best, richest account of the facts on the ground. And the President uses those facts to set a policy that’s in the best interest of the country.
Q Are we winning against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Kevin, the President has described this as a campaign that is likely to be marked by periods of progress and periods of setback. And I think the best illustration that I can provide to you is that, again, according to those intelligence assessments, that ISIL in Iraq can no longer operate freely in 30 percent of the territory that they previously held. That's an indication that important gains have been made. And some of that is a testament to the effective cooperation between Iraqi security forces on the ground and coalition airpower that are flying in the skies over ISIL that have now taken nearly 6,400 strikes now, if you include both Iraq and Syria.
So that's an indication that we've made important progress. We've discussed in here on many occasions those setbacks that we've also sustained. And there’s no denying that there’s a lot more important work that needs to be done.
Q Because the airstrikes, by my recollection, started I think in August of ’14 in Iraq, maybe a month later in Syria. And yet the latest intelligence seems to suggest that ISIS is not much weaker -- or demonstratively, not weaker at all. So I'm wondering if the President views that with a great deal of frustration, if you’re having airstrikes on a consistent basis over a period of months, by the hundreds, and yet they’re not weaker.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they’re in the thousands. And I think, Kevin, I think there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that ISIL has been weakened by this air campaign. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Department of Defense announced that one of these airstrikes actually took the number two in ISIL off the battlefield. And that's an indication that we're applying enormous pressure to the leadership of ISIL.
Again, I cited the statistic that about 30 percent of the territory that ISIL previously operated in is not territory that they can now freely move in. And that's an indication that they’re undergoing pressure. I think what’s also true is we have never believed that this campaign would succeed only through airstrikes, that what our coalition would rely upon are boots on the ground. And the President has ruled out a large-scale offensive deployment of U.S. military personnel, but we do have Iraqi security forces on the ground. Many of them are being trained by the United States and other coalition partners. And we are seeing their performance improve on the battlefield, particularly when they are effectively partnered with these coalition airstrikes. But there’s no denying that there’s a lot more work to be done in this area.
Q Last one, on training. Have you gotten an update, has the President received an update from Defense Secretary Carter on the training of Syrians -- that effort?
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen a recent update on this. I know the President is getting regular updates in this area, but I haven't seen a public one recently.
Q Is it worth it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense in terms of an updated assessment.
Q Josh, as you know, there’s an immigration refugee crisis in southern and central Europe as individuals and families escape from Afghanistan and Syria and make their way up through the Balkans. And now they’re in Serbia, and Hungary is actually building a wall to keep them away. They’re trying to seek asylum, especially in Germany and Austria, where they can be treated like refugees and get some sort of recognition. Has the President been in touch with members of the EU who are bearing this burden and also frightened that some of these individuals will, in fact, be predisposed to terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, I'm not aware of any recent conversations on this particular topic. But there’s been a lot of public accounting of the significant challenges that the EU has had to face when it comes to immigration policy. Earlier this summer, there were some high-profile incidents in the Mediterranean Sea where there were immigrants bound for the EU that lost their life in that body of water. And there were questions that were raised about what the EU policy response would be.
So I know this is an issue that has gotten a lot of attention there, but I'm not aware of any recent conversations with the President and the EU leaders to discuss it.
Q Josh, on the speech in New Orleans tomorrow, I know you don't want to give away the whole speech here, but would you say it's mainly a climate change speech tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that mainly what it is, is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable revival of an American city. If you think back nine and a half years ago, I don't think anybody would have envisioned the dramatic progress the city of New Orleans has made. And this is, once again, a thriving, exciting place to live and do business. And that's a testament to the grit and determination of the people of New Orleans, who were clearly committed to their community. And they had the strong support of the federal government, as, frankly, I think the people of New Orleans and people of Louisiana in either party would readily tell you. And I think in the mind of the President, this is an indication of what communities can do when they band together, but it's also what our country can do when we act together in pursuit of even an ambitious goal like helping a great American city like New Orleans recover from a terrible disaster.
Q And one follow. You mentioned the people’s attitudes. LSU came out with a poll this week that showed pretty significant racial disparities in the way people view the recovery in Louisiana and New Orleans. Almost four-fifths of white people in the poll said, yes, we have recovered; a majority -- I think it was 59 percent of African American residents in New Orleans say that we have not mainly recovered. How do you account for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Davie, I think some of my friends in New Orleans can probably better explain those poll results than I can. But I think what I would observe is that those kinds of differing assessments of the economic situation in New Orleans were evident before the storm. And that's why -- we've heard this message from Mayor Landrieu that no longer should the reference point be about trying to rebuild that city back to where it was before the storm; that they can set their sights higher now. Based on the progress that they have made, there is an opportunity for them to expand economic opportunity for every citizen in the city of New Orleans.
And that's the kind of vision that Mayor Landrieu has for the city, and again, I think it's a testament to his strong leadership that they’ve made so much progress so far and I think that he’s shown the kind of leadership that will ensure the success of that city and that community for decades to come.
Q We’ve asked a lot of questions over the last few days about Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. I'm wondering, would the President also consider -- is he also considering endorsing Bernie Sanders?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, when -- I previously have not ruled out a public endorsement of some kind of the Democratic field. And I'm confident that the President will evaluate the candidacies and candidates of everyone in the Democratic Party who’s running for President before he makes a decision about who to support if he eventually makes a public proclamation or a public endorsement.
Q And did the administration touch base with Bernie Sanders, or did the President talk to Bernie Sanders about the Iran deal? I know that there’s been a lot about reach to a lot of members of the Senate.
MR. EARNEST: The administration has been in touch, including the President, has been in touch with a lot of senators. We haven't chronicled every individual conversation, but I can certainly confirm to you that Senator Sanders had a number of conversations with senior administration officials to make sure that he understood the details of the agreement. And again, I think it's evidence of this administration’s dogged commitment to engage individual members of Congress on the deal. And we were certainly pleased to enjoy -- to see that Senator Sanders was a strong advocate for the agreement.
We'll do one more. In the back. I'll give you the last one. Jim, I'll come back to you. So we'll do in back and then we'll come to you.
Q Following the conversation on gun violence and kind of in concert with what the President wants to do legislatively, I wonder if he has any concerns about the places where responsible, law-abiding gun owners are not allowed to carry their guns. And I use Washington, D.C. as an example. Despite police efforts, we've seen a dramatic increase in gun violence, yet responsible gun owners are not generally prohibited from carrying guns in the District. So, I mean, does that also trouble the President in talking about trying to curb gun violence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the common-sense steps that the President has often observed Congress could take would be things like closing the gun show loophole. This is a loophole and a law that allows individuals to purchase a firearm at a gun show without undergoing a background check. And again, that's the kind of step that we could take that wouldn't prevent a law-abiding American from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights but yet could prevent some individuals who shouldn’t have a gun -- who we all agree shouldn’t have a gun -- from getting one so easily.
So those are the kinds of common-sense steps that the President has in mind. There are a variety of other gun laws that have been made in individual communities. I think another thing that the President has also acknowledged -- it's reasonable for different communities to reach different conclusions about what their gun laws should be, that the laws about gun safety in a sparsely populated rural community I think could justifiably be different than a dense urban community like the District of Columbia.
And so we should be able to account for those kinds of different circumstances when designing what are the best gun safety laws. But again, I think it's common sense -- and the vast majority of Americans and even, according to some polls, a majority of gun owners agree that something like closing the gun show loophole would be a common-sense step that would make communities large and small safer.
Jim, I’ll give you that last one.
Q Okay, I’d like to follow up on Kevin’s question.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q In light of these reports that some intelligence analysis may have been manipulated to make the efforts there in Iraq appear to be bearing more fruit than perhaps they are, does the President retain complete confidence in the kind of intelligence analysis and operational reporting he gets from both the military and the Pentagon regarding the war against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the President certainly insists in getting regular updates from his team about what’s happening on the ground and what is the true impact of the policy decisions that the President is making here at the White House.
And the President is relying on accurate, honest, candid analysis and assessments from his national security team when making those decisions. And at this point the President does have confidence that that's what he’s receiving. And one of the reasons is that the intelligence community has placed a priority in trying to get a variety of viewpoints when offering up their analysis of what’s exactly happening on the ground.
And that is a policy effort that the President believes was worth pursuing and certainly would expect that his team and the intelligence community that he relies so heavily on will continue to do that.
Q Have the President and the NSC ever found or felt that they had been deceived or misled by the kind of intelligence analysis or operational reporting they’ve received from the Pentagon regarding the war on ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- I do feel comfortable in making this blanket statement, which is that the President and the senior members of his team here at the White House have found that their interactions and their meetings -- even in the context of very difficult policy deliberations -- that members of our armed services and members of the intelligence community are very diligent about what they do.
These are true professionals who believe in the national security of their country and have made -- in some cases -- significant personal sacrifices to try to protect our national security interests. And I think that even in those situations where there has been a robust discussion and even a debate on some of these difficult policy decisions, the President and his national security team have never called into question the motive of those individuals who are making those arguments, even when those arguments didn't ultimately prevail when the President had to make a decision.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good afternoon.
2:04 P.M. EDT