Press Gaggle with Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Dillingham, AK
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Dillingham, Alaska
11:13 A.M. AKDT
MR. EARNEST: We'll do two quick things at the top, and then we'll go to your questions. The first is, I want to make sure that each of you saw the statement from the President that we issued shortly before takeoff. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the formal end of World War II in the Pacific. And it's an appropriate day for us to once again remember the Greatest Generation of Americans that sacrificed so much and made such a substantial contribution to our freedom. The President put out a long statement on this, but today is an important day to remember that.
The second thing is I wanted to let you know that the President is enthusiastic about the United States Olympic Committee’s announcement that the City of Los Angeles will be the U.S. bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The City of Los Angeles, as I think all of you know, has twice hosted the Summer Olympic Games, and we are enthusiastic about the prospect of them hosting those games again. The City of Los Angeles knows what an undertaking hosting these games would be. They’ve got substantial infrastructure already in place. And let’s face it, there’s a lot that the City of Los Angeles can uniquely deliver to host a successful and truly memorable Olympic Games, featuring the best athletes in the world.
So this is a longer process that won't be determined until sometime in 2017. But obviously the President and First Lady are very enthusiastic and strongly supportive of the bid put forward by the City of Los Angeles.
So, with that, let’s go to your questions.
Q What’s the President’s reaction to Senator Mikulski becoming the 34th vote in support of the Iran deal?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the administration is encouraged that more than a third of the United States Senate has now indicated that they’ll support the successful implementation of the international diplomatic agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
This strong support is a validation of the outreach that the President and his team have organized to make sure that every member of the Senate understands exactly what’s included in this agreement. Since this agreement was announced in mid-July, the administration has organized classified briefings, has testified under oath, and has engaged in a wide range of small group meetings and even one-on-one conversations to help members of Congress exactly understand how this agreement would be implemented, what impact it would have on Iran’s nuclear program, and precisely how we can verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
So we are encouraged about the latest tally. But when the stakes are this high, Josh, every vote is important. And there still are a number of members of Congress in both the House and the Senate that have not yet indicated that they’ll support the agreement. And everyone from the President on down will continue to be engaged in marshalling the information necessary so that undecided members of Congress can reach their own conclusions about the agreement.
And I've regularly indicated to you that we intended to build as much support as possible in both the House and the Senate. And that's why our efforts even as we speak today are continuing.
Q -- to get to 41?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, our goal has not changed. Our goal is to build as much support as we can in both the House and the Senate for the successful implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that's why even for those members of Congress that have not announced a position on the agreement, we're going to continue to offer them briefings, access to senior administration officials, including those officials who negotiated the agreement, to help them understand exactly what impact this would have on Iran’s nuclear program, how it would prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and how we will work with the international community and international experts to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
And of course, we're going to continue to make the case that this is not just the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but that Congress’s success in killing the deal only makes another military confrontation in the Middle East more likely.
Q The Vice President is down in Florida today to sell the deal, and there was kind of a snafu at the DNC where Debbie Wasserman Schultz apparently pulled back a resolution supporting the Iran deal. Can you talk about if she continues to retain the confidence of the President, and if he was disappointed with that decision?
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I spent a couple of years working at the DNC. However I am not an expert on the procedure for considering and ratifying resolutions at DNC meetings. Apparently there was a procedural issue, but I'd refer you to the DNC to talk about that.
What this administration cared about, and one of the reasons that the Vice President himself convened a conference call with members of the DNC who were participating in that meeting, is demonstrating clear support at the DNC for the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And my understanding is that there is a letter signed by an overwhelming majority of the delegates to that meeting indicating their strong support for the agreement. And that was support that we were eager to build at the DNC and to demonstrate, and we succeeded in that effort.
As it relates to Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, she is among those undecided members of Congress that I referred to in my previous answer. And we're going to continue -- to her credit, she has participated in literally hours of meetings and conversations with senior administration officials to discuss the finer points of this agreement.
And what we have seen is that the more time that members of Congress spend in trying to understand exactly how this agreement will work to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon the more likely they are to support the agreement. I don't think it is a surprise that the vast majority of those who have indicated their opposition to the agreement actually announced their opposition before the deal was even announced, and the vast majority of people who have indicated their support for the agreement have done so in the last couple of weeks, after extensive consultations with senior national security officials who understand exactly what’s included in the agreement.
So we're going to continue to have those conversations with Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz. And based on what I know about the extensive consultations that she’s already had, it's sounds to me that she’s treating this as seriously as she should.
Q A quick one -- if you can let our energy colleagues who are kind of concerned about some reports out of Canada know whether there will be a Keystone decision announced by Labor Day. And the second is that the Energy Department released a report yesterday saying that lifting the crude oil ban wouldn't significantly increase U.S. gas prices. That was kind of a big concern by opponents of lifting the ban, and so I'm wondering if that's changed the White House’s thinking about lifting the crude oil ban in any way.
MR. EARNEST: On the first question about Keystone, Justin, what I would say to your colleagues on the energy beat is that they should stop bugging White House reporters for an update and rather they should start bugging the State Department reporters or call the State Department themselves. The State Department is the one that is conducting that review about whether or not the Keystone pipeline is --
Q -- going to have a decision by Labor Day.
MR. EARNEST: What we've indicated is that the State Department is still conducting that review. And the State Department can give you an update on that timeline.
As it relates to the Energy Department analysis, what I will tell you is that our policy on exporting crude has not changed. This obviously is a policy decision that is made by the Commerce Department, and so for any analysis that they’re doing, I'd refer you to them. Obviously -- what I will just say in general is that any consideration of this policy would certainly include a consideration of its impact on energy prices in the United States. But I'd direct you to the Commerce Department about whether or not there is any ongoing analysis that they can talk to you about.
Q The Pentagon says that there are now five Chinese vessels that are operating in the Bering Sea, which is not at all far from where the President is going today. I know the Pentagon has said it doesn’t seem to be a threat to the President, but do you perceive this as a signal from China or a shot across the bow as the President heads to the region and President Xi prepares to come to Washington?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, it sounds like you’ve already talked to the Department of Defense on this. I don't think I would have much to add beyond what they’ve stated. They have positively identified a number of Chinese naval vessels in that region, but they have also -- based on their analysis, they have not detected any sort of threat or threatening activities.
Q -- strike you as odd?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding from the Defense Department is that they are monitoring movement of the ships but that the intent of this is still unclear -- beyond what I said earlier about them not detecting any sort of threatening activity associated with this movement of naval vessels.
Q Josh, is the White House planning on taking -- imposing sanctions on China related to cyber crime, and are you worried about creating tension ahead of President Xi’s visit to Washington?
MR. EARNEST: As you’ve heard me say when it comes to economic sanctions in the past is that it would be strategically unwise for me to discuss any sort of policy-making process related to economic sanctions in advance of those economic sanctions actually being announced. The reason for that is if I were to do so it would only allow those who could be the potential targets of economic sanctions to begin to take steps to evade that sanctions activity.
So I certainly don't have much I can say publicly about any steps related to economic sanctions that we're contemplating. The only thing I will say is the reason that the President even has the option of putting in place sanctions against those who have carried out cyber-attacks against the U.S. or our interests, or have benefitted from some of those cyber-attacks, is because earlier this year the President signed an executive order creating a structure and giving authority to the Secretary of the Treasury so that he can impose sanctions against those who carry out cyber-attacks against the U.S. or benefit from them.
And we've previously indicated our concerns China’s activity in cyberspace. These are concerns that the President has raised directly with his Chinese counterpart in the past. Certainly the announcement by the Department of Justice last year to indict five Chinese military officials for their actions in cyberspace should be an indication that we take these concerns very seriously. And I assure you that there’s no misunderstanding about that in China.
But for any potential actions in the future, I don't have any comment.
Q The pressure coming from Latino groups to the administration to respond to some of the wild accusations that Donald Trump has made when it comes to immigration -- do you have any intent to do so?
MR. EARNEST: At this point I don't. I have indicated a reluctance to respond to many of the claims of the 2016 presidential candidates, even those that border on the offensive, or those comments that have leapt across that line.
Q -- claims about how many people are coming across the border and information the Department of Homeland Security would have or the administration would have?
MR. EARNEST: I'll just say as a general matter that you can keep a team of fact-checkers quite busy monitoring the outrageous claims of some of the candidates, particularly in discussing this particular policy area. But I don't have any specific response to any of the specific claims that those candidates have made.
Q When the Hillary Clinton emails came out on Monday, I think the new revelation was that on at least six of those emails she sent herself information that's now classified. I'm wondering if that’s opened up any new concerns within the administration that she might have been improperly using --
MR. EARNEST: Justin, my understanding about the situation is that the latest batch of emails that was released confirms what both the State Department and the Clinton campaign have previously said, which is that none of the emails that she sent as Secretary of State using her private email account included information that was stamped -- or was marked classified --
Q -- stamped or marked aside, if she took from a document that was marked classified, rewrote it or summarized it in some way and sent it, she’s still transmitting classified material from her personal email --
MR. EARNEST: The semantics are precisely what the Secretary’s harshest critics are seizing on. And so I think it bears -- it warrants mentioning that the latest release of this batch of emails indicates that the emails that she sent are consistent with previous descriptions of those emails.
And so it warrants mentioning so I'm mentioning it. As it relates more broadly to the way that she communicated using her private email server, I'd refer you to the State Department or to her campaign.
Q -- the Copenhagen Accord, which the United States signed onto, that limits global warming to 2 degrees by the end of the century -- how does the President reconcile the Copenhagen Accord with the permission to allow Shell to drill in the Arctic when scientists say the temperature can only be reached and maintained by keeping all reserves in the ground?
MR. EARNEST: I’d take that on in a couple of different ways. The first is the President has demonstrated very clearly his priority of limiting the impact of climate change and reducing carbon pollution. And we have made progress in a variety of ways in pursuit of that goal. Obviously many of the steps that we have taken to promote energy efficiency have made a significant impact in reducing the consumption of energy, which will have a corresponding, positive impact on carbon pollution.
The President has championed important investments in renewable energy. And since the President took office, we've seen that wind energy production in the United States has tripled, and solar energy production has increased twentyfold since the President took office. And that's due at least in part to many of the investments that were made by the Obama administration. The other thing that I would point out is the President -- I think that's an indication of the President’s commitment to a goal of transitioning to a low-carbon, clean-energy economy.
But the President is a realist and understands that transitions aren't going to occur overnight. And so then the question is what sort of oil and gas will be used as we carry out that transition. The President believes that it's better for us to rely on American oil and gas as we carry out that transition -- first, because if we don't, at least some of the energy that we have to import will have to be imported from countries in the most volatile region in the world; but second, that American oil and gas will be produced under some of the toughest safety and environmental constraints in the world.
And that certainly applies to the drilling operation that Shell has underway in the Arctic. There are very serious environmental and safety constraints that they’re operating under, as they should. And that has limited some of Shell’s activities. It has delayed some of their activities. But officials at Shell are operating under very tough safety and environmental standards that were place principally by this administration.
Q And the last one -- today -- or actually yesterday would have been the day that the White House visitors logs would have posted all the information from the Prince concert that you might remember the First Lady and the President hosting back three or four months ago. Those names weren't included on the list. So I'm wondering, since we know that corporate executives, lobbyists were part of the 500-person personal party that came to see Prince at the White House, whether you guys would, in keeping with your pledge to be the most transparent administration in U.S. history, release the names of the attendees at that party.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, Justin, that's not something that we -- that I anticipate that we'll do. The fact is there are -- I think we're now past 4 million records that have now been released as a result of our historic commitment to transparency to release information of those who visit the White House. There are some exceptions to the visitor log policy and some of those exceptions include visiting the White House to participate in private events.
Q I guess more on a grander scale, doesn’t that exception give way too much leniency when it could be used for a large amount like this, that it's bringing in kind of the influence peddlers that you guys set up the policy to identify in the first place?
MR. EARNEST: What I'd say, Justin, is just that it is -- we're only having this conversation because of the historic step that the administration had taken to release these records in the first place. And there is information -- I'll double-check the updated number, but I think it's about 4 million records that have been released thus far. And that's indicative of our commitment to transparency. And it certainly stands in contrast to the previous administration that actually went to the Supreme Court to try to deny the release of this information. And I think that is the context for this discussion, and it's certainly the context for how we have explained how we’ve lived up to the President’s commitment to be the most transparent administration in history.
That said, it is your responsibility and the responsibility of your colleagues in the White House press corps to press for and demand even more transparency. And I certainly respect that role, and it's an important one and it's an important argument for you to make. But the reason that we're having this argument is because the President does believe on the principle that that's a worthwhile goal.
Q -- faux transparency -- you're saying we won't release -- this is a 500-person concert that won't be released?
MR. EARNEST: The release of 4 million visitor records I think is an indication of a commitment -- is an indication of this administration’s commitment to transparency, particularly when you consider that the previous administration went to the Supreme Court to prevent the release of those records.
I'll point out that the previous administration also went to great lengths to try to block the release of records about individuals who came to the White House to participate in official White House business. You’ll recall that the Vice President convened energy task force meetings at the White House, and that administration repeatedly declined to indicate who was participating in those sensitive policy discussions.
I assure you, in the context of the social event that Justin described, there were no high-level or sensitive discussions about energy policy,
Q I was wondering if the administration was following this conflict in Kentucky with a county clerk who is refusing to issue gay marriage licenses, or really now, any marriage licenses. Does the administration have any thoughts about whether she should be removed from her position?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, there’s little that I can say on this because there is ongoing litigation in this matter. I know that the Supreme Court has now indicated that that particular clerk’s office should be issuing marriage licenses. And I know that there is a consideration, if they haven’t already sort of moved forward on this, of whether or not she should be held in contempt of court.
But ultimately, this is something that judges will have to decide. Obviously, the President I think has spoken at length and quite clearly and forcefully about his view that people shouldn’t be discriminated against just because of who they love. And that’s why he hailed the historic Supreme Court decision earlier this summer granting marriage equality to every American.
Q In his home state of Illinois there’s a manhunt going on for someone who shot and killed a police officer. I’m wondering if the President has been briefed on that, and if he’s -- I know we heard earlier in the week that he reached out to the family of a police officer in Texas that had been killed -- whether he had done that in this case, as well.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, as you point out, on the flight to Alaska on Monday, the President did have the opportunity to place a phone call to the widow of the Harris County sheriff’s deputy who was targeted and killed over the weekend while he was -- this was a sheriff’s deputy who was essentially ambushed at a gas station, and it appears that ambush took place simply because he was wearing a law enforcement uniform. And the President called to offer his condolences to the family of the sheriff’s deputy who was killed on behalf of the American people.
As it relates to this specific case, I think there are still a lot of facts emerging. Obviously, we’re heartbroken at the news that another law enforcement officer has been killed. These are individuals who put their lives on the line every day to protect citizens in their communities, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. It’s an honorable profession.
And, as the President mentioned in the State of the Union address, the families of law enforcement officials have a right to know that their loved one is going to walk through the front door of their house again at the end of the shift. And that’s why the President has spoken so forcefully about praising the honorable service of law enforcement officers all across the country.
As it relates to this specific case, I’m sure the President is aware of it. I don’t know that he’s received a specific briefing on it. But obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with the family of that particular law enforcement officer who was killed.
All right. Thank you, guys.
11:46 A.M. AKDT