Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary, 9/23/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the late start for the briefing today.
Q We’ll forgive you -- in the spirit of the day. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, thank you. I'm humbled by that expression.
Q I mean, you’ll learn from it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well done. Well done. It was a powerful morning on the South Lawn of the White House. I know many of you were hard at work covering it, but I hope that at least some of you were able to get outside and enjoy the beautiful day but also to soak in the spirit that was on such nice display this morning.
But other than that, I don't have any opening comments, so we can go straight to your questions. Darlene, would you like to start?
Q Yes, thank you. What do you have for us on the President’s meeting with the Pope -- how long the meeting lasted, what they talked about? Was it just the two of them in the Oval? Those kind of details.
Q And a transcript. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, Bill, it will be disappointing to you, there was no stenographer in the room while the President was there. It actually was a one-on-one meeting between the Pope and the President. And that's obviously going to limit my ability to offer you a detailed readout, primarily because it was intended to be a private conversation.
It did last about 40 minutes. And I think that all of you, or at least your representatives in the pool, did have an opportunity to observe at least the beginning of that discussion. You saw the two men walking through the Colonnade of the White House, and the President stopped on a couple of occasions to describe the surroundings to the Pope who was visiting the White House for the first time.
And the President certainly did enjoy the opportunity to play host today and it was an opportunity for the President to show the Pope around the White House, to introduce the Pope to senior members of his staff -- the Catholic members of his staff did have an opportunity to have one-on-one interaction with the Pope. So this was a visit that the President genuinely enjoyed. But I'm unable to give you much detail about their private discussions.
Q How pleased would you say the President was, or how pleased is the White House that the Pope went directly to climate change, the issue of climate change in his remarks here on this first visit to the U.S. and to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Pope did have some kind words for the President’s work on this issue, and the President certainly welcomed that expression from the Pope. I think in general -- this is something that we said in the lead-up to the Pope’s visit and I think it continues to be true today -- that the goal of the Pope’s visit and certainly the goal of the meeting was not to advance anyone’s political agenda. And I think that listening to the Pope’s comments, it was clear that he was speaking with a passion and a conviction about the need to act on climate issues that was deeply rooted in his faith. So he wasn’t seeking to deliver a political message; he was speaking from the heart and with a moral conviction that I think will resonate with people all around the world.
Q Having him talk about climate change, how do you see what he said here today -- do you see that in any way influencing the debate going forward or even next steps from the White House on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think time will tell. And I think the Pope himself acknowledged that -- acknowledged the opportunity that people around the world have to seize this opportunity. And the Pope did make a conscious decision to capitalize on this high-profile moment to deliver this message. These were obviously the first public statements that he offered on American soil. It wasn’t as if he thought that no one would be listening.
So he'll have additional opportunities over the next five days of his visit to deliver additional messages that he seeks to prioritize, and I think the next big one that's coming up will be the speech that he'll deliver before Congress tomorrow. And he made a brief allusion to his desire to offer some encouragement to the members of that body as they try to advance the very important work that they have before them as well. I think that it's clear that even when talking about an issue like climate change that everybody acknowledges that Congress has a role in that as well.
Q Finally, since we're talking about climate change, is there any comment or reaction to Hillary Clinton’s decision yesterday to break her silence and say that she is opposed to the Keystone pipeline?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure that there were many people, at least in this room, that any of you or any of us was particularly surprised by her comments or her position. We have said for some time essentially that Secretary Clinton and others who decide to run for President will have an opportunity to talk about their values and their priorities and their positions on a range of issues. But the responsibility of those who are in government is different. And in this case, the State Department continues to consider this specific policy.
This is consistent with the way that other infrastructure projects like this are considered. The consideration of this particular project has obviously lasted longer than the typical review that’s conducted, but there are a variety of factors that are influencing the length of that review, including the fact that there are a number of legal proceedings that have extended the consideration of that project.
But for a timeframe, in terms of when we would expect that review to be completed, I’d refer you to the State Department.
Q Josh, are you able to give any details about their conversation? Specifically, can you say whether or not some of the hot-button social issues that we know they disagree on, like abortion and gay marriage, came up?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able to give additional details, Jeff. The reason that the two men wanted to meet just the two of them in the Oval Office was it was an opportunity for them to have a private discussion.
Q Was the interpreter there?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that the interpreter was not -- there was an interpreter there? Okay, so there was an interpreter there, but it was only the two of them talking.
Q So no suggestion on whether some of the less agreeable topics beyond climate change were part of their discussion?
MR. EARNEST: No, even though an interpreter was present, the intention is for that conversation to remain private.
Q It seemed like they took a little longer to come down to the Colonnade and the Oval Office than -- at least on the time schedule. Did they linger upstairs? Did they hang out with the family a little bit? Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that’s the time during which some Catholic members of the President’s senior staff did have an opportunity to meet the Pope. It also was an opportunity for the President to meet the visiting delegation from the Vatican as well. And so this is typical of these kinds of formal visits.
Q Moving on to a different topic then. OPM released some additional information today about that breach. The White House has still not identified China as the official state sponsor of that. Will that happen before the visit? And can you give us some details on why that was released in the middle of the Pope’s visit while the President was outside speaking today?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. Let me say a couple things about this. I don’t have additional details about who or what entity may have been responsible for this particular cyber breach. This is something that continues to be under investigation by authorities. There are some reports about what those authorities have learned as they’ve been conducting this investigation over the last several months, but I don’t have any conclusions to share publicly about who may or may not have been responsible.
The timeframe for this announcement is that there was a previously scheduled meeting between senior leaders at OPM and relevant members of Congress with whom OPM has been working throughout this incident. And this additional information about the scope of the intrusion and the amount of material that was affected by the intrusion was only recently determined and so this new information was communicated to relevant members of Congress just days after it was learned. And once that information was communicated to Congress, it was also communicated to the public.
And there is an effort that is being made by the administration and certainly by the leadership at OPM to communicate as promptly and as effectively as possibly -- certainly with members of Congress that have an oversight responsibility, but also with those individuals who may have been affected by the breach. And because of the numbers that we’re talking about here, that information that is communicated is something that we can probably best do publicly. And so that would explain today’s timing.
Q So you felt like that was an effective time to release it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it was the time that was sort of dictated by the kinds of priorities that we have laid out for communicating with Congress, communicating with those who potentially may have been affected in communicating with the public.
Q Did the White House have any idea whatsoever of what the Pope was going to say out on the South Lawn?
MR. EARNEST: There obviously were a significant number of staff-level conversations to plan for the Pope’s visit. I can’t account for all of those conversations so I don’t know how much of a preview of the Pope’s remarks was offered to White House officials. Some of your colleagues in the news media did inform me that the Pope’s remarks were released early on an embargoed basis. So to the extent that you guys may have had a heads-up on what the Pope was planning to say, it sounds like you got that. But as far as --
Q You got a heads-up, too, at least when we did.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s fair to say that you had a more detailed one than anybody here would have.
Q And what do you make of the fact -- I mean, it was almost as if this was a campaign event and you had two running mates with very similar speeches that were given. And I suppose you might say that that’s a little over the top, but their messages were awfully similar. What did you make of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s an interesting perspective. I hadn’t quite thought about it that way. I think what I made of the reception -- I guess, I think the one thing, Jim, that might detract from your analogy is I do think that there was a genuine spirit of inclusiveness and bipartisanship on display on the South Lawn today.
I happened to be seated in the section where many members of Congress sat for the event. And no one would accuse me of being an expert with the congressional Facebook, but I certainly did recognize both Democrats and Republicans sitting on the South Lawn, and offering a warm welcome to the President and First Lady when they arrived on the South Lawn, but also offering an enthusiastic welcome when Pope Francis arrived as well. And that spirit of inclusion and bipartisanship is certainly I think something that the President appreciated. I don’t speak for the Pope; I suspect that he was pleased by that kind of spirit as well.
And the reason that I raise it is I think sometimes the connotation of a political event is that it might be a little polarizing or partisan, but I don’t think that at all was the spirit that was on display on the South Lawn, either by the thousands who were in the audience or by the two men who spoke.
Q You had to be pleased that the President and the Pope delivered very similar messages on immigration -- the Pope would come out and say he’s the son of an immigration family, to refer to the planet as our world, our “common home,” in his remarks on climate change. It was just about everything you could have hoped for, I would think.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think the credit for that goes to the Pope, though, right -- that the Pope made I think a concerted effort to speak inclusively. And I think that style of communication and that perspective on the world, of appealing to the common interests and common values of both Catholic and non-Catholics like, is one of the reasons that the Pope’s message has resonated so deeply with people not just across this country, but around the world. And I guess that would be one element of the Pope’s message that was not surprising to those who would have listened to him speak over the last year and a half or so.
Q And on China, very quickly. The President has not cited China as being responsible for the OPM hack in the same way that he went after North Korea on the Sony hack. And Ben Rhodes, on the conference call yesterday evening, said that there would not be sanctions issued on any entities prior to President Xi’s visit. What do you say to Americans who wonder if that is enough in terms of assigning culpability for what happened at OPM, which put millions of Americans’ personal data at risk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is that the administration, and certainly our law enforcement officials, take very seriously the responsibility that they have to thoroughly investigate exactly what’s happened and to use that investigation to determine the precise scope of what information has been taken to learn exactly how that breach was conducted so that we can better strengthen our cyber defenses and, frankly, learn from any mistakes that may have exacerbated the consequences of the breach.
But it does sort of raise questions about our broader concerns about malicious actors in cyberspace regardless of where they originate. And this is a significant challenge that the private sector has had to confront, but there have been a number of incidents that state and federal government computer networks have had to deal with as well. And those longer-term considerations are the ones that drive decisions about things like when and how to assign public blame and there is, I think, an understandable human tendency to offer a quick and powerful response. But we’re focused on preserving the long-term interests of the country.
One thing that I can say is that there are a variety of tools at the President’s disposal for responding to incidents like this. One of them is a relatively new one. This is the executive order that the President signed about six months ago delegating authority to the Secretary of Treasury to allow him to impose financial sanctions against bad actors in cyberspace or those who benefit from that malicious activity.
And one of the reasons that that tool is powerful is that merely putting it on the table can serve as a deterrent and can serve to advance the interests of the United States -- even if it’s not specifically invoked, so I guess what you might call a longer-term strategic approach to confronting these issues and both trying to protect our interests but also, where appropriate, seeking to advance them.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Clinton campaign says they briefed the White House before Secretary Clinton came out and opposed Keystone yesterday. Can you characterize those briefings? Who was briefed? How high up did those briefings go? How was the President informed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think I would characterize them as a briefing. As I think you would expect, it’s not uncommon for there to be some informal conversations. Again, I don't know how detailed any of those conversations were. But even if there were no conversations that had occurred, I don't think there was any expectation that it was incumbent upon the Clinton campaign to give us a heads-up about this or any other announcement that they're making. And again, even if no conversations had occurred, I don't think anybody would have been particularly surprised at the position that Secretary Clinton announced yesterday.
Q And I know there’s an ongoing State Department review. Do you have a sense of when there might be a final determination? You have all of these presidential candidates who are obviously going to be taking over the reins at some point coming out and weighing in on this. Do you have a timeline, a deadline?
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate that any of those comments will have an impact on the final decision. And I don't have an update on the timeframe. The State Department may have one.
Q Let me ask you about the government shutdown. A group of 11 House Republican freshmen sent a letter to their colleagues urging them to avert the shutdown.
MR. EARNEST: Sounds like good news. (Laughter.)
Q I thought you’d say that. But at this point, what is your level of optimism, realistically speaking -- because the situation still seems to be somewhat deadlocked -- that a shutdown will be averted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I’m a little more optimistic now than when you started the question because I hadn’t heard of the letter. The reason I think that that is good news is that there should be bipartisan acknowledgement that a government shutdown is not in the best interests of the country. It’s certainly not in the best interests of our economy. And while these issues are difficult, it is the fundamental responsibility of the United States Congress to pass a budget every year for the federal government and ensure that the government doesn't shut down.
What is important, however, beyond just keeping the government open is also making sure that that budget accurately reflects the national security and economic priorities of the country. So that will also be an important responsibility of the
Congress. And I don't know if that was mentioned in their letter, as well, but ultimately, we do know how this can get resolved. And that's with Republicans in Congress accepting the invitation that they have received from Democrats in Congress to sit down at the negotiating table and work this out.
Q And I know you're putting this on Congress, but how does the President see his role? He obviously has a very busy week, and then he goes to UNGA. And I know you got a similar question yesterday, but I guess I want to follow up on that. What specifically can we expect to see from him in the coming days in terms of engagement on this issues and trying to make sure that there is no shutdown?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don't have any specific conversations to tell you about at the presidential level. Certainly senior members of the President’s team including the leadership of the Office of Management and Budget will not be leaving town. They will be in town and available if congressional negotiators need to draw upon their expertise in order to reach an agreement and prevent a government shutdown.
All of the support that needs to be provided by the administration will be in place, but ultimately the final decision rests with Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Q And have there been any meetings about what happens if it does shut down, any contingency plans? I understand there may have been some discussions about potential furloughs. Can you update us on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a process that we, unfortunately, are becoming all too familiar with by which the government prepares for the possibility of a government shutdown. And we're in the range of seven or eight days now before the deadline. And it is only prudent for the federal government to begin planning for the possibility that the government could shut down.
And so at this point, they're only in the planning stage. And it means making sure that agencies are aware of their responsibilities in the event of a government shutdown and there have been some communications from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies about this.
But again, these kinds of notifications, unfortunately, are becoming routine, so it shouldn’t have any immediate or short-term impact on the functioning of the federal government or on the day-to-day responsibilities of the vast majority of the federal workforce. But there are some members of the administration, including those who serve in senior positions, who, for example, have to take time out of their day to -- away from the many tasks that they have before them to get on a conference call with the Office of Management and Budget to start talking about a government shutdown.
So I think that is an indication of at least one price that is paid by budgetary brinksmanship on Capitol Hill. And that’s why the sooner that Republicans will sit down with Democrats to work out a solution, the better.
Q One final one on the Pope’s comments about climate change. Does the President think that his comments today could help shape the conversations in Paris during that climate summit? And does he hope that they might?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think as I mentioned earlier, I think the Pope was keenly aware that the comments that he would deliver today would be closely watched not just by those of us on the South Lawn but by people around the world. And he is a man of extraordinary influence and I would expect that his call to action would be heard around the world.
What eventual impact that has at the negotiating table or in the minds of policymakers remains to be seen. But certainly it was a powerful statement and one that I think that people around the world will take seriously.
Q Just a little bit more. I know you don’t want to talk about the content of their meeting, but what are the President’s observations of the Pope’s visit? Was he surprised by anything that the Pope said in his speech? Was he perhaps inspired by the Pope’s trip to Cuba to make his own trip to Cuba? Did he first learn about what the Pope was going to say in real time, or had he specifically been given a heads-up about what was in his speech?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President was listening intently to the Pope’s words and it’s because he wanted to hear firsthand what the Pope had on his heart this morning.
Q That was the first time he had --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that was the first time that -- he had not -- again, unlike many of you, the President hadn’t had the opportunity to read the Pope’s prepared remarks. And so it was the first chance that the President had to hear from the Pope. And we’ve been saying for some time now that people at the White House and people all across the city have been excited about and eagerly anticipating the visit of Pope Francis. And the President and the First Family shared in that excitement, and I think that was evident when the President and his family met the Pope at the stairs of his aircraft at Joint Base Andrews yesterday. You may have seen the White House video that we put out this morning that showed the President’s enthusiastic welcome of the Pope when he reached the bottom of the stairs.
And the President has a deep admiration for the Pope. They had an opportunity to visit when the President visited the Vatican last year, and it was a memorable meeting and the President came away quite impressed. And the President really enjoyed the opportunity to visit with him again today.
Q Was there anything particular in the speech that surprised him or that he was reflective on, either to you or to other members of his staff? And can you answer the Cuba question?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t hear him characterize anything as surprising, but I think the President, like many of us, noted the conviction with which the Pope spoke. The Pope was focused I think on his own deep moral conviction about a range of issues. And he spoke freely and from the heart and, impressively, not in his first language.
One of the things that I think that struck a chord is his focus on “the least of these” who are most immediately and directly impacted by climate change. And for all of the reasons that we talk about in here about why the President has made this a priority, both sort of a moral responsibility we have to future generations and the potential economic opportunity that exists in this country for investments in things like renewable energy -- one thing I think that does get overlooked is the fact that it is poor communities around the world that are most likely to be directly affected by the impacts of climate change.
The President had the opportunity to observe this when he traveled to Alaska a few weeks ago. On the way to the Arctic Circle, Air Force One flew over this village, Kivalina, that’s on a barrier island in Alaska, whose land is slowly but surely receding into the sea. This is a community without a lot of economic resources and is fairly isolated, and is literally at risk because of rising sea levels.
So hearing the President speak -- or hearing the Pope speak with conviction about action on climate change because of the impact it would have on those who face the biggest economic disadvantage I think is just another reason to hear the Pope’s call to action on this.
On Cuba, the President obviously had his own kind words for the Pope and the role that he played in helping to facilitate the agreement to normalize relations between our two countries. And obviously the Pope himself sort of talked about the importance of reconciliation. But I think the President -- well, I know the President has had a desire to travel to Cuba even before Pope Francis made the decision to travel to the island, and there’s nothing that we saw about the Pope’s visit that in any way diminishes the President’s enthusiasm for that possibility.
Q One other thing. Did you guys interpret what the Pope said about diplomacy as an endorsement of the President’s outreach to Iran and the nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do believe that the Vatican has spoken positively about the international agreement with Iran in the past. But I don't, frankly, know whether or not that passage in the Pope’s remarks was intended to allude to that or not.
Q First I wanted to ask about Russia. Their state media is reporting that there is a meeting for next week with President Obama and President Putin. The Kremlin is indicating that something is going on, but that it hasn’t been finalized -- so I'm just wondering if you can shed any light on what’s going on there.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any lockdown details about the President’s schedule in New York to share today, but I would anticipate that tomorrow we'll have more details on the President’s trip. So I'll have an update for you then.
Q Have there been discussions with the Russians about the possibility of a meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have much to say about any possible discussions with the Russians on this particular topic. Obviously President Putin is planning to travel to New York, and part of the time that he’s in New York President Obama will also be there, too. But at this point, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see exactly what the final schedule is going to look like.
Q There was also some reporting that the Pope planned to raise Puerto Rico’s debt situation with the President while he’s here. That could have happened either at the leader-to-leader level or through staff. And I know you can’t read out the meeting that they were in privately, but I’m wondering if that’s something that any of the Pope’s staff at a certain point discussed over the last few days.
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. I have not gotten a detailed readout of the other meetings that occurred here at the White House, so we may have to follow up with you on that. If we can get you some more information on that, we’ll follow up.
Q And then, the UK’s Chancellor Osborne has spent the last five days in China and really been effusive in his praise for the Chinese, but also talking about linking their economies more closely together. It’s an interesting trip kind of against the backdrop of obviously the Chinese President’s visit here and some of the things that you’ve been pressuring them on, whether it’s cybersecurity or the South China Sea or the American businesswoman that’s been detained. And so I’m wondering if you could talk at all about if you see rhetoric coming from the UK, which has said they want to be China’s strongest partner in the West, at all detrimental to some of the issues that you’re trying to pressure China on.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, I did spend a decent amount of time preparing for the briefing today on a range of priorities, but this particular issue didn’t come up in any detail. So I’m not aware precisely of what the individual that you referred to may have said. So that may give you an indication of how concerned we are about any of the positions that he may have taken over the course of this trip.
Q Josh, I want to ask you a couple questions about the Pope. Since the President likes to take world leaders to the King memorial, and the Pope did invoke Dr. King in his speech, did the President at all talk about Dr. King, or at least show him the statue that’s in the Oval Office that he sat right in front of?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you point out, it’s hard to miss. But I’m not aware of whether or not they had a discussion of Dr. King in their meeting.
Q Now, on that statement, that was a drop-the-mic moment for the Pope. It was. A very strong statement. Normally we hear many of the quotes that are in Dr. King, they’re used over and over again. But to hear the Pope say that we defaulted on the promissory, that’s very strong. And including the President’s spiritual advisor said how strong that was. That means that there needs to be some kind of paycheck that’s dealt with that, that’s compensated for when it comes to immigration and climate change. Do you think that this President believesthe Pope’s statement out there about the promise of not defaulting on the promissory note when it comes to issue of immigration, specifically when you said you didn’t think we had the right momentum last week to push immigration through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I saw the context of Dr. King’s quote that was recited by the Pope in the context of climate change. It may be that the Pope intended that to apply to other areas as well; certainly it could. But I think time will tell what sort of impact the Pope’s advocacy on these issues will have both in the United States and around the world. I wouldn’t predict at this point exactly what impact it will have in the policymaking process.
Q Well, let’s say then -- according to other people -- because he heard the audible gasp when he made statement, the defaulting on a promissory note. And with that, people were -- he brought their attention to the issue. But even with that on, as you say, climate change, do you think that you can kind of rally some of the Republican Party on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have made clear that we would welcome the support of Republicans for the effort to cut carbon pollution and fight the other causes of climate change. We know that taking those kinds of steps are clearly in the best interest of the planet, they’re in the best interest of the next generation of Americans, but they’re also in the clear interest of this generation of Americans when it comes to a range of public health issues. So we certainly are hopeful that Republicans will work constructively with Democrats on some of these issues, but that remains to be seen.
Q And then, going back to the speech, did you know that he was going to use that quote specifically?
MR. EARNEST: I did not.
Q Josh, just one small thing on the ceremony. Typically the state ceremonies have a 21-gun salute. In fact, there was one for Benedict when he came in 2008. But you all, I assume, opted not it. Can you describe why?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this -- obviously we had a discussion that was closely coordinated with the Pentagon -- with the Vatican. (Laughter.) I suppose when as it comes to particular question, the Pentagon may have been involved too. But when planning events like that, the White House closely coordinates the activities with, in this case, the Vatican. And obviously this Pope has a reputation of somebody who doesn’t revel in the pomp and circumstance as much as some other world leaders do. And so it was in deference to his humility that a 21-gun salute was not included in the formal arrival ceremony today.
Q Was it about his humility or about the idea of a militaristic display? I mean, there were still military and obviously color guards and so forth on the South Lawn.
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly his humility factored into that decision. But yes, it also -- I think some might also recognize the dissonance in welcoming a professed man of peace to the White House through the repeated firing of weapons. I think that we felt like I think what would be described as a slightly more subdued welcome ceremony was the most appropriate way to welcome Pope Francis to the White House. And based solely on his public reaction to the festivities, it appears that Pope Francis agreed with that as well.
Q Can I follow up on Peter? Will there be a 21-gun salute on Friday when President Xi comes?
MR. EARNEST: I assume so. There typically is. But we’ll have to check on that and let you know.
Q A different concept.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. Jim.
Q On the Pope, the President certainly made clear that he was not content with the situation in Iran with the hostages remaining there. And because of the Pope’s success in bringing together Cuba and the United States, is the United States asking the Pope in any way to intervene in the case of the hostages in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start with an observation, which is that the island nation of Cuba has a large number of Catholics. There are obviously many fewer Catholics in Iran. That said, the Pope is clearly somebody with significant moral influence, even among those who are not Catholic. What I will say is simply that the President has made clear that our efforts to try to secure the safe return of those Americans that are unjustly held inside of Iran, those efforts continue. And they continue to be a priority of this administration and of the President personally. And we have pursued a variety of avenues for trying to secure the release of those individuals, but we have found that it is -- that our efforts are more effective when we don't talk about them publicly.
Q So you're not ruling it out. You just -- this is something you don't want to speak about publicly?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I don't have an update at this point on our ongoing efforts to secure the release of those Americans that are being unjustly held inside of Iran other than to confirm for you that those efforts are ongoing and continue to be a priority.
Q On the Keystone pipeline, understanding your statements in the past that you're not going to say whether it’s going to happen, and it’s the State Department’s baby -- but on the statement by Hillary Clinton, was there anything that the White House disagrees with when she says that approving the Keystone pipeline would, in fact, set us in the wrong direction as far as energy independence, and that it’s not going to provide a lot of jobs? Is there anything -- does the White House disagree with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has spoken on this issue a couple of times where he has indicated his skepticism about some of the claims made by the most ardent supporters of the Keystone pipeline. We have seen some rather dubious claims about the number of jobs that would be created through the construction of the pipeline; and of the long-term economic impact of the project or those jobs that are created. The President said that himself.
So I have not looked carefully. I understand that Secretary Clinton did write an op-ed for Medium today. I did not have an opportunity to take a close look at that before I walked out here. So I don't know that I can say that we agreed necessarily with everything that she included in her statement. But there’s nothing that has been widely reported that I would strenuously disagree with.
Q And then finally on the issue of drug prices, does the White House and this President regret that part of its actions to approve Obamacare led to a situation with -- that prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug companies, which, in fact, would save billions of dollars and, according to private insurance companies, would help them use the weight of Medicare to bring down drug prices today? Does the President regret his agreement to prohibit drug companies -- Medicare from negotiating with drug companies?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what the administration’s goal was when it came to trying to pass the Affordable Care Act -- well, there were several goals, actually. The first was trying to expand quality, affordable health care to every American to ensure that access to quality health care is no longer a privilege but is actually a basic right.
One of the things that would be part of accomplishing that goal is trying to slow what had previously been the almost unrestrained growth in health care costs in this country. That was having a negative impact on our economy. It certainly was having a negative impact on some businesses that wasn’t able to afford quality health insurance for their employees. And it surely was having a negative impact on middle-class families across the country who were straining under the weight of those skyrocketing health care costs.
And since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, we have actually seen the slowest growth in health care costs in recorded history. And at least part of that is attributable to the policies that are put in place through the Affordable Care Act. The President -- so this goal of trying to contain costs for businesses and middle-class families is one that has been one part of the important benefits that are included in the Affordable Care Act.
We’ve also made clear that there are likely opportunities to further strengthen the Affordable Care Act in ways that would expand access even further and could even further restrain growth in health care costs. And the President has indicated a willingness to work with Democrats and Republicans to try to strengthen the Affordable Care Act in pursuit of those goals.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen Republicans in Congress be so focused on trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and undermine this important law that we haven’t been able to make much progress in that regard. But we continue to be open to it today.
Q You still didn’t give the answer to that particular question. Does the -- I understand why it got there and why you’ve agreed to do it. But now drug prices are out of control, many people would say, especially in some very critical drugs. Is the President bothered by the fact that he allowed Medicare Part D, which prohibits Medicare from negotiating down these prices?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Jim, what is clear is there were concerns about the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs prior to the Affordable Care Act. And it is true that many of those challenges for our health care system have not been addressed. But some of the other areas where the growth in costs was particularly significant were addressed by the Affordable Care Act.
So I think that’s evidence that we have made important progress in some areas that have significantly expanded access to health care for -- there are now 17 million more Americans that have health care today than before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. And we know that according to this complicated economic measurement that actually the growth in health care costs is as slow as it’s ever been, and that’s true since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
So it’s clear that we’ve made a lot of important progress in accomplishing our goals through the Affordable Care Act. And I think the President would be the first to admit that if there are opportunities for us to make additional progress, he’d be willing to work in bipartisan fashion to get it done.
Q Was there a mutual discussion of the speeches that each -- the principals would give today? Did they discuss beforehand what the Pope would say here and what the President would say?
MR. EARNEST: Other than sort of logistical questions about the length and the language in which the speech would be delivered, I’m not aware of any intensive coordination when it came to the content of the leaders’ remarks.
Q So, for example, the White House wasn’t encouraging the Pope to lead with immigration, as it were?
MR. EARNEST: No. Surely, the Pope would certainly decide for himself how he would begin and end his speech.
Q And talk about abortion and religious freedom in his speech to the bishops --
MR. EARNEST: Again, these are decisions made entirely by the Pope and his team.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to follow up on Jim’s question about -- there’s been so much talk lately about prescription drugs, -- been in the news lately. I’m wondering if the President has heard about the skyrocketing cost going from 13 bucks to $750 for a pill for that particular drug and if he feels like this is just smart business or if it’s unabashed avarice?
MR. EARNEST: Well, considering that the company themselves have quickly made the decision to roll back that cost, it’s apparent that the company concluded it wasn’t a good business decision. And obviously when you’re talking about an individual company’s decision, it’s something that’s hard for me to comment on from here. But obviously if we’re talking about expanding access to health care for more people and lowering health care costs for businesses and middle-class families, the enormous price increase of a particular and important medication is inconsistent with those goals.
Q A couple of follows also. I want to ask you about the Keystone pipeline. You’ve often punted over to State. Does the President care if it is wrapped up before he leaves office? It just seems like this is kind of a shrug of the shoulders, hey, if they get to it, they get to it; if not, eh, it’s they’re baby. Is that a misread of his position on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has previously stated that he would expect that this policy decision would be made and implemented before the end of his presidency, either way. So there is an expectation that this work will be done and this review will be completed. But I don't know exactly when, between now and January 2017 that will occur.
Q Would you prefer it be January, say, 17th or 18th of 2017? It just seems like there’s no urgency here.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think that's entirely accurate. Obviously there has been a lot of important work that's gone into reviewing this particular project and I think the President would be prepared to make a decision just as soon as a recommendation is ready to be acted upon.
Q A couple more. VW’s leader steps down. What’s the White House reaction to that decision?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific reaction to the decision of that company’s leader to step down. The fact is this administration, particularly the EPA, takes very seriously the responsibilities that they have to regulate these companies. And there’s an expectation that when those companies are communicating with regulators, but more importantly, communicating with their customers that they’re going to be honest about it. And obviously this particular company has acknowledged that they weren't. But for how accountability is brought with respect to that admission, that's obviously a decision for that company to make.
Q Update on Ex-I'm at all --the Ex-Im Bank?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update on that. I know that that's something that the administration continues to support and there is bipartisan support for it on the Hill. We just need to get Congress to act on it.
Q And Yogi Berra passes away, a real great. Your thoughts on the passing of a baseball legend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we put out a statement from the President a little earlier today on this. Yogi Berra was obviously a cultural icon both for his athletic prowess but also because I think a lot of people all across the country felt like they could relate to him. And I think that kind of humility embodied in somebody with such great athletic skills made him a notable character.
He obviously was pretty colorful as well, and obviously, as I mentioned, he’s an American icon and we certainly are saddened to learn of his passing today.
Q I'm curious about the comments the President made about religious liberty, religious freedom. The response of a lot of his critics suggested that he wasn’t committed to religious liberty and religious freedom in America, citing the federal lawsuit against the Little Sisters of the Poor, other incidences in America, the government persecuting Christians for their beliefs on same-sex marriage. And I wondered if you had a response to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the simple response is I would encourage you to take the President at his word. He spoke powerfully and with conviction about his commitment to religious liberty. As somebody who is both a Christian and someone who has ordered the United States military to take aggressive action to protect the safety and well-being of religious minorities, including Christians, around the globe, I think it's pretty clear from his actions and his words that this is a value that he holds quite dear. It certainly is a value that is central to the founding of this country.
And as the President of the United States and as somebody who feels strongly about the values of this country, he works hard every day to uphold them.
Q As far as domestic issues and certain modern American news and politics, what’s the --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you cited one specific court case, and most of the federal judges who have taken a look at that case have actually found that the efforts of the administration to protect the religious liberty of that particular organization were successful. And again, I think that's actually a good example of this administration working closely with religious leaders and those with a variety of religious views to ensure that we are implementing policies that benefit the American people and maximize the benefit to the American people while also protecting the religious liberties of our citizens.
Q Josh, a couple -- on the time that you gave us, was that the Oval Office time, or are you counting the Colonnade and all the rest of it?
MR. EARNEST: That 40 minutes or so is the time that they spent together in the Oval Office.
Q Did you speak to the President after the Oval Office meeting? Did he say, Josh, we're just going to keep this between the two of us?
MR. EARNEST: I did not speak to him directly after the meeting, but --
Q But how do you know that he wants it private?
MR. EARNEST: That was the plan going into the meeting.
Q Okay. By mutual agreement between the White House and the Vatican that neither side would do a readout?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q -- what happened when we got a readout the last time around where it was substantially different?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. I think it was rooted in the desire of both men to have a private conversation.
Q A couple questions on the Pope. The factsheet that the White House sent out afterward listed a number of initiatives that the administration was pursuing to mark the historic meeting. One of them was the expansion in the number of refugees that the U.S. would seek to admit. Should we understand that that decision was made directly because of Pope Francis’s urging of such a move, or was this just inspired by him?
MR. EARNEST: No, you should interpret that those policy announcements were made in response to the significant tide of migrants that has expanded beyond the Middle East, and the urgent humanitarian situation that exists in some places in Europe but mostly in the Middle East. And the United States has been playing a leading role in responding to this crisis for a number of years now, and the recent announcements about scaling up our response in terms of the number of refugees that will be admitted to the United States and the amount of money that will go to this ongoing humanitarian effort I think is an indication that the President intends to continue to lead the world’s response to this humanitarian crisis.
I think it's included in the factsheet because the expectation was that at some point over the six days of his visit to the United States the Pope would talk about the moral responsibility that leaders around the world, including in the United States, have to respond to this situation. And we felt it was relevant for everyone to know what steps the United States had taken as we play a leading role in this response.
Q And then the events this morning on the South Lawn began a little bit late. And I think our understanding was that was in part because Pope Francis left the Vatican Embassy a little bit late, greeting some people there. Can you recall a time when the President was kept waiting for such an event like this? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not off the top of my head, but it has not significantly inconvenienced the President’s schedule at all today.
Q And then quickly, since a great Yankee was asked about earlier by one of my colleagues, there was a petition drive to aware Yogi Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Is that something that might be under consideration now posthumously?
MR. EARNEST: I was not aware of that ongoing effort. But my guess is if that's something that were considered, it’s something we probably would not announce in advance.
Q A sad story which is happening at this moment all over the world, especially in Europe -- Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a young Shiite -- 21 years old, is going to be probably beheaded tomorrow and his body crucified inside Saudi Arabia. Human rights organizations, European media, and millions of people on Twitter are asking for an international mobilization against the Saudis. What’s the White House reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with the intimate details of this particular situation, Laura. But I will say that the United States, under the leadership of this President, regularly raises our concerns about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia.
I know the President has on more than one occasion had the opportunity to raise these concerns directly with his counterpart when he’s met with the Saudi leader. So I’m hesitant to comment much further on this case because I don't know a whole lot of the details. But the principle when it comes to human rights is one that this President has championed, and one that this President has raised directly with Saudi officials on more than one occasion.
Q Josh, earlier you said that the comments from Hillary Clinton yesterday on Keystone came as no surprise. My question is: Given her tenure at the State Department, is it -- and you were citing the long, drawn-out time that this has stayed in consideration at the State Department, is it the White House’s position that now that we know her position on Keystone XL publicly that perhaps she tilted it at State while she was the Secretary of State toward this direction?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think there’s any indication of that. I think there’s a process underway at the State Department, and we’ll have an opportunity to consider that process once they’ve made a recommendation to the President.
Q And just to clean up a little bit on the question about the 21-gun salute. You said it was in deference to several aspects of the papal character. But I guess, who shot first? Who asked for it? Was it the Vatican asking for this directly, or was this the White House offering it to the Vatican?
MR. EARNEST: I’m actually not sure who -- whether it was an ask or an offer, but it certainly was a decision that was reached in consultation with Vatican officials.
Q Thank you very much. Two questions. One, yesterday there was a strategic and commercial development between the U.S. and India -- and as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned, and also Prime Minister Modi at Silicon Valley also talking about the U.S.-India relations. (Inaudible) at the highest level, including Vice President, spoke to the delegation at the State Department. So what did the presidential message of this future of U.S.-India relations? This is the first time that in the steady dialogue between the two countries, largest and oldest democracies, commercial was also added.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, when the President traveled to India earlier this year, there was much discussion of the important economic ties between our two countries. In fact, you’ll recall that there were American business leaders who traveled to India at the same time as the President to engage in discussions with Indian business leaders and leaders in the Indian government to discuss strengthening the ties between our two countries.
The idea here is that by strengthening these ties, we can expand economic opportunity in both of our countries; that the more business that American businesses can do in India, the more economic opportunity that it creates back here in the United States. There’s also a potential that Indian businesses choosing to invest in the United States could also expand some economic opportunity here as well.
So there are any number of reasons why the President would work closely with his counterpart, Prime Minister Modi, who I know understands these kinds of dynamics and shares the President’s goal of trying to deepen these ties with an eye toward expanding economic opportunity for the citizens in both the United States and India.
Q Second, as far as celebrating the 70th anniversary of the United Nations next week of course, most of the global leaders, including President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, will be at the United Nations. After 68 years of India’s independence, the people of India are asking, and now the Indian Americans also in the U.S. asking the United States that if U.S. is going to support. Why the national language of India, Hindi, and India’s presence at the United Nations Security Council is not there? Why Hindi, and India is not in the U.N. Security Council. Will the U.S. support this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary? And that’s what they’re asking really, that message to the President.
MR. EARNEST: Goyal, my understanding is the President has previously stated that the United States would be supportive of including India in the United Nations Security Council in the context of reforming essentially the governance structure of the United Nations. And I think that was something that the President announced on his trip to India, his first trip to India back in 2010. And that continues to be the position of the United States, and I think it reflects the increasingly important role that we’re seeing India play around the world. And as the world’s largest democracy and as a country whose economic influence is only growing, we would welcome additional opportunities for India to take on additional responsibilities when it comes to contributing to the shared interests of the international community. And so we’ll look for a variety of ways to do that.
Certainly one way to do that would be for India to play a constructive role in the climate talks in Paris; that as a growing economy, India could make an important statement about the future of our planet by making a serious commitment in the context of those negotiations. And I know that’s something that President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have had the opportunity to talk about in the past, and I would anticipate that they’ll talk about it again in advance of the Paris climate talks.
Q And finally, can you confirm if the two leaders at the U.N. will be meetings?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll have more details about the President’s schedule at the U.N. tomorrow.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. Following up on Kevin and Keystone, has the President never questioned what in the world is taking so long for the State Department to come to a conclusion on this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that there have been --
Q It’s been years.
MR. EARNEST: -- extensive discussions about this. There have been a number of things that have slowed the consideration of this particular project; one of them is that there was an ongoing court case in Nebraska about the particular route of the pipeline. But this is something that the President is regularly updated on, but in terms of the timing of when a decision would be announced, I just don’t have anything for you on that.
Q And would you take issue with an assertion that the President is happy to let the State Department take its time coming to a decision?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President would have the expectation that the State Department would fulfill the responsibility that they have to carefully consider the consequences of this particular project and the potential benefits of the project, and evaluate whether or not it is in the broad national interest of the United States for the project to go forward.
Q You only gave Congress 60 days to talk -- to decide about Iran and the nuclear deal -- (laughter) -- but the State Department is taking years on this project.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the difference is the State Department has a responsibility to specifically sign off on the project, and that is what’s described in the law. Congress, as we’ve discussed, based on the law that they wrote and they passed themselves, did not have the responsibility to sign off on the Iran deal. They were, however, given the 60-day window of opportunity to undermine the deal if they chose to do so; fortunately, they did not.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:35 P.M. EDT