Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/14/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I do not have anything at the top of today’s briefing, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kevin, would you like to start?
Q Sure. Israel’s Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, says he will settle the score and cut the hands of those trying to hurt Israelis. Is the President worried that the violence from both sides will be escalating and what is he doing to prevent it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, let me start by saying that the United States mourns any innocent loss of life, whether it’s Israeli or Palestinian. And we continue to stress to leaders on both sides the importance of condemning violence and combatting incitement.
The United States continues to be in regular contact with both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. I understand that Secretary Kerry had the opportunity to place telephone calls to both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas over the weekend, where obviously this issue was discussed and our concerns about the ongoing violence in the region were discussed. And I also know that Secretary Kerry has announced that he plans to travel to the region in the near future. I don’t have any details on his trip at this point, but you can check with my colleagues at the State Department to see if they have information about that, that they’re prepared to discuss.
But all of this underscores the continuing deep concern that we have here in the United States about escalating tensions, and we continue to urge all sides to take affirmative steps to restore calm and prevent actions that would further escalate tensions in the region.
Q And there was notice of 90 U.S. military members going to Cameroon and up to 300 in the future. Can you talk a little bit about what they’re going to be doing, why they’re there, and how long they’ll be there?
MR. EARNEST: I can. Let me try to answer some of those questions. The U.S. military forces who were deployed to Cameroon are there at the invitation of the government of Cameroon and will act in coordination with the government of Cameroon.
The United States military forces will partner with Cameroon’s ministry of defense, and it will be part of a broader regional effort to stop the spread of Boko Haram and other violent extremist organizations in West Africa. Kevin, you know that the United States has made other commitments to this regional effort, and we have discussed some of the assistance that we have provided to the Nigerian government as they fight Boko Haram and other extremists inside of Nigeria.
When the President traveled to Africa earlier this year, he talked about how important it was for Africa -- the nations of Africa to pursue a regional approach to the threat that is posed by Boko Haram. And what the United States has done is try to offer some of the unique capabilities that we have in the United States military to assist that regional effort. So this deployment will be part of an effort to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the region. This is obviously a unique capacity that the United States has to bring to bear to this effort, and it will be used in support of the ongoing regional counter-extremist efforts that are ongoing there.
And so just to be clear about the U.S. military personnel that were deployed to Cameroon, they are armed but they are armed for the purposes of force protection and providing for their own security. They will not be there in a combat role but rather to provide force protection for -- to allow these airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations to commence.
Q Is there a timeframe for the deployment?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that it has already occurred, which is what prompted the War Powers notice. As a requirement of the War Powers Act that when deployments like this occur that the administration informs Congress within 48 hours of that deployment. So my understanding is that this deployment has already started.
Q But how long?
MR. EARNEST: How long it would be there? I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. The last thing I’ll point out, Kevin, is that this is not the first contribution that the United States has made to this broader regional effort against Boko Haram, but this is actually an effort to increase the assistance that we’re providing based on the unique capabilities that are housed at the United States military.
Q How much of last night’s debate did the President watch?
MR. EARNEST: I have not had a chance to speak to him about the debate at this point this morning. I would not be surprised if he -- he certainly had an opportunity either last night or today to catch the highlights of the debate.
I watched the debate last night and the thing that I was struck by after having watched the two previous Republican debates is that it was a keen reminder that you can run a presidential campaign on things other than appealing to people’s fears and anxieties and insecurities about the future. And it was encouraging to see Democratic candidates putting forward their own vision and values and priorities for the country, in large part vowing to build on the important progress that’s been made over the last seven years. And that obviously is why you’ve heard me say on many occasions and even the President himself say that he expects to be an enthusiastic supporter of whoever the Democratic nominee is.
Q And has he decided yet on whether he will endorse a candidate before the primary election? Or is that still kind of ruled out?
MR. EARNEST: That’s still a possibility. I’m confident the President will participate in the Illinois primary, whenever that is. But any sort of public announcement about who he chooses to support in the Democratic primary -- I don’t know yet at this point whether or not that’s something that he’ll make public.
Q Specifically about Secretary Clinton’s comments last night about the TPP. She said that “in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards.” And I’m just wondering, is it possible that she has actually looked at it? Because I thought it hadn’t been posted or been made public yet.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I noticed that, too. What we have indicated is we have made a commitment to make the text public -- both prior to the President signing it but also prior to the responsibility that Congress has to consider and ratify it. And what we continue to be confident in is our ability to make a strong case based on the details of the agreement about for why Democrats should be supportive of the agreement. And we look forward to the opportunity to make that case. You’ve gotten a sense already from me about what that case will be. It will certainly rest upon the agreement cutting 18,000 import taxes on U.S. good that are applied by other countries. And there are specific enforceable provisions related to both labor protections and higher environmental standards.
That is significant because one of the principal critiques by Democrats of previous trade agreements is that they didn’t include enforceable provisions on these matters, at least of sufficient strength. And the fact is, the labor protections and environmental standards that are included in this agreement are the toughest and the highest that have ever been included in any previous trade agreement. And those standards are enforceable.
So that’s the case that we’ll be making, but it certainly is relevant for you and others to say that the details matter in this instance. We would agree -- that’s why we spent more than five years negotiating the agreement. And we look forward to as soon as possible being able to put forward the text of the agreement so that everybody can review it and make their own judgments.
Q So are you disappointed that Secretary Clinton has made her own judgment before seeing those details?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not how I would describe it. I think that we have indicated that we would welcome support from anybody that chooses to put it forward, but at the same time, Secretary Clinton did not express her strong support for Trade Promotion Authority legislation but yet over the course of the summer, the administration did succeed in building a bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate for that Trade Promotion Authority legislation. So we certainly would welcome support from anybody that’s prepared to offer it. We believe that we’ve got a strong case to make about why that support is appropriate in this instance, because we continue to have strong confidence that this agreement is clearly in the best interest of the U.S. economy, U.S. businesses and, most importantly, American middle-class families. Again, that will be part of the argument that we will be prepared to make. And we’ll be able to make that argument in full-throated fashion once the text of the agreement has been made public.
Q Josh, I want to ask you some questions about the debate. Since you say the President didn’t see it, can you give us your highlights of the evening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that -- I don’t think the President watched it wire to wire, but I do think that he had the opportunity to catch some of the highlights. I certainly was -- I mean, I think like a lot of people, I was struck by Senator Sanders’s comments about the fatigue that he is experiencing in the ongoing public discussion of Secretary Clinton’s email server. Given the unique responsibilities of my job, I can relate.
But I think the other thing that I was struck by, as I mentioned in response to Roberta’s question, is the optimistic, forward-looking, ambitious agenda that was laid out by a host of candidates on the stage last night. That stands in quite stark contrast to the Republican debates that have been characterized by misogyny and xenophobia and not-so-thinly veiled appeals to the fears and anxieties of the American public. There are some people who may on the Republican side -- apparently a lot of them, because there are a lot of candidates -- who think that that may be a good political strategy for them in the short term. I’m willing to bet that it’s not a very good political strategy over the long term. But ultimately the American people will have the opportunity to make that judgment.
Q So at the beginning of the debate -- I think it was before Sheryl Crow sang the National Anthem -- President Obama delivered a statement, a video statement. And in that video, there was a certain person standing next to him. Was the Vice President strategically placed in that video for this message to Democrats to let them know that he is not on the ballot but please get out and vote?
MR. EARNEST: I will be forthright with you in saying that I was not involved in putting that video together and so I was seeing the video for the first time when you were. But there’s no denying the important role that Vice President Biden has played in so many of the accomplishments that have been achieved
over the last six and a half, seven years. And I think the fact that he was included in some of the B-roll footage of that video I think is an indication of the important role that he has played.
Q So was his absence on the stage last night sorely missed, or was it something that we should take into account that he just may not be there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think his absence from the stage last night reflects the fact that he’s not a declared candidate for President of the United States. And if that changes, then I’m sure he will be included in the next debate.
Q Josh, thanks. Following up on April’s questions, a lot of people watched last night’s debate and felt as though Secretary Clinton had such a strong --
MR. EARNEST: Good news for ratings, Michelle. A lot of people watched it. You heard it here.
Q Tell that to Kevin. (Laughter.)
Q That Secretary Clinton had such a strong performance that she may have, in fact, boxed the Vice President out of this race. How do you see it, and how does the President see it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first thing that I would observe is I don’t think there’s anybody who is surprised that Secretary Clinton performed well on the debate stage. Many of us who worked on the President’s campaign in 2007 and 2008 saw firsthand that she’s an effective debater. And so her strong performance yesterday was not a surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention. I’m also confident it was not a surprise to either the President or the Vice President, both of whom participated in those debates. So they know firsthand, as well.
The second thing I would observe is Vice President Biden I think has been quite candid about the fact that the decision that he has to make about a presidential campaign is rooted in a decision about his own presidential campaign, not anybody else’s. And I take him at his word when he says that.
Q And I know you were asked about timing yesterday. Does last night’s debate add urgency for him to make a decision and announce it, in part for the good of the Democratic Party?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will let others, including those who speak for the Democratic Party, make that assessment. I think what I would just observe is I don’t think -- again, I had not spoken to the Vice President about the debate, but I don’t think that he would express surprise by the outcome of the debate. I don’t think he’s surprised that Secretary Clinton performed well, and I think that’s why the dynamic for his decision hasn’t changed -- because ultimately this is a decision that he has to make based on a bunch of personal considerations, not based on the political standing of anybody else, let alone anybody else in the Democratic field.
Q Well, I guess to ask it in a different way -- is his indecision in any way, do you think, casting a cloud over the Clinton campaign or taking away attention from what needs to happen here in this White House?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not been -- I have not observed that. There may be others who disagree with that assessment, but you can go ask them. But I have not noticed that his decision has had an impact on anybody else’s ability to run their campaign. And it certainly hasn’t had an impact on the Vice President fulfilling the important responsibilities he has here as Vice President of the United States.
Q And one foreign policy, Josh. The New York Times has a report today that says the President might be reconsidering withdrawing troops, or a majority of the troops after 2016. Can you weigh in on that? Is that accurate? And what numbers is he considering? I saw the figure of 3,000 to 5,000.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have acknowledged, I think dating back to General Campbell’s testimony before Congress last week, that there is an upcoming policy decision that the President has to make about our ongoing military posture inside of Afghanistan.
There are a couple of things that I would observe about that. The first is, that at the end of last month -- so just a couple of weeks ago -- we marked the one-year anniversary of the creation of the Unity Government inside of Afghanistan. And when that Unity Government was created, we were able to complete the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States.
So over the last year, U.S. military personnel and the Afghan government have been testing this partnership. And I think it’s fair to say that thus far we’ve been encouraged by the results; that we have found President Ghani and CEO Abdullah to be effective interlocutors in trying to support the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces as they fulfill the responsibility that they have to provide for the security of their own country. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing I’ll observe is that the reason that the United States got involved in Afghanistan in the first place was because of the concern about the threat of terrorists that had been operating in Afghanistan and in the region. And since President Obama took office, the strategy that we have implemented there has been focused on mitigating and ultimately destroying that terror threat in Afghanistan. And we have made remarkable progress in pursuit of that goal by effectively decimating core al Qaeda that previously operated essentially with impunity in Afghanistan.
So we’ve made important progress against extremists in Afghanistan. However, there continues to be a terror threat emanating from Afghanistan. It’s not on the same scale of what -- of the risk pre-9/11, but it’s still a risk that we do not take lightly. And it is important for, in the mind of the President, for the United States to preserve our counterterrorism capabilities inside of Afghanistan, both because of the impact that would have on the stability of a central government in Afghanistan, but also because of the impact that would have on the core national security interests of the United States.
Q Is there a timeline for when he’s going to make a decision?
MR. EARNEST: Not one that I have to announce here.
Q So might the President be waiting for something in particular before he makes a decision on whether to endorse someone or not?
MR. EARNEST: In the Democratic primary? No. I think the President obviously is interested in the race. He’s said on a couple of occasions now how important he thinks it is for the next President to recognize the progress that’s been made over the last seven years, and be committed to building on it in a way that reflects the kinds of values that the President has championed in the Oval Office over the last seven years.
But in terms of who that Democratic nominee should be, the President believes it’s important for Democratic voters to make up their minds. He obviously is a Democratic voter, and will be casting a vote in the Illinois primary. The question is whether or not that vote will be made public. And at this point I don’t know.
Q So has he not made up his mind yet?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't asked him that, actually. I don’t know.
Q Are you going to ask him? Like today?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to.
Q Maybe. And it was interesting last night hearing Glass-Steagall come up, and calls to reinstate that. How does the administration feel about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the notable thing from the debate last night was the positive assessment that each of the candidates had about the importance of Wall Street reform. And the success that we have had in countering the aggressive opposition from Wall Street banks to make sure that we are effectively implementing Wall Street reform has been no small undertaking.
And, in fact, we have been successful in implementing the elements of Wall Street reform in a way that ensures that taxpayers and consumers have a powerful independent advocate in the form of the CFPB here in Washington, D.C. We’ve put in place rules that limit the -- or essentially prohibit banks from using their depositors’ resources to make risky bets on Wall Street. That is the kind of reform that will mitigate the risk that contributed to the last economic crisis in 2008.
And what we see is that we see that it isn’t just our broader economy that’s more stable, but we have a financial system where banks are capitalized at a much higher level. I think the number is about $600 billion in greater capital that banks are holding at this point. It means that banks are significantly less reliant on short-term day-to-day funding. And we’ve also put in some reforms that have made the derivatives market safer and more efficient and less risky.
All of this contributes to a higher-functioning, a better-functioning financial market that is also good for the broader economy. It also ensures -- which was our goal at the beginning -- but it also ensures that never again will taxpayers across the country be on the hook for bailing out a Wall Street bank if bets go bad.
Q But you’re not going to say anything specifically on Glass-Steagall and whether the administration or the President feels like it should be reinstated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve had a pretty robust debate about the most effective way for us to address and mitigate the risks associated with a modern 21st-century financial system. We want to have a posture where we are encouraging responsible innovation, and that some of these innovations -- many of them using new technology -- can be beneficial to the financial markets and beneficial to the broader economy. That there are efficiency gains and that there innovations that can ensure the kind of movement of capital that’s good for the broader economy, that’s good for small businesses, and that could ultimately be good for middle-class families.
What we want to avoid, though, is making sure that those innovations don’t contribute to significantly increased risk that’s not appropriately mitigated. And that’s what we have been mindful of and that’s why many of the reforms that we put in place actually are similar to the reforms that are recommended by Glass-Steagall. So I made the reference to the Volcker Rule -- say that five times fast -- that actually outlaws banks from using their depositors’ funds to make risky bets. That certainly is something that we believe reflects the modern financial system and also can mitigate the kind of risks that are posed by it.
Q And on this subject, one of the most assertive statements you hear on this is that people will go to jail. Kind of a slam on what has happened before. You think that’s fair? And you agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact of the matter is the decisions about criminal prosecutions are made by career prosecutors at the Department of Justice. In this country, we have a tradition -- and it’s a good one -- of going to great lengths to make clear that criminal prosecutions are not influenced by politics. That is a tradition that this administration has hewed closely to.
What I can say, however, is that the successful implementation of Wall Street reform -- well, let me say it this way. Many people have observed that a lot of the risky behavior that people on Wall Street engaged in, in 2007 and 2008 that contributed to the financial crisis, was actually behavior that was not illegal. That’s what necessitated the need for the kind of Wall Street reform legislation that changed the law and did impose some additional constraints on banks and on financial executives to ensure that taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for bailing out Wall Street banks whose bets went bad.
So that’s of course what our focus has been on, but it also has not diminished the focus that we’ve had on enforcement. And whether you look at the CFPB that’s collected $10 billion in relief for more than 17 million consumers just in the last few years, the Department of Justice has conducted more than 60 enforcement actions against financial institutions that have recovered more than $85 billion for taxpayers.
So it is clear that there have been tough investigations and enforcement actions taken against those who engaged in improper activity. But one of the most important things that we could do to prevent a financial crisis like the one that we saw in 2008 was to make sure that that risky behavior that was allowed in 2007 and 2008 was significantly constrained by changing the law. And that’s what we did.
Q And on TPP, would you say that Secretary Clinton and others then are wrong in their view against it? Because that’s the kind of language we’ve heard from the administration in the past. Are they wrong in what they’re saying in opposition to the TPP?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s fair to say that we strongly disagree with their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Like I said, we have a strong case to make about the way that middle-class families and American businesses and American farmers will benefit from cutting 18,000 taxes on American goods and American products that are shipped overseas. We’ve got a strong case to make when it comes to enforceable labor standards that are tougher than any other labor standards that have ever been included in a trade agreement. And this includes everything from a living wage to the ability of workers to form unions.
I think this is particularly relevant because we’re talking about some countries that have, to put it mildly, a checkered past when it comes to workers’ rights. So this is the case that we discussed in the context of Trade Promotion Authority and one that we will discuss again when we join the fight to get this ratified through Congress. If, for example, right now, whether it’s -- if, for example, right now you have concerns with, say, the working conditions that laborers in Vietnam are subjected to, the question is what are you going to do about it. And whether you have a moral objection to some of those working conditions or just a practical economic objection that observes rightly that those lower labor standards put U.S. workers at a significant disadvantage, the question is what are you going to do about it. And if you oppose the TPP deal, that’s an open question. I guess right now you’re not doing anything about it.
But if you support the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, what you’re actually supporting is an agreement that requires the government of Vietnam, for example, to live up to a higher standards -- to actually raise those standards to both address the legitimate moral concerns that have been raised but also to try to level the playing field for American businesses and American workers. And this rests with the President’s core belief that if we can do more to level the playing field for American middle-class workers in the context of a competitive 21st-century economy, that the U.S. is not just going to be able to successfully compete; the United States is going to win -- and that’s going to be good for middle-class families across the country. It’s also going to be good for our standing in the world, particularly in the Asia Pacific, where we know that China has designs on trying to expand their influence.
Q I wanted to ask first about the ongoing budget talks. And I’m wondering if you could at all talk about whether those discussions have included a discussion of parameters, especially on entitlements on your guys’ part. And also, there’s a story in Politico today that said House Speaker John Boehner was both pessimistic about the success of these talks that have been going on for a week but that he would bring up a clean debt ceiling if they failed. So I’m wondering if you could talk about the first, but also if you received that assurance from the Speaker.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, we have acknowledged that there are some staff-level discussions that have been underway as it relates to trying to reach a budget agreement. But we have also refrained from talking about the particulars of those discussions. So unfortunately, at this point, I can’t shed any additional light on the substance of those ongoing talks beyond confirming for you that they are, in fact, ongoing.
As it relates to -- I’ve heard about the Politico report and what Speaker Boehner may be planning, or at least is thinking when it comes to the debt limit. We’ve said for some time that Congress has a basic responsibility to raise the debt limit. It doesn’t mean -- it reflects the responsibility that Congress has to ensure that the bills that are incurred by the U.S. government are paid in full and on time. And, again, that’s among the more basic responsibilities the United States Congress has. That’s part of your responsibility when you sign up for the job. As far as I can tell, there’s nobody in American history that’s been forced to run for Congress, but those who chose to do so knew exactly what they were signing up for, and that includes making sure that our bills get paid for on time. And that is not a negotiable provision -- that is a requirement and that’s; our expectation is that that’s what the Congress should do.
And I would point out that thanks in part to Speaker Boehner’s leadership, that is actually what Congress has done the last few times when they’ve had to raise the debt limit. They’ve been able to successfully get that done without any drama or unnecessary delay. And we’re hopeful that he’ll be able to do it again, prior to his departure.
Q I’m wondering if, from yesterday, you have any update on determining whether the Iran missile launch over the weekend was a violation of the U.N. standards, and decided any type of recourse you might seek there.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update for you on that, Justin. It’s something that our experts continue to review.
Q And the Russians say that you guys rejected a delegation led by Prime Minister Medvedev -- sorry, long night with the debate -- (laughter) -- coming here to discuss sort of the ongoing situation in Syria. And I’m wondering -- you know, after a couple weeks ago, the President felt like it was important enough that he’d meet directly with Vladimir Putin -- why you guys would reject this offer, especially if it could lead to some of the de-confliction that you’ve been discussing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t spoken with Prime Minister Medvedev’s office about what his intentions are. I think the stated intentions, as described by President Putin, was that this was a delegation that could facilitate military cooperation, coordination between the United States and Russia. To be blunt about it, Justin, we’ve said that we’re not interested in doing that as long as Russia is not willing to make a constructive contribution to our counter-ISIL effort.
Russia has their own agenda, and it’s an agenda right now that they’re pursuing on their own. So it’s not particularly surprising to me that President Putin would resort in some desperation to try to send the second highest-ranking official in the Russian government to the United States to try to convince us to join them.
But the fact is, that is a request that’s fallen on deaf ears not just when it comes to the United States, but to the other 65 members of our counter-ISIL coalition that we’ve formed. We do continue to see some reports that Iranian forces are ramping up their presence inside of Syria. We’re obviously watching that situation quite closely and it’s consistent with what they’ve done in the past, but it’s an indication of just how isolated Russia is as they carry out this unilateral action. The only people that are coordinating with them right now is the fledgling Assad government, such as it is, and the Iranians who had been engaged in the kind of destabilizing activity inside of Syria that has made them the target for U.S. and international sanctions.
So it’s not surprising to me that Vladimir Putin is ready to resort to sending his Prime Minister to the United States to try to get us to go along with their unilateral action inside of Syria. But we’re not going to do that. We would welcome a constructive Russian contribution that’s integrated with the international effort against ISIL that’s currently underway. But Russia has a different plan.
Q You mentioned the sanctions -- having to do with Ukraine. And yesterday, Secretary Kerry seemed to indicate in a speech that he gave that there had been some progress made towards the implementation of the Minsk agreement. Does that message that he gave in any way indicate that the administration is reconsidering any of those sanctions, especially kind of in light of what’s been going on in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Just to be clear, the sanctions I was referring to in my previous answer were sanctions against some elements inside of Iran for their destabilizing activities against -- inside of Syria. But when it comes to Ukraine, the President, since the day that we implemented these sanctions, has said he would be prepared to offer relief from them or even take them away if Russia was prepared to actually follow through on the commitments that they made in the context of Minsk. But for more than a year now the Russians have been unwilling to do that and those sanctions remained in place, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the relationship and cooperation between the United States and Europe that those sanctions endure to this day.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about Secretary Clinton and TPP. It’s interesting to me, because I remember back when we were talking earlier this year about GOP lawmakers who hadn’t seen the Iran deal, for example, and you were understandably very critical of them for being against something before they’d actually even seen it, they hadn’t even read it. And now we have Secretary Clinton who presumably also has not seen the final draft of the TPP and yet she’s against it, too. And I’m just curious if you feel like criticism is warranted because she is essentially doing what a lot of GOP lawmakers were doing earlier this year. You haven’t seen it, you haven’t read it, and you’re coming out against it. Seems phony, doesn’t it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that I’ve minced any words in noting that we have a disagreement on this issue. But for the reasons that she has arrived at this position, I’d refer you to her campaign.
Q You were a little stronger, I felt like, especially this summer. I don’t think you were just sort of, “Oh, you know, I don’t know, don’t you think, a little bit?”
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think they’re two different situations, but I think what is clear is that the administration believes that we have a very strong case to make about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership isn’t just critical to protecting and advancing the national security interests of the United States in the Asia Pacific region; it also is critical to enhancing the standing and leveling the playing field for middle-class workers in the United States of America. Those are two top priorities of the Obama administration, and we’re pursuing a policy more than five years in the making to try to advance those priorities. We believe that this agreement does exactly that. Secretary Clinton has a different view -- that’s a view that we disagree with. But how she has arrived at that position, I’d refer you to her campaign to describe.
Q Okay. A couple more. I want to ask you about the DOJ. They announced a new position for combatting terrorism -- everything from ISIS to white supremacists. I’m wondering why the administration feels it’s necessary to have an additional terrorism czar, if you will, especially considering the National Counterterrorism Center, the expansion of the FBI’s role in the wake of 9/11. What’s the reasoning behind it, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice for the specifics about that specific decision. But I will say that the administration has worked diligently to constantly be reviewing our posture and evaluating strategies that we can implement to counter violent extremism, to work more effectively with our allies around the world, to confront the strategy that is used by some extremists to capitalize on social media to radicalize people around the world, including in the United States. And this is a top priority, and the administration has rolled out a variety of strategies for countering it. But it’s one that continues to be a top priority when -- as it relates to the national security interests of the United States.
Q And just a quick one on Afghanistan. Well, actually, I guess two. For the troops that will end up in Cameroon, will they be drawn from Afghanistan, from in theater? Or has that been announced?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe that these will be military personnel that are assigned to AFRICOM. But check with the Department of Defense to confirm that. They can help you with those operational details.
Q Okay, gotcha. Meanwhile, the President has said repeatedly that he felt like al Qaeda was on the run. And yet they have an enormous couple of facilities that were bombed, obviously, including one 30 square miles, I believe. And despite 3,000 airstrikes and countless other sorties, does the President still feel like al Qaeda is on the run, given the size and the scope of their presence in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, there’s no denying that we have decimated core al Qaeda. Core al Qaeda used the chaos inside of Afghanistan to establish a safe haven and attack the United States on September 11th, 2001. And since that time, the United States military has been engaged in an effort in Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda, to make sure they could not use it as a safe haven to plan and execute attacks against the United States.
And the President, when he took office in 2009, actually made sure that our military strategy and our diplomatic strategy, for that matter as well, was properly aligned with that goal. And that President made a decision early on in his presidency to essentially surge our military presence inside of Afghanistan; for a couple of years to apply significant pressure to those extremist elements inside of Afghanistan; and to offer some stability and assistance to the Afghan central government as they try to assume security responsibility for their own country.
At the end of last year, President Obama was pleased to announce that the combat operation for U.S. military personnel inside of Afghanistan had ended; that the Afghan government and the Afghan national security forces would be responsible for the security situation inside of Afghanistan. But the President made the prudent decision to continue having military personnel inside of Afghanistan and to make sure that the drawdown of military personnel would be responsible and consistent with our national security interests.
And the military presence that remains in Afghanistan right now is one that’s focused on two core missions. The first is carrying out counterterrorism operations, and the second is offering some training and advice to Afghan national security forces.
And what we have seen is that there continues to be a terror threat that emanates from Afghanistan, and our ability to carry out those counterterrorism operations continues to be important. But there’s no denying that the risk that is posed by those terrorist elements inside of Afghanistan is significantly lower than the risk that was posed by core al Qaeda pre-9/11. However, that is not a terror risk that we take lightly. The President takes it quite seriously. And that’s why the work that’s been done by our military personnel in Afghanistan, even since our combat operations there ended, continues to be a top priority.
Q The drawdown will continue, though?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, this is part of the policy decision that we have acknowledged that the President has to make about what is the most -- what’s the smartest way for us to make a -- for the administration to make a policy decision that is consistent with our national security interests inside of Afghanistan. The President -- we have been on a long trajectory of reducing our military presence inside of Afghanistan. And the question is, for the future, what does that military presence look like -- if there is one -- that is consistent with the need to continue to offer training and advice to the Afghan national security forces, and to carry out counterterrorism operations where necessary against extremist elements that are still operating inside of Afghanistan.
Q So leaving a larger force in Afghanistan is an ongoing discussion and could happen?
MR. EARNEST: That is what General Campbell testified before Congress last week, and he was of course right when he offered up that testimony -- that he had --
Q So it will be the President’s decision. The President wanted to withdraw down to a very small number, but it’s possible that he may change his mind?
MR. EARNEST: It is possible that he may change his mind. And that will be a decision that is rooted in a long-term evaluation of what will be necessary to counter the ongoing extremist threat that exists inside of Afghanistan. It’s also dependent on the success of our ongoing efforts to offer some training and advice to Afghan national security forces.
The current policy -- the decision that the President made at the, I believe it was the end of last year, was that the military presence inside of Afghanistan post-2016 would be reduced to essentially a footprint around the U.S. embassy in Kabul. That would still be a presence that would allow for training and advice and assist efforts of the Afghan national security forces to continue --
Q Even if it was basically down to the embassy guards?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, because there would be -- what is typical in some of these places -- and you’ve spent more time in these places than I have -- but there typically are these detachments of military personnel that have responsibilities -- where they’re located at the embassy, but they have responsibilities beyond just defending the embassy. So that’s what the current policy is.
But the question that is raised -- and it’s a legitimate one -- is, is that a sufficient presence to counter the ongoing extremist terrorist threat that continues to emanate from Afghanistan. And there has been a longer-term look at this that will factor into the President’s eventual decision.
The reason I raise this is that there have been, I think, legitimate questions raised about how the Taliban offensive in Kunduz would impact this policy decision. The fact is, Afghan national security forces have succeeded in retaking the city, pursuant to an announcement that they’ve made in the last 24 hours. And the President is always mindful of the conditions on the ground. But there are other factors that will also influence this policy decision, including this longer-term look at what sort of presence will be necessary to carry out counterterrorism operations inside of Afghanistan.
Q Given the progress that the Taliban seems to have made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, given the current challenges that the Afghan national security forces are facing. And they responded to those challenges reasonably well. There was a Taliban offensive inside of Kunduz. There’s no doubt that that was a setback for the Afghan national security forces. But in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen that Afghan national security forces have retaken the city. So that’s an indication that there is at least some resilience among that fighting force that stands in contrast to the kind of resilience that wasn’t present in other countries where we’ve been trying to build up the capacity of armed forces.
Q What’s the triggering event in Cameroon for sending American forces?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that there is a --
Q A new threat?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that there is not a triggering that’s taking place here, but rather an effort to continue to increase the support that the United States is providing to the ongoing regional effort to counter Boko Haram. So this doesn’t reflect a change in our overall --
Q I guess what I’m asking is, is there some reason why it happened now?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that. And you can check with the Department of Defense about that. But I don’t -- based on my understanding, this wasn’t a response to any particular urgent threat. It certainly doesn’t reflect a change to the strategy that the U.S. military has employed in this region. They’re not going to be in a combat role. They’re essentially there to protect the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role that they’ll have there.
And just to be clear about the threat, we obviously take the terror threat from Boko Haram in Africa seriously. So it is an urgent threat, but it is not a response to changes in assessment about the nature of that threat.
Q On Israel -- can you give a sense of what specifically the President thinks the U.S. can do to defuse tensions there, and how the strained relations between this White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu impacts the ability of the U.S. to have leverage in these discussions, as well as the fact that the President just has 15 months left in office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, Carol, I mean, I think what we have seen is that these kinds of tensions that sometimes boil over into violence are part of the -- or have been part of the landscape of this region of the world for generations, and that many U.S. Presidents have had to grapple with this challenge. And it certainly is not an easy one. As we’ve observed many times in discussions between Israelis and Palestinians, that ultimately ending this conflict is not something that the United States or anyone else in the international community can do for them. Ultimately, ending this conflict will require both sides making some difficult decisions -- some decisions that will require them to exercise some significant political courage.
But ultimately, what the United States can do is to try to facilitate those conversations, to try to be supportive of that process. Obviously what the United States will continue to do is to stand shoulder to shoulder with our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, as they confront these security threats. But at the same time, we recognize that it is in the national security interest of both Israel and of the United States to try to resolve this conflict. And I’m obviously not the first Press Secretary in this administration or any previous administration to make that kind of observation.
Q It sounds like you’re saying the best you can do is to urge these two sides to have conversations. How do you do that? And what specifically is the message that you think is going to get them to do what you want them to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the message continues to be that it is not in the interest of either side for this kind of conflict and for these political disagreements to boil over into violence that claims innocent lives on both sides. The loss of life here has been tragic, and unfortunately it continues. And that’s why -- there’s a reason that Secretary Kerry has placed calls to leaders of both sides to try to find a way to deescalate tensions and prevent the further innocent loss of life.
Q Was it a mistake for the President not to push harder for -- or to try to restart peace talks at some point? I mean, given that the two sides are not talking, do you bear any responsibility for what’s happening over there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously we were -- I think we’ve been quite candid about our disappointment that the two sides that were not able to come to an agreement in some of the conversations that Secretary Kerry had brokered. But I think you’d be hard pressed to make the case that the lack of a successful outcome was due in any way to an insufficient commitment on the part of the United States.
Ultimately, these are -- as we said at the time, these are decisions that the United States cannot make for either one of the parties. And ultimately, the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the leaders of the Israeli government will have to make these decisions for themselves.
Obviously, the United States can be there to support these leaders as they make those decisions and offer some assurances about the wisdom of those decisions, but ultimately that is a conclusion that they have to reach for themselves. And it’s courage that they’ll have to summon for themselves in making those decisions at some point.
I guess the other observation I would have is that it’s not the first time that either these Palestinian leaders and these Israeli leaders haven’t been able to reach agreement. That is true for a whole generation of leaders on both sides. This is a long-running dispute that has all too often claimed far too many innocent lives. But we know that the resolution lies in a two-state solution, and that is a solution that only can be arrived through direct talks between the two parties.
Q Josh, groups like Public Citizen say they know what’s in the TPP because of what’s been posted on WikiLeaks.
MR. EARNEST: I see.
Q Is that accurate of what’s posted on WikiLeaks? Or is it wrong, or --
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen what’s on WikiLeaks. And the text of this agreement, as has been described to me, is substantial and lengthy, so it would take -- it would require an exhaustive review of what’s been posted already to determine whether or not it reflects accurately what has been agreed to.
So I think what I would encourage people to do who are genuinely interested in the details of the agreement is to review the official document once it’s posted. And that's something that we're seeking to do as soon as we can.
Q Do you have any idea when that will be?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a sense of the timeline. I know that there are a range of rather technical considerations that have to go into this, including translating the document into a variety of languages. And as I mentioned, it’s a rather lengthy document, so I don't have a time estimate at this point. But as soon as we can make it available, we will. And as I sort of alluded to in my conversation with Michelle, we're eager for that document to become public so we can start talking about the details of the agreement. And we can point to you specific passages inside the agreement that illustrate how much the U.S. economy and U.S. workers would benefit from this agreement.
Q Doctors Without Borders has asked the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to investigate the strike on its hospital in Afghanistan, but apparently the U.S. and Afghanistan have to agree to that. Would the U.S. agree to that or not?
MR. EARNEST: What the U.S. is doing right now is we're conducting -- well, we're involved in three different ongoing investigations into this terrible tragic incident. The first is a Department of Defense investigation that's ongoing. And the President has informed the chain of command that he expects a thorough, objective, and transparent review to be conducted. And the President since day one has called for a full accounting of what exactly occurred on that terrible evening. And the President has confidence that that's what will be yielded in that Department of Defense investigation.
There are also ongoing investigations that are being conducted by NATO and a joint investigation that's being conducted by U.S. and Afghan officials. And the outcome of those investigations could also play an important role in presenting this full accounting that the President said he wants.
Q So the administration would object to an independent investigation by that commission?
MR. EARNEST: The administration has confidence that the investigation that is currently underway by the Department of Defense will provide the full accounting of the situation that the President has asked for.
Q And just finally, did you see any potential Democratic presidential ticket amongst the five people who were on stage last night? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I suspect that some of the people on the stage might have seen -- might have envisioned a ticket like that. But I’ll leave that to the pundits to speculate on that.
Q Just one week ago today Hillary Clinton said that she wanted to give the Vice President whatever space and time he needs to decide about 2016. That kind of runs contrary to what her campaign chairman, the past two days, John Podesta, has been saying that it’s time for -- right now for the Vice President to make a decision. Do you think that Podesta and others need to lower some of the pressure on the Vice President to decide?
MR. EARNEST: They're running their own campaign. They can obviously apply pressure or take it away wherever they feel it’s warranted. But I’m confident that the Vice President will do what he set out to do, which is to make an intensely personal decision based on his own set of considerations.
Q Just before the briefing, the Vice President commented on the debate, and he said that he thought the candidates did very well. Do you think that maybe he thought that some of those candidates did well enough that he wouldn’t need to enter the race?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think as I told Kristen, I think the Vice President -- having appeared on the debate stage alongside Secretary Clinton a couple of dozen times back in 2007 -- was not at all surprised to see that she performed well during the debate. So for that reason, I don't think that there is much impact on his decision primarily because the debate outcome is what I think many of us expected.
Q And on a lighter note, what prompted President Obama to decide to follow the Chicago Cubs on Twitter? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: You may have seen the tweet that he sent last night noting that while he continues to harbor his allegiance to the Chicago White Sox, since they're not in the playoffs, that he’s thrown his support behind their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Cubs. And obviously, it was an historic moment last night when they clinched a spot in the NLCS.
So it certainly is -- it looked like a pretty good party at the Wrigley Field. I think most days are a pretty good party at Wrigley Field. But last night seemed like a particularly enthusiastic one. Hopefully, there will be a big party at Kauffman Stadium tonight, too.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back on Iran’s ballistic missile testing for a second. You said yesterday you thought it was probably no coincidence that it came the same day that the parliament there approved the Iran Nuclear Agreement.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q And obviously it’s just a few days now before implementation day of that agreement. But I wanted to be clear: Are you saying that it’s the White House’s assessment that these two things are actually linked? Iran is actually trying to somehow compensate for the deal or apologize for it by additional provocations? And if so, isn’t that a pretty deep concern for the United States at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Let me do one thing, just because I know there’s going to be a lot of discussion about this in the future. The day that's coming up -- you're going to roll your eyes at me, but just bear with me here -- the day that's coming up is actually adoption day. And that is the day that will represent that the 90-day clock after the U.N. Security Council vote has expired. And therefore, adoption day means that Iran will begin to take the steps that are necessary to significantly limit their nuclear program.
And implementation day will be at some point in the future when the IAEA will have been able to verify that Iran has taken those steps and therefore would qualify for promised sanctions relief. So the date that's coming up is adoption day, and the date in the future will be implementation. I’ll probably be calling on you to help me keep those two things straight next week.
But to be specific about the question that you've asked, I think as I noted yesterday, I’m certainly no expert in Iranian political affairs. But I think there are many who have observed that Iranian hardliners are not thrilled with the prospect of making -- imposing such significant limitations on the Iranian nuclear program. After all, we know that there was an effort driven by hardliners inside of Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That is a fact. And that is a fact that continues to be true, despite a variety of Iranian denials of that fact.
So what some people have surmised -- and again, I’m no expert -- but what some people have surmised is that the missile test reflected the desire of hardliners in Iran to indicate that they were not prepared to cooperate with a whole range of other international expectations that we have for Iran’s behavior.
And what the United States has said -- what the President himself has said about this is that, A, this is an agreement that's focused on Iran’s nuclear program, and it’s not predicated on Iran suddenly changing their behavior and becoming a more cooperative, constructive member of the international community. In fact, that's why the President thought it was so important to get a nuclear deal in the first place. Knowing that Iran is not a cooperative, constructive member of the international community, we need to make sure they don't get a nuclear weapon. And the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through this international diplomatic agreement.
And that's the case that the President has made, and that's why, yes, we certainly are concerned and have strong suspicions about whether or not -- or about this missile test being inconsistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions that are on the books. That's something that we’ll continue to take a look at. If we do find that it is inconsistent with those resolutions, we won’t be surprised. And it will only underscore the need to follow through on something that the President discussed with our GCC partners at Camp David over the summer, which is to disrupt and interdict those materials that could contribute to the advancement of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Q And just on the Israeli violence quickly. Does President Obama share the assessment that John Kerry offered yesterday publicly -- I think it was up at Harvard -- that some of the violence that we’re seeing now, the groundwork has been laid by the fact that there’s been an increase in Israeli settlement activity? And if so, what’s his message going to be to Prime Minister Netanyahu when they meet here next month? Is he going to call for a lessening of that activity or in any way link that to what we’re seeing now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about this. The first thing is that Secretary Kerry was unequivocal about condemning the terrorist attacks. And you’ve heard me say on many occasions that there is no excuse for terror attacks or violence of other sorts against innocent civilians. That said, Secretary Kerry didn’t assign any specific blame for the recent tensions there.
When it comes to our concerns about the settlement policy that’s been pursued by the Israeli government, we have on a number of occasions observed that that settlement activity is a source of concern for the United States primarily because we see it as counterproductive. And I don’t know if the President will need to reiterate that view when Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the White House, but it is a long-held view of the United States that I believe predates this administration, and there’s no real ambiguity about that. So I don’t know if it’s something that he’ll discuss or not, but it certainly is our position and will continue to be.
Q But does he share the assessment that that’s contributed to the tensions we’re seeing now that have boiled over, as you said earlier, into violence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the suggestion by some is that it was a justification for it. And that does not reflect what Secretary Kerry has said. I think what a lot of people have observed is that there is a lot of tension around the Haram as-Sharif Temple Mount site, and that a lot of those tensions have boiled over into the outbreaks of violence that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. And that’s why we have made repeated calls to both sides to find a way to reduce the violence and deescalate tensions in the region.
Q Just to follow up on Julie’s question, does the fact that the missile launch might be a sign of internal tensions in the Iranian regime itself mean that the administration takes it less seriously?
MR. EARNEST: No --
Q Or --
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry, go ahead.
Q I just didn’t understand what you were trying to suggest.
MR. EARNEST: No, we take the missile launch quite seriously, and we’re still seeking to determine whether or not it is inconsistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions that are on the books. We have strong suspicions that it is, but that’s something that we continue to look at. And it’s something that we take seriously, although it should be noted that this is consistent with the kind of behavior that we’ve seen from Iran for quite some time. These resolutions that limit their ballistic missile program have been on the books for quite a while and the Iranians have repeatedly violated them. That underscores the need for better coordinated and possibly even more aggressive interdiction efforts to disrupt their ballistic missile program. But we certainly take them seriously.
I think the observation that I was making is merely that people were trying to -- I think understandably -- discern exactly what Iran hoped to accomplish by carrying out this missile test. And I believe what some have observed is that this missile test came on the heels of the approval vote in the Iranian Majlis, and that there may be a political reason for it. But like I said, I’m certainly no expert when it comes to internal Iranian political affairs.
Q Thank you, Josh. One question on Keystone. We know there’s an ongoing review that some argue is a never-ending one, actually, but conducted by the State Department. Does the President believe, however, that politically it would be important for him to make and announce the decision before the climate conference in Paris in December?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know whether that is a decision that will be made by December or not. There is this ongoing review at the State Department. And at this point, I wouldn’t commit to a decision being announced prior to the beginning of December.
Q Thank you, Josh. Regarding the issue of South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Ministries today say China has not militarized the region, and it’s certain countries came flexing their military muscles in the region, and it’s the biggest factor in the militarization in the South China Sea. So is the United States one of the countries that militarized the South China Sea? And is your administration worried or concerned about the further escalation and tensions in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ching-Yi, as we have said on many occasions, the United States does not make any territorial claims in the South China Sea. Rather, what we insist on is that rules related to the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in international waters is an important principle. It’s an important principle primarily because in the South China Sea we're talking about a region of the world where a significant portion of the world’s commerce flows. And we want to make sure that commerce can continue unimpeded, and it’s why we have encouraged those that do have territorial claims in the South China Sea to resolve their differences diplomatically.
And what we believe is important is that it’s important for big countries to essentially not bully smaller countries over those territorial claims; that that is counterproductive and is not consistent with the kinds of international norms that are, frankly, most in the interest of big countries.
And we’ve talked on many occasions, particularly in light of President Xi’s state visit to the United States, that the United States welcomes a rising China, and that China is a country that has brought millions of people out of poverty. And we welcome that rise of China. However, that rising status comes with important responsibilities. And those responsibilities are to uphold an international order that benefits big countries.
China has a growing economy. China is interested in protecting the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea. And it’s those mutual interests that we hope will allow for an effective diplomatic resolution to the tensions in that region of the world.
Q Thank you, Josh.
Q Josh, can I just follow up on that question?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Christi.
Q I don't know about the report that Ching-Yi was just referring to, but is there some new military operation by the U.S. in the South China Sea?
MR. EARNEST: For any questions about a military operation, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense -- in this instance, Pacific Command.
The thing that I would note -- as I mentioned -- I referred to this yesterday, and I have some more details here -- it’s not uncommon for the Department of Defense to conduct freedom of navigation operations to challenge excessive maritime claims on a regular basis around the world. And just last year, for example, the Department of Defense challenged the excessive maritime claims of 18 different nations. And these are nations ranging from Iran, with whom we obviously have a pretty contentious relationship, to countries closer to home like Nicaragua and Brazil.
I think the other thing that's important to note here -- and this is something that the Department of Defense will tell you -- that a specific challenge to freedom of navigation is something that can be as simple as a single ship or an aircraft traversing the area subject to the excessive claim without notifying the nation or asking permission for the transit, primarily because that transit would occur in international waters. But I don't have any sort of military operation to tell you about.
Charlie, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Yesterday, Planned Parenthood announced that they will no longer be taking financial reimbursements for fetal tissue donations. Does the White House have a reaction to that news?
MR. EARNEST: I saw the news, but I don't have a specific reaction to share with you.
Q So in your opinion, is that an admission of guilt? Or is that -- how does the White House react to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you’d have to check with Planned Parenthood about what was prompting the policy change.
Q And you mentioned before that the President will not sign any bill that defunds Planned Parenthood on a wholesale basis. Is it possible that the President would consider a bill that reduces the funding of Planned Parenthood?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen anything specific like that come across the books. We obviously would take a rather dim view of any effort to advance any ideological agenda on a -- particularly one that's as controversial as the one that has been bottled up in Congress for a while now -- on a piece of legislation that's critical to the funding and functioning of the federal government.
So we’ll take a look at what Congress puts forward, but the President would strongly oppose and would even veto a piece of legislation that would result in the wholesale defunding of Planned Parenthood. And it warrants mentioning at this point, that there is a provision of federal law that prevents federal funds from being used to perform abortions. That is a law that's been on the books for quite some time. And it’s a law that's been enforced by the Obama administration. And it’s why this rhetoric emanating from Republicans about wanting to defund Planned Parenthood because Planned Parenthood carries out abortions is fundamentally dishonest. And it certainly is something that is not in the best interests of the country because it’s irresponsible to threaten the basic functioning of the federal government over something that at its root is so fundamentally dishonest.
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