Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/15/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:33 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Quite a ballgame last night, huh?
Q Good mug.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve got it here. So I wouldn’t leave it behind. I certainly was pleased to see the Royals advance by defeating the Houston Astros last night, and they're ready to take on Ted Cruz’s other hometown team, the Toronto Blue Jays, next. (Laughter.) So it should be an exciting series.
Q You opened the political door, Josh. Just letting you know.
Q Are you saying he’s not a U.S. citizen?
MR. EARNEST: All I’m saying is that if Senator Cruz would like to make a bet with me about our respective hometown teams, then they know how to track me down.
Q What are you preparing to offer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have to work this out in private. But we could have a little fun.
Q Arthur Bryant’s or something?
MR. EARNEST: Well, see if they're interested.
Q Barbecue sauce?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe so, maybe so.
But with that --
Q With tariffs or without? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Without tariffs, without tariffs. A relevant question, though, because Canada is a member of the TPP. All right, let’s get down to business.
Q That wasn’t business?
MR. EARNEST: Darlene, do you want to start us off?
Q Yes, thank you. The President a little while ago said that he wasn’t disappointed at all about having to make the decision about U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But he did promise as President that he would remove U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. So how does he feel about his inability to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President’s overriding promise since -- frankly, dating back to his days as a candidate for President was to make the kinds of decisions as Commander-in-Chief that are consistent with what he concluded were the core national security interests of the United States.
So you’ll recall that even in the discussion of and debate around Afghanistan in 2008, the suggestion was not that the United States should be precipitously withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan, but rather the President was actually making the proactive case that insufficient attention and resources had been dedicated to decimating core al Qaeda and confronting the threat posed by al Qaeda that emanates from Afghanistan and the broader region.
And so when President Obama took office in 2009, he commenced a longer-term process with his national security team to formulate a strategy that -- whose top -- formulating a strategy with the overriding goal of taking the fight to al Qaeda and making the world safer for the United States and our interests. And over the last seven years, thanks primarily to the commitment, professionalism, and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, we’ve made remarkable progress toward that goal.
I mentioned earlier today that there are a couple of prominent signposts that the President for years has been noting the progress that we’ve made in decimating core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the broader region.
We have acknowledged over the last year the significance of the first democratic transfer of power in the long history of the nation of Afghanistan. And of course, the mission that was successfully carried out to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield would not have been possible without the investment and progress that the United States and our coalition partners have made inside of Afghanistan.
So as the next President takes over in 2017, that President will be in a much better position to confront the challenges of Afghanistan and much better positioned to accomplish the goal that we’d all like to see, which is a stable Afghanistan with a stable central government and a fighting force that can succeed in providing for the security of that nation. As the President observed, I don't think anybody envisions a Jeffersonian democracy, but certainly a place that is in much better shape and poses much less of a risk to the United States than the Afghanistan that existed in January of 2009.
And that is what the President promised that he would do as a candidate for President in 2008. And we have made remarkable progress toward that goal. And I think at the same time, the President acknowledged in the Roosevelt Room today that there’s important work that needs to be done both in terms of continuing our counterterrorism operations, continuing to build the capacity of Afghan national security forces, and of facilitating the kind of reconciliation between the Afghans and the Taliban that would reduce violence in that country. And that, I think, is the situation that exists today and represents historically significant progress in dealing with what I think everybody acknowledges is a very difficult challenge.
Q But he did promise to end the wars. So does he now have any regrets about making that promise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what’s clear, Darlene, is that the United States military who are in Afghanistan are not there in a combat role. So there is an ongoing war and an ongoing military conflict inside of Afghanistan. It is a dangerous place. But U.S. military personnel inside of Afghanistan, while operating in a dangerous place, are not in a combat role there. And that is significant.
And that says a lot about the capacity of Afghan national security forces, but it also says something important about the trajectory of U.S. military involvement inside of Afghanistan -- that we can protect our interests in that country by dramatically reducing our footprint. You’ll recall that four or five years ago -- again, because of the strategy that the President put in place -- that there were north of 100,000 U.S. servicemembers inside of Afghanistan, and now we’re talking about a presence next year of less than 10,000. That’s a significant reduction.
But yet, because of the progress that we made in other areas in terms of a stable central government and -- or at least a more stable central government and a better-functioning security force, that that much smaller U.S. military footprint, while working in coordination with our allies, can effectively protect the broader national security interests of the United States in a very dangerous part of the world.
Q He mentioned that he had consulted with some members of Congress. Can you say which members were a part of his decision-making process?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out. Obviously, there are a number of members of Congress that have strong views on this topic. And I can tell you that across the administration, that there were a number of conversations that took place with Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate as this policy decision process was carried out.
Q Finally, he’s meeting tomorrow with the President of South Korea. Can you talk a little bit about what the President and the White House want to focus on in that meeting and what they want to get out of it?
MR. EARNEST: The President looks forward to welcoming President Park Geun-hye to the White House. The two leaders will hold a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, a working lunch, and then will hold a news conference tomorrow. This is President Park’s second visit to Washington since taking office. And during this official visit, the two Presidents will discuss a variety of economic, security and global issues.
A couple of things come to mind. Obviously, there is an important economic relationship between our two countries -- that the U.S. economy and U.S. businesses have benefitted significantly from the successful implementation of the U.S.-Korea trade agreement. And there obviously will be an ongoing discussion about the threat that is posed by North Korea and their ongoing refusal to abide by international standards when it comes to their nuclear program, and their tendency to engage in provocative acts. This will be an important opportunity for the United States to reiterate our rock-solid commitment to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
There also, I would anticipate, be a discussion about climate change. And we did see South Korea earlier this year, just in the last couple of months, make an important commitment about the steps that they’re prepared to take to work with the international community to confront climate change. And we obviously welcome the leadership role that they’ve shown in trying to advance that effort. And that will be the subject of discussion between the two leaders tomorrow as well.
Q Josh, one of the criticisms that you’ve -- that the White House, the President are getting from Republicans -- Jeb Bush today being one of them -- is that the President is not listening to his military commanders. Is he? Is that criticism legitimate? And is he giving the military commanders what they have asked for in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: With all due respect to Governor Bush, that’s not what General Campbell says. General Campbell is the top U.S. military commander inside of Afghanistan, and he is somebody who has done a number of tours inside of Afghanistan. And he is quite well-regarded on both sides of the aisle, I believe, for the leadership that he has shown in taking on this very difficult challenge, as well as for the advice that he has given to the Commander-in-Chief in this role.
So I think -- I would point you to the on-the-record statement from General Campbell, who I think indicates his strong support for the decision that the President announced today.
Q In the call that was held previously, Lisa Monaco said one of the main jobs of the troops that stay in Afghanistan will be to prevent al Qaeda from getting in or from resurging. Does that happen in just a train-and-assist role?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so we’ve talked about two missions that U.S. military personnel will have inside of Afghanistan -- and the first is, this train, advise and assist role that U.S. military forces have in building up the capacity of Afghan national security forces. That certainly is an important part of our counterterrorism effort in that it will enhance the security and stability of Afghanistan if there is a high-functioning security force that is both loyal to and accountable to the Afghan central government. And the U.S. investment in building up their capacity is important to our counterterrorism efforts.
But what Lisa was also referring to is that there are other capabilities that the United States has to counter terrorists and extremists that are operating inside of Afghanistan. And we want to preserve our capability to undertake counterterrorism operations as necessary to protect the American people.
Q I’m just wondering how you square that with the language of saying that they’re not in a combat role.
MR. EARNEST: Well, so there are a couple of different ways, I guess, that I would describe that to you. We’re principally talking about -- in talking about mission, we’re talking about ground forces, and they are not in a position, as the President described, of patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan in search of Taliban insurgents. Instead, what our military forces in Afghanistan have the capacity to do is when a terrorist threat is detected, that they can undertake an operation to deal with it; in many case, take those terrorists off the battlefield.
Q So that’s not considered combat?
MR. EARNEST: That is a different kind of mission. I certainly am not attempting to downplay the risks associated with that kind of mission. The President himself acknowledged that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and that even over the course of this year we’ve seen 25 U.S. military personnel give their lives in Afghanistan.
So I’m certainly not downplaying the risk, but I am trying to describe to you as specifically as possible exactly what the responsibilities of U.S. personnel inside of Afghanistan are. And they are no longer patrolling valleys or mountainous outposts inside of Afghanistan in search of Taliban insurgents, or seeking to hold ground against marauding Taliban insurgents. Rather, they’re building the capacity of Afghan national security forces so that Afghans can patrol their own country and have the lead in providing security for their own country. And what U.S. military forces will do is, if a terror threat is detected that is a significant risk to U.S. national security interests, that they are positioned to counter that threat.
Q All right. And if I could ask on just another topic, as well. Can you describe or clarify what the U.S. position is right now on helping Puerto Rico? I understand, and you’ve said repeatedly, that the government is not considering a bailout for Puerto Rico, but there are apparently some talks with them. What are the options you are considering? And is the so-called “superbond” one of them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me take this in a couple of different pieces. Let me first be clear about something that we’ve said repeatedly, which is that the administration has no plans to provide a bailout to Puerto Rico. That’s a previously stated position, and it is true today. It is inaccurate, therefore, to suggest that the Treasury Department is in talks to undertake any of Puerto Rico’s financial obligations. I think that part of it is pretty straightforward. That’s been our position for some time, and that continues to be our position today.
What we have also said is that the administration has an interest in working with officials inside of Puerto Rico to help them deal with the significant financial challenges that are facing the government there. And what that means is it means that, in those discussions, that Puerto Rican officials have routinely presented a range of ideas to help the commonwealth return to a sustainable economic path. And we certainly participated in those discussions.
But our position about not providing a bailout to Puerto has not changed.
Q So the bailout part is clear, but can you shed any light on what the U.S. would be willing to do to help with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that is the nature of the discussions -- what is the best way for the United States federal government to assist the commonwealth government of Puerto Rico.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said is -- I’m certainly no expert when it comes to structuring these significant financial transactions, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that Treasury is in talks to undertake any of Puerto Rico’s financial obligations. And again, to my layman view, issuing bonds that are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States would raise some questions about whether or not we’re undertaking their financial obligations.
So the Treasury Department obviously can provide you some more specific guidance here. What I’m trying to do is to draw the line as clearly as I can about the continued unwillingness of the federal government to bail out the Puerto Rican government, and our unwillingness to undertake any of Puerto Rico’s financial obligations. However, there is not just a willingness, but actually a desire to try to work effectively with Puerto Rican officials, to use the expertise of the officials in the federal government to offer them advice about creating a path back to a sustainable economic picture on the island.
Q It was said in the call today that the fact that the mission isn’t really changing -- and you mentioned those two parts of the mission -- is a signal that it’s working. But even after more than a decade of U.S. troops being there, the fact that the Taliban is now able to spread, was able to take over Kunduz and hold it for a couple of weeks, and the fact that after all this time, with the help of U.S. troops, Afghan security forces are still not ready to take over their own security -- isn’t that actually a signal that a whole lot is not working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, in terms of your assessment of Taliban capacity, I don’t think that you would look favorably on any U.S.-backed effort to take over a city that only last for two weeks. So there’s no denying that the incursion that the Taliban made into Kunduz was a setback. I acknowledged that at the time, and I would acknowledge that here. But the fact is that, after two weeks, Afghan national security forces, working closely with the support of U.S. and coalition forces through our train and advise and assist mission, did succeed in retaking Kunduz.
So, yes, there are indications of vulnerabilities in the Afghan national security forces. There are also strong indications about the perseverance and resilience of the Afghan national security forces in terms of retaking Kunduz.
I think the other thing that warrants mentioning, Michelle, is that these twin missions of offering training and advice to Afghan national security forces, and carrying out counterterrorism operations, is that this is a mission that U.S. military personnel have been -- were given basically 10 months ago, at the beginning of the year. Prior to that, U.S. forces were still in a combat role. So we are seeing progress, even if there continues to be some important work left undone.
Q After 14 years of U.S. troops being there, though, is it acceptable, is it not surprising that the Taliban can take over anything for any amount of time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, the President spent a decent amount of 2007 and 2008 raising concerns about the strategy that was employed by the previous administration inside of Afghanistan for the first seven years of our commitment there. So that is why you continually hear me talking about the commitment that -- or the strategy that this administration has pursued over the course of the last seven years or so.
And when you take a look at the progress that we’ve made since, for example, January of 2009 -- the President’s first day in office -- we have succeeded in enhancing significantly the capacity of Afghan national security forces, enhancing their professionalism and their responsiveness and loyalty to the Afghan central government.
We have supported an Afghan democracy that has succeeded for the first time in carrying out the democratic transfer of power in that country’s long history. And one benefit of the President’s strategy in Afghanistan was the platform for a successful mission to take out Osama bin Laden.
So those are just three straightforward examples of the important progress that’s been made since 2009. That’s why, when the next President takes office, whether that person is a Democrat or Republican, they will be confronting a situation in Afghanistan that is far better than the situation in Afghanistan that this President inherited.
Q Okay. I thought it surprising that the President was very quick to say he wasn’t disappointed by this. I mean, you set a goal, and the reason you publicly set a goal is because you have a good expectation of meeting that goal. And then you delay it again, and then you delay it again. I mean, there’s no disappointment in things -- even if you’re not going to say that it’s anything that the administration did wrong -- and that’s understandable, based on what you just said -- but disappointed at the situation on the ground, at the very least, or the capacity of Afghan forces up to this point?
MR. EARNEST: There is more work that needs to be done on the ground. There is more capacity that the Afghan national security forces need to build. There’s also no denying the remarkable progress that’s been made in that country over the last seven years thanks to the strategy that this President implemented in 2009, and thanks mostly to the courage, commitment and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
That’s the situation that the next President will inherit, which is a more stable Afghanistan, a more secure Afghanistan, and an Afghanistan government that is a more effective partner with the United States, and a United States military presence that is not as big and not as at big of risk as the thousands of U.S. military personnel when President Obama came into office in January of 2009.
Q So if there’s not disappointment after not reaching a set goal again, then what is the feeling? I mean, you can’t be pleased that the goal couldn’t be met.
MR. EARNEST: I think the feeling here is that we’ve made important progress but that a lot more work needs to be done. And I think the President is pleased with that progress. That’s an indication that his strategy has been effective, but it’s also an indication of the remarkable work and accomplishment of our men and women in uniform.
None of this would have been possible without the greatest fighting force that the world has ever known. And that’s a testament to their service not just to the country, but the fact is this is their service to the world. The world is a safer place because of the progress that’s been made in Afghanistan, and it wouldn’t have been possible without that commitment, and in some cases, without that sacrifice.
Q And just very quickly, are you seeing these reports that have been circulating around about the possibility of hundreds of Cuban troops going to Syria? What do you think of that? And would you -- whether or not you know if that’s true right now -- and hopefully you’ll tell me whether you think it is -- but even if not, are you expecting Russia to get other countries on board on the ground in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: First of all, let me just state unequivocally, we’ve seen no evidence to indicate that those reports are true. The second thing I’ll say is I’m confident that Russia would relish the opportunity to add additional nations to their coalition primarily because they’re sort of out there operating on their own. They are able to work in some coordination with Iran, who also is characterized by their significant international isolation.
So the fact that the only people that Russia can get to work with them inside of Syria is a largely neutered Syrian government and essentially an Iranian government and Iranian security forces that, while effective, have a few, if any, other allies that they’re able to work with around the globe -- that’s quite different than the situation that the United States faces. The United States is leading an international coalition of 65 countries, including some of the other most powerful countries in the world that have made a substantial military commitment to this effort.
And we did see -- this includes a willingness on the part of countries like France and the UK to use military force inside of Syria. We’ve also seen, just in the last 24 hours or so, Turkey step up their activity inside of Syria. And we had reports overnight that the Turks, for the first time, successfully struck a mobile ISIL target inside of Syria. That’s an indication that the capacity and ability of the Turkish military is stronger, more effective, and is being brought to bear on behalf of this broader international coalition that’s being led by the United States.
Q But you said that you expect Russia to do what it’s doing now in Syria based on what you were seeing leading up to it. But my question was really, do you expect that Russia will get other countries on board?
MR. EARNEST: I know that they’ve been trying for quite some time, and the only people that are on their side right now is, again, a neutered Syrian government and an Iranian government that nobody else wants to coordinate with.
Q Thanks, Josh. Pakistan’s Prime Minister will be here next week to meet with the President, and I’m wondering if you can confirm for us that the U.S. is in fact serious about trying to work out a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, and whether this is something that will come up in that meeting.
MR. EARNEST: I know there’s been a lot of public speculation about this. In asking some -- frankly, in asking the same question to a lot of our folks here who are working on this issue, I would not be overly excited about the prospects of reaching the kind of agreement that is being speculated about publicly.
At this point, the United States has been engaged with Pakistan, as well as the rest of the international community on issues related to nuclear safety and security. And we continue to have confidence that the government of Pakistan is well aware of the range of potential threats to its nuclear arsenal, and we continue to be confident that Pakistan has a professional and dedicated security force that understands the importance and the high priority that the world places on nuclear security.
Q Sometimes if two countries aren’t close enough to a deal to make real progress on it, the leaders -- the Presidents or the President and Prime Minister -- would purposefully not talk about it because it’s just not at that level yet. Is that what you're saying? Or do you think that President Obama and Prime Minister Sharif will talk about it, but that we just shouldn’t hold our breath for a deal?
MR. EARNEST: The expectation that we have is that a deal like the one that's been discussed publicly is not something that's likely to come to fruition next week. But the United States and Pakistan are regularly engaged in a dialogue about the importance of nuclear security. And I would anticipate that dialogue would include conversations between the leaders of our two countries.
Q So they will talk about it. I just wanted to ask you about something else. While we’ve been sitting here, so you may not have seen it, there’s a report from the Associated Press -- days before the October 3rd U.S. air attack on a hospital in Afghanistan, American Special Operations analysts were gathering intelligence on that facility, which they knew was a protected medical site, because they thought it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity. Do you have any information on that report and whether the -- basically whether the commanders on the gunship knew about that, or whether it was just at a different level?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not aware of the report. And I know that there has previously been speculation about what exactly the Department of Defense knew about this medical facility, and whether and how that information was communicated to the personnel that were operating this aircraft. All of those are questions that will be considered by the ongoing Department of Defense investigation. And again, the President’s expectation is that he’ll receive a full accounting of these facts in the context of a thorough, objective, and transparent
report from the Department of Defense.
So I’m not aware of that information. But that is certainly information that I’m confident the Department of Defense is interested in understanding so that they can try to answer those questions in the report.
Q I’ll get back to Afghanistan in a minute, but I want to raise a couple of other topics. As you know, there will be no scheduled Social Security cost-of-living adjustment in this coming year, but there could be for 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries a large premium increase from about $109 to $159. I know the administration wants Congress to do something about that. What I’m trying to figure out is what do you want Congress to do about it, on what timetable. Is it part of the quiet negotiations that are going on about resolving other budget matters? And are you open to it being paid for?
MR. EARNEST: The administration is aware of this, frankly, unintended policy consequence resulting from the formula for calculating cost-of-living adjustments. And so we're aware of this problem, and it is something that we're concerned about.
There have been discussions that the administration has had with members of Congress about this issue and about our interest in trying to resolve it. However, we have worked diligently to protect the ability of those who are discussing a budget agreement to work in private. And so I don't have a lot of insight to share with you about those specific talks.
Q But it is within that context, because of the timelines and the necessity of resolving it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t say at this point what is within the context of those conversations. I will just say --
Q Everything and nothing, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: No, I wouldn’t say that. I would just say that we're not going to talk about what’s in the context of those negotiations. Obviously, there will be -- the White House is not the only party to those conversations, so there may be other people who have other views about what’s included and what’s not.
Q Can you say what the goal is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the goal would be to try to alleviate the unintended burden on those Medicare recipients who will see a much higher premium next year.
Q And does that goal carry with it a requirement or a preference about pay-fors?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, the conversations haven’t reached that stage.
Q But do you have it? Does the administration have an opening perspective on that?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, no.
Q Okay. Today, the HUD Secretary, Julian Castro, endorsed Hillary Clinton. And I’m just curious -- because this is probably going to come up again -- what is the President’s attitude about members of his Cabinet endorsing Democrats running in this campaign? And does he have any sense of uncomfortability about them weighing into this in relationship to those who have declared and those who are considering but have not yet declared?
MR. EARNEST: There are, as I understand it, very specific ethical guidelines about how members of the administration, Cabinet officials or otherwise, can participate in politics on their own time. And that is the most important ethical guideline in place here, is making sure that they're doing this outside of their official government responsibilities.
The President’s expectation is that for any member of the administration that is considering making some sort of public declaration or a public endorsement, that they do so within the guidelines of the ethical --
Q But outside of adhering to those guidelines, he doesn't have a particular perspective on whether you should or should not, and whether or not he wants his Cabinet to be playing such a visible endorsing role in this campaign?
MR. EARNEST: No, these are personal decisions that are made by individual members of the Cabinet. I know that there is particular sensitivity around some national security officials in the administration not getting involved in politics. And the President would have the expectation that they would abide by those conventions.
Q He’s not going to discourage Cabinet Secretaries from weighing in?
MR. EARNEST: No. As long as they do it within the ethical guidelines that are within the bounds of propriety, given their official government responsibilities, the President will allow them to make those kinds of decisions for themselves.
Q Just a couple on Afghanistan. When the President talked to us in the Rose Garden in May of 2014, he said, now we're finishing the job we started. Is it now fair to say we're continuing the job that is yet unfinished?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is possible to -- I think an accurate assessment of the situation is that we are continuing to make progress, and we are --
Q But what he said is no longer true -- finishing the job we started. We're not finishing it. We're continuing it, and it’s still undone. Is that fair?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is fair to say that we have not finished the job that we set out to do. But that certainly continues to be the goal, and we certainly continue to make progress in pursuit of that goal.
Q Tony Cordesman wrote today, criticized a lot of reporters for sort of getting myopically obsessed with numbers but not a strategy, so I’ll take that as a criticism and try to get you to engage in a couple of strategic things. He says, many military analysts think that this number -- even now, 9,800 -- is too small, that it should be 13,000 and maybe devoted until 2020 because it’s going to take that length of time for the Afghans on the logistical, intelligence, and operational side to really carry out the mission that the President has stated.
And he calls today’s announcement a half-assed compromise within that strategic failure, that these numbers don't meet the strategic goals the President has laid before the nation. How would you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, with all due respect, I would just say that the U.S. commander, General Campbell, on the ground in Afghanistan doesn't see it that way. In fact, he made a specific recommendation to the President, and he issued a statement today indicating that he was pleased with the decision that the President had made.
And I think that is -- people on the outside are certainly entitled to their opinion. But the military commanders who have accepted the grave responsibility of implementing the strategy -- the military strategy at least on the ground in Afghanistan -- give the President unvarnished, candid advice. That's exactly what the President seeks, and they gave him that advice.
We can find people who can elaborate on this a little bit more, but the highest recommendation that came in to the President was the level that the President announced today. So the point is the Department of Defense was not making a recommendation as high as some outside observers themselves recommend. So I guess that's the first thing.
The second thing -- and again, I don't want to get fixated on numbers; I understand that there is a difference in that regard. But I do have a -- or at least I did have a letter from -- of 23 House Republicans who wrote a letter to the President earlier this month suggesting that the proper course of action would be for the President to ensure that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan continue at a level of about 9,800 through next year. And that's exactly what the President announced. So these are 23 House Republicans that don’t routinely agree with the President, including Joe Wilson, who famously called the President a liar.
Q But in this case, we’re right.
MR. EARNEST: But in this case, they reached the same conclusion that our commander on the ground in Afghanistan reached, and is consistent with the decision that the President announced today.
Q Two other questions. Will there be combat air support as part of this mission going forward? Because that’s a crucial component for the Afghan forces to be able to carry out their ongoing day-to-day operations.
MR. EARNEST: There are very specific rules of engagement around that, and I can have somebody at the Department of Defense follow up with you about what those rules of engagement are.
Q And on the conference call, there was an oblique reference to NATO. Has the President, in communications with our NATO allies, received any assurances about NATO and NATO partner nations extending their involvement as the United States extends its?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate additional discussions about this. But, yes, there is --
Q But no resolution.
MR. EARNEST: There is confidence that our NATO partners have committed to maintaining a presence in Afghanistan that’s consistent with the kind of partnership that the U.S. has had with NATO in Afghanistan over the last several years.
Q But no numbers you can talk about at this time.
MR. EARNEST: No numbers that I have at this point. But check with NATO, they may have numbers out. But as the President alluded to, part of his decision-making process included careful consultation with our NATO allies. And our ongoing success in Afghanistan will require a continued commitment from our NATO partners, who have also served very loyally and effectively inside of Afghanistan.
Q Thank you, Josh. I have two questions. The President said that the Russian military involvement in Syria will fail. It’s been two weeks now since the aerial bombardment. Do you think they’re failing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they certainly haven’t made much progress if you take them at their word that their goal is to counter ISIL. The vast majority of their strikes have been taken in parts of the country where there are few, if any, ISIL forces. So if your goal is to take out ISIL and you’re taking strikes in areas where ISIL doesn’t exist, I think it would be hard for the Russians to point to much progress.
Q They said publicly, too, they’re supporting the regime. I think they said that too.
MR. EARNEST: They did say that. I don’t have an update for you -- an assessment for you in terms of the latest thinking about the strength of the Assad regime. We have made clear, though, that continuing to support the Assad regime will make it harder to carry out the kind of political transition that even the Russians themselves acknowledge will be critical to eliminating ISIL.
So, again, in that regard, if they have been successful in further propping up the Assad regime, that’s only going to make what they state as their ultimate goal further out of reach.
Q You just said now that they don’t have many allies that will join them in Syria, but Iran has sent hundreds of troops to northern and central Syria today. Do you think that will warrant you to change your strategy? Or would you take the Democratic congressman who said the other day that you should open a dialogue with Iran over Syria?
MR. EARNEST: The Iranians have been sending personnel and materiel, and been engaged in other destabilizing activities inside of Syria for years now. And in fact, there are some elements inside of Iran that have been on the receiving end of tough sanctions because of their activities inside of Syria.
So the fact that Iran continues to try to prop up the Assad regime is not new. And I guess -- I’m not sure that that qualifies as -- I’m not sure that an unbiased observer would say that Russia was having success in bringing other people on board by pointing to Iran’s activities if these are activities that Iran has been engaged in prior to Russia’s involvement.
Q But this is an open deployment, for the first time actually. It’s an open deployment of hundreds of troops. They have been doing it, as you said, for years, but now you’ve seen large numbers. In a way, they’re challenging the U.S. and they’re challenging so many other countries because their presence is now public.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact that they’re having to ramp up their support and to do it in a more public and conspicuous way I think is an indication that what they’ve been doing so far hasn’t really worked. So the fact that they’re changing their strategy and changing that element of their strategy I think is an indication that, again -- that, like Russia, they’re responding from a position of weakness here.
Q So it doesn’t worry you that you have now an active Iranian troops in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Again, we have said all along that we would much rather incorporate at least Russia’s constructive contribution to our broader counter-ISIL campaign. And we do believe, and continue to believe, and have long believed that Iran’s efforts to prop up the Assad regime are counterproductive and dangerous, and they only deepen the sectarian quagmire that Syria is headed toward.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the debt limit, there was a new date announced today. Is it a good strategy, though, for Treasury to keep revising the date that it expects to run out of borrowing authority? Doesn’t it risk being seen as political?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s quite the opposite, Cheryl. At least I would not be surprised if our critics want to say that. But the fact is, the goal here is to be as transparent as possible about these calculations. And that is why you do see these periodic updates from the Department of Treasury to make sure that they’re providing as much information and as much transparency as possible into the current cash flow of the United States government.
This is a complicated proposition here. There are tens of billions of dollars that flow into the government, and tens of billions of dollars that flow out of the government on a regular basis. And the concern is that by the time -- by November 3rd, the U.S. will have exhausted our borrowing capacity, and will have a quite narrow margin when you consider the in-flows and out-flows of cash into the U.S. government. And it would put the United States at real risk for the very first time in our history of not being able to pay our bills.
There’s no reason for us to engage in that kind of irresponsible brinksmanship, and it’s why Republican leaders in Congress need to accept the responsibility that they have to act without drama and delay to raise the debt limit. And the reason that we continue to make that case to them is to remind them and everybody else that increasing the debt limit -- I’m just reading from Jack Lew’s letter here to make sure I get this right -- “increasing the debt limit does not authorize any new spending. It simply allows the Treasury to pay for expenditures that Congress themselves already have approved.” And we want to make sure that those expenditures are paid in full and on time.
Q Are you having any further conversations with Speaker Boehner about doing that before he leaves?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to tell you about. I saw that Speaker Boehner, or at least his office said something publicly about their intention to consider legislation to raise the debt limit prior to his departure, but that will obviously be a decision that he has to make.
The thing that I regularly, at least, try to do from up here is to give credit where it’s due. And the fact is the last few times that the debt limit has needed to be raised, even when there were Republican majorities in the House of Representatives, that without a lot of drama and without excessive delay, we saw Congress act to raise the debt limit. So that’s what they’ve done the last few times, and they deserve credit for that. And they’ll certainly get credit from me if they do it again, although I do think we’re getting perilously close to the level of drama and delay that we believe is unnecessary, to put it mildly.
Q I have a follow-up on that. Is the Fourteenth Amendment solution still off the table?
MR. EARNEST: It is. As you know, this was something that was publicly speculated about, I guess in 2011, as a possible way around raising the debt limit. And what the President said is that when he first heard this theory he asked his attorneys about it, and they did not believe that it was a viable option. And as far as I know, that legal advice hasn’t changed.
I don’t even know that we’ve looked into this again, but I don’t believe that the President or his lawyers believed it was necessary to take a look at this again.
Q There’s a new legal theory that’s sort of evolved over since that Fourteenth Amendment solution first came up, which legal scholars say if the Congress fails to increase the debt limit, the President would be forced into one of three unconstitutional options. He could raise taxes unilaterally, which would violate Congress’s taxing power. He could raise the debt limit unconstitutionally by violating the debt ceiling. Or he could refuse to spend money, which would be -- which has already been appropriated, as you just pointed out, and would be a violation of the Impoundment Act, which requires the President, since 1974, to spend whatever monies are appropriated.
Do you agree with that framework? And in that case, which of those three options does the White House believe is the least unconstitutional? Because the President has got to make a decision one way or another. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: This is a thought-provoking exercise -- (laughter) -- and probably makes for a good op-ed or two that I think I would read.
But at this point, I wouldn’t speculate on what is a hypothetical situation, primarily because the expectation that we have is that Congress will do the right thing and they will increase the debt limit, primarily because I think people on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the significant economic risk of failing to do so; that it would throw the U.S. economy and the U.S. financial system, and potentially the global economy, into chaos for Congress not to handle this basic, fundamental responsibility.
And the good news is that at least leaders in the Republican Party, and I think just about every Democrat, acknowledges that this is the case and that this is something that -- that the scenario that you just laid out is one that should be avoided at all costs.
Q Let me ask about new goals that came out for Obamacare -- the 2 million -- which is less than a million more than are already enrolled, and falls far below predictions from the CBO. How much of a disappointment? And how much concern is there about the predictions about who is now looking for coverage, and what that means overall to the viability of Obamacare?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve got a couple things to say about this. The first is, I think it’s important not to sort of miss the overall numbers here, which I think are the most illustrative about the true impact of the Affordable Care Act; that as a result of the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act taking effect, 17.6 million Americans have gained health care coverage. And there has been a corresponding drop in the nation’s uninsured rate. And the nation’s uninsured rate now stands at its lowest level in American history.
And that historic reduction in the uninsured means that there are fewer remaining uninsured customers who are eligible for marketplace coverage. So that's the first thing. We're talking about a smaller pool to sort of answer your first question.
The second is that people who are part of this pool are people who through the first two rounds of open enrollment didn't sign up. So that means that there is a core group of people out there that are -- for whatever reason, whether it’s because they don't have necessary information, or they have some other objection, is signaling some disinterest in having health care.
The other thing that I want to point out that I think is also relevant to this is that there have been some projections, including projections by the CBO that suggested that upwards of 20 million people would be signed up through the marketplace by the end of next year.
And that was predicated on -- at least in part -- on an assumption that once the Affordable Care Act went into effect, that we would see employers across the country in -- essentially dropping coverage for their employees, meaning that those employees would have to turn to the marketplaces.
Now, this is something that our harshest critics warned about, that people would be dropped from their coverage by their employers because of this marketplace option being presented. The fact is we haven’t seen that kind of reaction from employers on nearly the scale that was predicted by the biggest skeptics of the Affordable Care Act. And so that, I think, is another reason why there were fewer people who have to turn to the marketplace for coverage.
The good news that we have always observed that even our harshest critics can't quibble with is that previously individuals who were not able to obtain health insurance through their employer, or who didn't have a job, were essentially on their own in trying to get health care coverage for themselves and their families. But thanks to the Affordable Care Act, for the very first time those individuals have an option, and that is an option to go and purchase quality, affordable health insurance through the marketplace.
And what the marketplace does is it provides greater transparency about their health care options, and it forces the health insurance companies to compete with one another, both in terms of the options they provide, but also the prices that they charge. And that kind of competition works to the benefit of consumers. And that is an option that nobody had had prior to the Affordable Care Act taking effect.
So that all being said, open enrollment does start at the beginning of next month. And I do think you can anticipate the kind of focus and energy that we put into the two previous efforts to enroll people in health insurance through the marketplaces -- that we’ll do that again this year, too.
Q You say that they’ve gotten affordable, and this has been one of the major criticisms we’ve heard both from, I guess, customers and certainly the Republicans running for President -- that some states are talking about double-digit increases, and that even Sylvia Burwell today suggested that part of the reason that some of these people who are out there, who are uninsured, aren’t getting in is because of their own concerns about the cost.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the double-digit increases were quite common prior to the Affordable Care Act going into effect. And so I think that even the fact that our critics are saying that there might be some places where double-digit increases might be seen I think is an indication of the impact that the Affordable Care Act is having in keeping down the growth in health care costs.
But the overall costs here are also important. Eighty-four percent of the people who selected plans through the marketplace received financial assistance to make it affordable for them. That's an indication that people are getting tangible help in paying for private health insurance. Among those consumers who signed up in the last open enrollment period in 2015 -- so, earlier this year -- eight in ten of them had the option of choosing a plan with a premium of $100 or less after the tax credits were factored in. I think we would all acknowledge that that is an option that was not available to hardly anybody on the private insurance market prior to the Affordable Care Act going into effect.
But yet, about 80 percent of those who went to the marketplace were able to sign up for quality, private health insurance for a hundred bucks a month. That's a pretty good deal.
Q And yet polls don't show exactly overwhelming support that would be indicated from what you've said about this. And in fact, from my own observation, repeal and replace Obamacare is probably the number-one applause line for any of the Republican candidates who are out there. So why is this message not getting out? Or what is this White House not doing or HHS not doing to help people understand what your side of the argument is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that it has a lot to do with the coordinated strategy, that has been funded by hundreds of millions of dollars, to say things that aren’t true about the Affordable Care Act. So it’s not particularly surprising to me that there are some people who may have an unclear view about the true impact of the Affordable Care Act.
The fact is that we’ve seen Republicans lie to the American public for years about it, and they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars to propagate those lies. So the fact that there’s a little bit of confusion is not surprising to me.
And in terms of the success of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, I wouldn’t consult poll numbers. I’d actually consult the 17.6 million Americans who have gained coverage since the law went into effect. I think those people are pretty pleased with the Affordable Care Act.
Q But don’t you think if there is this perception out there that it’s not a good thing, that it hurts you in terms of getting more people who are uninsured --
MR. EARNEST: That’s probably true. That’s probably true. That’s why, frankly, I think that’s why it’s so irresponsible that we continue to see Republicans spend so much time and energy lying about the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t just have political consequences; it has, as you point out, potentially real-life consequences.
Q Just really quickly, on Afghanistan, because I want to make sure that I understood you correctly. You said that General Campbell issued a recommendation and then issued a statement that he’s pleased with the 5,500 number. Was that 5,500 number his recommendation?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is -- and we’re going to consult with the Department of Defense and make sure that we get this just right -- but my understanding is that the announcement that the President laid out today is consistent with the troop recommendation that General Campbell had put forward.
Q For progressives and supporters of the President who might find it objectionable that this war is ongoing, who might feel like this is indeed a broken promise, what does the President say to them about once again, despite his best intentions, not being able to deliver?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President would say that he has delivered in making progress in Afghanistan and making the United States of America and our citizens safer. That since -- if you date back -- if you consider, back to 2009, what the situation was in Afghanistan, that we had an environment in which al Qaeda was thriving, and there was a military presence in Afghanistan that was not well organized around a strategy to decimate that presence. This President came into office and he put in place a strategy that, in some cases, was unpopular with members of the President’s own party because it did involve ramping up our military commitment to Afghanistan. But the results speak for themselves.
Since that time, we have significantly drawn down our military footprint inside of Afghanistan, from a high north of 100,000 troops, to one that now is below 10,000 troops. We did succeed in significantly improving the professionalism and capability of the Afghan national security forces. We created an environment in Afghanistan where the first-ever democratic transfer of power in that country’s long history did take place. That democratic government that is now in place is an effective partner with the United States. And all of the progress that we’ve made on the ground, and the investment that was made on the ground -- thanks mostly to the commitment and effectiveness and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform -- did lay the groundwork for an effective operation to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield.
So the progress that has been made thus far is significant. It is progress that has made America safer. And it is progress that will make the task facing the next President much less daunting than the task that this President faced in dealing with Afghanistan.
Q I’m not disputing that. I’m simply saying -- he didn’t say we’ll make progress in Afghanistan. He said we’ll end the war. Does progress equal an end? And if it doesn’t, isn’t that a broken promise -- or at least a promise that he’s working on that he has not yet been able to deliver?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the combat mission of U.S. military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan ended last year. That is not in any way an effort to downplay the significant risk that our men and women in uniform currently undertake when they serve this country in Afghanistan.
Q People still die.
MR. EARNEST: And people do still die, as the President pointed out. But the mission that they have there is quite different than the mission that they had there before. And the progress that has been made in making America safer, in decimating core al Qaeda, in taking Osama bin Laden off the battlefield, in establishing a relatively stable central government in Afghanistan that actually is an effective partner with the United States, building the capacity of an Afghan national security force that does have the capability that, even in the face of a setback in a defeat in a Kunduz, was able to reorganize and remount a strategy to retake that town in two weeks -- that’s an indication that we’ve made a lot of important progress. And that is an indication that the President kept his promise to fulfill his top priority, which is to keep the American people safe.
Q Okay, last one. I want to ask you about something Hillary Clinton said today in Texas. Apparently she said that the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership were made public last week. Did she get some sort of an advance copy that we’re unaware of, or did she misspeak?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I actually did not see her comment, so I’m not quite sure what she was referring to. The official final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has not been released. But when it does, we’ll make sure that everybody has the opportunity to see it. And we’ve made clear that the American public will have the opportunity to review that document for 60 days before the President actually signs it.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President’s campaign promise was not that he would make progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was that he would end the war. And he didn’t caveat that with talk of a combat mission specifically. Why not just say that things have changed on the ground? Why not just acknowledge that he didn’t quite meet that promise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Byron, that the President has said on many occasions, both on the campaign trail but also in office, that his top responsibility as Commander-in-Chief of the United States is protecting the American people. And the President has implemented a strategy in both the countries that you mentioned to keep the American people safe. And after implementing that strategy, over the last seven years the American people are safer now than when he took office in 2009. That’s tangible progress. That is the President’s top responsibility. That was his top promise. And that was a promise made and a promise kept. That is not, however, to deny that there’s additional work that remains to be done in both those countries to further advance our interest and to make our country even safer than it is today.
Q I want to go back to Afghanistan. The President mentioned this morning the need for Afghanistan’s neighbors and anyone who has any influence on Afghanistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Given that he’s meeting Prime Minister Sharif next week, I wanted to ask if he believes that -- if the President believes that Sharif himself had done enough to bring Pakistan’s influence to bear.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the one fact that is relevant here -- there are probably many facts that are relevant -- but the first one that comes to mind is that we already know that Pakistan has played an important role in trying to facilitate reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In fact, one of the early rounds of those talks actually took place in Pakistan, were hosted by the Pakistani government.
I think -- I don’t want to be in a position of speaking for the Pakistani government, but it’s the President’s view that everybody in that region recognizes the important benefits associated with progress on reconciliation talks. And the President is going to continue to use the influence that he has with the Afghan government to encourage them to pursue those talks. I think that’s, frankly, something that the Afghan government doesn’t need a lot of encouragement to pursue. That’s something that they themselves are interested in.
I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that the U.S. government doesn’t have a lot of influence with the Taliban, but there are other countries in the region and other actors in the region that do. And we certainly will play a role in encouraging those countries and those actors in the region to encourage -- to use their influence with the Taliban to encourage them to pursue and engage in these reconciliation talks.
One of the things -- the President alluded to this in his public statement today as well. One of the things that we know is a particular grievance of the Taliban is the presence of U.S. and foreign military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. And I think the President was quite clear that one really important way that that concern can be addressed is for the Taliban to engage in reconciliation talks with the Taliban to engage in reconciliation talks with the Afghan government, to complete them, thereby significantly reducing the level of violence inside of Afghanistan, bringing more order to the nation of Afghanistan, making it harder for terrorists and extremists to use chaos in Afghanistan to launch strikes against the United States or our interests.
And if all of that bears out -- it starts with reconciliation talks -- but if all that bears out, then obviously whoever is President at that point I’m confident would move forward with at least reducing the already-reduced U.S. military presence inside of Afghanistan.
Q Just a second question. Senior members of the Afghan government have alleged that Pakistani operatives were involved in the assault on Kunduz. Is that something that the President plans to speak to Sharif about?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen any reports to that effect, so I can’t confirm that from here. If we have anything on that, I’ll follow up with you.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the Afghanistan question, I just want to ask about the President’s deliberations in a slightly more personal way. Was this a difficult decision for him to reach? That was a really important achievement that he had set his mind on. And was it difficult for him to shift away from that?
MR. EARNEST: Christi, the President acknowledged in his remarks today that the most solemn decision that he has to make is a decision to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way. But that’s the solemn decision that’s entrusted to the Commander-in-Chief, and so it’s a decision that he takes quite seriously.
And I think given the lives that are at stake in making this decision, I’m confident that it is -- in telling you that this is something that the President carefully considered, and he understood both the significance and weight of this decision, it certainly is not one that he took lightly.
Q Was he resistant to it until some particular pivot point?
MR. EARNEST: No, I wouldn’t describe him as resistant. I think what the President does when he’s making these kinds of decisions -- and those of you in this room have been covering the President for a while now, and, Christi, you’re certainly in this category -- do have a familiarity now with the approach the President takes to trying to make these decisions, which is that he works quite diligently to try to keep an open mind as he considers the facts, and as he considers the advice that he receives from the diverse set of advisors that he’s assembled.
And the President goes out of his way to elicit the opinion of people who he suspects may disagree with the argument that is getting the most attention; that the President wants to draw out as many perspectives as possible in considering a path forward.
But as the President also likes to say, that if decisions like this were easy, then somebody else would make them. The only reason they rise to the level of the Commander-in-Chief is because these are difficult decisions. But I think the President’s approach to considering this decision is consistent with the approach that he’s used in making other difficult decisions in office.
Q Thanks, Josh. There was a report at Politico yesterday citing congressional aides who say it’s unlikely that a Trans-Pacific Partnership is going to come up for a vote before next year’s lame duck, and I’m wondering what the White House thinks about that timeline.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the timeline that we envision is shorter than that. There are a couple of built-in timeframes before Congress will consider the agreement. The President has said that he would make the agreement public so that anybody could review it 60 days prior to him signing it. After that, Congress will spend some time considering the agreement before it begins the legislative process as well. So there are built-in delays.
The point is, there are several times, Jordan, where I would stand at this podium and suggest that Congress should actually take action right away. In this case, it is not possible for Congress to take action right away, but there is no need for Congress to delay action on TPP until the end of next year.
Q And has the President or his advisors made a decision when to file that intent to sign that kicks off the 90-day process that’s in the TPA bill?
MR. EARNEST: We have not made a firm decision on that, but that obviously is one factor in establishing the timeframe for a vote. But the other factor is the President’s commitment that he made to making the agreement public for a substantial period of time before he would even sign it.
So there are a couple of things that have to take place before this process will arrive on Congress’s doorstep. And these kinds of -- this timeframe was put in place because the President believes that this is something that shouldn’t be rushed. There should be ample opportunity for people to consider the agreement.
At the same time, there’s no reason for this agreement to be subjected to unnecessary delay. We’re talking about 18,000 tax cuts that could be implemented with a congressional vote. I don’t know why we’d wait more than a year to enjoy the benefits of taking that action.
Q I don’t know how much you can get into the budget talks, but a key --
MR. EARNEST: Not much, unfortunately.
Q Yes, well, a key issue in the past has been revenue, where the White House has always wanted revenue as part of any deal to increase the spending beyond the sequester caps. And yet there’s hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts in the President’s own budget that could be used to offset increases in those caps. Is the White House okay with a possible deal here that would trade long-term spending cuts for short-term sequester relief without new revenue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, it’s hard to engage in this question just because the conversations that are ongoing are conversations that we’ve made a point of keeping confidential.
Let me just acknowledge something that we’ve acknowledged in the past, and it is something that is on the minds of the President’s representatives in these conversations, and it’s simply this: We know that, walking into these talks, that we're not going to get 100 percent of everything that we want; and that when the President signs a budget, which will hopefully be before there is a government shutdown, the President will be signing a budget that he doesn't completely agree with. There will be some elements of the budget proposal -- I predict right now there will be some elements of that budget proposal that he does not support, but yet he will sign.
And it’s that spirit of openness to compromise that we hope that other participants are bringing with them to the table. That's what’s going to be required. No one sitting around that table is going to get 100 percent of what they demand. But there is ample common ground for us to settle on a budget agreement that even people with sharply different political views can agree would be in the best interest of the country to implement prior to a government shutdown. And that's the approach that we're taking to the talks.
Q So you're not putting any like public preconditions on “we must get revenue,” like you have in the past? You're more open to --
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t read that as a signal that we're more open to anything. I think I would just read that as a signal that I’m trying to be conscientious about the commitments that we’ve made to engaging in talks privately.
Q And the other thing is the President seemed to be -- different parts of his statement were sort at war with itself. He said he doesn't believe in endless wars. But then a couple of graphs later he says, the only way that troops are ever going to leave -- our troops are ever going to leave Afghanistan is if there’s a political settlement, which sounds like we're there for decades if there’s a civil war for decades. He’s not articulated an endpoint or even a sort of -- other than there’s going to be a political settlement. But there hasn’t been one in 15 years and might not be one in the next 15 years. Is this something where potentially we could be there for decades longer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly is not the President’s intention. The President’s view is to continue making progress against our goals, which are building capacity of the Afghan national security forces, continuing to carry out operations to counter extremists, and to continue to work effectively with the democratically elected central government of Afghanistan; that that will advance the kinds of conditions that will make a reconciliation process and a political resolution more likely.
And so that's the President implementing a strategy in pursuit of the goal that he’s identified.
Q The other thing is that he said it was predictable that the Taliban would try to take advantage of our troops not being in the combat role. And among the people who predicted that were people like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, et cetera, who now say that it’s still a mistake for us to say we're going to draw down the troops to 5,500 -- that we should just say it will depend on the situation on the ground.
Does the President see some advantage in sort of laying out this marker of 5,500 even though he acknowledged he might change that later on? Is there some advantage that it sort of spurs the Afghans to not feel like they can depend on us to bail them out? Is there some reason why he puts that out there even though he knows he might need to change it when you have -- these Republicans who say, look, we should just say we're going to do whatever it takes to shore up the situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President is trying to do is to be more specific than those that offer just platitudes in terms of critiquing our strategy. I think what the President has laid out is a vision for our future military presence inside of Afghanistan that's consistent with a strategy to advance our national security interests and keep the American people safe. And that's what the President has articulated.
Now, the other thing that happens to be true is that the President is not running for a third term. So in January of 2017, there will be another Commander-in-Chief sitting in the Oval Office who will have to make a decision about what forward-looking military presence looks like.
There certainly will be a trajectory where hopefully we’ve made some important progress over the course of 2016. And the President, based on what he knows about the situation now and based on our limited ability to try to see how this situation plays out in the future, that it is practical to -- in 2017 to begin to draw down our forces to the level of 5,500 troops. But obviously that will be a decision that the next President will make.
Q Is there a specific timeline, by the way, on the 5,500? Is that like -- he said towards the end of next year. Is it 5,500 by January 20th, by the time he leaves?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s -- what it is, is essentially it’s 9,800 -- about 9,800 through next year, and then in 2017, the draw down to 5,500 will begin.
Q So it might not be 5,500 on the day he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. That's correct.
Arlette, I’ll give you the last one.
Q There’s been some backlash from Israeli officials over some comments made at the State Department yesterday when spokesman John Kirby said there were reports of what many would consider excessive use of force by Israeli officials in east Jerusalem. Prime Minister Netanyahu today said that these allegations were totally false -- utterly false and totally unfair. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Arlette, I think that we’ve tried to be quite consistent about what our view is here, which is that the United States mourns any loss of innocent life, whether it’s Israeli or it’s Palestinian. And I think the sad state of affairs is that we’ve seen too much loss of life over the last few weeks, and that’s why we continue to stress the importance of condemning violence and combatting incitement. And we communicate that to both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, and it is our view that both sides have a responsibility to exercise restraint and to take steps that would deescalate tensions in that region of the world.
That all said, we also make no bones about the fact that the nation of Israel is the closest ally of the United States in the Middle East, and there is significant assistance that’s been provided by the United States under the leadership of President Obama to enhance the security of the nation of Israel and the citizens of Israel. And that is an unshakeable commitment that has been continued under this President, and I’m confident it’s something that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will have the opportunity to discuss when the Israeli leader visits the White House next month.
Q And really quickly, are you able to give us any insight into the lunch between President Obama and Vice President Biden yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not. This is something that, as you know, they do on a regular basis. The lunch is typically scheduled to last for 30 or 45 minutes. Sometimes I suspect that lunch lasts a little longer, sometimes I suspect it wraps up a little earlier. But the President relies heavily on the advice and counsel that he receives from the Vice President, and that is counsel that the Vice President offers both in formal settings -- like meetings in the Situation Room -- but also in less formal settings like the President’s private dining room right off the Oval Office for lunch. So I know the President on a weekly basis looks forward to those lunches.
But in terms of the details of their conversations, that’s something that we have worked hard to keep confidential.
Q And do you think we’re any closer to hearing a decision from the Vice President about 2016?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that. You’d have to check with his office.
Go ahead, JC. I’ll give you the last one.
Q Just let me follow up on that. The strong consensus seems to be that Hillary did fairly well in the debate the other night. Does the Vice President -- some seem that the Vice President may feel -- may sigh a sigh of relief that he is no longer -- that he may be off the hook to have to save his party -- save the Democratic Party. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think so for a couple of reasons. The first is I don’t think the Vice President was at all surprised at the strong performance that Secretary Clinton delivered in the debate earlier this week. After all, he spent plenty of time himself on the debate stage with Secretary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign that included a variety of presidential debates in 2007. It made for an interesting year.
So I also think, based on the public comments that Vice President Biden had yesterday, that he is enthusiastic about the strong performance of all the Democratic candidates on the stage. And any decision that he makes about his own presidential prospects will not be contingent on the performance of other candidates; it will actually be contingent on his own considerations for whether or not he is prepared to mount a presidential campaign. And when he decides to that, I’m confident that’s something he’ll announce.
Q One more question?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Mark.
Q Where do things stand on the defense authorization bill?
MR. EARNEST: The last I heard is that the White House had not yet received the defense authorization bill. But the President’s intention to veto that legislation still stands, primarily because the bill includes this slush fund tactic that’s an irresponsible way to fund our most basic national security priorities. And, again, slush fund is not just the appropriate word that I’ve used but that’s actually the description that some Republicans have used for this tactic.
There are also concerns in that legislation about the obstacles to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay that are included once again in the NDAA bill. I’ll just point out that based on the vote in the House of Representatives, that there is sufficient support for the President’s position in the House to sustain his veto. And that’s not something we’ve seen in the past, but it is something that we see this time.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Have a good day.
2:45 P.M. EDT