Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/19/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday, and happy fall. Seasons are changing. I do not have anything at the top, so we can go straight to questions.
Julie, do you want to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. Whole different topics. I want to start with climate. The President is having a lot of events on this, talking about the lead-up to Paris. And I'm wondering at this point, does he actually plan to go to Paris for the climate summit in December?
MR. EARNEST: I don't at this point have an update on the President’s travel schedule. I know that many leaders are considering the possibility of traveling to Paris to participate in those discussions and the early stages of those talks, but I don't have an update on the President’s travel at this point.
Q Is he considering that as well? Would you count him among those leaders?
MR. EARNEST: You could certainly count him among the leaders who’s considering traveling to Paris.
Q Also I wanted to ask if you had an update on the defense bill that's been sent over here. When does the President plan to veto it? Or has there been a change in his decision on that?
MR. EARNEST: There’s not been a change in the decision on this. The President still does intend to veto the NDA that was planned -- that was passed primarily with Republican support in both houses. The concerns that we've expressed about it is it advocates essentially the use of a slush fund for funding critically important national security priorities. We believe that's utterly irresponsible. And the President has indicated that he would veto it.
I don't believe, however, that it has been transmitted to the White House, however. But everybody knows how this will play out.
Q Okay. Well, I wanted to get a little substance in before asking you -- your guess is as good as anybody else’s -- is the Vice President running for President? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Many people are just going to be asking that question with particular urgency today. I do not have any additional insight about the Vice President’s thinking about this. He has been considering this for some time, and I'm confident that once he has made a decision that he'll announce it, but he'll do so on his timeframe.
Q And can I just ask you what this kind of swirl of speculation and timelines and anonymous sources looks like inside the West Wing to you guys?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I've been in two or three meetings this morning prior to the briefing and it hasn’t come up -- and I think primarily because this is something that we're used to. This is something that's been going on for a while. And I think everybody understands exactly what the stakes are, and primarily, people understand that this is an intensely personal decision for anybody to make in terms of candidacy for President of the United States, and I think all my colleagues here at the White House have certainly afforded the Vice President all of the time and space that he needs to make that personal decision, and he'll make it on a timeframe of his choosing.
I know there’s plenty of speculation about the urgency of the political calendar, that we are -- as the weather outside can attest -- that we are now into the fall. And that's when more of the country’s attention and more of the debate focuses on who the next President might be. But ultimately, this will be a decision for Vice President Biden to make. And I'm confident that as somebody who’s participated in this process firsthand on a couple of occasions that he understands the timing pressure that he’s under. But he'll make a decision when he’s prepared to make it.
Q Do you know if he's shared his decision with the President one way or the other?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that.
Q There are reports that hackers associated with the Chinese government have tried to hack at least seven U.S. companies in the past three weeks. And I'm wondering what the awareness is at the White House about this issue, and whether this breaks the agreement that President Obama and President Xi made during his visit.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, obviously have seen those reports that appeared in a number of publications overnight. I don’t have a specific comment on the conclusions that were reached by this private sector organization.
I’d reiterate a couple of things. The first is that when President Obama was standing alongside President Xi in the Rose Garden just a couple of weeks ago, President Obama made clear that the United States would judge China not based on its words, not based on any verbal commitments, but based on its actions. And so you can rest assured that the relevant agencies in the United States government are closely monitoring China’s actions in this regard. This is obviously a priority, and it’s something that the United States government follows closely.
One other note. I can tell you that the national security officials both at the White House and across the federal government are regularly in touch with the kind of private sector entities like the one that put out this report. And so there have been national security professionals in the administration that have been in touch with this particular private sector company, and I would anticipate we’ll soon receive a briefing on the details of their findings, as well.
I think it only serves to highlight the priority that this administration places on information-sharing. And information-sharing from private sector entities with the federal government is a critically important part of our cybersecurity strategy. And this is one of the reasons that we continually try to impress upon Congress the importance of passing cybersecurity legislation that would enhance this kind of information-sharing. Right now it’s bogged down in the Senate, and we’re hopeful that the Senate will take action soon to pass this legislation that would enhance our ability to better share information between public sector and private sector partners.
Q And President Xi is visiting right now with Prime Minister David Cameron, and I’m wondering whether the White House has worked at all with the Prime Minister to sort of create a common message at all on cyber as it relates to China, and whether you have any other comments on this particular visit which is being heralded in Britain.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll recall that when Prime Minister Cameron visited the White House earlier this year, issues of cybersecurity were on the agenda, and I believe that even, in fact, Prime Minister Cameron may have been asked about cybersecurity in the news conference in the East Room when he was here. And so I only say that to remind you that this is an issue that the United States and the United Kingdom work very closely on.
So I don’t have anything to tell you about our consultations in advance of Prime Minister Cameron’s meeting with President Xi, other than to remind you that this is something that is not a source of concern -- that China’s activity in cyberspace is not just a source of concern on the part of the United States, but it’s a source of concern from countries around the world, including our close allies on the other side of the Atlantic.
Q And we also now know that the FBI and Secret Service are investigating hacks of non-governmental accounts of the CIA Director as well as Jeh Johnson. So this has to be frustrating. Even though these are not their government accounts, this seems to be happening once every couple of weeks at this point. I mean, does this feel like it’s something that really needs to be tackled more quickly? I don’t know what you plan on doing, or what you feel could be done to try to prevent these.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just mentioned one idea to Roberta about the fact that there is bipartisan cybersecurity legislation on Capitol Hill that has gotten bogged down in the legislative process on Capitol Hill. We obviously would like to see the Republican leadership in the Senate allow a vote on that legislation so it can be passed and so the President can sign it into law.
This one particular piece of legislation that’s on the Senate floor is one that would enhance information-sharing between the public and private sector and certainly would enhance the ability of cybersecurity experts in the government, including law enforcement and national security experts, to respond more quickly when breaches are detected. But there are other proposals that this administration has put forward for the kind of legislative response that we believe would enhance the nation’s cybersecurity.
The President has already taken a number of steps over the course of this year to enhance our cybersecurity, and this is everything from putting in place the architecture so that the Secretary of the Treasury now has the authority to impose sanctions against individuals or entities that carry out or benefit from cyber-attacks. There are also a range of steps that we have implemented here in the federal government to better organize our efforts to confront cyber threats.
So one of these is the Cyber Threat Integration Center, and this is a national security agency that would essentially ensure that all of the agencies that are responsible for responding to these kinds of incidents can come together quickly to respond and to share information, and to make sure that we’re mobilizing all of the necessary resources to protect our infrastructure in this country. And that includes not just attacks that are sustained by government systems, but also attacks that are sustained by private entities, including news organizations that I know have also dealt with this significant challenge.
Q I mean, that’s kind of point, though. There have been all these steps taken and plans made, but the hacks still keep happening extremely frequently. So is there a frustration there? And do you think that even the accessing of some of these personal accounts could be dangerous or could lead something else? And do you feel they’re inevitable, in a sense? If so much has been done -- and I’m not sure if you feel like the administration can do all that it can do -- but what is the solution, or how do you find a solution? Because obviously all the things that you listed don’t necessarily work in all cases. And the cases that do get through, have been pretty large-scale and high-profile, to say the least.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I don’t think anybody has made the suggestion that there’s a silver bullet that’s going to put a stop to all of these challenges. I think what we do believe is important is to respond quickly and to make sure that we’re sharing information when incidents are detected. And there is more authority that could be given to our national security and law enforcement professionals to make sure that they can use all of their capabilities to do exactly that, and we have not seen the necessary congressional action that we need in order to get that done.
I think the other thing, Michelle, that’s significant for the administration’s view is that -- “frustration” is not the word that I would use. I think what I would try to describe to you is that the fact that we see these kinds of incidents -- and based on the way that it’s been described to me, the incident that was reported over the weekend is not particularly significant or worrisome one, but I do think it illustrates that there are vulnerabilities in our system.
In some cases, these vulnerabilities are more significant, but in some cases, even those places where we feel quite confident about the kind of measures that we’ve -- taken place, the stakes are really high. In an inter-connected world where we rely on technology for so many basic functions in our society, that trying to safeguard all of these different elements, whether these are government entities or private sector entities, that we need to be mindful of the fact that bad actors, malicious actors in cyberspace are bright, they’re nimble, they’re innovative, and we need to make sure that we have defenses that are flexible and adaptive enough to confront them.
Q And we’re also hearing that it’s now possible that Iran has some 2,000 forces outside of Aleppo. What can you say about that? And how does that change things on the ground there?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update for you in terms of what we’re seeing on the ground inside of Syria -- at least in the detail that you’ve just described. What I would say as a general matter is quite similar to what the President said at his news conference on Friday, which is that we have seen the Iranians over the last four or five years step up the amount of assistance that they provide to the Assad regime just to keep him in power. And that’s an indication that their earlier strategies to try to minimize their investment in that endeavor didn’t succeed. And the fact is, Iran keeps having to escalate its investment in protecting the Assad regime is an indication of the position of weakness from which they’re operating.
And I think the other thing that it serves to illustrate is the sectarian nature of this conflict, and that poses significant risks for countries like Russia that is seeking to unilaterally impose a military solution on a situation that cannot be solved militarily. And, in fact, it harbors significant risk for countries like Russia that try to implement a strategy like that.
Let’s move around the room a little bit. Todd.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to talk to you about Astronomy Night and one of the VIP guests, Ahmed Mohamed, the boy from Texas who was arrested for bringing a clock to school that was suspicious. Will the President meet with him? Will he take a selfie with him? What is the signal that the President is trying to send by inviting him? And there are people like Senator Cruz who say that the President is giving a lot more respect to Ahmed than, say, to police who face dangers every day.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Todd, I don’t believe the President will have an opportunity to meet one-on-one with Ahmed Mohamed. After all, there are several hundred people who are planning to participate in tonight’s festivities on the South Lawn. This will include educators, scientists, parents, students, astronauts and others. It’s an event that we’re looking forward to, and I know Ahmed has indicated that he’s looking forward to it, too. And we certainly are pleased that he will be able to come to the White House to participate in that event.
I think the President, in a variety of settings, has made clear the amount of respect that he has for our men and women in uniform who every day walk outside the door of their home and put their lives on the line to protect and serve the communities in which they work. That is an honorable profession, and the President has, on a number of occasions, articulated the high degree of respect he has for the men and women who choose that profession.
Q Was Ahmed asked to not bring the clock?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of his plans to bring the clock.
Q He’s not bringing it, but when the President tweeted he said, I hope you bring that “cool clock.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if that’s exactly what the President tweeted, but I’m not aware of any information that was shared with Ahmed about what he could bring or not bring to Astronomy Night.
Q No concern about a security issue related to that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident that Ahmed, like everyone else who attends Astronomy Night, will go through the security measures and screening measures that are necessary to ensure the safety of the President, the White House and everybody else who is participating in Astronomy Night.
Q Josh, two subjects, one about the Vice President. So should we expect anything from him today or this week in reference to the calls for him to make a decision -- a public decision on if he will run for President in 2016?
MR. EARNEST: April, I don’t have any information about the potential timeline for a vice presidential decision about a presidential race.
Q If you did have information, would you tell us? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: If that would stop you from asking the questions, then I might. (Laughter.) But I don’t have that information.
Q All right. On another subject, there’s a big controversy brewing in Alabama. Thirty-one DMV offices in minority, rural, urban communities have been shut down, and that at a time when there is concern about the infringement on voting rights as well as this upsurge with voter ID. What does this administration feel about that? And what particularly is this White House looking at in reaction to this, if there will be a reaction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did see that Secretary Clinton had an opportunity to talk about this issue, and she expressed I think some legitimate concerns about measures that we’re seeing, once again, being put in place to try to make it harder for people to vote. The amount of time and energy that Republicans have spent trying to make it more difficult for people to -- for eligible voters to cast a ballot is mind-boggling. I’m not really sure what they’re scared of. But the fact is the President, I think on a number of occasions, has made clear that the principle of allowing eligible voters to cast a vote is central to our democracy. And I think the President said that much more eloquently than I just did when he traveled to Alabama himself earlier this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma.
So I’m not steeped in the details of this particular matter, but we certainly would urge -- well, let me just say this. When the President spoke in Selma, the President talked about how we should be able to build bipartisan support for those kinds of policies that protect the right of eligible citizens to vote. And the President delivered a call to action to encourage Democrats and Republicans to come together to renew the Voting Rights Act, and to do more to ensure that that sacred right in our democracy is protected for eligible voters.
That continues to be our principle here. And we hope that both Democrats and Republicans in Alabama, and in every other state in the country, can live up to that principle.
Q So the governor of Alabama is saying that it’s not racial. The two issues here -- voter suppression and possibly racial discrimination -- do you see both clearly? Does this White House see both clearly?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to comment on this specific matter because I haven’t had an opportunity to look carefully at it. I do think that it sort of -- I think that the reason that we’re having this conversation is because there are legitimate concerns that have been raised about voter ID laws in the first place. And we’ve seen reports that some Republicans -- many Republicans across the country acknowledge that this has a political impact that benefits Republicans, and in some cases, has a disproportionate impact on certain populations.
Q But when you get into the weeds of what you just said, that’s race. Am I correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s what some people have observed. But again, I’m not talking about this particular incident because I don’t know enough about the details to talk about it. But when it comes to voter ID laws, when it comes to the way that Republicans have, time and again, taken steps and implemented policies that make it more difficult for eligible voters to cast a ballot, yes, in some cases, there is documented evidence that those were strategies that were predicated on a political benefit for Republicans. And that certainly runs counter to some of the basic and most important principles of our democracy.
Q And the last question -- so we should expect Justice to chime in on this, or work on this.
MR. EARNEST: You can check with the Justice Department and they can update you on their efforts if there are any in this matter.
Q Josh, when Britain got involved in the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the administration expressed concern. Are you concerned about the extent to which China seems to be investing in British kind of critical infrastructure like our nuclear plants and the like?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I'm not aware of any of those specific investments. Obviously the United States has, ironically enough, some investments in nuclear facilities in China. And I know that's something that President Obama and President Xi had the opportunity to discuss when President Obama was in China just about a year or so ago.
The other thing that President Obama made clear in the news conference that he did with President Park on Friday is that the United States welcomes strong relations between our allies and China. After all, the United States, like the rest of the world, welcomes a rising China and a China that is ready to assume the obligations and responsibilities that go along with significant economic, political and military strength.
And so obviously, whether it's working with China to limit Iran’s nuclear program, or enlisting China’s influence to try to get North Korea to live up to their international obligations, there are a variety of ways where China has started to use their influence to advance international priorities. And we would welcome the continuation of that trend.
Q But if you were to allow that sort of investment from China into the U.S., is it wise that such critical infrastructure to be built by the Chinese?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s obviously a process for the United States government, where appropriate, to weigh in on those decisions. I don't know what the process is in the UK, but that's obviously something that national security officials in the United Kingdom would have to determine for themselves.
Q Josh, I'll try where Julie failed a while ago --
Q Ooooh --
Q It was a good effort.
Q He failed. (Laughter.)
Q Exactly. So you’ve been part of a presidential campaign. You know what it's like to launch a presidential campaign. You know the Vice President. You work in the same building as the Vice President. You see him on most days. Does he look like a guy that's about to announce his candidacy? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That is a creative way to ask that question. I'm not going to stand here and assess the Vice President’s body language. (Laughter.)
Q But what do you think? What’s your sense? You’re there, you see him every day. What is your sense?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no denying that Vice President Biden is somebody who brings a lot of energy to his current job. And based on the fact that he has run for President twice before I think should be a clear indication that he believes that he’s got something to offer to that debate and to offer to the country. And I think that his strong performance as Vice President led a lot of people to think that he would be an influential candidate, an effective candidate in the presidential field. But ultimately, this is not the kind of decision that can be made for the Vice President. The Vice President himself needs to make this decision. And it's an intensely personal one and it's something that he's obviously been considering not just over the last several months, but probably even longer, and when he has arrived at a decision, I’m confident it’s one he’ll announce.
Q So it looks like I might have failed that, too. (Laughter.) Do you share some of the frustration that we’ve heard from other Democrats, including people like David Axelrod, that this decision process has gone on so long?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t share that frustration. I think that anybody who has served this party and this country as long as the Vice President has is entitled to all of the time and space that they need to make this personal decision. And I’m confident that once the Vice President has reached a decision one way or the other, that he’ll be prepared to announce it.
Q And you expect that to be soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as I observed yesterday, I think the laws of physics will require that this is a decision that would be announced relatively soon because the date of these contests is coming up. But for the precise date, that’s something that only the Vice President knows.
Q So I’ll just say on the top, I’m going to fail but we’re going to give it a go. (Laughter.) This is a probing question but it’s serious, because on two issues I can think of right off the top of my head -- Iraq and any potential budget conversations that might go on -- the Vice President has played a vital role for this President.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true.
Q And I wonder if, as he has considered what he may or may not do, if the President and he have discussed what it might mean to this administration if Joe Biden goes from being the Vice President who routinely was on the phone with all the principal players in Iraq on a regular basis, and at previous time when the country was facing a fiscal cliff he was the primary behind-the-scenes negotiator with Senator McConnell to work something out. Can this administration deal with those two issues if the Vice President, on which it has relied on the past, is now a presidential candidate and unavailable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I think even the Vice President, if he were to make a decision to throw his hat into the ring, would recognize that he has critically important responsibilities as the Vice President of the United States. And these are responsibilities that he carried out in the midst of a hotly contested reelection campaign in 2011 and 2012. And while he certainly would be adding a lot of things to his plate if he were to decide to mount a presidential campaign, I’m confident that he would make time as necessary for the responsibilities that he currently has as Vice President.
Q Can you tell us what the basis of that confidence is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s --
Q Is that supposition, or do you know it from the President that they’ve discussed this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know any of the details of what the President and the Vice President have discussed. I think the basis of the supposition is that this is something that Vice President Biden did in the context of the reelection in 2011 and 2012, and I’m confident that if necessary, he could do it again in 2015 and 2016.
Q But you would concede that it’s quite a different thing, though, to run for President as a candidate as opposed to run as the running mate for a President in a reelection campaign.
MR. EARNEST: I would acknowledge that those are two different things. However, they are both endeavors that would require significant commitments of time when it comes to politics but also an acknowledgment that governing responsibilities come first. And I would have no doubt about the Vice President’s ability to make those decisions.
Q He’d be governing Vice President first and a candidate second if he were to announce?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he certainly would have some responsibilities that he has sworn to uphold, and I’m confident that he would do that, regardless of whether or not he was pursuing his presidential aspirations.
Q On the other end, at Capitol Hill, Republicans are trying to decide who their next Speaker is going to be. And I wondered if you could -- without prejudging or offering an opinion because I know you don’t want to do that -- if you could describe what the President’s relationship and working relationship has been with Paul Ryan. They had a rather famous episode where the President gave a speech on the budget and Paul Ryan was in the front row -- that didn’t go so well. I wonder if anything has evolved from then -- since then, and if you would just give a general description of either this White House’s or this President’s relationship with Paul Ryan.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I actually -- Major, I thought you were actually going to refer to an earlier exchange that President Obama and Congressman Ryan had early in the administration over budget issues. This is when the President traveled to Baltimore to meet with the House Republican conference. They do an annual meeting. They invited the President and they had an opportunity to exchange. And I think at that point, the President was quite clear that he respects Paul Ryan; that he is somebody who obviously has spent a lot of time seriously thinking about some of the significant challenges facing the country. At the same time, the President has profound and occasionally vigorous disagreements with him on fiscal issues and presumably other things, too. So I think both of those incidents I do think sort of illustrate the kind of relationship --
Q Has anything evolved since then?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Has anything evolved since then?
MR. EARNEST: The only other issue that comes to mind -- that I know that Chairman Ryan was involved in trying to advance Trade Promotion Authority legislation. And that’s an example where the administration was able to work effectively with a range of leading Republicans to pursue a legitimately bipartisan goal. And I know that certainly Chairman Ryan’s support for that effort was welcomed by the White House, but we obviously got support from people like Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner, and a variety of other Republicans who are responsible for helping the administration build the kind of bipartisan coalition that was necessary to see that legislation pass.
Q Is the President rooting for Paul Ryan to be the next Speaker?
MR. EARNEST: The President doesn’t have a rooting interest in this one. He’s merely an interested observer.
Q Related to that, does this administration -- does the President believe it has to narrow its focus on what may be doable the remaining days of this year legislatively because of the chaos that House Republicans are going through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Major, there’s been an acknowledgement, whether it’s explicit or implicit, that the chaos that we saw in the Republican Party in Congress prior to Speaker Boehner’s unexpected retirement was limiting the amount that Congress was able to get done. And this is an observation that we’ve seen a lot of Republicans make. And I saw that even Senator Cruz was on the television yesterday observing that Republicans in Congress, despite the fact that they have strong majorities in both the House and the Senate, don’t have much to show for those majorities. And that’s been disappointing. There are some things, including Trade Promotion Authority legislation, but that’s been more the exception than the rule.
Q Right, but I mean, as you know, you’re approaching some significant deadlines where a lot of things are going to have to be decided in short order. And to the degree you can share with us, do you still know who to call? Do you have a relationship with the Speaker that you believe is still carrying out the clout and the ability, and a chief of staff and other underlying -- I mean, is it business as usual, or not so much? And if it’s not business as usual, do you have to narrow your focus and really just try to prevent a couple of bad things from happening and not really imagine accomplishing much beyond that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I guess this was what I was alluding to, which is that we are in a place now I think where, unfortunately, the ambitions for congressional action are limited to just the essentials. And in this case, there’s not a lot of discussion in the Republican Party, even in the context of a contested Speaker’s election, about the kind of ambitious agenda that Republicans are hoping to advance with their strong majorities in the House and Senate. There’s no discussion of that.
Right now, the only thing we’re discussing is how to prevent another government shutdown, how to ensure that we’re not risking the full faith and credit of the United States, how do we make sure that our basic national security priorities are properly funded. These are not ambitious proposals. These are the basic essentials that the American people expect of their Congress.
Q -- that would constitute the basics.
MR. EARNEST: Essentially. There might be a couple of other things I’d put on there -- reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, making sure that we can fund our infrastructure through another transportation bill. There are a couple of other essentials in there, but not many, and certainly -- and again, these are not the kinds of things that are the visions of transformational leaders. These are the responsibilities that every single Congress since the very first one has had to confront. And when it comes to the debt limit, we’ve seen that previous Congresses have not been willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States, and we’re hopeful that this Congress will follow suit.
Q One last quick topic. The Pentagon says the memorandum of understanding with Russia is probably going to be released tomorrow. Over there, they don’t want to call it an agreement because there’s not an agreement between these two countries about what’s happening, there’s just a legal document that says I guess we’ll stay out of each other’s way. How would you characterize what this actually is and what it represents, and how it fits in with anything that approximates a strategy between the two countries in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have an update for you on the timing of that document. The Department of Defense can give you the best assessment, and it sounds like that may be their best assessment.
This is the result of now three different conversations that have occurred between military officials on the United States side and their Russian counterparts. And we have described these kinds of consultations as practical, operational-level discussions intended to de-conflict their activities from ours. And this is the kind of thing that would ensure that Russian pilots are operating consistent with international safety regulations. This is ensuring that when pilots are operating that they’re using internationally recognized communications channels; that they’re speaking English so that we can avoid mishaps. But this does not at all rise to the level of any sort of strategic cooperation at all.
The other data point that I would bring to your attention is that over the weekend, the Department of Defense announced that a military operation had succeeded in northwestern Syria that resulted in the death of Sanafi al-Nasr. This is the leader of an extremist organization with designs on carrying out attacks against the West --
Q The Khorasan --
MR. EARNEST: -- yes, the Khorasan Group. I’ll just note that this is an airstrike that was conducted in northwest Syria. And I think this is an indication that the United States will do what is necessary to ensure that our interests are protected and that our safety and security are protected. The reason that the northwest Syria location is notable is because we know this is where the Russians are spending a lot of time and carrying out a lot of their military operations. But in this instance, the United States was able to successfully carry out this operation without any undue interference from the Russians.
Q I have two questions. One, what are the expectations later this week with the President meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister?
MR. EARNEST: The President is looking forward to welcoming the Pakistani Prime Minister to the White House later this week. Obviously there are a range of issues that are important for us to discuss, including the announcement that the President made last week about our strategy in Afghanistan moving forward. We certainly have an important security relationship and the security cooperation between our two countries in beneficial to the safety and security of the citizens in both our countries. And I’m confident that will be the focal point of discussions.
But we’ll have a little bit more that we can share as the meeting gets closer.
Q But you completely rule out the security deal with Pakistan, or are there some talks going on, on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, last week I got asked about this, about the sort of reports that the United States and Pakistan were planning a -- or published reports indicated that there may be a breakthrough in this regard, and I would significantly reduce your expectations about that occurring on Thursday.
Q And secondly, in Afghanistan, the Taliban hit an F-16. Are you worried about the increasing capabilities of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Lalit, for questions about -- those kinds of questions, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. I’m not aware of that specific report.
Q Thanks, Josh. On Friday, at least it’s been reported, that you pulled the plug on plans to sell oil and gas drilling rights in the Arctic. And I’m curious -- I just read a quote from Murkowski, Senator from Alaska. She said that decision is stunningly short-sighted, and betrays the Interior Department to the state of Alaska. What’s the mindset, especially given the need for energy security?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, this is a decision that was largely made and announced by the Department of Interior. They’re responsible for conducting those lease sales. And the conclusion that the Department of Interior reached is that given market conditions and given the broader state of the industry, that moving forward with those lease sales at this point was not the right decision.
Obviously, I think the President has indicated -- and the facts bear this out -- a genuine commitment to energy independence; that the amount of oil and gas production in the United States, under the leadership of President Obama, is higher than it’s ever been, but so is the amount of energy that we generate from renewable energy, like wind and solar. And that’s consistent with the strategy that the President has pursued, and it is one that has served our economy quite well.
Q I also spoke with another congressional member from that state who mentioned icebreakers and curiosity about whether or not more has been done or could be done to purchase more icebreakers for that part of the country. In particular, it has national security implications. What has the White House, what has the President planned, prepared to do to improve that, what as it was put to me, is a woefully insecure circumstance?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, you will recall, the President, when he traveled to Alaska earlier this year -- just six weeks or so ago -- announced that there were some additional icebreaking assets that would be deployed to Alaska. These would have important national security consequences, but some important economic consequences as well. And so investing in that kind of capability is important, and the President has indicated a willingness, just as recently as six weeks ago, to make that kind of investment.
Q And what’s the latest on that? Has anything happened? Is there anything concrete that you can point to?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see if we can get you an update on that. We’ll see if we can get you an update on that.
Q Okay. Lastly, this is sort of broad-stroked, as approached by some of my colleagues here in the front row. Having been through this process, what are a couple of things that someone might look at before making a determination to run for President? In the case of a Vice President, in this case, who’s run twice before, if there’s a couple of things that you’d say, if this happens, you go for it; if that happens, you’d probably go for it. What are a couple of things that you think he might be considering?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that the Vice President and anybody else who’s made a decision to run for office has asked that kind of question to lots of people. And I’m sure there are a variety of opinions about that. I think the thing that I would observe is that there’s one fundamental question that has to be answered before you can consider a whole range of other tactical questions. And the first is about your own desire and commitment to running the kind of campaign that we all know takes a significant personal toll.
Life on the campaign trail is arduous and it’s a difficult challenge, and that’s true of -- I have a little fun up here at the expense of some of the Republican candidates occasionally, but this is true of those candidates, too; that they spend a lot of time away from their families; they spend a lot of time on the road in cities in which their day ends rather late and starts rather early. And that’s difficult. And it’s why it’s important for a bunch of personal questions to be answered before you start considering a range of other things.
I guess the other thing that I would say that I think is also important -- and I do think that this is something that the Vice President has considered as well -- which is that those kinds of questions are far more important than questions about anybody else’s campaign -- that if you are making your decision about whether or not to get into a race based on your perception about somebody else’s standing in the race, that that’s not likely to be a useful strategy; that if the reason that you’re running is because you perceive that somebody else is not doing as well as they should, that’s not a particularly effective rationale for voters I think, that voters are going to expect that each candidate put forward their own rationale and demonstrate their own commitment to taking on the challenge of running for President. And I’m confident that that’s what the voters will expect of all of the candidates in this field, both Democrat and Republican.
Q Well then would you say among senior staff members who you’ve discussed this with who obviously have worked closely with both of the key people involved that there are strong feelings about whether or not Joe Biden should get into the race?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think there are. I think those of us that are interested in politics think these kinds of things are interesting, but ultimately this is a decision that he’ll have to make for himself and --
Q Or even to the extent that you and others have stated that obviously you feel strongly that a Democrat ought to get into the race because -- or ought to win because you want him or her to be able to continue the policies that the President has put forward, obviously you want to set up the strongest possible candidacy -- there are no strong feelings about whether or not the entry of the Vice President would help or hurt that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I suspect that everybody has got a theory, but ultimately, the most important question is not -- if you’re a candidate that is considering running for office, the truth is -- this is probably something that applies not just to the candidacy for President of the United States, but, frankly, for any political job -- that you’re making a commitment to serve your community and to serve the voters. And that’s a serious commitment, and it’s a significant one that requires a lot of your time and energy. And that’s what has to drive your decision. And the most effective public servants are the ones who acknowledge that these are personal decisions, that you can’t sort of be trying to game the system, if you will, but that rather this is an important personal commitment that you’re making.
And lord knows that Vice President Biden has made a profound commitment to this country and to the Democratic Party, based on his decades of service to both. And the personal question that he is facing now is whether or not to re-up that commitment. But that’s a decision that he’ll have to make.
Q The Benghazi testimony that Hillary Clinton is going to give this week -- is there any sense that there is some legitimate fact-finding that can go on there? And how closely -- given the seriousness of what happened with the incident and the loss of American lives, how closely will the White House be watching that testimony?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously some Republicans have had some interesting things to say about this over the last couple of weeks and they certainly have called into question the true motivation of the Benghazi committee. And I think what that has done is that has placed significant pressure on the Republican members of that committee to produce, to perform. And my expectation is that those Republican members of the Benghazi committee are going to come loaded for bear when Secretary Clinton is before them because they’re under a lot of pressure to produce and thus far, we haven’t seen them produce much. And so I think the pressure will really be on them to, frankly, to justify their own existence.
And that very existence has been called into question by at least two Republican members of Congress. And we’ll see if they are able to do that when Secretary Clinton is before the committee later this week.
Q And finally, on the emails, since we’ve had a weekend since this has all come out, does the President have any regrets that he told 60 Minutes that it didn’t pose a national security problem? Even the perception that there might have been an attempt to influence?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think, as the President has made clear on so many occasions -- and certainly as I had made clear even in response to this particular question -- the President is deeply respectful of independent investigations that are ongoing into any matter, frankly -- that there’s a responsibility on the part of our law enforcement agencies to conduct investigations that are free from political interference. And his expectation is that the professionals at those organizations will do that, and certainly, the FBI has a strong record of doing that.
But the other thing I think, Chris, that’s important that warrants mentioning here is that in the context of those investigations, we have seen a legitimate and even spirited debate about how and whether to classify certain portions of those emails. But even Secretary Clinton’s harshest critics haven’t come forward to suggest that the contents of those emails somehow endangered national security. We can have a debate about how and whether to properly classify some portions of those emails, but that is a far cry from questions about endangering national security. And I don’t think that even Secretary Clinton’s worst and most partisan critics have suggested that there is information in those emails, at least based on what we know now, that would endanger national security.
Q The Canadians are holding their national elections today, and the Liberal Party, based on polling, is expected to take control. The White House has consistently said the Keystone decision is under review at State -- I’m expecting to hear that in a second. But given the Canadian elections, how will that potentially affect the timing of a decision? Does it speed things up because now there’s no election to influence if a decision is released? And then secondly, on that, is the expectation of the Liberal Party that there will be a denial of the permit and that they would like to have that happen sooner rather than later? Anything that would influence the decision here on our side of the border?
MR. EARNEST: Angela, for updates on the timing of a Keystone decision I’d refer you to my colleagues at the State Department. And, as you know, I have long tried to avoid even the appearance of interfering in ongoing elections in other countries, and there is an ongoing election in Canada today. So for that reason, the only thing that’s happening in Canada today that I’m prepared to discuss is game three of the Royals-Blue Jays series. (Laughter.)
Q -- be distracted by this Canadian politics -- (laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident this is not going to affect Johnny Cueto’s performance at all on the mound tonight.
Q But dialing back just a little bit then, does the fact that the Canadian election is happening today and tomorrow and will be over soon affect the timing of the decision on Keystone?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to ask the State Department about that. They’re the ones that can give you an update on the timing.
Let’s see -- Bill.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about Air Force One. Can you confirm, is a new one coming? Has an order been put in? And what’s the price tag? And when is it going to arrive?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my colleagues at the Defense Department are engaged in this process to ensure that future Presidents have a modern Air Force One that can carry them around the world as they do the important work of the country. I know that the process of completing that project has begun, but for an update I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. I know this is something that they’re not envisioning completing until seven or eight years from now, I believe.
Q Certainly the White House is involved in this decision about the President’s plane, I would assume.
MR. EARNEST: There was a decision that was made by the President to move forward with the project. But obviously, for how that project is moving forward, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q The New York Times reports 2023 is the expected arrival date, which means that Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton won’t get to ride on that plane -- (laughter) -- except for the last year of their presidency. So if the idea were a new plane for the new President, shouldn’t the process have started maybe a little earlier?
MR. EARNEST: Bill, I think the President would be the first one to tell you that the plane that the President has right now serves him quite well. And I think he is even quoted in that story, on a number of occasions noting that he will miss flying on that plane. And I think that’s an indication that the current Air Force One performs quite well and handles all of the responsibilities that are necessary for ensuring that the presidency can travel when the President does.
But the challenge when dealing with something as important and as critical to the success of the presidency as Air Force One, the challenge is to try to think ahead. And so that’s what this administration has begun, is a process of thinking ahead and moving forward on a project that while -- let me say it this way. The President doesn’t need a new plane right now. But eight years from now, whoever is President, they are likely to need a new plane.
Q Josh, you said to Major earlier that the President doesn’t have a rooting interest in who is Speaker of the House. Is that true? Is the President really agnostic when so many of the candidates for Speaker have said things like they wouldn’t want to give away the debt ceiling for free, or some other issues that go directly against the stated position that this administration has put out on some really crucial pieces of legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think some of the people that you’re referring to are not particularly likely to be Speaker of the House, so we don’t lose a lot of sleep on that.
Q So you’re agnostic in the sense that you don’t believe there are deities or semi-deities in this? I mean, you don’t have a rooting interest because you don’t think they’re going to make the play-offs? What is this?
MR. EARNEST: I guess what I’m saying is the reason that we don’t have a rooting interest is that this is a responsibility of House Republicans to choose who they want to lead their conference in the Congress. The second is that any attempt to try to influence the outcome of that election by the President of the United States would have the opposite of the intended effect. And so that’s why the President and everybody else here at the White House is certainly interested in what’s going on, but we’re not pulling for anybody.
We’re interested to see how Republicans reconcile the significant divisions within their party to try to stitch together the kind of leadership structure that will allow the basic functions of government to continue. That certainly is not the kind of ambition that you would expect to see from a party that has strong majorities in both the House and the Senate, but it’s the situation that we’re dealing with right now.
Q Josh, would you say it’s accurate to describe Vice President Biden as agonizing over this decision? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess to go back to Major’s question, he didn’t look like he was in agony to me.
Q Anguishing, perhaps?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think he is somebody who is thoughtfully considering his options. And obviously Vice President Biden is somebody who has run for President twice before. He didn’t do that because he wasn’t sure that he would be a good President. I think that over the last seven years I think as Vice President, he has made quite clear to everybody that he is somebody who would be not just capable, but effective, if he were to serve in the Oval Office. In fact, that’s why the President chose him to be Vice President in the first place. But ultimately, he is going to have to decide on his own, and I think he is doing this thoughtfully.
Q Are we more likely to get a decision first from Biden or on Keystone? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It sounds like a bingo game that’s taking place in the workspace back there -- maybe you can get me a card.
Fred, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Today the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the Senate’s crime bill. That’s been a big-agenda item for the President. Other than trade really, none of the President’s legacy items have had a lot of bipartisan support, for good or bad. Is this going to be something that you think stands out -- if this bill does go through, will it stand out in particular for his legacy from a bipartisan standpoint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, obviously the President has long considered criminal justice reform a priority. And we certainly are pleased to see that there are some Republicans on Capitol Hill who also consider this to be a priority; that there are ways to make our criminal justice system more cost-effective, more fair, and have it result in communities with lower crime rates. So there are a lot of opportunities in this area for Democrats and Republicans to work together in a way that’s good for the country and is good for communities all across our country. So we’re encouraged by the way that this process has started out in bipartisan fashion, and we hope it will continue that way.
Q And on the flipside of that, I mean, it does have some bipartisan support but in the Senate there are Republicans and other critics who point out that, well, since you’ve had these mandatory minimums, crime rates have gone down, so when currently held prisoners are released, there’s something like a 40 percent recidivism rate. Is there risk there about releasing more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I think one of the goals of criminal justice reform is to see what kind of steps we can take to try to reduce that recidivism rate. That kind of recidivism rate is not good for public safety and it’s certainly not good for individuals who have gone through our criminal justice system. So I think it is statistics like the one that you just cited that motivates Democrats and Republicans to try to put aside our partisan differences and focus on what could be a fruitful area of bipartisan cooperation. I think one of the reasons that it’s so conspicuous is there aren’t very many areas of possible, fruitful bipartisan cooperation. But we intend to make the most of this one.
Q And totally unrelated -- this is FAA -- there has been a report that the FAA will require registration of privately owned drones. Does the White House have any comment on that at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, my understanding -- I’d refer you to the Department of Transportation. I believe what they’re putting together is essentially a working group to consider that and a range of other policy initiatives that could ensure that the use of drones doesn’t interfere obviously with commercial aviation, but also to put in place the kind of regulatory structure that will allow the private sector to maximize the economic benefits associated with this kind of technology while making sure we’re protecting the skies over cities all across the country.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:50 P.M. EDT