Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/26/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:37 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologize for keeping you all waiting.
Q How was Harvard.
MR. EARNEST: The trip to Harvard was excellent.
Q How was the visit? How did they treat you?
MR. EARNEST: I enjoyed it. They treated me very well. I spent some time on Thursday and Friday at the Institute of Politics at Harvard, and spoke to a class on Thursday and did the JFK, Jr. Forum on Friday. And a lot of ambitious young minds who were looking for inspiration. Hopefully I provided at least a little bit.
Q Ask Knoller where he was. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: We'll do that during his briefing, I guess.
Q How about the Royals?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I'm very excited about the Royals. I see that somebody up here was looking to have a good time, which I appreciate. (Laughter.) So I'm glad this was waiting for me at the podium when I walked out here. I'm glad somebody is having their fun before the series starts. I intend to have my fun after the series is over. (Laughter.) So we'll see how it goes. But that should be a fun Tuesday.
But today is Monday, so let’s eat our vegetables. Josh, do you want to start?
Q I wanted to start with this deadly earthquake in northern Afghanistan. It's killed more than 150 people in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan. Do you have any details for us on what the U.S. might be doing to assist in that aid effort?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, let me start by saying that we offer our deepest condolences to all those who were affected by the earthquake in Afghanistan, including the families of those who died in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. The U.S. government has been in touch with the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and we stand ready to provide any additional support that may be needed.
This is an area of the globe that is plagued by these kinds of incidents, so it's not the first time that these governments are responsible for responding to these kinds of situations. The one thing that is relevant here is that there is a substantial USAID presence in both of these countries to try to assist their needs, and there are a number of pre-positioned emergency shelter and relief supply kits in warehouses throughout Afghanistan. And in Pakistan, USAID has existing partners who are ready to respond if necessary. So we certainly do have some assets that could be helpful, and we stand ready to do what we can to help the governments as they respond to this terrible situation.
Q Two big deadlines coming up -- the debt ceiling and the budget. Speaker Boehner has been pushing to finish a two-year budget deal before he leaves relatively -- in the next few days. Can you give us an update on how those negotiations are going?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, as we've talked about, the Republicans, over the course of this year, have devoted significant time to trying to pass budgets strictly along party lines. And those efforts, time and time again, have failed. And what we have been saying -- and when I say “we,” I mean both the White House and Democrats in Congress -- is that Republicans need to negotiate with Democrats around budget agreements and try to find common ground in a bipartisan way to ensure that the government can be funded.
And over the last several weeks, there have been bipartisan conversations taking place on Capitol Hill. The White House has been a part of many of those conversations as well. We have worked assiduously to protect the privacy and confidentiality of those discussions, principally because they are based on this principle that nothing is agreed to in the context of those discussions until everything is agreed to. And as I stand here today, not everything has been agreed to. That means that nothing at this point has been agreed to.
So we continue to urge Republicans to continue to engage constructively with Democrats to identify common ground and do the right thing for the country. The good news is there’s a template for succeeding in this endeavor. After the last government shutdown, engineered by Republicans, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill did engage in a process that was led by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray to find bipartisan common ground that would ensure that we’re making necessary investments in our economic and national security priorities. And we’re hopeful that Democrats and Republicans will pursue a similar template to reaching a budget agreement this time.
But it’s not going to be successful if Republican leaders think they can do this strictly along party lines. They’ve tried that and it has failed. The good news for them is that there are Democrats on Capitol Hill who are willing to engage in a process that would yield a budget compromise, where neither side gets 100 percent of what they want but both sides have something they can point to that reflects their priorities and reflects views about the best future for the country.
Q Would the White House support a budget deal that raises spending for the Pentagon through that overseas account that you’ve previously opposed if it also finds a way to increase some spending on the domestic side that the President has called for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to engage too much in hypotheticals, but I do think there are some principles that are relevant here. The first is the President last week vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act because it included what even Republicans acknowledge is a budget gimmick that would fund critically important national security/national defense priorities using this OCO account -- OCO stands for Overseas Contingency Operations -- and were created to be temporary. Again, they’re called contingency operations because we’re talking about a rather emergent situation, and so these funds are, by definition, temporary. And the idea that we’re going to use a temporary fund to fund the ongoing day-to-day, year-to-year needs of the Department of Defense is just irresponsible.
The Secretary of Defense wrote an op-ed that ran last week that articulated this concern. How, in fact, is the Department of Defense going to engage in prudent, responsible, not just long-term planning but even medium-term planning if their funding is subjected to this temporary vehicle? So that’s the first concern that the President has articulated. The other principle that’s at stake here, though, is a commitment to ensuring that any funding above sequester levels is done on a dollar-for-dollar basis, making sure that we can both invest in defense priorities but also in some economic nondefense priorities.
Now, one thing that often gets lost in this debate is they’re described as defense priorities and nondefense priorities. But in those so-called nondefense priorities are a range of programs that are critically important to our national security, including things like homeland security and funding for our veterans -- something that even Republicans would acknowledge are national security priorities. So that’s why this administration has fought aggressively to ensure this dollar-for-dollar parity principle that’s a little arcane but it’s critically important to our economy and our national security.
And the reason this is important is that this budgetary gimmick that was cooked up by Republicans to try to fund our defense priorities through OCO was merely an attempt to try to increase funding for national defense -- for those defense priorities without a corresponding increase in nondefense priorities.
And I’m not the only person who believes that. I know that this is -- I just want to read this quote from Mr. Huelskamp from Kansas, who expressed his concerns about the NDAA, and, again, he described this OCO funding as a gimmick. He said, “This flawed bill once again uses budget gimmicks to get around the spending caps established by Washington. By adding an additional $38 billion in off-budget spending, Congress is avoiding its responsibility to follow the laws that it passes.” I think this is a very rare instance where Mr. Huelskamp is expressing a concern that is generally shared by the Obama administration.
The fact is our view is that Congress should take these concerns head on, and if there’s a view that there are certain defense programs that are worthy of increasing spending for, then we need to stick to the dollar-for-dollar principle that ensures that we’re making similar investments in economic priorities, but also in priorities that aren’t included in the defense budget but are critically important to our national security.
Q So I just want to make sure I understand. This is a negotiation, so you know you’re not going to get 100 percent of what you want. And you’ve outlined two things --
MR. EARNEST: That is true. You understand that. I hope Republicans on Capitol Hill do.
Q Well, we shall see.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, we shall.
Q You don’t want to use this OCO account to fund military for longstanding operations. You don’t want increased Pentagon spending that doesn’t also have increased domestic spending that you’ve been calling for. So if you get one of those two, which is the higher priority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to -- I do think that’s down the road of hypotheticals. At this point, we’ve been clear about what our principles are, and we have acknowledged that any sort of budget agreement is going to include -- it will be a compromise, at least any budget agreement that’s going to succeed in passing the Congress and being signed into law by the President will be a compromise. And that means that there will be things included in that bill that we’re not very happy about. So I won’t game out at this point which principle is more important than the other. I think based on the fact that I’m willing to spend this much time talking about it should be an indication to you that both of those are critically important principles to this administration.
Q And lastly, any response to the Israeli Prime Minister saying they’re going to take another look at the status of Palestinian residents in parts of eastern Jerusalem that could take away residency rights from people that currently possess them?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I haven't actually seen those reports. Someone on our national security staff had read through those reports and what I’ve been advised is that it is not the understanding of the U.S. government that this is a policy proposal that is actually being actively considered by the Israeli government. If it were, it would obviously be of some concern to us. And what I’ll do is just take this opportunity to reiterate is the importance of all sides avoiding provocative actions and rhetoric, and working cooperatively to try to restore calm.
Q Josh, back to the budget. Right before the briefing there were reports from the Hill that Congress was close to a two-year budget deal that would also raise the debt ceiling. From what you’re saying, it sounds like the White House understands that agreement to be a little further out. Can you tell us the level of involvement the White House has in these conversations, if you have heard and can confirm that there is progress being made and that they’re close to a two-year deal? And then also, there were reports that the deal would call for cuts on Medicare and Social Security disability benefits. Could you tell us where the White House would stand on the provision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julia, we have worked to protect the privacy and confidentiality of these discussions, and I don’t have an update for you in terms of the progress that’s being made in those discussions. We have said all along that a budget deal will only be yielded if Democrats and Republicans sit on Capitol Hill, sit down and work together in good faith to try to reach a compromise.
The White House has been involved in a substantial number of those conversations, both to provide some technical advice and assistance to those who are engaging in the negotiations, but also, whatever final agreement is reached will require the signature of the President of the United States before it can be enacted into law. So we’ve got a stake in the outcome, and that’s why White House officials have been present for many of those conversations.
Q Okay. And how about touching Medicare, Social Security disability benefits?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I know that there are a number of reports that are coming out here, but I’m not going to entertain those until we have something more definitive to discuss.
Q Okay. I also know that President Obama is meeting with Indonesian President Widodo later today, but that the Indonesian President’s trip to the United States has been cut short. He’ll still be meeting with President Obama but will not go to the West Coast, and the reason for that is because of haze from fires and Indonesia suffered deforestation. Will that be discussed at all? And will the U.S. be willing to offer any kind of enforcement and monitoring to prevent deforestation in Indonesia, or any kind of aid to combat this problem?
MR. EARNEST: I am aware that President Widodo will have to cut short his trip to the United States. His planned itinerary for Washington, D.C., I understand, is moving forward, and that includes his meeting with the President. Given the significance of this issue, I would anticipate that it will come up in his discussion with the President today.
The United States has already made a preliminary commitment of some financial assistance to the Indonesian government. This is something that was just announced earlier today by the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. But I’m confident that there will be a discussion about additional assistance that the United States could provide. And we stand ready to have those discussions. A lot of this assistance will be provided through USAID.
Q Josh, correct me if I’m mistaken, but haven’t you guys said that you want a clean debt ceiling increase? And if you are negotiating a resolution to these budget issues, isn’t that the definition of strings attached and not clean?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s not. What the principle that we have made clear is that the administration will not negotiate on a debt limit increase. The full faith and credit of the United States will not be subjected to a political negotiation. Congress has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that bills that they have authorized get paid fully and on time. That is in some ways the dictionary definition of fiscal responsibility. And it is the expectation that the American people have for Congress that they will fulfill this basic function.
Congress’s failure to do so does risk significant economic volatility -- or increased economic volatility not just in the United States but around the world. So the stakes are high. But our expectation is that this is something that Congress understands and hopefully will cause them to fulfill their basic responsibility to do this.
Jim, I think the other thing that’s important to understand is that it is not at all uncommon for a debt limit increase to be attached to a piece of legislation that we know will pass Congress and be signed into law by the President. That is something that President Obama has done on at least two other occasions. Most recently, in 2013, the President signed the No Budget, No Pay Act. This was a piece of legislation that essentially said that Congress -- members of Congress would not get paid if they didn’t pass a budget. Obviously that was a bill the President signed into law, but it also included a provision that would raise the debt limit.
In 2009, the President signed the Recovery Act, as we all know. That included a provision to raise the debt limit. In 2008, President Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act that included a provision to raise the debt limit. President Clinton, the first President Bush and President Reagan all did similar things. So the principle here has been that it can sometimes be a useful strategy to tack the debt limit onto pieces of legislation that we know will pass Congress and be signed into law by the President, but the question of whether or not the debt limit will be raised when needed is not something that this President is willing to negotiate about.
Q And I take it by the fact that you have that extensive history of debt ceiling negotiations at your fingertips --
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s just say I can anticipate your questions these days, at least on these topics.
Q You can type that into Google from up there -- (laughter) -- that it appears that that is the process that is playing out right now. And are you hopeful that that will -- that that process will play out to a resolution where you will have this taken care of before Speaker Boehner leaves town? I shouldn’t say leaves town, but leaves Congress -- he’s probably not going to leave town.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, that presupposes that the budget negotiations that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been engaged in will ultimately be successful. And as I mentioned to Julia, no agreement has been reached at this point.
Q And I’m curious if you think -- and I know we haven’t really had a chance to talk to you about Vice President Biden’s announcement in the Rose Garden last week -- but do you feel that his decision not to run for President and the withdrawal of two Democrats in the last week has essentially cleared the path for Hillary Clinton to be the nominee of your party next year? Is that the view here at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley may have something to say about that. So it certainly reduces the number -- it certainly reduces the size of the field, but it doesn’t eliminate it. And I think Senator Sanders in particular has demonstrated an ability to energize a substantial portion of the Democratic electorate, and the kind of strength and energy that his campaign is showing, particularly in the early states, I think makes him a -- I think by all accounts -- a serious contender. I don't think that's a controversial notion.
And the President has long believed that these kinds of primary debates are not just good for the party, they’re good for the country. And the President himself went through a highly competitive, hotly contested primary process in 2007 and 2008. He acknowledged -- and I think all of you have acknowledged this -- that going through that process made him a better, more effective candidate. And we'll see what the impact of a competitive race is this time, but that's why nobody in the White House is losing any sleep over the prospect of a vigorous Democratic primary campaign.
Q And did the President have a chance to view the testimony that Secretary Clinton gave before the Benghazi committee late last week? Is there a reaction from you guys to that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to him about it. I know that he saw some of the news coverage of it. I think that our expectation was that in this kind of setting that Secretary Clinton would perform quite well. You also had Republicans in the situation who -- where they were pretty desperate to both justify their existence while at the same time try to convince everybody that it wasn’t a partisan exercise.
At least in the eyes of Donald Trump, they failed because I think even he observed that it seemed to be a pretty partisan exchange of views. So when you have the Republican presidential frontrunner essentially defending the Democratic presidential frontrunner from attacks from fellow Republicans, it strikes me as a situation that's not particularly favorable to Republicans and doesn’t speak very well of the performance of the Republicans who are serving on the eighth congressional committee that was formed to investigate the tragic incident in Benghazi.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Let’s go on to a fellow Royals fan.
Q Yes, thank you. I was actually -- I was tweeting about that. So two questions on a related note. I think a lot of us had a chance yesterday evening to watch the Vice President’s interview on “60 Minutes.” It was very moving. And he opened up for the first time, I feel like, about his son’s death in a way that we hadn't seen. And I was wondering if you had a sense of why he decided to do that in the setting that he did.
MR. EARNEST: Can you say the very last part?
Q Why he decided to do it now and in that particular setting?
MR. EARNEST: I think that what he was responding to was the genuine interest that people have in the decision that he announced last Wednesday not to run for President. And so he did this interview with Major’s colleague to discuss his thinking behind that decision. And so in that regard, it was timely. And he’s had a number of other occasions to talk about the impact of his son’s life and death on his own thinking about this, and there’s no doubt that when the Vice President has talked about this issue it's been incredibly powerful. And I think last night’s interview was another example of that.
Q And on a slightly lighter note, as you probably obviously know, today is Hillary Clinton’s birthday. Katy Perry was with her this weekend and gave her a POTUS necklace. And I was wondering if the actual President of the United States got her any special gift or is he going to give her a call today?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any phone calls at this point.
Q Katy or Hillary? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: There you go.
Q I've got a couple for you. First, did Master Sergeant Wheeler die in combat, in the President’s view?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a question that the Department of Defense and even the Secretary of Defense has talked about. There is no denying the fact that our men and women in uniform who are serving in Iraq in a train, advise, and assist role are serving their country in a very dangerous place. And in the situation that occurred at the end of last week, you had American military personnel who are serving in advisory capacity as Iraqi Peshmerga forces carried out a dangerous operation, and when those forces that are backed by the United States came under fire and were pinned down, our special operators in the field made the decision to respond.
And it put them in a situation where, yes, they were exchanging fire with the enemy and, tragically, one U.S. military servicemember was killed in that incident. And I think that is why the President has long acknowledged the commitment and service and bravery of our men and women who are currently serving in Iraq. However, that service is quite different than the mission that our military was pursuing in 2003 and 2004, and in the aftermath of the first -- or at least the Iraq invasion from 12 years ago. And that is not at all an effort to diminish the risk that our servicemembers are taking, but I do think it is important to differentiate between the set of responsibilities that they are given when they travel over there now.
Q I understand, but I’ve seen different comments from different people at the Pentagon, including the Secretary in one briefing saying, first it was train and support and advise, and then later saying this was combat. A military spokesman in Baghdad called it combat, and someone in D.C. said we have no boots on the ground in Iraq. It’s been a bit of a mish-mash in the message from the administration. That’s why I’m trying to get you to cut through that and let us know.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, well, I guess what I’m trying to do is try to describe to you exactly the situation that exists there now, which is that it’s a dangerous place, but also to help you understand how the mission that our military personnel inside of Iraq have right -- that the mission that our military service personnel are pursuing in Iraq is different than the mission that they were given when President Bush ordered them to invade Iraq back in 2003.
Q Okay. And then on a separate note, there’s a report in The Intercept today about a program in which the Pentagon used humanitarian NGOs as cover for intelligence operations. Is that something that the President believes is an appropriate policy?
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, I haven’t seen that specific report but let me see what we can get you on that and I’ll follow up.
Q Just to follow up on that line of questioning from Olivier, isn’t it a bit of a false distinction, Josh, to say just because it’s not the same as the operation in 2003 and 2004 that there is not a larger space now being created by the Secretary of Defense for combat operations? Because he authorized this without the President having to sign off on it, and he said at the briefings last week “more operations like this are more likely than not to occur in the future,” meaning if there’s a need for a rescue operation or something like this he will authorize them, and we should expect them to happen not frequently, but we should not be surprised if they happen in the future. So there does seem to me to be space being created for combat. It’s hard to see that operation as an advise -- following in the advise category when they landed, they were trying to rescue people, the likelihood of returned gunfire was very high, and they engaged. That’s combat in every sense of the word. And that doesn’t fall neatly into the train-advise-and-assist -- I understand that -- but that doesn’t make it any less perilous or any less of a combat situation.
MR. EARNEST: And I think that the President, since the very first speech that he gave to the country when laying out this strategy, acknowledged the significant risk that our men and women in uniform would incur by being deployed to Iraq. And there are a number of missions that could be described similarly -- so there was the mission that U.S. military personnel undertook earlier this year to take Abu Sayyaf, noted ISIL leader, off the battlefield and to exploit significant intelligence assets there. There was a raid that the President ordered last year inside of Syria where the United States put boots on the ground inside of Syria to try to rescue American hostages that were being held by ISIL. That was a dangerous situation and certainly looked a lot like combat.
And I think the point is that, yes, our military personnel are going to encounter risk when they’re in Iraq, even in the course of carrying out a train-advise-and-assist mission. But I think what we’re trying to go to great lengths to help the American people, the world, and even the Iraqi people understand is that this is a markedly different mission than our men and women in uniform were given in 2003.
Q I guess I’m just trying to understand the reticence to readily acknowledge and use frequently the idea that combat operations are part of this potential mission. You seem and the Pentagon seem resistant to acknowledge what is becoming increasingly clear -- that there is a combat component to what we are engaged in trying to accomplish in both countries.
MR. EARNEST: I think what we’re trying to do, Major, is -- we’re not trying to resist anything. I think what we’re trying to do is to be as clear as we possibly can be about what exactly their mission responsibilities are without in any way diminishing the amount of risk that they’re sustaining or the amount of courage that they’re demonstrating in carrying out the mission that President Obama has given them.
Q All right. On the question of endorsement, you’ve said and Eric have said the President will have a primary vote in the Illinois primary. Is that the only way in which -- and he will do this privately -- express his preference? And he will wait until this nomination process runs its course. Or do you envision and does the President envision announcing something before then? Or can you tell us definitively he’ll say nothing until the primary process and the nominating process has run its course?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as of right now, there’s no plan for the President to make any sort of public endorsement in advance of casting a ballot. And even once he has cast a ballot, there’s no specific plan for him to make that ballot public.
But as the race moves forward, we’ll sort of keep you apprised about the President’s desire to express his own preference in the race. Right now, the President believes it’s important for Democrats across the country to evaluate the different candidates and eventually make a decision about who they believe should be our party’s standard bearer in the next presidential election.
Q He may acknowledge reality once it’s clear, but he’s not going to put his thumb on the scale and move things one way or the other?
MR. EARNEST: I think he’s always going to reserve that right. But at this point, there’s no --
Q To what?
MR. EARNEST: -- to weigh in publicly. But at this point, there’s no plan to do that.
Q So for the budget deal, is the focus entirely on raising the debt ceiling and getting the sequester resolved? Are there any other issues in which you are willing or able or currently negotiating to add to that? Or is this a very -- let me just ask you that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into a lot of the details, but let me just clarify a couple of things. Raising the debt limit is not in any way part of the negotiations. That is not something that’s being negotiated.
Q But it's a --
MR. EARNEST: Well, but that’s not something that’s --
Q -- along which this train can pull.
MR. EARNEST: Well, potentially that is an option, but that is not something that is being negotiated right now. We’re not going to negotiate about whether or not Congress should raise the debt ceiling. They can pass it in a standalone vehicle if they would like. They can attach it to something else that the pass if they would like. Either way, they’ve got to get it done by November 3rd, which is, I believe, the date that the Secretary of the Treasury has indicated they’d run out of essentially borrowing authority. So that’s the first thing.
The other thing that has been -- what has been the focus of those discussions is ultimately trying to arrive at some bipartisan common ground about how to fund the government. And the fiscal year ended almost a month ago now, and the President agreed to sign a continuing resolution through December 11th, but the President made clear that he wasn’t going to sign another continuing resolution like that. December 11th should give Congress ample time to find bipartisan common ground and keep the budget of the United States government funded.
Q And to follow up on Josh’s original question, can you say definitively that Overseas Contingency Operations and the flexibility that they provide will not be used as a mechanism to fund increased defense spending or increased domestic spending? Or is your position that it’s a gimmick if Republicans are using it for things that they want, but it’s not a gimmick if we find a way to use it for things you both want?
MR. EARNEST: It is the position of this administration, a view that is shared by Mr. Huelskamp from Kansas, that the --
Q To a point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, to a point. I think even in principle -- I think we have this position for different reasons, but the principle is one that I think that we both adhere to, which is that the reason that Republicans are seeking to exploit this OCO loophole is because they don’t want to adhere to the budget caps.
Now, Mr. Huelskamp believes that we should adhere to the budget caps even to the detriment of our national security. The administration takes a different position. We believe that Congress should take the affirmative step of raising those sequester caps so that our military personnel can engage in the kind of midterm and long-term planning that I think we all would acknowledge is prudent and in the best interest of our national security. So that is our position, and we’ve made that position quite clear not just in public but also in private.
Q So that’s not going to be used either for domestic or defense?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve made clear what our principle is. And this is something that we’ve made clear is our principle in the context of these ongoing negotiations.
Q Are you saying that the President would veto it if it came with any Overseas Contingency Operations financing on either side of the ledger?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t come prepared to offer any veto threats today. But what I’ve tried to describe is to help all of you understand exactly why the President so strongly opposed this gimmick. There are Republicans who oppose this gimmick as well. And our view is that a responsible budget approach would include direct consideration of raising the caps and not using some sort of accounting gimmick to evade them.
Q Josh, thanks. Pentagon officials have been insistent that the mission to rescue the prisoners that claimed the life of Master Sergeant Wheeler is not an example of mission creep? Do you stand by that? And if so, why?
MR. EARNEST: I stand by that -- yes, I stand by that. And the reason simply is the approach that the President has taken to implementing this strategy is to look for opportunities to capitalize on those elements of our strategy that have been particularly successful. So one example is something that the Department of Defense announced a couple of weeks ago, which is a decision to increase the amount of support that the United States is providing to some elements of the Syrian moderate opposition -- particularly those elements in northeastern Syria. We’ve done that because we saw that the preliminary support that we’ve provided to them was support that they used to make important gains against ISIL in northeastern Syria.
So the President, sort of looking at this broader strategy that we have, identified that this is an element of our strategy that’s worked particularly well. And so his team has worked to provide him some options to essentially ramp up that element of the strategy.
Another thing that we have found to be useful is our efforts to build up the capacity and performance of some Iraqi security forces, including Peshmerga forces. We have seen those Peshmerga forces demonstrate important capabilities, and they have taken actions with the advice and assistance of U.S. military personnel in a variety of ways. And so what you saw in the carrying out of this specific operation was an effort to capitalize on our success in advising and assisting Peshmerga forces to carry out operations.
So, again, this isn’t an example of mission creep as much as it is an example of the administration taking a look at our strategy and trying to capitalize on those elements of the strategy that have been particularly successful.
Q Given the scope of that particular mission, even the fact that you had the first ground engagement -- if you want to use the word combat or don’t -- since 2014, is this not a ramping up of the military’s engagement there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, I’ve described some other operations in Iraq and in Syria previously -- the mission to try to rescue American hostages; the mission to take one ISIL leader off the battlefield -- those are a couple of examples of missions where U.S. military personnel did put themselves at great risk to try to further a high-priority objective.
This situation is obviously a little bit different because this is actually a mission that was carried out by Iraqi Peshmerga forces. They did that with the support of U.S. military personnel who, given the way that the operation unfolded, moved in to provide some direct assistance to these Iraqi fighters.
So, again, I think this reflects both a willingness on the part of the military to carry out operations in pursuit of our broader goal that does result in our military personnel being in very dangerous situations. And, again, I think that’s why we’ve been quite candid about the amount of risk that our military personnel are encountering and not seeking to diminish it in any way, but rather seeking to help the American people understand exactly what our strategy is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q And I want to get your take or the President’s take on recent comments by FBI Director James Comey. He seemed to suggest that he believes there is something to the so-called Ferguson effect, that he believes that part of the explanation for an increase in violent crime may be because you have police officers who are hesitant to engage. What is the President’s take on that? And does he think that it was appropriate for him to make those comments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t spoken to the President about it and I don’t know if Director Comey has communicated those views to the President directly. I will say that the available evidence at this point does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities. On the contrary, I think you’ve seen a lot of local law enforcement leaders indicate that police officers and sheriffs and other local law enforcement officials are actually dedicated public servants who on a daily basis are putting their lives on the line to serve and protect the communities that they’re assigned to.
Q So it sounds like this White House disagrees with the characterization by the FBI Director.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what I’m merely citing to you is the fact that the evidence that we’ve seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are somehow shirking their responsibility and, in fact, you hear law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that that’s not what’s taking place.
So what this administration is, however, concerned about is making sure that in those communities where there has been an uptick in violence and crime, that this is something that merits serious consideration. That’s not something that we’re seeing in every community across the country, but there are some communities that are dealing with a serious uptick. And I know that even here in the District of Columbia that there have been meetings convened to try to assess exactly what can be done to stem that uptick in violence, and it’s something that local law enforcement officials take quite seriously. And they can count on the support from the Obama administration and the FBI as they consider the range of responses to address any increase in violence in their communities.
Q And just finally, Josh, last one -- the President actually weighed in on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I’m wondering why he wanted to do that. He wasn’t asked specifically about it. Why did he feel as though it was important to weigh in? And can we expect to see more of that? Will he try to meet with them?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any meetings to announce at this point. As the President, however, himself acknowledged, that in the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that he convened, it included some activists as well as leaders in law enforcement. And as the President said in his comments that by assuming the best in people that we can sit around the table and try to come up with some solutions that are in the best interests of law enforcement, that are in the best interests of communities across the country, and the results would actually lead to lower crime rates, which is a goal that we all share.
So I don’t know of any additional meetings that the President has, but I think his approach to this is one that is consistent with somebody who is seeking an honest answer to a legitimate problem.
Q Can I follow up on that as well? Mr. Comey also talked about the mass incarceration phenomenon and, in fact, he actually rejected the term and said that he didn’t feel like that was something that had contributed to the -- had been a problem in our society in the ways that even the President has talked about it -- the ‘80s and ‘90s -- that he didn’t think that that was something that had actually been a crisis. So I wonder if the President heard that portion of the speech and what he thought about it, and whether he agrees with what Mr. Comey seemed to be suggesting, which was that the incarceration of many people in that era had actually promoted safety in a lot of his communities and had contributed to a fall in crime.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, I haven’t had this direct conversation with the President, but what I can tell you is that what the President is focused on right now is making sure we have a criminal justice system that works for the United States in the 21st century; that maybe there is an academic discussion that can be had about the impact of sentencing policies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The President is concerned about the impact that our criminal justice system and the way that it’s applied is having on communities across the country here in 2015.
And the fact is there have been legitimate concerns that have been raised about the way that these policies have been implemented in communities across the country, and that has had an impact on crime rates, but it’s also had an impact on perceptions of fairness and justice in the United States. These are values that are critical to the success of our country.
Q His own FBI Director seemed to push back on the idea that mass incarceration was a phenomenon to begin with, that it was a problem that had contributed to some of what we’re seeing right now.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there will be -- I think what the President has been focused on is building bipartisan support. And in an era of congressional action that is not characterized by a lot of bipartisanship, we actually have seen Democrats and Republicans step up in the United States Senate and offer up a piece of legislation that would address some of these challenges.
So I can’t speak to the range of Director Comey’s views on this topic. But I can surely confirm for you that the President is committed to working in bipartisan fashion to try to address some of these problems that have been raised, and he’s been pleased so far by the kind of reception that he’s received.
Q And he does believe that it’s a problem -- mass incarceration is a problem?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President certainly does believe that there are certain elements of our criminal justice system that are not serving the country and communities all across the country very well. And that, after all, is what the President believes should precipitate some needed reforms that would have the effect of making our communities safer.
Q Can I ask you on the budget, can you characterize what kind of progress has been made? I know you said you didn’t want to betray the confidence of the discussions, but when you say nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, so right now nothing is agreed to -- and that makes it sound like some things have gotten closer than they were when you started these discussions. Can you give us sort of a sense of whether things are moving along in a way that you think might yield a deal before the deadline?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I would just say is that these are negotiations that have been taking place over the last several weeks. And I think it’s fair for you to assume that the conversations wouldn’t continue if no progress was being made, but, at this point, I wouldn’t characterize the amount of progress that’s being made primarily because there are no agreements that have been reached. So I think what we have found is that there actually are Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill that are interested in having a constructive discussion in this regard, but we are -- we do not at this point have an agreement to announce.
Q Can you shed any light on the President’s visit to the Metropolitan Club earlier today? It was closed press. He strolled across to the restaurant, did whatever he did, came out. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: He looked relaxed.
Q He looked pretty happy. Can you just give us a sense of what was the nature of that visit? Did he make public remarks? Why was a contingent of the press not allowed to attend?
MR. EARNEST: The President did attend a lunch that included at least a couple of dozen former United States senators, and I believe this was a group that was organized by two former Senate Democratic leaders, Tom Daschle and George Mitchell. And this was an opportunity for those senators to get together in a social setting and enjoy lunch. And they invited the President to attend because it’s right across the street. And the President went over there to see some old friends and to engage in some socializing.
The plan when the President walked over there was to not make any sort of formal remarks. I haven’t gotten a detailed readout of his visit at this point, but the plan was for the President to walk over there and shake hands and visit with some friends.
Q I want to follow up on Kristen and on Black Lives Matter, but in a little bit of a different direction. Tomorrow the President addresses the International Association of Chiefs of Police. I guess this is the largest gathering of police chiefs. And this is coming just days after Chris Christie made his statement, President Obama is supporting lawlessness by not supporting the police and justifying Black Lives Matter. What do you say about that, as the President is meeting with these police officers who -- some are still upset about some of the comments from this podium and from other people in the black community as it comes to Black Lives Matter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the President covered this at some length in his interview, so I’d refer you primarily to his remarks. As it relates to Governor Christie, I think we all have a reason to suspect that he might say something outrageous about the President -- he’s probably hopeful that it will boost his ratings in the Republican presidential primary. It might, but I think that’s why you find me not taking them particularly seriously.
Q And I understand that. I hear you loud and clear when you say it’s political. But doesn’t it come at a bad time politically to make these statements as the President is going before --
MR. EARNEST: No, because I don’t think I’m the only one that doesn’t take it very seriously.
Q Okay. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Dave.
Q Josh, thanks. What can you tell us about the President’s meeting this morning with teachers and Secretary Duncan and Dr. King?
MR. EARNEST: I did get a readout of that gathering. Let me see if I can pull it out for you. The President did have the opportunity in the Oval Office today to meet with teachers and representatives of states and school districts to discuss their shared efforts to reduce the amount of time students spend on redundant or low-quality tests while ensuring that teachers and parents have the information they need to measure student progress. The President led a discussion about how the federal government can be a good partner with states, districts, and teachers, and assessing student learning in a smarter way.
Many of you probably saw the Facebook video that the President released over the weekend where he raised his concerns about the amount of testing to which our students are subjected. The President acknowledged that there is more that the federal government could do to make sure that there isn’t too much emphasis on testing. Being able to measure students’ progress in the classroom is important and we do need tests. But we also need to make sure that students aren’t spending too much time focused on those tests; that there are a variety of ways to measure student progress; there are a variety of ways to evaluate that progress; but, most importantly, there are more important ways for our students to learn than just by filling in a bubble -- assuming that students still do that. I might be dating myself unwittingly there. (Laughter.) But I think the point that the President is making is something that school districts and teachers and parents welcome.
Q This is a change in approach. How long has it been in the works? And are you going to try and incorporate this attitude in the legislation on the Hill that’s still being negotiated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Dave, I actually think it is accurate for you to say that it has been a longstanding principle of the administration that it’s important for us to measure student progress. But the President has always made the case that standardized testing is not the only way to evaluate student progress, and that an overly time-consuming focus on standardized testing is not the best way to ensure that our students are getting a good education.
So I think those principles, in general, are principles that the President has long championed. But I would acknowledge the President believes that there is more that we can and should do even as the federal government is a partner to these local school districts as they try to tackle this problem.
Q How does that relate to the legislation on the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: The President -- I believe it was in the context of that video -- made clear that he believed that education legislation would be an appropriate venue for steps to be taken to try to reduce the amount of time that is currently spent on testing inside of classrooms while still protecting the ability of administrators to evaluate student progress.
Q So that’s not something you’re going to insist on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has made a pretty forceful case about why that’s the best approach, but again, this is something that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill will have to consider. I will say that I think this is the kind -- that this principle is one that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on, but I’ve said that about other things that didn’t make much progress on Capitol Hill.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about the word “mission” again, and I just want to make sure I’m understanding you. Is it the administration’s position that any mission by its very nature would not be engaging in a combat mission moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Kevin, the President has been quite clear about what exactly our strategy is inside of Iraq and in Syria. This is a strategy with many components. That includes everything from shutting down the flow of foreign fighters to try to counter ISIL’s ability to finance their efforts, but it also includes a military component. And that military component is focused on building up the capacity of local fighters both in Iraq and in Syria to take the fight to ISIL on the ground.
And the United States and our coalition partners have the unique capabilities, including air power, to support those ongoing efforts on the ground. The President has made clear that in terms of the fight on the ground, this is not a fight that the United States can fight for them. And in Iraq, we have forces operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government that we can support as they take the fight to ISIL.
Inside of Syria, the situation is a little bit more difficult because there’s not a central government that is focused on fighting ISIL, and that means that the United States and our coalition partners have looked for ways to try to support moderate elements of the Syrian opposition to take that fight to ISIL. And at least in some isolated cases, particularly in northern and northeastern Syria, those forces have made progress, thanks in no small part to the support that they’ve received from the United States government, both in terms of some equipment that they’ve received but also in terms of some airstrikes that have been carried out in advance of their operations that have made their ground operations more successful.
That long explanation is necessary because it helps to differentiate between the train, advise, and assist mission that our military personnel are currently undertaking from the long-term, sustained ground combat operations that U.S. military personnel were involved in starting in 2003 and going all the way up to 2010 or 2011.
And so the reason that we have -- describing this approach may not lend itself to a reasonably sized bumper sticker, but I do think it is important for people to understand precisely exactly what our men and women are doing inside of Iraq.
Now, let me just end by saying this. This long explanation is in no way intended to diminish the service and bravery and professionalism and skill of our men and women in uniform. It also means that our men and women in uniform on some occasions are going to encounter very dangerous situations. And in the case of Master Sergeant Wheeler, it cost him his life. And there’s no diminishing his contribution to our country’s safety and security, and certainly no diminishing his sacrifice. But he was part of a different mission than the military operations that were carried out under the orders of President Bush in 2003 and 2004.
Q Is there video that you’re aware of, of that rescue and raid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is -- you do know that some Kurdish officials have released some footage from I believe one of the helmet cameras that was worn by a Kurdish Peshmerga Iraqi fighter. So I know that some of that footage has been released already.
Q And is it your view, is it the President’s view that that is video that should be widely consumed? And what’s your reaction to the fact that it is out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is obviously video that was released by Kurdish officials and this is video that was essentially collected by a Peshmerga Iraqi fighter, so that’s a decision for them to make. I think that what they were hoping to illustrate, it seems, is the capacity and professionalism of those Peshmerga fighters.
And they were operating in a dangerous situation themselves, and they were carrying out an operation that resulted in the rescue of I believe 70 or so prisoners, including 20 members of the Iraqi security forces. This is an operation that resulted in five ISIL terrorists being detained by Iraqis and a number of other ISIL fighters being killed. In addition, the United States recovered important intelligence materials and assets about ISIL, and after the operation was completed, there was an airstrike against this ISIL facility that destroyed it.
So I think this is a testament to what was accomplished in the course of this particular mission, and has accomplished by Peshmerga Iraqi fighters, with an important and, in some cases, necessary support of the United States military.
Q Couple quick ones. I’m reaching out to the Pentagon through my colleagues on this one -- the Navy, according to Reuters, is sending warships within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea sometime in the next 24 hours. What is the White House’s reaction? And why wouldn’t the Chinese consider this a provocative action? Would that be reasonable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, for those kinds of operational matters, the Department of Defense is the right place to check. Let me just discuss the policy principle that’s at stake here.
Without confirming any sort of operational decisions have been made, but the President -- actually when he was standing next to President Xi out in the Rose Garden -- indicated that the United States would operate, fly or sail anywhere that international law allows. And that certainly includes the ability of our Navy to operate in international waters. This is a critically important principle, particularly in the South China Sea, because there are billions of dollars of commerce that flow through that region of the world every year, and maybe even more than that, and ensuring the free flow of this commerce and that freedom of navigation of those vessels is protected is critically important to the global economy.
And that’s the principle that’s at stake here. But for any sort of operational updates I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q Last one. Is it your plan -- and I know you haven’t announced anything specifically -- but should we expect Secretary Lew to come here in the coming days?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he just works next door, so -- (laughter) --
Q We’d love to have him here because we have questions, obviously, and I think from this vantage point it would be easier to sort of -- than walk down Pennsylvania. If that would be something you’d consider we’d appreciate it.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, we’ll consider it. I know that he did an interview with Fox Business just within the last week or so. But we’ll certainly entertain that option. Thank you for the invitation.
Q On Chicago tomorrow, the President has seemed frustrated about gun control recently and been criticized for perhaps giving up on any new initiatives. Is he going to talk about new initiatives at all tomorrow about gun control? And are there any new initiatives about a national gun control initiative from this White House?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I think it would be difficult for the President to go and address a gathering of the International Association of the Chiefs of Police in a city like Chicago that has been dealing with a plague of gun violence of late and not talk about steps we could take to reduce gun violence. So I do think you could expect the President to touch on this. But the focal point of the President’s remarks tomorrow will be on some steps that we can take to reform our criminal justice system and try to advance an ongoing bipartisan debate about the best way to do that in a way that’s consistent with keeping our communities safe.
And the President’s view, as has been articulated by him on a number of occasions, is that locking up a large number of non-violent offenders in our prison system for a long period of time is not consistent with our goal of trying to reduce crime. And so that’s a point that the President will make again.
As it relates to our efforts to pursue common-sense steps to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, I don’t have an update for you on the administration’s ongoing efforts to “scrub the law,” as the President described it, to see what sort of authority he may have to try to implement some of those solutions. We already know some of the common-sense things that Congress could do. Those are common-sense things that would make out communities safer, make gun violence at least a little less likely by keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them -- and we can do all of that without undermining the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
I think these are measures that are so common sense that a majority of Americans support them -- a majority of Democrats, a majority of Republicans, even a majority of gun owners support them. But we haven’t seen Congress take the kind of action that we’d like to see.
Q But the President’s hometown -- and a place where I worked for nearly 30 years -- is, in fact, often used as a reason to -- as evidence against gun control because it has very strict gun control laws.
MR. EARNEST: It does.
Q Is the President frustrated by the fact that people can go outside the city limits and buy guns? And does he want to do, and will he still try to do something about that before he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: As you point out, Jim, I think the city of Chicago is actually a good illustration for why allowing local jurisdictions to put in place these gun-safety laws -- it doesn’t work because it’s too easy for those with bad intentions to just cross the city line or cross the county line to go and make a handgun purchase that they’re prevented from making in some other jurisdictions.
Often, somebody who is seeking to evade gun laws like that is somebody that probably shouldn’t have a gun in the first place. This is somebody with a criminal record, somebody who may be the subject of a restraining order, or maybe even somebody with a mental problem. So I think Chicago ends up being a pretty good illustration for why those kinds of national laws are important to the safety of communities all across the country.
Q And then finally, if I could, on the issue of abortion that Dr. Ben Carson brought up over the weekend, he said that -- he likened it to slavery. I was wondering if the President heard those comments and has any comments himself on that.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about this. I think I’d sort of put this in a similar category as the comments from Governor Christie. But maybe at the next news conference somebody can ask the President about it, and if he wants to weigh in he will.
Q We’ve talked about criminal justice reform, and obviously this is something the President is pushing for. I’m wondering if you could lay out in maybe some greater detail what the President has been doing to support the legislation that’s being under consideration in the Senate and House. And also, there are some Democrats who have raised concerns about the Senate Judiciary Committee bill, which the White House has endorsed, saying that by expanding which offenders are eligible for mandatory minimums, that there’s actually some concern that it won’t reduce the kind of mass incarceration that the President has criticized. So could you talk a bit about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’ve seen, Juliet, is a good start by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to try to come together around a set of principles that we believe would be in the best interest of a fairer criminal justice system but also safer communities across the country. And some of the principles that are included in the bill would reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders; would provide current prisoners the tools and incentives they need to turn their lives around. There’s also proposals in there to give nonviolent juvenile offenders a second chance. And reform of the juvenile justice system in this country is also a priority of the President’s.
And the benefit of these kinds of proposals -- well, there are many benefits of these kinds of proposals. One of them is that it would yield some savings for the government who pays a lot of money to lock people up. And by reforming some of those guidelines, you could save money and actually invest that funding in some proposals that would actually contribute to public safety.
So those are a broad set of principles. They’ve gotten strong bipartisan support. But I think the President would be the first one to acknowledge that we’re still in the early stages of this, and there will be both a debate on the floor of the United States Senate and there will also have to be a similar process in the House of Representatives.
But I think the President is convinced that if we continue to pursue these policy priorities in bipartisan fashion, that we’re much more likely to yield both a positive result, but also, most importantly, a result that can actually be signed into law by the President of the United States and implemented to make our criminal justice system more fair.
Q And how optimistic at this point is the White House that criminal justice reform law will come to the President’s desk and sign it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve got a long way to go, and making predictions about bipartisanship on Capitol Hill are not usually good bets. But I think that most observers would say that this criminal justice reform debate is off to an unusually good start. And we have seen a genuine commitment on the part of Democrats and Republicans to try to work together and identify some common ground. There actually is common ground to be seized here, and we’re hopeful that Democrats and Republicans will be able to seize it and advance it.
JC, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Josh, how closely is the White House following the elections that took place yesterday in Ukraine, especially the fact that -- although the initial reports from international observers is that they’re pretty much moving on their way to a democratic process -- they have not totally complied, needless to say, with the Minsk agreements because there are areas, conflict zones, et cetera, in Ukraine where citizens have not been able to practice their franchise?
MR. EARNEST: I do have a statement on this, which is that the United States congratulates the people of Ukraine for exercising their right to vote in yesterday’s local elections. According to the initial reports from observers that I think you mentioned, these elections largely reflected the will of the Ukrainian people, and generally respected the democratic process.
There were 132 political parties and many government and civil society groups who participated in pre-election preparations and Election Day observations that contributed to a largely successful Election Day. The local elections are an important step as Ukraine moves forward with difficult reforms to decentralize political power. And we look forward to a second successful round on November 15th for mayoral races in which a single candidate did not achieve a majority yesterday.
We do hope that citizens living in the conflict zone, internally displaced persons and refugees will soon have the opportunity to exercise their right to choose their leaders. And we call upon Russia and the separatists to negotiate in good faith in the Trilateral Contact Group’s political working group so elections can take place in separatist-controlled areas as soon as possible.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
2:47 P.M. EDT