Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/3/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:56 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Typically, I’ll fill my cup with water. Today it’s filled with the sweet nectar of a World Series championship. (Laughter.) So if you see me savoring it today, you’ll know why.
Q What does that involve?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Maybe by the time I finish it, you’ll be able to tell.
Q -- 30 year --
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Exactly. Aged for 30 years. Well done, Kelly.
I don’t have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. I had a couple questions on Keystone. I know the State Department says that they are reviewing TransCanada’s request to suspend the Keystone process. What does the President want the State Department to do with that request?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that the State Department is actually still reviewing their letter to determine exactly what the request is and what is motivating that request. I think we have all shared our collective view -- and I think this is one of those situations where we have a collective view -- that this is a process that has taken an extensive amount of time to complete.
I don’t have any update for you in terms of where the State Department currently is in the process. But given how long it’s taken, it seems unusual to me to suggest that somehow it should be paused yet again. But this is something that the State Department is still considering. And when they have a reaction to the letter -- when the administration has a reaction to the letter, they’ll be the ones to announce it.
Q So the President stands by what you said yesterday, which is that he plans to make a decision on this by the end of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: That continues to be the current plan, even as we evaluate their request and consider the reasoning behind it.
Q And you talked about how long this has taken. Does the President take any responsibility for the length of time? I mean, this is has been delayed to push back after the 2012 election, after the 2014 election. Now TransCanada is saying apparently they want to push it back until after the 2016 election. Does the President feel like this is something that he bears some responsibility for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that have intervened here. The first is, there was a legitimate reason to hold this up while it was in the midst of a legal and judicial proceeding in Nebraska. And that did delay the consideration of this proposal, primarily because that legal process was having some impact on the potential final route of the pipeline. So at that stage it made sense for there to be a delay.
We’ve talked about how aggressively advocates on both sides of this issue have politicized this particular infrastructure project. I would venture to say that there’s probably no infrastructure project in the history of the United States that’s been as politicized as this one. Although, I wasn’t around for the Intercontinental Railroad; maybe there were some partisan politics associated with that. But this one certainly has been infused with politics. And my experience when things that are worthy of technical consideration get politicized, that rarely speeds up the technical consideration. That typically has the effect of slowing it down.
So I think there are a number of contributing factors. And I think that the President has worked hard to try to ensure that the eventual determination is one that is focused on the merits -- on the merits of the application. The President himself has talked about how part of what will be factored into consideration is the impact that this project would have on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon pollution. So that certainly will be part of the consideration here.
So I guess what I would say is there’s no doubt that there have been a series of delays for reasons related to politics and legalities, but there’s also been a delay based on a desire to shield this process from politics so that the merits can be appropriately considered.
Q So since this has been going on for so long, and the President feels like he wants to make a decision before the end of his presidency, and now we have TransCanada stepping in and wanting to punt this until after 2016 -- why doesn’t the President just tell the State Department, give me your final answer and I’m going to make a decision now? Why doesn’t he just do that and end this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in large part it’s because he doesn’t want this process to be inappropriately influenced by political posturing on either side, frankly.
Q But it’s been influenced already. I mean, to say that it’s not influenced at this point seems kind of silly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but I do think what is appropriate, though, is to do our best to try to shield this process as much as possible. There’s no doubt that this debate has been heavily influenced by politics. And the President is doing his best to try to shield the actual process that will consider the merits of the project from those politics. And that’s very difficult to do, given the amount of politics that are being played here. So I would stipulate that that is a difficult challenge, but it’s one that the President is committed to.
And this is the reason why it’s important -- is for as politicized as the process has been, you could imagine how politicized the analysis of the outcome will be by all of the interested observers here. So that’s the other reason to invest in the integrity of the process, to try to shore up the integrity of the outcome here.
Q So, TransCanada has said it wants to wait until after the election. And if the President’s desire, as you just said, is to shield this from politics -- and the election essentially being a political event -- would that mean that that wouldn’t be a good enough reason to pause the review?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that the election is a year away -- I believe exactly a year away. So I don’t think that that’s a good excuse for basically spending the next year doing nothing. In fact, there are a lot of things the President wants to do, and there are a lot of things that could be derailed by politics over the course of the next year, but that’s not an excuse to do nothing. It’s, frankly, a reason to try to focus on the merits and to rise above politics, and focus on the best interest of the country. That’s exactly what the ongoing process is trying to determine -- the best interest of the country.
So we’re going to continue to do our best to shield that process that will consider the merits of this project from the political debate. And given the fact that the election is a year away, we should be able to do that.
Q So, fundamentally then, the President, does he want -- does he see this as something he wants to finish, complete, get off the plate before he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: The President has said that before, yes -- that he would like to have this determination be completed before he leaves office.
Q And is there anything in the executive order that is used to evaluate this, the -- whatever is -- the 13337 that would preclude a company of any type asking for a pause or a delay? Is there any, like, legal aspect to this that’s being evaluated?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any legal requirements that are included in the executive order, but because the State Department is the one that’s implementing this executive order, I’d actually ask the State Department legal experts over there for their analysis of the legal implications of this request from TransCanada.
Q And just one quick political question. Donald Trump said today in a news conference that the Fed is keeping interest rates low at the request of President Obama and his administration. Can you comment on that? Has the President or his administration asked the Fed to keep interest rates low?
MR. EARNEST: Of course not. In fact, this administration goes to great lengths to ensure that the Federal Reserve can make monetary policy decisions that are focused solely on the best interests of the country and our economy, and to prevent those decisions from being influenced or even tainted by more narrow political considerations. That has been an important principle of policymaking in this country, and it’s one that this administration has worked assiduously to protect.
Q Josh, a couple questions. Speaking of legacy, I want to go to the issue of criminal justice. Could you get into the depth of -- a little bit more than the President talked about it and a little more into the weeds about how race plays into fixing all of these problems with criminal justice reform? From crack cocaine to ban-the-box to some of the things that he was talking about yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: The President was actually directly asked this question in an interview that he did yesterday with NBC. And I think the President was quite clear in noting that the entire country has a stake in the resolution of these issues. The entire country is interested in a criminal justice system that is implemented fairly. And the entire country has a stake in the reform of our criminal justice system that results in lower crime rates and safer communities. So this is something that the President is taking on because of his concern for communities all across the country.
Q So there’s a chorus out there that has been very vocal in the media, talking about -- they have wrong information I guess from -- the information about who will be released from prison and how they will be released with the closing of the gap and the retroacting sentencing change with crack cocaine versus powder. Could you talk to us about what information or how the White House is being contacted and what people are saying that are hearing this? Because we’re hearing that there is a bit of a groundswell with people who have misunderstandings about exactly what the President is doing, and some people who really just hate the idea. Could you give us some information of the communications that you guys have been getting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s hard to generalize about the comments of people who choose to contact the White House about one particular issue or another. I actually think that the best way for you to assess what the grassroots across the country -- or citizens across the country are saying about this, is to consider the unusual display of bipartisanship that we’ve seen in pursuit of these reform efforts in Congress. I’ve remarked on a number of occasions that these kinds of displays of bipartisanship in this Congress have been quite rare.
But this is one of those instances where we’ve seen Republicans engage constructively with Democrats in pursuit of a shared goal. It doesn’t mean that we agree on every aspect of this reform proposal, but it does indicate that there is a lot of bipartisan ground to be seized in pursuit of these kinds of reforms. I think Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that concerns about fairness in our currently structured criminal justice system are well founded. I think Democrats and Republicans alike agree that there are some common-sense reforms that could be made to our criminal justice system that would actually lower crime rates and make communities across the country safer. That doesn’t have much to do with politics -- that has to do with the basic responsibility of the United States government to provide for the safety and security of the American people in communities all across the country. And I think Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that.
I think what’s remarkable is a willingness on the part of both parties to set aside their partisan fights on a whole range of other issues in order to focus on the common ground that exists here. So I think it’s an indication of how high the stakes are, and I also think it’s an indication of how much common ground actually exists. So that leaves us reasonably optimistic that some important steps can be taken, even in a divided Congress and even in a divided capital city, to reform our criminal justice system.
Q Last question on another subject. There’s a focus this week in the House on the Highway Transportation Funding Act of 2015. Is there a concern out of this White House that the funding, like some members -- some Democrats in the House are concerned that the funding will only be for three years versus a six-year period whereas states normally, typically have projects that are six years, and if it’s three years, it will cause a problem. Is there a concern out of this White House about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, the fact is, the last several extensions that we’ve gotten have been measured not in years but in months. And that is something that we’ve expressed some significant concern about, primarily because of the impact that it would have on the ability of states to plan infrastructure projects. So we have been encouraging Congress to consider as long term of legislation as they can in working on this funding mechanism. And we’re going to continue to do that.
I know there are a wide range of considerations from members of Congress as they pursue this, but whether it’s three years or six years, that certainly would be an improvement on the most recently passed -- I believe it was a three or four-week extension. So we need to get out of the business of these short-term extensions and consider longer-term proposals. So that sounds like -- the good news is that that sounds like that’s what Congress is doing.
Q Last question on that. Do you agree with the assessment from the Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx -- when it comes to the roadway infrastructure in this nation, he feels like no one is listening? And he says it’s so severe that he feels like -- from Chicken Little and the “sky is falling.” Do you agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know it’s Secretary Foxx’s responsibility to be looking out for the transportation infrastructure of this country and to make sure that it is in place to, again, provide for the safety of the American traveling public -- that’s his top priority -- but also to ensure the free flow of commerce and a high-functioning economy in this country.
We know that there are direct economic implications for allowing our transportation infrastructure to degrade. So modernization projects and improvements are good both because they create jobs in the short term to actually fix or upgrade or modernize infrastructure, but they’re also important to the long-term economic strength of the country. And I know this is something that Secretary Foxx has been focused on and it’s important for people in both parties and all across the country to listen to his advice. He actually knows what he’s talking about.
Q Do you embrace the term, “the sky is falling”?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he’s the one who can best assess the situation, so I'd refer you to him.
Q Getting back to Keystone for a second. When you were asked, why doesn’t the President just ask the State Department to give him his recommendation on the merits, you said, well, he’s trying to shield it from the influence of politics. I'm trying to understand how the President asking for a report on the merits would be influenced by politics. I would think it would be just the opposite.
MR. EARNEST: The suggestion that -- let me try to be clear about this. The point that I'm trying to make is that there’s reason to believe there might be politics in play here in trying to affect the timing of the Keystone proposal. For a long time, we have seen advocates on both sides -- to be fair -- urging the administration to hurry up and make a decision. Now we're hearing proponents on one side urging the administration to slow down in making the decision. The fact is --
Q Or pause it.
MR. EARNEST: Or pause it. And the fact is we believe that the decision should be made on the timeframe of the experts who are evaluating this project. And once they’ve come to a determination based solely on the merits and not based on the political arguments about the timing, that's when this process should be completed.
Q But you can understand while those who may not have a stake in this one way or the other and who are not taking a partisan position might be legitimately curious about how it can take so long to study the merits of what is, as you said, a pretty straightforward infrastructure project. I mean, the lack of a decision doesn’t seem to me to have insulated this from politics at all. It has only intensified the politics around the decision-making process. So it seems to me and I think a lot of people, if you want to shield this from the continued application of political pressure, make a decision. That's the proper way to get the politics out of the decision.
MR. EARNEST: And I think the President’s instructions to the State Department is to carefully consider the merits of this proposal and to make a decision as soon as those merits have been properly considered. So what exactly goes into that and why it has taken so long, the State Department may be able to provide you some more insight into that. But I would concede that it’s taken quite some time already.
Q Getting back to the Donald Trump conversation about Janet Yellen, he also said that the President has instructed Yellen because he fears there’s a real estate bubble and he wants to be out of office before that bubble bursts, and that would be burst by any incremental raising of interest rates. So that's an economic observation made by someone who at least tells the country he has some experience in real estate.
MR. EARNEST: And somebody who has declared bankruptcy like four times, too. (Laughter.) So consider that advice -- consider the source of that advice, I guess.
Q The question is, does this administration have any fear of a real estate bubble, and does it believe in any way, shape, or form current interests rates are creating a potential real estate bubble?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen any sort of economic analysis of this. I'm sure the Treasury Department has taken a look at this, and I know that as we've talked about the broader economic recovery over the last seven years from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, there has been a focus on particularly residential real estate. And there are some steps that this administration has taken to try to help homeowners who lost a lot of money in the last economic downturn to help them stay in their homes, first of all; but second of all, to help them be able to conduct transactions in a efficiently functioning real estate market.
So this has included -- another thing. You’ll remember back in January that the President announced a set of reforms around mortgage premium insurance where we would lower interest rates for mortgage insurance that would allow homeowners to make purchases that would save them essentially $900 a year. So that's one example of the kinds of steps the President has taken using his executive authority to try to make the real estate market work better for homeowners in this country.
For the consequences of any sort of independent Fed decisions on the housing market, I'm sure that's something that the Fed takes into consideration. But because of our commitment to their ability to make independent decisions, I wouldn't speculate on what that impact might be from here.
Q You just mentioned executive orders. That leads me to my next question. Today, both Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have proposals they say they’d enact through executive authority on gun control. And I'm curious if the administration has had any conversations with either about this or if they are looking for their suggestions because the President has told his staff he wants every available suggestion. Or does the administration believe either Hillary Clinton or Martin O’Malley are going beyond what is actually permissible executive authority in dealing with gun violence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't looked carefully at their proposals, and I'm not sure that the administration has conducted a legal analysis of their specific proposals. But what the administration is doing, at the direction of the President, is actually carefully considering what authorities are available to the President and looking to see if there are some additional steps that can be taken to prevent criminals -- those who are the subject of a restraining order or those with mental problems -- from getting their hands on a gun so easily.
And it is our view that there are certainly some things that Congress can do that would not require an executive action that would also protect the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans when it comes to the Second Amendment.
Q Does he believe, does this administration believe these ideas or suggestions are helpful? Because the implication is you're not moving fast enough and there are things that are obvious to Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley that are not obvious to you and they’re prepared to act and you're not.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we consider helpful are people who are putting forward good ideas for trying to address this problem. And the President stood at this podium a month or so ago and made it quite clear that it's important for us to have a political debate about these issues. So the prospect of them coming up in the context of a presidential campaign I think is something that we’d consider to be good news.
Q Do you want to hear and have a conversation about these and bring them in, or do something that's more aggressive than you’ve done so far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would welcome an aggressive public debate on these issues. But in terms of our own legal analysis, we certainly have the resources here at the White House and within the federal government to consider what authorities are available to the President.
Q Thanks, Josh. The DNC this morning sent an email to its supporters saying, “Earlier this year, thousands of Democrats backed President Obama when he vetoed Keystone XL. We made our voices heard that we would stand up to protect our planet for future generations.” Earlier in this very briefing you called out political posturing on either side. Isn't the President’s own party list-building off of this decision the very definition of politicizing this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think that there are a variety of voices that have tried to capitalize on a political opportunity around the consideration of this project. And again, I think we see that in just about everything that happens in Washington. And we've certainly seen that both from opponents and proponents of this particular project.
And I didn’t see the email that you're referring to from the DNC, but it's sounds like, based on what you’ve read, that they were articulating their support for the President’s decision to veto a piece of legislation that would circumvent a longstanding administrative process. And I think that's a -- while yes, I think that probably adds a little politics to the debate, I don't think that makes that kind of debate illegitimate. It certainly doesn’t make those arguments illegitimate.
Q Did he veto that legislation to protect the planet from future generations, or was it an executive power play, as you guys --
MR. EARNEST: I think it was a concern about both. But I think the principal concern that we had at that point was that this was an effort by Congress, a political effort by Congress to circumvent this administrative process that would consider exactly what impact it would have on carbon pollution. And in order to allow that administrative process to continue, the President vetoed legislation that would circumvent it.
Q Are you on the DNC email list?
MR. EARNEST: I probably am, but I guess their click rate will be affected by the fact that I didn’t open it.
Go ahead, Margaret.
Q I'm going to take another stab at another Keystone question. Is what the State Department is doing right now in analyzing this request from Keystone, is it that they’re trying to figure out whether they and President Obama can preemptively reject something that's been pulled back? Or are they trying to figure out how to do that? Do you understand the distinction?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think I do.
Q So I think what you're saying is that you guys aren't sure whether the administration can reject it now. Is that what you're saying?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't mean to leave you with that impression. Because my understanding is -- and again, this is something actually that the State Department is still reviewing -- they’re trying to figure out exactly what TransCanada’s specific request is. But I think that TransCanada, based on my own reading of their news release, was drawing a distinction between withdrawing their application and just asking the State Department to essentially pause their consideration of that pending application.
Q That's what I'm trying to get to, because that's what we all think they’re asking, too -- just wait until the next President so maybe we get a better chance than it looks like we're going to get now. If that's what they’re doing, and the President wants to act, then he'll just act before the end of his term, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it depends on essentially what the State Department determines based on their review of the letter, and then it depends based on what they determine about the merits of the specific project.
Q So you're not willing to say right now that the last remaining hang-up to administration action is the legal basis for acting on a suspended request, whatever -- that's not the issue. The issue could be any number of things plus their reading of a request --
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't be surprised if there’s some lawyer somewhere that's considering all of that. I think that goes into the consideration of exactly what TransCanada’s request is.
Q But if he said -- the President has said that he wants to be the one to deal with this before he leaves his office, then there’s no reason why he can't be unless there’s some legal complication to weighing in on something that the guys have said, nevermind, can you hold off on it now.
MR. EARNEST: And I guess that's what -- I think that is part of what -- in terms of considering TransCanada’s request, I'm sure that’s part of what’s being considered.
Q I just want to ask a Paul Ryan question. So we've seen a little more of Paul Ryan in action now. It turns out he doesn’t think President Obama is doing good things for the country and he doesn’t think Hillary Clinton would either. He’s having lunch with Senate Republicans -- we all know what that means. (Laughter.) Do you have a better sense that he’s someone that you can get stuff done with yet, or not? And basically, does the White House have a clearer kind of game plan for how much you want to try to work with him on stuff? Have you figured out what you can do with him yet?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is too early to tell at this point about whether or not he will follow through on the promise that he has made to try to change the way that the House of Representatives conducts their business. For years now we’ve seen a House that has been driven to dysfunction based on the chaos within the Republican conference. And the hope was that somebody like Speaker Ryan would be able to do two things. One is to unify the conference. But, two, is to actually put forward an affirmative governing agenda.
Right now, all we’ve seen from Republicans in the House and in the entire Congress is to sort of careen from crisis to crisis hoping they can defuse the bomb before it goes off. And Speaker Ryan was vowing conduct the business of the House of Representatives in a different way. And it has been our observation that in order to do business in a different way, it means that somebody like Speaker Ryan is going to have to be open to some compromise. It certainly doesn’t mean that he has to capitulate on his principles. I don’t think anybody would have that expectation, particularly somebody who has spent as much time writing and thinking about the conservative principles that he has.
We have profound differences, but those differences are respected. The question is, in order to make progress for the country in the general direction of those principles, are you willing to compromise with Democrats to get it done. And this is where it sort of goes to the basic challenge of the job, is any piece of legislation that’s passed by the House and passed by the Senate has to be signed by a Democratic President.
That means that Republicans are going to have to negotiate and they’re going to have to find a way to compromise. And it doesn’t mean that they have to give in on their principles, but it does mean that they’re not going to be able to get 100 percent of what they demand. And the challenge for the Republican leadership in the House has been that there’s a substantial and vocal conservative element inside their conference that for some reason doesn’t understand that. And so Speaker Ryan has to determine how he’s going to deal with that.
I will say that it’s an encouraging sign that he was willing to vote for the compromise budget proposal that the President signed into law yesterday. That certainly reflected a compromise. The administration didn’t get everything that we wanted, but we got a lot. And Republicans got something too. And that’s the essence of compromise, and that’s why the President signed it into law. But we’ll have to see moving forward -- and my guess is this is not a judgment that can be rendered in just a couple of weeks or even a couple of months. I think it’s going to take some time for us to get a sense of how Speaker Ryan is going to approach this problem.
I think the last thing I’ll say about this is that if Speaker Ryan does determine that he wants to try to get some things done, and he is willing to try to compromise with Democrats to advance the governing agenda that he’s laid out, he will find a very willing partner in the Oval Office. President Obama has a lot that he wants to try to get done to make the most of this remaining 14 months or so in office. And if he can work with Republicans in Congress to do that, he will not hesitate to do so. And whether that is -- sort of the top lines that people refer to often are things like criminal justice reform, and eventually getting approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even more basic things like a highway bill or the completion of this budget agreement. Hopefully Democrats and Republicans are going to be able to work together to find common ground and to enact those things. It certainly would be in the best interest of the country.
Q On Keystone, is it your understanding that if TransCanada was actually withdrawing their application -- you can always I guess put it in again under a different administration. But if they were withdrawing it, that would be the end of the process? In other words, the President wouldn’t need to have to make a decision at all?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that. You can check with the State Department, and maybe they can get a lawyer to look into that.
Q And the other question is, you suggested that -- to Roberta -- that it wasn’t necessary to wait until after the election -- in order words, until he’s linked up -- to make this decision; that there was plenty of time between now and the election to make it. Are you telling the State Department that you expect them to send him recommendations before Election Day?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m merely suggesting in response to Roberta’s question is that the State Department and the experts who are taking a look at this project needn’t feel rushed based on the political posturing of either side of this debate.
Q So you don’t necessarily want their recommendation before or after Election Day. That’s up to them?
MR. EARNEST: The timing is up to the State Department.
Q Because up until now you’ve always said the process is ongoing and you didn’t want to comment on it. But that’s still your operative position?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I’m not sure that that’s different. I think I’ve always said you should go ask the State Department about the timing. And I think right now I’m saying that the timing is up to the State Department. So I’m not sure there’s a dramatic difference in those two positions, but maybe there is.
Q But the only thing that the President is waiting for at this time, point, is a recommendation from the State Department?
MR. EARNEST: The State Department is conducting a review consistent with longstanding precedent to evaluate the merits of this project and to determine whether or not the completion of this project is within the national interest of the United States. And the President has previously weighed in some of the factors that he believes should be considered, including the degree to which it would contribute to an increase in carbon pollution in this country. But ultimately, that determination is something that is being worked on by the State Department.
Q And just one last question. You talk about trying to shield this process from politicization, even though it’s already been politicized. The longer it goes, the closer you get to Election Day. Isn’t that, by definition, more politicized?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the other way to turn around that question, Mara, is to say, given how politicized it already has been, is it possible for it to be even more politicized? I’m not sure that it is.
Q Then how can you shield the process from being politicized?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because I think what we’re going to do is we’re going to try to do our best to make sure that the eventual timing, whatever it is -- if it’s tomorrow, or a month from now, or six months from now, or a year from now -- that whatever it is, that timing is driven by the consideration of the merits and not by political arguments that are being made on either side.
Q Getting back to Paul Ryan, he said again today that he doesn’t want to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform because the President can’t be trusted on this issue because of his executive orders but said he’d be more than willing to think about looking at enhancing the border security, for instance. Do you see any possibility there for a little working together on the part of immigration reform that Republicans like?
MR. EARNEST: A guy who was part of the Republican leadership team that spent more than a year blocking legislation that would make a historic investment in border security is now suggesting he wants to work with the President on border security? It’s a little hard to take seriously. I mean, I would think in terms of our sort of analysis of Speaker Ryan’s trajectory, I think this is sort of the disappointing evidence that we’ve received so far. I think there’s probably a political calculation that Speaker Ryan is making here in terms of criticizing the President over this issue, and that’s disappointing but it certainly is not going to prevent us from trying to find areas where he is being at least a little constructive -- because in this case, in this regard, he’s not.
Q So do you see anything in there on the immigration issue that you could work with, with Ryan on, given that he’s -- I mean, obviously he was a proponent of comprehensive -- he was a proponent even of a path to citizenship, but now he’s saying he can’t work with you on that but he is willing to work on border security.
MR. EARNEST: I mean, we’ll see what proposals he is willing to put forward. But when it comes to immigration reform, it’s not clear to me that he takes this process very seriously and, right now, at least, he seems to be more considerate about shoring up his support in the conservative elements of his caucus. The problem is, is that Speakers being overly focused on shoring up their conservative -- shoring up their support in the conservative wing of their caucus has led us to a whole lot of problems and a whole lot of dysfunction. And, ultimately, that’s proved to not be in the best interest of the country. So I recognize that’s how Speaker Ryan is making decisions as it relates to immigration reform. Hopefully he will make different calculations when it comes to considering other priorities.
Q And then one other one is the omnibus. He refused to rule out the idea of putting policy riders on the omnibus spending bill. Do you think we’re out of the woods yet on a government shutdown on December 11th, or does that possibility raise the possibility we may have a showdown over policy riders?
MR. EARNEST: My suspicion is that Speaker Ryan doesn’t want to preside over a government shutdown six weeks after getting his new job. And so we continue to have a lot of confidence that as Congress works to implement the budget agreement that the President just signed into law yesterday, that they’ll continue to work in a bipartisan spirit that will allow the government to remain open, allow our national defense and economic priorities to be adequately funded, and to reach those kinds of agreements in a spirit of bipartisanship, meaning that not everybody is going to get 100 percent of what they demand, but a substantial majority of Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate will be able to consider a piece of legislation and a budget that they can support.
Q Yes, Josh, are you able to help us out on the Russia jet that went down Saturday? There was a report today that U.S. satellite systems had detected some kind of infrared signature, some suspicious activity before the plane went down. Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, at this point I’m not able to really help on this. The Egyptians are leading this investigation, and obviously Russian authorities are involved in that investigation. And the United States has offered our support and assistance to that ongoing investigation -- like the Egyptians and Russians who are interested in understanding exactly what happened in this terribly tragic incidence. And so we’ve offered them our advice and any resources that they would find useful in conducting that investigation.
But at this point, I don’t want to speculate on even reports like the one you just cited because I don’t want to get ahead of the ongoing investigation.
Q Can I just ask one other thing?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Did you see the comments by the Ayatollah Khomeini today saying that no, no, that chant of “Death to America,” it doesn’t literally mean to death to Americans -- it means death to American policy and death to American arrogance. This is on his official website, apparently. Did you see that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see it. I mean --
Q Apparently this is --
Q Make it better?
MR. EARNEST: I guess it’s better than the alternative, right? But I think what I would say is what we’ve said in the past on this, which is that the way that we will evaluate the Iranian activity and their role in the international community is to take a close look at their actions and not be distracted by their words. And that’s certainly what we did in the context of the international agreement that was reached to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And all along, we closely monitor their compliance with the interim agreement, and we’re closely monitoring their implementation of the comprehensive final agreement that has been reached. That’s evidence that we’re very focused on their actions, and that’s how we’ll continue to operate.
Q Getting back to Paul Ryan’s comments about the spending bill, the President said yesterday when he signed the budget deal here in the White House that this would eliminate the possibility of a government shutdown; that it takes us beyond this constantly being on the brink of catastrophe. And yet, you have the new Speaker of the House talking in terms of, well, maybe this is not a deal after all. What do you make of that? I mean, just to go back to that, you said that you’re confident that he doesn’t want a government shutdown six weeks into his Speakership. But I suppose that prospect is still a live one, is it not?
MR. EARNEST: I think it always is, particularly when you consider the dysfunction and disorganization that has run rampant in the House Republican conference in recent years. But there is a new Leader, and again, I continue to be confident that he doesn’t want to be responsible for a government shutdown six weeks into the job. That certainly is not something I think would be clearly in his interest.
I think Leader McConnell has also been quite forward-leaning in assuring the American public that there won’t be a government shutdown. He said the same thing about raising the debt limit and preventing the loss of the full faith and credit of the United States for the first time in our history. And Senator McConnell and Speaker Boehner, in the process of cleaning out the barn, made good on those words and they deserve some credit for that. And I continue to have confidence in their assurances that there won’t be a government shutdown, informed in part, again, by the fact that I don’t think the new Speaker of the House wants to preside over a government shutdown six weeks into the job.
Q And to sort of build on the relationship between the President and Speaker Ryan, should we foresee at some point in the future, in the near future, these two getting together, appearing publicly, meeting over here in the White House, doing something along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think as is true of the President’s communications with Speaker Ryan’s predecessor, they spoke occasionally and we didn’t read out every one of those communications. That will continue to be the case under Speaker Ryan, but I’m confident there will continue to be conversations -- both conversations that you hear about and conversations that you don’t between the two of them. And at some point, though, I also anticipate we’ll satisfy your desire for a showy, public sit-down of some kind, so we’ll get to work on that.
Q It’s the least you could do. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: You’re probably right about that.
Q And I just want to ask you about the Affordable Care Act because -- and I’m sure you’ve taken note of this in recent days -- HHS is estimating 10 million people enrolled by the end of next year. And that is about half of what the Congressional Budget Office said would be the case around that time -- 20 million. Is the President concerned about the health of his signature domestic policy achievement?
MR. EARNEST: No, he’s not. In fact, the Affordable Care Act I think is working better thus far than anybody predicted. And over the first couple of years, we have exceeded the expectations of the Congressional Budget Office. Since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, 17.6 million Americans have gained health coverage, and the nation’s uninsured rate is now lower than it’s ever been.
And that’s a reflection of the President’s commitment and our efforts, over the strenuous partisan objection of Republicans, to do something good for the country and to do something good for our economy, and certainly to do something good for the tens of millions of Americans who no longer have to lay in bed at night worried that they’re one illness away from bankruptcy or that they are going to be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition, or they’re going to be charged more just because they’re a woman. These are all benefits that every American enjoys because of the Affordable Care Act and the President is pleased with that so far.
I mean, the one thing I can tell you is one of the reasons for optimism about this open-enrollment period is that in just the first six hours of Healthcare.gov opening up for the third open enrollment period, 40,000 applications were submitted for coverage. That’s consistent with the pace that we saw the first two years of open enrollment.
Now, I think, Jim, to get more directly to your question about the CBO, the assumptions that the CBO was making were consistent with some of the warnings that you heard from Republicans, which is that employers, in large numbers, would be cutting off health care benefits for their employees. And that would mean, according to the CBO’s calculations, that those employees would then have to turn to the marketplaces that were established by the Affordable Care Act to purchase health insurance. And the fact is, we haven’t seen large-scale actions like this from employers across the country.
The good news is, for those individuals that don’t get health insurance through their employer, for the first time, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, they have a place to go where they can shop for and purchase high-quality, affordable health care. They’ve got more options than they ever did, and you have health insurance companies competing for their business in a way that they never have before. And that’s been good for consumers and I think that’s part of why we’ve seen the unemployment rate drop to the lowest levels in recorded history.
Q What about these premium spikes that we’re seeing across the country? What are you going to do about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think what we saw is we saw premium spikes all across the country before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. And the fact is, there are actually some states where health care premiums have done the unthinkable -- they’ve actually gone down. I think the overall average is an increase that is lower than we’ve traditionally seen.
And the fact remains that, thanks to the assistance that people can get from the federal government for paying for their health insurance through the marketplaces, that more than 7 in 10 marketplace consumers can buy a plan for $75 or less a month. That’s a good deal. That’s why millions of people have flocked to the marketplaces to sign up. And we continue to be confident that people are going to do that in this open enrollment period too.
Q Josh, thank you. As winter begins to really wreak havoc on the European humanitarian refugee crisis, many of the countries, they’re allies of the United States, are perplexed in terms of how to actually deal with this issue economically, socially, et cetera. And some very serious old ethnic hatreds are starting to resurface. How front and center is this crisis on the President’s agenda and on his mind when he goes to Turkey for the G20 in less than two weeks’ time?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that this is something that the G20 leaders will discuss in Turkey, primarily because Turkey is really at the forefront of dealing with a large influx of Syrian refugees who are fleeing violence in their own country. It’s tragic what’s happening there, and I think that generally speaking we’ve been heartened by the kind of response that many Syrian refugees have received from people in the region and in Europe who have taken them in and try to provide for their basic humanitarian needs. That’s a reflection of people seeing the common humanity in people who come from a faraway land. And that certainly hasn’t been the response from everybody, but I think that’s been a response from many people.
And the United States has certainly done our part. We’re the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to those efforts to try to meet the needs of Syrian refugees, and I’m confident that this will be a discussion at the G20 about what more the largest economies in the world can do to try to help countries in the region and countries in Europe deal with this influx of innocent people fleeing violence.
Q Aside from the humanitarian aspect, there is a -- we are now in a borderless global economy. We trade with the Europeans, with the EU, we’re very close in terms of our banking systems, et cetera. How concerned is this administration, is this government, that this crisis in Europe could, in fact, affect our economic welfare?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my colleagues at the Treasury Department are constantly monitoring the fundamentals of the global economy to try to detect volatility, and this is something that we devote a lot of resources to. And, in fact, they’ve used their expertise around the world, including in Europe, to try to help partners of the United States deal with financial problems in their own country. So this is something that we’ll continue to monitor moving forward. And, again, I would anticipate that this will be discussed at the G20 meeting in Turkey coming up later this month.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’m not sure if I asked you this previously. Did the President speak about the Keystone XL pipeline project with Prime Minister-designate Trudeau at all?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, off the top of my head, I don’t recall whether or not that was included in the readout. But we can go and take a look at that. It wasn’t included in there? So I don’t believe -- all I can say at this point is I don’t have a more detailed readout of the call than the other that we’ve already provided.
Q You’ve talked about the process, broadly speaking. The State Department handles it. But I’m curious, who’s the point person that the White House is in conversation with at State to get updates on the process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously have a number of inputs to the State Department, so obviously through the National Security Council. Obviously, the President’s climate change team is engaged here because of this basic question about the degree to which this infrastructure project would contribute to climate change by substantially increasing carbon pollution.
There are a variety of agencies that have weighed in on the process that the State Department is running, including the EPA. So the point is, there are a variety of experts across the administration that the State Department has drawn from to carry out this evaluation of the project.
Q I’m curious, though, about the process, where we are in the process. Does the President get regular updates on what’s happening? Does he get a readout -- presumably this is where we are, this is what we’ve discovered? Because he seems to me to be a very hands-on man in that sense, and I can’t imagine him just sort of throwing his hands up and saying, you guys do that and get back to me.
MR. EARNEST: I think the President gets periodic updates in terms of where things stand. I don’t think that happens daily or weekly or even monthly by any means. But I think that President, when necessary, is updated on the progress of that ongoing review.
Q Is there a specific person who updates him from State, handles that?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s typically the Secretary of State who would do that. If it’s not him, then you could imagine memos being sent and those kinds of things.
Q Last one. I want to ask you about Syria. How concerned is the administration with some of the pictures that we’ve seen coming out of Syria -- parading backers of the Assad regime in cages -- yesterday? Is there a sense at all that any alliances drawn with the YPG, for example, is inconsistent with American values?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, we’ve seen some of those reports and some of those images, obviously. And we’re reviewing those images. There’s no denying the degree of chaos that has taken root in that country. And that is primarily because of the failures of the Assad regime to unite that country. In fact, that country is now starting to break down along sectarian lines. And we have seen extremists try to establish footholds there, capitalizing on that chaos. That’s obviously what ISIL has done. We’ve seen other extremist organizations do that.
And that is our principal concern, is making sure that extremist organizations can’t capitalize on that chaos to carry out attacks against the United States. So we continue to be very concerned about the broader security situation inside of Syria. And just the reports that you’ve cited, without being able to confirm the authenticity of those reports, I do think they paint a picture consistent with our sense of the widespread chaos in that country.
Q Josh, is it significant that the Russian foreign minister is now saying it doesn’t matter whether Assad stays or goes from power? Or do you have doubts that they really mean that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have doubts that it reflects any sort of change in their view. And unfortunately, it’s certainly inconclusive about whether or not they’re prepared to change their flawed strategy. The fact is, the Russians acknowledged the need for a political transition. This is something that President Putin and President Obama had the opportunity to discuss in New York a little over a month ago. Both President Putin, in the context of that meeting, affirmed for the President his commitment to the need for a political transition inside of Syria. The problem has been that he’s engaged in a military strategy that undermines that political objective.
Right now, the Russian regime is carrying out military attacks against the very people that should be participating in a political dialogue to try to effect a political transition inside of Syria. So there has always been this internal contradiction in the Russian approach to Syria, and it’s an internal contradiction that has grave consequence for Russia’s foreign policy interests around the glove, primarily because it serves to only further isolate them from the broader international community and deepen their involvement in a sectarian quagmire inside of Syria. And it does nothing to advance the political goal that President Putin has shared, which is -- or has articulated, which is the need for a political transition to address the root causes of all the problems inside of Syria.
Q And just to be clear on Keystone. The fact that the State Department is now reviewing the letter -- the request from TransCanada, they’re still going on with their review of the project itself? There’s no pause while they review the letter.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. I’m not aware of any impact that the consideration of the letter would have on the broader review of the project.
Q When the President talked to Lester Holt yesterday, in part of their conversation on Syria the President described the mission there with the addition of special operators as more of an extension than a change. But even in hearing you talk about how the conditions on the ground changed, is that a way to try to sort of reassure the public it’s not getting worse or more involved for the U.S.? Is that a way to try to make it seem less of a big deal?
MR. EARNEST: No, Kelly, I think it’s an attempt to try to help the American people understand exactly what our strategy is and has been. We have talked about the variety of components of our strategy, including everything from shutting down the financing of ISIL’s efforts, to trying to shut down the flow of foreign fighters that ISIL has used to resupply their ranks. Another element of our strategy has been the military element of our strategy, and that’s what’s gotten the most attention, understandably so. And at the core of that military component of our strategy has been building the capacity of fighters on the ground with whom the United States and our coalition could coordinate.
And there are a variety of ways in which we’ve provided assistance to moderate opposition forces on the ground inside of Syria that are committed to fighting ISIL. Some of that assistance has taken the form of coalition military airstrikes. The United States has taken airstrikes in support of ground operations that are being carried out by moderate opposition forces. That’s sort of softened the ground and made them more effective in taking on ISIL. And the United States and our coalition partners on a couple of different occasions have undertaken missions to resupply and to provide military equipment to moderate opposition forces on the ground inside of Syria. And we have seen evidence that those forces have used that equipment to important effect, to drive ISIL out of important regions of Syria.
And because of the success of some of those efforts, what the President asked his military team to do was to see if there were additional steps that we could take that would intensify our coordination with those forces on the ground that have made some progress against ISIL. And one of the proposals that his military advisors came back with was a suggestion that devoting some Special Operations forces to offer advice and assistance to those opposition forces would further intensify our coordination, would serve as a force multiplier and further enhance the performance of those opposition forces on the battlefield.
So that's what our strategy has been. It is in no way an effort to downplay the amount of risk that our men and women in uniform are taking on. It's a very dangerous situation inside of Syria, and there are significant risks associated with deploying these fewer than 50 Special Operations forces to Syria.
Q Topic change. Does the President think it's appropriate for the Department of Defense to pay professional sports leagues or teams to honor servicemembers at games?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that the President has weighed in on this, and I will acknowledge that I'm not aware of the policies that govern those kinds of relationships. I do know that the Department of Defense would likely say that these kinds of relationships enhance their recruiting efforts. But for the policies that guide those relationships, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q But as Commander-in-Chief, do you think the President would think that would be appropriate? We all understand recruitment costs money, but to set it up as a way for fans to cheer or honor servicemembers, if there’s a payment doesn’t that sort of taint that tribute?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think so, primarily because I think the fans who are taking off their caps and offering a standing ovation do so not because of a financial interest but because of their genuine appreciation for those soldiers or veterans who are being honored at the stadium. I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for sort of the propriety of those financial relationships. But I think the kind of reaction that you see from the fans is an authentic one.
Q Thank you, Josh. Taiwan’s President will meet the Chinese President on Saturday in Singapore. It's the first since 1949. What do you expect from this meeting? Do you see it as a turning point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's too early to say something like that. At this point, the fundamental interests of the United States is in a stable and peaceful cross-Strait relationship. And the United States remains committed to our One-China policy that's based on the three joint communiqués in the Taiwan Relations Act. So we would certainly welcome steps that are taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve cross-Strait relations. But we'll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting.
Q Josh, thank you very much. Two quick ones. The new Army Chief of Staff said yesterday at a conference something that the White House has disagreed with in the past, namely that Russia continues to be the number-one threat to the United States. Again, that's the new Army Chief. Is that still a view that the White House takes issue with?
MR. EARNEST: We've talked about this a couple of times. Our views on this haven't changed. I understand that the views of the Army Chief of Staff may have not changed either, and he certainly has a set of metrics that he uses to evaluate that and make that kind of determination. So for the explanation of his position, I'd refer you to his office. But our position on this hasn’t changed.
Q A quick -- moving to polls. Every President for the past three or four Presidents in their second term have shown a lot of volatility in their poll numbers -- up and down, in some cases, quite sharply. But the President’s, actually, his numbers have been actually quite stable for two or three years now. What do you make of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you guys are the highly paid political analysts out there, and I assume that's presumably why you're on TV doing it. All I would say is our goal here has been, time and again, particularly over the last year, to look for ways where we can make progress for the American people. And there have been some obstacles. The obstacle when the President first took office came in the form of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And that certainly created some challenges for the country, but also some challenges for the policymaking process.
But we've made tremendous progress in recovering from that economic downturn. And over the last year, the President has sought to work with Congress where we can to make progress, and whether that's passing trade promotion authority legislation or trying to make progress on some of these budgetary issues, we've done that. But the President has also considered a wide range of areas where he could act on his own to make progress for the American people. And whether that's a historical climate agreement with China, or policies that would allow for genuine net neutrality in this country, or even some administrative steps that would bring much needed accountability to our broken immigration system, the President has taken those steps.
And I think the American people do -- I think the reservoir of political capital that the President has preserved and even built up over the last year I think is a testament to the American people understanding that he is committed to rising above politics and try to do the right thing for the country.
Q Despite all the things that you cited, though, his numbers nevertheless tend to move in this fairly narrow range, low to mid-40s, sometimes pushing to 50, but never really beyond that. Why is that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's hard to assess. I’d certainly leave all of the political and polling analysis to all of you. What the President has done is try to be as focused as he can on trying to move the country forward, and he’s met some obstacles, particularly -- most prominently, in the form of dysfunction in Congress. But I do think that people genuinely see the President as somebody in Washington who is succeeding and actually getting some things done that are good for the country. And I think there are even some people who might disagree with many of the President’s policy initiatives but do actually acknowledge that he’s the one person that is actually making some progress for the country up here.
I'll do one more. Sarah.
Q Thanks, Josh. On Keystone, if the President hasn’t made a decision before the Paris climate negotiations, will that affect his credibility there?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think so. The administration has taken some very important steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing carbon pollution. And obviously the joint agreement that was reached with the Chinese about a year ago is an indication that the United States is willing to do two things -- one is take bold steps to reduce carbon pollution in this country, but also to use our influence around the globe to get other countries and other large economies to make similar commitments.
And many of the critics of our climate policy for years were intensely skeptical of China making a commitment like this. In fact, this was actually the principal argument against a number of the climate policies that this administration wanted to implement. The argument went something like why should the United States make these kinds of sacrifices if the Chinese are just going to continue to pollute? The fact is the Chinese have made substantial commitments in their own right. And that means we can do something powerful to reduce carbon pollution while also capitalizing on the upside associated with investments in renewable energy.
I'll just point out that many of the nuclear power plants that will be built in China to help them meet many of these goals will include the involvement of some American firms. That is a tremendous opportunity. These nuclear power plants aren't cheap. And that kind of investment creates significant economic opportunity here in the United States, and it’s an example of how we can take steps that are both important to reducing carbon pollution and protecting the planet, while also opening up the kind of economic opportunity that creates jobs and significant economic growth right here in the United States.
Q Thanks. And one other question. We’ve talked today about things the President is hoping to accomplish possibly by working with the new Leader over the next 14 months. But last night he kind of went after Republicans a bit on several areas at the DNC fundraiser. Is that a sign that in reality he’s kind of moved to campaign mode as opposed to sort of “building consensus with Republicans” mode?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s a sign that the President was making a speech at a political gathering. And I think the President’s choicest words were reserved for the Republican presidential candidates. Many of you made note of that.
But look, we’ve never been willing to paper over the significant differences that exist between Democrats and Republicans in this town. What we have been disappointed in is the willingness of too many Republicans to allow those differences to undermine our ability to find common ground.
And we’ve seen some more recent steps where Republicans have resisted that temptation. And at least when it comes to the completion of this budget agreement prior to December 11th, we're hopeful that that kind of bipartisan spirit will prevail. Neither side is going to get 100 percent of what they want. But if both sides are focused on the best interests of the country, we should be able to resolve these budget negotiations in advance of December 11th, consistent with the need to ensure that we're adequately funding both our economic and national security priorities.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
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