Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes en route Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
12:38 P.M. PHT
MR. EARNEST: So I do want to tell you one thing that may be unrelated to your line of questioning today, but it’s something that you may be interested in. As you may know, the Congress recently passed legislation to extend the highway bill by a couple of weeks to allow them to try to complete negotiations on a longer-term extension. The deadline, as you may know, is Friday, back in the U.S.
So the President has given authorization for the legislation to be signed with an autopen. So we will let you know through the typical pro forma process when that has been completed. But for those who may have been concerned about a potential lapse in the highway program, given the need for this extension and given the fact that the President is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I wanted to assure you that we’ve got a process in place to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
Q It will be signed by autopen?
MR. EARNEST: There are a couple of precedents for us having done this. The first time we did this was a couple of years ago when the Patriot Act was about to expire, and Congress at the last minute passed an extension while the President was overseas, and the expiration was slated to take effect while the President was overseas. So that was the first time.
The legal basis for doing this is actually an OLC -- an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that was written by the Bush administration’s Justice Department. The Obama administration has concurred with that legal analysis. But the Bush administration was never in a position where they needed to do it. So that’s the bottom line.
Q So, Josh, on another piece of legislation, the House passed with what appears to be --
MR. EARNEST: That is quite a segue. (Laughter.)
Q Well, it’s legislation. It passed with what appears to be a veto-proof majority, a refugee bill that the President has said he would veto. So will the President veto that bill if it were to go through the Senate? And how does he feel about the fact that, from our reporting back home, top White House officials went to Capitol Hill to lobby Democrats not to do this, and they actually lost votes in the process, not gained them -- that it made things worse, not better? So what do you say to all your Democratic colleagues who abandoned the President on this issue and appeared to disagree with him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start with a couple of things. The first is, based on what Senator Reid said today, it does seem unlikely that this legislation is going to pass the Senate. He’s indicated that it does not have the votes to pass through the United States Senate.
The second thing is, obviously neither of us has been in D.C., but I’m not sure that the analysis holds that the efforts by the White House were counterproductive. They just weren’t as productive as we would have liked.
Our position on this piece of legislation has not changed, and let me explain to you why. It’s an explanation that will sound familiar to you because you’ve heard it from both the President and Ben in the last 24 hours. But the fact is, if you are someone in Syria who is bound and determined to carry out an act of violence on American soil, you are unlikely to choose a process that requires you wait an average of two years and submit to repeated interviews and background checks by American national security officials. You’re much more likely to choose a path that is shorter and requires less scrutiny.
Q But, Josh, can I just say -- just on that point, like the time element I agree, like it’s hard to imagine they’d want to wait two years. But on the other hand, your own FBI director, your own top officials have testified within the last month or two to Congress that, actually, they don’t have much information about most of these Syrians; that to the extent that, like, Joe Blow Syrian is going to go through a background check through the FBI or Interpol or any of those agencies, those agencies don’t have any information on them anyway. So nothing is going to come up. And they were expressing all sorts of concerns -- your top officials, administration officials expressing concerns that they actually don’t have a lot of information about a lot of Syrians. And so how are those checks any good?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is, over the course of two years you could develop information, and we certainly share -- coordinate our efforts with international organizations. But again, that same standard would apply to Syrians who may be trying to enter the United States through other means. And the fact is they’re subjected to more scrutiny when they try to come through the refugee program.
Now, this is an important segue to where there have been productive conversations on Capitol Hill between White House officials and members of Congress, which is about proposed reforms of the visa waiver program. There are some proposals that are currently under discussion that could be used to enhance screening of those individuals who are seeking to enter the United States through the visa waiver program. And this is an area where additional scrutiny and reforms could be useful in enhancing the national security of the United States, which is, of course, the President’s top priority.
I would note that over the last year and a half or so -- and I made a reference to this yesterday in the briefing -- over the last year and a half or so, the Department of Homeland Security has themselves instituted some reforms of the visa waiver program that will collect more information and impose greater safeguards on those individuals who are seeking to enter the United States.
So there are a variety of proposals that have been considered on Capitol Hill. There is currently bipartisan legislation in the Senate sponsored by Senators Feinstein and Flake that puts forward some proposed reforms. We believe that this is actually a useful area of discussion. The one other thing I want to say about the House bill is that it requires a host of certifications that would only more deeply encumber and make more inefficient a process that already takes up to two years. And it’s unclear exactly what it does to enhance national security.
Q There’s a veto-proof majority in the House likely to come out of the Senate as well. Are you trying to affect that process so they come up with something different?
MR. EARNEST: The Senate Majority Leader has said that it’s not going to go through the Senate.
MR. RHODES: One thing, just on Mike’s point. An important point here is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees who would like to come into the United States are not allowed to come into the United States. We prioritize in our program people who have suffered unique persecution -- victims of torture or vulnerable populations, like children and women and families. So, yes, we obviously have to draw on whatever information we have, using biometrics, using interviews, using different databases to ensure that individuals don’t have connections to terrorist organizations or individuals of concern. At the same time, a Syrian child is not going to have an intelligence record. But precisely for that reason we believe that this is not the pool of individuals who are most likely to be ISIL operatives.
So again, we do extensive scrutiny. We do extensive interviewing. We do extensive checking against our databases. The fact that -- if you were to say that the fact that some of these individuals we don’t have any information on, that’s not a reason to not allow them into the country. The United States is not going to have an intelligence file on every individual in a refugee camp. What we do have is intelligence on people who are of concern to us, and we can check whether these people are in those databases or have associations with people in those databases. But again, we prioritize in the U.S. refugee program the most vulnerable persecuted individuals. And again, that, I think, is all the more reason why it’s important not to shut the door on them.
Q So legislatively, what are you going to do here? What’s next?
MR. EARNEST: -- there are conversations between White House officials and members of Congress, principally in the United States Senate, about potential reforms of the visa waiver program. And that, I do think, is a fruitful area for possible bipartisan discussion in pursuit of reforms that actually will have an impact on strengthening national security.
Q So then are you prepared to say, just to walk you down on the Feinstein-Flake legislation, that the White House would support altering the visa waiver program so that if you’ve been to Iraq or Syria in the last five years, you would not be eligible for that program?
MR. EARNEST: We’re talking about the kinds of reforms that would be most effective. And certainly Senator Feinstein and Senator Flake and others have indicated an interest in this area. So we’re having discussions with them about reforms to the program. I don’t have specific reforms to float to you in terms of what’s under discussion right now. But this is an area where there seems to be some bipartisan agreement that reforms to the program could be useful in enhancing national security. And based on the fact that the Department of Homeland Security over the last year and a half has instituted their own set of reforms to the visa waiver program, that would be an indication that there might be some common ground here that, again, would actually have an impact on national security.
Let me add one data point to Ben’s case, which is that since the refugee program was instituted back in the mid-seventies, 2,000 individuals -- 2,000 refugees from Syria have entered the United States. None -- zero -- have ever been detained or deported because of concerns about links to terrorism. That might be an indication that members of Congress, at least in the House right now, are not pursuing the most effective path to enhance our national security.
Q Since what timeframe?
MR. EARNEST: Since the 1970s, when we’ve had the refugee resettlement program in place.
Q So you would acknowledge that a lot has changed since the 1970s in terms of -- I mean, ISIS didn’t exist in the late 1970s. So --
MR. EARNEST: No, but there certainly have been extremists in that part of the world for a number of years.
Q So, Josh, what do you say to the 47 members of the President’s party who say, we disagree with you; we’re not politically posturing, but we’re trying to put forward something constructive that we think is necessary that the administration have been kind of dismissive of?
Q If you put them in the same category that the President put the Republicans in for the last three days.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Josh, I would say is that we obviously disagree, and I think for the reasons that we spent the first 10 minutes of the gaggle talking about. I don’t actually think that the kind of reforms that they are initiating are likely to lead to a substantial increase in national security, again, for all the reasons that we’ve talked about -- about the unlikelihood that a potential terrorist is going to use that path to enter the United States; about how this further bureaucratically encumbering -- that further bureaucratically encumbering a process that already lasts up to 24 months is not likely to enhance national security; and based on the fact that the people who have come into the United States through this program, that at least the ones from Syria have never been deported because of concerns about the links to terrorism.
So if they are legitimately interested in working with us constructively to enhance national security as it relates to individuals entering the United States, let’s have a discussion about how we can reform the visa waiver program in a way that will actually enhance national security. And you’ll recall that back on Monday, when the President did his news conference, he indicated an openness to bipartisan conversations about reforms that would actually enhance our national security.
You want to add to that?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I’d also just add that in addition to the points Josh has made, we’ve obviously made the point that it’s inconsistent with our values to close the door on these people. It also, frankly, again, poses challenges for our national security interests. If we are seen as slamming the door on Syrian refugees and if we see the type of stigmatization of Muslim populations of innocent Syrians who have been victims of terrorism -- again, to the extent that people are worried about radicalization, to the extent to which people are worried about ISIL’s efforts to recruit and radicalize people online, we need to reject narratives that feed an “us against them” dynamic that suggests that the United States is singling out certain populations and rejecting them from having the same opportunity that other refugee or immigrant populations might have.
So there’s a risk here, as well, that we’re concerned about that we’re not contributing to a dynamic that ISIL seeks to foster, which is the notion that the United States is at war with Islam and the notion that we are embracing some clash of religions or civilizations. That’s what ISIL wants. I think our own country’s history demonstrates that that’s not who we are, that we’re a country that is enriched by many communities, including our own Muslim community, who are, frankly, our best partners in the effort to combat radicalization in the United States.
Q And the President is scheduled to visit a refugee center on this leg of the trip, I think tomorrow. I think before we left town you all said it’s because they have -- well, I mean, he’s making a point about refugees, but this camp would have a number of Rohingya Muslims. Can you give us some sense of what the President is doing there, what he’s going to say? Is he going to meet with the refugees themselves? And does what happened in Paris and this whole debate now change what he’s going to do or say, or make it poignant in some way?
MR. RHODES: This is a center that provides education and support to refugee populations that are being hosted by Malaysia. That certainly includes a significant portion of Rohingya. It also includes people from other countries who have been victims of human trafficking, for instance. And the President will focus on the importance of countries like Malaysia hosting refugees who have been forced to flee from their homes for a variety of circumstances. Malaysia hosts a significant refugee population.
But I think he will underscore that this is a global challenge. Different nations have to play their part. They will play their part in hosting refugees. They will play their part in taking in refugees. I do think that, in the current context, his message is all the more important -- that we recognize that there’s populations who were forced to flee their homes, not necessarily because they want to, but because they’re suffering either violence or extreme poverty, or they’re victims of human trafficking.
Q Does it undermine his message that people back home, including his own party, are expressing a resistance to the U.S. doing more? I mean, he’s going to come here and tell other countries that they need to do more, right?
MR. RHODES: Absolutely. Part of America’s leadership in getting other countries to do their part is that we do our own. And we set back our own leadership in the world if we’re not doing the very thing that we want other countries to do. We can’t say to other countries, “you need to take in refugees; you need to take your fair share, but we’re going to slam the door.” That could create a dynamic, frankly, that is very dangerous -- where other countries say, okay, none of us are going to take in refugees, the United States is not doing it. And suddenly you have masses of displaced peoples who are essentially in limbo. That, clearly, is a recipe for greater instability.
If you look at, frankly, also Malaysia, where we’re going, it was there that you had enormous surges of Vietnamese refugees, many of whom we took who made enormous contributions to American society and a very successful immigrant population in our country today. So I think it is part of our leadership. It is a risk that if we shut the door, other nations will shut the door. And frankly, Malaysia is a reminder that when we have stepped up in times of crisis and taken refugees, they’ve ended up contributing to American society. So this is not just something we do out of charity; it’s something that we benefit from -- because in the long run, these immigrant populations are part of what continues to renew America.
Q So will he directly say that? I mean, will he directly refer to the debate back at home in this context, you think?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I would assume. Again, I don’t want to get ahead of the President. I mean, I assume -- clearly, he’ll address the current context and the current debate, and the need for us to do our fair share. He’ll have an opportunity to meet with a number of refugees and to hear their stories, and also to talk to the officials who are administering the refugee center.
MR. EARNEST: I want to make two other relevant points. I think just for context, it’s about a third of the House Democratic caucus who expressed disagreement with our position. The second is that a substantial number of House Democrats have actually made the very same case that Ben has made about the moral responsibility of the United States and the impact that bringing refugees into the United States has on our leadership and standing in the world.
I haven’t had an opportunity to sort of cross-reference the comments that we saw eight weeks ago with a vote that was taken on the floor of the House of Representatives last night. Presumably, you or at least your news organizations will have an opportunity to do that.
But you’ll recall that there were a lot of outspoken voices when we saw the terrible images of a young Syrian child laying dead on a beach on the front page of just about every newspaper all across the country. We did see strong advocacy on the part of Democrats and some Republicans about the need for the United States to play an important role. I don’t know whether people have changed their views or opinions on that based on the vote that they cast last night, but I hope you’ll check and I hope you go ask those people why they changed their minds.
Q Was it inconsistent? I mean -- necessarily inconsistent views to want to increase the responsibility by the U.S., but also wanted to be secure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’ll recall that back when I was asked about this eight weeks ago and people were asking why isn’t the White House making a more aggressive commitment to bringing on more refugees, I said time and time again under pressing questioning, that the President’s top priority was in ensuring the national security of the United States, and that it made sense -- even though it was an extensive process for us to have proper screening in place.
So you’ll have to ask them if their position is consistent or not. But I think given their outspoken advocacy and the vote that was taken, at least it’s a question that’s worth asking.
Q Josh, on one thing that happened overnight for us, in the U.S., the tax inversion language finally came out. What got that unstuck?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a process that was developed by the United States Treasury Department. So I’ll be honest, I don’t have a lot of insight into what guided that process.
Q But it’s been a priority of the President, so how involved was he in the final stages?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President was certainly aware of their ongoing efforts, but this is a process that was led by Secretary Lew, who also has strong opinions on this. Secretary Lew himself has indicated that there are limits to what the Treasury Department is able to do administratively, and it’s why we continue to call on Congress to pass the kind of comprehensive tax reform legislation that would prevent U.S. companies from engaging in these kinds of financial transactions that allow them to avoid some of their responsibilities as American companies.
So I’ll stop there.
Q If I may just ask for the record. I mean, we have a new colleague in the press pool. Is the President doing an interview to talk more about this issue? And what can we expect from that?
MR. EARNEST: What we typically do, David, is we allow news organizations who have an interview with the President to make those kinds of announcements on their own.
Q There are reports in the Israeli media that Prime Minister Netanyahu has submitted a request to the President to allow Jonathan Pollard to move to Israel. I know in the past you’ve said the President doesn’t intend to alter his parole. But can you confirm that that request was received? And can you describe the conditions that he’ll be restricted to following his release?
MR. RHODES: Again, I wasn’t specifically present during that discussion. Certainly, this is something that Prime Minister Netanyahu has regularly raised. So this has been the ongoing position of the Israeli government, and they’ve communicated it to us repeatedly. The fact of the matter is, we have deferred to the Department of Justice and the process of justice with respect to the Jonathan Pollard issue.
The President has no plans to alter the forms of his parole. The Department of Justice is best positioned to speak to the terms of his parole, although obviously the one at issue is the requirement that he remain in the United States. But again, the President doesn’t have any plans to alter the terms of terms of his parole.
1:01 P.M. PHT