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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/23/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 

1:20 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  A full house today.  Nice to see you all.  I assume it's only because you all missed me.  (Laughter.)  I assume.  All right, I do not have anything at the top, Julie, so we can go straight to your questions.

Q    Thanks, Josh. Welcome back.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you.

Q    The President, on his swing through Asia, was quite critical of his political opponents in terms of their criticism of his handling of the campaign against the Islamic State.  Over the weekend, Leon Panetta, who obviously worked for the President, said that the resources being applied to the Islamic State mission have not been sufficient.  Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who’s been quite supportive of the President, said something similar.  What does the President make of the criticism coming from people who have either worked for him or been partners of him in Washington? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julie, I haven't spoken to him about those specific comments that you’ve just cited.  I think the one thing that -- I think there are two things, actually, that at least those two individuals are keenly aware of.  The first is that both of them are aware of how challenging this particular problem is.  When it comes to a situation in Syria, for years this has been a difficult problem to work through and there’s no denying how significant that challenge has been, as the United States and our coalition partners have worked through it.

The second thing -- and in some ways, this is more important -- each of them, to a person, is keenly aware of the priority that the President has placed on working through this problem in a way that advances our national security interests.  Both of them have been involved in extended conversations with the President about the policy options that were available.  And the President certainly has valued the advice that they have given over the years, and certainly if they have additional ideas or suggestions we're willing to take their call.  

But the fact is, taking a look at all of the resources that has gone into this is to understand that there is a comprehensive strategy that is being implemented by the United States and the 64 other members of our coalition.  And I think that is a testament to the priority that the President places on this issue.  It's also a testament to the American leadership that's at work here.

Q    But does the President think that the resources he’s devoted to this mission are sufficient?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President certainly believes that there is more that our coalition partners can do to contribute to this effort and --

Q    Not coalition partners, the U.S.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again -- it sounds like you may have looked at their comments more closely than I did, but based on the way that you presented them in your first question, the question is are enough resources being dedicated to the mission. The success of this mission is dependent on 65 nations coming together, recognizing the common interests that they have here and dedicating significant resources.  And we have seen stepped-up contributions even over the course of the last week from members of that coalition and we certainly welcome those stepped-up contributions.

Q    But are you saying that the U.S. resources are sufficient and it's additional resources needed from coalition partners that’s the issue here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, our point is that we certainly have been engaged in conversations, and the President was as he was traveling around the world over the last week -- having conversations with leaders like President Erdogan; he met with our European leaders, our European allies in Turkey as well -- and those conversations centered on what those members of our coalition can do to contribute more resources.

I certainly wouldn't rule out that there might be additional resources that are contributed by the United States.  But when you consider the range of elements to our strategy, it's clear that the United States is making significant contributions and -- whether that's the United States being the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the significant problem of Syrian refugees, or when you consider the significant investment of our military resources to apply pressure to ISIL leadership and to support fighting forces on the ground as they regain territory from ISIL.

Q    I just want to ask about the situation in Brussels.  What does the President make of the steps that officials there have taken to essentially put the city on lockdown for several days as they look for suspects in the Paris attacks?  Does he believe that that is the right approach?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we're certainly not going to be in a situation where we're Monday-morning-quarterbacking the efforts that are underway in Brussels -- or anywhere, frankly -- to ensure the safety of the citizens of that European city.  Obviously the United States is committed to sharing information and assisting with that investigation as it is ongoing.  But --

Q    Have we been sharing information with the authorities in Belgium?

MR. EARNEST:  Absolutely.  The United States has longstanding information-sharing agreements with countries in Europe.  This is actually an area where we do believe that there is more that our European partners can do in terms of improving the quality and quantity of information that they share with one another, but also improving the amount of information and the way that information is shared with the United States.  But that is certainly something that we are committed to, and we’re committed to helping our allies in Europe deal with this rather urgent threat.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  While the President was away, a number of Republicans applauded what they said was a delay of the President’s plan to close Guantanamo, meaning the plan that he would be presenting to Congress.  Does the White House view this as a delay?  And is there any rethinking of plans to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to the United States in light of the refugee crisis?  That somehow -- sorry, not another refugee crisis -- the rhetoric around Syrian refugees.  Is there any kind of a rethink of perhaps this isn’t the best time to also be bringing Guantanamo Bay prisoners into the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  In fact, I think this actually is a situation where this is not the best time for the United States continuing to operate a prison facility that we know is a powerful recruiting tool that is used by extremists around the world.  

The President did talk about this in the news conference that he did a couple of days ago.  We know that ISIL’s chief messaging goal is to portray themselves as the true inheritors or the true defenders of Islam and to make aggressively the case that the Western world is at war with Islam.  Of course, those two narratives are false.  But doing something like continuing to operate the prison at Guantanamo Bay only serves to advance the narrative that ISIL is seeking to write, and now is actually a good time for the United States to take the long, overdue step of finally closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  It doesn’t serve our national security interests.  If anything, it undermines them.  And it’s certainly not an efficient or effective use of taxpayer dollars when you consider the alternatives that are available, which is to transfer to other countries those individuals that can be safely transferred, and to otherwise dispense with those who can be prosecuted, put them through our criminal justice system, and to safely detain those individuals who cannot be transferred.  And there’s no reason that we can’t make progress in that regard.

Q    So when should we expect to see that plan?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have an update for you in terms of the timing.

Q    Sometime soon?  I mean, you used to say soon.  Is it still?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s still generally the timeframe, but at some point, that probably becomes inoperative.  But the commitment that does remain operative is that that’s something that we do and intend to present to Congress, and when we do, that’s something that we’ll make public for all of you to consider as well.

Q    Okay.  And I also wanted to get your reaction to drug company Pfizer’s announcement that they plan to buy Ireland-based Allergan, which would be the largest tax-inversion deal.  Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said the U.S. should block that deal.  Is there anything the U.S. government could do to block that transaction?  I know that the President has said that he does not favor tax-inversion deals, but is the White House looking at anything it might do in this case? 

MR. EARNEST:  Julia, I don’t have any specific comments on any specific, private financial transaction, including the one that you just cited.  There are a couple things, though, that I do think bear mentioning.  

The first is, just last week, the Secretary of the Treasury announced a handful of administrative steps that the Treasury Department was taking to try to reduce the incentive and lower the benefit for those countries that are seeking to engage in a corporate inversion.  And the second is to remind you of the President’s longstanding concern and outright criticism of companies that pursue this strategy that essentially allows them to renounce their citizenship while continuing to benefit from all that America has to offer.  

And whether that is the extraordinarily talented workforce that’s in this country, or the education system we have in place to ensure that there is a good pipeline of workers that companies can benefit from, obviously the United States has large customer markets and infrastructure in place that companies benefit from. And the President has said it’s not fair for companies to essentially renounce their citizenship, seek to -- at least on paper -- locate themselves somewhere else just so they can pay a lower tax rate.  That certainly is not the kind of benefit that’s available to middle-class families.  

And I think the only thing that’s worse is that there are Republicans in Congress that continue to protect the ability of corporations to engage in these kinds of actions.  And I guess that’s what you get when you have companies that essentially have bought and paid for members of Congress.  It may serve the corporate bottom line of some of these companies, but it certainly doesn’t advance the -- it certainly doesn’t strengthen the economy of the United States, and it certainly doesn’t enhance the prospects of middle-class families in this country.


Q    If I can follow on Pfizer a little bit.  This would be the largest inversion deal in history.  And so I’m wondering if this is fresh off the moves that the Treasury Department made last week but presumably would be unaffected by them, why are those moves effective in any way if the largest drug company in the U.S. can go ahead and do the largest pharmaceutical deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, for the details around the Treasury announcement, I’d refer you to them and they may be able to explain to you how or whether their announcement would apply to this specific transaction.

The Treasury Department for more than a year has been announcing a series of administrative actions to, like I said, reduce the benefit associated with companies executing an inversion.  And we’ve seen the pace of those inversion announcements slow as a result of the -- or at least since that Treasury announcement was first made.  Now, I guess whether those two things are connected I guess is something that you’d have to dig into, but the pace of these kinds of announcements has slowed since the Treasury Department did begin carrying out these administrative actions to limit the benefit associated with companies doing that.

The other thing I’ll say is that all along we have acknowledged that the Treasury Department is rather limited in what they can do administratively and that what is required is congressional action.  And the President’s budget has consistently laid out a specific proposal for closing this loophole that only benefits corporations and doesn’t benefit middle-class families.  And we continue to believe that that’s something that Congress should act on.  I think just about every Democrat agrees with the President that this should be a priority.  Unfortunately, it’s Republicans who are blocking any legislative action because they’re more interested -- it appears, as least -- in supporting wealthy corporate interests and not middle-class families.

Q    Pfizer says the deal would be good for America because it leads to more investment in medical research and keeps 40,000 people invested in the U.S.  Do you guys agree with that characterization?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’m not going to comment on the specific results of a -- or the specific consequences of one private financial transaction.  

Q    What about the sort of anti-trust implications or even what the effect would be on drug prices?  I know that’s been something that you guys have talked about.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I assume that’s something that would be subject to a Department of Justice review, but I’m not aware of how that process is carried out or whether or not even the Department of Justice has publicly said that they’re prepared to take a look at it.

Q    All right.  And then one last one on something Secretary Kerry said last week.  It was about funding for the contribution to the global climate fund.  He said that the President -- he was kind of trying to bolster support, reassure allies, and said all of the -- on the appropriations process -- that the President is prepared to veto the budget because it isn’t included in it.  And you can usually find some money, so I’m wondering, to put a finer point on that, are you guys going to veto any budget appropriations that’s been floated would slash funding for the State Department that they’ve use to make that payment.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have a veto threat to issue from here today on this particular issue.  Obviously, this is a priority of the President’s.  It’s included in our budget proposal.  And we’re certainly going to continue to make the case to Congress that this is something that’s worth funding.

Q    Was Secretary Kerry kind of off the reservation there? 

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think he’s indicating that this is a top priority of the President’s.  And that’s something that the President has communicated to other world leaders directly, and it’s certainly something that we’ll communicate directly to leaders in Congress.


Q    I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the Vice President’s meeting this morning -- I mean, I’m assuming it’s over -- with the ambassadors of the countries that are working to fight the Islamic State.  Can you just sort of tell us about that meeting, and then the purpose?  And then I had sort of a follow-up on that.

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t gotten a detailed readout since the meeting has concluded, but I can tell you the purpose of the meeting.  There were 59 of the 65 countries who are part of our coalition represented at the meeting.  They’re represented by their -- represent their ambassadors to the United States.  And the conversation focused on how countries who are part of our coalition can ramp up their contributions to our efforts.

Now, what’s true is that the progress that has been made thus far has been a result of the significant contributions that members of our coalition have made.  Let me just go through a few of them that the President cited in his news conference.

There are nearly two dozen nations who have made a military contribution to our counter-ISIL campaign.  There are 15 different nations that have deployed personnel in support of training local forces on the ground in Iraq and Syrian forces in other countries.  There are 25 nations who are part of the effort that’s being coordinated by Germany and the UAE to stabilize areas that have been liberated from ISIL.  There is an effort underway to train Iraqi police forces that’s being led by the Italians.  And there are 34 different nations around the world that have taken steps to arrest individuals seeking to travel to Iraq and in Syria to take up arms alongside ISIL.

Countering the flow of foreign fighters has been a top priority of the President’s for more than a year.  You’ll recall the President convened a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly meeting more than a year ago to talk about how to shut down the flow of foreign fighters and to coordinate the international effort to do so.  And we’ve seen 34 nations respond to that call.

There’s been an international effort to crack down on ISIL’s financing efforts.  That’s an international effort that’s being led by the Saudis.  We certainly appreciate their contribution to that effort.  

And we’ve also talked about how important it is to counter ISIL’s messaging online and to make sure that we are mobilizing resources and voices inside the Muslim community to counter ISIL’s narrative.  And there is a communications center that was opened in the UAE to lead this effort, but we would anticipate that there will be additional centers that will be open around the world, including in Malaysia, where the President just was.

The last thing that I’ll note is that we should not overlook the significant humanitarian effort that’s underway to try to meet the basic needs of those millions of Iraqis and Syrians who are fleeing violence in their home countries.  And the international effort to try to meet their basic needs is important and is dependent on international coordination and dependent on the leadership of the United States, because the United States has actually made the largest contribution to that effort.

Q    I just want to be clear -- your words at the beginning were, “ramp up.”  So the United States is trying to convince some of the countries, all of the countries, to ramp up their activities?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess what I’m trying to do is to lay out for you how critically important the contributions that countries of this coalition have been.  And we believe that there is more that can be done if countries are willing to contribute additional resources.

Q    Okay.  And then just to follow, do you find, as Russia is sort of looking to form their own coalition, perhaps peeling off members of this coalition -- the U.S.-led coalition -- do you think that the U.S.-led coalition is eroding in any way?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s zero evidence of that.

Q    And your thoughts on what Russia is doing, in terms of trying to form their own coalition?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think the President has been pretty blunt about what Russia is doing.  Right now, what Russia is doing is they are undermining our effort to reach a political settlement, and they are doing that because they are concerned primarily with propping up the failed regime of Bashar al-Assad. And those efforts only undermine our ability to engage the moderate Syrian opposition in a discussion about the long-overdue political transition that even Russia acknowledges is needed and long overdue inside of Syria.

So we have also said -- and the President said this on a number of occasions, as well -- if Russia is prepared to change their strategy and prepared to focus their efforts on ISIL, and to work with the international community to do that, then we would welcome them as members of our coalition.  And certainly their efforts and the resources that they can bring to bear would be important.  But thus far, they’ve been unable to do that.  They focused on another goal, and it is not one that has allowed them to build a coalition on nearly the scale of what the United States has built.

So the President had an opportunity to discuss this issue directly with President Putin while we were in Turkey last week, and I know this is a conversation that Secretary Kerry has had with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, on a number of occasions.  And we’re going to continue that conversation, particularly now that, tragically, Russia understands the stakes for going after ISIL.


Q    Given everything you’ve said today and what the President said in his news conference about the support of the coalition, and the President’s obvious reluctance to commit any U.S. -- further U.S. grounds troops, what in the world can come of a meeting between him and President Hollande?  What’s the deliverable, other than expressions of solidarity and support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to get ahead of the meeting, but I also wouldn’t downplay the significance of additional expressions of solidarity and support.  This is a time when the French people are grieving.  And knowing that they can count on the most powerful country in the world to have their back as they determine what’s necessary to strengthen homeland security in their own country but also to take the fight to ISIL I think that will be a source of significant comfort to the French people.

We’ve also seen the French, just in the last week, announce their willingness to ramp up their contributions.  And we did see French military pilots carry out an additional round or two of airstrikes over Syria.  And we certainly welcome that contribution.

So I think there’s plenty for the two leaders to talk about. And you’ll have an opportunity to hear from them directly after they have their meeting and you can get a better sense of what they discussed.

Q    And you’re talking about everybody else ramping up their contributions.  You’re not talking about the U.S. further ramping up its contributions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Bill, we’ve been leading this coalition. So we formed the coalition, we continue to lead it.  And I think whether you look at the humanitarian assistance that we’ve provided or the contribution that the United States has made to the ongoing military campaign, our contribution has been significant.  And the United States obviously has unique capabilities that we can bring to bear, and we have used them.

Let me give you one example.  I just mentioned the French airstrikes that were carried out over Syria last week and that represented an escalation of their efforts.  The airstrikes that they carried out were based on targets that were identified by the United States, based on intelligence that had been conducted by the United States.  They were supported by mid-air refueling that was conducted by the United States.  And they were backed by contingency operations -- search and rescue capabilities, for example -- to ensure that if something went wrong with those flights, that those pilots could be rescued.  Those search and rescue capabilities were provided by the United States.

So I think that is an indication that the United States is certainly pulling more than our own weight when it comes to the contribution behind this coalition.  But, look, that’s something that we’re glad to do.  That is in line with the long tradition of American leadership.  It certainly is a tradition that this President believes in.

Q    All that still leaves open the question of what, if anything, can come of this meeting.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I guess what I’m saying is you’ll have an opportunity to talk to the two leaders tomorrow.


Q    Josh, thank you.  First, just to follow up on Julie’s question.  The President’s Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, appeared on “Your World with Neil Cavuto” on November 16, and said -- and I quote -- “The President of the United States and other world leaders need to recognize that this is not a time to just kind of sit down and hope that somehow this enemy will go away.”  The President’s other Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, appear on “Your World with Neil Cavuto” four days later, on November 20, and said, “We have all along underestimated ISIS, both in terms of how tough it will be to root them out in Syria and Iraq, but also their ability to extend beyond that area to Europe and potentially also to the United States.”  And then we also have the comments from Dianne Feinstein on “Face the Nation” yesterday:  “I don’t think the approach is sufficient to the job. This has gone on too long now, and it has not gotten better -- it’s gotten worse.”

Do you acknowledge that the criticism of the President about underestimating ISIS, about prosecuting the effort with insufficient vigor are coming from people who are not conservatives, Republicans, presidential candidates or predictable opponents of the President -- these are coming from the people who worked with him -- do you acknowledge that? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think Mr. Gates would probably describe himself as a conservative Republican, and I don’t know if he was including the President when he was describing the “we” in the group of people who underestimated ISIL.  I think the coalition mission that I described in terms of the contributions that we're getting from 65 other nations to apply significant pressure to ISIL, to carry out more than  8,000 airstrikes against them in Iraq and Syria, to apply pressure to their leadership, including taking out a range of ISIL leaders, our efforts to constrict their financing, the wide-ranging, integrated effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL I think is a testament to how seriously the President takes this challenge.
Q    You’ve defended the effort.  I just want to be clear that you understand that the criticism of this effort is extending beyond the usual precincts, correct?  To include people who have worked for this President --

MR. EARNEST:  To include people in Washington, D.C.  And they’re certainly entitled to their opinion.  I don't think that either of those individuals would deny the seriousness with which the President has taken this issue or the complexity of arriving at a solution that is consistent with our national security interests.

Q    In his remarks in Kuala Lumpur, President Obama said -- and I quote -- “destroying ISIL is not only a realistic goal, we're going to get it done.”  Am I safe in inferring that in telling us “we're going to get it done,” the President was not abandoning his past practice wherein he has always told us that this is going to be an effort that extends beyond his term?  He isn't saying when he tells us “we're going to get it done” that he’s going to get it done?  

MR. EARNEST:  He was the President expressing his resolute confidence that the United States and our 65 coalition partners will succeed in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.

Q    But not before he leaves office?

MR. EARNEST:  No, the President was clear that the length of time that this is likely to take will require a substantial commitment, both on the part of the United States but also on the part of the world.

Q    Has the United States’ participation in the military piece of this, our operational tempo, increased in any discernable way since Paris?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the Department of Defense can give you sort of the latest accounting of the military operations that have been conducted in Iraq and Syria over the last week or so.  I would expect that, for the reasons that I described to Bill, the stepped-up contributions of some of our partners in terms of the strikes that they have taken probably has required the United States to expend some additional effort to support their strikes.

Q    Two more.  The President also said in Kuala Lumpur about the intelligence he has received on ISIS -- which, as we all know, is now under investigation by the Pentagon IG -- “It's not as if I have been receiving wonderfully rosy, glowing portraits of what’s been happening in Iraq and Syria over the last year and a half.  It feels to me like, at my level at least, we've had a pretty clear-eyed, sober assessment of where we've made real progress and where we have not.”  Now, I've asked you in this briefing previously if the President has confidence in the intelligence product he’s received on ISIS over the last year and a half.  Would I be wrong to construe those remarks from Kuala Lumpur as the President expressing confidence in the intelligence product that he’s received over the last year and a half?

MR. EARNEST:  I think, James, what the President was trying to say -- and I want to be careful here because I don't want to get ahead of an ongoing Inspector General investigation -- I think what the President was trying to convey is that the intelligence reports that he’s received about ISIL and the impact that they have had on Syria and Iraq, in particular, have been troubling.  And that is part of what has prompted the kind of aggressive and sustained commitment to degrading and ultimately destroying that organization that you’ve seen put forward by the President.

That is entirely separate from the question that is currently being investigated by the inspector general.  But what the President has long said and what he said again in that news conference is that he has made quite clear to military leaders and to intelligence officials that he’s looking for the best, most accurate assessment of what’s actually happening that he can possibly get because that's only going to improve his ability to make decisions about policy to address the situation on the ground.

So as clear as people can be about what’s exactly happening, that's what the President wants.  And even if that means delivering some bad news, or even if that means providing some evidence to indicate that previous elements of our strategy didn’t work as well as we had hoped, the President would rather get that information and make changes to the strategy where necessary than not.  

Q    The President tells us that he feels as though he has been receiving clear-eyed intelligence.  The Pentagon probe is aimed at determining whether, in fact, he was or not.  Should his statement be weighed by the investigators, and in fact, would the President be willing to cooperate personally with this investigation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously the President believes in the value and importance of conducting independent investigations like this.  And I'm not aware that the Inspector General has sought any sort of presidential cooperation -- because I think, frankly, the investigation that they’re conducting doesn’t rise to the President’s level.  What they’re doing is they’re trying to take a look the -- at least based on published reports, they’re trying to take a look at what information -- how information worked its way through the bureaucracy at the Department of Defense.  They don't seem to be, at least at this point, based on public reports, concerned about anything beyond that.

Q    Last question.  You’ve been very generous.  When the President tells us in response to just about any question about the progress of the anti-ISIS effort that his strategy is making some progress amidst setbacks and that we've always said this is going to take time, and if we get that answer on September 10, 2014, a day after he launched the effort, and if we're getting that same answer in Kuala Lumpur and in Antalya, Turkey, and so forth -- if we're going to get the same answer no matter if we're on the second day of the campaign or the 366th day of the campaign, doesn’t that in effect remove the President from accountability to the American people for how this operation is actually going?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think the President is taking this action because he believes strongly that the national security of the United States and the American people is top priority as the Commander-in-Chief.  And that's precisely why this operation has -- why this strategy has been implemented and why that it's in a way that it's been carried out.  The focus has been on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL, and we would do that be applying significant military pressure to prevent them from establishing a safe haven inside of Syria and Iraq.

We have taken ISIL leaders off the battlefield.  We have regained territory inside of Iraq and Syria.  We have succeeded in shutting off some parts of their financing efforts.  So we have made important progress.  Just in the last couple of weeks, I saw that the President’s Special Presidential Envoy to the counter-ISIL effort, Brett McGurk, noted that just in the last couple of weeks, more than a thousand square kilometers in territory has been regained by fighters on the ground from ISIL in Iraq and in Syria.  That's an indication of some of the progress that's being made.

But the President, as you pointed out, from the beginning has acknowledged that we'll enjoy some periods of success and some periods of progress, and that's part of any sort of ongoing military operation.

Q    And that's what we'll continue to hear from him for the next year until he leaves office, correct?  Progress, setbacks, it's going to take time -- right, that’s what we're going to hear?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what you’ll continue to hear from the President is a clear-eyed assessment of his view of what’s happening.


Q    When did the President first learn that intelligence analysts down at CENTCOM were charging -- their intelligence reports were being whitewashed to make the situation look better than it really is in Iraq?  When did he first learn about that?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, I don’t know the answer to that.  I’ll tell you, I first learned about it when these individuals -- when it became public that these individuals had raised their concerns with the Inspector General.  And in some ways, that’s the way the process is supposed to work.

Q    And how concerned is he?  Because I imagine it’s very difficult to make decisions about military strategy when you can’t trust the intelligence you’re getting.  How concerned is he about this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President certainly is interested in the independent investigation running its course.  But I think the President does -- I mean, as the President said yesterday, the President does have a lot of confidence in the individuals who are responsible for presenting intelligence information to him, primarily because he’s given them very specific instruction about his desire to get the best possible sense of what’s actually happening on the ground even if it means coming to the President with some bad news.

And the President also acknowledged that there’s this area where people might have, based on the facts that are on the ground, reached differing conclusions based on their own analysis of the situation.  That’s entirely appropriate.  We want people with different points of view to be considering the facts in presenting their analysis to the President.  And there is a mechanism for ensuring that differing views are incorporated into the intelligence material that’s presented to the President.  And the President certainly encourages those differing points of view from being represented in the materials that he’s presented.

Q    Has he noticed a more realistic or pessimistic assessment coming from the CIA and other intelligence agencies than what he’s seen come up through the military?

MR. EARNEST:  It would be hard for me to offer that assessment to you, Jon, just based on -- the amount of intelligence that I see is much less than the amount of intelligence the President sees, so it’s difficult to answer that question.  

I’m not aware that anybody has expressed a tangible change in the intelligence that’s being presented to the President of the United States that doesn’t reflect the kinds of changes that we’re actually seeing on the ground.  I mean, that’s what’s hard about this, is it’s hard to sort of control.

Q    Would he say that there has been, to a degree, an intelligence failure with the rise of ISIS?  I mean, it caught so many people by surprise.  It seems to have clearly caught the President by surprise that -- the rapidity with which ISIS swept into Iraq and took over this large area.

MR. EARNEST:  I think, Jon, I think the one area where there has been some surprise expressed was in, frankly, the weakness of the Iraqi security forces who were responsible for protecting the nation of Iraq from the ISIL advance.  And I think there was surprise expressed that those forces retreated so rapidly in the face of ISIL fighters, in the face of that ISIL challenge.

But for a more detailed assessment of what the intelligence looked like prior to ISIL making those significant advances, you’d probably have to ask somebody in the IC.

Q    Can I ask you about something else John Kerry said?


Q    He was commenting on the attacks in Paris and comparing them with the Charlie Hebdo attack, saying that there was a sort of particularized focus of perhaps even legitimacy in terms of -- well, not legitimacy, but a rationale you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re angry because of this and that. What do you make of the Secretary of State suggesting, first, that there could have been legitimacy to the attack on Charlie Hebdo, or at the very least a rationale to those attacks, and saying that somehow those were more understandable than what happened in this latest Paris attack?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, in the aftermath, you’ll recall, of that specific attack, we made quite clear from this podium that there is a no justification for an act of violence like the attack that we saw carried out against the editors at Charlie Hebdo.  And I feel confident in telling you that the Secretary of State strongly believes that sentiment.  He certainly doesn’t believe there’s any justification for the kind of violence we’ve seen perpetrated by terrorists either against people at Charlie Hebdo, or the kind of -- or the citizens of France in this most recent incident.

Q    So why is he suggesting that there was a legitimacy or a rationale to those attacks?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that he said the word legitimacy and then said that, well, -- 

Q    And he said well not “legitimacy,” but “rationale.”

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  Again, I think you’d have to ask him about that.


Q    Josh, I have a couple of questions I want to ask you on a couple different subjects.  First, I want to ask you about this issue of surveillance of the mosques -- certain mosques in this country that Donald Trump keeps reiterating.  And he started it before the Paris attacks.  What does this White House feel about that?

MR. EARNEST:  April, this may be a source of disappointment to you, but there are times where I’ve chosen to weigh in to the irresponsible rhetoric that’s being spouted by Republican candidates for President, and times when I’ve declined to do so. I think this is going to be one of those times when I’m going to decline to do it.

Q    This is a very serious time when there is a thought process that is seeming to be more vocal in this country about security issues that are trumping the principles of this country. And that’s why I’m asking you that question, in all seriousness. I mean, it’s not necessarily about Donald Trump, but it’s something he’s putting out there, and people are listening to it and actually embracing it.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, April, I’ll just say that I’d encourage you to take a look at the comments that the President made at his news conference in Kuala Lumpur, where he was quite clear about the fact that language that is used to target or discriminate or specifically alienate Muslims only serves to advance the narrative -- the false narrative -- that ISIL is trying to write. And that’s why the President believes that the most important thing that the American people can do in the face of these shocking and scary images of violence that are being perpetrated by ISIL is to not be afraid and to not elevate them to a stature that they don’t deserve.  

The fact is, we shouldn’t buy into the fantasy that they’re seeking to perpetuate that what they’re doing is important.  In fact, what we should do is we should actually redouble our efforts to make sure that we’re standing up for the values and principles and institutions that we cherish in this country.  That’s the kind of response that the President would like to see from the American people.  

And the truth is, it’s exactly the kind of response that we saw from the American people in the aftermath of the Boston bombing from a couple of years ago.  We saw the people of Boston, in the face of a tragic, violent terrorist incident on one of the most special days of the year in Boston, we saw the people of Boston respond in the spirit of Boston Strong.  And days later, they showed up at Fenway Park for a baseball game to sing the National Anthem.  And a year later, they had a huge showing to watch another running of the Boston Marathon.  And that really captures the spirit and resilience of the American people.  And seeing the courage that has been on display by those who survived the attack, they are an example of -- a powerful example of the American spirit.  And that should serve, frankly, as an inspiration to the American people, even in the face of these violent acts that ISIL has perpetrated on another Western city.

Q    And along that line, last week I talked to former Virginia governor, Doug Wilder, who was asked about the fact that security is being pit against the principles of this country when it comes to immigrants and immigration, talking about the refugee issue with the Syrian refugees coming here.  And he said that there was an aspect of discrimination as it relates to this controversy over the refugees.  Does this White House feel the same about that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, certainly there were some individuals who suggested that there should be a religious test imposed on our refugee program.  And I think that would be a discriminatory practice that is inconsistent with the values that we have cherished since the forming of this country.  So I guess from that standpoint, he’s got a point to make.

Q    And one last thing.  Going back to Donald Trump, he basically told an activist for the Black Lives Matter movement to get out of his rally and he was roughed up.  This White House has had members of grassroots organizations who include members of Black Lives Matter at the table to talk to them about issues going on.  Is this now the time where candidates should talk to people, hear what they have to say, or is it the right thing to do to say “get out”?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is not a departure from Mr. Trump’s habits.  He has previously had reporters who were asking him tough questions removed from the room, so the fact that he might condone violence against a protestor is not particularly surprising to me.  It’s certainly not an approach that I would agree with, but he’s running his own campaign and that’s what he should do.


Q    Yes, Josh, back to the Hollande meeting tomorrow.  To what extent are the two leaders going to cover the situation -- the security preparations in Paris for the upcoming meeting of all these world leaders coming in?  Or was that a non-issue?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, any time you’re going to have that many world leaders in one place, security is obviously going to be an issue.  And I don’t know how much of the meeting it will take up, but I anticipate that the ongoing security situation in the French capital will be a subject of some discussion, both in the days ahead but also in terms of the preparation that’s underway to host leaders from around the world.  And I think the President was quite resolute in his comments yesterday about how important it is for the world to send a clear message that, even in the face of this terrible violence, the business of the world and the business of saving the planet is going to move forward.

Q    Was there ever any consideration given here to the President not going to this meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.


Q    More on Hollande.  We sort of assume that at least some of this meeting is going to be about Russia.  My question to you, just to sort of start off, is, does the administration see Hollande here as sort of a mediation between the United States and Russia, especially given the fact that he’s going off to meet with Putin afterwards?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think you’d have to talk to President Hollande about what he plans to say to President Putin.  Frankly, what President Obama is interested in doing is showing I think in a very visible way the solidarity that the United States of America feels with our allies in France, even in this very difficult hour for that country.  This is a nation that’s grieving.  This a nation that’s concerned about the security situation inside their country.  And they can and should take a lot of solace in knowing the most powerful country in the world has their back and is standing with them in this difficult time. And that will certainly be an important part of tomorrow’s meeting.

I think they’ll also have some tangible conversations about what steps the United States is prepared to take to help them with the security situation in their country, particularly when it comes to intelligence sharing.  We certainly believe that there is more that France and their European partners can do in terms of sharing information among themselves and with the United States, and we obviously would welcome steps that they would take to do that.  We believe that would have a positive impact on a security situation not just in Europe but also in the United States.  And I would anticipate they’ll also discuss how France can continue to ramp up their contribution to our counter-ISIL effort, including in the category of military contributions that France is prepared to make to this effort.

Q    What are the tangible steps that Russia would need to do in order to create more cooperation on the issue of ISIS?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we’ve made clear, Joe, is that the Russians need to ensure that they have a military strategy that’s consistent with the diplomatic and political objectives that they themselves have identified.  That’s been the real problem that Russia has had, both in terms of pursuing their own strategy but also in terms of getting people to go along with it.  There’s this fundamental contradiction to what they say that their goals are and what they’re actually doing on the ground.
The fact is, President Putin himself has acknowledged that the terrible problems that are plaguing Syria right now will require a political solution and a political transition.  But as long as Russia is engaged in a significant military effort to prop up Bashar al-Assad, that is only going to make it more difficult for that political transition to actually take place.  It’s going to push that political solution further off into the distance, not bring it closer.  And that’s a problem for out 65-member coalition.  It’s also a problem for Russia.  And that’s something that the President has tried to persuade President Putin directly, and I know that other world leaders have tried to do the same.

What we’d like to see from Russia is a commitment to the kind of counter-ISIL-focused military effort that our coalition is carrying out.  And particularly if Russia was prepared to integrate those efforts with the broader coalition efforts, then that would have a positive impact, and that’s what we would like to see.

Q    Is a rollback of economic sanctions over the Ukraine issue completely off the table?  Or is there a way to sort of incrementally move in that direct to, at the very least, give Hollande something to take to Moscow?

MR. EARNEST:  President Obama and our European partners from the beginning have said that we’re prepared to roll back sanctions against Russia once they pursue and implement the Minsk agreement.  And, unfortunately, we have seen Russia not take the steps that they have committed to take in the context of the Minsk agreement.  That’s why those sanctions remain in place.  They shouldn’t inhibit our ability to focus on other national security interests.  For example, it didn’t inhibit our ability to work with Russia to secure the agreement with Iran to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  

But I do not envision a scenario in which sanctions relief is offered to Russia in exchange for greater contributions to ISIL.  Russia already has a significant incentive to step up their efforts against ISIL.  That’s what we would like to see.  But the kind of sanctions relief that we know that Russia would like to get is something that they’ll get once they begin keeping their commitments that were made in the context of the Minsk agreement.

Q    And last question.  On the vetting process and the refugee programs -- on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans last week said that the administration had not done the finest job of selling the program in explaining it to the American public, explaining it on Capitol Hill, especially --

MR. EARNEST:  So they took a vote on a significant national security issue that they didn’t understand?  Is that right?  I haven't seen anybody say that, but that would be news.  So they didn’t take time to read the bill?  They didn’t take time to understand the program?

Q    It’s sort of like health care.  (Laughter.)  

Q    Well, my question to you, though --

MR. EARNEST:  I haven't heard anybody say that about health care.

Q    -- is does the administration feel as though it needed to do a better job of selling the finer points of the vetting process and making people understand it?

MR. EARNEST:  I think those who voted to further encumber the refugee process are accountable for their vote and I think they’ll have to explain why they voted in that way.

Q    I’m sorry, my question to you is, the program as it stands now, was it not sold well enough?  Were the finer points of it not sold well enough to people on Capitol Hill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but again, is that an explanation for they voted against it, because they didn’t understand what was included in it?  I mean, that sort of goes to the substance of what you’re saying -- is that, oh, a bunch of members of Congress voted in a way that we obviously disagree with because they didn’t understand what they were voting on.  I’m not really sure if that’s worse than just voting the wrong way, or if, unwittingly, they voted the wrong way.

Here’s the other thing, Joe, that I think probably also is deserving of some attention.  There’s also a certain level of irony associated with that step.  We noted that voting to further encumber and bog down the refugee process is not likely to do much to improve the national security of the United States.  There probably are some reforms to the visa waiver program that we’re currently discussing with members of the United States Senate that actually could further enhance our national security. There are a number of steps the Department of Homeland Security has already taken over the last year to strengthen that program, and there may be some additional steps that we can work with Congress to implement that would strengthen that program.

But there’s one other thing that Congress could do that would actually enhance our national security.  And right now that relates to the purchase of firearms.  Right now, there is not a law on the books that prevents an individual who is already in the United States and that we already know is suspected of having links to terrorism that allows him to go and purchase a weapon.  This is particularly ironic because the concerns that were expressed by members of Congress -- some members of Congress -- was about individuals who are not in the United States and will be subjected to a process of spending two years convincing national security officials that they don’t have links to terrorism.  They will only enter the United States when they have persuaded those national security professionals sufficiently that they don’t have links to terrorism.  

But instead, members of Congress are prepared to allow those individuals who are already in the United States and are suspected of having links to terrorism from going and purchasing a firearm.  And I think that is a pretty clear indication that Republicans in Congress are more interested in playing politics, and more scared of the NRA, than they are concerned about doing the right thing for our national security.


Q    Staying on the refugee issue.  We have at NBC a new survey that is out that 41 percent of those questioned support the idea of having Syrian refugees admitted to the country; 56 [percent] do not.  And then if we add that on to the situation on Capitol Hill, where it was an overwhelming vote, including 47 Democrats, who wanted to have these additional restrictions of the vetting process, is the President not hearing where the public is on this issue?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kelly, I think we’ve made a pretty strong case about why what Congress did is not going to do much to improve our national security.  It may make them feel better in terms of making a political argument, but that’s unfortunate when we’re talking about an issue as important as our national security.  

The fact is, the reason that the President continues to support the refugee program is that individuals who enter the United States as a refugee are subjected to more screening and more vetting than anybody else who enters the United States.  They have to submit to a background check.  They have to submit to an in-person interview.  They have biometric and biographical information that’s collected and then run through a wide range of databases that are maintained by international criminal organizations -- or international law enforcement organizations, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, the Department of Defense.  And only then are they given the opportunity to enter to the United States.

Since 2011, when the war in Syria broke out, about 22,000 Syrian individuals were referred to the United States to determine if they could qualify for refugee status and be admitted to the United States.  These are individuals -- these 22,000 individuals had already been vetted by the United Nations for consideration in this program.  A little more than 2,000 of them have been admitted to the United States.  That’s an indication of just how rigorous this process is, and it’s why further encumbering that process with even more bureaucracy may be effective as a political -- a piece of political rhetoric, but it’s not going to do anything to improve the national security of the United States.

Again, if Congress were actually interested in doing that, they’d pass a law that would prevent somebody who’s on the Terror Watch List from being able to buy a gun.  That’s what Congress could do.  And as people are sitting around the Thanksgiving table talking about these issues -- as they should, and as I’m sure they will all across the country -- I hope that’s a question that will be raised and asked by members around the table, that if we’re going to have a serious discussion in this country about national security, let’s talk about some pretty obvious things that Congress can do.  And one obvious thing that Congress can do is pass a law that prevents somebody who’s on the Terror Watch List from being able to buy a weapon.  

There’s no reason -- I’m not sure why that’s even controversial.  I’m not sure why it hasn’t been done so far.  I suspect, however, that has a lot to do with the fear that Republicans have of the NRA.

Q    You think it’s fear on the part of those Democrats, though, who also sided with Republicans in voting that way last week?

MR. EARNEST:  Maybe.  It’s unfortunate.  

Q    For tomorrow’s meeting, is there any concern that if President Obama does not have some specific -- you did mention “tangible” -- but something specific to offer the French President that when he does then go on to Russia, is it possible that Vladimir Putin will see that as an opportunity to try to outdo President Obama on close proximity, judging sort of these two meetings almost side by side?

MR. EARNEST:  When you consider the substantial coalition that the United States has built and led, and the substantial contribution that we have made to the variety of lines of effort, it will require a remarkable commitment from Russia to try to match our efforts.  But if that’s what they want to do, if Russia is prepared to commit the kinds of resources that the United States has in a way that’s integrated with the international community to defeating ISIL, we’d welcome that contribution.

Look, there’s no reason this has to be a competition.  We’re happy to have their contribution be added to the list.  And if it’s as sizable as the contribution that the United States has made, we surely would welcome it.


Q    Two questions, please.  Do you have any confirmation that Qassem Soleimani was wounded -- do you have any confirmation on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen some sporadic reports about this, but I’m not able to confirm them at all.

Q    And just on April’s question, Mr. Trump also didn’t rule out that Muslim Americans should carry identification cards, and didn’t rule out also that they can be entered into a special database.  Considering that the President has many Muslim members serving in his Cabinet and the administration, and there are many Muslim Americans who serve in the armed forces and dying for this country, but don’t you think it should be addressed directly, talking to Muslim Americans?

MR. EARNEST:  I certainly -- well, let me just start, Nadia, by saying that Mr. Trump and other Republicans on the campaign trail have said a number of outrageous things.  And to not criticize them directly for doing so is not to condone that kind of rhetoric.  Certainly I don’t.

But I think the President spoke quite eloquently about how important it is for this country to, even in the face of this terrible violence that we saw perpetrated on the people of Paris, that even in the face of those shocking images -- that our response should not be to walk away from our values.  In fact, it’s a reason to redouble our efforts to fight for our values.

And the President is confident that that represents the character of America.  And that certainly has been the kind of reaction that we’ve seen from the vast majority of Americans, and that is the kind of reaction that represents the way that millions of Americans who are Muslim live their lives.  It certainly is a testament to the values of the American people, including American Muslims. 

And that’s important because, as I mentioned earlier, it undermines the narrative that ISIL is seeking to advance.  The fact is that there are millions of Muslims in this country who practice their religion freely, and they raise their kids, they send them to schools -- they are able to live the American Dream because of the opportunity that they’re given in this country.  And fighting for their continued ability to do that and to not be discriminated against just because of the way they worship God is consistent with the values of this country, and important to our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.


Q    Josh, with the climate conference coming up, is the President optimistic about getting a comprehensive deal that will be significant and verifiable and really carry through into the future to adequately address climate change?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Pam, the President is certainly optimistic, based on the significant commitments we’ve already seen, 90 percent of the countries who emit carbon or at least -- or I should say that differently -- the President is optimistic, based on the significant contributions and commitments we’ve seen that have been made by countries around the world.  These countries account for about 90 percent of the carbon that’s emitted around the world, and that represents a substantial starting point for negotiations that could yield an important agreement.  

But ultimately what we want to see is we want to see the kind of agreement that is both ambitious but also verifiable.  And these will be discussions in Paris that will take place that I’m sure will have lots of ups and downs and there will be periods over the course of that 10- or 12-day conference where I’ll be standing here answering questions about the talks being poised to fail -- and those will be fun days.  (Laughter.)  I’m sure you all will enjoy them as much as I will.

But I think everybody who is participating in the conference understands the stakes are high.  That certainly was true of all of the conversations that the President has had over the last week with leaders of countries, large and small, who represent -- or who understand that the time for action is now.  And there is an opportunity for the world to do something important to fight climate change and to reduce carbon pollution in a way that has positive consequences for the health of our kids and for our economy -- because we know that the kinds of investments that the United States has already made in clean and renewable energy are likely to become more valuable as other countries follow through on their commitment to consider alternative sources of energy.

Q    And on a different subject, Secretary Kerry said that they’re looking for ideas -- military, counterterrorism, and diplomatic ideas that would help defeat ISIS faster.  Is that a sign that the President might be willing to change his strategy? Or is he referring to other members of the coalition and what they could do?

MR. EARNEST:  Pam, what we’ve always said is that the President is prepared to intensify our efforts in those areas where we know our strategy is showing signs of progress, and whether that is in providing additional equipment and reinforcements to those local forces on the ground that are making progress against ISIL, or intensifying our air campaign in the same way that the French have committed to do, or redoubling our efforts around a diplomatic effort.  This has always been the way that we have approached this issue, which is to try to intensify our focus on those areas where our strategy is showing progress and acknowledge those areas that aren’t working as well as we had hoped.  

And we will have even more confidence in our strategy as more resources are mobilized by our coalition partners, and that was the subject of extensive discussion in a number of the President’s conversation over the last week and I’m confident that that will be the case in the weeks ahead.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  At the U.N. this year, the President talked about the dangers of leaving a vacuum in a country after removing an authoritarian leader -- obviously talking about Libya.  Does this administration currently have a plan for the post-Assad?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Olivier, this is actually the subject of ongoing discussion that Secretary Kerry has been leading in Vienna over the last several weeks.  What is clear is that President Assad has lost legitimacy to lead that country.  The vast majority of the citizens of that country no longer have confidence in his ability to keep the country together and to lead them in a direction that they support.  In large part, that’s because President Assad has used the military of that country to attack his own people.  That certainly would be one way to undermine confidence in your leadership.  And that’s why the President has been pretty blunt about the fact that it’s not just that his actions -- that President Assad’s actions are morally repugnant -- he’s attacked innocent civilians -- but it’s also that he, as a practical matter, he’s lost the support of the people.  And so he can’t lead that country.

And so the nature of the ongoing discussions in Vienna over the last several weeks has been to figure out how to put in place the milestones for a political transition.  And what they have essentially said is that the countries with a stake in this have essentially agreed to support a strategy that would bring parties together no later than January 1st to begin those discussions.  And that would also -- what would also take place simultaneously is a ceasefire.  And hopefully that would lay the groundwork for negotiations and eventually a vote.  

And look, the President has acknowledged -- and we said this on many occasions and I don’t know if I’ve said it yet today -- the United States, despite our significant military commitment, will not succeed in imposing a military solution on the situation in Syria.  No matter how substantial the military contributions are from the United States and our coalition partners, it’s not a military solution that’s going to succeed here.  It’s a diplomatic and political one.

Our military strategy is predicated on taking out ISIL leaders and preventing them from establishing a safe haven.  But if we’re going to address the root cause of the problems inside of Syria, it’s going to require a political transition and that’s difficult work when you consider all of the different interests that are at stake here.  That’s why there are some 20-odd -- 22 countries around the negotiating table, including countries with rather diverse interests, like Saudi Arabia and Iran.  

But yet it’s because of the leadership of the United States -- and Secretary Kerry deserves a lot of credit for this -- that we’ve succeeded in getting everybody to the same room to begin having these conversations.  And it’s because, despite their differing opinions and their differing levels of commitment to that country, all of them acknowledge that a political transition is necessary to address a situation that has had negative consequences for all of the countries involved.  

Q    And the American envoy to the OPCW -- the organization in charge of overseeing the destruction of chemical weapons -- the American envoy today said that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict is “becoming routine.”  How does the President’s strategy handle that, handle this apparently routine use of chemical weapons?  And do you know and can you say whether these are Assad caches that were missed a couple of years ago or whether this is new production?

MR. EARNEST:  Olivier, I didn’t see the comments of our OPCW representative so I may have to get back to you on this thing.  I mean, I think the one thing that is true is that there were I believe hundreds of tons of chemical weapons that were in President Assad’s stockpile that were effectively identified, removed, and destroyed by the United States, working closely with Russia.  And that was a significant accomplishment because we know that had those materials not been removed and destroyed, the risk associated with chemical weapons would be even greater inside of Syria.

But for the response of the specific comments that have been shared I’ll follow up with you.

Victoria, I’ll give you the last one.  Then we’re going to call it a day.

Q    About Assad.  The Syrian rebels are not at the table for these talks, and they are saying, look, he’s a war criminal, he needs to be in jail.  You can have as many talks as you want, but that’s our position and that’s where we’re dealing from.  So how far can these talks realistically go as long as they’re not involved?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Victoria, the goal of these conversations is for the countries in the region and around the world who have an interest in resolving the situation inside of Syria agreeing to an approach that would eventually include bringing the opposition together.  

The thing that’s important for you to understand is that the opposition is far from monolithic.  There are a variety of different organizations and groups that are involved that presumably would like to have some kind of say in the future of Syria.  So this is a complex process and getting them to participate in that process and getting them around the negotiating table is only a first step.  

So I would acknowledge that we’re a long way from the kind of political solution that’s long overdue but necessary, but there’s no denying that if you can get countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia around the table discussing this and coming to at least the broad outlines of a framework for pursuing this kind of political transition, that that’s a significant development.  

But there’s a long way to go, and certainly resolving or at least addressing the wide variety of concerns that are sure to be aired by opposition groups once they get in the room -- that will sort of be the next challenge that we’ll face here.

Q    And on the talks tomorrow -- is there a difference between President Obama and President Hollande on the timeframe for the removal of Assad?  It seems that Hollande may be more pragmatic as to when Assad needs to go.  I sense more urgency from you.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, maybe you’ll have an opportunity to hear more directly from President Hollande about his views on this.  I think we’ve been quite clear that this political transition is going to need to end with President Assad leaving power.  And, again, that’s not just because we’ve got significant moral concerns about the way that he has led that country -- and based more specifically, by the way, that he’s attacked innocent civilians in that country -- but just as a practical matter, he is not able to lead the country.  The vast majority of the citizens of that country don’t support him and have been the victims of his attacks.

So we’re going to need to see a political transition in place to resolve the political problems that are plaguing that country.  And I think, look, despite the wide variety of opinions that are represented in that room in Vienna, I think everybody has come to terms with that fact.

Thanks, everybody.  Have a good Monday.  The President will be doing a news conference with President Hollande tomorrow after their bilateral meeting.  That will be in the late morning tomorrow, last I heard.  We will not do a briefing on Wednesday so I wish all of you a very happy Thanksgiving.  Thanks, guys.

2:29 P.M. EST