Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/4/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:57 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday. Let me just begin with a comment similar to something you heard me say yesterday, which is I know there continues to be intense coverage and interest in details of the ongoing investigation into the incident -- the terrible incident in San Bernardino earlier this week. Investigators are obviously devoting significant resources and time. We’ve got hundreds of federal law enforcement officials who are working closely with local law enforcement officials who are working basically around the clock at this point to learn as much as they possibly can about the attackers, their background, their potential motives. This includes things like their foreign travel, their contacts with other individuals, their use of social media. And it means that there are some details of that investigation starting to dribble out, sometimes in garbled form.
I’m not going to be in a position to share new details or to confirm details that are currently reported. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s the responsibility of the investigators to put out information to the public that have an understandable, legitimate interest in understanding exactly what transpired. But they will do that consistent with their judgment about what best serves the investigation.
So I am aware that the FBI is planning to provide you with some updates, at least before the end of the day today. So that all being said, I will take a shot at answering your questions as best I can.
Josh, would you like to start?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. I won’t ask you to release new details or confirm them about the investigation, but I will ask you to provide some reaction to details that law enforcement authorities have released, such as the fact that the woman in this attack, Tashfeen Malik, apparently had pledged allegiance to ISIS in a Facebook post. Now that that information has been disseminated, does the White House believe that it would be accurate to characterize this as a terrorist attack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, there is information that has been disseminated, but I’m not going to be in a position to confirm it. So again, when the FBI has information that they have obtained that they’re prepared to release publicly, then they’ll do that. And until that time, I’m not going to be in a position to confirm these reports.
Let me just say in general, though, as an attempt to answer your question, without confirming that information, the FBI is leading this investigation, as the President said yesterday, because of the possibility that this is a terrorist attack. And the President summoned his national security advisor, his top counterterrorism advisor, his Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and the Deputy Director of Homeland Security to the Oval Office yesterday to get an update about what exactly transpired, and to make sure they understand how determined he is to get to the bottom of what exactly transpired.
And that’s exactly what the FBI and law enforcement officials and intelligence officials and others are doing. They’re using the significant resources of the United States government to learn as much as they can about what exactly transpired. And the President has been getting regular updates, including as recently as this morning. But it will be the responsibility of the investigators to make information public when they have concluded that it wouldn’t harm the investigation to do so.
Q Josh, I want to ask you about a rather stunning scene that played out on live television just a few moments before we came out here, in which reporters and television crews broadcasting live were permitted into the home of these killers and allowed to broadcast all kinds of passports, photos, ID cards that were left in there. Since the FBI is, as you said, running this investigation, and the landlord said this was handed back to him by authorities, does the White House think that that was an appropriate decision by the FBI to allow that to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this ongoing investigation is being led by the FBI, but in close coordination with local law enforcement. And for decisions about the investigation, I’d refer you to either local or federal law enforcement.
Q Does the President have complete confidence in the way that the FBI is carrying out this investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Of course he does. Again, there are significant resources, investigative resources that are being dedicated to getting to the bottom of what exactly transpired, to learning as much as we possibly can about the shooters, about their foreign travel, about their foreign contacts, about their use of social media, about their potential motives. And that work is well underway.
Q Was there any reaction from either the President or from officials here at the White House who are closely following this investigation at seeing that level of detail of things that appear to be sensitive made public in that fashion?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t speak to the President about this. I saw some of the footage on television, but just watching it like the rest of you.
Q And the President is going to be meeting today with some gun control advocates. What will his message be to them in terms of what they can expect from the administration about further steps to reduce gun violence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, the administration is in an open dialogue with outside organizations and with those who share the President’s passion for taking some common-sense steps to make it harder for those with bad intentions to get their hands on guns.
And this is obviously important work that the administration has been quite focused on. And the administration has worked closely with some of these outside groups to amplify the call of people across the country so that members of Congress can be responsive to those public priorities. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had the intended effect. And, in fact, we saw just yesterday that Republicans stood up once again with the NRA and in the face of common sense to vote down a measure that would close the loophole on background checks. Currently, individuals can purchase firearms over the Internet and at a gun show without going through a background check.
And it doesn't make any sense if we're actually committed to making it harder for individuals that are criminals, that are the subject of a court order, or have mental problems -- documented mental problems. We shouldn’t make it so easy for them to get a gun. And we can do that without undermining the basic rights of law-abiding Americans. But once again, Republicans blocked that effort, and Republicans also blocked the effort to make it illegal for people who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun.
Again, I think it’s a simple question: Why on Earth do we think it’s a good idea for somebody that the government thinks is too dangerous to board a plane to be allowed to buy a gun? It doesn't make any sense. But once again, Republicans block legislation that would make that illegal. So we’ve obviously got some additional work to do.
Q So is the White House concerned at all that just days after this shooting, the apartment where the suspect shooters lived was not secured?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for how and whether that specific location was secured, I’d refer you to the FBI and to local law enforcement.
Q So just to put a finer point on it, is the White House at all concerned today that reporters were allowed to just walk through that scene?
MR. EARNEST: What the White House is focused on is making sure that our investigators get to the bottom of what exactly transpired; that they conduct the kind of thorough investigation that will allow us to learn as much as we possibly can about the individuals who carried out this terrible act and about their potential motivations; and frankly, to learn what we can to try to prevent something like this from ever happening again. And that's what they're focused on. So again, you’d have to ask the FBI and local law enforcement about whether the media access that was granted earlier today is going to have any impact on their ongoing investigation.
Q But at this point, you're not prepared to say whether the White House is concerned about that at all, during the investigation?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, for any impact that that may have on the ongoing investigation, I’d refer you to the investigators.
Q How worried should Americans be -- just to take a step back for a second -- about the risk posed by copycats or self-radicalized people in America?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, as he mentioned yesterday, it’s important for people to be vigilant. And I think people can be vigilant knowing that the United States government, particularly since 9/11 -- going back to 9/11 -- has been quite focused on securing the homeland and securing the American people. And in the aftermath of 9/11, so much was learned about what the government can do to better orient our defenses to keep the American people safe. And in the years since, there have been a number of steps that have been taken to do exactly that.
So one thing that happened in the aftermath of 9/11 was we more effectively fused our law enforcement, our military, and our intelligence capabilities to make sure that when information was coming in it was being properly shared with relevant authorities and that action could be taken to secure the homeland.
The other thing that we knew was important for us to do is to strengthen the coordination between federal law enforcement and military intelligence authorities, and local law enforcement. These first responders are on the front lines of keeping communities across the country safe. And we have strengthened those relationships. And there’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year that is provided by the federal government to local communities all across the country to make those communities safer and more resilient, and more effective at preventing these kinds of actions from taking place.
A lot of effort, as we discussed at some length yesterday, has been invested in countering violent extremism and making sure that we have a robust effort, particularly online, to counter the radical messaging that we see from extremist organizations around the country and around the world. I think we’ve acknowledged that while we have made progress in countering that message, that there’s a lot more than can be done to make those efforts more effective, and that’s certainly a top priority.
And in a variety of ways, we have actually seen the important results of this work. That can be quantified by the aggressive efforts of law enforcement to arrest people who have stated an intention to travel to Syria, for example, to fight alongside ISIL. We have also seen first responders act effectively to save lives and to respond to terrible incidents when they do occur. I think the situation in Boston is a good example. That’s a place where we saw first responders work quickly to save the lives of people who were badly injured in that attack, and over the course of a few days bring to justice those who were responsible for carrying out that attack.
And the response that we saw from the citizens of Boston was absolutely inspiring -- this appeal to the notion of being Boston Strong, and that just days after this terrible attack was carried out at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, tens of thousands of Bostonians turned out at Fenway Park for a baseball game.
That’s the kind of response and spirit and patriotism that the American people have shown in the face of this threat, and the President continues to be confident that while the U.S. government is vigilant in doing what’s necessary -- all that’s necessary, all that’s possible to protect the American people, that the American people can continue on with their lives with a sense of confidence about the future.
Q Josh, I want to follow along that line that you gave to Roberta. In the midst of the efforts to try to find out who is radicalized, or what have you, in this nation, particularly after Paris and after what just happened in California, is there a concern? And what level of concern is there for the fact that some of these possible suspects have gone underground because of the magnitude of the situation and the fact that they know that the FBI is conducting raids, trying to find those who sympathize with the terrorists here in this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for updates on the investigation and any raids that may or may not be conducted by the FBI, I’d refer you to them.
Q Well, let me ask you this, so you can understand what I’m saying.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, because maybe I didn’t.
Q And I’m not necessarily talking about the raid. What is the level of concern here when it comes to finding those who are sympathizers of terrorists or sympathizers to ISIS who could possibly want to conduct something here? And especially what is the concern of finding them when it’s gone so public with Paris and the attempts to find people in Paris and in this country, and what happened in California?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to talk about the situation in California because there’s still an ongoing investigation to determine exactly what transpired and what motivated those individuals to take the terrible indefensible, violent action that they took.
Let me just say in general that the President and our national security officials have talked about how challenging it is to disrupt particularly lone-wolf attacks. And that is work that has drawn the intense focus of law enforcement both at the state and federal level. This is obviously something that the intelligence community is focused on, as well. But if you take a look at the track record, and particularly the important work that is done by the FBI and the Department of Justice, their record of disrupting these kinds of plans before they’re carried out is good and should give the American people confidence in the capabilities that we have and in the resources that are used to confront this threat.
Q There’s a lot of information on the record. Travel from Saudi to the United States. One of these individuals from Pakistan. There’s an amassing of weapons that we know about. Bombs. Are we at the point where the administration is ready to, if not concede, become concerned about the possibility of a major intelligence failure on these individuals on the West Coast?
MR. EARNEST: Joe, I think at this point it’s far too early to reach that kind of conclusion. We’re still learning exactly what was motivating these individuals, what steps they took to carry out this terrible act of violence. So I think before we make any grand pronouncements along those lines, it’s important for investigators to learn more about what exactly happened.
Q Is it time for the President, perhaps, to change the guidance to Americans, that they should feel confident that we are going to be able to defend ourselves, especially during the holiday season, given what’s happened here?
MR. EARNEST: Joe, the American people can continue to be confident that the U.S. government, that our law enforcement professionals, that our intelligence professionals, that our military professionals, that those who are charged with protecting the homeland take very seriously the responsibilities that they have. They are keenly aware of the threat that we face, and that there is an all-of-government approach that is taken to protecting the homeland, to protecting the American people, and to protecting our interests both in this country and around the world.
Q What can you tell us about, if anything, the vetting process for Tashfeen Malik, the wife? It does appear that she was vetted by the government to some extent before she traveled here.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Joe, this is one of the things that is part of the investigation, is to learn exactly the circumstances of some of the international travel that we saw from one of the individuals who was an American citizen, and also to learn more about the circumstances that the other shooter entered the United States. So this is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Q Is there a significant difference between the vetting of someone coming through on a K-1 fiancé visa as opposed to someone coming to the United States as a refugee from Syria?
MR. EARNEST: That is a good question. And what you’ve heard us say quite a bit over the last few weeks is that refugees seeking to be resettled in the United States are subjected to the most rigorous, intensive screening of anyone who attempts to enter the United States. That process can take typically between 18 and 24 months, and including in-person interviews, the collection of biographical and biometric information, the vetting of individuals running their names through a variety of databases, including databases that are maintained by the intelligence community, by the military and by international law enforcement.
The standards for individuals who enter the visa that you just described is not as strict. And there still is information that is being collected about the circumstances of this person’s entry. So there’s more to be learned on that.
Q And last question. Given the fact that this was a woman on the West Coast involved in this situation, what is the implication for migration policy now? We know in the case of refugees coming from Syria, women and children were given preference over young men of military age, for example. Does the United States need to look into whether women should be held to a stricter standard coming from certain countries due to the fact of what we’ve just seen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Joe, I think we -- part of this investigation is to collect information that we believe could be used to adjust our security posture to ensure that we keep the country safe. And so, again, this will be a question that our investigators will consider and that ultimately our homeland security professionals will have to evaluate, as well. They, like all of us, are trying to follow the admonition not to jump to conclusions. But obviously this is something that they will carefully consider.
Q So one that's slightly off-topic from what we’ve been talking about, do you think Paul Ryan is going to have more power with his conference than John Boehner did in the fall and get this omnibus passed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would say that I hope so. I don't think there’s anybody in this room or in any room on Capitol Hill that relishes the prospect of a mid-December or even a late-December government shutdown.
As I mentioned earlier this week, there does, however, continue to be a significant concern in this building that Republicans in Congress appear to be insisting on the inclusion of ideological riders in a budget bill. And the inclusion of those riders does risk a government shutdown for a variety of reasons. The first is, I don't think -- there’s not a lot of support across the country for the inclusion of ideological provisions in a budget bill. And there certainly would not be a lot of support across the country for shutting down the government about the inclusion of ideological provisions in a budget bill.
The second thing is, the inclusion of these ideological provisions, not surprisingly, has a rather polarizing effect in Congress. So I’m quite skeptical that a piece of budget legislation that includes provisions that would offer a special benefit to large companies that pollute our air and water, or benefits to the largest financial institutions on Wall Street, I don't think there’s going to be a lot of bipartisan support for that.
And we have seen -- in fact, Speaker Boehner on occasion demonstrated for us -- that trying to pass budget legislation strictly along party lines doesn't work, doesn't pass. So that's why hopefully Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell who preside over majorities in their respective houses of Congress will set aside those kinds of riders and focus on passing a budget in advance of next Friday’s deadline.
Q Josh, I think the criticism of the President in the last day seemed to be that he, in the immediate aftermath of this shooting in California, that he seemed to express sadness and frustration with Congress instead of outrage and anger at the possible terrorism-related issues here. Do you feel that the President’s kind of at least emotional response to this was, maybe as we learn more and more about their connection to foreign terrorist organizations, maybe not quite appropriate? That he should have been closer on the scale to sort of outrage and anger than sadness and talking about sort of domestic issues like gun access?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, I think what the American people expect of their President is someone who is going to step up, make sure that the resources and capabilities of the federal government are properly and effectively mobilized to get to the bottom of what happened. And that was the President’s first response. The President less than 24 hours after this incident occurred summoned to his office for his first meeting of the day yesterday the Director of the FBI, the Attorney General, his National Security Advisor, his top Counterterrorism Advisor, the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security to sit in his office and have a conversation about what needs to be done to find out what exactly happened and what steps need to be taken as a result of that investigation to further enhance our national security. Those are the steps that the President took, and I think those are the steps the American people expect their President to take.
Q What was the consensus of that meeting? I mean, in hard facts? I think that’s probably what Gardiner is looking at.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the meeting was principally focused on providing the President an update about the status of the ongoing investigation, but I think the consensus was that there was shared determination among those who participated in the discussion about getting to the bottom of what exactly transpired -- learning as much as we possibly can about the individuals who carried out this vile act, exploiting their social media, learning who they had recently been in touch with, understanding the circumstances of recent foreign travel, and trying to divine their motivations, and collecting that information to paint a picture of what exactly transpired so that we can learn from this incident and, if necessary, adjust our security posture to better strengthen our homeland security.
Q Did the President then charge them to come up with a response within a certain amount of time, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: The President charged them with conducting an investigation that gets to the bottom of what exactly happened, and that’s the stage that we’re in right now.
Q Josh, back in July, the President said, “We’re going to have to pick up our game to prevent lone-wolf attacks.” Is he confident that his homeland security team and I guess, beyond that, law enforcement around the country, has “picked up the game” to deal with this ISIS long-wolf threat?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think the President would say that we have. And I think the statistics that the Department of Justice can share with you about the number of individuals and the number of plots that have been disrupted I think is a pretty good accounting of how focused our law enforcement and our intelligence professionals are on this. But it’s quite challenging, and the President has talked before about how disrupting lone-wolf plots is probably the most significant challenge facing homeland security professionals these days.
Q So is it -- and, again, you’re not ready to call this a lone-wolf attack -- but is it inevitable that some will get through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think the President is resigned to that kind of inevitably. I think the President and his national security team remain vigilant. We’ve got national security professionals who work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, focused on keeping the homeland safe and trying to detect these plots and disrupt them when necessary. So this continues to get the intense focus of the President and his national security team.
Q Does he need more tools? And have any of the changes -- the pendulum had kind of swung the other way, and you obviously, you had to do what you did with the metadata program. is he confident that he has the tools he needs and that the homeland security team has the tools they need to deal with these threats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our national security professionals did say that they believed that the reforms that have been instituted to the so-called 215 program do effectively preserve the capabilities that they need to protect the homeland while also enhancing the right to privacy. There is one issue that does stand out as a particularly thorny one that’s related to striking that balance, and that is this issue of encryption, and that there is a challenge for our law enforcement who are concerned about people who use encryption to make these kinds of plots more difficult to detect.
And there’s ongoing work sort of at a policy level. There have been some conversations with members of Congress. There certainly have been a host of conversations with leaders in the technology community about what can be done to ensure both that we protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people -- the vast majority of law-abiding citizens that use this technology -- while also ensuring that people with bad intentions don’t use this technology to successfully carry out an attack against the United States.
Q And can you lean any further forward on whether or not this was terrorism? I mean, given what we’ve learned since you last spoke yesterday, the number of pipe bombs that were found, the extent of the ammunition, the apparent planning that went into this, this does not look -- you will acknowledge this does not look like workplace violence.
MR. EARNEST: This looks like -- I mean, what it looks like is people who were obviously intent on carrying out a terrible act of violence. But for divining their motives and getting a better sense of what their eventual plan may have been, that’s something that the FBI will need to speak to.
Q What would the administration have to see to get to the terrorism description? Are you sticking to this very specific FBI definition?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, what we’re going to do is we’re going to evaluate the information that our investigators are able to undercover and confirm. And I think based on the information that they collect, based on where the facts lead that investigation, that’s ultimately how we’ll draw some conclusions about what their motives were and what their broader intent may have been.
Q What’s the threshold to terrorism, is what I’m trying to understand?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think it will require a careful examination of the facts that are collected, and better insight into what their intent may have been.
Q So it’s fairly vague, or is it -- words like “coercion,” “intimidation,” “political motive,” those are things that you’re looking for, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and those sort of fit the legal definition. So, in some ways, there are a couple of different questions here. One is, what are the kinds of -- what is sort of the legal classification of this, and then how should the American people understand exactly what these individuals were attempting to do.
Q Just a more general question. I think there’s a level of concern that the parsing of all this by the administration is adding to the anxiety of the general public out there. Has the President received any communications from other leaders, individuals, expressing that anxiety and concern, and perhaps even confusion about what’s going on because of this parsing of all this -- what this is and what it isn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, I’ll tell you that the President’s focus and the focus of his national security team is on the investigation and on the steps that are necessary to protect the homeland. That’s what our focus is. And there’s no parsing that. The President’s top priority is homeland security and countering terrorism and protecting the American people.
Q On the immigration issue, you’ve said, as you said to Joe, about how the refugee process is very strict and all that, and apparently there’s not been -- there’s no concern about that. The K-1 process, has that ever been something on the radar of the administration as something that we might need to look at as a way -- because there are people out there saying now that they long thought that this was a way that someone could exploit the immigration system to get into the country. Has this ever been on the radar?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would do is I would encourage you to check with the Department of Homeland Security on this. And they obviously are responsible for administering these programs and making sure that people who enter the country are properly vetted, consistent with their assessment about whatever risk that individual may pose.
I can tell you that as all of these programs are implemented, that protecting the United States and protecting our homeland is, in fact, their top priority. So you’d have to check with them about whether or not any reforms have been considered in the past.
What I can confirm for you is that as we learn more about this case, and as we investigate the circumstances under which this individual entered the country, that I certainly wouldn’t rule out the potential of reforms being implemented in the future to strengthen that program if we determine that that's necessary.
Q One last thing. In terms of homeland security, the FBI Director I think recently said that there are at least three dozen individuals who might commit violence who are under heavy surveillance in the country. And you said a minute ago that the DOJ could tell us the number of plots that have been disrupted. Can you give me some indication of what that number is, of plots disrupted? And does that three dozen individuals under heavy surveillance sound about right still?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for individuals that may or may not be under surveillance, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice. As it relates -- my reference to plots disrupted is that it is not uncommon for the Department of Justice to send out a news release indicating that an individual has been arrested, either because they were planning to travel to Syria or because they were planning to carry out a lone-wolf attack here in the United States. And for a compilation of those announcements, I’m confident that the Department of Justice can provide that to you in relatively short order.
Q So there’s no -- can you tell us whether there’s been an increase in that kind of activity -- disruption, arrests, so and so forth?
MR. EARNEST: Check with the Department of Justice. This is their responsibility. But I’m sure they can give you some numbers that will provide some texture to that for you.
Q Thanks, Josh. The White House is backing a change that would ban people on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms. You talked about it at the top of the briefing. Does the President have any concerns that such a bill would deprive some Americans of a constitutional right without due process? These are people that are suspected of something. They haven’t been convicted or charged.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Byron, in this case there is a view that if the government has determined that it is too dangerous for you to get on an airplane, it’s the view of the administration that you should not be able to legally purchase a firearm. There is a process for considering -- there have been well-documented incidents where people have suggested that their inclusion on the no-fly list was not appropriate. And they had a venue for addressing that, in some cases getting that fixed.
But again, if we're talking about national security and people keeping people safe, I think the idea is a sound one. If it’s too dangerous for you to get on an airplane, it’s too dangerous for you to purchase a gun.
Q I can play devil’s advocate for a moment. Flying on an airplane --
MR. EARNEST: Sure. Part of your job description. (Laughter.)
Q -- is not a constitutional right. The Supreme Court found in Heller, however, that there is a constitutional right to bear -- individuals have a constitutional right to bear arms. Shouldn't there be a higher bar for depriving someone of a constitutional right than just curbing their travel?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m certainly not a constitutional lawyer in a position to debate this to you.
Q The President is.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but maybe you’ll have the opportunity to ask him about it.
MR. EARNEST: But I think the principle that we're operating under here is I think pretty common-sense and self-evident and one that we obviously stand firmly behind. If the government has determined that it’s too dangerous for you to board an airplane, you should not be able to legally purchase a firearm.
Q Is the President still -- does he still broadly believe in a constitutional right to bear arms? I know he said he believes in common-sense gun safety measures. But does he philosophically believe the Second Amendment gives Americans the individual right to bear firearms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, he would probably give you a more drawn-out, constitutional answer. But I think the direct answer is yes. And I think that's why every time you hear me talk about common-sense gun legislation, it is in the context of, yes, there are changes that we can make that don't undermine the constitutionally protected rights of law-abiding American citizens. That is a principle that the President has long advocated.
Q Thanks, Josh. Different subject. Highway funding -- that expires today. Will the President sign that bill today? And do you have any more comments on the bill that passed yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: The President will sign that bill as soon as it arrives at the White House. I don’t know when that will be. And I think that you can expect a written statement from the President about that legislation. In general, let me just say that it does reflect some positive progress. For a long time, Congress has been passing transportation funding in small increments, several months at a time. What we know about infrastructure projects is that the most impactful ones take years to implement and build. And trying to carry out a years’ long project based on monthly or several months of incremental funding is not particularly efficient or effective.
So that’s why the White House has been supportive of this compromise legislation that would fund infrastructure projects for five years. Now, the White House has obviously put forward a proposal for increasing that funding substantially, because we believe that there is more that could be done; that there are other worthy infrastructure projects that are not being built right now because funding is not available. And if we were able to initiate those projects it would both create jobs in the short term, but also do something important for our economy over the long term.
The other thing that I’d say about this is that it is, like any piece of bipartisan legislation, a compromise. And it’s not a perfect bill. I’m sure that there are some things about the bill that Republicans don’t love. There are some things about the bill that Democrats don’t love. But by identifying some common ground, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to do something good for the country and good for our economy. We hope that members of Congress will take precisely the same approach in passing a budget bill before December 11th.
Q Thank you, Josh. First, on health care, the Senate passed an outright repeal of Obamacare, and I just would like to have your reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, James, we’ve seen Congress on a number of occasions pass legislation with the goal of repealing Obamacare. I’m pleased to report to you that once again Republicans have failed in that effort. And I know there are a lot of Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail who talk about how weak and ineffectual Republicans in Washington, D.C. are, and they often hold up the failure, despite strong Republican majorities in Congress, to repeal Obamacare. It looks like they’ve got their latest example.
Q The fact that Obamacare is now the law of the land and has survived some Supreme Court challenge, is it the position of the administration that the fact that something is the law of the land should allow it to stand and that it shouldn’t be challenged once is it so established? In other words, there are some things that become the law of the land that subsequently time reveals have been bad law, right? And obviously you’re not going to say Obamacare is bad law, but you’re not going to suggest, are you, that people should cease challenging it simply because it’s the law of the land?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, James, what we’ve actually said since the law passed is that the President would be willing to work with Democrats or Republicans, people on either side of the aisle, who had a genuine desire to try to strengthen the law. And there are a couple of examples -- I don’t have them in front of me, but a couple of examples of bills that the President has signed earlier this year that represent very small but still represent improvements to the law. And I think that’s an indication that the President continues to believe that there may be additional steps that can be taken to strengthen the law.
I think the frustration that the administration has felt is that time and time again, the goal of Republicans has been not to strengthen the law but rather to undermine it. And just to serve as one example here, this latest piece of legislation that the Senate voted on, according to the CBO, if it were to pass, it would actually prevent 22 million Americans from getting health insurance. That certainly does not represent a strengthening of the law.
Q Two other quick topics, please. I saw your comments yesterday from the podium to the effect that the President supports the decision that was reached by Secretary Carter to open up all combat roles to women. Does the administration have a view on whether, given the fact that now this gender standard has been removed from the question of combat operations, similarly we should see the removal of the gender standard where the Selective Service is concerned? As you know, only men are required to register for the Selective Service for the possible restoration of the draft. Should that gender standard also be removed now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing that I learned shortly before coming out here is that this is actually something that the Department of Defense is taking a look at. And as part of the Department of Defense offering notification to Congress about this change, the Department of Defense provided an analysis about any impact that this decision would have on the Selective Service Act.
So we’re going to continue -- we’re going to work with Congress to look at that analysis, to review it, and sort of get others’ opinions to determine if additional reforms or changes to the act are necessary in light of this specific decision.
Q The President has not conveyed to Secretary Carter any view on it so far?
MR. EARNEST: He has not.
Q Last question. I want to pick up on some of Ron’s questioning earlier. As you know, administration critics have long suggested that there is a kind of deficit to the President’s rhetoric when it comes to terrorism. And this argument has taken many forms. For example, there was widespread dissatisfaction when the administration initially referred to the Fort Hood shootings as an example of workplace violence and it was later fairly well established that that was an act of terrorism. We’re seeing a situation right now that for all intents and purposes appears to be an act of terrorism, where the administration is reluctant seemingly to say so. And then, of course, there’s the question about whether or not the President should properly be making reference to Islam jihadism or radical Islamist terrorism as opposed to just violent extremism. These are questions that go, as you know, to the rhetorical function of the presidency. And so I just ask you, does this President have a problem with his rhetoric where terrorism is concerned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, maybe in the mind of his critics, but he certainly doesn’t when it comes to his resolve in confronting terrorism and keeping the country safe. And that is why we have redoubled our efforts to secure the homeland. It is why you’ve seen this President build and lead an international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The reason that the President has initiated 8,000 airstrikes on the part of our coalition against ISIL targets in Iraq and in Syria is because the President is determined to do everything we can to prevent ISIL from establishing a safe haven that they could then use to plot and even carry out attacks against the United States or our interests.
Q The thrust of the criticism is that as a Commander-in-Chief, President Obama will always be handicapped in his ability to really effectively confront this threat precisely because he isn’t properly defining it in his rhetoric or therefore in his own mind.
MR. EARNEST: I guess, James, the fact that our harshest critics, that the best criticism that they can come up with is to criticize what the President says, I think is a pretty strong endorsement of all the actions that the President has taken to keep the country safe.
Q I only identified it as one strain of criticism. I didn’t identify it as the best that they have. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Fair enough, fair enough.
Q Josh, is it fair to say that the White House will hold off on any policy response, perhaps executive action on gun control, until after the full investigation of San Bernardino concludes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a timeline for you to share with you in terms of any additional executive actions that the administration may take to put in place some common-sense gun safety policies. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that.
Q Well, I ask because you’ve emphasized you don’t want to name it until you really know what happened in San Bernardino. Do you also have to wait then before it’s determined what type of terrorism or type of workplace violence before the President does something in terms of a policy change? Or is there pressure to look responsive and to look like the President is acting in response to an event that has scared a lot of people?
MR. EARNEST: I guess the question is, are you talking just specifically about gun safety policies?
Q No, that’s what I’m asking.
MR. EARNEST: You’re talking more generally.
Q A policy shift, a policy change, a policy response --
MR. EARNEST: With regard to homeland security or our campaign against ISIL? You’re talking about any of these things?
Q I’m talking about any and all of those things. I guess that gets to the idea of whether you need to name it and know exactly what it is before you respond to it. Because we have heard from the President very specific policy prescriptions he has to access to guns that isn’t necessarily applicable as yet to the attack in San Bernardino. The no-fly list, for example, wouldn’t apply to these two individuals.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I’d say a couple things about that. The first is, based on information that is uncovered in the investigation, if there is information that is collected that highlights a needed change in our security posture, then we’ll implement that change immediately. And there won’t be any hesitation to do that.
Q At the conclusion of an investigation?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think even in the course of an investigation. If we learn that there is a significant homeland security vulnerability -- I don’t know if that will be the conclusion or even something that is uncovered in the context of this investigation -- but if it is, securing the homeland continues to be the President’s top priority, and that’s a step that he’ll take right away.
As it relates to these questions of gun safety policies, or executive actions that could make it harder for individuals who shouldn’t have guns from getting them, that has been something that we’ve been working on for a long time. That’s something that we’ve been working on in advance of this latest incident.
I guess in some ways -- we had a little bit of a discussion about this yesterday about whether or not there are specific steps the President could have taken to prevent this specific situation. And so one question is, well, why is it important to, for example, pass a law that prevents anybody on the no-fly list from buying a gun if we knew that wouldn’t have prevented the situation in San Bernardino?
I guess the thing that I would say is, are you suggesting, therefore, that we should wait until somebody who’s on the no-fly list walks into a gun store in America, purchases an assault weapon, and kills a bunch of Americans before we pass that law? That doesn’t seem like a very good way to either run public policy or to run the greatest country in America. We should be taking common-sense steps now that we know will make the country safer. And that's what the President is advocating.
Q I asked that because in that sort of climate of fear, critics are saying -- they sort of call for the President to do something, whatever that something is. Is that not something that the White House thinks is a valid criticism, or perhaps that's the wrongheaded response to act during the immediate aftermath of an attack? Is there an approach of how to go forward?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President’s approach is to be very focused on facts, on evidence. The facts will guide the investigation. And based on the facts that are uncovered, we’ll take whatever steps are necessary to protect the country and to protect the homeland.
Q Can I ask you as well, separately -- in that culture of fear, is the White House concerned about backlash against the Muslim community, specifically? Whether or not this radicalism or violence was inspired by that, there is among some the perception and certainly rhetoric in public space linking that violence to Islam because that was the religion of the two attackers? Is that specifically a concern?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has expressed his concern about some of the grossly irresponsible -- and in some cases, outright bigoted -- political rhetoric that we’ve heard over the last several weeks.
And the President does not believe that that is consistent with American values. He does not believe, importantly, that that makes the country safer. In fact, President George W. Bush was somebody who keenly understood that targeting Muslims or somehow marginalizing them only advances the narratives of our enemies. And that's why President George W. Bush went out of his way to make clear that the United States and the West are not at war with Islam. In fact, we're at war with extremists who are capitalize -- who are trying to capitalize on some vulnerable populations, including many Muslims to try to inspire them to carry out acts of violence.
And what’s clear is that the United States, the American people, and the American government need to work with the millions of patriotic Muslim Americans in this country to make our country safer, and to make it harder, if not outright prevent extremist organizations from radicalizing vulnerable members of their community. And that is something that we’ve been focused on for quite some time.
It’s very challenging work, but it’s something that has attracted a lot of attention. And one of the things that I would commend to your attention that I noticed earlier today is this op-ed in the New York Times by an American Muslim who is a naval reservist. His name is Haider Ali Hussein Mullick, and he writes very persuasively about some of the issues that you raise. And he cited specifically the FBI’s community outreach program in Minneapolis, where we saw the U.S. government and some law enforcement elements of the U.S. government work effectively with a local Muslim community in Minneapolis to counter radicalization efforts and, in some cases, even prevent terrorist attacks.
That kind of coordination is critical to our ongoing success, and it is a priority of this administration. Fortunately, it was the priority of the previous administration, and that’s something that President Bush certainly deserves a lot of credit for.
Q But at this point, you don’t see the need for additional security? I mean, there have been threats against mosques. There is certainly a perception among the Muslim community that they are being viewed with scrutiny right now. Is there a need, or was that discussed in the President’s meeting yesterday of looking at the security of mosques and other institutions?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware to what degree that was discussed. I know that there are local officials, including local law enforcement officials that are quite concerned about this. But, again, I think this is the kind of question that local law enforcement will consider, and obviously they can count on the support of the United States to target people, based on their religion, runs directly counter to the founding principles and values of the United States of America.
Q Thanks, Josh. Now that the Senate has blocked the effort to bar people on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms, is that an area where the White House believes President Obama has executive authority to tighten those rules? And if so, is that on the list of proposals that the President is scrubbing as he considers executive action?
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, I just don’t have an update for you in terms of the ongoing work to scrub the law, as the President described it. So I’m confident that the group of individuals who are working on that have cast a wide net in doing so, but I just don’t have an update for you at this point on what they’re considering or when they may be prepared to make an announcement.
Francesca, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Two questions kind of tying up all this talk about terrorism today. I’ll start with a follow-up on the most recent one. You were specifically asked if the President fears that Muslims could be attacked in retaliation -- the specific word being used is “backlash,” and that is because his own Attorney General said yesterday evening that her greatest fear is that there could be a backlash against the Muslim community. So I just wanted to ask one more time, possibly more directly, does the President fear that there could be a backlash against Muslims because of this?
MR. EARNEST: The President has been disturbed at a lot of the political rhetoric that we’ve seen directed at Muslims, and the President has spoken about that I think quite forcefully over the last couple of weeks. At the same time, I think the President is confident that the vast majority of Americans understand this core principle that people aren’t targeted for violence based on their religious beliefs. That is a core value of our country. That is a value that is worth defending. It is also a value that is broadly shared by just about every American. If there are some specific steps that need to be taken to protect a mosque against a specific threat, I have total confidence that local law enforcement is committed to that effort. And if they need the support of the federal government, I’m sure that they will receive it.
But it has been instrumental to our efforts against groups like al Qaeda and ISIS and other terrorist organizations to make clear that the United States is at war with those organizations, but we’re not at war with Islam. We’re not at war with Muslims around the world. In fact, there are a number of Muslim countries that have joined the U.S. coalition against ISIL. They’re invested in this effort. There are patriotic American Muslims serving in our military right now to keep this country safe.
And all of that undermines one of ISIL’s most powerful weapons, which is their narrative that they are the inheritor of the legacy and message and inspiration of Islam, and that they are using all of that to wage a war against the West. That’s a fantasy. It is not true. And any effort to marginalize Muslims in this country only advances that narrative.
And President Obama and President Bush and other leaders in this country who have stood up to make that clear deserve a lot of credit, because it’s good for our country, it’s good for our national security, and it is entirely consistent with the basic founding principles and values of the United States of America.
Q And that leads me to my second question. To follow up on the threshold for terrorism, just to take that a little bit further and put up a threshold for radical Islamic terrorism, it sounds like you’re saying to me that the President is never going to call it that. It doesn’t matter what the results of this FBI investigation are, that the threat -- I guess my question is, what is the threshold? Are you saying that’s never going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m saying is the President is going to take all the steps that he believes are necessary to protect the United States of America. And one thing that he believes is critically important to protecting the United States of America is undermining the narrative that is advanced by ISIL. And to seek to marginalize or isolate Muslims in America or anywhere else only serves to advance that narrative.
Q So he won’t call it radical Islamic terrorism? He’s not going to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think I’ve been pretty clear about this.
All right, let me do the week ahead and then we’ll let you guys get started on your weekends.
On Monday, the President and the First Lady will attend -- well, they’ll host and attend the congressional holiday ball here at the White House.
On Tuesday, the President will participate in a DNC roundtable here in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to the United States Capitol to deliver remarks at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. The President will be joined by members of both the House and the Senate, including congressional leadership in the Congressional Black Caucus in marking this historic event.
That afternoon, the President will welcome Israeli President Rivlin to the White House for a meeting. The President looks forward to discussing with President Rivlin a range of issues of common focus, including the unprecedented bilateral security cooperation between the United States and Israel, regional developments, combatting extremism in all its forms, and the need for genuine advancement of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution. President Rivlin will also be an honored guest at the White House’s annual Hanukkah reception following the meeting between the two Presidents.
On Thursday and Friday, the President will attend meetings here at the White House, and hopefully in that period of time the President will be signing a budget agreement to avert a government shutdown.
So with that, hope you all have an excellent weekend.
1:56 P.M. EST