Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/8/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Before we get started, I actually wanted to follow up on one piece of business from yesterday. I was asked at the end of the briefing -- Francesca, I think you asked this question -- about the prospect of the President possibly being partisan by raising the no-fly, no-buy loophole in his address to the nation. And I pointed out to you at the time that there are Republicans who supported this. And so I went back and did a little checking on it.
This is a loophole that Pete King described as “incredibly dangerous.” John Kasich, Republican candidate for president, said, “On the no-fly list, we probably could keep them from getting guns and ought to ban them.” And even Governor Chris Christie, another Republican candidate for president, said about the no-fly, no-buy loophole, “In theory, I don't have a huge problem with it.” Now, considering that Governor Christie has a huge problem with just about everything the administration does, that's saying something.
Congressman King actually put forward legislation on this, I believe it was in the previous Congress. Among the cosponsors was Bob Dold from Illinois, Daniel Donovan from New York, Leonard Lance from New Jersey, Chris Smith from New Jersey, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida. One thing that all those members of Congress have in common, they’re all Republicans.
So this is something that has bipartisan support. It is something that is consistent with common sense. And for the sake of our national security, as I mentioned in Paris a little over a week ago, before Congress goes home for the holidays they should pass legislation to close the no-fly, no-buy loophole.
And with that, let’s go to your questions. Darlene, would you like to start?
Q Thank you. Speaker Ryan says that they will likely have to pass a short-term CR this week. And I know there was a little back-and-forth about this in the briefing yesterday. Could you be a little clearer about whether the President would sign legislation like that, to give them another day or two to work through the mechanics if that’s what they need?
MR. EARNEST: We have been clear that if members of Congress needed an extra day or two in order to pass legislation, that the President would ensure the government didn’t shut down while they were going through the legislative mechanics of passing a bipartisan budget agreement. But Congress has had ample time to negotiate, and the only thing that's blocking negotiations right now is the insistence on the part of Republicans to use the budgetary process to advance their stalled ideological agenda.
That's not appropriate. It certainly is not an appropriate way to manage the affairs of the greatest country in the world. And the President is not going to sign a piece of legislation to give them more time to negotiate on a set of ideological riders. Those ideological riders should not be a part of the process. What should be part of the process is finding common ground to pass a budget on time that adequately funds our national security priorities, of course, but also our economic priorities.
I hope that clarifies a little bit what our stance is.
Q Sure. And I think at this point they’re just talking about having to work through the weekend before they can wrap this up.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Hope you're right.
Q To follow up on Donald Trump, his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., can you say if the President will be doing anything more beyond what he said in the speech on Sunday in terms of calling for tolerance towards Muslims? Will he be talking about this more? Will he be maybe having some sort of a public meeting with Muslims, maybe traveling to a Muslim community to sort of counter the sentiment against Muslims that seems to be growing in the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any updates to the President’s schedule about this. And as you point out, this is something the President has talked about quite extensively, and most recently in his address to the nation on Sunday.
Let me just step back and say that the Trump campaign for months now has had a dustbin-of-history-like quality to it, from the vacuous sloganeering to the outright lies to even the fake hair -- the whole carnival barker routine that we've seen for some time now. The question now is about the rest of the Republican Party and whether or not they’re going to be dragged into the dustbin of history with him. And right now, the current trajectory is not very good.
Earlier this year, House Republicans elected to their leadership somebody who famously bragged to a reporter that he’s “David Duke without the baggage.” Earlier this month, we saw the executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee was advising candidates about how they could ride the Trump wave. And just today -- today -- the newly elected Speaker of the House said that he would vote for Donald Trump for president if he’s the party’s nominee.
Now, I know that each of the Republican candidates has already taken an oath pledging to support Donald Trump for president of the United States if he wins the nomination. But the fact is the first thing a president does when he or she takes the oath of office is to swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And the fact is that what Donald Trump said yesterday disqualifies him from serving as president. And for Republican candidates for president to stand by their pledge to support Mr. Trump, that in and of itself is disqualifying.
Q What are Speaker Ryan and other Republicans supposed to do if Trump -- let’s say Trump does end up winning the nomination. Would you like them not to support him?
MR. EARNEST: They should say right now that they would not support Donald Trump for president. What he said is disqualifying. And any Republican who’s too fearful of the Republican base to admit it has no business serving as president either.
Q Thanks. A lot of details have emerged about the investigation of the San Bernardino shooting with increasing frequency about who may have supplied the weapons, who these people may have been in touch with. I know you made very clearly you’re not in a place to confirm any of those details, but can you just talk us through how frequently the President is being updated on this investigation and who is updating him? Is it Director Comey of the FBI? Is it his Homeland Security Secretary? Just walk us through those discussions and how frequently they’re happening.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the President is frequently being updated on this. The President gets a national security briefing every morning in the Oval Office at the start of his schedule. And I know that this ongoing threat and this act of terror is a part of those discussions, and a host of the President’s national security team participates in those -- a group of officials from the President’s national security team participate in those conversations. So there is a mechanism for him to get regular updates, but I’m confident that if he’s seeking more information or feels the desire for an additional piece of information that he won’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call his Attorney General or call his FBI Director or call the Director of the Counterterrorism Center.
Q So once a day?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at least, I guess is the way that I’d describe it.
Q Also following on the omnibus discussion, there’s been some discussion on the Hill about including a measure in the omnibus that would lift the ban on crude oil exports. Would the President veto an omnibus bill specifically for including that measure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned earlier, there are a host of things that are out there that are being considered for inclusion in the omnibus. The one thing that you’ve cited is obviously a provision, a legislative provision that the administration has consistently opposed. Our position on that is we continue to oppose that legislative provision.
But I’m just not going to get into sort of a detailed list of all the things that we’re going to veto or not veto. Our position on that is firm -- we oppose it. We also oppose other things that have been floated for possible inclusion on the omnibus. And we have been aggressively advocating to Republicans in Congress that they should focus on the budgetary priorities of the country and not try to advance ideological aspects of their agenda that have been stalled other places.
So, ultimately, what we need to see is we need Congress to pass a budget before the end of the year -- or before the end of this week -- so that the national security and economic priorities of the country can be fully funded on time.
Q Obviously he opposes this, as you said, but you’re not saying yet whether or not it’s enough to sink an omnibus bill.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to say at this point, on a one-off basis, all of the variety of things that have been floated for potential inclusion in the bill about whether or not they would be potential deal-breakers. Our position continues to be that Republicans should not seek to use the budgetary process inappropriately to advance the most controversial aspects of their ideological agenda.
Q Back on Trump. Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security Secretary, said today that Trump’s rhetoric is actually harmful to America’s national security. Does the White House believe that? And why?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. And the President described this at some length in his speech on Sunday night. The fact is, ISIL is trying to advance a narrative that suggests that they represent the religion of Islam in waging a war against the United States and the West. That narrative is false. It is a fantasy. The fact is that millions of Muslims are actually on the side of the United States and our international coalition in trying to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. There are Muslim Americans serving in our Armed Forces right now, putting their lives on the line for our national security. And to suggest otherwise only advances the narrative of ISIL.
Q Is this, his rhetoric -- do you fear that his rhetoric actually will turn some Muslims in this country against this country because of the way that he is talking about Muslims who normally would not have been involved in perhaps the radicalism that some are? Will this, in fact, backfire and hurt the country in that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly do believe that this is harmful to the country and it’s contrary to our values. Let me just say that as offensive and toxic as Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is, it does not condone or justify any act of violence. But the concern that we have -- and, again, this is something the President said in his speech on Sunday night -- is that the United States government and our national security officials are going to be most effective if they’re able to work in partnership with leaders of the Muslim American community to prevent those who are most vulnerable to this radical ISIL ideology from being incited and inspired to carry out an act of violence. And rhetoric, like the offensive bluster that we hear from Mr. Trump, makes it much harder to build and solidify that relationship.
Q Finally, is it practical -- in any way, is his plan practical? Could, in fact, the administration -- whether it’s your administration or his administration -- prevent and find out who’s Muslim and who’s not, from coming in this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, that sounds like a good question for him. And we certainly hear a lot from Mr. Trump that seems far-fetched and unrealistic in addition to being grotesque and offensive. So I guess you’d have to ask him. I think the President has made quite clear his view that imposing some kind of religious test on those seeking to enter or even return to the United States runs counter to the Constitution.
Q Josh, I want to go back to Trump rhetoric. You say it’s harmful -- you agreed that it’s harmful to the national security of this nation. Has this White House had to talk to world leaders about what Trump had to -- has this White House had to defuse some of the rhetoric and some of the height of this anger and talk to world leaders about it since he made the statements?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if -- in the last 12 or 18 hours, I’m not aware of any conversations with world leaders that have been focused on this issue, no.
Q What are you getting from leaders in Muslim countries from this rhetoric? What are you hearing? Can you give us a little bit of tick-tock, some of the information you’re getting from embassies or from the world leaders themselves coming here about what he’s saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this may come as a source of some disappointment to Mr. Trump, but I’m not sure they’re paying that much attention to him.
Q And lastly, as you’ve been so eloquent in describing Mr. Trump and what he’s done, what really was the push to say he disqualifies himself at this point? I mean, because he talked about Mexicans and this wall with this pretty door. What was really the final nail in the coffin for him to say he is disqualified as a presidential candidate? You’ve had ample time to do it before. Why now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly has been an accumulation of offensive and incendiary comments from Mr. Trump. This is only the latest. But, again, if your first act as President is to put your hand on the Bible and swear an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, the kind of policy -- if I could call it that -- that Mr. Trump is advocating is entirely inconsistent with the values that are enshrined in our Constitution.
Q Will we hear President Obama come out specifically at any time -- speaking of Donald Trump and his rhetoric, since you are calling him by name now, something that you don’t like doing and you kind of dismiss him but today you’ve been clear about where this White House stands on Donald Trump.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific plans for the President to address this directly.
Q In the past, Trump would say something controversial, somewhere on the scale of controversy, you would always say, well, I’m not going to get into it, it’s all rhetoric, I believe that a robust debate is good for this country, good for democracy. So is Trump now not good for this country and not good for democracy, along with his rhetoric?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is not the first time I’ve addressed something offensive that Mr. Trump has had to say. But I think many people have observed something materially different about his comments from last night. And coming on the backend of an accumulation of offensive comments, it is clear that what he’s said is disqualifying. And for the other Republican candidates who have pledged to support him, it’s disqualifying for them to continue to hold that position.
To support somebody for the presidency who articulates these views I think is a pretty clear indication that you don’t have the right judgment to serve as president of the United States. It certainly is an indication that you don’t have the courage of your convictions to stand up and speak out when something so offensive is uttered.
Q So you feel that it’s an accumulation of things culminating in what he said yesterday, that’s what put you over the edge in terms of this not just being rhetoric or debate that’s good for America?
MR. EARNEST: Well, and I think the Secretary of Homeland Security indicated that it was contrary to our national security interests and makes it harder to defend the country.
Q So this is no longer debate that’s good for America and good for democracy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we should have a robust debate about foreign policy in this country. And the President alluded to that, even, in his address on Sunday night. He made clear that we should have a debate about what’s necessary to protect the country, about the best strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. But that should be a debate about policy that reflects the values of this country that are enshrined in our Constitution.
And what Mr. Trump said runs directly counter to those values. It undermines them. It tarnishes them. And it’s why so many Americans find them offensive.
Q So this is no longer -- you think this is beyond robust debate that is good for this country -- is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: Again, people will -- it certainly -- let me just go back to where I was here, which is that what Mr. Trump said is deeply offensive and, as the Secretary of Homeland Security said, has consequences for our national security.
But the real question for the Republican Party and for the Republican candidates is are they going to be dragged into the dustbin of history along with Donald Trump? And right now, if you look at the current state of the Republican Party, one of their leaders in Congress is somebody who bragged about -- reportedly bragged to a reporter about being “David Duke without the baggage.” You’ve got somebody at the Republican Senate Campaign Committee trying to design a strategy that will allow Republican candidates across the country to benefit from Mr. Trump’s incendiary and offensive rhetoric. And you have the Speaker of the House saying that he’d vote for Donald Trump. So that does not indicate that the Republican Party has joined the rest of us in the 21st century.
Q Lastly, so many things that have been said have been passed off as just it’s a campaign year and this is rhetoric. So how is this not just -- okay, you don’t believe in it; you don’t believe what he’s saying. So how is this not to you just rhetoric that should be brushed aside as something that would, in your opinion, be ridiculous?
MR. EARNEST: Because it’s morally reprehensible. It runs counter to the Constitution. And it has consequences for our national security. And the problem is, is you still have a bunch of Republican candidates who are standing by their pledge to support him for president of the United States if, in fact, he’s nominated by the Republican Party to do so. That’s a problem.
Q But the fact that he’s leading by so much in the polls also must tell you that many, many Americans agree with everything he’s been saying, at least up until this point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see.
Q Josh, staying on this -- fortunately or unfortunately -- when Trump made his remarks in South Carolina last night, he was greeted with a standing ovation. There is a sizable portion of the population -- the statistics are all over the place -- but these people exist who believe that Islam is incompatible with American values; that Islam should be illegal inside the United States. The President’s response on Sunday, or his statement on Sunday largely presented a reasonable and rational argument to this that may not find quarter with those Americans. But he’s the President for those Americans, too. What’s the White House’s message to those who would stand up and applaud Mr. Trump who would believe that Islam should be illegal inside the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the message that we’ve delivered has been quite consistent over the last seven years, and a religious test like the one that Mr. Trump is suggesting runs directly counter to the Constitution and, as the Secretary of Homeland Security indicated, has negative consequences for our homeland security.
Q When you’re making an argument that’s based on what this administration believes is a rational basis but the opposition to your argument is stoking fear, it doesn’t seem like the rationale is always winning out. Can the President reach those Americans that he represents who are afraid and may find some solace in the arguments being presented by Trump and plenty of others?
MR. EARNEST: I feel confident standing here today, Jared, and telling you that the vast majority of Americans believe in defending the values that are enshrined in our Constitution.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back to the omnibus. (Laughter.) The other crisis -- (laughter) -- government shutdown in four days. Republicans have also prepared a tax extender package, which is typical for the end of the year. Has the White House seen the tax package? Is it acceptable? And would it be okay if that were on omnibus package as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House is aware of the ongoing conversations on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans about this so-called tax extenders package. Ultimately, Congress will have to make their own determination about what’s included in that legislation and what the best way to pass it is. Our principle in general on those kinds of measures has been to insist upon relief for middle-class families. And the tendency for Republicans is to focus on relief for special interests and big businesses in those discussions. And our position, and our passion for looking out for the middle class is not going to take a backseat in those negotiations.
Now, right now, those negotiations are taking place on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans, and I've got a lot of confidence that the Democratic members of Congress who are participating in that debate have the same passion for the middle class that the President does.
So we'll see what eventually they’re able to come up with, if anything.
Q It's your understanding right now is it's not fully finished yet, that there’s --
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that those conversations are ongoing.
Q Also along that -- Republicans and others on Capitol Hill have a proposal they’re trying to attach to legislation that would delay these fiduciary rules the administration would like to put in place -- the rules that would require investment advisors to act in the best interest of retirees when investing their savings. Is there any kind of delay in this that you folks would find acceptable even if it were a lesser delay than what they want?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that this is a rule that’s been under consideration by the Department of Labor for some time now that the President believes is important. This is a rule that essentially requires investment advisors to act in the best interest of their clients when giving advice on retirement accounts. Right now, because this rule isn't in place, the estimate is that billions of dollars every year is lost because this rule is not in place. So we're looking to put the rule in place to protect that money and protect the hard-earned investments of working people.
The factor for us that is paramount here is that those investment advisors who are already doing the right thing, this doesn’t impose an additional burden on them. That's why we believe this is a common-sense rule; it's consistent with the values and priorities that the President outlined, which includes giving more middle-class Americans access to a retirement with dignity. And so we're going to aggressively oppose any effort by Republicans to water down that rule.
Q And any delay?
MR. EARNEST: We are going to aggressively oppose any effort by Republicans to water down that rule.
Q Now a separate, maybe -- governing question. As you well know, there’s a visa waiver legislation up on the Hill. Does the administration back that legislation in its current form?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding, Mike, is there are actually a couple different proposals that are out there. There is one in the House that does have bipartisan support, and that is something that I previously indicated the administration supports. So this is still working its way through the process, but our position on that legislation has not changed.
Q Josh, there are a few U.S. diplomats scheduled to be in Islamabad today. Does the White House think that Pakistan has been helpful so far in this inquiry into the attacks in San Bernardino, given that one of the attackers is a Pakistani national?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, this is something that the Attorney General was asked about on Sunday and she refrained from specifically describing the level of coordination that we've gotten from a variety of international partners in investigating this incident, and so for that reason, I'm going to be loath to delve into any of the details of those conversations.
Q Well, can you give us -- given the interest of blocking people from entering the United States, perhaps talk to us about some of the ways that you're looking on a security basis to block some of those trying to get access through K1 and all that? You’ve looked at and called for a review of the standards. Can you give us any kind of timeline on what the White House expects from DHS and from State on pointing out loopholes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say this a couple of ways. I would draw a distinction between the religious test that Mr. Trump apparently wants to institute for those who are entering the United States and the improved -- or reforms that could improve the screening process for those seeking to enter the United States using the K1 visa program, regardless of their religion. So I think there’s a pretty significant difference between what Mr. Trump is advocating and what the President has tasked his team with working on.
I don't have an update for you in terms of the timeline when that review would be completed or a set of reforms would be proposed. But given the events of the last week or so, there’s a sense of urgency about conducting that review and completing it.
Q And when you say a sense of urgency that is a tacit acknowledgment that there are perhaps some weaknesses in the existing program?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is an explicit acknowledgment that this is, at a minimum, something that we need to check out.
Q And you also -- taking a step back, looking at the comments that we have seen from others today, Speaker Ryan did come out and say the way Donald Trump is talking is not reflective of conservative as he sees it. You also had --
MR. EARNEST: Well, why would he say that he would vote for him? That's what I don't understand.
Q Well, in terms of the commentary and the need to condemn these comments, you’ve also had other Republican presidential candidates out there -- Lindsey Graham, one of the more colorful ones -- condemning these remarks. Do you, at a minimum, see this kind of condemnation as helpful in terms of what you are seeing from some Republican candidates?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I would say is those comments don't mean that much if they’re going to go ahead and vote for him. And so I think what we need to see is a definitive statement from every candidate for the presidency about whether or not Mr. Trump is somebody that they could vote for. I think it's as simple as that.
And if they are willing to walk the walk when it comes to their news releases or the tweets that are submitted by their campaign then they should say so. And by the way, it shouldn’t take that long -- there’s not a lot to analyze about what Mr. Trump has said. And I think their statements about this pledge that they have taken to support Mr. Trump will speak volumes, as will the silence if nobody says anything.
Q So you want to hear something perhaps not only more direct about not voting but maybe you need something from the RNC? I mean, what exactly are you looking for people to come out and say in terms of distancing themselves?
MR. EARNEST: Right now, what we need to hear from the other Republican candidates for president is whether or not they could vote for Mr. Trump. What he has said is entirely disqualifying from serving as President of the United States. And to continue to stand by him and pledge your support to him if he were to become the Republican nominee is, in and of itself, disqualifying. And that's why I think people are going to be interested to hear what the candidates have to say about it.
Q So is continuing to support him as a possible candidate itself a threat to national security?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think I’d quite go that far. I think that his comments, again, based on what the Secretary of Homeland Security has said, aren't helpful to our national security. And I think the question for other members of -- other candidates for president is simply this: Do they have the courage of their convictions to stand up to Mr. Trump’s supporters and say that they are going to side with the Constitution over Mr. Trump even if Mr. Trump is the Republican nominee.
And if they don't, if they don't have that much courage, if they are so cowed by Mr. Trump and his supporters that they’re not willing to stand by the values enshrined in the Constitution, then they have no business serving as president of the United States themselves.
Q Does he take a step back -- I mean, all of us here have asked a question, it would seem with very few exceptions, about Donald Trump. Do you think -- when you were coming out here, did you weigh this, saying am I helping to elevate him? Am I helping to elevate what is political rhetoric to a higher state? Because I know you do think seriously about what you are willing to say from the podium --
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q -- of the White House. Why is it important to come from this podium this message?
MR. EARNEST: Because we're talking about values that are fundamental to the creation of this country. And those are values that people who have stood at this podium, representing both parties, have long defended. And that's the responsibility of anybody that stands up here. And I think that's what my comments today reflect.
Q Why do you think this endures? Why do you think -- and, again, it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Trump because of what he said and -- but the reality is, is that he, months and months later -- and there is this group of people out there -- I guess we’ll find out soon how large they are or not -- why does that endure? And what’s the President’s thinking about what he might need to do now going forward to really deal with that particular mindset in the country?
MR. EARNEST: One reason it endures is because you have a bunch of people in the Republican Party who say they’d vote for him for President. And I’m not just talking about people who are answering polls. I’m talking about the other candidates who stand with him on the stage on debate night. I’m talking about the chair of the RNC. I’m talking about the leadership of House Republicans. I’m talking about the strategists at the Republican Campaign Committee who are trying to figure out the best way to maximize the advantage for their candidates if Mr. Trump is their nominee. That’s the reason that he endures. It’s at least part of the explanation.
Q Isn’t it also something about what people are thinking and feeling? Fear? Is this -- we live in an age now where there’s greater income inequality than ever before. Arguably, that’s got to be part of it, too, isn’t it?
MR. EARNEST: I think that Mr. Trump has been rather cynical in appealing to people’s fears and anxieties, and that has proven, at least in the short term, to be an effective strategy for advancing his own narrow political ambitions. But it’s not good for the country. It’s not good for our homeland security. It’s not consistent with the values enshrined in the Constitution. And again, I think it’s why Mr. Trump risks pulling the entire Republican Party into the dustbin of history with him.
Q One last topic. The no-fly, no-buy law. You said -- you talked about it as a national security issue. And I’m not sure if you did that before the incident in San Bernardino or not, but the other gun control issues that the President -- or gun safety measures that the President has been talking about, does he see them as well as national security issues, like background checks and -- or is this something that’s just in a different category by itself?
MR. EARNEST: I did previously describe the no-fly, no-buy loophole as a national security issue prior to the situation in San Bernardino. I think what the President would say, based on his comments from Sunday night, is that we are seeing extremist organizations, including ISIL, trying to radicalize people in the United States to essentially mimic the tactics of other mass shooters in this country.
So there certainly is a national security benefit associated with, for example, closing the gun show loophole, or reinstating the assault weapons ban -- some common-sense measures that enjoy the broad support of the country and, according to some polls, even the majority support of gun owners in this country.
And again, that’s why there is such profound frustration on the part of the President that Congress hasn’t taken common-sense steps that would make it harder for those who shouldn’t get guns from getting their hands on them, primarily because the suggestion is not that we be able to stop every single incident of violence in this country, but if there are some common-sense things that we can do that might at least make some of them less likely, then why wouldn’t we do it?
Q So this is a national security issue, but as Commander-in-Chief, is he more likely now, do you think, to use his executive authority to try to make some of these things happen?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President’s interest in this has been -- well, let me say it this way. The intensity of the President’s view about the importance of us implementing some policies that make it harder for those who shouldn’t be able to get their hands on guns from getting them has not waned in its intensity. And I’m talking about common-sense measures like making sure that you can’t avoid a background check just by purchasing the gun over the Internet, or even reinstituting the assault weapons ban that would prevent or at least reduce the likelihood that weapons of war end up on our streets. There’s no denying that those weapons claim thousands of innocent lives every day, even when it’s not connected to terrorism.
And so that’s why the President believes that -- he’s going to do everything that he possibly can, using his own executive authority, to weigh in on this. But the easiest way for this to get done is for Congress to rely on their own common sense and make the country safer.
Q You’ve been reluctant to say anything about the work of this group that’s scrubbing the laws and so forth. Has the San Bernardino incident in any way intensified their efforts, focused their efforts? Or is there -- are we now more likely to hear something about that or about what the President might do?
MR. EARNEST: No, quite frankly, because their efforts were intense already, and their intensity continues to this day.
Q Josh, I want to sort of follow up on something Ron was asking about.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q For those on the Hill who would say, listen, this President has been pretty successful at getting some things done in Congress -- whether it’s Obamacare, debt limit -- I could go down a long list of successes. What’s happened here? Why hasn’t he been able to move the ball on gun legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you know, Kevin, the President has talked about this, and it’s been a source of some frustration, primarily because the President knows and public polling indicates that a majority of the country agrees with his view, including a majority of gun owners, according to some surveys.
So there are some common-sense things that Congress could do that would not undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans but yet would make it a little bit harder for criminals, for example, to get their hands on guns.
Q So why the failure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think part of it is that there are an inordinate number of members of Congress who are terrified of the NRA. That’s the first thing. I think the second thing -- and this is a little bit more of a raw political analysis that the President himself has done -- but you have this minority -- again, according to the polls -- who have much more intensely expressed their opposition to those common-sense gun safety measures than supporters of those measures have. And the President has been pretty candid that until we see the same intensity on the side of gun safety, it’s unlikely Congress will move.
It remains to be seen if the incidents that we’ve seen more recently -- this terrible shooting at the community college in Oregon, the assault on the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, or even this terrible incident -- this terrible terrorist attack in San Bernardino -- if that will be enough to prompt congressional action. We’ll have to see.
Q I want to ask you about AUMF. Does the President enjoy full support from his own party to get a new AUMF? If not, why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think we’ve been pretty crystal-clear that we need to see Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill come together and finally vote to authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Right now, the President has the legal authority that he needs under the 2001 AUMF that Congress passed that does give him the authority that he needs to order the actions that are currently underway.
Q But there’s been some pushback from even some Democrats who say this thing in Syria with sending Special Operators -- maybe he’s gone beyond the intention of the 2001? What does the President think about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, our lawyers make crystal-clear that that’s entirely appropriate, given the 2001 AUMF. But what we would like to see is Congress fulfill their responsibility. We hear a lot of carping and a lot of second-guessing from members of Congress about what our counter-ISIL strategy should be. It’s ironic for them to be complaining when it’s hard to point to a single step right now that Congress has taken in the fight against ISIL. The President ordered military action against ISIL more than a year ago, but I’m not sure -- at least off the top of my head, I can’t name a single thing that Congress has done.
But I’ve got four things that Congress can do. Congress can pass a reform of the Visa Waiver Program. That would make the country a little bit safer.
Q They are --
MR. EARNEST: And they are working on that, to their credit, and that’s something that we have indicated our support for. So maybe that would be the one thing they would get done. But there are three other things that we believe they could get done before the end of the year. They could confirm Adam Szubin -- this is the financial expert that the President has nominated to lead the effort to shut off ISIL’s financing. He is somebody who served both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and there is nobody in Congress who has expressed any misgivings about his expertise or his ability to do the job.
The third thing is we could see from Congress full funding of our aviation security efforts that would enhance our ability to do more screening of passengers overseas, before people board planes, entering in the United States. There’s a possibility that they could do this in the context of the omnibus. That is, after all, a funding bill, so we would welcome that step. And then the fourth thing is pass a bill that would close the no-fly, no-buy loophole. Those are four things.
The fifth thing that we’ve talked about, Kevin, is the authorization to use military force. The AUMF presumably would require more debate and that’s understandable. That’s probably a debate they should have been having over the last year and a half, they haven’t, but if they want to start that now, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t be able to wrap up that debate before the end of the year. But there’s no reason that those four other things that I mentioned are things that Congress couldn’t get done before they leave for the holidays.
Q The last thing I want to ask about -- my apologies to my colleagues -- Donald Trump. Interestingly, I was listening to Rachel -- she said something about maybe he is actually trying to implode his own campaign by being outrageous and just pushing the envelope as far and as wide as he can. What do you think of that idea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve said on a number of occasions that it’s difficult for me to understand exactly what he’s doing. But the impact of what he’s doing right now is corrosive. And I think the bigger problem in my mind is the way the rest of the Republican Party is not acting to make clear that they would never support him for President of the United States.
Q I think I’m exhausted all the Trump questions.
MR. EARNEST: Hopefully so. (Laughter.)
Q So I’m going to ask you about the President’s strategy of fighting ISIS. Sunday night, he said that one element is to call for a cease-fire in Syria. Today, there is a meeting in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia of the Syrian opposition. Do you believe that -- is it possible to have this kind of representation without having armed groups who are calling the shot in Syria for this opposition to be selected and potentially to have negotiations with the regime?
MR. EARNEST: Nadia, I think you’ve put your finger on one aspect of this that is particularly difficult -- that one thing that we need to do to advance a political transition is just to organize the wide variety of opposition groups that currently exist inside of Syria right now. And there’s a lot of controversy associated with which groups can be appropriately included in those discussions. So I certainly don’t want to leave you with the impression that there are a lot of easy steps to be taken here, but the fact that we’re able to get 100 or so representatives of these groups in the same room to begin a discussion about the political transition inside of Syria is an important step -- and just the latest one.
I’d also note that Secretary Kerry, I believe earlier today, over in Paris, announced that the next meeting for the Syrian political process would actually take place in New York on December 18th. That will, again, be another important conversation among world leaders to discuss this long overdue political transition inside of Syria. So there are some steps to indicate some forward progress, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we think it’s going to be smooth sailing here.
Q Just one related to the issue. President Erdogan of Turkey also today said that he insisted on having safe havens for refugees in northern Syria. Does this prompt the White House to change its thinking that it is maybe at that time to consider having these safe areas for Syrian refugees?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nadia, this is an idea that President Erdogan has advocated for some time, and it’s one that we continue to believe is not the best strategy for moving forward.
Our concerns center primarily around the idea that establishing a safe zone like the one that he contemplates would require significant resources. It’s not just a matter of having a few fighter jets patrolling the area -- after all, ISIL doesn’t have an air force. What it would require is significant resources on the ground to secure the area. And that would require a substantial commitment of ground troops that runs directly contrary to the strategy that the President has laid out.
Even if you were to design a system that would somehow not require a substantial commitment from the United States in terms of ground troops or other resources, whatever resources were required would divert from the ongoing counter-ISIL effort.
So again, having, for example -- just to use the fighter jet example -- to dedicate fighter jets to patrolling the safe zone would mean pulling those fighter jets away from operations that potentially could be used to carry out strikes against ISIL targets. And the President all along has indicate we need to be focused on the ISIL effort.
Q Just two quick questions. The DNC roundtable, which is closed, is there any particular agenda? Or what’s the purpose of it?
MR. EARNEST: This is an effort to raise money for the Democratic National Committee that --
Q Oh, a fundraiser, okay. I thought it said roundtable. I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of -- a roundtable around here usually condones some policy wonking.
MR. EARNEST: Understood.
Q Okay. My other question -- this might be a little nitpicky -- but in your prepared remarks, you said something that struck me as very Trump-ian and not very Obama-like, when you talked about Trump’s fake hair. That’s a hallmark of Trump, to comment on somebody -- your opponent’s appearance. It’s not something that I would ever expect to come from the Obama White House. I’m just curious -- this was in your prepared remarks -- what was the thinking behind it?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I was describing why it would be easy for people to dismiss the Trump campaign as not particularly serious.
Q Because of his hair?
MR. EARNEST: Because he’s got a rather outrageous appearance.
Q Isn’t that the kind of what he does to people and that’s considered so out of line, when he talks about people’s appearances?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a hallmark of his campaign and his identity, though. That’s the point that I’m trying to cite there.
Q How do you know it’s fake? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I guess I’m happy to be fact-checked.
Q I’m not --
MR. EARNEST: Did you have more, Mara? I didn’t mean to cut you off.
Q No, that’s okay.
Q I’m so happy I’m not going to ask you a Trump question.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. I think I’ve been rather patient in indulging a large number of Trump questions today.
Q When you have something to say on the matter.
MR. EARNEST: If only Republicans did.
Q On the omnibus, you earlier mentioned riders and amendments that you said were mucking up the process. Senator Reid -- The Hill is reporting that Senator Reid has an amendment that he wants to put on a provision that would help Caesar’s avoid bankruptcy by allowing it to restructure debt incurred by a subsidiary out of court, and it has not gone through the normal channels, it hasn’t had a hearing, and it’s also an amendment. And I’m wondering if you consider that the same thing that you’re talking about. Is it mucking up the process? Do you support the amendment?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the details of the amendment. The report that you’re citing is the first time that I’ve heard of it. It does sound a little -- it doesn’t sound particularly ideological to me, but that’s only based on what you’ve read.
Q So amendments are okay if they go out of the process as long as they’re not ideological?
MR. EARNEST: What we have indicated is that right now, what’s gumming up the works here is the insistence on the part of Republicans to add ideological riders that are in some cases described as “poison pills” to gum up the process. And they’re trying to capitalize on the budgetary process that results in a must-pass piece of legislation to support an ideological agenda that -- or to advance an ideological agenda that can’t otherwise make its way through the legislative process. That’s what we object to.
Q So not the process piece then?
MR. EARNEST: Again, it’s not been uncommon -- I’m not going to weigh in on that specific amendment, just because I don’t know anything about it. But I’ll just say in general that it’s not uncommon for omnibus budget bills to have other things attached to them. The concern that we have is that right now, we’re risking a government shutdown because Republicans are insisting on including ideologically motivated riders to that must-pass piece of legislation. They’re preparing to shut down the government unless they get benefits for their biggest campaign contributors who don’t support Wall Street reform or the Clean Power Plan.
That’s not an appropriate way to run the country, and it certainly is not consistent with the way the budget process is supposed to work. Does that make sense? Okay.
Q Thanks, Josh. How closely is the President following negotiations on climate change in Paris? And what is his take on the role of India and China being played in Paris right now?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the President continues to follow this closely. Many of you may have seen the written readout issued by the Press Office last night that the President concluded a telephone call with President Rousseff of Brazil to talk about the ongoing negotiations in Paris. I can tell you that earlier today, the President placed a telephone call to Prime Minister Modi of India to discuss the ongoing negotiations. And I would anticipate that over the course of this week, as the negotiations continue, the President would be in touch with other world leaders.
He’s following this quite closely. He’s getting regular updates from his team in Paris about the status of the negotiations. So it’s something that he continues to follow closely.
Q Is he optimistic of a deal being reached there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, he is, but primarily for the reasons that he said when he was in Paris last week, which is we have -- even in advance of the Paris negotiations -- we saw the international community mobilize to make significant commitments to cut carbon pollution. More than 180 countries brought with them to Paris specific commitments to reduce carbon pollution. And those commitments were catalyzed by the historic agreement between the United States and China that was announced last fall to make significant reductions in the carbon pollution in our two countries.
So the United States has been playing a leading role. We’ve seen that leadership result in significant, specific commitments from a large number of countries, and we’re optimistic about the eventual outcome.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. The President, on Sunday night, spoke about the important role that Muslim leaders have in terms of putting up a message that you can put up against ISIS. And I wanted to read to you some comments that the L.A. Director for the Council on American Islamic Relations said last on CNN. He said, “When we [the United States] support coup leaders in Egypt or other places, when we support dictatorship, or oppressive regimes around the world that push people over on the edge, then they become extremists and they become terrorists. We are partly responsible.” And then he went on to say, “Let’s not forget that some of our own foreign policy as Americans, as the West, have fueled that extremism.” Do you agree with those comments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m hearing them for the first time. Let me just say, in general, that the United States is an ardent advocate around the world for human rights. And even when the President goes to places -- some of the countries that that individual was describing, we’re quite candid about the degree to which the President advocates for basic universal human rights. So I think that’s the first thing.
I think the second thing is there is nothing that justifies a terrible act of terrorism like what we saw in San Bernardino, particularly one that targets innocent civilians like we saw in that attack. So there’s nothing that justifies what they did.
Q Would you call those comments that I just read out to you grossly irresponsible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’ve just done my best to describe what our view is about what that individual stated.
Q Do you support Donald Trump’s First Amendment right to the Constitution to say what he said in the same manner that this religious leader from CAIR said what he said?
MR. EARNEST: I have never, despite my extensive comments today, never once called into question Mr. Trump’s right to say it. I do believe that it disqualifies him from serving as president of the United States. But I have not called into question his First Amendment right to spew that offensive, hateful rhetoric that he frequently utters.
Q And one final question on a separate issue. The President tomorrow is going to be meeting with the President of Israel. Can you give a sense about what it is that they will be discussing during that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I described this a little bit in the week ahead. I don’t have an additional update about their agenda, but we’ll see if we can get you something before the end of the day today.
Chris, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Great. Also on Sunday, the President, during his speech, called ISIS a group of thugs and killers, and called them -- cause of death. Among the deeds committed by ISIS’s anti-LGBT violence, such as throwing men perceived as gay from rooftops, one activist in Lebanon told the Washington Blade ISIS hanged a transgender woman in a Damascus suburb by her breasts. Some LGBT advocates are calling for the Obama administration to set aside 500 slots in the anticipated 10,000 Syrian refugees for LGBT people. Is the President aware of the anti-LGBT persecution conducted by ISIS and will he reserve 500 slots -- direct the State Department to reserve 500 slots for LGBT refugees?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, the tactics of ISIL have shown a callous disregard for basic human rights. And it is certainly no secret that there are a variety of ways in which they offend those basic rights and trample those rights. That’s one of the reasons the President has mobilized such a strong international coalition to destroy them.
When it comes to our refugee resettlement efforts, the United States does not set aside quotas like what you just described. But what the United States does do, in terms of resettling refugees, is prioritize the cases of those who are deemed to be the most vulnerable -- those who have been subjected to acts of torture, those who have been singled out because of their minority status in one way or another. And that is I think, again, a testament to the values of the United States and it also is another useful example to illustrate why essentially ending the refugee program is contrary to the basic values of this country.
Q And to be clear, the instance of anti-LGBT persecution that I described would be considered a priority under the refugee program as you mentioned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there are no quotas that are set aside, but the process that we have implemented does prioritize the cases of those who have been subjected to torture, including like the torture that you described, or might have been singled out for their status as a minority, whether that’s a racial minority or an ethnic minority or a religious minority, or even somebody -- an LGBT person.
So that’s our policy and, again, I think it underscores the commitment of the United States to lead on this issue. And it’s why the President has strongly disagreed with the effort of some Republicans who have suggested that it would be in our interest to somehow shut down the program.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
1:53 P.M. EST