Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/15/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:57 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: All right, good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any remarks at the top, so we can go straight to your questions. Josh, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. Let’s start with this threat received by the schools in L.A. that caused a shutdown this morning. What can you tell us, if anything, about that threat? And has the President been engaged with school officials or other public officials in California this morning?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I can tell you that the President has been informed of a decision that was made by local authorities in Los Angeles, based on information that they had received. Josh, I do think this illustrates something that’s important for people to understand, which is that ultimately it’s local first responders who are responsible for taking the lead and protecting their communities. After all, these professionals are most aware of the unique characteristics of their community, and understand what factors will influence the best way to protect the community.
And this is true when there’s a natural disaster, and we talk about the role that the federal government has in supporting local officials who are responsible for the response. This is also true when talking about strengthening relationships between local communities and local law enforcement; that the role of the federal government is to support those conversations where necessary. But the President convened this Task Force on 21st Century Policing, where we had law enforcement experts, legal experts, academics and others come together around a set of recommendations that are then, and have been, shared with local law enforcement agencies across the country.
Those recommendations cannot be imposed on local law enforcement agencies, but rather we can use our resources in the federal government to draw on the expertise of people all across the country, and share that information with local authorities. But ultimately it’s local authorities who are responsible for deciding how best those recommendations can be implemented in their community. And I think you have another example of the important role that state and local law enforcement and first responders have in protecting communities across the country.
Q Officials in New York received what they’re describing is essentially the same threat, and quickly determined it was a hoax and decided not to close the schools down. So does the White House feel that the decision that was made by authorities in Los Angeles was appropriate? And is there any federal guidance that’s given to schools about -- you know, you get threats all the time, here are the ones where you need to take specific action?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I’m not going to stand here at this podium and second-guess the decisions that are made by local law enforcement officials in any community across the country. Ultimately, these individuals are making these decisions based on information that they’ve received and based on their knowledge of what they believe is in the best interest of their community. And obviously they would know better than anyone else.
I can tell you that as these local law enforcement agencies are making these decisions and considering these decisions, they do so with the support and assistance of federal agencies -- in this case, the FBI. I know that there have been conversations between law enforcement officials in southern California and the FBI in this matter. But again, this is ultimately a decision that was made by officials in Los Angeles.
Q As we’ve been discussing homeland security in the wake of Paris and California, the President has talked a number of times about not giving into fear and not allowing extremists to change the way that we live our lives. I’m wondering if you can talk broadly about what advice the White House offers citizens about how to strike the balance, particularly around the holidays, between vigilance and resolve not to give into fears of terrorism.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, the most important thing in the mind of the President is keeping the American people safe. And we certainly do want to encourage everyone to be vigilant. That includes the citizens of our country. We encourage them, if they see something, they should say something. That advice, of course, continues to be operative. And we encourage local law enforcement and state officials to be vigilant as they go about their basic business of protecting the American people.
At the same time, the President is resolute in his refusal to allow this country and our citizens to be terrorized. And there are several things that the President is doing about that. Obviously, the first is we have engaged this aggressive campaign to counter ISIL, to degrade and ultimately destroy that organization. That’s an indication, and should be an indication, to you and to the American public that the President and the federal government are cognizant of the risks and are taking appropriate steps to protect the American people. This is, after all, the President’s top priority.
And I think that as people go about their business and go about the kind of holiday routines that many people rightly look forward to, that people can have confidence that our law enforcement professionals that are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week are actually doing the work that’s necessary to keep us safe. And they will remain vigilant, and they continue to use every element of the power and authority of the greatest country in the world to protect our citizens. And that is part of what should give people confidence that they can go about their holiday routine.
Q And one other topic. I wanted to get your reaction to this new Saudi-led coalition that is going to be working against the Islamic State. Can you describe how that’s going to work, overlapping significantly with the U.S.-led coalition? And does the U.S. have any concerns about having Saudi Arabia heading the operation, fueling the kind of Sunni-Shia tensions that we’ve seen at play in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, the first thing that’s important for people to understand is that this coalition that was announced by the Saudis was not solely directed at ISIL, but rather to extremist and terrorist threats that are threatening all the members of that coalition. So it’s certainly broader than ISIL.
I think the second thing is -- and you’ve heard me say on a number of occasions, as recently as yesterday -- that we believe that there are additional steps and greater investments that can be made by members of our anti-ISIL coalition to fighting terrorism and speaking out, particularly when it comes to countering ISIL’s online radicalization efforts. And I understand based on the way that this was described by the Saudis yesterday, that that is a central part of this particular coalition’s activities.
Finally, I would point out that the Saudis went to great lengths to also make clear that this is not a substitute or a replacement for the 65-member anti-ISIL coalition that was built and is being led by the United States of America. Saudi Arabia has made important contributions to that coalition effort, and we anticipate that they will continue to do so.
Q Josh, a team of sanctions monitors issued a report today that said that the October 10th missile that Iran launched was in violation of the U.N. ban. Does this amp up the pressure for the United States to issue more sanctions on Iran? Or is that -- would such a move be seen as potentially complicating the nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: Julie, I believe that the reference that you’re making is to a document that is leaked from the U.N. this morning. I’m certainly not going to get ahead of any announcements that are made by this panel of experts.
I would note, however, that the United States, through our Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, raised our concerns about this October 10th medium-range ballistic missile launch back on October 21st. And in raising those concerns, Ambassador Power described that launch as another clear violation of United Nations sanctions.
So it should be quite clear that this is something that we’ve been concerned about for a while. And we consider this to be a serious matter that undermines regional stability. That’s precisely why the United States has raised this issue and pressed it so aggressively before the Security Council.
What we also noted at the time is that a number of the individuals who were connected to that launch are already subject to significant sanctions by the United States. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out additional steps if our national security officials determine that additional sanctions would be useful in countering this activity.
I would say that probably the most important thing, however, that can be done is for other countries to respond to the call that the United States has repeatedly made to more intensively focus our efforts on countering Iran’s ballistic missile program. And there are a variety of things that we can do that relate to intelligence sharing, in terms of stopping the flow of some technology and contraband into Iran that we know is used to advance their ballistic missile program.
And I would note that this does underscore the significance of the historic international agreement that was reached earlier this year that will ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. There are obvious concerns that people have, legitimately, about what role these kinds of tests could have in advancing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That’s why it’s so important that we’re able to, in a verifiable way, determine that Iran is not, in fact, developing a nuclear weapon.
Q So at this point in time, are you any more hesitant to issue sanctions to respond to this kind of behavior because of the fear that it would jeopardize the nuclear deal? Or are you saying that sanctions are on the table just as they always are?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve made clear from the beginning, the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was a high priority, but separate from the wide range of other concerns that we had with Iran’s behavior, including their ballistic missile program.
So like I said, if our national security professionals, including our sanctions experts at the Treasury Department, determine that additional sanctions would be useful in countering Iran’s ballistic missile program, then I’m confident that the President wouldn’t stand in the way of those sanctions moving forward.
I’ll just note that I would anticipate that there are a number of people on Capitol Hill who are raising concerns about the development of Iran’s nuclear program, and suggesting that the U.S. government -- specifically the Obama administration -- should take steps to counter it. Well, one thing that they could do is they could actually confirm Adam Szubin, who is the financial expert at the Treasury Department, who has been blocked for more than a year by Republicans -- many of whom are complaining about Iran’s missile program -- they are actually preventing the confirmation of the individual who would be responsible for imposing the sanctions against Iran and their ballistic missile program.
So I recognize that I keep coming up to this, but I think it is an indication of how central Mr. Szubin is to our counterterrorism strategy and to our strategy to counter Iran’s ballistic missile program. That is why it is inexcusable for Republicans to, once again, continue to block the nomination of somebody that even they admit is eminently qualified for the job. He’s somebody who’s served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. And they have no legitimate justification for why this financial expert is prevented from taking steps that we know would enhance the national security of the United States.
I think it is an indication of just how petty their partisan agenda looks when we’re talking about issues as significant as, for example, countering Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Q On Congress, with the budget deadline seeming on the horizon, that that horizon seems to be moving little by little, there’s been discussions on the Hill of Republicans being able to lift the ban on crude oil exports in exchange for Democrats getting some of what they want on clean renewable energy. Is that something -- first of all, can you tell us how far that deal might be locked down, and would the White House consider a budget that includes both of those sides?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen the reporting on this that has further expanded since we discussed this issue even yesterday. However, at this point, I’m not going to weigh in on the ongoing negotiations on Capitol Hill. What I’ll do is I’ll just merely restate what opposition on this issue has been, which is that we oppose legislation that would require the lifting of the federal ban on crude oil in the United States. And our objections are primarily procedural. This is authority that is vested in the executive branch and we believe that we’ve got the authority to make the best decision. So that’s our position on the issue, but I’m not going to get into sort of how this is being discussed or negotiated, or even if it’s being discussed or negotiated in the context of the budget agreement.
Q Josh, over the weekend, Marco Rubio indicated on “Meet the Press” he would appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would reverse the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. The President’s support for that decision is well-known, but would he use it as a litmus test for any vacancies in the Court for the remaining year of the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I think in the context particularly of his two nominees to the Supreme Court, both Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan, the President has been quite clear about the kind of criteria that he uses in nominating highly qualified individuals to the highest court in the land for a lifetime appointment. So he’s been clear that there are litmus tests, but I think for insight into how the President makes those decisions, I think you can carefully consider the experience and résumés and, at this point, frankly, performance of the two justices that he has appointed.
Q Those two justices, they were in the majority for both the decision against the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and the more recent decision against the state marriage bans this year. So should we read their appointment as a confirmation that there is a litmus test that the President considers with regard to same-sex marriage in his judicial appointees?
MR. EARNEST: No, I wouldn’t read it that way. I would just read it as that their approach to resolving these issues in the legal system is consistent with the way the President believes those decisions should be made by lifetime appointees to the highest court in the land.
Q Is the President aware of Marco Rubio’s comments and his aim to reverse the Supreme Court decision? And does he object to it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if he is aware of his specific comments, but if he were informed of them, I’m confident he would not be surprised.
Q I want to go back on the CR quickly and that discussion again of kind of a short-term, couple-day extension. I know that the President signed one of those already. Is there a point of no return at which the President is actually going to say, no, we’re not doing this anymore -- you said days not weeks?
MR. EARNEST: There is. Hopefully we will not reach it. (Laughter.)
Q Do you want to elaborate on when that is? (Laughter.) Is it Christmas day?
MR. EARNEST: No. I mean, I think I wouldn’t describe it more than I already have, which is that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been given ample time to reach a bipartisan budget agreement that is clearly within the interests of our economy and consistent with the need to adequately fund both our national security and economic priorities.
So we’ve been clear about what they need to do. They have been given ample time to do it. And as you point out, they’ve even been given a few days of extra time to do it. So there’s no excuse for this deal not being completed here pretty quick, and hopefully that will get done. I mean, based on the reporting from all of you, it does appear that they are on track to announce an agreement here relatively soon. That obviously would be welcome news, but we’ll see.
Q And if they needed a couple extra days?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and that’s what we’ve always been clear about -- that if there was an agreement reached and if there were just a couple of days that were needed for the legislative process to play itself out, that the President would agree to a short-term extension to give Congress the time they needed to pass an agreement that’s already been reached.
Q It’s also been reported -- and I know we’re venturing into the territory that we just went where you don’t want to comment on rumors -- but the repeal of the Cadillac tax will be included in the omnibus. That’s something that you’ve been a little bit stronger even than on some of these other topics. When I asked you about it last week, you said you’d “strongly oppose” the notion for repealing the Cadillac tax, and it would also kind of take a big blow to the President’s argument that his signature health care achievement saves the government money. So I’m wondering, is that kind of a cross that you’re willing to die on on this omnibus?
MR. EARNEST: I won’t speculate about how it is included in the ongoing budget talks, or even how it’s being included in the budget talks.
Our steadfast opposition to the repeal of the so-called Cadillac tax remains in effect, and that’s been our position for years now. And I recognize that that is a source of some irritation, even among some people who are broadly supportive of the President’s agenda.
But our view on this is rooted in the fact that we know that the application of the Cadillac tax would have the effect of giving employers an incentive to raise wages. That, right now, a fancy health care plan -- even one that is excessively larded with benefits that, in some cases, people never even use -- is a way for employers to offer compensation that doesn’t actually benefit in full their employees.
So there is an incentive that’s built in here to ensure that people have access to high-quality health insurance, but also giving employers an incentive to actually turn their attention to raising wages. That’s a good thing. And that’s been a central priority of our economic strategy since the President’s first day in office. And so this is broadly consistent with that strategy, and broadly consistent with the strategy of the people who generally support the President’s agenda.
So this is an area where we do have -- that is the subject of some disagreement. But it’s also why I feel confident in saying to you that we continue to strongly oppose the repeal of the so-called Cadillac tax.
Q One last thing, quickly. Secretary Kerry met with President Putin today in Russia. I know you did a preview yesterday and so I won’t ask you to repeat kind of all that stuff, but I’m wondering if there are any new updates on Syria, the Russia-Turkey relationship, or the Ukraine.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I was walking out here, I know that Secretary Kerry and President Putin were wrapping up their meeting and prepared to have a news conference in Moscow to discuss their meeting. So I’d direct your attention out there for the latest update on their meeting. That way I don’t have to repeat all the things I said yesterday.
Q Back on the no-export ban, I know you said that the President opposes lifting it, but would the President veto a funding bill that lifts it?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve avoided sort of walking through all the things that we would consider or veto, or just be annoyed with but sign anyway -- (laughter) -- in terms of the inclusion in the omnibus. Our position on the export ban is pretty clear. We do not support legislation that would lift it. But we’ve also acknowledged that an omnibus bill is going to have to be a compromise proposal.
So I’m confident that there will be things that will be included in the omnibus bill that we don’t support. I don’t know if the lifting of the export ban will be among them, but our position on this is pretty clear.
Q And on a different topic, our latest poll shows that support for Donald Trump increased since he called for a ban on Muslims. A majority of Republicans and 36 percent of the public overall support his proposal. How do you explain this level of support for an idea that you’ve said should disqualify him from being President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is a principle and a value statement that runs in direct conflict to not just the President’s priorities, but also the values that are central to the founding of this nation.
This nation was founded by people who were fleeing persecution and looking for a place where they could freely practice their religion. This is basic to what it means to be an American. And I can’t account for the polls; there are some sophisticated and articulate individuals who work for ABC who can do the polling analysis.
But all I can say from here is that it is quite clear to me that those kind of comments, and, in some cases, those policy positions that are shared by some of the Republican candidates for President -- it’s not just Mr. Trump alone, but other people in his party who are advocating the kinds of things that stand in stark contrast to the basic founding values of this country. And that’s disappointing. It certainly is divisive. It’s a little cynical. But it’s something that I continue to have confidence does not reflect the values of the vast majority of Americans.
Q And does the President plan to watch the debate tonight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as some of your colleagues know, the President has another important engagement this evening that will prevent him from -- (laughter) -- spending as much time in front of the television this evening as he ordinarily would. But I know the President is very much looking forward to this evening’s festivities.
Q Just to follow up on your comments about Donald Trump, was the President responding to Donald Trump in some of the things he’s been talking about, during his remarks today? Was that a response of sorts to “Trumpism”?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think as I’ve said in the past, the comments that you heard from the President today do stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric and divisiveness that will most surely be on display on the debate stage tonight in Las Vegas on your network. But the things that the President talked about today are also firmly in line with the kind of vision for the country that the President has long given voice to. And it’s because of his success in advocating and fighting for those values, and articulating them in a way that has attracted the strong support of Democrats and Republicans in the context of an election in 2008 and an election in 2012 that the President’s ability to be an advocate for those basic values are the reason that he is sitting in the office that he’s sitting in today and I’m standing at the podium that I’m standing at right now.
So this isn’t -- it’s not as if the President went out of his way to describe these values. These are the kinds of things the President has long fought for.
Q And apparently in the last several minutes -- I don’t know if this qualifies as breaking news. Perhaps it’s something you expected, but Senator McCain is introducing legislation that would require DHS to review social media and public databases in foreign background checks. Is that a concept that the White House opposes? Is willing to look at? Might support? How would you describe that? Because as we were discussing yesterday, it just sort of -- I guess it strains the capacity for the American people to understand why businesses would look at Facebook pages when they’re considering hiring employees and yet the federal government doesn’t look at Facebook pages and the social media content when it comes to accepting people into the country.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the first thing, Jim, and just as a factual matter, that’s not true. The Department of Homeland Security has been clear that there are a number of pilot programs that have been implemented for over a year now.
Q Pilot programs would not be across the board, though, right?
MR. EARNEST: They wouldn’t be across the board -- that’s why they’re pilot programs. But they are part of an effort by the Department of Homeland Security to consider the best way to factor that kind of information into a background check. And the Department of Homeland Security has been, at the direct order of the President of the United States, has been working with the State Department to review the K-1 visa program. And they’ve acknowledged that part of that review is to consider ways to incorporate the use of social media vetting in their screening programs. So I think what I will do is we’ll leave it to the experts to determine the best way to strengthen the security of our screening programs. That is, after all, the President’s top priority. And they will be able to best assess the optimal way to incorporate the review of, for example, social media postings in that screening process.
Q And so going with what you’re saying, so it’s already within the authority of the Department of Homeland Security to do this? In other words, you don’t need legislation in order to mandate this to occur? Could the President, via an executive order, direct the Department of Homeland Security across the board to look at social media when it comes to accepting newcomers into the country, whether they be through refugee programs or other programs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Jim, the other thing to keep in mind here is that if there are members of Congress that have some new ideas for work they believe the Department of Homeland Security should do, ostensibly that is paired with an increase in the kind of resources that would be necessary to fulfill those work requests. Obviously if Senator McCain were under the view that this was important enough for him to pass legislation on, then surely he would believe that this would be important enough to fund. But I haven’t looked at the entirety of his proposal and so I’m not sure exactly how he has factored that into his proposal.
Q But does the President have that authority? Could he tell the Department of Homeland Security, look at social media?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure why any specific legislation would be required to take a step like that.
Q And I guess it’s my understanding also that within any moment now, or any day now, we’re going to get new guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security in terms of a new terror alert system or revamped terror alert system, or changes to the terror alert system. And I’m just curious if there’s anything you can offer in terms of a preview. I know you may not want to steal their thunder if they’re announcing this tomorrow or whatever, but what is the President’s view of the old color-coded program that did get people’s attention, although it was mocked from time to time -- when is it a yellow, when is it an orange, and so forth? You do notice more “see something, say something” signs these days, it seems, since Paris and California. Do we need more of those signs? I guess, what are the President’s thoughts? Because I would assume he would have some. Has he had some input into this process in terms of what he would like to see? What can you tell us?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the color-coded terror threat system that was put in place in the previous administration was discarded in the early days of this administration in favor of a different alert system. And the Department of Homeland Security has been looking, for at least several months now, at ways that that current reformed system could be made even more effective. And the idea is that the system should be able to incorporate additional information that could be useful if shared with the public. And so the challenge that DHS has been grappling with is how to essentially codify this system to incorporate reforms that would allow for more effective and direct communication with the public. So this is something they’ve been working on and I would anticipate that there will be some reforms and adjustments to this program that will be announced here in the next few days.
Q I don’t mean to belabor this, but has the President had some input into this? Has he said, here’s what I’d like to see and that sort of thing?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that the President has had a discussion with the Secretary of Homeland Security about the need for these kinds of reforms, but I think the President has a lot of confidence in the experts at the Department of Homeland Security to orient these programs in a way that’s consistent with the national security interests of the United States.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask about TPP. Speaker Ryan sounded a bit more optimistic this morning about the prospects for a vote next year than Leader McConnell did. So I’m wondering, does the White House view Speaker Ryan as a partner in getting TPP passed next year? And has the President had any conversations recently with the Speaker about advancing that piece of legislation next year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, the White House was able to work effectively with both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan earlier this summer in passing Trade Promotion Authority legislation. Speaker Ryan, of course, was then the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He didn’t serve in the august position that he currently holds. But he was an effective partner in advancing that legislation earlier this summer, and we would envision a process of working closely with the Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate to try to advance congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that was recently completed.
I will say that our view continues to be that our argument has been strengthened by the fact that we now have a deal for Congress to consider. Previously, we were making the argument that Republicans in Congress should entrust the Democratic President to go and negotiate this agreement, and that included reaching a 60-vote threshold knowing that we had the strong opposition of a substantial majority of Democrats and Republicans in both Houses of Congress.
The situation now is somewhat different. Now we actually have a specific agreement for Congress to consider and they have the details of 18,000 tax cuts that they can dig through. There are now a lot of reasons to be strongly supportive of this agreement. And now that we have essentially a predicate for people who have previously supported the ability of the administration to negotiate this agreement, that should add some momentum to our ability to pass this. Because of the passage of Trade Promotion Authority, there is a more clearly defined legislative track or legislative path for this agreement through both Houses, which should speed passage. And that includes no longer needing to meet a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
So we have some built-up momentum behind this. And we’re optimistic that this is something that can and should get done in a timely fashion. Now, there obviously will be ample time for members of Congress to consider the details of this agreement. This was one of the sticking points in trying to advance trade promotion authority legislation, was members of Congress clamoring to see all of the available details. And that clamor has now subsided that we have put the final agreement online for everyone to consider. And I assume that part of the reason that that clamor has died down is it’s now obvious how significant the benefits are. So we continue to be optimistic that this is something that Congress can and should do in a timely fashion. And we’ll work closely with Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell to get it done.
Q Has the President spoken with either of those leaders about setting -- the preliminary talks about setting the groundwork for a vote? And has he communicated in any way with Leader McConnell about his remarks about not sending the bill up next year?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific congressional conversations to tell you about as it relates to this specific matter. But I can tell you that the White House has been in regular touch with Capitol Hill about the agreement, and I can assure you that Ambassador Froman’s office has been in close touch with Capitol Hill about approving this agreement.
You’ll recall that senior members of the President’s team here at the White House met with business leaders who are quite enthusiastic about seeing prompt legislative action to approve the agreement and move down the track of implementing it so that American businesses and American workers can begin reaping the significant benefits.
Q Josh, is the White House aware of threats against any other school districts in the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Margaret, I don’t have any specific threat information to share with you from here. Again, if the intelligence community or the Department of Homeland Security determines that there is threat information that should be shared with the American public, then they will do so. Obviously, the federal Homeland Security officials and federal law enforcement officials are in close touch with school districts and local officials in communities all across the country just as a matter of course. And we value that relationship because in some cases there can be federal resources and federal expertise that can be brought to bear to assist local authorities as they assess information that they may have received, or work to determine the appropriate response to those threats.
Q I understand you don’t want to comment on the specific case, since the situation is ongoing out in L.A. But broadly speaking, what does it signify here that an email can shut down one of the largest school districts in the United States? That level of fear and the impact it’s had is pretty significant.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is significant here is the challenge that local officials face in remaining vigilant based on the threats that they are aware of and in some cases have received themselves, while also making sure that they are steadfast in refusing to be terrorized. And this is why the administration is so conscientious about ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to support local authorities as they consider these kinds of threats, and as they consider steps that they should take in response to them. But ultimately, this is a decision that is best made and rightly made by local officials who know and understand their community the best.
Q So when you’re emphasizing “local,” are you signaling that this shouldn’t be a federal matter in terms of terror concerns in terms of a higher threat level here?
MR. EARNEST: No. What I’m suggesting is that -- just as a factual matter, this is a decision that was made by local officials. But there certainly is an important role for the federal government -- in this case, the FBI -- to play in supporting local officials as they consider this threat information, as they evaluate the significance of it, and as they determine what steps need to be taken to ensure the safety of the public. But ultimately, when it comes to making the decision, it’s a decision that’s made by local officials.
Q This week -- I mean, if you put it in the context of this week what we expect to hear from the President, what we have heard from the President in terms of what seems to be an effort to reassure Americans, it does appear that at this level the White House has recognized that there is a certain level of concern about national security that seems to be trumping so many other issues that are pressing right now. How do you see that? Should national security be the number-one concern among Americans right now? Because if you look at the polls, it’s really kind of rocketing to the top, certainly for politicians out there running for office.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the President touched on this in his address to the nation in the Oval Office, where he noted that the attacks in Paris and the terror attack that we saw in San Bernardino both literally and figuratively hits close to home. And it, of course, raises natural and understandable concerns that people might have about the threat posed by violent extremists. That is understandable. We see a similar reaction in the aftermath of some of these mass shootings. And whether that’s in Colorado Springs or in Oregon, or even in Charleston. And that kind of, sort of visceral human response I think is a natural one. It’s an understandable one. And we certainly do want to encourage vigilance.
But at the same time, it’s important for people to recognize that the chief aim of the violent extremists that are operating -- whether it’s overseas or here in the United States -- is to try to terrorize people and to instill fear in them, and to provoke an overreaction. That is their most effective weapon. And it’s why the President has, again -- time and again reiterated his commitment to ensuring that we’re not going to give into fear, we’re not going to give into terrorism, we’re not going to allow the actions of violent extremists -- whether they’re motivated by a perversion of Islam or something else -- to instill fear all across the countryside.
It doesn’t mean we’re not going to vigilant, because we surely are. And we’ve talked quite a bit in the last few days about the significant and serious steps that this administration has taken to both countering violent extremism and, in the case of ISIL, building an international coalition to destroy them.
But this is -- we’re talking about some basic human emotions here. And it’s understandable that emotions are going to factor into this response. But again, it’s -- but it does illustrate why it’s important that we not give in to fear.
Q Can I ask you about the President’s speech today? He spoke passionately about immigration, about refugees. And specifically, he made an analogy between -- or he compared the Syrian refugees today to the Jews fleeing World War II. And that’s very powerful imagery. What is the President doing in terms of perhaps reviewing the number of Syrian refugees that this country is going to be accepting, since it is a relatively small fraction of the number around the world? It’s just some 10,000 or so. Is that number going to go up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, 10,000 did reflect a significant increase from the levels that were admitted to this country before. I think the other part of this -- there are two other factors here that are relevant. The first is -- three, actually. The first is that the United States continues to be the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to this response effort. There are more than $4 billion -- I think we’re now approaching $5 billion in assistance that’s been provided by the United States to countries in the region that are trying to meet the basic humanitarian needs of Syrians fleeing violence.
The other thing that the administration has been doing is leading an international effort to try to bring an end to the political turmoil inside of Syria that has contributed to so much violence and instability in that country. It’s that violence and instability that people from Syria are fleeing. So trying to address that root cause is a priority.
But we’ve also seen that ISIL has tried to capitalize on this instability to essentially carry out a reign of terror against a substantial number -- hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. And the President has been vigilant about building an international coalition to destroy that terrorist organization.
So I think the response has been robust on the part of the United States. It’s indicative of the preeminent role that the United States has historically and continues to play in the world. It is in part at least motivated by the moral questions that are raised by all of this, and that moral question is essentially -- we’re blessed with so many resources in this country, what are we going to do to respond to our fellow human beings who are in need? And I think our response to that question has been quite forceful.
Q But precisely to that point, when the President was talking about the U.S. being a haven, literally, for people fleeing war, and the White House had said at least 10,000 refugees -- is that number going to go up? Are we going to take more Syrians in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there is a process that’s underway at the State Department. It, of course, has to be balanced against our national security interests and the need to protect the safety and security of the American people.
But the President has talked about how a well-functioning immigration system does enhance our national security system. And it certainly contributes to the strength of our country overall, and that’s one that the President has strong supported. I don’t have any announcements about a higher number at this point, but there are certainly a range of other things that the United States can do and has done to respond to this situation.
I think the other relevant statistic here, Margaret -- and you know this as well as anyone -- that when it comes to the U.N. refugee resettlement program, that the United States actually resettles more of those refugees through that U.N. program than every other country in the world combined. And again, I think that is consistent with both our values as a country and a response to the moral questions that are central to all of this.
Q Thanks, Josh. If I could just follow up just real quickly on something Margaret was asking about. Has that $5 billion been set aside, or has it been distributed already? And where can we get sort of a tick-tock of where that money went?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that the State Department can follow up with you on. And I’ll see if we can get somebody here to follow up with you. These are payments that, over the last several years, the United States has paid to the U.N., to other humanitarian organizations, and in some cases, directly to other countries.
Q Turkey --
MR. EARNEST: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, other countries that are housing hundreds of thousands and, in some cases, millions of Syrians fleeing violence.
Q Gotcha. I want to stay on dollars. The Fed is widely expected to raise interest rates tomorrow for the first time since 2006, maybe a quarter of a point. I know you don’t want to get ahead of that, you don’t want to impact markets, but I wonder if you could talk about the psychology behind rate hikes. People, and consumer confidence in particular, is impacted -- whether it’s the White House or the Fed. I just would like to know if raising the rate by just a quarter of a point, is that really -- is that sort of an admission that the economy is really fragile? Or is it a statement in and of itself that says, hey, listen, we don’t want to push this too hard because we’re not secure in how strong the economy is right now?
MR. EARNEST: I think the questions that you’re asking are entirely legitimate, but they’re ones that are best directed to the Federal Reserve, because ultimately they’re the ones that are evaluating the health of the economy and making decisions about the appropriate level to peg the interest rate.
As they make these decisions -- I know that in recent years the Fed has tried to embrace the responsibility that they have to try to communicate clearly with the public about what factors are influencing their decisions. So as they meet later this week, regardless of what decision they make, I’m confident that we’ll get some greater clarity from the Fed about what factors are influencing their decision.
I do think, though, that if you look at essentially the basics of our economy -- and whether that’s job creation, or consumer confidence, or economic growth -- the economy is stronger than it’s been in quite some time.
Q Speaking of job creation, yesterday you mentioned I think it was Westinghouse, if I’m not mistaken -- were talking about green energy and developing economies overseas, for example. And you mentioned that they may be able to, or may have on the books four nuclear plants -- was it China, if I’m not mistaken?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that’s right.
Q Is that right? Does the President believe that they should also be developing more nuclear technologies here and establishing more nuclear power plants here? Because we haven’t had any, I think, domestically since like the ‘70s, isn’t that right?
MR. EARNEST: There was a permit that was issued earlier in the administration for a nuclear power plant here in the United States. I don’t know where that project stands, to be honest with you, but I’m sure the Department of Energy can give you an update on that.
The reason that I highlighted that specific example is that we’re talking about an American company, Westinghouse Electric, that is getting business in China because of China’s commitment to reducing carbon pollution. That’s good for the American economy. It’s good for American workers here in the United States that we can essentially export some of this technology and this work from the United States to China. And it is a reason that the President is optimistic about this Paris agreement, not just because of the impact that it will have on the health of our planet, but because of the impact it will have on the health of our economy.
When it comes to the domestic economy, we’ve obviously made significant commitments in the context of the Paris agreement. And it will challenge the United States to make some decisions about the kinds of investments in renewable energy that we want to make here. And it’s why we’ve seen such a dramatic increase, for example, in the production of solar energy, that -- I believe that’s actually up twenty-fold in the United States since the President took office. When it comes to power generation from wind, that’s tripled since the President has been in office.
So I think that is an indication that those early investments are, again, good for the planet, good for us in terms of trying to meet the commitments that were made in the context of Paris, but also good for the economy. These are good manufacturing jobs. And we’re talking about the building of wind turbines or the installation of solar panels. These are good, middle-class jobs, and certainly are an important source of economic opportunity for workers here in the United States.
Q And the last thing I want to ask you about, former Secretary of State Clinton giving a big policy speech over in Minneapolis. I was sort of doing a tick-tock of where she differs from the President on foreign policy, and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference. And so there have been -- there’s been some criticism, people say it’s “Obama 2.0” if she becomes President. Is that an accurate reflection from your vantage point? And is that a good thing?
MR. EARNEST: I would first observe that having served as the President’s Secretary of State during his first term in office, that I’m not particularly surprised to hear that even after your careful review that you’ve determined that their approach to a large number of foreign policy issues is at least similar.
At the same time, I would leave it to the campaign to describe to you exactly what kind of policy agendas she is putting forward. And she certainly has a well-earned reputation as an independent thinker, and so I’m confident that there are probably some areas where she would disagree with the President. But to hear that, based on your analysis, that their approach is generally similar, I’m not surprised to hear that.
Q Thanks, Josh. I understand that you don’t want to second guess any decisions from the podium. You said, in answer to the first question, that the President has been informed of the decision made in Los Angeles. And normally, in situations like this, you talk about sort of getting briefed on the threat, and I’m just wondering if there was an analysis of the level of threat, whether they thought one existed. And the other thing that you didn’t say that you often do in these situations is he’s continuing to get updated.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that if it’s necessary to update the President on this specific issue, that he will be updated by his national security team.
Q He didn’t ask for updates, as sometimes you say he sometimes does?
MR. EARNEST: Sometimes I’ve said that in the past. I think in this case I’m confident that they’ll update him if they determine that it’s necessary. And they’ll do that because the FBI is in close touch with local officials on the ground in Los Angeles. And the President’s national security team here at the White House continues to monitor the situation. So it certainly is something that we’re tracking here.
Q The President himself has acknowledged sort of the unease that’s in the country, and this is the kind of thing that happens. And I just wondered, given the level of anxiety and the cost that’s involved, the logistics that’s involved, the resources that are diverted when you have a situation like this -- to shut down a school system is huge -- is there a reassessment of the federal role in a situation like this, even if you understand that the ultimate decision is going to be made on a local level? Is there any kind of reassessment or any thought of a reassessment of the role that the federal government plays in coordination with local or state officials?
MR. EARNEST: There’s nothing that I’m -- nothing specific that I’m aware of right now with regard to a reassessment of that role, because I do think it’s appropriate that in situations like -- that local officials are ultimately responsible for making the decision that they believe, based on their knowledge of the community, makes the most sense and is consistent with their judgment about the best way to protect the community. And the federal government certainly has a responsibility to support local officials as they make those decisions and as they implement them.
So I’m not aware at this point of any formal effort that’s underway to reevaluate that relationship. But if a reevaluation like that takes place, we’ll definitely let you know.
Q And given what has happened today -- and again, this is sort of top of the line and in all the headlines, and is dominating a lot of the cable news coverage -- anything else you can tell us about the President’s plans for Thursday, what we’re expecting to hear from him? Why he’s going to the National Counterterrorism Center?
MR. EARNEST: The President typically, shortly before the holiday break, will convene a formal meeting with his homeland security team, including members of the intelligence community, law enforcement officials, and, obviously, national security officials here at the White House to discuss the threat picture for the country in advance of the holidays. And this is something the President has done on an annual basis, and he’s doing it again this year.
But what is different about this year -- I don’t know if he’s done this in the past -- but what’s different this year is that the President will travel to the National Counterterrorism Center where he’ll get this briefing at that location instead of in the Situation Room. But I’m not aware that it will change who the participants are in the meeting, but it certainly will give the President an opportunity to get an updated threat assessment based on the hard work that’s been done by our intelligence community and by law enforcement.
Q So is going there mostly optics or something that you hope will get more attention? Or is there something specific he wants to see there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would suspect that it will get more attention because the President is traveling there, but it also will give the President an opportunity to thank the men and women in our intelligence community that, based on their job description, don’t get noticed a lot. And these are people who often will have to be away from their families over the holidays because they’re working, and they’re always on duty 24/7 to protect the country. And the President relies on the information they obtain to make important national security decisions.
And by traveling to the National Counterterrorism Center, the President will have an opportunity to thank those patriotic men and women who serve in our intelligence community and play a vital role in keeping us all safe.
Q Thank you, Josh. You probably know Canada is expected -- welcoming up to 25,000 refugees, Syrian refugees until February. We’re just shy of 1,000 at the moment. Things have been going very smoothly. In Quebec and Ontario, they’re receiving health care coverage as soon as they get there. They’re very warmly welcomed. What do you say -- the Canadian example a way to reassure Americans, and states in particular, who have said openly that they refuse to welcome Syrian refugees? Would it be an example to -- would Canada serve as an example to reassure Americans that it can be done securely?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Richard, I think when discussing the relationship between the United States and Canada, it’s not uncommon for me and for other people who have stood behind this podium to note the values that we share in common. And I think that the response that we’ve seen from the Canadian people and the Canadian government is consistent with the kinds of values that are held dear in the United States of America as well.
And obviously the response from the Canadians to respond with this gesture of generosity to try to meet the basic humanitarian needs of fellow human beings who are in a pretty desperate situation, again, I think is a good representation of the kinds of values that are central to this country as well.
Q Canadian immigration officials have said that the suspicious case, they’ve found some and they’ve put them aside and they’re dealing with it. So it’s possible to do this in a secure way and protect the population.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have a lot of insight into the process that Canadian officials are using, but I’m not surprised to hear that Canadian officials are prioritizing the safety and security of the Canadian homeland as they implement this program. Obviously, that’s what the United States does as well. And given the significant undefended border between our two countries, those kinds of security precautions are something that are in the interest of citizens in both our countries. So obviously what they’re doing is important from a national security standpoint, but they’re responding to the same kinds of values that many Americans believe are really important, too.
Q Thank you. Ahead of the Republican debate tonight, are you in any way worried that the reputation of the United States as a whole could be hurt further by proposals -- more policy proposals from Donald Trump that have been deemed racist by many Europeans, by many people abroad? Do you think the reputation of the U.S. as a whole could be hurt further by things that he might say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Phillip, I think in general we have heard from many Republican candidates, not just Mr. Trump, rhetoric that is offensive and divisive, and deployed to cynically benefit their political campaigns. And the fact is, they’re talking about the kinds of values that, frankly, should come before someone’s own narrow political ambition. And I’ve been quite outspoken in condemning some of the comments from a variety of Republican politicians. You’ve heard an opportunity to hear from the President in a variety of settings where he has laid out his vision of how our nation’s values should inform the foreign policy decisions that are made in this country. But, ultimately, the American people are going to have to decide what kind of leadership they want. And that’s their responsibility, and that’s the way that our system works.
These values and these policy decisions are the subject of legitimate political debate. So I’m not suggesting somehow that the candidates should be silenced in one way or another, but I do think that our country’s interests would be better served if those candidates were more committed to ensuring that their rhetoric actually reflected the true values of our country.
Q The policy proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States has been deemed racist and even fascist by editorial writers, by experts abroad. Are those terms that -- you don’t necessarily agree with -- but would you reject those outright?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Phillip, over the course of the last week or so, I’ve had ample opportunity to make my views quite well-known on the comments from Mr. Trump and from others. So those views reflect the position of the administration, and so I’d encourage you to consider the comments that you’ve heard from me as an accurate reflection of our posture here.
Francesca, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Josh, back on the refugees. Ben Carson released a seven-point plan today that he says would protect America and also it deals with the war against ISIS. And one of the points of his plan was that the United States should urge its allies and partners in the Middle East to engage in massive recruitment in training of Sunni Syrian men based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, of Sunni Syrian male refugees in Jordan to establish a military force to destroy ISIS. And first and foremost -- I do have another question after that -- but first and foremost, do you know of any sort of ongoing effort like that to take the Syrian refugees that are in that area and recruit and train them to fight ISIS? And what would the administration think of such an effort?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there has already been an effort that the Department of Defense committed a substantial number of resources to, trying to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition fighters that didn’t yield the kind of results that we would like to see.
What we have said is that we do believe that our partners in the region can do more to contribute to our overall counter-ISIL effort, and we certainly would welcome additional contributions to that effort. In fact, Secretary Carter is traveling in the region over the course of this week, and I’m confident will be having some discussions both with his military commanders about what more the United States can do to contribute to that effort, but also meeting with the leaders of other countries, or at least senior officials in other countries to discuss what more they can contribute to our ongoing efforts.
Q But that’s significantly different. I do hear what you’re saying, but that seems to me significantly different than saying that we should mobilize the refugees that are in the refugee camps in the region, and train and equip them to fight ISIS.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I haven't read Dr. Carson’s program.
Q And then the final thing was regarding -- you mentioned Canada and our shared border with Canada. He also suggested deploying the National Guard to the border with Canada and the southern border. And given your support in the past for the President’s, I guess, own recommendations that maybe aren’t directly affiliated with any sort of attack that’s already happened, I was wondering what you thought about the idea of sending them to the borders to protect from something like that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen his specific proposal. Obviously, the President is a strong advocate of border security. There have been more resources in terms of manpower and technology deployed to our border with Mexico than in any time in our history, and that is a testament to the President’s commitment to this issue. There would be significantly more resources dedicated to our border had Republicans in Congress not blocked comprehensive immigration reform that would have actually made a historic investment in border security.
So if Dr. Carson is concerned about border security, then I encourage him to take it up with House Republicans who blocked an investment in border security that might address some of the problems that he claims to be trying to solve.
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