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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/17/15

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 

1:31 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  A couple of things before I go to your questions.  The first is, and some of you may know, that today is the last day of Amy Brundage’s service to the Obama White House.

Q    Awww --

MR. EARNEST:  I know, I took the news the same way.  

Amy has been serving the President since he was a United States senator.  Amy served loyally on his campaign and served in a variety of roles here at the White House.  And I’m not sure that many people have had as meteoric a rise as Amy, and that is a testament not just to her skills and abilities, but also to, frankly, the classy way that she conducts herself as a colleague.

So we certainly -- we obviously wish her well in her future endeavors, but we do so, knowing that she will be dearly missed here at the White House.

Q    Will she join us for the champagne?

MR. EARNEST:  Hopefully, we should be able to do that.  But if not, if you get a chance to wish her well, I’m certain that she would appreciate it.  

In addition to that, I thought I would note one other thing about today.  Precisely one year ago today, the President announced a change in our policy toward Cuba -- one that would seek to normalize relations between our two countries that had essentially been in the deep freeze for more than five decades.  Since then, over the last year, the number of Americans visiting Cuba has surged.  The flag has been raised over the U.S. embassy in Cuba.  And just today, an agreement was announced to establish scheduled air service between our two countries.  This announcement will further deepen the ties and accelerate the process of normalizing the relations between our two countries.

All of that occurred, despite a new Republican majority in the Senate and a historically large Republican majority in the House that was oriented to trying to stop the implementation of this policy.  They didn’t.  And that actually is an indication of how much of the year has gone -- that there were Republicans who walked into this session of Congress emboldened by their strong new majority in the Senate and their historically large majority in the House, but their opposition to many administration priorities melted away in the face of the administration’s determined and forceful effort to advance our agenda.

For example, Republicans have spent a significant amount of their time, both legislatively and otherwise, trying to undermine the ability of the administration to reach an historic international agreement in Paris.  Despite Senator McConnell’s prodigious letter-writing efforts, that agreement was reached.  And it was historic.  And, as I mentioned yesterday, there’s nothing that’s included in the recently passed -- or the recently agreed-to budget agreement that will prevent us from successfully implementing our end of that bargain.

Republicans were talking -- in a related measure, Republicans were talking a real tough game about building the Keystone pipeline.  The President announced earlier this year, the State Department announced earlier this year, that was going to happen.  And it’s not going to happen.  

We saw Republicans vowing to block the President’s ability to reach an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Not only did Republicans fail to prevent that agreement from being reached, they actually even failed to pass legislation noting their disapproval of that agreement.  

And this year, as we have in previous years, we saw Republicans enter the Congress vowing to use their newfound influence and authority to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  That hasn’t happened.  In fact, in just the last couple of days, there are more people signing up for health insurance through than ever before.  And I think that is a good indication of the ongoing health and significant benefits associated with the Affordable Care Act.  

The unifying theme of these accomplishments is that so many of these victories that were enjoyed both by the administration and by the country were not just the productive and effective management of the news cycle; instead, these were accomplishments that were years in the making.  And years from now, our country will continue to be strengthened by these breakthroughs.  

Fortunately, not every administration victory had to come at the expense of Republican political bluster.  For example, Republicans did relent on their partisan insistence on including ideological riders in the budget agreement, and we do expect that the President will have the opportunity to sign into law a historic budget agreement that does adequately fund both our national security and our economic priorities. 

In addition, over the summer, the President did work effectively with Republicans in Congress to build a bipartisan majority to pass trade promotion authority legislation.  After that legislation was passed, the President and his team were able to succeed in negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that will have significant economic and geopolitical consequences for our national security for generations to come.  And we anticipate, working closely with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill next year, to secure congressional approval of that agreement.

There’s a similar dynamic underway when it comes to criminal justice reform, and we’re optimistic that the administration will be able to work effectively with Democrats and Republicans to advance on some common ground to make our criminal justice system more fair.  And that will serve the country well.

So, Josh, I appreciate your indulgence on the long tee-up.  Today is also the last scheduled press briefing of 2015.  Hold your applause.  (Laughter.)  And so I felt like if I didn’t take this opportunity to discuss this with you now, I would not have another opportunity to do so.  So, thank you for the indulgence. Let’s go to the questions.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I wanted to start with Secretary Carter and his acknowledgement that he was using personal email to conduct government business until just a few months ago.  With so much attention having been on this issue in the wake of the Hillary Clinton situation, how did this happen?  And is the President disappointed in his Defense Secretary?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, Secretary Carter himself has spoken to this and his explanation is that he made a mistake.  He owned up to that mistake.  He acknowledged that it was his alone, and he acknowledged that he has taken steps both to ensure that the information that was transmitted on his personal email has been properly archived on the government system -- he did note that, based on his own knowledge of the emails, that no classified information was transmitted there.  

And I know that the Department of Defense has also indicated that they’re prepared to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight into this matter.  And Secretary Carter also indicated, finally, that he has curtailed his use of any email whatsoever, but certainly will ensure, moving forward, that emails about his government work is conducted on his government email consistent with administration policy.

Q    So the White House learned about this in May, and we know that the Counsel’s Office here reached out to the Pentagon at the behest of the Chief of Staff to ask about this.  Given that that happened much earlier in the year, how was this allowed to go on until just a few months ago?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, what you said is true, Josh, that the White House Chief of Staff did ask the Counsel’s Office here at the White House to contact senior officials at the Pentagon to alert them to concerns about email use, and those concerns were relayed.  In terms of what action was then taken by senior officials at the Pentagon, I'd refer you to them to sort of explain what steps they took in response to those inquiries from the White House Counsel’s Office.

Q    I think the question it raises for a lot of people is whether this is a broader problem in the administration among the top officials.  Are there any other Cabinet-level officials or top national security officials that have been using private email to conduct government business?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, to confirm that you're going to have to check with the individual agencies.  The agencies themselves are responsible for administering their email systems.  We've discussed earlier that there is clear guidance that's been given by the administration about what those practices should entail.  There’s no ambiguity about them.  I'm certainly not aware of any officials who are currently using their personal email for official government work on a regular basis.  But if -- let me just say it this way -- if there are, this surely is yet another reminder of why that would be a poor choice.

Q    Has the White House Counsel’s Office or other apparatus here at the White House reached out to any other agencies to convey those concerns, similar to the way they did with Secretary Carter?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, I'm obviously not aware of all the conversations that take place by the Counsel’s Office to other agencies.  But I will say that I'm not aware of any other outreach like that, but it's very difficult for me to account for every conversation from the Counsel’s Office.

Q    On another topic, President Putin gave his annual marathon news conference, and --

MR. EARNEST:  He should do it every day, like I do.  Don't you think that would be pretty entertaining?  (Laughter.)  I would be entertained.  

Q    And he described the U.S. and Russia as having the same general approach to the crisis in Syria.  And given your strong pushback yesterday against this idea that the U.S. had changed its position regarding Assad needing to leave, and given the fact that Russia clearly has a different opinion on that than the one that you described yesterday, is President Putin incorrect to describe the United States and Syria as having the same approach? I'm sorry -- the U.S. and Russia.

MR. EARNEST:  Having the same approach to Syria.  Well, I guess as I did describe yesterday, that is certainly not the way that this administration sees it.  But I'll just say that I'm not surprised to hear that he might have a different explanation, primarily because of how isolated Russia is right now.  

Because of their destabilizing actions in Ukraine, Russia is subject to a series of economic sanctions that have been imposed on their economy by the United States and our European allies that has had a negative impact on the Russian economy, and it has isolated Russia in ways that I recognize they’re quite uncomfortable with -- not so uncomfortable as to cause them to change their strategy in Ukraine yet, but I think this is the latest indication of that discomfort -- that President Putin would be trying to suggest to the international community that he is in line with the policy of the United States when it comes to Syria.  They’re not.  

We do agree about the need for a political transition inside of Syria, but the Russian military continues to engage in operations unilaterally inside of Syria that are not focused on countering ISIL but rather on propping up the Assad regime.  That is not consistent with the policy or view or priority of the United States of America, or any of the 65 nations that are part of our coalition.

So we would welcome Russia’s constructive contribution and integration into our counter-ISIL campaign, but that would require substantial changes in their military strategy.


Q    One other thing that Putin is saying is that he is basically accusing Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian plane as coming from an arrangement perhaps between Turkey and Washington and where Washington would turn a blind eye to Turkish troops in Iraq, and that this was somehow Turkey showing its support for Washington by -- for the U.S. by shooting down this plane.  Is this anything you care to comment on that accusation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s nonsense.  The fact is -- let me just start by saying again that Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States and we certainly are strongly supportive of Turkey’s right to defend their territory and their airspace.  The available information on this incident indicates that Russian military aircraft violated Turkish airspace, and we know that Turkish pilots warned the Russian pilots that they were violating Turkish airspace and those warnings were ignored, apparently, by Russian pilots.

At the same time, the United States has urged both Russia and Turkey to find a way to deescalate the tensions between their countries.  We certainly have no interest in trying to provoke a conflict between one of our close NATO allies and Russia.  In fact, given the significant challenges that we’re all facing inside of Syria, we would much rather Russia find a way to work more cooperatively with the United States and our coalition partners that, by the way, includes Turkey.

Q    I also wanted to ask you about the President’s trip tomorrow to San Bernardino.  I know he’ll be meeting with the victims of families, and I know he has done things like this in the past like when he went to Oregon.  But a lot of times those investigations and kind of the heat of the moment has died down by the time the President arrives.  We understand this is an ongoing investigation.  There are reports that there may be charges against a man who provided weapons to the killers in these attacks that may be coming as soon as today or tomorrow.  Is the President concerned at all of coming in at a time when law enforcement is already so strained -- from federal to LAPD, to local law enforcement in San Bernardino -- that they're already so strained with the investigation that adding in all the national security -- all the security constraints of his visit, he may be straining further?

MR. EARNEST:  Julie, let me just start by saying that I have seen those news reports about potential Department of Justice legal action, and I’m not able to comment on those reports at all.  If there are any announcements to make about the investigation, particularly when it comes to prosecuting an individual who may have been involved to one degree or another, any announcement like that would come from the Department of Justice.

As it relates to the President’s visit, we are always conscious of the impact that a presidential visit could have on law enforcement or emergency response resources.  And that does, as you point out, on occasion, limit the President’s ability to travel to a particular location where there is a significant ongoing law enforcement response.

In this situation, based on what we know about the investigation so far -- and this is something that the FBI Director has confirmed -- is there’s no information at this point that connects these two terrorists to an ongoing plot or terror cell.  So while the investigation is being pursued quite aggressively and rather urgently, I think for obvious reasons, I would not anticipate that a visit by the President just for a couple of hours to that community to console the families of the victims of that attack would have any impact on the pace or success of the ongoing investigation. 

Q    And will the President be doing any kind of public statement at all while he’s there?  Will this be a very private meeting? 

MR. EARNEST:  Our expectation is that this will be just a private meeting.  


Q    Josh, back to this issue with Secretary Carter and his personal email.  I guess I can understand how a Cabinet Secretary might have not been aware of the rules before the controversy surrounding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  How is it that Secretary Carter kept on using his personal email even after the White House made it perfectly clear that it was against policy, that it was not to be done?  After the whole controversy with Secretary Clinton, how did he continue to use his personal email?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, I think even in the context of some of the exchanges that you and I had about Secretary Clinton’s email habits, I think you had asked me about other Cabinet Secretaries, and I observed that surely given the attention to Secretary Clinton’s email habits that no one would make the same mistake.  But as Secretary Carter himself admitted, he did make that same mistake.  I think it’s obviously a mistake, but to his credit, he owned up to it.  He took full responsibility for it.  And most importantly, actually, he’s taken the steps that are necessary to rectify it.  

So the concern that the White House Chief of Staff had in contacting the Department of Defense was ensuring that requirements to retain records related to official government business were being properly archived.  And that is what prompted the White House Chief of Staff to contact the Counsel’s Office who contacted the Pentagon about this matter.

So my point is that, realizing his mistake, Secretary Carter also has ensured that the necessary records retention has been done and that those records are now properly stored on the government email system.

Q    But he kept on using it until the Chief of Staff of the White House saw what was going on, right?  It wasn’t that he -- he didn’t rectify this until Denis McDonough actually said, what’s going on here.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, for the timeline, you’ll have to check with the Department of Defense about it.

Q    Is the President aware of this?  Is the President disappointed in this?  I mean, this was an issue he commented on, too.  

MR. EARNEST:  It is something that he’s commented on.  I think that --

Q    I mean, he made it perfectly clear that what Secretary Clinton did was not appropriate and he didn’t want to see anybody else acting that way.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven't spoken to the President about this issue, but I’m confident that after having read about it in The New York Times, the President would agree with Secretary Carter’s assessment that it was, in fact, a mistake.

Q    How big a mistake?  How big a deal is this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, what Secretary Carter has said -- I have no personal knowledge of his emails or his email address or his email habits.  But based on what they have said, he indicated that he did not frequently use personal email for government work, but that he did, in fact, do it on a number of occasions.  He says that those emails did not jeopardize the proper protection of classified information.  

So based on what has been described thus far, it clearly is a mistake because it runs counter to our policy.  The consequences of that mistake at this point, however, do not seem significant.

Q    But it’s worth having a thorough investigation to be sure that what he says is true?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the Department of Justice has indicated is that -- I’m sorry, the Department of Defense has indicated that they would cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight into this matter.

Q    Okay.  And then I just have one other item, also from Vladimir Putin’s press conference -- additional item.  I don’t know if you caught this one.  He said that Donald Trump is a very colorful person, talented without any doubt, and then he said that -- he praised Trump for wanting to move to a different level of relations to a more solid, deeper relations with Russia.  And he said, why wouldn’t Russia be open to that.  What do you make of this?  I guess it’s not quite an endorsement from Vladimir Putin, but it’s a --

MR. EARNEST:  It sounds pretty close.  I can see that.

Q    What do you make of that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess it will be up to Mr. Trump to decide whether or not he’ll accept it.

Q    But do you think U.S. relations with Russia under a President Trump would be noticeably deeper and solid than they are under President Obama?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say that I haven't spent a lot of time contemplating the consequences of a Trump presidency.  But I do think the relationship between Russia and the United States under President Obama’s leadership has been one that has certainly served the American people quite well.  We have been able to work effectively with Russia in a couple of areas -- advancing our space program, disposing of Bashar al-Assad’s declared chemical weapons stockpile, reaching this international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Russia even contributed constructively to the Paris climate talks and made some commitments that were important to the completion of that agreement.  

There are ongoing diplomatic discussions to try to reach a political resolution to the situation inside of Syria.  And despite our significant concerns about Russia’s military operations inside of Syria, the progress that we’ve made on the diplomatic track would not have been possible without Russia’s constructive contribution to that effort.  

So I think President Obama has effectively managed our relationship with Russia in a way that has advanced the interest of the United States while also standing up for the basic international norms that Russia violated based on their activities along and across the Ukrainian border.


Q    Getting to the President’s visit to the NCTC, he mentioned that on the table for discussion was sort of this -- how to better line up law enforcement with the high-tech firms and so forth.  And it seemed to me that he was talking about this issue of encryption and social media, and how to go about detecting when terrorists or potential terrorists might be trying to communicate through this type of messaging.  Can you give us a little bit more of what was discussed there?  And how do you -- I mean, what is being discussed within the administration in terms of how to go about that problem?  Is it going to be done legislatively?  Is it something you can do administratively through executive order?  What tools do you have at your disposal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, technological innovations have affected our lives in a variety of ways, and they’ve also had a significant impact on our ability to counter terrorists.  In one respect, we know that terrorists have exploited encryption technology to try to protect their conversations from law enforcement and national security authorities.  And that does make it harder for our national security professionals to do their important work of preventing and potentially disrupting plots. 

We also know that some terrorist organizations use social media to try to radicalize potential recruits, and we're cognizant of that fact, as well.  So this presents some significant policy challenges, primarily because, particularly in this country, we believe strongly in protecting the privacy of our citizens.  Those civil liberties protections are not protections that are taken lightly by this administration.  So the question really is how do you balance the need to protect those civil liberties while you also protect the country from terrorists?

So this raises a whole host of questions.  And, frankly, Jim, I think that you addressed them in each of the ways that you’ve described.  There presumably are some administrative or law enforcement steps that can be taken to better protect the country.  There are also some steps that the administration can hopefully do in consultation and with the cooperation of technology companies to better protect our country.  After all, the people who have created some of the most innovative and successful social media organizations in the world certainly didn't intend for terrorists to use those tools to maim or kill innocent people, so there should be an opportunity for the administration and the technology industry to work together on this.  

And at some point, there will be a role for Congress to play, and so I certainly wouldn’t rule out continued discussions with members of Congress about the most appropriate way for them to contribute to this effort, as well. 

Q    And is it fair to say at this point that the U.S. government does not have the capability or legal authority to penetrate all encrypted messages that are being sent back and forth, that there are some messages that are getting through that you can't detect, that you can't look at?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I’m not going to be prepared to offer a detailed assessment of the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community.

Q    That seems to be, though, the conventional wisdom and understanding of a lot of experts in this field.

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll just say in general that we are concerned about the way that some terrorists are using encryption technology to make their plots harder to detect and disrupt.  And that certainly doesn't diminish the effectiveness or determination of our law enforcement officials and our national security officials to protect the homeland.  People should continue to have a lot of confidence in their ability to do that. But this is a continuing source of concern by our law enforcement and intelligence officials.

Q    And just finally, and I’ll let it go -- there is a New York Times story that says that the administration is preparing a big release of Guantanamo detainees, terror detainees.  Has that occurred?  Is it about to occur?  What can you tell us about that?  And it seems that the Congress, as part of this deal, has thrown up some roadblocks to closing the facility entirely before President Obama leaves office.  Is another way to go about it to drastically reduce the number of detainees in that detention center to the point where it is all but closed?  There’s a hardcore number that you can't, but -- 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s hard for me to comment on those published reports.  As you know, the way this process works, Jim, is that Congress does require the administration to offer notification to Congress 30 days prior to any planned transfer of a detainee out of the prison at Guantanamo Bay into another country.  Those kinds of transfers only occur when the national security professionals in the U.S. government have determined that the risk that those individuals could pose to U.S. national security after being transferred have been sufficiently mitigated.  And that means that the U.S. has to engage in a series of complicated diplomatic talks with other countries who have agreed to take custody of these individuals to ensure that those security precautions are properly implemented. 

But I don't have any announcements about any planned transfers at this point.  But I can tell you that the current population at the prison is 107 detainees.  There are currently 48 detainees whose case files have been carefully reviewed by national security professionals and those professionals have determined that under the right circumstances, those 48 individuals could be safely transferred.  And the U.S. government is working diligently to find countries who will work effectively with our national security professionals to put in place the appropriate security precautions to allow those individuals to be transferred.  But I don't have an update for you on anything that may be in the works.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  On your question on nominations, there are a large number of federal judges that have been pending in the Senate and it's creating judicial emergencies across the country.  Is there a particular problem, or does the White House have any year-end deal here where you're going to move a lot of these nominations?  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have been quite frustrated about the partisan approach that Republicans in the Senate have taken to stalling the confirmation of highly qualified judicial nominees. In some cases, as you point out, these nominees would be serving in courts that are currently are under a state of emergency because of caseloads that are stacking up based on judicial vacancies.  

So the proper response to that should be the administration would engage in a nationwide search for an appropriate individual, well qualified, to step into that role and fulfill that responsibility to ensure that the wheels of justice in our system continue to turn.  But that process has been blocked by Republicans in the Senate not because they have legitimate questions about the qualifications of the individuals who are nominated, but rather because of their partisan opposition to the President of the United States being able to do almost anything.

And they’re certainly entitled to a point of view that is different than the President of the United States, but it certainly doesn’t make sense, and certainly isn't consistent with the expectations of the American people for them to use their authority to somehow punish the President by slowing down the justice system.  

So we continue to urge Republicans in the Senate to do the right thing for the country when it comes to carefully considering and, in a timely fashion, confirming legitimately qualified and experienced nominees for the job.

Q    So at this point, you're not expecting a package or a list of nominees to move?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any sort of agreement like that to announce at this point.


Q    Josh, on Puerto Rico, after yesterday’s briefing, Speaker Ryan said that he’s amenable to moving some sort of legislation to aid Puerto Rico very early in the New Year.  You’ve said in the past that the White House would support some sort of package to make it easier for Puerto Rico to refinance.  What do you want to see in such a package now that it looks like there will be a package?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Angela, we've made note of Speaker Ryan’s comments as well and we certainly are gratified that the Speaker has committed to bringing up legislation early in the New Year to give Puerto Rico access to an orderly restructuring regime.  That's what we believe is necessary for Puerto Rico to address the significant financial challenges that are facing the island.

There are some other aspects of that legislation that we believe should be included in a package.  The first is we believe that Congress should provide some independent fiscal oversight to ensure that Puerto Rico is following through on the financial reforms that they would commit to.  

Third, we believe that there are some aspects of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid system that could be reformed that would allow the people of Puerto Rico better access to health care, but also relieve some of the pressure on Puerto Rico’s state budget.  And we also believe that Congress should provide Puerto Rico with access to the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is a tax credit that has significant bang for the buck when it comes to a small investment of money that yields a significant and positive economic impact.  

We believe that would be a common-sense package that would benefit the people of Puerto Rico and allow that government to dig out of the deep hole that they’re facing right now.  I don't think any fair-minded individual would consider something like this a bailout of Puerto Rico.  And the reason for that is simply that the administration does not support a bailout of Puerto Rico, that there are some common-sense steps that the Congress could enact that would allow Puerto Rico to institute the kinds of reforms that would allow them to get back up on their feet.

Q    -- Republican leaders on this legislation?

MR. EARNEST:  We are certainly willing to work in bipartisan fashion on a legislative fix like this.  There’s nothing in here that seems particularly partisan or ideological -- at least based on my review here.  So hopefully it's the kind of thing that Democrats and Republicans who are genuinely concerned about the government under which millions of Americans are living -- to institute these changes.   

Q    On another topic.  You’ve consistently said that you wouldn't comment ahead of any sort of Fed rate increase.  But for the first time since you’ve been White House Press Secretary, and in fact, for the first time since the President has been the President, there has been a Fed rate increase.  What is the President’s reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Angela, the reason that I have avoided commenting ahead of any potential rate increase is to protect the ability of the Federal Reserve to make independent decisions about this.  And I think those same concerns and the same desire to protect their independence also limits my ability to essentially provide some post-game analysis of decisions they’ve already made.  So, in this instance, I’m going to have to reserve comment on the decision that they’ve made.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  I want to ask a little for some information on the President’s meeting with Mayor Bloomberg yesterday.  How did that meeting come about?  Did Mayor Bloomberg reach out to the President, or vice versa?  And was this meeting arranged before or after the San Bernardino attacks?

MR. EARNEST:  Jordan, I don't know exactly when the meeting was arranged.  We can take a look at that for you.  Mayor Bloomberg obviously helps to fund and operate an organization that is working aggressively across the country to promote common-sense gun safety measures, and White House officials stay in touch with the leaders of an array of organizations that are trying to advance that goal.

So I don't know if Mr. Bloomberg had a longstanding request to meet with the President about this, but Mr. Bloomberg was invited by the White House to talk to the President about the work of his organization and the progress that was being made both across the country and in the administration to institute policies that would make our country safer.

Q    With this meeting and with the meeting with former Congresswoman Giffords, they didn't appear on the President’s public schedule.  Why is that?

MR. EARNEST:  This was intended to be a private meeting between the President and Mr. Bloomberg.  But upon some requests, we confirmed that the meeting occurred and to provide you -- tried to give you a little sense of what exactly transpired in the meeting.  But the intent of the meeting was for the conversation to remain private.

Q    And throughout these meetings, can you give us a bit of -- more of an idea of what kind of progress that White House has been making toward an executive action on guns?  And do you have any kind of update on the timing of what that would be released?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have an update either on their progress or on the timing, other than to tell you that this is something that continues to be the focus of a significant number of professionals inside the administration, including over at the Department of Justice.  That work continues and I anticipate that that work will continue through the holidays as well. 


Q    Josh, I want to ask you two subjects.  Back on Cuba, did President Obama, in his consideration, think about -- in his efforts to go to Cuba possibly, is he thinking about the issue of Gitmo and the possible closures would be factors in a decision if he will go to Cuba?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't think those two things are related.  Our view is that there is no ongoing discussion about transferring the military facility outside of the United States’ custody.

Q    So if he decides to go, it has nothing to do with Gitmo or the status of Gitmo?

MR. EARNEST:  Correct.  It would be dependent upon the social, political, and economic circumstances inside of Cuba.  The President has indicated that if the circumstances were right, then he would like to have the opportunity to travel.

Q    Are the circumstances close to right, or are they right? 

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have an update for you.  But we’ll keep you posted.  

Q    Still on the table?  Still?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s certainly something that we're considering, but it will be dependent upon the political, economic, and social conditions on the ground.

Q    And lastly, in Baltimore, did the President say anything or does the White House have anything to say about the mistrial yesterday and the fact that they're looking to have another trial and there will be several more trials for the police officers who are also charged in Freddie Gray’s death?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have a specific reaction to it, April. This is part of the ongoing criminal justice process.  And it appears to be a process that all sides are engaged in with good faith and we hope they will continue to do that moving forward.

Q    Any comment on the fact that -- you said from the podium, you talked about Chicago and how they exercised their right to speak, protest, expression, but there were no major riots or anything.  And that didn't happen in Baltimore.  What are your thoughts about that?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, the reaction to the mistrial that was declared was a largely peaceful one, and I think the interests of the city are well served by that kind of reaction.

Q    Four more trials to come, and we're still optimistic that those type of reactions will happen no matter what?

MR. EARNEST:  I would say that we continue to be hopeful that those kinds of appropriate responses will be what we see.


Q    Josh, when we were talking about Secretary Carter’s emails, you said, so far it does not seem significant.  This was a mistake -- was how you described it -- on the Secretary’s part. Are you saying that -- clearly here that there was violation of the law? 

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any sort of violation of the law.  If there is, that's something that will have to be considered by the Department of Justice.  

Q    Is it a violation of policy, White House policy?

MR. EARNEST:  It is.  Our policy is that government work should be done on government emails.  I guess what I was trying to convey is that based on what we know so far -- and again, I have not reviewed the emails myself, and I don't intend to.  But based on what Secretary Carter has said about them, it does not appear that his mistake led to any sort of breach of classified information.  But the Department of Defense has indicated that they're prepared to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight into this matter, and presumably, that's among the things that members of Congress will want to take a look at.

Q    Do you -- does the building have a view on whether the emails should be made public beyond answering your request from Armed Services?

MR. EARNEST:  I’d refer that question to the Department of Defense.  They’ll have to make that decision. 

Q    But given the amount of public scrutiny surrounding former Secretary Clinton, does that become a model for what happens to Cabinet officials?  Or is this --

MR. EARNEST:  Maybe if they're running for President.  

Q    But is there a different level of scrutiny for a “mistake” because you're running for President versus keeping your Cabinet members in line with policy? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think it’s understandable that people who are no longer serving in government but are running for an elective office might be subject to a heightened form of scrutiny.  And I also think, as I’ve said before, that this is a testament to Secretary Clinton’s commitment to transparency that she’s taken the extraordinary step of requesting that the State Department release tens of thousands of pages of her email.  Again, I don't think that is -- I think that says something important about where Secretary Clinton’s priorities are.  

But obviously Secretary Carter will have to make his own decision.  But again, I think he is legitimately held to a different standard because we're talking about fewer emails and we're talking about somebody who continues to serve in the government and we're not talking about somebody who is running for elective office.

Q    But you are encouraging him and the Pentagon to share those emails, the 72 that The New York Times I guess FOIAed with Congress? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the Department of Defense has said is that they are already prepared to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight.  And I’m confident that will be a discussion they’ll have with members at least of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Q    And one follow-up.  Nancy Pelosi was just speaking on the Hill and the Leader said she’s not confident that the omnibus can pass the House.  Does the White House remain confident that this will be settled by the time the President heads on vacation tomorrow?

MR. EARNEST:  We certainly are hopeful that members -- that Democrats and Republicans in the House will come together around a bipartisan proposal that does not include any ideological riders but does include adequate funding for our national security and economic priorities.  So we’ll certainly be making that case to Democrats.  And presumably Speaker Ryan and other senior Republicans are making that case to Republicans.  And working together I’m hopeful -- even confident -- that we’ll be able to build a bipartisan majority for the bill. 


Q    Josh, thanks.  I want to follow up on Jim’s line of questioning on Gitmo.  Previously I’ve asked you if you felt like the number of detainees would be below 100 by year’s end.  Do you believe that that is still a possibility?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have an update in terms of planned transfers.  We're under some limitations about what can be said publicly about this.  But obviously if there are any transfers that are planned, Congress will get appropriate notification -- at least 30 days in advance.  And then once those transfers have occurred, we’ll be able to announce them and discuss them publicly. 

Q    Speaking of the 48 that you mentioned earlier, do you believe that Congress has already been notified about the possible pending transfer for those individuals?  And is there some sort of an expiration on such a request or is there a revocation if it is approved by Congress if the transfers are not made in a timely fashion?

MR. EARNEST:  The way that this typically works, Kevin, is we will actually -- based on these individuals that have been cleared for transfer, we will go to other countries and negotiate specific agreements with them to take custody of these individuals consistent with our concerns about the national security risk that they pose.  Once the other country has agreed to those conditions and agreed to the transfer, then we will notify Congress of our intent to transfer them.

Q    Okay, got you.  The President has been talking a great deal about counterterrorism -- the Oval Office, and then the Pentagon, and then today.  Seemingly, he’s sharpening his message. But I’m wondering, what does he feel about the sort of grumbling that he’s also hearing perhaps even from some Democrats about the fact that you're sharpening the message, but there’s not a lot new there?  Has he heard that criticism?  And what would be his response to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t heard a lot of that specific criticism.  We certainly have heard criticism from Republicans, but we haven’t heard any of those Republicans actually share any of their own new ideas, with the one exception of Senator Lindsey Graham, who’s proposed a large-scale deployment of ground combat troops by the United States into Iraq and in Syria.  The President has already taken that option off the table.

Other than that, we have seen people like Ted Cruz suggest that the Republican should order the Department of Defense to destroy ISIL.  I know that that’s something that Senator Cruz tweeted last week.  That is actually something the President said was our policy goal more than a year ago.  And that is precisely why, over the course of that year period, we have seen the President order the Department of Defense and our coalition partners to take almost 9,000 airstrikes, to deploy Special Operations Forces to Syria, to ramp up the amount of assistance that we're providing to opposition forces inside of Syria and to Iraqi forces.  

We have seen the deployment of what we're calling these ETFs -- these expeditionary task forces -- who have the capacity to carry out raids against ISIL leaders, both to either detain or kill those ISIL leaders but also to try to exploit any intelligence opportunities that are available.

Those efforts have yielded some progress.  There are thousands of square kilometers inside of Syria that ISIL previously used to control that they don't anymore.  There are about 40 percent of the populated areas inside of Iraq that IDIL used to control -- they’ve been driven out of them by Iraqi forces backed by the United States and our coalition partners.

So we have made important progress, and along the way, the President has frequently sought to double down on those aspects of our strategy that have yielded some progress.  That's going to continue to be our strategy moving forward.  And again, even in the context of the debate earlier this week from the Republican presidential candidates, we saw a lot of bluster, a lot of offensive, divisive rhetoric, some of it even a little sophomoric, but we didn’t hear a single good idea about how to actually protect the American people.  

Q    Anything new, though, that the President wants to roll out as he continues to talk about the importance of protecting the homeland and combating terrorism?

MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, in just the last couple of weeks, the President did announce this new deployment of Special Operations Forces.  He did announce the significant ramping up of the equipment that is being provided to opposition forces on the ground.  We've talked about how we have accelerated the diplomatic process, the diplomatic track to try to solve the political chaos inside of Syria -- and there’s a meeting that Secretary Kerry is convening in New York on this precise topic tomorrow.  

So there’s a lot in just the last few weeks that has happened to ramp up our counter-ISIL efforts.  And I certainly wouldn't rule out any additional steps that will intensify even further those aspects of the President’s strategy that have already shown signs of progress.

Q    That's what I want to -- if you can, can you give me sort of a sense of what Secretary Lew’s ideas will be like today? I know you can't sort of step on what he’s trying to get out there, but for timing sake, can you just sort of give me a readout of what’s happening today?

MR. EARNEST:  The goal of the meeting that Secretary Lew is convening at the United Nations Security Council in New York today is to better integrate, further integrate the international effort to shut off ISIL’s financing.  You heard from Adam Szubin yesterday about how the United States has led the way in trying to capitalize in what we know is a significant ISIL vulnerability.  They need access to significant sums of money in order to manage the caliphate that they’re trying to establish, in order to recruit and pay fighters, and in order to continue to protect themselves and wage war against basically the rest of the world.

And based on the fact that we know that they need access to that capital, we can take steps, using intelligence and using our own sophisticated understanding of the international financial system, to shut off that flow of financing and to apply pressure to them and make it a little bit harder for them to achieve their objectives.

And our goal here is to make sure that our intelligence efforts and that our counter-finance efforts are closely integrated with our military efforts.  And so this is actually another example of something that the President ordered in just the last few weeks -- the President actually ordered the Department of Defense to take airstrikes against oil tankers that are operated by ISIL.  They did that because we know that ISIL derives a significant sum of money by being able to sell oil.

So that's sort of a good example of how increased intelligence can give us more information about exactly how ISIL operates, and our understanding of their financing actually buttresses our ongoing military strategy.

Q    Thanks.  And is the President going to watch the new Star Wars film?  And does he get like a special deal where they give a screening here at the White House?  Or how does that work?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I certainly wouldn't rule it out.  I know that Gardiner was interested in seeing that as well, so maybe you guys can get together and give us a little thumbs-up or thumbs-down on it here.  (Laughter.)  

Q    I'll get the tickets.  (Laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  Since I poked fun at you, Gardiner, why don't you ask the next question?  (Laughter.)

Q    I've got some -- yeah.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Yes, sure, Kevin.  

Back to the email issues, can you help us just sort of understand -- I understand from what you’ve said, Josh, that Secretary Carter has said that there were no national security problems with his private email.  Has there been any independent confirmation of this?

MR. EARNEST:  No, not that I'm aware of.  But we've talked about the Department of Defense’s commitment to cooperating with legitimate congressional oversight.  I'm not even sure that would be described as independent, but it certainly would be -- it's probably more of an adversarial consideration of the facts.  But that's the way that our system was constructed.

Q    In March, what message was sent out internally to ensure that no senior administration official was using personal emails?  I mean, we talked about this obviously at the podium, but can you help us understand?

MR. EARNEST:  As I mentioned to Jon, I think we were quite  -- it was pretty evident to anybody who was reading the newspaper or watching cable television that there would be significant negative consequences for an individual who was not in compliance with administration policies about emails.  And those negative consequences were largely the risk of being embarrassed publicly for not following those rules.  

And again, Secretary Carter has come forward to acknowledge that he made a mistake.  He’s owned up to that mistake.  And he also has vowed to both ensure that doesn’t happen again, he has taken steps to ensure that the records are properly maintained on the government system, and he has vowed to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight into this matter.  So he certainly made a mistake, but he’s also certainly taken the appropriate steps that are consistent with the expectations of the administration.

Q    When the Chief of Staff discovered Carter’s use of personal email back in May, what steps were taken then by the White House and by the Pentagon to ensure that classified information had not been and would not be mishandled going forward?

MR. EARNEST:  The step that was taken by the White House was the White House Counsel’s Office contacted senior Pentagon officials to let them know of concerns that Secretary Carter may not be in compliance with our administration’s email policy.  For any steps that the Pentagon took in response to that communication, I’d encourage you to check with them.

Q    Why wasn’t this referred then to the Pentagon IG?  Or why wasn’t Congress then told about this?  Why are we just hearing about this now?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I think for those kinds of steps, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.  Those are steps that that that agency would take.

Q    Secretary Carter is obviously central to the fight against ISIS.  Is this too much of a distraction given how central the fight against ISIS is to the administration?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not at all worried about this distracting Secretary Carter from his important responsibilities to protecting the country.  In fact, Secretary Carter right now is traveling in the Middle East, meeting with our allies and partners to discuss our ongoing counter-ISIL efforts and to discuss opportunities to intensify those aspects of our strategy that are working.  I know that Secretary Carter is also devoting a significant amount of time on this trip to thanking our men and women in uniform who are serving overseas doing important work protecting the country, and that is causing them to be away from their families over the holidays.  And that also is important work for the Secretary of Defense to be engaged in.  And the news over the last 18 hours or so has not at all distracted him from those important responsibilities. 


Q    Thank you, Josh.  You mentioned that there were social, political and economic circumstances or conditions in Cuba for a presidential visit.  Do you have preconditions on those?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that we have discussed publicly, so there’s nothing that I would lay out from here.  But I think that is consistent with the way the President himself described the decision-making that he would apply to any potential travel.

Q    Would he be meeting with dissidents?  Would that be a precondition?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t lay out any preconditions publicly at this point.

Q    Given that the number of arrests of dissidents have been up and there’s been an increase in the exodus of Cubans leaving for the United States, how likely do you think he’ll be able to go before he leaves office?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t put a number or a percentage on it, but the President is certainly hopeful that he’ll be able to have the opportunity to travel at some point before he leaves office.  Obviously, we’ve made a significant investment in overhauling our policy toward Cuba.  There is no expectation that the conditions on the island would change overnight, but we continue to be optimistic that over time, by developing stronger ties between our two countries, by more closely integrating our economies, that the kind of change we’d like to see in Cuba will start to take root.  And essentially, this is change that we believe accurately reflects the ambitions of the Cuban people.

Q    But with the detainee arrest numbers going the opposite direction, would you put odds on the likelihood of him going?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Lesley, we’ve seen those kinds of politically motivated arrests and detentions fluctuate, and I would anticipate that we will continue to see them fluctuate.  I think that there will be days where we will be please that there are some dissidents who have been released, and concerns aroused when some political opponents of the regime are rounded up.

What I will say, though, is one of the benefits of this policy change is the fact that you and I are now having this conversation.  That for so long, the failed U.S. economic embargo against Cuba served as a distraction and essentially, in some ways, actually gave the Cuban government cover to engage in all this nefarious activity that is inconsistent with our values, knowing that so much of the discussion about their island nation would be centered on a failed U.S. policy.  

Now that obstacle to a close examination of the Cuban government has been removed.  That certainly has had a positive impact on U.S. relations with other countries in the hemisphere, but has also concentrated attention and focus on the actions of the Cuban government.  And I do think that that kind of public pressure will have an impact -- again, not overnight, and maybe not even one that will be immediately obvious by this time next year when the President is preparing to leave office, but I do feel confident that in the medium and long term, that this policy change won’t just serve the United States very well, it will also serve the Cuban people very well.

Q    Another island-related question.  On the Guantanamo story that was referenced earlier on the number of detainees, it mentioned there’s a military decision to sort of limit the amount of access that the press has to the prison camp.  Is that something the most transparent administration in history endorses?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that obviously was not a decision that was made by the White House.  This was a decision that was made by the military commander at the base.  So for questions about that or why that policy was implemented, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.

Q    (Inaudible.)

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I don’t feel like I know enough about the policy to comment on it from here.  I think, in general, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that we would be supportive of.  But ultimately we’re going to defer to our military commanders to make the decision that they believe is appropriate for the setting that they’re in charge of.  


Q    Josh, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have introduced legislation to designate a historic site in honor of the 1969 Stonewall riots that were seen to have galvanized the modern LGBT rights movement.  Does the President support such legislation?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven't seen it, Chris.  We’ll take a look at it and let you know if we have a position to announce.

Q    The President has authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate a national monument on his own accord.  Is there any reason for him not to use that authority to designate the site of the Stonewall riots?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t want to speculate on a presidential decision like that prior to any sort of presidential decision being made.  So we’ll keep you posted.


Q    Happy New Year.

MR. EARNEST:  Happy New Year to you, too.  

Q    I want to just go back to Ash Carter.  Given all of the attention that was around on Hillary Clinton and what you just acknowledged from the podium that you said back then you felt pretty confident that the rest of the administration would take notice --

MR. EARNEST:  Yeah, I did.  I was.

Q    Was the President, was Denis McDonough shocked?  Were they disappointed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the White House Chief of Staff was certainly concerned enough to ask the White House attorney to contact Pentagon officials to raise some questions and share those concerns with Pentagon officials.  Again, what sort of response the Department of Defense undertook based on that communication, you’d have to ask them to describe.

Q    And you said it’s not a distraction, but is it an embarrassment for the administration, especially given that actually there was a huge warning out there? 

MR. EARNEST:  Look, Secretary Carter made a mistake and he owned up to it.  He’s discussed it already today.  And as I mentioned earlier, he’s taken the appropriate steps to ensure that records are properly maintained, to ensure that this kind of mistake doesn't happen again, and to ensure that his agency is prepared to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight into this matter.  That certainly meets the expectations of the administration.  And again, he made a mistake.  He owned up to it and has taken steps to ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

Q    And just a quick one on the budget.  Paul Ryan, behind closed doors with his members, apparently has touted the budget deal as a win for Republicans and specifically, reportedly, mentioned a pause in the Obamacare “Cadillac tax.”  And I’m wondering if you think the Republicans got the best of the deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, I will say that in reading some of the coverage today, people have suggested that a two-year suspension of the “Cadillac tax” would somehow undermine or even put the Affordable Care Act at grave risk.  If I had a nickel for every time that somebody inside the Beltway suggested that the Affordable Care Act was at grave risk, I’d probably be able to buy an actual Cadillac myself.  (Laughter.)  

Come on, guys.  It’s the holidays.  We can even put like one of those red bows on it, like they do in the commercials.

Q    That would be a CTS-V -- (laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  There you go.  That's pretty good.  That line is “made in America.”  (Laughter.)  

But look, we continue to believe that Republicans have once again fallen short of their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  And all you have to do is look at the recent data here.  The uninsured rate -- the rate of uninsured Americans inside the United States is at historic lows.  The rate of growth in health care costs inside the United States is at historic lows; 17 million Americans have gotten health care coverage since the Affordable Care Act went into effect; since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.  We’ve had 69 consecutive months of private sector job growth -- that is the longest sustained job growth in American history.  And more recently, earlier this week, more people than ever were using to sign up for health insurance.  So the impact of the Affordable Care Act has been important and positive both on our economy, on our budget, and on the health of the American people.  That was the goal.

And it’s not surprising to me that Republicans seek to try to score some political points off the Affordable Care Act.  And I guess if that convinces a few more Republicans to support a compromise budget proposal, they should do that.  But it doesn't change the basic facts about how the Affordable Care Act has changed this country for the better. 

Q    But no pause, no concern that they're chipping away at it?

MR. EARNEST:  No, there is nothing -- there is no impact that the two-year suspension of the “Cadillac tax” will have whatsoever on the continued strength and functioning of the marketplaces moving forward.  Their funding streams are entirely separate.

The other statistic that I’ve heard -- and this will be a complicated one, but humor me on this one because I think it’s illustrative of why I described the impact yesterday as minimal. There are three sort of tax changes related to the Affordable Care Act that would go into effect if this budget is signed into law.  Those tax changes are a two-year suspension of the “Cadillac tax,” as you pointed out; a two-year suspension of the medical device tax; and a one-year suspension of the health insurance tax.  The total amount of revenue that is derived from the suspension of those taxes is $35 billion, which sounds like a lot of money.  But when you consider that during that time period -- essentially over the next four years, between 2015 and 2019 -- the Affordable Care Act is slated to cost $203 billion less than was originally projected, and that means that the net outcome here continues to be a health care policy that saves the government money.  

This is one of the most substantial and important pieces of legislation that's been passed to cut the budget deficit.  That's another reason it’s particularly ironic that a bunch of Republicans who presumably came into office vowing to cut government spending are so harshly critical of a plan that is having some success in doing exactly that.


Q    Thank you, Josh.  To come back to Russia for a second, the comments you made at the briefing contrast very sharply with what Secretary of State Kerry said when he was talking in Moscow a couple days ago.  So my first question, was the Secretary speaking for the President when he was speaking in the Russian capital?  

MR. EARNEST:  The Secretary of State was representing the United States of America when he traveled to Moscow to sit down and have a conversation with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and when he sat down for a conversation with President Putin.  Our differences have been widely discussed both in this setting and many others.

There is one area, however, where the United States and Russia have been able to work constructively together -- and this is a testament to the efforts of Secretary Kerry and to Foreign Minister Lavrov -- and that is being able to cooperate when it comes to trying to broker a political transition inside of Syria. And that's hard work.  And that's not something that's going to happen overnight, or even in the next month.  But in order for us to make progress, Russia and the United States are going to have to work together in pursuit of that goal.

Q    So when he comes back, he makes a report to the President.  Has the President reviewed the report?  Has the President approved the report?  Does the report include not only the political transition piece, but also cooperation on fighting ISIS together? 

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any specific conversations to tell you about in terms of the President consulting with his Secretary of State.  Obviously, any time the Secretary of State of the United States meets with the Russian President, President Obama is certainly interested in getting a readout of that conversation and understanding the point of view that President Putin conveyed.

What we're most interested in right now is essentially two things.  The first is one -- where we're making progress, which is Russia’s continued, constructive engagement in those political talks.  But the second thing is a priority for us but one where we have not yielded a lot of progress, which is we would like to see Russia integrate their efforts with the other 65 nations that have signed on to our coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

Q    One of the things that the Russians have suggested on that military front was -- especially in light of what happened to the pilot -- to cooperate on rescuing air crews in case of accidents.  The Pentagon seems to not be interested.  Why not?  Does it sound like a good idea to you?

MR. EARNEST:  It would be a good idea if Russia were actually willing to cooperate effectively and integrate their military efforts with the rest of the international coalition.

Q    I’m sorry, Josh, but what does it mean for Russia to be willing?  As you know, President Putin -- and he touched upon this in his press conference today, but he has said this many times before.  He says, we ask the Americans whom do we bomb there, whom do you want us to cooperate on fighting against -- no answer.  We ask whom do you not want us to bomb -- no answer.  How do we cooperate?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that President Putin could certainly begin cooperating by doing a couple of things.  The first is he could make sure that his military operations are not focused on propping up Bashar al-Assad, but actually countering ISIL.  That’s what his rhetoric indicates, but when you take a look at the military operations that they’ve undertaken thus far, the vast majority of the operations are actually centered on the opposition to President Assad.  And the concern that we have, Andre, is that the people that the Russians are bombing right now overlap with the kinds of people that we’re trying to get to participate in a political transition moving forward.  

So that is why the ongoing Russian military operations represent a fundamental contradiction.  The Russian military strategy right now is a significant barrier to the success of the Russian political strategy.  And resolving that internal contradiction is no small matter, and has significant consequences not just for U.S. national security, but for Russian national security as well.

Q    I have one last thing.  Frankly, I don’t understand this from the mere fact that the ministerial conferences in New York that you referred to -- today’s and tomorrow’s -- both of them are the result of a joint action, joint initiative on the part of the U.S. and Russia.  How can they do that together if, as you say, Russia’s actions are a barrier to progress?  Why didn’t the Secretary say so when he was speaking in Moscow?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I did not sit in on the three-and-a-half-hour conversation that he had with President Putin.  But I’m confident that that was conveyed in that setting.

Andre, you did raise something else that, you’re right, I should give the Russians credit for.  Somebody asked earlier about Secretary Lew -- Kevin, I think this might have been you -- that the resolution that the United States will put forward at the U.N. Security Council about better integrating the international community’s ISIL counter-finance efforts is being co-sponsored by the Russians.  And that is another example of Russia’s constructive engagement in this effort.

But as long as Russia continues to engage in a military strategy that attacks the people that we want to be part of these political talks, that is going to be a setback to the international community’s efforts to resolve this situation.

George, I’m going to give you the last one and then we’ll retire for the holidays.

Q    Absolutely.  You started the briefing with a list of what you called accomplishments.  How do you square that with -- 

MR. EARNEST:  That was a pretty good list, right?  I mean, here’s the thing, if I’d have read that list off the top at the beginning of this year, at the first briefing of 2015, I don’t think anybody would have thought that was realistic that we were going to get all of that done, particularly facing new Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Q    Well, then how do you square that long list with the President’s approval ratings, which have sunk to as low as 43 in the Wall Street Journal?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it is an indication that we are much more focused on the work of the American people than we are on reading polls.  And that’s a lucrative industry these days, and certainly will be in 2016.  There will be people who work for your organizations making a lot of money talking about those polls.  And God bless them.  I certainly don’t begrudge them at all.  Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to do that at some point in my career, too.  But what I’m saying is we’re focused right now, and will be focused for the next year on the priorities that the President has set out to achieve.  And we have achieved those priorities, even though they have been strongly opposed by significant Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Q    But why do you think people don’t give you the credit that you think you should get for those accomplishments?

MR. EARNEST:  I think people do.  I think -- again, I’ll let you guys analyze the polls, but my guess is the fact that we saw a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, that probably leaves people a little concerned, as it should, and that may have a broader impact on their assessment of the current condition of the country.  

But I also think that people derive some confidence in knowing that their President of the United States and that the national security infrastructure of this country is focused squarely on ensuring that the American people are safe not just over the holiday season but over the long term.  And so I would anticipate that this is something we’ll continue to talk about in the New Year as well.

I won’t do a week ahead, but I will do a day ahead.  Tomorrow, the President does intend to convene a news conference here at the White House.  This is the President’s traditional end-of-the-year news conference.  We’ll do that here in the briefing room tomorrow afternoon.

After the news conference, the President will depart the White House and will head to San Bernardino.  The President will not be on the ground for a long time, but he will be on the ground for a couple of hours, long enough to spend some time with the families of those who were killed in the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino a couple of weeks ago.

Q    Is that the only thing in San Bernardino?

MR. EARNEST:  That will be the only thing that he’ll do there.  Obviously those families are going through a difficult time, not just because they’ve lost loved ones, but obviously, at the holiday season, I think that loss is even more acute.  So the President felt, before he could begin his holiday, that it was important for him to spend some time with these Americans who are mourning, and know that even as Americans around the country are going to hopefully get the chance to spend some time with their families in the weeks ahead, that our thoughts and prayers will continue to reside with those families.

After that visit, the President will depart for Hawaii.  And the President’s intent is to get a couple of weeks in Hawaii, spending some downtime with his family.  And I hope all of you have the same opportunity 

Thanks, everybody.

2:48 P.M. EST