Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/7/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:52 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have anything to do at the top here, Kevin, so we can go straight to your questions.
Q Thank you, Josh. So as intelligence has gathered more information about the nuclear bomb North Korea detonated, what new details have you learned about the size and scope of the bomb? And is there more clarity about the actions the international community will be taking in response?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the work continues to try to learn more information and to collect additional data about the nuclear test that the North Koreans conducted earlier this week. That includes an assessment of what type of nuclear device was detonated.
As we discussed yesterday, a number of senior administration officials, including the President, have been in touch with their counterparts in the region to discuss the issue and to discuss the appropriate international response. The U.N. obviously is working after an emergency Security Council meeting that was convened by the United States and Japan to discuss options for a response. Certainly that could include additional economic sanctions.
And the administration has also been in touch with Chinese officials, including the National Security Advisor who spoke to the Chinese ambassador to the United States yesterday. Obviously the nation of China wields more influence over the North Korean regime than probably any other country in the world. And we certainly want to work closely with them to determine an appropriate response.
Again, what I think is notable is that we have seen some unanimity of opinion across the international community about how what North Korea has done is provocative and a flagrant violation of their international obligations and certainly of a variety of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Q So if sanctions haven't worked in the past to deter their behavior, what makes you think they will work in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we do know that the international community remains united -- frankly, more united than ever before -- on this issue and on the appropriate approach to dealing with North Korean provocations. As a result, the North Korean regime is more isolated than ever before. And it makes clear to the North Koreans that they have only one path to choose to try to deal with the extreme poverty and extreme isolation that causes millions of their citizens to suffer. And that path is one that includes them ceasing their provocative activities. That includes ceasing missile tests and ending nuclear tests like this one. It also means committing to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and pursing peace and stability on the Peninsula. That is the path for the North Koreans. It’s the only path out. And the international community, even as we consider additional options to further isolate them, I think that will be the best way for us to reinforce that message.
Q What is the White House’s view -- what, in the White House’s view, did Republicans accomplish by forcing the President to veto a repeal of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing. They’ve voted 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This is the first time that it has reached the President’s desk. But it has no impact. And we’ve heard Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail talk about how ineffectual the Republican Congress has been. In this case, they’re right. And I think there is no clear illustration of the ineffectual Republican leadership in Congress than this.
Q And finally, the NRA says it won’t participate in tonight’s gun talk, calling it a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House. Do you care to respond to that description? And is the President disappointed the NRA won’t be there? Will it detract from the event?
MR. EARNEST: Well, just to set the record straight, and with all due respect to Mr. Acosta and his colleagues, it’s actually hosted by CNN. The President’s desire is to engage in a serious conversation, both with people who share his views about common-sense steps we can take to make our community safer and keep guns out of the wrong hands, but also have a conversation with those who disagree. And we certainly are looking forward to having the opportunity to engage in that discussion with people who are interested in participating in it.
Q Josh, the President has repeatedly pressed Chinese leaders about their currency policy. So what is the White House’s reaction today to Beijing’s decision to let the yuan fall?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, obviously this is something that is closely monitored by the Treasury Department. And the case that we have made to the Chinese has centered on the responsibilities that come with being one of the world’s largest economies, particularly an economy like theirs that is growing rather rapidly and is quite dynamic in terms of the kind of innovation that exists inside their economy.
What our approach has been, has been to press China on the pace of its reforms, including additional measures for an orderly transition to a market-oriented exchange rate that responds to upward as well as downward market pressure. And that essentially is the core of our policy and it is the case that we have made to the Chinese that implementing those kinds of reforms at a reasonable pace is good for the broader international economy but also will have long-term benefits for the Chinese economy as well.
And so we're obviously going to continue to monitor the situation and continue to stay in close touch with Chinese economic officials, particularly in the face of the kind of volatility that's been on display over the last few days.
Q And there is volatility as a result of it, but would you say that what they’re doing is consistent with what you’ve been asking? Are you welcoming the move today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for that kind of analysis, I'd refer you to the Treasury Department. They obviously are the ones who are watching this most closely. I also think the other thing that we would be reluctant to do is to make a judgment about their adherence to these kinds of reforms based on just one action or one day’s activity in the market. What we're looking at is a longer-term commitment to pursuing these kinds of reforms.
There’s an acknowledgement on the part of the United States and I think the broader international community that the kinds of reforms that we seek include a longer-term commitment to implementing reforms, but also are the kinds of reforms that we wouldn't expect them to just implement overnight. That wouldn't promote the kind of economic policymaking that we believe would be responsible and in the best interest of the global economy.
So there’s an understanding that over the long term, that it will take time to implement the reforms that we would like to see. But that's consistent with the other thing that we would like to see, which is an actual commitment to following through on implementing the reforms.
Q Are you concerned about the reaction in the stock market?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do my best not to comment on the day-to-day actions in the markets. But obviously we're aware of the kind of volatility that we've seen in China over the last several days, and that has had an impact on markets in other countries, including ours. So that's certainly something that we're closely watching.
Q All right. Just one other topic. South Korea says it's in talks with the U.S. to display -- to deploy, rather, U.S. strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Can you tell us what kind of weapons you're talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The first is, we have been quite consistent in making clear that any sort of U.S. capability, military capability that is deployed to the Korean Peninsula is arrayed solely against the threat that is posed by the North Koreans, and I think is a testament -- it certainly is a testament to our commitment to the national security of our allies in South Korea.
At this point, there have been no discussions or consultations with the South Koreans about the deployment of what’s called a THAAD battery. This is essentially a defensive and anti-ballistic missile capability. But there are a variety of anti-ballistic missile capabilities that we have over the last several years been ramping up in the Asia Pacific region to protect the United States in response to the threat emanating from North Korea. And that includes the deployment of additional resources to Alaska. It includes additional naval resources in the Pacific Ocean, including an Aegis ballistic missile defense ship. It also includes radar systems that have been deployed, two of them in Japan, that can be used to effectively counter the ballistic missile program that North Korea seeks to develop and that could threaten the United States.
So this is something that we've been mindful of for quite some time, and we've taken a number of steps over the years to prepare for any eventualities. And the steps that we have taken to support the national security of South Korea are focused on the threat that emanates from North Korea.
Q So when they say that they’re in talks with the U.S., which set of those options that you just addressed are they talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a lot of insight to share with you in terms of our private consultations with the South Koreans. I’ll just reiterate at this point that we continue to be resolute in our commitment to the national security of our allies in the Republic of Korea.
Q So getting back to the town hall this evening, is the President looking forward to engaging with people with opposing views? And what is he going to say to a gun rights supporter who thinks that the President wants to take away their guns?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President, frankly, is looking forward to talking to people on both sides of this issue. And presumably, Mr. Cooper will give him that opportunity this evening. I think you’ll obviously be able to hear directly from the President about this later tonight. But particularly for somebody who makes -- who repeats that false claim, I think the President will repeat once again his belief in and commitment to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, and that the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans are worth protecting, including the constitutional rights that are guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Q And so what do you make of when Ted Cruz sends out an email to his supporters that says Obama wants your guns? A pretty sinister-looking portrayal of the President.
MR. EARNEST: I think he’s appealing to people’s anxieties and insecurities and even outright fears in an attempt to win votes for his presidential campaign. And that’s unfortunate. In some cases, it veers into the territory of being irresponsible. But, ultimately, that’s clearly what he’s up to. He’s not the only one, but he certainly is one of them.
Q Why has this built up over the years so much, do you think? And do you think that the President has responded forcefully enough over the years to counter this narrative that’s out there? I mean, there are a lot of gun rights supporters who just think that this is the way it is, this is reality.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think part of it, Jim, is that we know this is -- there’s a profit motive on the part of the industry to try to convince their customers that the government wants to take away their guns or will somehow limit their ability to buy guns -- because you guys have all documented the fact that every time they say that, it works. People go out and buy record numbers of guns. So this has a whole lot more to do with a profit motive than it does anybody’s constitutional rights.
Q And a totally different subject. There are thousands of Cuban migrants in Central America who appear to be on the verge of getting on a Costa Rican plane, if I’m not mistaken, that will take them to the Mexican-El Salvadoran border, where those Cuban migrants are hoping to travel to the U.S. border for refugee status. I guess, first of all, is the administration monitoring this? What does the administration plan to do when they get there? And with the opening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, is there any chance that this refugee status issue might change, that the administration may try to adjust that status before the President leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, we are aware of the reports that you’re citing. I can tell you that some of the discussions that you referred to about the movement of these individuals is not something that the United States has been a part of, and we’re certainly not a part of efforts to facilitate the movement or arrival of Cuban migrants into the United States.
I will just say, as a policy matter, that there are no plans to change the policy that goes back to the Cuban Adjustment Act that was passed in the mid-1960s. The goal of that bill was to provide Cubans a safe, orderly and legal means to migrate to the United States, and there are no plans at this point to make any changes to that policy.
Q And so what will happen to those migrants when they get to the border?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they’ll be -- again --
Q They could cross the border, presumably, and say, I’d like to apply for refugee status, and --
MR. EARNEST: Presumably, they could attempt to do that. There is a migratory framework in place for processing Cuban migrants that arrive on American soil. And again, that process is unique to Cuban migrants because of the unique political situation in their home country. And there’s a longstanding policy in place that guides this processing, and there are no plans at this point to change that policy.
Q Thanks, Josh. In Libya, there was a truck bomb that killed several dozen policemen. I’m wondering if the White House has a reaction to that or to the idea that Islamic State is stepping up its actions in Libya.
MR. EARNEST: Toluse, at this point we have not made an assessment about who precisely is responsible for carrying out this cowardly act of terrorism. It is apparent that this attack killed as many as 65 people at a training center in Libya.
Obviously, we send our condolences to the victims and families of those who were killed. And those condolences are rightly directed to all the people of Libya who were affected by this act of terrorism.
The United States continues to be deeply concerned about ISIL-inspired terrorists carrying out acts of violence, particularly in Libya. And that is why you’ve seen the United States take aggressive action, including inside of Libya, to take out ISIL leaders. It was only four or six weeks ago that DOD confirmed -- the Department of Defense -- the United States Department of Defense confirmed that the leading ISIL figure in Libya had been killed. So we’re certainly mindful of the threat in that country and are taking aggressive steps to mitigate it.
Q Is there a chance that we’ll see more airstrikes in Libya, more actions by the United States military in Libya? Or is that something that you’re leaving to the Europeans to take the lead on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously we do have a coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And we do have partners who are involved in that coalition that have significant capabilities, including resources and knowledge inside of Libya. And we certainly will work closely with them. But I would not take off the table additional military action against ISIL targets in Libya.
Q Another topic, on Keystone. TransCanada did basically try to appeal the decision of the President to deny the Keystone Pipeline. I’m wondering if you have a reaction to both the idea that they decided to appeal it and the idea that they’re using NAFTA on this trade agreement as a way to try to respond and react to the President’s action.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it not so much an appeal as really a lawsuit in a couple of different venues. So because of the pending litigation, I’m obviously limited in what I can say.
I’ll just say something you’ve heard me say before, which is that after extensive public outreach and consultation, the State Department decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not be in the interest of the United States. And the President agreed that building the Keystone Pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States. And that’s why we continue to be confident that the administration acted lawfully. But obviously there will be a court proceeding, and for additional questions about that I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.
When it comes to the ISDS claim, again, I continue to be limited in what I can say because of that ongoing process. I’ll just say that we are confident that the decision that was made vis-à-vis the Keystone Pipeline is entirely consistent with all of our international obligations, including our obligations under NAFTA. The one thing I’ll point out about ISDS is it’s a process that -- ISDS is this dispute resolution process that’s been in place for 50 years, and the United States has never lost a case. And we certainly feel confident in the arguments that we’ll be able to make in this case before the ISDS, as well.
Q And how do you respond to people who are opposed to the TPP agreement using this as an example of saying this is how corporations can use the ISDS, which is also in the TPP, to undermine U.S. laws outside of the U.S. court system?
MR. EARNEST: Well I would say, first of all, that we’ve never lost a case. I think that is an indication that we have not seen corporations be able to use it effectively to change or alter U.S. law. But because we’ve never lost a case, it is an indication that we’ve been quite effective in taking other countries and raising concerns about other countries’ practices at the ISDS in a way that has benefitted the ability of American businesses to do business overseas.
So our strong record in that venue actually, I think, is a strong argument for precisely why Congress should approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Q Thanks, Josh. Do you have the latest numbers on the detainees at Gitmo right now that you can share? And do you anticipate any more movement of detainees in the week or month ahead?
MR. EARNEST: This is a relevant question. You’re asking about the reports yesterday that two additional Gitmo detainees were transferred, this time to the nation of Ghana. That means the totals now -- the total population as of today is 105 detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay; 46 of those have been approved for transfer. And I wouldn’t rule out additional transfers in the near term.
Q So those are -- the 46 we’re speaking of, Congress has been notified of their ability to be transferred, is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: No, not quite. Those 46 are actually -- have been through this process the President established during his first year in office whereby you would essentially have national security experts reviewing their case files and determining which detainees are essentially under the right circumstances, could be safely transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Essentially, that we could put them in other places, in other countries where we could put in place steps that would mitigate the risk that they would pose to the United States.
Q Then there’s that 30-day clock.
MR. EARNEST: Correct. So these 46 are essentially the group of individuals that have been cleared for transfer, but now we have to go to other countries and determine what other countries, under the circumstances that we lay out, are willing to take them. Once we secure an agreement with another country, that’s when we notify Congress. So I don’t have any news to make at this point about any impending transfers, but I just wouldn’t rule out the notion that there are some additional ones.
Q What goes into the conversation with the government, say, in Accra or other governments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we --
Q Like, do you pay them? Do you say we can set this up so that they can be housed? How does that work?
MR. EARNEST: Well, typically we ask them to assist us in accomplishing what we believe is a national security goal and makes certainly the United States and our partners and allies safer, and what we often describe as what they can do to help; that there may be certain individuals who could be good candidates for a transfer to a particular portion of the world. And we discuss with them and we work together with them on putting in place the kinds of security arrangements that would be necessary to mitigate any sort of ongoing risk that these individuals could pose to the United States after being transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Obviously there’s a pretty rigorous certification process that has to be carefully considered by the Secretary of Defense, who has to personally certify that the safeguards that have been put in place do sufficiently mitigate the risks that these individuals could pose to the United States. And that, essentially, is the kind of conversation we have. I think you can imagine why those kinds of conversations are not easy and requires some skilled diplomacy to make it happen.
Q A couple more. I want to ask you about California. Has there been a request for assistance in the wake of the severe flooding and mudslides there?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific request that has come from the state government of California. Obviously we’re monitoring the weather conditions on the West Coast. And if there are any requests like that that come, we’ll obviously look at them carefully but also try to respond promptly. It obviously is state officials who are responsible for the response, but the federal government stands ready and pre-deploys assets so that they can quickly support the ongoing local efforts if that kind of support is necessary.
Q I haven’t had a chance to ask you about Oregon. Do you have an update on what’s happening out west there? I know it’s complicated. I recognize that there’s been this sort of impulse to just let that play out with local law enforcement and federal assistance. What’s the latest you can share on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the FBI is now in the lead of that situation, and they treat this quite seriously and they are working closely with local law enforcement to try to resolve the situation peacefully and hopefully as quickly as possible. As I noted earlier this week, I’ve been a little reluctant to spend a whole lot of time talking about the case, both because it’s an ongoing law enforcement matter, but also because of the sort of political overtones of that situation I wouldn’t want to say anything from here that would make it more difficult to resolve that situation quickly and peacefully.
Q But you can understand why some people feel like there may be a double standard in how that particular group is being treated compared to others.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I see that some people have made those claims. I can tell you that local law enforcement and certainly federal law enforcement take the enforcement of the law quite seriously. And this is a situation that they take quite seriously, and I know that this is something that is being worked closely -- in close coordination with local law enforcement out in Oregon.
Q Last one, on North Korea. Is it your sense that, given what they’ve been doing lately and consistently, that this will hasten the pivot, if you will, or the attention on Asia, the focus on Asia? Or do you feel like it’s already been there and this is just part and parcel to what you expect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, part of the Asia rebalance that you’ve seen the administration prioritize since the early years of the Obama presidency has been focused not just on defending the U.S. from threats like those that emanate from North Korea. And certainly some of the steps that I announced about the increased military deployments to the Asia Pacific, some of the work that we have engaged in with Japan and our other allies there to put in place infrastructure that would actually protect the national security of the United States, that is certainly part of the Asia rebalance policy that we have prioritized here. But a lot of that policy is actually oriented toward capitalizing on opportunities that exist in the Asia Pacific for the American people.
And that’s why we often describe the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the centerpiece of our Asia rebalance, because what that does effectively do is it creates significant opportunities for American businesses and American workers, and ultimately American middle-class families if we can start to level the playing field between U.S. businesses and the fast-growing economies of the Asia Pacific. And we can raise standards in terms of labor standards and environmental standards that their competitors in Asia have to adhere to. That’s going to level the playing field. And we’re confident that if we can level the playing field, that American businesses and American workers aren’t just going to compete in those kinds of environments, they’re going to -- more often than not, they’re going to end up winning. And that’s going to be good for our broader economy.
And look, countries in the Asia Pacific also recognize that a closer economic relationship with the United States is good for them. It means that the middle-class populations in their countries also will have access to the kinds of U.S. goods that are typically sold around the world. So we see a lot of countries in the Asia Pacific that are interested in strengthening those economic ties that they have with the United States.
So this is an opportunity for the United States to advance our interests and to do so in a way that has important economic benefits for middle-class families back here in the United States.
Q So no concerns about what’s happening with the Chinese economy and what’s going on with North Korea more broadly in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would actually make the case that the best way for the U.S. economy to weather some of the volatility that we see in the international economy is actually to strengthen our relationship, our economic relationship, with those countries that do have a fast-growing economy. When you start to see volatility in places like China, having access to other fast-growing markets in the world becomes even more important.
And I think, if anything, this strengthens the case that we regularly make to Congress that they should act quickly to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Now, we’re still in the process of giving people an opportunity to look at the details of the agreement. I’m not suggesting that Congress should fast-forward through that process and vote today. But I am suggesting that we should move expeditiously through this process and that Congress should not wait until the end of the year or even next year to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. If anything, to do that would only allow -- would be a significant opportunity lost.
Q Josh, can you give us any update on whether there are plans for President Obama to speak with President Xi either about the economy and the markets or North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any plans in the near term for President Obama to consult with President Xi. I certainly wouldn’t rule out any additional conversations. But we’ll keep you posted as they occur. I do know that Secretary Kerry, if he hasn’t already, will be in touch with his counterpart with whom he regularly consults.
Q And has the President -- you mentioned sanctions were an option here when it comes to North Korea. Were you indicating that perhaps the President has ordered the Treasury or ordered others in the U.S. government to begin preparing unilateral U.S. sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think any sort of order like that is necessarily required. I think what the Treasury Department regularly does is engage in a process of ensuring they’re prepared to respond quickly -- as quickly as is possible in this kind of situation -- to emergent scenarios. And obviously there are experts who look at this closely, and I’m confident that they have -- given all the work that they’ve already done in North Korea, I’m confident that if the President determines that additional steps are necessary, I’m confident that the Treasury Department will be prepared to present him with some options in a pretty short timeframe.
Q So you weren’t indicating that the President had made that decision when you said that sanctions are an option?
MR. EARNEST: I did not mean to leave you with the impression that the President has ordered anything, but I certainly did want to leave you with the impression that there are additional sanctions that the international community or the United States could impose on North Korea that would only serve to further deepen the kind of isolation that they suffer from already.
Q And is it the White House’s view that you need to determine exactly what kind of atomic device was detonated before you deploy those sanctions? Or what is the thing that’s holding that up, if not getting China on board?
MR. EARNEST: No, I would not say that any sort of -- let me try to say it this way. Just because our initial analysis indicates that North Korea doesn’t have any new military or nuclear capabilities doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned about what they’ve done. Conducting a test of a nuclear device like this is a provocative act.
And so we certainly are collecting information, and want to learn more about what kind of test occurred. But either way, the United States will be consulting closely with our allies and with our partners in the region to determine the appropriate international response.
Q Because critics could say, you know, you’re moving slowly or you’re soft-pedaling this, if from this podium, as you said yesterday, you have certainty that there was a nuclear test, which would violate international law and U.S. calls for stopping that kind of --
MR. EARNEST: And something we would roundly condemn. We’ve seen both China, Russia and our allies condemn this flagrant violation of North Korea’s international obligations.
As we discussed yesterday, in the last 15 years, North Korea is the only country in the world to test a nuclear device like this. That’s an indication both of how isolated they are, but it’s also an indication of their bad track record when it comes to fulfilling these kinds of international obligations. And the United States is going to work in close consultation with our partners and with our allies to determine an appropriate response.
Q So sanctions could come at any time, or U.S. response could come at any time? I mean, the President -- in the release of the President’s call with the South Korean President, there was a unified, strong response the U.S. is committed to. Any timeline on when we will see that strong response?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think it would be appropriate for you to describe -- for you to say that the response could come at any time. I would just point out that, typically, these kinds of responses are most effective when they can be closely coordinated and implemented with our allies and partners. So that’s why you can’t just flip a switch to implement these things; that there is some consultation and diplomacy involved. And then there’s some technical cooperation involved to ensure that the application of the appropriate response is most effectively implemented.
So, yes, a response could come at any time, but you should also know that the kinds of sanctions that are being discussed are not the kinds of sanctions that can be developed and effectively implemented all across the globe just overnight.
Q And just lastly, can you summarize whether the U.S believes, whether the White House believes there is a threat to U.S. territory posed by North Korea? You’ve spoken to U.S. commitment to its allies in the region, but is there a threat to Americans living at home on American territory?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously there -- I can’t give you a full intelligence assessment about what we have concluded about North Korea’s military and nuclear capabilities. What I can tell you is that we are mindful that a threat of one degree or another does exist. And that is why you have seen the President, not just in reaction to this incident, but rather over the last several years, seek to ramp up our missile defense capabilities in the region. And that included the deployment of these radar systems to Japan. It includes at least one Aegis naval vessel, and the deployment of a so-called THAAD battery to Guam.
There are additional capabilities that have been deployed to Alaska, as well, all mindful of the threat from North Korea. It's why I can say again what I said yesterday, which is we continue to be confident of our ability to mitigate the threat to the United States that is posed by the North Koreans and their missile program. But this is certainly -- I think based on what you’ve heard me describe, I think you could conclude this is a threat that we take seriously.
Q I just want to follow up on that. A threat you take seriously, but do you believe that they have the capability to hit in the continental United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm just not going to be in a position to offer up a full intelligence assessment about --
Q So you're not ruling it out?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm suggesting is that even though I'm not in a position to provide you a detailed assessment of North Korea’s nuclear and military capabilities, the President has taken the kinds of steps that I think reflect that this is a threat that we take seriously. And certainly our commitment to protecting the American people and the American homeland is what the President always describes as his first responsibility and top priority.
And making these kinds of prudent long-term decisions -- again, I just want to stress this is not in reaction to the test that we saw two days ago, but rather something that, for years, the United States, our military, and our Commander-in-Chief have been focused on in making sure that we have resources in place to protect the United States.
Q I understand. But it just seems there’s a huge difference between proactive planning in the case of a possibility of that ability on their part, and it's quite another thing for them to actually have the ability. And you're not ruling it out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that based on the long list of failed missile tests that we've seen from North Korea, I think that there are reasons, for sure, for us to be skeptical of the claims that they make about their missile program and their military capabilities. But yet, because protecting the homeland is paramount, the President has made a number of prudent decisions that are consistent with our Asia rebalance policy to deploy additional assets onto the territory of our allies and into the region to ensure that the United States and our people remain safe. And we're going to continue to be mindful of the need to invest in that.
Q Just a couple quick things. Back to China, and a lot of Americans are nervous as they’re seeing their 401(k)s shrink. It's been a terrible start to the year. And I just wonder what the level of concern is here at the White House about the long-term global implications and, by extension, not just to the economy but the concerns of the American people to understand this as they relate it to the stock market.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I'm careful not to sort of comment on day-to-day actions in the stock market, and I'm sure investment advisors across the country are reminding their customers of the need to -- particularly when it comes to investing in a 401(k) -- to keep a long-term view. But I think as a policy matter and as somebody who is involved in making policy here in our nation’s capital, the President is quite focused on making sure that our priorities when it comes to his domestic agenda are focused on strengthening the economy for middle-class families here in the United States.
And so that’s why we’re going to continue to push Congress to ratify the TPP agreement. That’s certainly something -- a tangible way that we could promote strength and stability in the U.S. economy. We do believe that there is more that Congress can do to invest in an infrastructure package. The President was obviously pleased to sign a bill at the end of last year that would provide five years of funding for transportation infrastructure. But that essentially was the bare minimum of funding for five years.
The President believes that there is certainly more of an investment that can be made that would have a short-term economic benefit in terms of creating jobs, but would also have a longer-term benefit in terms of making sure that the U.S. economy could rely upon a modern 21st-century infrastructure that’s in good shape.
We’ve also talked about how the U.S. economy would benefit from closing some tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and using some of that revenue to invest in the kinds of things that we know would benefit the U.S. economy. And certainly if investors are supposed to think long term, the President of the United States should think long term, too. And that’s why proposals like ensuring that every child in America has access to a high-quality, early childhood education program -- those are the kinds of things that are going to benefit our economy over the long term. Making sure that every hardworking student in American has access to two years of community college -- that certainly would be the kind of thing that, over the long term, would be good for our economy to make sure that the United States can continue to have the best educated, most innovative, most ambitious workforce in the world. Those are the kinds of things that President Obama thinks about every day. And there’s a decent chance you might hear him talk about this a little bit in his speech to the nation on Tuesday.
Q Finally, Donald Trump.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve heard of him.
Q You’ve heard of him. (Laughter.) He’s threatened to abandon his plan to invest more than a billion dollars in Scotland if they vote -- if Britain votes to bar him from entering the country over his comments. And it’s getting a tremendous amount of attention over there. And I’m wondering if this is -- as you smile -- just politics. Or, given that a billion dollars is not an insignificant amount of money, given the GDP of that country of $230 billion, does it have any kind of economic or diplomatic implications?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have to admit that this is the first time I’m hearing of this little kerfuffle between Mr. Trump and the good people of Scotland.
Q You haven’t been reading the Daily Mail online? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Apparently I’m missing some good stories by failing to do that. There are no obvious diplomatic concerns that are raised by this -- at least that I can see, based on what you’ve just said. Obviously, private citizens of the United States can make their own decisions about how and where they choose to invest their money.
Q Do you have an update on the President’s Guantanamo plan? Did he discuss that with Secretary Carter in their meeting this week? And do you expect that to come sooner rather than later?
MR. EARNEST: Carol, I did not get a detailed readout of the President’s meeting with Secretary Carter. I know that the ongoing effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay is something that is often discussed in those meetings, and certainly something the President frequently discusses with his Secretary of Defense. I don’t know whether or not that is something that they discussed when they met earlier this week.
This does continue to be a priority of the President’s, and you heard him when he spoke at his news conference prior to departing for Hawaii three or four weeks ago make clear that this is a priority and that it continues to be clearly within the national security interests of the United States to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It also would be a better use of taxpayer dollars to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and find a more effective way to mitigate our interests against -- or mitigate the threat that is posed by the individuals that are housed there now. This is something that the President considers a priority, but I don’t have an update for you in terms of timing about when a plan may be presented.
Q Doesn’t it get harder the longer that you guys wait?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it depends, I guess. I think it’s been plenty hard so far. And --
Q That’s what I mean. You haven’t done it in seven years. What makes you think you’re going to do it in one when you still haven’t sent your revised plan to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly hasn’t been for a lack of trying. And the reason that we haven’t succeeded is because Republicans have made a concerted effort to block the kinds of plans that we put in place to close the prison. And it’s true that there are both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill who are on the wrong side of this issue, but it is true that it has not gotten easier as time has gone on. But at this point, I’m not sure it could get harder.
Q Thanks, Josh. A leading sexual assault prevention group, PAVE -- I think they may have worked with the White House on some projects -- is on the Hill today. They’re endorsing some proposed legislation that would revoke the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Cosby. And in July, at his press conference, the President said he didn’t have a mechanism to do it, there’s no precedent to do such a thing. But if Congress established such a mechanism affirming his power to remove the medal from Bill Cosby, would he support something like that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to him about it. Obviously this is something that Congress will have to consider. I think, until then, we’ll take a look at the proposal if Congress takes a vote on it and we’ll let you know if the President chooses to sign it.
Q Does the White House consider the medal sort of a settled matter? I mean, are you open to a proposal of some kind to kind of reexamining this? Or is it sort of your preference that it’s sort of given and move on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn’t want our position on this issue to be perceived by anyone or any group as a way to condone the kind of behavior that Mr. Cosby has been accused of. At the same time, these kinds of essentially symbolic commemorations are always difficult to deal with. And you certainly wouldn’t want a scenario where this kind of process would get infused with politics, and you have members -- you have successive Congresses in the future passing pieces of legislation to try to undo medals that have been conferred by previous Presidents that happen to be in the other party.
So I think that’s part of what we’re mindful of here, but I think the President was quite clear in that news conference in showing his own personal disgust for the kind of behavior that Mr. Cosby is accused of. And the President made clear that he doesn’t have any tolerance for it.
Q Is he aware that Bill Cosby was charged in a sex assault case? Do you know -- has he given any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t discussed it with him. I’m sure he’s aware of it.
Q And on the topic of respect for women and dignity for women -- obviously something the President is passionate about -- Hillary Clinton has made it a focus of her campaign. Donald Trump is out with a video today taking aim at Clinton on that front; it includes some references to her husband and his admitted infidelities. The President sort of steered clear of that in 2008 when running up against Hillary Clinton. But is it fair game for other candidates to raise truthful aspects about Bill Clinton’s record in this campaign? Does the President have a take on that?
MR. EARNEST: The President may. You’d have to ask him; I haven’t discussed that with him. I think what I would merely say is that based -- even just based solely on Secretary Clinton’s service as Secretary of State in this administration, her commitment to fighting for justice and equality for women, not just in the United States but around the world, is second to none. And it is something that she is clearly personally passionate about, and she has put her own prodigious skills to focusing on those kinds of issues.
And obviously people can have whatever kind of debate they want to have in the context of a political election. But in that kind of debate, Secretary Clinton brings a lot of credentials.
Q Speaker Ryan said two things I’d love your reaction to today. One was that U.S. lawmakers are looking finally at possible formal congressional authorization to fight the Islamic State, obviously something that you have called for, for some time. And the other was a suggestion that President Obama should have gotten as emotional over the deaths caused by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as he did over gun violence. Can you react to both of those, Josh, if possible?
MR. EARNEST: I guess what the -- in some ways, your first question actually illustrates the answer to the second, which is that if Speaker Ryan felt so strongly about the situation that he just described when it comes to ISIL, you’d think he’d actually be in a position to point to something he’s done about it. And it's not clear to me he can. Again, I'm happy for him to do so. He has not made hardly any progress that anybody can detect in passing an authorization to use military force against ISIL. This obviously is the basic responsibility of the United States Congress, and Congress has not done it.
The White House, the administration has actually gone to such great lengths to try to get this done that we've even written legislation for them that they have refused to take up. That's been a source of significant disappointment. I know there are a lot of spending reforms that the Department of Defense would like to see that they believe would strengthen our national security that Congress has, time and again, rebuffed.
Certainly there are Republicans in Congress who could confirm Adam Szubin to the position at the Treasury Department. We all know how important financial sanctions are. We've even been talking about them quite a bit in the context of this briefing. And I was able to exhibit enough self-restraint not to bring up Mr. Szubin in the context of all those discussions, but in the context of this one, I think it's appropriate. This is a very basic way that Congress could contribute to our ongoing efforts against ISIL. Obviously he needs to be confirmed by the Senate, not the House, but certainly this is the latest example of Republicans refusing to fulfill even their basic responsibility to ensure that the government is prepared to keep the American people safe -- and in this case, to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
The other thing that comes to mind is the loophole that exists that allows those individuals who are currently listed on the no-fly list from being able to buy a firearm. That would keep the country safer. John McCain has observed that criminals and would-be terrorists have previously used the gun show loophole, or at least attempted to use the gun show loophole to buy guns. Why wouldn't they close it? So there’s --
Q Are you saying that Speaker Ryan should be crying about each one of these, or --
MR. EARNEST: No, what I'm suggesting is that if he feels so strongly about countering ISIL and making sure that Americans are not put at risk by ISIL terrorists, then he should actually fulfill his basic responsibility, and the leaders in his party in Congress should fulfill their collective basic responsibility to do something about it. And again, I would welcome something, some indication from some House Republican pointing to one thing that they’ve done to actually try to advance this campaign.
Q Well, first, I'd like to strongly recommend that you read the Daily Mail online articles more often. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I thought you might.
Q But I don't want to ask about Donald Trump, you’ll be happy to know. I would like to talk about the State of the Union. Yesterday, the White House previewed that in a video that dropped. We're now five days out. You didn’t want to talk about it earlier this week. I was wondering if we could talk about that now. Denis McDonough said in it that President Obama is doing something different this time. “This year the President will do what is rarely done in Washington: Think beyond the next election.” Surely, the White House is not suggesting that in the past ones he’s only been thinking to the next election. So what I want to know is, what is it that he’s doing that is going to be so different?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I noted yesterday at the beginning of the briefing in talking about the dramatic recovery and success of the American auto industry, that there are a number of examples I can point to of President Obama looking beyond the next news cycle or the next poll or the next election to make decisions that are in the best interest of the country. And our country has been served very well by President Obama’s approach to the job.
What you traditionally see in the State of the Union address is essentially a laundry list of past accomplishments and proposals for the year ahead. As Denis’s email suggests, there are a lot of accomplishments for us to discuss that have been achieved over the last seven years, and there certainly are a lot of things the President is looking forward to getting done in the year ahead. But what the focus of his speech will be, however, is on some longer-term issues.
We are at an interesting place in our history. The United States has recovered from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and we see all of this economic volatility in countries around the world, and the strength of the U.S. economy stands in stark contrast to that kind of instability. And, again, that’s a testament to the grit and determination of the American people that devoted so much time and attention, blood, sweat, and tears into digging out of that hole.
But the question that’s really facing the country now is what are we going to do with the opportunity that lies before us. And so much of the rhetoric that we hear from the other side is focused on fearing the future and being anxious and insecure about a changing world. The fact is, the United States is better positioned than any other nation in the world to capitalize on the opportunities that lie ahead for us. And the President is determined to make sure that we’re making the kinds of decisions now that will pay off not just for this generation of Americans, but for our kids, and for their children.
And those are the kinds of issues that the President is hoping to discuss in the State of the Union. And, again, there’s lots that we have to -- lots of accomplishments we can talk about. There certainly is a long list of things the President is looking forward to getting done next year, but this is a unique opportunity. This is the grandest stage in all of American politics, where you have the President of the United States standing at a podium in the well of the House of Representatives, speaking to every member of Congress, just about every member of the Cabinet, just about every member of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The eyes of the nation are focused on that moment. And the question is how is the President going to use that unique opportunity. And in this case, he wants to focus most of his time on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the country, and how the choices that we make today will have a significant impact on the success of future generations of Americans.
Q So it sounds like that, in the past, you mentioned a laundry list of things that a lot of them take congressional approval, and Republicans are in charge of Congress obviously until the end of this administration. So it sounds like what you’re saying is that you’ll just be presenting more of a hopeful and optimistic vision for the country over his last year in his office, for the future, not so much a list of priorities he wants to achieve. I just want to clarify that a little.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you’ll get a lot of clarity about that on maybe -- hopefully between 9:45 and 10:00 on Tuesday night.
Q Is one of those decisions for the American people that the President is going to talk about is electing a Democrat to the White House? Because what you described sounds an awful lot like laying the groundwork for Democrats in November.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think there will be ample opportunity for the President over the course of this year to deliver a political speech. But that’s not what tomorrow is about -- or not what Tuesday is about.
The President is, like I said, is looking forward to talking about the longer-term challenges and longer-term opportunities that are available to the country. And while certainly the next election is an important one, it’s important that we don’t allow the decisions that we make today be driven by short-term considerations related to the next election. So I guess I do think that the kinds of -- that the vision that the President will lay out will be generally consistent with the kinds of priorities that you hear Democrats talking about on the campaign trail. But I think the President’s message is mostly going to be focused on looking beyond the next election and making sure that we’re making decisions that are going to ensure that our children and their children inherit a country that’s as strong and as safe and as prosperous as it’s ever been.
Q Thank you, Josh. Today, Saudi Arabia has increased the tension by attacking the Iranian embassy in Yemen. Clearly, the Saudis are following their own strategy without consulting U.S. Do you think this will -- permanent damage to U.S.-Saudi relationship?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Emel, there are two kinds of reports that we’ve seen from Yemen. The first is we’ve seen Iran’s claims that the Saudi coalition airstrike targeted the Iranian embassy in Sana’a. We’ve also seen reports that there has not been any significant damage to the Iranian embassy in Sana’a. So we’re still collecting some information to determine exactly what happened or whether anything happened, to be frank about it. So we’ll take a look at those reports. At this point, we are hopeful that the positive round of diplomatic talks that took place on December 15th in Switzerland to try to resolve the situation inside of Yemen will lead to an additional and constructive round of talks next week.
Q The U.S. always maintains its position as an ally of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. may be dragged into a position it doesn’t support. What do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have been encouraging all sides inside of Yemen to try to resolve their differences peacefully and through diplomacy. And that’s why we have worked hard to try to support the peace talks that -- the first round of which occurred back in December and hopefully are going to continue next week.
But the concerns that the Saudis have expressed about the political chaos in Yemen spilling over the border into Saudi Arabia are understandable. But what we are hopeful of is that the situation can be resolved through diplomacy. We believe that’s actually the only way that this will be resolved, and we’re hopeful that both sides will be serious -- that all sides will be serious in pursuing a diplomatic resolution to that situation.
Q Secondly, what is the primary goal of the Vice President to go to Turkey on January 23rd?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update on the Vice President’s trip, but we can certainly follow up with you on that.
Q I’ll ask you something -- sort of a fun one maybe.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q The Speaker is having a ceremony today -- perhaps you’ve heard about the health care -- Obamacare -- they’re having an enrollment ceremony to sanction the bill. I was wondering if you all were planning a veto ceremony and what that might be like.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) We are not. Again, I think this may be a half-hearted or at least an ill-fated attempt on the part of some Republicans to try to pump some drama into another failed effort on their part to have any sort of success in --
Q They succeeded finally on their end.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q They succeeded on their end this time.
MR. EARNEST: They succeeded in a victory that amounts to absolutely nothing. The fact is, the President will veto this bill. They know that. They also know that they don’t have the votes to override it. And in the meantime, we are actually seeing record numbers of Americans sign up at Healthcare.gov for the benefits that are being provided to the American people through Obamacare. I know that HHS has announced today that more than 11 people -- 11 million people -- 11 people would be bad -- (laughter) -- 11 million people, however, is an impressive number, and that is actually the number of people that in just this open enrollment period have signed up for a plan. And so that includes *more than a million three million new people.
We talked about how one of our challenges entering the open enrollment period was going to be getting additional people who were not previously signed up for a health care, presumably because they were in relatively good health and didn’t think that they needed the protection that’s afforded by health insurance. But we have persuaded those individuals that paying a penalty to the IRS doesn’t make sense if you can take that money, use it to purchase health insurance, and actually get a lot of benefits including things like free preventative care, free birth control, and other things that obviously healthy people benefit from too.
So that’s why I don’t think that they -- or that we have concluded that any sort of pomp and circumstance around a veto is necessary.
Q Thank you. It’s the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris today. Has this come up at the White House today? And secondly, has the President been made aware during the course of this morning of this apparent attempt by one man to attack a police station in Paris? He was killed at the end of this. Has the President been updated on that situation?
MR. EARNEST: Phillip, the White House is certainly monitoring the attempted terrorist attack in Paris earlier today. I don’t know the extent of the presidential briefing on this, but I can tell you that senior members of the President’s national security team are aware of this situation. And obviously we are pleased that no innocent people were killed in that incident.
But this is a fateful anniversary. And we did see, one year ago today, terrorists attack innocent people in Paris. And there are innocent people who, over the course of two or three days, who lost their lives -- whether they were cartoonists who were exercising their right to the freedom of expression, or just innocent people who were shopping for groceries.
And it is certainly a sad thing to remember, but it is also a way to remember the resolve that the French people have shown through a difficult year. And it certainly is an opportunity to remember, once again, that France is the oldest ally of the United States. And we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of France as they confront the terrorist threat to their nation.
And even on the days when we remember the sad events of a year ago, the French people can know that the American people and the American government is standing right there with them.
Q They have these commemorations in Paris. French people, I think it’s safe to say, would say that the world is a less safe place today than a year ago. Is that an analysis you would share?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a broad generalization like that is a difficult one to make. Certainly the United States and France have been working together quite a lot over the last year to deal with the threats that are out there. And certainly President Obama is mindful of them. I’m confident that President Hollande is mindful of them as well. President Obama obviously spends a lot of time thinking about, talking to his staff and making decisions that are directly related to the safety and security of the American people, the U.S. homeland and our interests around the world.
We also believe that the national security of the United States is enhanced when our allies like France are safe and secure. And that is why you have seen the United States expend significant resources to make sure that we are coordinating closely with our allies in France and with our allies around the world, frankly, to confront ISIL, to confront terrorists and extremists of all stripes to ensure the safety and security of our people and our nations. And that work will continue in the years ahead.
Q Quick question on North Korea. The Pentagon tells us that in a phone call between Secretary of Defense Carter and his South Korean counterpart yesterday, this came up from both of them -- they agreed that provocations will have consequences. Using this kind of case you’d refer me to the Defense Department I think, but how would you interpret this coming from the head of the U.S. military when he says that provocations like the nuclear test in North Korea will have consequences?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think he was necessarily promising that it would have military consequences, but I certainly wouldn't take them off the table. I think what you can anticipate in the days and weeks ahead is that the United States will be in consultations with our allies in the region, including our close allies in the Republic of Korea, about an appropriate international response. This is also something that is being discussed at the United Nations around the table of the Security Council. And we'll continue to consult closely with our friends and allies as we determine an appropriate response, and I'm confident that's what Secretary Carter was referring to.
Mark, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. On the Obamacare bill, Republicans are taking some satisfaction in that, if nothing else, they’re forcing the President to cast a veto. Now, is that much of an imposition?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all. Stroke of a pen.
Q Well, they’re also saying that it shows that next year at this time, if a Republican -- well, not at this time, but almost at this time, if a Republican were elected President they could get a bill to his desk that would repeal Obamacare. Now, is that something the President is worried about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's based on I think two rather large assumptions. The first is that the Republicans hold on to a majority in the United States Senate, which I think is certainly a question that's up in the air. It also assumes that Republicans will hold on to the House of Representatives. There certainly will be a meaningful election. I think Republicans will be favored in that regard. But there will be an election to contest. And it also depends on a presidential candidate from their party actually winning an election.
All of that is made a whole lot more difficult if the centerpiece of the Republican agenda is fighting a five-year-old political fight to zero impact on the country. And that ultimately is what the Republicans in Congress have to show for their efforts.
Q Last question. Did President Obama have any role in getting Denis McDonough to go on Twitter? (Laughter.) Did it take an executive order? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It did not require an executive order. But I do think that some of Denis’s acerbic observations about the political process will translate pretty well to the medium of Twitter. We'll all have an opportunity to watch whether or not that actually takes place.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
3:03 P.M. EST